A lament for the principal I clashed with

A lament for the principal I clashed with


norman lebrecht

October 27, 2017

The pianist Peter Donohoe pays generous tribute to Sir John Manduell, who died this week, aged 89.

It is with a heavy heart that I write this. John Manduell was the Principal at my Conservatoire – the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester – from its inception in 1973 (as the Northern College of Music) until his retirement in 1996. My Manchester student years were dominated by him, his personality and his vision.

He took the job of Principal at the point at which the Northern School of Music and the Royal Manchester College of Music were amalgamated, having promised a major arts centre for Manchester, as well as a new concept in music colleges – with great facilities for both students and public – in the new building. There seemed to be a good chance that the new college could make Manchester the UK’s pre-eminent place for secondary musical studies. In order to achieve the latter, he had to compete with the ever-present domination by London – particularly amongst foreign students wishing to study in Britain – but he largely succeeded, particularly in the field of vocal studies, with the accent being particularly on opera.

During my student years, I myself was involved as a percussionist in performances of Verdi’s Aida, Massenet’s Thais, Walton’s The Bear, Crosse’s Purgatory, Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress and Puccini’s La Bohème, and just after my time there came performances of Wagner Das Rheingold – all of which were massive projects, costing huge amounts of money – often with celebrity directors – that would surely never have happened without Manduell’s drive, persuasiveness and vision.

He managed – against huge odds – to place the RNCM on the international musical map. To us students his priority seemed to be to build the image of the new institution to the outside world.

His predecessors – Ida Carroll at the NSM and Frederick Cox at the RMCM – were perhaps less interested in the way their respective colleges were perceived outside the walls of their buildings; they were very involved with the lives of the students and the internal goings-on of the institutions, and were probably to some extent guilty of ignoring the realities of the modern commercially-driven world beyond the ivory towers that colleges of any subject can be. Standards were very high indeed at both the old colleges, and the family atmosphere was wonderful, but they were beginning to be perceived as old-fashioned.

Manduell, however, was a genius at building the reputation of the RNCM, attracting major sponsors, large numbers of foreign students – particularly to the postgraduate courses – attracting the attention and support of the Arts Council, getting the college talked about in the media, and creating a major new voice in British music education.

I was often – as a student and just afterwards – guilty of maligning him; I was a difficult student, very quick to judge, and generally behaved like a very large square peg in a small round hole.

The very first time I met him was when he set up a series of interviews with the existing RMCM and NSM students – to whom he referred famously, although allegedly, as ‘residual commitments’ to ‘get to know them’. This took place three months before the move to the new building, the latter taking place in January 1973; I started my course in September 1972, and the meeting thus took place in the old RMCM building just after my arrival.

During this meeting he asked me, with a very sceptical look on his face, if this ‘business of studying percussion was really serious’. I saw red straight away because I had always believed, and still do, that specialising in one instrument – which, in the case of the piano, Manduell passionately believed in – was to lose out on so many things, both artistic and personal. We ended the meeting with my antagonism over the next four years almost guaranteed.

I already didn’t fit the mould – I had previously studied violin, viola, double bass, clarinet and tuba, sung in two church choirs twice a week (one of which being Manchester Cathedral), and had taken organ lessons. I wasn’t much good at any of them, with the possible exception of the viola, but I was and still am very glad of the experience. Then I took up symphonic percussion a couple of years before university, and became an extremely proficient player; I was very serious about it, and practised a lot – unlike on the piano. My express desire to go against the new RNCM policy went down with Manduell very badly. So I dug my heels in – about that, and about almost everything – almost as a matter of principle. I was complete pain in the arse to the RNCM management generally, and to Manduell in particular.

However, I did indeed do a double diploma – now it would be described as a double degree – in piano and percussion – in both cases as a teacher and as a performer. I am not only very grateful to Manduell for reluctantly allowing me to break his rules, but also for appointing one of the most extraordinary people I have ever worked with – my percussion professor – Gilbert Webster (retired principal percussionist with the BBCSO during the Boulez era). Webster had an influence on my long term future whose profundity cannot properly be put into words – very obviously over my piano-playing as well as his chosen instrument(s), and I have John Manduell to thank for his decision to appoint him as Head of Department.

Allegedly, Manduell was not – contrary to one of the comments I read on Facebook – familiar with all his students. He allegedly failed to recognise several of them when passing them in the street. He was allegedly guilty of favouritism and a certain ruthlessness. He made the public performance of opera – the grander the better – the RNCM’s best known activity; this, allegedly, led to some very promising singers being broken by being promoted in huge roles that they were not yet ready for. And many of his appointees were allegedly often absent as well as being definitely famous, and were willing to accede to the Principal’s wishes however much they allegedly disagreed with him. [Such a situation is vaguely reminiscent of what one gathers about Margaret Thatcher’s relationship with her ministers.] He also allegedly ignored students’ complaints against certain teachers’ abuse of their position – the long-term results of this being seen in recent years when the dangers of one-on-one teaching hit the headlines.

Now dispensing with the word ‘allegedly’, he did not take any interest whatsoever in my activities after leaving – failing to reply to any correspondence regarding such events as my London recital debut, my Proms debut, and my first ever recording, all of which took place within the five years after I left the RNCM in 1976. Whether or not other alumni experienced the same lack of interest, I wouldn’t know. It was a regrettable side to him that did not personally endear him to me, despite the dichotomy created by my growing admiration for him on a professional basis. But I suppose the truth is that I was paying for being a permanent nuisance as a student. In any case, he did respond to my prize at the Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition in 1982 by making me a Fellow of the Royal Northern College of Music, along with John Williams and Raymond Slater.

Having said that, I always realised what a visionary he was (at the same time as being a realist in the modern world). What an excellent writer, a media-friendly character, a brilliant politician: he was a past master at fielding public meetings and word-spinning to the point of genius! An overall exceptional man.

His many achievements included building a college that I miss in so many ways, and for so many reasons, with an engaging and persuasive personality that loomed over me – and looked over me no doubt often with horror – at a very formative time.

I am very sad indeed to look back at the degree to which I was a thorn in his side. I so wish we could have met at some point over the last twenty years, and mended fences; life is too short for long-term grudges, as is proved by yesterday’s news. I started this by saying that I have a very heavy heart, and I repeat it.

Peter Donohoe

UPDATE: The Telegraph has an obituary today.



  • Daphne Badger says:

    Surely “with whom I clashed”?Da

  • Donohoe says:

    Norman – your headline, not mine. Over to you.

  • Britcellist says:

    What a profound letter. You should not beat yourself about what has passed, that’s life. All of us have regrets about one thing and another, but your commitment to music and achievements must surely have made an impact on him. It sounds as if you have had a good life in your music. To me, also having had a good life in music, ( but not on your level), that makes it all worthwhile, even though there could have been so many opportunities to spend time with people who matter. I hope you come to terms with this and that it will help you in your relationships with those who are important to you.

    • Una says:

      Peter has always been a very profound person, and that is lovely in this day and age when everything is fake and just on the surface. I knew JM very well, and last saw him two years ago at a concert at the RNCM after not seeing him for about 15 years.

  • Amanda says:

    I am so saddened to hear of Sir John’s death!
    He was instrumental to my career…for better or worse..and a loyal champion. I am proud to have been a student at the RNCM during his era when we were THE college to be at!
    I will always be thankful for his support and guidance.

  • Saxon Broken says:

    This is a very nice piece of writing. No pretence to sugar-coat anything or to speak less than the truth, but nevertheless generous and positive.

  • Mike Duffin says:

    Nice one peter.