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He was born in Shortlands, Bromley, Kent; his father, Douglas Veale, later served as Registrar of the University of Oxford (1930–1958) and received a knighthood. John Veale was educated at Repton and Corpus Christi College, Oxford (his father's old college), alongside Kenneth Tynan. As a composer, he was largely self-taught, but took some lessons from Egon Wellesz, Thomas Armstrong, Roger Sessions and Roy Harris (the latter's only English pupil).
His compositions include three symphonies (No. 1 was written 1944–47, and premiered by Sir John Barbirolli at the Cheltenham Music Festival in 1952; No. 2 written in 1965; No. 3 in 1997), a clarinet concerto (1954), a violin concerto, Panorama (an orchestral evocation of San Francisco premiered by Sir Adrian Boult in 1951), Metropolis concert overture (1955 premiered by Sir Charles Groves), numerous other orchestral and ensemble pieces including Apocalypse for chorus and orchestra, and a number of film scores including The Purple Plain, The Spanish Gardener, No Road Back, Portrait of Alison and High Tide at Noon. Some of his film scores were later destroyed by the film studios.
He wrote in a tonal idiom and suffered under the avant garde musical regime at the British Broadcasting Corporation headed by its Director of Music William Glock and almost ceased composition in the 1960s. Following his re-discovery in the 1980s he resumed composing.
His Violin Concerto is available on the Chandos CD label, played by Lydia Mordkovitch with Richard Hickox conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It is coupled with the Violin Concerto of Benjamin Britten.