Searle was born in Oxford where he was a classics scholar before studying—somewhat hesitantly—with John Ireland at the Royal College of Music in London, after which he went to Vienna on a six-month scholarship to become a private pupil of Anton Webern, which became decisive in his composition career.
Searle was one of the foremost pioneers of serial music in the United Kingdom, and used his role as a producer at the BBC from 1946 to 1948 to promote it. He was General Secretary of the International Society for Contemporary Music from 1947 to 1949. He accepted this post with the encouragement of the new president, Edward Clark. For Clark, he composed the Quartet for Clarinet, Bassoon, Violin and Viola, Op. 12, a musical palindrome.
Searle wrote his Piano Sonata, Op. 21 for a recital at the Wigmore Hall on 22 October 1951, given by the Australian pianist Gordon Watson to celebrate the 140th anniversary of the birth of Franz Liszt. (Watson also performed the complete Transcendental Études on that occasion.) The Sonata was loosely based on Liszt's Sonata in B minor and has been described as "probably, both the finest and most original piano work ever produced by a British composer".
Other works of note include a Poem for 22 Strings (1950), premiered at Darmstadt, a Gogol opera, The Diary of a Madman (1958, awarded the first prize at UNESCO's International Rostrum of Composers in 1960), and five symphonies (the first of which was commercially recorded by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult).
Searle wrote the monographs Twentieth Century Counterpoint and The Music of Franz Liszt. He also developed the most authoritative catalogue of Liszt's works, which are frequently identified using Searle's numbering system.
Searle also composed film scores, including music for The Baby and the Battleship (1956), Beyond Mombasa (1956), Action of the Tiger (1957), The Abominable Snowman (1957), Law and Disorder (1958), Left Right and Centre (1959) and The Haunting (1963), as well as a lost 1965 Doctor Who serial. Among his notable pupils were composers Hugh Davidson, Brian Elias, Michael Finnissy, Alistair Hinton, Geoffrey King, and Graham Newcater. See: List of music students by teacher: N to S#Humphrey Searle.
He died in London in 1982, aged 66.
- The Diary of a Madman (1958)
- The Photo of the Colonel (1963–64)
- Hamlet (1964–68)
- Noctambules (1956)
- The Great Peacock (1957–58)
- Dualities (1963)
- Variations on an Elizabethan Theme, jointly composed with Lennox Berkeley, Benjamin Britten, Arthur Oldham, Michael Tippett and William Walton (1953)
- Symphony No. 1 (1953)
- Symphony No. 2 (1956–58)
- Symphony No. 3 (1958–60)
- Symphony No. 4 (1961–62)
- Symphony No. 5 (1964)
- Three Ages (1982)
- Piano Concerto No. 1 (1944)
- Piano Concerto No. 2 (1955)
- Suite No. 1 for Strings (1942)
- Suite No. 2 (1943)
- Night Music (1943)
- Poem for 22 Strings (1950)
- Concertante for Piano, Strings and Percussion (1954)
- Scherzi (1964)
- Hamlet Suite (1968)
- Sinfonietta (1968–69)
- Zodiac Variations (1970)
- Labyrinth (1971)
- Tamesis (1979)
Chorus and instruments
- Gold Coast Customs (1947–49) for speakers, male chorus and orchestra
- The River-run (Joyce) (1951) for speakers and orchestra
- The Shadow of Cain (1952) for speakers, male chorus and orchestra
- Jerusalem (1970) for speakers, tenor, chorus and orchestra
- My Beloved Spake (1976) for chorus and organ
- Dr Faustus (1977) for solo woman, chorus and orchestra
Voice and orchestra
- 3 Songs of Jocelyn Brooke (1954) for high voice and ensemble
- Oxus (1967) for tenor and orchestra
- Contemplations (1975) for mezzo-soprano and orchestra
- Kubla Khan (1973) for tenor and orchestra
- The Canticle of the Rose (Sitwell, 1965)
- Rhyme Rude to My Pride (1974) for male chorus
- Bassoon Quintet (1945)
- Intermezzo for 11 Instruments (1946)
- Quartet for Clarinet, Bassoon, Violin and Viola, Op. 12 (1948; a musical palindrome)
- Passacaglietta in nomine Arnold Schoenberg (1949) for string quartet
- Gondoliera (1950) for celesta and piano
- 3 Cat Poems (1951/53):The Owl and the Pussy-Cat for speaker, flute, cello and guitar and Two Practical Cats for speaker, flute/piccolo, cello and guitar
- Suite for Clarinet and Piano (1956)
- Three Movements for String Quartet (1959)
- Cello Fantasia (1972)
- Il Penseroso e L'Allegro (1975) for cello and piano
- Les fleurs du mal (1972) for tenor, horn and piano
- Counting the Beats (1963) for high voice and piano
- Sonata (1951)
- Suite (1955)
- Prelude on a Theme by Rawsthorne (1965)
- Five Op.61 (1974)
- Howard, Leslie; Short, Michael; Searle, Humphrey; Winklhofer, Sharon (2004). Ferenc Liszt (1811-1886) : list of works : comprehensively expanded from the catalogue of Humphrey Searle as revised by Sharon Winklhofer = elenco delle opere : ampliamento del catalogo di Humphrey Searle nella revisione di Sharon Winklkofer. Milano : Rugginenti Editore. ISBN 887665433X.
- Searle, Humphrey (1954). The Music of Liszt. London: Williams & Norgate.
- Searle, Humphrey (1954). Twentieth Century Counterpoint. London: Williams & Norgate.
- List of compositions by Franz Liszt (S.1–S.350)
- List of compositions by Franz Liszt (S.351–S.999)
- Franz Liszt's treatments of the works of other composers
- Humphrey Searle: British Composer (1915 - 1982)
- Humphrey Searle at Classical Net
- Humphrey Searle at the Internet Movie Database
- Ballet Music - an introduction (second revised edition) by Humphrey Searle at archive.org
- Twentieth Century Counterpoint by Humphrey Searle at archive.org
- Classical Composers entry
- Encyclopedia,com entry
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