Denis ApIvor was born in 1916 in Collinstown, Republic of Ireland, a small town located about 35 miles northwest of Dublin. His mother was a trained Montessori school teacher, his father a Welsh clergyman and master of modern languages and classics. In 1921, the family re-located to Caernarfon, North Wales, and then in 1925 to Hereford, when ApIvor's father accepted a teaching post at Hereford Cathedral School. During this period, ApIvor received a general musical education and, by the time of his move to Hereford he had begun to learn the piano and gained some experience as a chorister. Later in 1925 ApIvor acquired a scholarship to continue his musical education at Christ Church Oxford, where for a brief period, his choirmaster was the organist and composer Henry Ley (1887-1962), who had taught William Walton some thirteen years previously. In 1928, following a brief illness, ApIvor returned to Hereford, where he remained until 1931. During these years he continued to learn the organ, sang in the Three Choirs Festivals, under the batons of Elgar and Vaughan Williams, and also became proficient as a clarinettist.
ApIvor dates the beginning of his composing career from his arrival at Christ Church Oxford in 1925. He was not formally taught at this time, instead undertaking his own researches into compositional technique using such tomes as the Treatise on Orchestration by Berlioz, which he devoured at speed. At this time he became enamoured with the music of composer Peter Warlock whose influence can be seen in his earliest surviving works, the Chaucer Songs Op. 1 and the cycle Alas Parting Op. 2.
Although by his late teens, ApIvor had begun to show considerable musical promise, particularly as a pianist, his parents were opposed to him following a musical career. Instead he was sent first to University College Aberystwyth to study medicine for a year, and then upon completion of this course in 1934, transferred to London to study for a postgraduate qualification at University College. ApIvor eventually qualified as an anaesthetist and sustained a medical career throughout his life in parallel with his musical aspirations.
The move to London marked a turning point in the development of ApIvor's career. It placed him at the centre of musical activity in the country, allowing him access to the capital's concert halls and music libraries. It also enabled him to meet and become friendly with several of the most influential musical personalities of the time, including the composer and critic Cecil Gray who arranged for ApIvor to undertake composition lessons between 1938 and 1939, first with Patrick Hadley and then Alan Rawsthorne, who was to have a particularly marked influence on ApIvor's early musical language. Through Gray ApIvor also met the composer Constant Lambert, whose outspoken book Music Ho!, and witty concert work, The Rio Grande, he already admired. Lambert in turn admired ApIvor's work, especially his setting of T. S. Eliot's The Hollow Men which he eventually conducted for the BBC in 1950, bringing ApIvor to public attention for the first time (see image near left). He also used his connections with Sadlers Wells to secure ApIvor's first ballet commission, A Mirror for Witches, in 1951 (see image, far left).
Residence in London also meant that ApIvor became acquainted with some of the younger, more forward-looking composers of the time including Elisabeth Lutyens, Christian Darnton and Humphrey Searle. One might even say that for a brief period after the war, these composers constituted a school of contemporary British musical thought, united by their interest in the radical new techniques then being practiced on the continent, especially serialism or 'twelve note' composition. At first ApIvor's own experimentation with serialism was hampered by the general lack of information about the technique in Britain until he became acquainted with Edward Clark, who was in close contact with Schoenberg, Berg and Webern on the continent. Clark was an important motivating force behind the performances of these composers in Britain during the 1930s and imparted a good deal of detail of information about the twelve-note method to ApIvor. Serialism was to form the basis of ApIvor's language from 1949-1986.
Throughout his composing life, it is clear that the evolution of ApIvor's style was never motivated by musical fashion. Hence, from one angle, his music appears to be constantly out of step with developments both on the continent, and in his own country. This attitude may be attributed to the fact that ApIvor was essentially a self-taught composer and that this caused him to cultivate early on in his career, a considerable independence of mind. Certainly this did, from time to time, result in radicalism. More importantly however, it led him to be selective about those musical styles he wished to utilize, and those he wished to reject, in the achievement of a particular aesthetic end. An important factor in the development of ApIvor's music is his interest in extra-musical (i.e. outside music) sources for inspiration in particular literature and visual art. For example, T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas are poets to whom ApIvor returns frequently, while some of his major theatre pieces are adaptations of the dramatic works of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. ApIvor also produced a number of pieces whose titles are taken from drawings and paintings of the Bauhaus artist Paul Klee.