Death of an English music critic

Death of an English music critic


norman lebrecht

December 20, 2018

I regret to report the death yesterday of Gerald Larner, northern music critic for the Guardian  1965–93 and the Times 1993-2001. He was 82.

A slightly prickly character on first acquaintance, Gerald was a perfect professional when it came to writing about music. I am proud of having commissioned his biography of Ravel, in which he delved further than anyone had gone before into the deeply private life of that elusive composer.

Gerald enjoyed a conspicuously happy partnership with the broadcaster and theatre critic Lynne Walker, whom he married in 1989. Lynne died, aged 55, in 2011, having first supplied the obit desks with details of Gerald’s life.

Bless them.





  • Mark Hildrew says:

    Gerald was also a librettist and collaborated with John McCabe on an opera

  • Thank you for this. His two daughters from his first marriage to Celia were with him at the end when he died peacefully after a long illness.

  • Symphony musician says:

    I was always impressed by Gerald Larner’s erudite, perceptive and eloquent concert reviews in the Guardian. If only there were more reviews of that quality being written today.
    A sad loss.

  • michelle assay says:

    Gerald was the most wonderful person from the first acquaintance (I’d be delighted if you remove the prickly statement). He was (I am tearful as I use past tense for this beloved friend) a true artist in every sense. My life is so much richer for having known him… I miss him so badly. The world is emptier and poorer now.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      Oh, but he cherished the prickly… it was his counterpoint to Lynne, who was always so sweet.

      • Richard Bratby says:

        And yet, in the years I worked with them, I’d have said that Lynne was the one who (at first) suffered no nonsense; whereas Gerald was the more relaxed and mild-mannered. Of course both of them, very quickly, showed themselves to be thoroughly charming colleagues: helpful, erudite and consummately professional. Both are desperately missed. Gerald’s Ravel book is a little jewel, and Lynne’s critical judgement was so shrewd and perceptive that it put us all to shame.

        • norman lebrecht says:

          Of the 20-odd authors I commissioned for the Phaidon 20th century composer series, some were acknowledged experts in their subject, others aspired to be recognised as experts. Gerald stood out in that, while he was passionate and knowledgeable about Ravel, he treated the assignment as if he was coming to Ravel for the first time, examining every biographical fact and studying each piece of music as if it were new to him. As an editor, I was in awe of his sense of discovery. And I half-suspected that Lynne deserved joint credit for getting him to the point where he could write the book.

          • Alice E Dennis says:

            I have to say Gerald did not write that book jointly – he worked alone and didn’t even really enjoy being edited much!

      • Sue Wilson says:

        I think Gerald would have appreciated the description, prickly as much as my late husband, Conrad Wilson appreciated that and many other similar adjectives to describe him; in fact in my hub’s case prickly was one of the more complimentary ones! So sad to lose Gerald as a lovely friend. Thinking of Alice, Melissa and all the family.

  • David Fanning says:

    I owe Gerald an immense debt for his nurturing of the journalism side of my career, and I’m consoled only by the fact that my wife (Michelle Assay) and I were especially close to him since the late stage of Lynne’s illness. At close quarters he radiated warmth, wit and humanity.

  • In 1974 Gerald Larner was the first to write a review of my playing. It was a student performance of Bartók’s Concerto No 2, was a landmark event in my development as a musician, and was described by the one we used to call ‘Uncle Gerald’ very positively. His way with words led to his use in that review often phrase ‘prehensile strength’ – a description that followed me around for years amongst friends and colleagues. It sounds like a compliment from this distance, but it was quite possibly in reality a warning to music lovers of the Manchester area to run for cover, whenever I was on the bill.

    It was the first of many reviews – some very positive, some dreadful – the last of which was probably of a concert at the Edinburgh Festival in the 1990s – where by then he lived. I regard him as being one of the small few who have been consistently honest with me, have watched my [slow] maturation over many years, and whose opinion I always valued and tried to respond to.

    We met a good few times, and he was always very friendly, at the same time as critical, sometimes indeed prickly – although I have no room to talk – there was always mutual respect.

    He even entrusted his then late teenaged daughter Alice to me for a few piano lessons before her college auditions. For me to be her next teacher after Dame Fanny Waterman was indeed a responsibility, and I was very flattered that Gerald saw fit to take me on. After one of the lessons – which I think were all at the Larner residence in Bowdon – my wife and I were guests at a dinner party with Gerald and Celia and their two daughters. Said dinner party turned out to be a tepid Chinese takeaway that Gerald had brought home on the way from the Guardian offices. That kind of throwing out of traditional niceties was one of the things I liked about him – I was never one a lot of niceties myself, as some of you may know – and we all got along extremely well.

    I do recall reading a review of another pianist who had played the Grieg Concerto at the CBSO, which entailed Larner having to drive from his home the 98 miles or so to Birmingham in what turned out to be heavy driving rain. There was virtually nothing at all in the review about the Grieg performance, and whole lot about the dreadful journey down the M6 in the rush hour and terrible weather. Of course the reason was almost certainly that he had made the traditional mistake of writing his positive comments at the end of the review and leaving the moaning about the journey at the beginning, the useful bit being removed by the sub-editor. Since then I have often thought of coming on stage and before playing a concerto explaining to the audience that the wrong notes were the fault of the weather on the way down the M40.

    There were a number of very helpful – sometimes very critical – long-term critics of that generation to whom this generation of performers owe a great debt of gratitude for their honest responses to what we did in our early days; it may not have seemed like it at the time, but it was nonetheless by and large true. That generation of critics – in Manchester, John-Robert Blunn, Michael Kennedy, Paul Griffiths, and now Gerald Larner – and similar groups in other cities including London – has now been depleted and their attitudes largely been replaced (not all, I have to say.) Their influence was often very positive – like a strict but fair parent (you can always spot the unfair and ignorant ones from the first sentence). We artists need them and their influence. I hope the disappearance of such influences is not ever complete – it isn’t yet.

    In the meantime, I was very sorry to discover – only today for some reason – that ‘Uncle Gerald’ had died. My sincerest condolences to his two daughters and the extended family.