A forgotten conductor’s centenary

A new friend has just reminded us that Norman Del Mar would have been 100 today.

He was a pivotal figure in British music, a pioneering conductor of Britten and Mahler, chief of the BBc Scottish and three times conductor of the BBC’s Last Night of the Proms.

He was also a vitally important editor of major symphonic scores and a really thoughtful interpreter on record.

I happen to own several books from his library, with plentiful annotations, bought from a house-clearance dealer. He’s alive on my shelves. I wonder how many readers still remember him.


with US composer Marc Blitzstein, 1950

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    • He did indeed – an excellent conductor. I heard him a couple of times in Birmingham, but remember him mainly through some excellent recordings of Elgar and Bridge that I still play. I also remember some good Strauss LPs on CfP back in the day. Thanks for the reminder – had no idea it was his centenary.

  • He conducted the first performance of my 1st cello concerto with Ross Pople and the BBCSO in about 1980. He was fascinating and very good company, although he sometimes seemed to be beating BEHIND the orchestra.

  • A fine conductor with an extraordinary ear! He conducted the premiere of my Symphony in one movement with the Philharmonia in 1980.

  • I was probably his worst conducting pupil at RCM, but he was unfailingly kind and generous. It took many years for me to realise how much I had learned from him and how much more I could have learned. Shame there don’t seem to be any centenary celebrations.

  • Is there a better orchestration book than “Anatomy of an Orchestra?” I have re-read my copy and find new insights every time, the examples are excellent.

    • There are some little gems too: look up ‘bull roar’ and ‘bagpipes’!

      A divergence: in addition to the recordings mentioned by others, he did one of the most musically satisfying performances of ‘1812’, of all things, withe the (then) New Philharmonia on Pickwick LP CN2021 – never issued on CD, I don’t think.

      Lastly, those wonderful books on ‘Conducting … ‘ (Beethoven, Brahms, Berlioz, Elgar, etc.), demonstrating mind-boggling knowledge of the scores and their problems and possibilities.

      I also remember his contributions to the BBC Radio Three annual Christmas music quiz on several occasions.

  • Heard him once at the RFH, he conducted Manfred by Strauss, a composer he was especially good at. He also conducted a simply magnificent Alpine Symphony at the Proms around 1979-80 (don’t remember exactly) with the offstage horns up in the gallery at the top of the Albert Hall. A sensational sound. Wonderful concert.

    • “Manfred by Strauss” . . . pray tell! I know the “Manfred” Overture by Schumann and the “Manfred” symphony by Tchaikovsky – two favorite works of mine. I’m wondering if you might have meant Struass’ “Hamlet”.

      • We might be talking about Macbeth by Strauss – very early tone poem (that NDM recorded, together with Aus Italien). Hamlet overture is by Tchaikovsky

  • By coincidence I have on my table Del Mar’s book, “Orchestral Variations,” checked out from the library. Written ca. 1990, it identifies textual differences between published performing editions of several standard-repertoire works. I’m glad he went to that trouble.

    • Great minds think alike. That book is on my desk – I was just reading it yesterday while comparing his notes with the new Barenreiter edition of Dvorak’s New World, edited by Jonathan Del Mar. RIP.

  • He was a very knowledgeable man and a patient teacher. There are few British conductors who did not benefit from his insights.

  • I was fortunate to have seen him a good many times, in London, also with the CBSO and particularly the BSO. A very fine musician, particularly of R Strauss of whom he wrote a substantial and definitive biography. An ebullient, larger than life figure in every respect – he was a giant of a man. Terrible stick technique, but he got results!

    • Yes, his ‘technique’ was to hold his arms out horizontally and flap his wrists almost:) Jose-Luis Garcia, the late leader of the ECO, was leading the orchestra once and Norman (allegedly) stopped at one point and said ‘No, no just follow my upbeat’. JLG, who like me had learnt the very clear Celibidache technique, leant forward and clearly said ‘Which one?’!

      • Similarly, when rehearsing the Philharmonia and he has a tempo divergence with the leader, the late, great Hugh Bean, he allegedly says “Mr Bean, please move a little closer, then I can feel yours and you can feel mine”.

  • It’s very sad that he is being talked about as being a “forgotten” conductor. He was a wonderful force in the concert hall, and his recordings legacy, though not large, remains impressive. A concert performance of Delius’ Mass Of Life was available for a time on cd, and it remains the most impressive rendition I know (a burgeoning and resplendent Kiri Te Kanawa is one of the soloists). As an author his three linked volumes on Richard Strauss constitute essential reading. I certainly haven’t forgotten the great Norman Del Mar.

  • Heard him many times in the 1970s and 80s and particularly remember some very fine performances of Elgar (Gerontius, Sea Pictures, both with Janet Baker and In the South and the Second Symphony with the Philharmonia) and of course Richard Strauss (a stunning Heldenleben at the 1980 Proms – perhaps the BBC could mine their archives and issue this on CD). Before he joined the BBC Scottish SO he conducted a number of amateur/semi-professional orchestras including the Bromley Symphony Orchestra (also 100 years old this year) and was fondly remembered by older players when I joined in 1974. In addition to the books mentioned above his 3 volume life and works study of Richard Strauss remains unsurpassed and the composer based volumes that he wrote for OUP towards the end of his life give fascinating insights from the conductor’s perspective.

  • Yes remember him as a pretty constant presence on radio and in concerts during my youth. Not one of the jet set but a fine musician.

  • I remember going to a very exciting performance of Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass at the Proms in the late 70s.

    • I was there too! Taras Bulba and the Dvorak Concerto with Accardo in the first half. I seem to remember that it was all broadcast on BBC2. Would be really wonderful to have that reissued by the BBC

  • He gave the first performance of Hugh Wood’s Scenes from Comus at the Proms in the mid 1960s, soon to be heard again at this year’s Proms.

