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Robert Layton Recalled
By Rob Barnett
The passing of music writer Robert Layton (2 May 1930 – 9 November 2020) afflicts me with a sense of loss. I suspect I am not alone in this. It will be shared with those who found and find a moving fascination with Scandinavian music
His musicologist foundations ran deep and can be traced through his studies at Oxford (1949–53) with Rubbra and Wellesz. He had a gift for languages. This was no doubt hard won but attributable to or enriched by his studies until the mid 1950s at Uppsala and Stockholm.
Layton’s incisively communicated interest in the Nordic countries’ musical world over the last two centuries found expression in books, talks, reviews, articles, broadcasts and sleeve notes. There are more than 150 sets of sleeve notes stretching back to vinyl days. He had a golden gift for treading the right side of that fine line between navel-gazing technicality and speaking helpfully to those of us who love music but have little or no technical skills when it comes to music. His Bax Symphony No. 5 essay for a Lyrita LP in the early 1970s was an object lesson. As others have written he ‘creates a real desire to hear the music”.
Layton’s music heyday ran from the early 1950s to the early 2000s. His books were not numerous but his choices of subject were telling. Rather like another Robert (Robert Simpson - also a composer) he waved the flag for Sibelius and Nielsen. It is all too easy to forget that both composers were fairly abstruse figures until the 1970s. In the early 1970s I treasured Layton’s Master Musicians Sibelius volume. It seemed to be the only game in town apart from Harold Johnson’s book.
Later, Layton deployed his language skills as the translator for Erik Tawaststjerna’s three-volume study of Sibelius’s life and music (1976, 1986, 1997). I say this even if, to my mind, the results, while illuminating, were hard for non-musicians to digest.
Among his other books we should note “Britain, Scandinavia and the Netherlands” (Twentieth Century Composers, Volume III, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972) on which he collaborated with Humphrey Searle. His book on Berwald came in 1959. This was published in 1956 in Stockholm and in Swedish, no less. It was a valuable and rare entry in English on a still comparatively neglected figure. There was also a book on Grieg in the Illustrated Lives series.
Perhaps a mite less predictable were his published thoughts on Dvořák’s symphonies and concertos in the BBC Music Guides series. This series he oversaw from 1974 to 1990. He also wrote and/or edited the Companions to The Symphony (co-written with Robert Simpson) and the Concerto.
He had written for The Gramophone since 1965 in which capacity many MusicWeb International readers may have encountered him. As far as I am concerned his writings bore Gramophone very high indeed. Things have changed since those days.
In addition to this he was the third of three Gramophone grandees who contributed multifarious and capacious editions of the Penguin Guide (yearbooks, bargain discs, cassettes, LPs, CDs and DVDs, guides to opera and 1000 finest classical recordings). This series ran for about twenty years but petered out as the internet grew to quick maturity.
Layton’s feature article (The Gramophone) in the early 1980s on Scandinavian composers was a notable and usefully inspiring street. I remember it with affection and it underscores the sense of loss. What a shame that he never got around to a book surveying and making recommendations among Scandinavian composers since 1890. It might well have ended up a good complement to John H Yoell’s book “The Nordic Sound”. Mind you, Layton had views that didn’t always fit with my own assessments and affections: he was scathing about Gösta Nystroem’s Sinfonia Del Mare and, casting the net wider, had serious reservations about Moeran’s G Minor Symphony.
I rather wish that someone would draw together the scripts for his talks for BBC Third Programme and Radio Three and his writings for The Listener and the short-lived BBC Radio 3 magazine. He was a Senior Producer for BBC Radio 3 and in this capacity, so far as the radio microphone and studio were concerned, was by no means a discreet back-room boy. His activities there were pursued over a period from 1959 to 1990. I cherish tapes of his talks on Schoeck (1975) and “Myaskovsky: an arch-traditionalist” (1981). A saunter through his ten screen pages of the BBC Genome reflects that he broadcast talks on a wide range of congenial subjects - some Scandinavian; some not.
A selective list of Robert Layton’s Radio 3 and Third Programme broadcasts as speaker and as producer:
- Presented an 11-part series of Rubbra symphony cycle studio and recordings
- Berwald in 1956
- Sibelius: Kullervo and LuonnotarThe Kalevala. Parallels with Bartók; Tone Poems
- Cherubini Quartets
- Interviewing Firkušný about Janáček
- Interview with Jorge Bolet
- Talks with Benjamin Frankel about Sibelius and about Frankel’s Symphonies
- Curating programmes about Milhaud at 80 and about Rosenberg and about Frank Martin
- Interviewing Fenby on Delius
- Talks about (1) Eastman school and another (2) about Hanson
- Talks about Alexander Tcherepnin and about Grieg
- Interviews with Arrau and with Previn
- Interviews with Neville Cardus and Alec Robertson
- Talks about Vagn Holmboe and Hilding Rosenberg
- Norway after Grieg.
- Eduard Tubin - an Estonian romantic: a talk.
- Introducing Blomdahl's ballet score, Sisyphos,
- “This Week’s Composer” five-day programmes about Moeran, Tubin and Rubbra (where he was in conversation Donald Macleod); and pairs of composers: Berwald and Larsson, Glazunov and Taneyev; Frank Martin and Othmar Schoeck, Rosenberg and Holmboe and Berwald and Crusell
- In the “Vintage Years” series he showcased records of the conductor Anthony Bernard (born 29 January 1890) including his pioneering Decca/British Council recording of Berkeley’s Divertimento
- Three Innocent Ear programmes which he played music from the further reaches of his record collection.
- In the early 1960s he interviewed Bernard Herrmann about Ives. There were also interviews with Nadia Boulanger and with Layton’s one-time teacher, Egon Wellesz
- Conversation with Boult and drawing on reminiscences of RVW