Michael Kennedy
19 February 1926 – 31 December 2014
An obituary by John Quinn

It is not unusual for MusicWeb International to carry obituary notices for deceased composers or performers. Rather less frequently do we note the passing of a journalist and author but the death of Michael Kennedy is, arguably, the exception that proves the rule.

Kennedy was one of the pre-eminent British musical journalists and authors of the second half of the last century but, in journalistic terms his origins were rather humble. For all the erudition that he showed in his later writings he did not have a university education; rather, he went from school straight to a job in the Manchester office of the Daily Telegraph newspaper. Right up to the 1970s that paper maintained a separate office in Manchester as well as its main London office and from there a Northern edition was produced every day which carried a good deal of material from the London edition but also featured many regional stories. Kennedy started right at the bottom: as a copy boy his duties included making the tea.

During the Second World War he served in the Royal Navy and during this time he made two connections that were to be of great importance in his future career. In Australia he met for the first time the legendary journalist Neville Cardus, who also worked in Manchester but for a rival paper. Cardus gave him important early encouragement as he related to Ivan Hewitt in an article published in early 2014. Also during his war service Kennedy wrote to Ralph Vaughan Williams to express his appreciation of RVW’s music. With characteristic generosity the composer replied to this unsolicited letter and expressed the hope that after the war they might meet. They did and a friendship was forged that lasted until RVW’s death.

After war service Kennedy returned to Manchester and to the Daily Telegraph. He gradually worked his way up the hierarchy in the office until in 1960 he was appointed the paper’s Northern Editor, responsible for the Manchester-based edition, until that office was closed in the 1970s. Throughout his time in Manchester Kennedy was much more than a “mere” music critic. He was both a general journalist and, as Northern Editor, a manager. In particular he frequently reported on cricket matches and in his dual role as a cricket and music commentator his career may be said to have mirrored that of Neville Cardus. Kennedy continued to write on music for the Telegraph newspapers after the closure of the Manchester office, migrating eventually to the Sunday Telegraph where he was music critic until his retirement in 2005.

Though Michael Kennedy will be remembered, rightly, as a journalist, his lasting legacy is as an author of many books, mainly about music. He had become a great friend of Sir John Barbirolli and a leading supporter of the Hallé Orchestra; in due course he wrote the history of the orchestra from 1858 to 1983 – I believe he planned to update this to coincide with the orchestra’s 150th anniversary in 2008 but I’m not aware that this project was completed. Previously he had written the authorised biography of the conductor, Barbirolli, Conductor Laureate (review). Another conductor whose life and career he chronicled in an excellent biography was Sir Adrian Boult; that book appeared in 1987.

At least as valuable were his studies of composers whose work was dear to his heart. Books on the life and music of Richard Strauss (1976) and Benjamin Britten (1981, rev. 2001) were not the weightiest of tomes but they were the product of deep knowledge of and sympathy for the music of their respective subjects. That knowledge and empathy was also displayed in his Portrait of Elgar (1968). There was also a fine study of Walton (1989).

However, perhaps his greatest achievement was The Works of Vaughan Williams, a book which the composer himself asked him to write. As the title makes clear this was not a biography – that task was left to Ursula Vaughan Williams – though the composer’s life story was an inevitable part of Kennedy’s chronological study of RVW’s creative output. First published in 1964, the book remains an indispensable guide to the music of Vaughan Williams after five decades and is likely to remain so.

What distinguishes all these books – and others that he wrote – is the clarity of the writing and Kennedy’s ability to communicate very directly with the reader. In particular, I have found in his studies of composers that he possessed a gift that not all writers about music have: when you read a commentary by Kennedy on a specific piece he makes you want to hear the music in question.

He was also a fine and informative writer of notes to accompany recordings. Only a few weeks ago, when reviewing Sir Mark Elder’s new recording of the Vaughan Williams ‘Pastoral’ Symphony I found that the notes were by Kennedy; they were as good as ever. How fitting that the last note to appear before his death should have been to accompany a recording by his beloved Hallé Orchestra of music by the composer whose work he advocated so persuasively and effectively.

Michael Kennedy’s work was recognised in many ways. He was appointed OBE in 1981 and CBE in 1997. Manchester University conferred on him an honorary doctorate of music in 2003. In 2011, to mark his 85th birthday, he was awarded the Elgar Society Medal, the first person from the UK to receive this prestigious award. Unsurprisingly, he was the president of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society.

In 2014 Manchester ran a series of concerts under the collective title Strauss’s Voice to mark the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth and Kennedy, a distinguished enthusiast for the music of Strauss was the natural choice to be a patron of those concerts. It is a sad coincidence that his death should have occurred on the very last day of that anniversary year.

Michael Kennedy was a very fine writer about and advocate for music. His writings form an important and distinguished legacy.

John Quinn