The most prolific English conductor – he made more recordings than anyone except Herbert von Karajan – died last night, October 2, peacefully at the age of 92.
He and I were friends for many years, close for the last decade.
I will shortly write a personal reminiscence.
Meantime, the bare facts.
Born on 15 April 1924 in the cathedral town of Lincoln, he was summoned into the London Symphony Orchestra when most of its violinists were conscripted into the army in 1939. Neville was just 15.
He was the last active musician to have played for Henry Wood, Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwängler and other giants of the first half of the 20th century. He absorbed much from observing them.
The one who spotted his potential as a conductor was Pierre Monteux, whom he always named as his teacher and mentor.
Neville became interested in historically informed performance while recovering from war wounds in 1944. He founded the Academy of St Martin in the Fields in the mid-1950s and turned it into the most sweet-sounding of the many bands that purported to play baroque and early classical music at original pitch and tempi – though never on original instruments.
He was the kindest, most considerate of men, absolutely beloved of his players. If a musician was ever in trouble, he would drop everything until the matter was sorted. He once told the Musikvereinsaal management in Vienna, is the most polite and reasonable way, that there was no possibility of an Academy concert the next day unless one of his violinists, a Slovak refugee on temporary papers, was released immediately by the border authorities. The player was back in his seat within the hour.
In the 1980s, Neville was music director with large orchestras – the Minnesota Orchestra and SWR radio orchestra in Stuttgart. He adored the big noise they made, but was always happiest with his Academy.
He was knighted for services to music, becoming Sir Neville in 1985. Last year he received the rare and signal honour of being named Companion of Honour (CH). He received these gifts with his customary humility.
Devoted to Molly and their family, he liked in recent years to avoid conducting in the summer when, as he put it, ‘the garden needed me’. But he could never turn down a request from a friend and he was travelling the world busily to the end. He conducted for the last time on Thursday, at Padova in Italy.
He was, I think, the least self-regarding musician I have ever known. I loved him deeply.
UPDATE: Glimpses of Neville
UPDATE2: The indispensable recordings.