Michael Kennedy

December 31 2014

Michael Kennedy is a great loss.

Telegraph obituary.

Telegraph appreciation by Michael Henderson.

Interview by Ivan Hewett of the Telegraph in early 2014.

If you took any interest in Barbirolli, Boult, Britten, Elgar, the Hallé, Mahler, Manchester, Strauss, Vaughan Williams or Walton, Michael Kennedy was part of your life.

“I could never understand,” Henderson quotes him as saying on Elgar, “how people could not hear the unhappiness that was always there for me in his music. I never read about that Elgar, so I thought I’d better write a book myself.” Kennedy’s marvellous Portrait of Elgar was an advance on everything previously written. He needed to write the book. I needed to read it.

I recognise what the Telegraph tells us about, including even his waspishness. But the sting was mild. What does it take to be an artist’s friend? Whatever it is, Kennedy had it. He was a close friend of Vaughan Williams during VW’s last years. He knew Barbirolli equally well. He had the measure of them and was the appointed biographer of both. He was not only a critic, he was a full journalist, editor of the Manchester edition of the Daily Telegraph from 1960 until it closed in 1986. His strength as a friend may have been a weakness as a critic. “My biggest failing as a critic is that I like music too much.”

I seem to remember that he stopped reviewing for Gramophone circa 1990 because at the height of the CD era he was given one perfectly acceptable recording of Don Juan after another, about which there was nothing much more to say.

There was a steeliness and stature in Kennedy, despite the unassumingness. It wasn’t reflected glory. I don’t think people felt it because he had known great men.

I had the privilege of meeting him and his wife, Joyce, at a semi-private commemoration of Susana Walton in 2011. He made a point of introducing her. She was from Hull. He married her after his invalid first wife Eslyn died, just as RVW had married Ursula after his invalid wife Adeline died.

He expressed some doubts, in our short conversation, about Tippett’s music, and, to my surprise, hadn’t been aware that there was a CD of Karajan playing Walton’s first symphony live with the Orchestra della radiotelevisione Italiana, Rome (it isn’t a revelatory performance). He must have known from Richard Osborne’s Conversations with Karajan that Karajan had a certain regard for Walton. I bought another copy of the CD afterwards, intending to send it to him, but I never did. I have it still as a spare.

Telegraph obituary: “He would rail against critics of musical elitism, accusing them of failing to aspire to high standards. ‘I want things to be elitist,’ he told Michael Henderson in 2001. ‘These days it seems that people don’t want to put any effort into understanding something.’”

I have delivered a more waspish version of that occasionally. All people who love music want to share it, but to those who say “You mustn’t be intimidated”, I have snapped “But you should be intimidated. You should be scared out of your wits.”

I will quote Michael Kennedy in future posts. He died on the last day of the Strauss anniversary.

Telegraph, op cit: “He heard [the Hallé] for the last time in November, at a concert conducted by Elder. He was frail, effectively lame, but music always restored his spirits. A programme of Butterworth, Bax and (of course) Elgar was capped by a marvellous performance of Sibelius’s fifth symphony. ‘What a work!’ he said as he was helped to his feet afterwards. And with that simple expression of gratitude, a lifetime’s dedication to music reached its end.”

Michael Kennedy by Cecile Elstein

Bronze by Cecile Elstein

9 Responses to “Michael Kennedy”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Kennedy’s last concert, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, November 6:

    Butterworth A Shropshire Lad 11′
    Elgar The Spirit of England 27′
    Bax In Memoriam 15′
    Sibelius Symphony no 5 30′

    Sir Mark Elder conductor | Rachel Nicholls soprano | Hallé Choir


    “After Barbirolli’s time, the orchestra went though good times and bad. The nadir came at the turn of the century, when the Hallé came within a whisker of going into bankruptcy. But a new chief executive, and the arrival of music director Mark Elder, turned the orchestra round.

    ‘Mark has really won the audience over,’ says Kennedy, ‘and he really has made the orchestra one of the finest. I never thought the glory days of Barbirolli would come back again, but they have.’”

    1858–1895 Sir Charles Hallé
    1895–1899 Sir Frederic Cowen
    1899–1911 Hans Richter
    1912–1914 Michael Balling
    1915–1920 Sir Thomas Beecham (musical adviser)
    1920–1934 Sir Hamilton Harty
    1939–1942 Sir Malcolm Sargent (conductor-in-chief)
    1943–1970 Sir John Barbirolli
    1972–1983 James Loughran
    1983–1992 Stanisław Skrowaczewski
    1992–1999 Kent Nagano
    2000–present Sir Mark Elder

    Three out of the four pre-WW1 conductors were German, and Cowen had studied in Leipzig. Germans dominated English musical life then. Now English conductors dominate German.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    Contrast Kennedy with a gossipy hanger-on like Lebrecht.

  3. Daniel M. Says:

    Isn’t it interesting to see classical journalists also writing biographies? Journalists still publish of course, but mostly write about trends and scandal; not as much hard journalism, to use the popular phrase.

  4. davidderrick Says:

    Kennedy must have known my family’s friends Isador and Joan Caplan, the dedicatees of Owen Wingrave.

  5. […] I wish Paul Driver wrote more outside Murdoch-land. He has only published one book, an unclassifiable assemblage of his own meditations on Manchester called Manchester Pieces. He’s a Mancunian, like the late Michael Kennedy. […]

  6. […] about Greenfield. He was a kind of opposite number, at the Guardian, to Michael Kennedy at the […]

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