From playing for Sir Henry Wood and Herbert von Karajan to forming The Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the British conductor had unrivalled memories of a life in classical music. In March 2014, he met James Naughtie and took a look back over the years.


Sir Neville Marriner is limbering up for his 90th birthday on 15 April with a conducting tour of Japan. He’s wondering what’s happening with audiences in China. He’s thinking about what’s he’s discovered about new kinds of music education in Los Angeles, some of it involving unborn children. He can’t imagine stopping. ‘If someone asks, you say “yes”.’

He’d pass easily for a man going into his seventh decade, never mind the tenth, and there’s not a hint of weariness. The stories flow, the characters spring up from the past – ‘with Henry Wood, you were always surprised by his voice…’ – and you’re taken through the story of music-making in this country over 70 years, from the excitements of playing the violin in the Philharmonia in the 1950s, through the recording explosion to the world of international touring.

We’re talking in the same west London flat where the Academy of St Martin in the Fields was born in 1958, the ensemble with which he’s been associated ever since – he remains life president – and with whom he’s made more than 500 recordings and travelled the world. ‘It was in this room that it all began. There were 13 of us. We took out all the furniture, so there were only the cats. They climbed up the curtains and listened.’

And from those sessions, which were organised for fun by players like him who thought of themselves, in his words, as ‘refugees from conductors’ the Academy took shape. Playing the piano in the sessions was the harpsichordist Jack Churchill, who played the organ at St Martin in the Fields. He suggested that some of those who hung around after a Sunday service, or dropped in from Trafalgar Square, might like a concert. So they gave one, surprising themselves as they had never planned a public role.

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Then they needed a name. ‘The vicar said to us that in the 18th century there were lots of groups of people around St Martin’s Lane with similar interests – doctors, or lawyers, all sorts of people – and they’d called themselves academies of various kinds. Why didn’t we become an academy? So we did.’

And the vicar added that they might attach the name of the church – it would be nice, and anyway Jack had been very helpful. What about it? ‘We said no. The name was too long, too fiddly, and we didn’t think it would fit on a poster. But he said the church would appreciate it and, eventually, we said – well, why not?’

And the journey began. There was a first German tour under the name London Strings, because the Germans didn’t like the long name, but as recordings started to flow and became the ensemble’s calling-card, it was even accepted there. And now, for more than 40 years the orchestra has made tours to Berlin and Vienna just after New Year, establishing itself as a familiar visitor, just as in this country every household in the 1960s seemed to have discs from the Academy that took them along the highways of the repertoire and acted as a guide.

‘We were lucky with the timing. There was so much recording, and we were able to play music that didn’t get much of a look-in in concert programmes in those days. So it happened. I sort of became the spokesman because we had to start making decisions – deadlines and so on – and gradually it grew.’ From the relaxing sessions in that flat – ‘we talked almost for as long as we played’ – which might last from mid-morning until midnight, the Academy became part of the music establishment.

In conversation with a figure like Sir Neville, it’s inevitable that you reflect on the chance happenings that shaped his world. First of all, the Philharmonia and legendary record producer Walter Legge. Legge, who had worked with Sir Thomas Beecham at Covent Garden, formed the Philharmonia at the end of World War II, shaping it into a brilliant ensemble of players whose recordings were the staple diet of any household in the 1950s that wanted a classical collection – think of the Karajan Beethoven Symphonies and Dennis Brain’s recordings of the Mozart Horn Concertos.

Legge turned it into the house orchestra of EMI in a golden era of recording (with John Culshaw his rival and doppelgänger at Decca). By the time he disbanded the orchestra in 1964 – and Sir Neville recalls the bitterness at Legge felt about the circumstances – it had changed the orchestral landscape: ‘It was magical. Suddenly they realised that they were international – not just the local band.’

This came about because of Legge’s determination to try to raise standards to continental levels – by which he meant German. ‘He realised that orchestral standards in England, probably apart from the BBC, were not very professional. When I was still a student I would sit at the back of the fiddles in the LSO or the LPO. The chaps could only do one rehearsal, because they had a job in a Lyons corner house or a cinema to go to. Walter spotted this – that London orchestras were pretty part-time affairs.’

By the time young Marriner had gone to the LSO in the mid-1950s, the Philharmonia had raised the bar for everyone. And talking to him now, the memories flood back.

What of Herbert von Karajan who was principal conductor in all but name until he succeeded Wilhelm Furtwängler as music director of the Berlin Philharmonic in 1954? ‘I don’t think I’d ever come across that kind of professionalism and drive. The confidence! A lot of conductors, especially English ones, weren’t exactly apologetic – but they didn’t make demands. Those first impressions of Karajan were absolutely stunning. And it was the fact that it worked – he got results.

‘I remember recording the Eroica with the Philharmonia under him. Every time he came – three or four times a year, generally – he got us to record the first three chords, because he couldn’t get the effect he wanted. And eventually we got there. Not too sharp, they had to be together in a special kind of way – and he took such care with the weight of the instrumentation. It was extraordinary.’

