Jennifer Vyvyan had a wide-ranging but actually rather specific repertoire: there were standard things she didn’t do, but non-standard ones she did all the time. And among the non-standards was a piece by Antony Hopkins (the musicologist not the actor) called A Melancholy Song that surfaced time and time again in her recitals as an almost constant presence.
Hopkins has just turned 90 and, though fragile, still in business – which for most of his life has focused not so much on composing music as on talking about it. There was a time when he was one of the most prominent voices on radio, with a programme called Talking about Music that I have to admit was central to my childhood and, along with the local library, the source of what little music education I got (because there was damn all at school).
It also happened that when I started talking about music myself – in print – one of my first ever pieces was an interview with Hopkins in the Observer Magazine. For which I was very proud that the celebrated Jane Bown took the accompanying portrait photo.
There was a more up to date interview with Hopkins recently in Classical Music Magazine in which he recalls his early days as a lecturer at the Royal College, explaining mischievously that he learned how NOT to talk about music from the example of Frank Howes – who at that point was chief critic on the Times.
Howes’ lectures, says Hopkins, ‘were the dullest, wordiest nonsense. The man had all the knowledge in the world, infinitely superior to mine, but he lacked the imagination to put it across. This was quite typical then.
‘I’ve always maintained that my ability to communicate was helped by the fact that I didn’t have a long scholarly training. When people use jargon they frighten their audience. I would usually look for analogy rather than analysis’.
If you’ve never heard or read any Antony Hopkins, the publisher Travis & Emery is re-issuing some of his books. My memory of them is that they’re substantial, stylish and extremely readable. Full details: www.travis-and-emery.com.