An English Enthusiast

Reflections on the passing of beloved music critic Michael Kennedy

About 20 years ago Michael Kennedy, who was then in his late sixties but contrived to look about 40, raised with me the astonishing subject of his obituary. I say astonishing because whatever other thoughts might have been in his head at that time in his life, death should not have been among them: as well as seeming so youthful he also incredibly fit and healthy, and if ever a man should have made 100 it was he. He asked that if I ever wrote an obituary of him he wanted me to say one thing especially. I tried to imagine what it was. This was the man who, in the margins of a great career as a national newspaper journalist, wrote some of the finest books on English music and English musical life that ever will be written—a definitive work on Vaughan Williams, whom he had known well, authoritative biographies of William Walton, Adrian Boult and Elgar, and a “biography” of his beloved Hallé Orchestra. “I want you to say,” Michael intoned with a seriousness that was alarming, “that I was the only Englishman who ever really understood Richard Strauss.”

It is, therefore, the discharge of a solemn duty that causes me to put that on the record. Michael died in his native Manchester on New Year’s Eve, a few weeks before his 89th birthday, with a suddenness that left his beloved wife Joyce, his family and their regiment of friends reeling with disbelief and shock. He had become frail—he had suffered from Parkinson’s disease in his old age—but none of us thought this was due. He had suffered no diminution in his intellectual faculties, and nothing could come between him and his devotion to the art of music. On a bitter, damp, grey Monday morning in January several hundred of us packed a crematorium in Manchester to pay our respects to him. I do not say last respects: so long as we read his books and, if we were lucky enough to know him, to recall his wisdom, we shall continue to pay respects until we, too, come to the end. Sir Mark Elder, a great conductor whom Michael admired enormously, delivered a tribute to him distinguished by its spontaneity, its sincerity and its accuracy. Now the obsequies are done, we can reflect properly on his legacy.

Michael joined the Daily Telegraph as a copy-boy in 1941 and, apart from a period in the Navy at the end of the war, worked for or contributed to it for almost all his life. He became Northern Editor in 1960 and held that job until 1986, throughout the period filing notices of concerts in Manchester and the North. He then had an Indian summer as the Sunday Telegraph‘s opera critic, and contributed to the Daily‘s reviews of new recordings of classical music. His output was vast; and I cannot ever recall reading anything by him that was not fair, thoughtful and expertly judged.

It had been while in the Far East awaiting demobilisation that he wrote to Vaughan Williams, whom he had never met, to tell him how much his music meant to a young man far from home, and what it said to him about the homeland from which he was estranged. VW—whom Michael recalled as having been just about the nicest man he ever met—wrote back and invited Michael to get in touch on his return. Michael did, and despite a 54-year age gap the two men became firm friends.

In the world of music in which he elected to move Michael had two exceptionally useful advantages. One was his scrupulous fairness, a product of a conspicuous intelligence and a deeply reasonable nature; and the other was his tremendous gift for friendship. He delighted in people, but he especially delighted in people who shared his passion for music, and particularly for English music. In that way he became firm friends with Barbirolli, and was scarcely less of a champion of the Hallé than its great conductor had been. The musicians knew that Michael knew his stuff, and that he always sought to tell the truth about a work, or about a performance of it. He felt a genuine mission to educate his readers, but also to help steer performers to a better understanding of their talents and interpretations. He was respected and loved as few other critics are; something all the more remarkable given his lack of formal musical training. But it was that very lack that allowed him to communicate to the music-loving public, few of whom had, themselves, been through the College or the Academy.

It was a great thrill for me to meet him when I joined the staff of the Telegraph in 1986; a greater thrill still that we became good friends. He would telephone regularly and alert me to new recordings he thought I would like. He guided me early on as I found my way into the depths of Wagner. Though known best for his work on English composers, Michael was an authority on opera and had a wide and deep understanding of Wagner’s oeuvre in particular. And he wrote a magnificent book on Richard Strauss, in his seventies, after a lifetime of reflecting upon him: Michael never rushed to judgment, because he knew his reputation stood or fell by the quality of them.

In the days when I had to endure a party conference at Blackpool each autumn he would drive up from Manchester and have dinner with me. He was passionately interested in politics too, and blessed with well-formed views on them; but when we had digested what the politicians were up to, and debated the composition of the England cricket team to tour Australia that winter, we would wallow in talk about music, and he always had something to teach me. In those days before Amazon, such a dinner would always result in my diving into a record shop the moment I was back in London.

Often people are enthusiastic, but rarely can they communicate that enthusiasm in a way that makes the message compelling. Michael could, and not just because of his sincerity but because one knew that he knew exactly what he was talking about. One’s friends, when they die, are always irreplaceable, but he is especially so.

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