My first memory of Sir Neville Marriner, and his ensemble, “The Academy of St-Martin-in-the-Fields” was as a 13 year old. A school mates uncle had sent him an LP of four works of Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending; Five Variants of ‘Dives and Lazarus’; Fantasia on Greensleeves; and the beautiful Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis.
I had never heard of Vaughan Williams before, nor the band and conductor. It blew me away. It was an epiphany. The record, issued on the argo label, became and remains my number one LP/CD of all time. For years that LP was played to death until finally it was so worn away I had to replace it with the then new CD format of the issue. I still possess the record and doubt that I shall ever part with it. As a school lad at the time it cost me many weeks pocket money to buy it myself. The performances were to me the finest available of those works and to this day they still remain so. The Lark Ascending with Iona Brown on solo violin is, to my mind, the greatest version of what could be the nation’s favourite piece.
The recording was made in 1972 and reflects a fresh view on the vanishing world of the mid-war period in its colours and textures. Was this down to the recording engineers, the soloist, or the ensemble? Well yes partly, but also to the foresight of their enigmatic leader Neville Marriner who, on this recording, had the role of director/conductor. His vision of how Vaughan Williams’ sound world should be, shaped many other future conductors in their exploration of the composer’s work, such as Vernon Handley and Bryden Thomson. It was a breath of fresh air compared with the more stodgy sounds and recordings of RVW’s music by the likes of Boult and other predecessors.
Marriner, who died earlier this month at the age of 92, was something of a maverick in the conducting world. He was actually firstly and foremost a violinist. He was a very competent and skilled player but he discovered when a student that he would never be a virtuoso (even though he did become principal second violinist in the London Symphony Orchestra!). He, and a few friends from that very orchestra, would meet up in his living room in Kensington and play music for fun. This grew into a regular event and finally, through the persuasion of the keyboardist in the ensemble, they gave a concert. They first performed in the late 1950’s at the St. Martin-in-the-Fields church on the east side of Trafalgar Square. They didn’t have a name and it was suggested by the vicar of the church that they could call themselves the Academy.
Marriner stated in an interview in the Times in 1999:
“We weren’t big enough to be called an orchestra, and we hated the word ensemble. The then vicar said ‘You know that around the Strand in the 18th century there were clubs called academies, for people with similar interests in the arts?’ We said, “Fine, we’ll call ourselves the academy, then he said (the vicar) ‘Don’t forget the church…’ So we came up with this ridiculous name.”
Ridiculous or not, it was a name that stayed and came to signify professionalism and grace in music. Along with the name came a recording contract and they were the first ensemble to break away from the stodgy string sounds of the 1950s and 60s. Although not historically informed, they were very keen on the ideas of clarity of sound and thinner, clearer textures. They concentrated first on the repertoire of the Baroque and Classical, bringing a fresh and new aspect to the performance of these periods through the guidance and single mindedness of Marriner.
The Academy was well renowned for the brilliance of the playing and the fun and camaraderie of the players. They were selected on three very simple criteria: 1 – Can they really play? 2 – Can they be absorbed into the orchestra? and 3 – If they are miserable devils they don’t get invited back again! These were Marriner’s provisos for membership of this fairly democratic band of players. It is something that has remained the main idée fixe ever since.
The Academy transformed the classical music scene through performances and recordings, to the extent that London now has three chamber outfits for every symphony orchestra, a development repeated all over the world due to their impact.
Their recording of the Vivaldi “Four Seasons” was, and still is, considered one of the finest modern versions ever recorded, and this led them to being offered the contract to record the music of Mozart and Salieri for the Milos Forman film based on Peter Schaffer’s play “Amadeus”.
In a musical world dominated by strutting peacocks and super-egos (naming no names), Marriner stood out for his friendliness and likeability; his expertise was in demand around the world. It was to Marriner that the Vienna Philharmonic turned when it felt that it had forgotten how to play Mozart. He also served as musical director of the Minnesota Orchestra and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra for some years and, as a result of his commitments, he was almost perpetually on tour, often spending between 200 to 300 days a year away from home. One of his many awards was a Queen’s Award for Export, not bad for a musician!
To me though, it was as the conductor of the Vaughan Williams LP that I will always remember him affectionately for as it was through this one beautiful recording that my initiation into the world of RVW and the English musical world was begun. Out the window went Bach, Beethoven and Mozart and in came RVW, Holst, Delius, Moeran, Maxwell Davies et al. Without it, I would possibly have never taken to music in the way that I did, and especially to British music, for it was through this record that I wanted to be a composer like Ralph Vaughan Williams. An epiphany if ever there was one in my world. Thank you Sir ‘Nev’.