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Tribute to Denby Richards

Remembering Denby Richards



Denby Richards

As we were preparing this issue for the press, news came that Denby Richards, for over a quarter of a century owner and editor of Musical Opinion, had died on December 7th after a lengthy battle against illness.

Denby was 86 and had enjoyed a long and at times colourful career as a music critic. He had acquired the then monthly magazine Musical Opinion and its sister quarterly publication The Organ in the mid-1980s, having written for 'MO' as he called it for several years. Before then, he had been music critic of the Hampstead and Highgate Express (the 'Ham & High') for many years and was also editor of Music and Musicians, since that magazine's relaunch as part of Brevet Publishing under the ownership of Cyril Chresta following the collapse of the Seven Arts Group, which in turn had been founded in the late 1940s by Philip Dossé, and which included other monthly publications on the arts (Books and Bookmen, Art and Artists, Films and Filming, Plays and Players, Records and Recording, Dance and Dancers).

In the late 1960s, Denby went on to publish a notable book, Finnish Music, charting the post-Sibelius work of the great composer's successors.

Denby had written for Music and Musicians since the first issue in the early 1950s, and later also for Records and Recording, but following the sale and eventual break-up of the Brevet publication group in the mid-1980s, and later the sale of the Filmtrax company which had acquired Music and Musicians, Denby sought a more permanent outlet for his writing, over which he would then have total control.

For a quarter of a century, therefore, Denby Richards was able to run MO and The Organ (leaving the editorship of the latter to those more closely interested in the subject) as he wished; in the mid 1990s he made MO a bi-monthly publication, which it has remained ever since. We have much to thank Denby for with regard to the survival of MO, ensuring its continuity in publication since 1877, but during the later years of this period his eyesight had begun to deteriorate, and he was obliged to seek assistance from various colleagues, most notably from Judith and Christopher Monk.

By this time, Denby had moved from Woodbridge in Suffolk to the environs of Hastings on the south coast, taking much of his immense personal library of books, records and scores with him. Yet even into old age, he still retained his enthusiasm for music and, especially, opera, and could bring his unrivalled experience of over seventy years of concert and opera going to his opinions, most especially to productions at Covent Garden and English National Opera.

Another great enthusiasm was the Henry Wood Proms. He had attended every first and last night of the Proms for a record 73 years and even when this year ill-health prevented his attendance, he was able to experience the Proms on television, and write on what he had seen and heard for MO in the November-December issue: this was to be his last contribution.

Denby was at many of Henry Wood's original concerts in the late 1930s at Queen's Hall before it was destroyed by enemy action in 1941 (thereafter moving to the Royal Albert Hall); he recalled the world premieres of (for examples) Britten’s Piano Concerto played by the composer with Wood conducting in 1938, and of Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony conducted by the composer in 1943. Interviewed a few years ago, he said that little, in the Proms’ intentions, has changed. "A lot of Wood's aims were about introducing and educating people into the joy, and value, of music – he almost programmed in cycles of three years, in the sense that if you came three years running and attended the majority of concerts, you would have received a full musical education; you would have experienced every kind of music from every type of genre, country and time period."

But Denby’s interests covered more than music, and his life was certainly one about which, away from music, even his closest friends knew little. He travelled frequently on government and other confidential business, occasionally in (for the times) quite dangerous areas; he was also a great collector, sometimes of the most obscure things – for example, he had a penchant for the television series ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and was proud of his complete video collection of ‘Buffys’, as he called them. But his most remarkable obsession was with the BBC radio series ‘The Archers’. Incredible as it may seem, until quite recent weeks he had heard every episode of this long-running radio soap opera, ‘an everyday story of country folk’ since the first was broadcast nationally on January 1st 1951. When Denby was out of the country, friends within the BBC would supply him with recordings of the episodes he had missed on his return, and he would not listen to current episodes until he had ‘caught up’ with events in the mythical East Midlands town of Ambridge.

Denby married twice: by his first wife he had a son (the actor Gavin Richards, best known as Terry Raymond in EastEnders and the foppish Italian officer in ‘Allo ‘Allo) and a daughter, Rowena; Denby's second wife was the pianist Rhondda Gillespie. He was also a great animal lover, and always seemed to have a pet dog or two in the house.

One of Denby’s more endearing characteristics was the encouragement he gave to young and would-be writers on music. Of the many tributes we have received in the days following the news of his death, we follow with one from Malcolm Miller, which he terms ‘A personal farewell from one of your reviewers….’ He writes: "Hello it’s Malcolm". "I know it’s Malcolm, why bother to say so?" That was how our phone calls started. Denby preferred the medium of the phone call to most other communication; he would instantly recognize a voice, so sharp was his hearing, and when he was beginning to go blind in his last years, I was grateful that at least he retained his astute hearing. If his smiling, long white-bearded presence was impressive yet our phone conversations were my most vivid memories of him. These would traverse vast worlds from his early memories of composers and performers, of greats such as Beecham and Delius, to how he had attended more than 70 Ring cycles, including many at Bayreuth, how he directed the Camden Festival and had facilitated operatic projects such as a premiere of Bloch’s Macbeth in 1975. At times it seemed as if he really had known virtually everyone in the musical world.

It was about the art of writing that I learned the most from Denby: as a reviewer for Musical Opinion since around 1990, I still benefit from his wisdom and wit as a sympathetic editor and mentor, always demanding the highest standards, whether in house style or content.

Through his choice of coverage he nurtured deserving young artists and organisations with worthwhile causes. He always discussed the content of concerts he sent me to, often with penetrating comments about the performers or works. He also allowed one to develop one’s own interests, and I was fortunate to have the chance to attend some very special events in the UK and particularly abroad – for example opera reviews in Canada and the USA, thanks to his help. As a critic himself Denby was always encouraging and supportive. His selfless concern for the magazine was evident to me when he once hinted that he was subsidizing it through his own wide ranging writing on music, including articles and sleeve notes for an international public. It was fortunate that he was able to ensure the magazine’s continuity after he left the editor’s chair.

In his last conversations his humour was as sharp as ever though he was aware of his failing faculties. I shall personally miss his reassuring cheerful voice, his genteel yet always erudite musical super-knowledge, his charm and encouraging friendship. Yet he lived life to the full, and I feel it would be a great tribute, while he is busy advising and covering concerts by heavenly choirs and orchestras, to collect and publish his writings on music that would surely offer a rich window of his experiences of music during his long and well lived life. Denby – as you used to say to me, in your inimitable way, ‘goodbye old chum’.

And from Max Harrison: 'In one of our last conversations, when he was clearly looking towards the end, he said that he'd had a wonderful life and was well content. So although we are inevitably sad we should console ourselves with that.'



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