Carpenter's son led famous orchestra

Neville Marriner, who founded the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, was its director for 53 years

Neville Marriner (above in a file photo) initially held rehearsals at his home.
Neville Marriner (above in a file photo) initially held rehearsals at his home.PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON • Neville Marriner, the British violinist-turned-conductor who founded the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and built it into one of the most popular and widely recorded chamber orchestras in the world, died on Sunday, aged 92.

The London-based academy announced the death in a statement on its website. No other details were immediately available.

United States virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell, the first person to succeed Marriner as the orchestra's music director, led the tributes.

"He was one of the most extraordinary human beings I have ever known. I will remember him for his brilliance, his integrity and his humour, both on and off the concert platform," he said in a statement.

Marriner, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, founded the Academy in 1958, initially gathering musicians at his home for rehearsals.

Its first public concert took place at its namesake church in London's Trafalgar Square in 1958, and shortly thereafter the group was invited to make its first recording.

It would turn out to be the first of several hundred albums credited to St Martin's, as it was customarily abbreviated. At least 200 of these were led by Marriner, initially with nods and gestures as he played the leading violin part and later from the podium.

The group's soundtrack for the Oscar-winning Milos Forman film Amadeus (1984), devoted mostly to works by Mozart, became one of the best-selling classical recordings of all time, selling in the millions. "In those days, we were so rich we thought about building our own concert hall, converting an old power station in East London," Marriner later recalled.

He remained music director until 2011 when he was named life president.

He took a deep interest in the recording process. English critic Edward Greenfield once called him "a recording manager's dream, because he understands technical problems as well as most technicians, and accepts the necessity of retakes".

"It's the sound of the Academy that made it celebrated around the world," Marriner reflected in an interview he gave to the London Guardian for his 90th birthday in 2014. "We wanted some clarity in the texture and vitality in the tempi. Early music at that time had been slow, thick, cloudy and taken very seriously, like an ancient relic."

Indeed, he and his group were part of a huge revival of scholarly and popular interest in music of the 18th and early 19th centuries that began in the 1960s and has continued to this day.

Washington Post arts critic Philip Kennicott once described the original appeal of the St Martin's performances and its interpretation of classics. "The Academy played them like chamber music," he wrote in 2001, "with reduced forces and an emphasis on clarity; it also played them fast, which produced a broad architectural overview. This was revelatory in an age when conductors often got bogged down milking each phrase for its maximum romantic yield."

By the 1980s, a new group of scholar-performers had come along. Artists such as Trevor Pinnock, Roger Norrington and the late Christopher Hogwood prided themselves on playing in a style that they believed baroque composers might have recognised - on period instruments, with valveless horns and vibrato-less strings made from gut, all in strict rhythmic patterns.

It was all rather austere for Marriner and his work fell out of favour among many musicologists, if never with the public. Writing in The Post in 1988, critic Joseph McLellan observed that "Marriner and his Academy of St Martin in the Fields orchestra (were effectively) driven from the 18th-century repertoire that made them famous by the purist demands of the early-instrument movement".

Marriner declared himself unbothered by the change in tastes. "The Academy decided, 'To hell with this.' We decided to drop that sort of repertoire or give away as much of it as we could," he told Mr McLellan. "We moved on to Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn. Suddenly you find yourself in the middle of the 19th century or in the late 19th century, and you're becoming a much, much larger orchestra. This is what happened to us."

Later, St Martin's recordings would include the complete symphonies of Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann and Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky as well as 20th century British works by Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten.

For a conductor, he was unusually self-effacing, a trait that endeared him to his colleagues. Asked once for his proudest claim about the orchestra, he gave a simple answer: "We decided always to have good players and never to go on the platform under-rehearsed."

Born in Lincoln, England, he was the son of a carpenter. It was a musical household - "You could say that family music was for us what television is for most people today," he recalled in 1968 - and he entered the Royal College of Music on a full scholarship at the age of 15.

After the war, he decided he was not bound for the life of a concert virtuoso. He became a well-known collaborative artist, playing in a duo with harpsichordist Thurston Dart, and in string quartets and trios.

The decision to name the ensemble the Academy of St Martin in the Fields was a practical one. "It was the place where we gave our first ever concert back in 1958, so there's significance in that," he said in 2014. "But the real reason we took the name was that the vicar let us rehearse there for free so long as we publicised the church. That was the deal. And it was his idea that we should be an 'academy' rather than the 'chamber orchestra' we'd originally planned to call ourselves."

His first marriage, to the cellist and noted antiquarian bookseller Diana Carbutt, ended in divorce. In 1957, he married Elizabeth Sims, who survives him along with two children from his first marriage.

His son Andrew Marriner showed remarkable promise on the clarinet when he was young, but Marriner declared that he would much rather see his son "lead a quiet life as a cricketer" than become a musician. Andrew is now the first clarinetist in the London Symphony Orchestra.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 04, 2016, with the headline 'Carpenter's son led famous orchestra'. Print Edition | Subscribe