Born in Manchester in 1917, he excelled at the piano and cello as a child, and started writing music from a young age. In 1940 he enlisted in the army as a bandmaster and transport navigator. It was after the end of the war that his career as a prolific composer would begin in earnest, with his output attracting commissions far and wide. He would go on to produce three symphonies, six operas and a number of concertos and chamber works. Most of his efforts were devoted to the medium of choral music, which he regarded as his natural territory. His best known work is the Christmas carol Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day, which was written for St Paul’s, as was another popular carol setting The Holly and the Ivy.
Gardner joined the staff of the Royal Academy of Music in 1956, where he would teach for the best part of 30 years. In 1962 he took a part time job as Director of Music at St. Paul’s Girls’ School, following Gustav Holst and Herbert Howells, and was for a time also Director of Music at Morley College. These teaching posts led to the composition of some of his most enduring works. Many of Gardner’s students would go on to achieve success in music, including the composer Michael Berkeley. The most famous student was Paul McCartney, who approached him for theory and composition lessons in 1966.
He was appointed CBE in 1976, and was a member of the PRS Board from 1956 until his retirement in 1987, continuing as a committee member of the PRS Members’ Fund until 2005.