AESS Newsletter, March 2003


20 July 19371 December 2002


I first met Michael Oliver in the early 1980s over the cheese counter at Budgen's supermarket, Crouch End, where we both shopped on Saturday mornings. His name (and voice) were both familiar from his many radio broadcasts, principally as the presenter of Music Weekly on Radio 3 (from 1975 to 1990) and of Kaleidoscope, the nightly arts review programme, on Radio 4 (from 1975 to 1987), and I admired his work enormously. When the idea of an English Song Award was mooted (inspired by the once-only Finzi Song Competition) and we were looking for a chairman with appropriate qualities and standing in the British musical world, he seemed to be an obvious choice.

Initially he resisted, for he was a reticent man and also wished to know what exactly he would be letting himself in for I'm sure he was highly suspicious of committees and committee members; but eventually he succumbed, and was a tower of strength, providing an effective sheet anchor to control and consolidate the committee, consisting as it did of a range of people with differing ideas and requirements and unafraid to articulate them. Michael made you think about and justify what you were saying, in that quiet but penetrating way that was unsurprising to those who knew his broadcasts. Our negotiations with the Brighton Festival were greatly assisted by him, and it was his skill, combined with that of our President, John Carol Case, that enabled us to find a home there for the duration of the Award.

When we finally got to Brighton for the actual competitions, we (the 'officials') worked tremendously hard but had a wonderful time and, after the first year, all lived together in Topp's Hotel, Regency Square where he had stayed during the first competition on his recommendation ('You get wholemeal toast at breakfast without having to ask for it!' quite an achievement in the mid-1980s!). Michael was one of those people who appeared to have a rather impenetrable exterior, behind which an almost imperceptible twinkle could be discerned, which dissolved at the right moment into the most delightful grin. He had a wonderfully dry sense of humour, and wry opinions of the world and, I know, was absolutely delighted to be doing what he wanted to do, and always dreamed of doing: broadcasting on Radio 3 and writing for Gramophone magazine. He didn't want to be lumbered with the English Song Award for ever (the business side could seem unbearably tedious), and when I was asked to succeed him as chairman (having served on the executive committee from the start), I knew what a hard act he would be to follow, and I'm quite sure I failed lamentably to match his standards, and certainly his gravitas in the conduct of the Award's business. (I know for a fact that several of my colleagues thought so too!)

He continued to broadcast, though less regularly than before, and to write, and his reviews in Gramophone (from 1973), quite often of the more exotic areas of the repertoire, were pithy and passionate. I suspect that this was owing to his lack of a formal musical education: he had not come through the hallowed ranks of university and music college. His break came when he presented programmes for BBC Radio London (from 1970 to 1975), having previously worked as a librarian, hospital porter, mortuary attendant, etc., and in publishing. He always claimed to have been educated 'during the school holidays' from St Clement Danes Grammar School (from where he went to Isleworth Polytechnic and the London College of Printing). Focussed on his real passion he blossomed, and displayed a tremendous intellect, particularly in his books (Igor Stravinsky, Benjamin Britten, and, as editor, the splendid Settling the score: a journey through the music of the twentieth century), without being 'intellectual', as well as a real enjoyment of, and enthusiasm for, music. This made him such an effective broadcaster. The broadcasts that stick in my memory are his piece about Mongolian polyphonic chanting, perfectly serious but hilariously funny; and a Music Weekly tribute to Herbert Howells, who had died while Michael was in Italy, recorded (he told me) over an uncertain telephone line from a cupboard under the stairs of his hotel: the words and the delivery were of course impeccable, only the sound quality (comparable to those memorable 1970s reports filed by Michael Elkins from war zones in Israel) reminded us of the high standards we had perhaps taken for granted when listening to him week after week.

We kept in touch sufficiently to exchange Christmas cards each year. Our intention to meet at the Wisteria Tea Rooms, Crouch End, and to introduce him to my new family, was thwarted when the Wisteria Tea Rooms closed down and, as is so often the case when friends and colleagues die suddenly, I deeply regret the many opportunities squandered. He died of a brain haemorrhage on 1 December and will be sorely missed.

© Garry Humphreys, 2002