A classical trumpeter

February 24, 2006

With his biographies and reference works, Michael Kennedy is striving to expand classical music's audience, discovers Christopher Wood

The public doesn't deserve Michael Kennedy. For more than 60 years, he was in the employ of the Telegraph Group, working his way up to northern editor of The Daily Telegraph , and latterly serving with distinction as chief music critic of The Sunday Telegraph . He has also written a shelf-load of books, many on British music of the 20th century, that have won a place in the collection of any self-respecting student or music lover. But getting the British public excited about music has been an uphill struggle.

"The arts generally mean nothing to most people in this country," Kennedy says grimly. "To those it does mean something, they are absolutely fanatical. At concerts you see the same people; they go to everything. But look at quizzes on TV, even University Challenge ; the music questions are always the ones the contestants never know. And at Christmas when the newspapers ask the great and the good to choose their books of the year, how often is there a music book? Last year, one person had read Winifred Wagner's biography. Music doesn't seem to matter to people. In Austria and Germany, it is accepted. Here it is still thought of as elitist. The man you bump into in the Tube station doesn't give a toss about it."

Despite the pessimism, Kennedy, who turns 80 this month, shows no signs of abandoning his mission to encourage enjoyment of classical music. In May, his biography of Richard Strauss comes out in paperback, and a new edition of his Oxford Dictionary of Music is promised. Over the years, his books on Edward Elgar, William Walton, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten have been mined for myriad student essays, as well as delighting generations of the fanatical few.

Kennedy, a Mancunian who still lives in Manchester, began his publishing career with The Hallé Tradition (1960), a history of the city's Hallé Orchestra. He had been a Halle-goer from his teens, but the orchestra's biography might never have come about without the inspirational Sir John Barbirolli. "He was a good friend," Kennedy says. "He came to Manchester in 1943 when I was 17 and took over the Hallé. I wrote him a long, long letter, I was so excited by what was going on. There were many years between us, but we just clicked. It was like a great light shining, the way he got this orchestra to play." Kennedy repaid some of what he had got from Barbirolli by writing his biography after the conductor's death in 1970.

His next book was The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1964). The composer was, like Barbirolli, a friend, to whom Kennedy wrote a fan letter when he was in the Navy during the Second World War. "When I next got back into port - I worked on secret codes - a letter came addressed to Commander Kennedy, so he'd promoted me. He said he hoped we'd meet some day."

They did meet, but as with all his biographical subjects, Kennedy waited until Vaughan Williams had died in 1958 before writing about him. "I got to know him quite well and talked to him a lot about his music. When he was making his will and wanted Ursula, his wife, to write his life, she said, 'But I'm not a musician, I can't write about the music.' He said, 'That's all right, Michael will do that.'" Ursula Vaughan Williams and Kennedy wrote complementary books, which came out together. Kennedy's research included a huge, invaluable catalogue of the works, eventually published separately.

Next up was Elgar, immortalised by Kennedy in Portrait of Elgar (1968). At the time, Elgar was not an obvious choice. "He was terribly out of fashion. Barbirolli and Sargent and Boult were considered champions of an out-of-date lost cause."

Kennedy also had to counter what he regarded as a misleading impression of Elgar the man. "In all the books I read on Elgar I thought, nobody seems to hear what I hear in this music. It seems to be the music of a troubled, unhappy, mixed-up and strange man. It didn't fit with what I'd read about him. I thought the only way I could read a book about Elgar that would satisfy me was if I wrote one myself."

After a tip from the then northern editor of The Daily Telegraph , Kennedy studied letters the composer wrote to Alice Stuart-Wortley. They were a treasure trove of personal information and confessional outpouring, and made Kennedy's the most searching and accurate portrait of Elgar to date.

Kennedy went on to document other major figures of English music in biographies of Adrian Boult and Walton and a history of the Manchester-based Royal Northern College of Music. His book on the life and works of Britten was one of three Kennedy wrote for the Master Musicians series originated by Dent - the others being on Mahler and Richard Strauss.

In 1999, Kennedy returned to Strauss to write an expanded biography, Richard Strauss: Man, Musician, Enigma . In his first study of Strauss in 1976, Kennedy had written that the German composer "remains the most misunderstood and misrepresented composer of the last hundred years, Schoenberg included". In the 1990s, he wanted to go more deeply into the Nazi period. In 1933, Strauss became president of the Reich Music Chamber, for which history has not forgiven him - despite Strauss's insistence that he accepted the post to improve the lot of German musicians, and from which he was in any case dismissed in 1935 after a letter was intercepted in which he rubbished some of Nazism's most cherished concepts.

Finally, but by no means least, there is the Oxford Dictionary of Music . In the early 1980s, Oxford University Press asked Kennedy to update an old dictionary by Percy Scholes, but Kennedy ran into a problem. "I realised there were masses of people, and things, not in it. So I started from scratch."

His efforts on the dictionary amount to several years' work. "I can honestly say that I wrote that dictionary," Kennedy says.

As music students and teachers know, the dictionary is the best single-volume work of its kind. It stands as a fitting memorial to the indefatigable Michael Kennedy as he enters his ninth decade.

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