Neville Marriner, a prolific British conductor responsible for some of the best-selling classical recordings of all time, has died aged 92. He was founder of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, one of the world's most acclaimed chamber orchestras.
From humble beginnings, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields grew over the years into a powerhouse. Its recording of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons was a best-seller in 1969, as was its soundtrack to Amadeus, the hit 1984 film about the life of Mozart, which sold more than 6.5 million copies, and won a Grammy.
Born in Lincoln, England, Marriner studied violin, composition and piano at the Royal College of Music and the Paris Conservatoire, and was soon playing with the London Symphony Orchestra.
In an interview with Michael Dervan for The Irish Times in 2007, he said that his first professional engagement came during the war "when most of the members of the London Symphony Orchestra [LSO] were also members of the RAF Symphony Orchestra".
“When they were called away to various functions, they raided the Royal College for students to fill the gaps. I remember doing Promenade concerts with Henry Wood, where you only had one three-hour rehearsal, and the programme itself lasted about four hours!”
He went on to become second principal violin with the LSO from 1956 to 1968.
Group of friends
He established the Academy of St Martin in the Fields during his time with the London Symphony. The ensemble began modestly, with a group of friends performing in his home, and gave its first public performance in 1959 in the London church from which it took its name. It was with that small group of friends that Marriner, began conducting.
He told Dervan that the academy was started as a kind of relief to the daily grind of symphony concerts and recordings. The routine “wasn’t fulfilling enough for quite a few of us. You feel as one of a hundred players that your contribution is not important enough to influence the end product. There is an amount of frustration which grew up. We really started this group because we wanted to have something to say ourselves about the way we played the music.”
The academy describes its discography as one of the largest of any chamber orchestra in the world, and says its partnership with Marriner was “the most recorded of any orchestra and conductor”.
Marriner was not just a prolific musician. He also figured prominently in debates over how music from the early modern period – the work of Mozart, Bach and Handel – should be played in the present day.
Marriner began his career as a conductor after playing violin with some of the most renowned conductors of the 20th century, including Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwaengler and Pierre Monteux, who was a mentor to him. Apart from the academy, as a conductor Marriner founded the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and served as the music director and principal conductor of both the Minnesota Orchestra and the Southwest German Radio Orchestra in Stuttgart.
He also conducted other orchestras in Europe, the United States and Japan. His repertoire expanded past the early moderns to encompass Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and 20thcentury British composers like Britten and Elgar.
All the while he worked to foster the growth of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, which remained a constant in his life and career. He served as its music director from 1958 until 2011, and held the title of life president until his death.
He was honoured three times for his service to music in Britain. He was named a Commander of the British Empire in 1979, knighted in 1985 and made a Companion of Honor, an order that recognises achievements in the arts, science, politics, industry and religion, by Queen Elizabeth last year.
When asked once in a television interview why he had decided to devote his life to classical music, Marriner cited the influence of his parents, whom he described as “fanatical classical music enthusiasts” . “I suppose I was born into it, really. I didn’t know any other sort of music, really.”
In The Irish Times interview, Dervan asked him if he had any regrets. "I regret that I wasn't a better keyboard player, that I couldn't really study scores at the piano. Because it's much quicker. It would have saved many hours from working them out, just by sitting and looking at them, particularly if you want to have any particular colours or style, it's hard to decide until the first rehearsal. And I just wish, maybe, that I'd started conducting earlier. I was about 40 when I started."
His first marriage to the cellist Diana Corbutt, by whom he had two children, Andrew and Susie, ended in divorce. In 1957 he married Elizabeth Mary Sims, known as Molly, whose hard work in the early years of the academy played a major role in its success.
He is survived by his wife Molly, and children Andrew and Susie.