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Meeting…Sir Neville Marriner

PUBLISHED: 12:21 19 June 2008 | UPDATED: 15:16 20 February 2013

Sir Neville and Molly, Lady Marriner

Sir Neville and Molly, Lady Marriner

When not conducting orchestras all over the world Sir Neville Marriner finds time to be a Patron of the Beaminster Arts Festival. Stephen Swann caught up with Sir Neville to talk about his life in music.July 2008

Perhaps it was because I was talking to a long-time hero of mine. Perhaps it was because he saw his long and illustrious career as being merely a succession of lucky breaks rather than anything to do with any talent he might possess. Perhaps it was simply because he was such fun to talk to. Whatever the reason, the two hours I spent in Sir Neville Marriner's company will occupy a very special place in my book of 'memories never to be forgotten'. Read on and I'll endeavour to tell you why...

It's a hot and sunny morning in early summer. I'm sitting with Sir Neville on a paved area overlooking a sparkling stream in the garden of his home in a sequestered valley on the Dorset-Devon border. Lady Marriner has provided us with iced elderflower pressé and biscuits and after making sure that neither of us want to wear a hat she has gone off to work in the lovely garden that she has created over the last 40 years. Looking at Sir Neville it is difficult to believe that I am in the company of someone who is 84; he looks at least 10 years younger and talks with all the sharpness and wit of someone half his age.

I begin by asking him about his childhood. 'I was born in Lincoln,' he replies. 'My dad was a builder. He was a gifted amateur musician and a great influence on me. Our house was always full of music. By five or six I was playing the violin. Back then there were many local music festivals where there would be competitions to see who could play the best. At 13 I played at one where one of the judges happened to be Hugh Allen from the Royal College of Music. He offered me a place there and then, but my mother insisted that I stayed at school in Lincoln until I was 16. I went to London on a scholarship. I studied the violin, the piano and composition.'

Something of a prodigy?

Naively, perhaps, I put it to him that he must have been something of a prodigy. He laughs, something that he does a lot, then in the disarmingly modest way that was to surface time and time again throughout our chat he replies: 'Far from it. I was good but I was never going to be a great virtuoso. They thought I could teach though, so after the war I went back and at the age of 21 I actually became a professor!'

But the teaching life was not for Sir Neville and during the late 40s and 50s he combined his professorship with periods in most of the London orchestras, including a long spell as principal second violin with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO). The capital's orchestral world must have been a fun place in the 1950s - at least when Sir Neville was around, but there was also a lot of serious thought going on as to the quality of the musicianship in London's orchestras. 'It wasn't that good,' he explains, 'the string sound could be particularly bad - there was a lot of papering over the cracks.'

Gradually Sir Neville gathered together some friends from the freelance pool of musicians sculling around London. 'We decided to play as an ensemble. What we were after were players who could really play, who sounded in tune and who fitted together. I was a sort of concert master which basically meant that now and again I would wave my bow about.'

Making a name

Their first real gig was at St Martin-in-the-Fields but hours before the concert they were sitting in a pub just round the corner from the church when the vicar asked a very vital question: what did this happy band call themselves? Answer came there none. Then it was remembered that the part of London they were in was the home in the 18th century to what were known as Academies, that is, clubs where the great and the good would come together and pursue interests in the sciences or the arts of various kinds. 'Someone said 'right, let's call ourselves 'The Academy',' recalls Sir Neville. 'Then someone said that was a bit short. Finally we came up with the 'Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields', though I have to say that I did think it was a pretty ridiculous name - I remember mentioning at the time that we might have trouble getting it all on the posters!'

Louise Dyer, owner of the L'Oiseau Lyre record label, heard them and offered them a contract and the rest, as they say, is history. 'We recorded all those Italian ice-cream merchants, Corelli, Veracini, Pergolesi,' says Sir Neville. 'From L'Oiseau Lyre we went to Decca and then Philips who at that time were set on making a catalogue.'

With Sir Neville moving from the concert master's seat as director up to the podium as conductor, both the Academy's recordings and their concerts received rave reviews. 'These days we have a core group of musicians but we add to them according to the size of the concert hall and the repertoire we are playing,' Sir Neville says. I ask how players are selected. 'They audition. You can very quickly tell if they are good enough. If they get in it is then a question of them fitting in with the rest of the players, and I am not talking just musically either. If they don't like a laugh they don't get invited back.'

The 70s and 80s saw Sir Neville in great demand in the States. Whilst working in LA as musical director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra Sir Neville and Lady Marriner lived in considerable splendour. 'It's how they do things over there,' says Sir Neville. 'We lived in a house in Beverly Hills once owned by Harpo Marx. We had three servants and five cars at our disposal. Daryle Zannuck and Phil Spectre were our neighbours. Molly hated it. She couldn't do the cooking or garden!'


It is nearly time to draw our chat to an end but I can't go without talking about the 1984 film Amadeus which was loosely based on Mozart's life and for which Sir Neville was musical director. 'Milos Forman and Peter Shaffer came down for the weekend to discuss what music we should use,' Sir Neville tells me. 'I insisted on playing the music just as Mozart wrote it, I didn't want any Hollywood gushing sound. I wanted the best presentation of classical music you could get. The tapes were recorded in London, taken to Prague and the film was shot around them.'

These days the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields continues to gather plaudits when and wherever it plays though, now Sir Neville rarely conducts them, leaving that to the likes of Murray Perahia and Joshua Bell. One thing hasn't changed. The band is still up there with the very best. In terms of its influence, in its early days the band almost reinvented the small ensemble in a world where to be big was everything, and in doing so they forced other orchestras to improve their playing, particularly their string playing. Then there is the Academy's huge catalogue of recorded music. That will be played so long as people love great music.

It is time to go. I mention the R word. 'I shan't retire. Audiences seem to love geriatric conductors and I enjoy my work. This summer will see me doing a season in Italy - Turin, Rome, Lugano. It can't be bad. There are bookings right through to 2011.'

I ask how he manages to keep fit. 'I'm Molly's assistant gardener and I play tennis, though these days my game is somewhat childish.'

And as a final, final question I ask him what he would like on his gravestone. He is silent for only a matter of seconds, then replies: 'Follow the beat.' Enough said.

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