Death of an English principal cellist, 91

Robin Makin, of the Liverpool law firm informs us of the death of Betty Roberts, former principal cello of the Phil and widow of the principal oboe, Keith Wood. He has given these facts of her life:

Betty was born in Leeds on 26th August 1927.  The daughter of Francis George Roberts, a schoolmaster, and Rosa (née Maltby), she was educated at West Leeds High School and studied cello with her uncle, Arthur Haynes, principal cellist of the Northern Philharmonic Orchestra. 

In 1947, aged 19, Betty was appointed to her first professional job with the Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra. The players were in awe of their guest conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham and had a wonderful time.  Many fell in love with each other and Betty was no exception – it was where she met her husband, Keith Wood. 

Betty played with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, with the Hallé (in the glorious days of Sir John Barbirolli) and the BBC.  She re-joined the RLPO as principal cellist in 1976 with Keith being the Orchestra’s principal oboe.  

In solo passages Betty sometimes had nervous anticipation.  However, having performed what on occasion a duet with a great soloist (such as in the slow movement of the Brahms second piano concerto) she felt exhilarated.  She regarded Elgar as the composer of the finest orchestral parts for the cello.

Betty was immaculate and elegant. Taxi drivers were kept waiting at the door countless times until Betty was ready: everything had to be to perfection.  When she played an integral part in the introduction of the black trouser suite for the ladies in the RLPO, they were glamorous and floaty in chiffon and crepe. She did the best impressions of conductor John Pritchard and Hillary Groves the wife of conductor, Sir Charles Groves.

For much of her career Betty played on an instrument made by Nicolas Amati in 1667.

The debilitating effects of playing the cello caused Betty shoulder and back problems. In 1984 Betty embarked on a career of lectures, workshops and talks on a variety of music and speech related subjects. She also became a Blue Badge registered guide, arranging tours of Liverpool’s rich heritage of music, theatre and the arts. Her preparation was immaculate.  Betty attended Leah Mainwaring’s “Communication & Public Speaking” classes.  She gained medals for the speaking of verse and prose, public speaking and an A.L.A.M Diploma.  She researched with the assistance of the Central Library recordings on CD for her classes to make sure the recordings she played were of the highest standards. She ensured the same was done for the music to be played at her funeral.

Betty’s speaking voice was a joy to listen to.  Her presentation was unique and entertaining.  Betty drew on her abundant knowledge about composers, instruments, musicians, orchestras and many personal anecdotes of her musical career. Betty was interested in their welfare of those attending her classes and she had a ‘fan club’ of pupils who looked forward to her weekly Music for Pleasure class.  Each year Keith joined Betty in extending hospitality entertaining the whole class for lunch at their home in Grassendale.

Betty took great pleasure in her garden and did a lot of cooking in the Cordon Bleu style.  She joked that the cellar of her home would be the best place to be in the event of nuclear war as it was fully stocked with an amazing array of Harrods Food Hall products and Keith’s wine.


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  • As a young viola-player in the RLPO in the early 80s I rented rooms in Betty and Keith’s Grassendale home, they were hospitable landlords and Betty was, as stated above, immaculate and charming at all times.

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