  • I attended a conducting course that he directed. It was an inspiring and life changing experience.

  • His DG disc with music by Elgar (the Enigma Variations and the Pomp and Circumstance marches) is unforgettable, and is available in the Galleria collection.

  • I remember him, Norman….
    I have many fine recordings of his on my shelves, including that Stanford Irish Symphony that you have featured.
    I’m sorry I never got the chance to hear him “live”.

  • As a child, I was always confused by his name because like Vista del Mar, it sounds like a place north of San Diego.

  • I remember him well. He was much a part of my musical upbringing in London of the 50s and 60s. He was a good friend of my parents, both significant members of the British musical world. My mother worked with him as a part of a piano duo with her sister…Joan and Valerie Trimble. My father taught at the Royal College of Music. I met him several times at concerts or recording sessions at the BBC.

  • Strauss was mentioned earlier and he was a authority on the composer. I had the privilege of working with him when he conducted Ariadne auf Naxos with Scottish Opera in the mid 1970s, when Dame Janet Baker sang the role of the Composer quite wonderfully. He returned for two revivals of that Anthony Besch production. The second revival saw the return of Dame Janet to the cast joined by Helga Dernesch as Ariadne. Sadly Ms. Dernesch was then having serious difficulties at the top of her voice. She was soon to take time off performing and returned to continue her stellar career as a mezzo. Del Mar’s love of the composer and the work shone through his interpretation.

  • I will always remember Norman del Mar from a school trip to see him conduct The Little Sweep some time in the 1950s. What was wonderful was the way he coached and coaxed the audience of mostly untrained singers to provide a great performance of the chouses.

  • I remember him with great pleasure from many concerts at the Royal Albert Hall – unfailingly courteous and good natured, with sterling performances. Thank you for sharing the Roberto Gerhardt Concerto for Orchestra conducted by him – a delight.

  • I’m so sorry that he is “forgotten” by you. He’s certainly not forgotten round here. I and my colleagues still regale each other with the plethora of stories about him and we still listen to his many recordings. Just to remember how music used to be played.

    • I remember Norman Del Mar first as a horn player in the RPO’s first season in 1946, and then as Beecham’s assistant conductor for them. They must have got on, for Del Mar debuted as conductor with them in 1947. Impressive how any mention his way with Delius and Richard Strauss, both Beecham favourites. Like many others, I have “Anatomy of the Orchestra” and use it. I assume he was unrelated to Ennis Del Mar.

  • Why forgotten? His book Anatomy of the Orchestra is a required reference for conductors and composers everywhere. It is certainly for my students.

  • For me, a constant orchestral presence throughout my youth, orchestral training and rehearsals, but above all, i remember a stunning Prom performance of Szymanowski 3rd Symphony, (“Song of the Night”)…..not forgotten at all!

  • I cherish the Lyrita recording of Gordon Crosse’s “Changes”. A lovely work ! And with the wonderful voice of Jennifer Vyvyan and john Shirley – Quirck.
    His books on Richard Strauss are excellent and illuminating.

  • I’ve often wondered if Charles Mackerras had been influenced by Norman Del Mar (?). There are similarities. Both were great for music, in my book.

  • His is still the go-to tome(s) on Richard Strauss, all four volumes. Eminently readable discussion and analysis of his entire output.

  • Norman and Pauline were very good friends. I stayed with them several times.

    He dedicated his wonderful book on orchestration to me. I still feel incredibly honoured.

  • How wonderful to remember the great Norman Del Mar, on what would have been his 100th Birthday . A wonderfully generous man in every respect! I grew up with him, at GSMD, and made my debut with him (Rach-Pag) at the age of 15! He was a huge and important influence in those early years, and I went on to perform two Proms with him….. Liszt 2 and Franck Symphonic Variations, and subsequently many performances, for the BBC, of the Rawsthorne 2nd Concerto. He played such an important role in my life in those early years, always there to offer the most caring of advice and support. His charmingly wistful smile is still (and will always be) imprinted on my mind, and his words of advice, “ Your music must always be uber alles”, ring true to this day!!

  • Norman del Mar: his name elicits fond memories from my time as a wee high school kid listening to BBC 3 half a century ago.

  • He led UK premiere of Stockhausen Gruppen for Three Orchestras, with fellow conductors Alexander Gibson & John Carewe

    • I have a number of reminiscences of Norman del Mar. Aside of some splendid recordings that I have including music by Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Moeran and Strauss, here are some recollections I have of live concerts conducted by him.

      As a teenage CBSO-goer, two stand out. The first opened with Weber’s Oberon. At the end of the slow introduction, a seemingly unprepared flick (no upbeat, nothing) from NdM had the orchestra deliver the crispest, fortissimo chord I can remember hearing in any context. The second was of a splendid concert where the premiere of Paul Patterson’s Concerto for Orchestra (which NdM got right to the heart of) was followed by a superb Don Quixote.

      Years later, I attended a City of London Sinfonia concert in Dunstable where NdM concluded the concert with a splendid Eroica. Talking to the orchestra, they were delighted to be working with a conductor that they had little experience of, as an ensemble, but whom they obviously revered.

      It was then at a Royal Phil. concert that Tod Handley announced that NdM had died. Along with Handley afterwards, and a number of others, we had lost a conductor whose contribution to musical Britain (and beyond), cannot be underestimated.

  • A friend and neighbour. Steered me through Reinhold with the score on our knees listening to a broadcast from the Met. A Wagner fan ever since. Wonderful Pauline and Norman – a life time influence. Thank you both.

  • I can just remember the audience impact he had at the Liverpool Phil, one of the southern based substantial British maestros who used to frequent provincial orchestras – those were the days.

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