Michael Kennedy is a great loss.
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.”
Bronze by Cecile Elstein