Christopher Palmer was to symphonic music what Billy Strayhorn was to jazz -- that rare musician who became famous as an arranger rather than as a composer or performer. Palmer also appeared frequently in the popular press as a music essayist and critic, but his most significant contributions lay just behind the scenes -- first orchestrating film scores for famous composers, then helping revive Golden Age Hollywood scores in the classical community, and finally preparing concert suites from the film and theater works of such composers as Walton and Prokofiev. The son of a church organist, Palmer initially entered Trinity Hall College, Cambridge, to study French and German. He ultimately switched to music and musicology, primarily studying with Peter le Huray and David Willcocks.
Palmer soon found work orchestrating film scores; typically, and often by union regulation, composers left the arrangement of their music to specialists. Palmer's big break came when he was assigned Miklós Rózsa's The Last Embrace; this initiated a long-term relationship with the elderly Hungarian composer that would culminate in two books (one, a study of Rózsa's music, and the other a collaboration on Rózsa's autobiography, Double Life) and the 1993 resurrection of Rózsa's long-abandoned Symphony in Three Movements. Palmer also developed a friendship with 1940s Hollywood music icon Dimitri Tiomkin and worked closely on new 1970s and '80s scores by the likes of Carl Davis, Elmer Bernstein, Maurice Jarre (A Passage to India), and especially Bernard Herrmann (Taxi Driver, Obsession).
In the late '70s, Palmer became, with Charles Gerhardt and George Korngold, a prominent figure in the movement to bring symphonic film music of the 1930s through '50s to the attention of classical music fans, mainly through his work on soundtrack albums and his reviews of other albums in large-circulation music monthlies. He also readied many screen scores for the concert hall; the most important beneficiary of this work was William Walton. Palmer arranged suites from such Walton-scored films as A Wartime Sketchbook and Major Barbara, and prepared symphony length sequences for narrator and orchestra of Walton's music for Richard III and Henry V (each subtitled "A Shakespeare Scenario"). His work on Walton's behalf extended to editing a performing edition of the previously unpublished (and long-lost) ballet The Quest, orchestrating the composer's Violin Sonata, and preparing a large suite from the opera Troilus and Cressida.
Similarly, Palmer fabricated a symphonic suite from Prokofiev's epic opera War and Peace. His primary interest outside Hollywood, though, was in his fellow Englishmen. Palmer worked on recordings and editions of music by the likes of Malcolm Arnold, William Alwyn, and George Dyson. In print, he generated reams of CD liner notes, produced a biography of Herbert Howells (after having arranged many of his unpublished works), edited The Britten Companion, and wrote Delius: Portrait of a Cosmopolitan. Palmer's other principal book-length works were Impressionism in Music and the authoritative The Composer in Hollywood. For all his expertise and enthusiasm, Palmer was a notoriously sloppy proofreader and allowed many errors to sneak into print; revised editions of his books should be consulted whenever they are available. Palmer died at age 48 from complications stemming from AIDS. Shortly before his death, the Society for the Preservation of Film Music gave him a lifetime achievement award.