The influential conductor, composer, organist and academic Sir Philip Ledger has died at the age of 74. During a long and distinguished career, Ledger worked alongside Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears at the Aldeburgh Festival, directed the choir of King’s College Cambridge and, until 2001, was principal of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.
Born in 1937 in Bexhill, Ledger’s musical talents were abundantly clear early on. Joining the Royal College of Organists in 1955, he gained the ARCO qualification in January 1956. He went on to develop his skills at King’s College, Cambridge where he was organ scholar, gaining a highly-respected first-class honours degree, and in 1959 Ledger was awarded the Limpus and Read prizes as a result of his performance in the exam to be a Fellow of the Royal College of Organists (he was president of the RCO from 1992-94). In 1961, Ledger became the organist of Chelmsford Cathedral at 24, the youngest cathedral organist in the country at the time. While at Chelmsford, Ledger also took up the reins of the Chelmsford Singers where, according to one choir member, he ‘blew a wind of change through the singers’ ranks’.
His time at Chelmsford, however, was short-lived, and in 1965, Ledger was appointed to the post of director of music at the University of East Anglia where he was also dean of the university’s School of Fine Arts and Music.
By now, Ledger’s extraordinary musical skills were in high demand, not least from Benjamin Britten, who invited him to be a co-director of the Aldeburgh Festival, working closely with the composer and with tenor Peter Pears. While at Aldeburgh, Ledger conducted in the opening concert of the then newly-restored Snape Maltings, and performed in many premieres of Britten’s own music.
In 1974, Ledger returned to King’s College, Cambridge, this time as director of music. During his eight years there, he and the choir made dozens of acclaimed recordings for EMI of works by Palestrina, Duruflé, Pergolesi, Vivaldi and more, plus the famous Nine Lessons and Carols and several recordings of solo organ repertoire. While at Cambridge, he took the choir on tour to America, Australia, and Japan for the first time and was conductor of the Cambridge University Musical Society.
In 1982, Ledger was made principal of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama where he oversaw the building and opening of the academy’s new premises in 1988 by Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother. In 1993, Ledger was made an honorary professor at Glasgow University.
Away from his teaching, administrative and conducting roles, however, Philip Ledger was a prolific composer and arranger, famed for the numerous descants and arrangements he penned for King’s College Choir’s Nine Lessons and Carols services and other occasions. He also edited volumes two and three of the widely-used and admired Anthems for Choirs collections and The Oxford Book of English Madrigals.
Ledger was made a CBE in 1985, and was knighted in 1999 for services to music.
Oliver Condy is the former Editor of BBC Music Magazine, a post he held for 17 years. His debut book, Symphonies of the Soul: Classical Music to Cure Any Ailment, will be released in November 2021 with Octopus Books. He is also a semi-professional organist, having previously given recitals in Bach’s churches across Germany.