Robert Ponsonby is perhaps best known as the BBC’s Controller, Music, a post he occupied for thirteen years, succeeding William Glock in 1972 and being succeeded by John Drummond in 1985. But he also worked as an administrator for Glyndebourne, the Edinburgh Festival, the Scottish National Orchestra and (after leaving the BBC) as director of the Canterbury Festival. Subsequently, his skills have been at the disposal of such bodies as the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund, the Purcell School, the Council for Music in Hospitals, the Michael Tippett Musical Foundation and as a voluntary guide at the Handel House Museum.
This book is ‘a distillation of his experiences, achievements and friendships’ from sixty years at the centre of British musical life. It is compiled mainly from his writings over the years, in such publications as The Times
, and the much-missed Listener
. Many of the portraits of personalities are in fact obituaries, but far from being solemn obsequies, they are affectionate reminiscences of their subjects, really putting flesh on the bare bones and vividly bringing them to life, with glimpses of aspects of their personalities that may not be apparent in their public personas.
We also learn, inter alia
, much about Robert Ponsonby himself - ‘that lang boogger’, as he is affectionately known by his country neighbours in Cumbria. His height (at least 6'4", I should think), studious appearance, sonorous voice and quiet demeanour had certainly led me to imagine him as rather remote and unapproachable - although I did once have a surprisingly warm and friendly telephone conversation with him. The antithesis of his colleague John Drummond, he is nevertheless quietly penetrating, emotional and generously admiring of real artistry, but not afraid where necessary to speak his mind in a critical way, particularly of politicians (‘they set a wretched example’) and the ‘thick seam of philistinism in our national psyche’.
Those pieces that have appeared elsewhere (perhaps the majority, though several are unattributed and undated) do not appear to have been updated for this new collection, and one may wonder whether Ponsonby’s views have changed over the years. But an attempt at revision would I suspect rob the writing of the spontaneity - written in the heat of the moment - that in many ways makes it such a fascinating read, and a snapshot of particular moments in time. The profiles are arranged under broad categories such as ‘Conductors’ (14), ‘Composers’ (8), ‘Performers’ (10), ‘Administrators’ (7), ‘Friends’ (5). Then there is a section of more personal reminiscence called ‘Miscellany’, in which items from The Listener
, and also The Oldie
, are reproduced.
Some of the choices of subjects are predictable (but none the worse for that), some surprising. Adrian Boult was a friend and contemporary of Ponsonby’s father, Noel Ponsonby, organist of Christ Church (Boult’s college), Oxford, so Robert ‘grew up with an instinctive regard for him’; Glock, Drummond, Sidonie Goossens and others were BBC colleagues; Hans Gál, Robin Orr and Iain Hamilton from Edinburgh days; fellow administrators such as Ian Hunter and Moran Caplat; friends such as Tom Armstrong and Ursula Vaughan Williams (‘not quite eccentric, but distinctly original’). Of Robert Mayer he says, ‘I was tickled to know someone who had been hugged by Brahms’! And although there is no separate portrait of Janet Baker (who writes the foreword), like l’Arlésienne she seems to be a constant presence in so many of the stories, as she was in Ponsonby’s professional life.
But among these Musical Heroes, some assume truly heroic proportions: Pierre Boulez and Michael Tippett in particular. Tippett ‘was, of all my musician-friends, the most infectiously and mischievously life-enhancing’. As for Boulez, we are treated to a transcript of the complete conversation Ponsonby had with him from which sections were taken for the BBC World Service series, ‘The Mysterious Art of the Conductor’ (1981). There are eighteen wonderful pages of it, full of insight into Boulez himself and music (and its performance) in particular. This is something I, and many others, I am sure, will read again and again.
The book ends with a Retrospect, dated January 2009, which is also a summing up of the progress of musical life in Britain over the sixty years covered by the book, as well as thoughts on the current situation and music’s future prospects. Here he attacks politicians - and indeed also the BBC - for their attitude to music and musicians: ‘There is, I fear, a chronic malaise’. ‘Music, because it speaks an international language, is surely a vital ingredient in good cultural relations between states, witness Daniel Barenboim’s amazing West-Eastern Divan Orchestra’. Other countries value their musical heritage, they have statues of their composers, name concert halls, museums and conservatoires after them. ‘As to our conductors and soloists, such memorials as exist are apologetically insignificant, and our greatest conductor [Beecham], buried in a country cemetery next to Delius, has no public memorial at all’.
Robert Ponsonby’s Retrospect, and the book, ends: ‘Music, and of course I mean “classical” music, because it is both the most mysterious, and the most moving and the most difficult of the arts, is without doubt the greatest of them, and musicians therefore have a specially honourable responsibility. They are, by and large, an extraordinarily nice lot, intelligent, interesting, companionable, and I am unshakeably on their side. They have my profound respect, my wholehearted good wishes - and my affection.’