Sir Neville Marriner

(b. 15 April 1924)

The English conductor and violinist Sir Neville Marriner is one of the most influential artists at the forefront of the modern revival of Baroque and early Classical music. He is the founder of the world-renowned British early music ensemble Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, and is the second most recorded conductor of all time, after Austria’s Herbert von Karajan.

Marriner began his carreer as a violinist under the tutelage of his father, and attended the Royal College of Music from the age of 13. His studies where interrupted by the onset of World War II, during which he was wounded. It was while he was recovering in the hospital that he met harpsichord player and musicologist Thurston Dart, with whom he would be a long-term collaborator and co-founder of the Jacobean Ensemble, which played mostly 17th and 18th century music and released a notable recording of the Purcell trio sonatas in 1950. This ensemble was one of his first manifestations of his abiding love for Baroque and early Classical music. Around this same time Marriner began playing second violin in the Martin String Quartet, and by 1956 he had been appointed as the principal second violin for the London Symphony Orchestra.

I was never a potentate swinging a scepter, but was always in a dialogue with my musicians.

The first of two major milestones in Marriner’s career happened in 1959, when formed the chamber orchestra Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, originally with the purpose of supplying music to the London-based church of the same name. The group’s debut recording of Couperin’s Les Nation on the label L’Oiseau Lyre instantly attracted favorable reviews and unusually high sales, leading to more recording sessions, more albums and a progressively larger ensemble. By the end of the 70s, the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields had grown to include over 20 members, had expanded its repertoire to include Symphonic works and 20th century British music in addition to Baroque and had skyrocketed in popularity, becoming the best-selling chamber ensemble in the history of recorded music.

Part of the reason for the success of Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields was Marriner’s early and continued insistence on reaching the highest technical and professional standards. At a time when performance practices were inconsistent and often sloppy, Marriner was able to assemble a team of elite musicians, mostly principle players in the various London Orchestras, and imbue in them a “responsibility to play well.” This highly effective, no-nonsense approach can also be seen in his conducting, which commenced in the mid-1960s.

Marriner’s career began to truly take off, and enter its second major phase, after attending Pierre Monteux’s conducting school in Maine, USA. Marriner was thrilled with the opportunity to make music without the technical and mental limitations the violin placed on him, saying “I think I was frustrated I wasn’t a better violin player. Suddenly, to have this opportunity, to be able to express yourself utterly freely without the instrument getting in the way, and persuading the music to come out of the orchestra; it’s pretty gratifying, I must say.”

In 1969 Marriner became chief conductor of the newly formed Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and he was so successful that within a few years he had also been asked to guest-conduct the Boston Symphony, Cleveland Philharmonic, Detroit Philharmonic, Minnesota and San Francisco Symphony Orchestras. His achievements as a violinist, ensemble leader and conductor were honored in 1985 when he was granted a knighthood by the British Empire. The following year he moved back to Europe, first as the chief conductor of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra and then as a freelance conductor, performing all over the world. Even in his 90s, Marriner continues to have a busy tour schedule, bringing his crisp, perfectionist style and observance of tradition to new generations of performers.

Header image courtesy of KQED Arts
Other images courtesy of quotationof.com and Kultiversum

I’ll just die on the podium, with any luck.

Academy of St Martin in the Fields

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