We spend a little time on such stories, like the time Toscanini came on stage at the Festival Hall to such an ovation that the orchestra were sure he’d forget the national anthem. He did remember, but then launched into Brahms’s Fourth Symphony instead of the overture on the programme, with the orchestra sticking to the original plan. ‘A recording does exist. It’s worth hearing…’

Furtwängler was terrifying, of course, and Sir Neville recalls the players’ astonishment at Walter Legge’s courage in asking him to speed up in one recording, on the grounds that if he didn’t, the piece wouldn’t fit on one side of the vinyl disc. And, perhaps above all, he thinks fondly of Pierre Monteux, with whom he went on to to study conducting.

‘The real magic came from Monteux. I fell in love with what he was doing. It wasn’t anxiety or fear that we had, as you had with somebody like Furtwängler or George Szell, who had a son-of-a-bitch reputation – it was understanding. Monteux did everything on a small scale, using his hands in a very small area. So you had to pay attention. And he had an extraordinary ear. He wouldn’t worry about the second trumpet or the oboe but he’d ask the second desk of second double basses if they could please play just a little slower. The detail he wanted was I suppose anal fetishism, musically-speaking – he was cleaning the nest all the time. But the general effect was a certain transparency and it made the music lift. Often you could grind away with other conductors making a decent noise, but it didn’t quite get you off the ground. With Monteux, that happened.’

A conversation like this has to be treasured because in taking you back to a different era, Sir Neville is explaining the source of his own excitement: the young violinist – ‘passable, but never a virtuoso’ – who was lucky enough to experience one of the popular transformations of music, when orchestras became more professional and simply better, and great recordings became available in nearly every home. By the time the Academy was getting the idea that it might be an orchestra with a future, in the early 1960s, a new era was beginning. ‘In retrospect, we couldn’t have timed it better. Standards were going up, people wanted recordings. We had work to do.’

Some of the names, of course, keep pulling you back. Dennis Brain, for example, principal horn in the Philharmonia until his death in 1957. ‘I still remember the time Karajan was conducting a Mozart concerto and leaned over to ask Dennis something. He looked at his music stand, and of course he didn’t have the score – it was a motoring magazine. That was quite a moment.’

And Henry Wood. ‘Majestic. You were always surprised by his accent. It wasn’t high falutin’ at all. And secondly, he was so practical. If he wanted to slow down – he’d say “slow down”. Not ritenuto or something. You wouldn’t expect magic, but it was very wholesome music really.’

I reflect that to a musician like him, that experience – the Academy was founded when he was in his late thirties – seems fused with his experience in the second decade of this century. The years don’t seemed to have dimmed any of the memories, or the desire. He speaks about spending some time recently in Los Angeles, where he was the first music director of the chamber orchestra for a decade from the late 1960s, and being asked to listen to a youth orchestra rehearsing.

‘They were aged from about 18 to 25 and they were extraordinary. And then they asked me to come back the next day and listen to the younger players. They were aged from about 8 to 15 and I said we had nothing like this – of that quality – at home. They said I hadn’t yet seen everything. I had to go back the next day.

‘And the room was full of very large women – all pregnant. And they were listening to music being played for their unborn children. They’d talk about the reaction they’d feel inside – it was stunning. They were listening to Mozart and Bach and jumping around. What can you say?’

He does say that there’s always a new experience around the corner. He could sit at home in London or Devon and luxuriate in memories, but has no interest in doing that. The stories – the history – are part of a continuing enthusiasm for the business. ‘Why do we do it? A certain vanity, I suppose, and a certain terror. You looked in the diary – nothing next week, nothing the week after, nothing coming in. That feeling has stayed with me. Even now, I seldom say no.’

We are speaking just after Claudio Abbado’s death has been announced – Sir Neville had been planning to stand in for him in Oman the following week, because of his illness, although he declined to continue after Abbado’s death. Then there is Japan coming up and some investigations to be done in China. ‘The audiences are still noisy, I think. Still getting to know the repertoire. There’s quite a bit of eating, I gather. That’s how it was in Japan at one time, and it will change. China’s so exciting.’

To be talking of excitement in the approach to your 90th birthday is a badge of honour. There will be a concert in April in celebration of that birthday at the Royal Festival Hall, with former players in the Academy joining the current crop plus violinist Joshua Bell, now its director. Pianist Murray Perahia, who’s been associated with it for so many years, will play a Mozart concerto, conducted by Sir Neville, which will reunite a special partnership. The orchestra will play Elgar’s Enigma Variations, an aptly English finale.

But it won’t be a backward-looking affair. There’s more to be done, new experiences to be had. Someone will make an offer. And he won’t say no.

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Rebecca Franks
Rebecca FranksJournalist, Critic and former Managing Editor of BBC Music Magazine

Rebecca Franks is the former Managing Editor of BBC Music Magazine and a regular classical music critic for The Times. She is currently writing her first children's book.