Death of an indispensable critic

Death of an indispensable critic


norman lebrecht

December 31, 2014

We are terribly sad to hear from colleagues on the Telegraph of the passing, this morning, of Michael Kennedy, aged 88.

UPDATE: Comprehensive Telegraph obit here

Michael was one of very few critics who was a journalist before he was a musician. He joined the Telegraph in Manchester at 15 in 1941, went off to have a great war in the Navy and served as the paper’s northern editor from 1960 to 1986. When the edition was hit by printers’ strikes, he produced the paper single-handedly from Manchester. He was a craftsman in all he did, as editor, writer, biographer and music critic.

His musical outlook was shaped by Sir John Barbirolli’s golden era at the Halle. Michael wrote excellent biographies of Mahler, Strauss, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Walton, Britten, Adrian Boult and Barbirolli himself, as well as several Oxford reference works. ¬†Passionate as he was about musicians, he never disguised the relativity of his feelings.

Privately, among friends, he placed Strauss above Mahler, VW above Britten and Barbirolli above all other conductors. He and I argued the relative merits of composers long and hard. Michael was always amenable to another point of view, but never to be swayed in his passions.

His writing was a model of clarity, sometimes dry but never dull. He learned much from Neville Cardus, including a devotion to cricket and a talent for friendship. Many musicians and writers will feel the poorer for his passing. We will not see his like again.

Our warmest sympathies to Joyce.

Michael Kennedy right


bronze (c) Cecile Elstein


  • Peter Phillips says:

    Everything you say about Michael Kennedy’s writing is absolutely right. For many years I have regarded him as one of the unassailable authorities on music and musicians in post war UK. His was the very best kind of writing, direct, superbly informed and decorous. While I’m a Barbirolli fan I’m not sure that he should be exalted above all other conductors, bearing in mind who was active in the twenty years or so after the war. Oh, and by the way, Kennedy also wrote a history of the Halle Orchestra (The Halle Tradition, 1960). His passing leaves an infillable gap.

  • Barbara says:

    I appreciate the writing of this article but am puzzled how someone can have ” a great war”.

  • Roger Heeley Barnes says:

    Gosh, A hole has appeared in the musical firmament. A terrific innings we would all have liked to see continue for a while longer

  • David says:

    Just from 35 years of reading MK it is evident that he hadn’t a mean bone in his body, was rigorously self-critical and industrious, read music widely, deeply and with great insight, and loved what he did. Just knowing that there will be no more wisdom emanating from that source is a terrible loss; however, he certainly left us plenty to reread and savor forever. His writings on Vaughan Williams are especially authoritative. Having the chance to see him reminisce on camera about VW in the Palmer and Bridcut films was enlivening. I treasure a courteous letter he sent to me when I was 21 or so, answering several questions about VW and Britten. A great man.

    • erich says:

      An enormous loss. So many of today’s hacks could learn a great deal from him about how to write constructive, rather than destructive, criticism….

  • Tommo says:

    A critic whose opinion you could trust unlike many today, particularly in the BBC.

  • Peter Thomas says:

    One of Michael Kennedy’s many roles was that of President of Malvern Concert Club, Worcestershire. He was appointed in 1999 following the death of the Club’s former President, Lord Menuhin, because of his love of and association with Sir Edward Elgar, founder of the Club in 1903. Michael was a staunch supporter of the Club; more recently he acknowledged his inability to play an active role in it and relinquished his presidency last summer, graciously accepting the position of President Emeritus for life. Malvern Concert Club members held him in much affection and respect.