Sir Neville Marriner – the choir's first Honorary President

Sir Neville Marriner – the choir's first Honorary President
Type of post: Choir news item
Sub-type: Choir News
Posted By: Jenny Lloyd
Status: Current
Date Posted: Fri, 26 Apr 2024
Raymond Calcraft, one of our honorary vice presidents and our Director of Music from 1988 – 2003, writes a timely article about Sir Neville Marriner and his close links to EPC.  Timely, for two reasons: to remind us all of Sir Neville’s links with the choir and to presage the launch of our history section which tenor, Stuart Mole, has compiled after lengthy research.  Watch this space.

Sir Neville Marriner(1924 – 2016)
When it was discovered, during the 1980s, that the Choir’s origins dated not from 1930, as had previously been thought, but from as far back as 1846, several important decisions were made by the then Committee. In anticipation of the forthcoming 150th anniversary year, 1995-1996, it was agreed that the Choir’s name should change from ‘Exeter Musical Society’ to ’Exeter Philharmonic Choir’. And given what was now known to be its historical importance, it seemed entirely appropriate to invite the (Lord) Mayor of Exeter to be the Philharmonic’s Honorary President. When it came to the decision to ask a significant figure in this country’s musical life to be EPC’s first Honorary Patron, the Committee agreed that Sir Neville Marriner should be approached. Having heard the Choir sing in the film Shadows and Light: Joaquín Rodrigo at 90, in which he himself had played an important role, Sir Neville accepted.

The first concert he and his wife Lady Molly attended was the second of the two 150th Anniversary performances of Messiah, given in the Cathedral on the 25th April 1996. At the end of the concert he said to the Choir: “On my way here, I wasn’t really sure that I wanted to hear yet another performance of Messiah… but you were sensational!” The generosity of that remark was typical of Sir Neville, as countless musicians and friends have testified. He attended the Choir’s Beethoven performance in 2000, and also came to the rehearsal for our Royal Philharmonic Orchestra concert in the same year, making kind and appreciative comments on both occasions. And when on its release I sent him a copy of our EMI Classics recording of Cántico, which the Choir had made with the RPO, he telephoned me immediately, to congratulate us. In 2016 Elizabeth Matthews and I produced a volume of translations of Rodrigo’s writings on music, and Sir Neville readily agreed to write a Foreword to it. It was both generous and eloquent, and ended : ‘From playing his music I believe I understand Rodrigo the composer; now I feel I know Rodrigo the man.’ A friend commented that Elizabeth and I had no doubt written the Foreword ourselves, and had simply asked Sir Neville to sign it. But the words were of course entirely his own.

The Academy of St Martin in the Fields, which he created, was only one of the many orchestras worldwide with which Sir Neville worked, although the hundreds of recordings he made with the Academy remain a unique achievement. When the film Amadeus was made, for which the Academy provided the soundtrack, the publicity for the film showed a picture of Mozart beside a photo of Sir Neville, with the caption: ‘Only two people were qualified to conduct the score of Amadeus…  One was unavailable.’  The humour of that no doubt amused the conductor, though the obvious flattery would have rather disconcerted him. Good humour (he said that his epitaph should be ‘Follow the beat!’), encouragement, generosity, and kindness were some of the most obvious features of Sir Neville’s character, though it is his legacy as an outstanding conductor which the world of music will always treasure. It is surely a source of pride for the members of Exeter Philharmonic Choir that their first Honorary Patron was one of the greatest musicians that this country has ever produced.