This British composer created a highly expressive and personal style by uniting elements of twelve-tone music with traditional subjects and dramatic spirit. His output includes three operas, six symphonies, two piano concertos, several ballets, and a considerable number of fine chamber and vocal works.
Searle's education is described in charming detail in his memoir, Quadrille With a Raven. He began at Winchester, then went to Oxford where he was a classical scholar. He studied composition with Gordon Jacob and John Ireland at the Royal College of Music (1937) and continued at the New Vienna Conservatory (1937 - 1938) while studying privately with Anton Webern who strongly affected Searle's thinking. At an early age, Searle was attracted to the music of Franz Liszt; he became a noted scholar of the composer, and drew connections between Liszt and the newly emerging twelve-tone style in his book The Music of Liszt (1954).
In 1938, Searle joined the BBC as a program producer, then served in army intelligence and in the paratrooper training division from 1940 until 1946. Surprisingly, he found time for composition and performances during this period, creating two Suites for string orchestra (1942, 1944), Night Music for chamber orchestra (1943), Vigil for piano (1944), his romantic Piano concerto No. 1 (1944), and a Quintet for bassoon and strings (1945). After 1946, almost all of Searle's music employed twelve-tone compositional procedures but, like Alban Berg, he felt free to employ tonal progressions when they were expressively appropriate.
Searle aided Trevor-Roper in his research for the book The Last Days of Hitler while still living in Germany, and then returned to the BBC until 1948. Various freelance work occupied him from 1948 - 1951, during which time he wrote Gold Coast Customs, Op. 15 (1949), a setting of a poem by Edith Sitwell for speakers, male chorus, and chorus. This was Searle's first large-scale twelve-tone work. By accentuating the word imagery, dramatic structure, and the euphonious nature of words as divorced from meaning, Searle was able to express lyrical and satirical qualities while bypassing dry, formalist serialist mannerisms. This was true for the other two parts of this trilogy, The Riverrun, Op. 20 (1951), with words by James Joyce, and The Shadow of Cain, Op. 22 (1952), with words by Sitwell. Searle's operas, the one-act The Diary of a Madman (1958) (with a text by the composer based on Gogol and sound-effects heightening the mad scenes), The Photo of the Colonel (1964) (on a text by Eugène Ionesco with many sound effects and vocal mannerisms), and the three-act Hamlet (1965 - 1968) all incorporate the approaches initiated in this first trilogy. Searle's six symphonies progress from traditional format to programmatic (especially the excellent No. 5, a sort of musical biography of Webern).
From 1951 to 1957, Searle was a music advisor to the Sadler's Wells Ballet and has since been with many organizations promoting modern music. He was one of the most respected British composition teachers of his generation; he held professorships at the Royal College of Music and also served as guest professor at Stanford University in California, the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado, and the Staatliche Hochschule fur Musik in Karlsruhe. He was installed as a CBE in 1968 and became an Honorary Fellow of the RCM in 1969.