Obituary: April FitzLyon
Thursday 24 September 1998
She was born April Mead, and was educated as a small girl in France and at St Mary's, Calne, in Wiltshire. She studied the flute at the Guildhall School of Music, but never joined the profession. In 1941, at the age of 20, she married a Russian emigre, Kyril Zinovieff, who had by then taken the surname of FitzLyon, and learned Russian from his mother.
In the early Fifties when I was a young publisher putting together my first lists, she approached me with translations of Chekhov stories unknown in Britain which she had done together with her husband, who was then working at the Ministry of Defence. They were published in 1953 as The Woman in the Case, and Other Stories. It was a considerable success and was quickly followed by Tolstoy's first and last short novels (Three Novellas, 1953), two of which April FitzLyon translated on her own.
Although she continued to translate, from French and Italian as well as Russian - and Kyril was translating other Russian literature - she turned most of her energy to research into historical personages. She wrote the first biography of Mozart's librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte (The Libertine Librettist, 1955, reprinted three times), who had been a revolutionary in Venice, then succeeded Metastasio as court poet in Vienna under the benign reign of Josef II, produced three opera texts for Mozart, became an opera manager in London and then first Professor of Italian at Columbia University in New York, where performances of Don Giovanni were given with no mention of the composer. Da Ponte's own boastful and unreliable memoirs were carefully debunked by April FitzLyon's meticulous scholarship.
She went on to write separate biographies of two singing sisters, first Pauline Viardot Garcia, one of the great divas of 19th-century France, who had never been the subject of a biography before (The Price of Genius, 1964), and then Maria Malibran, whose career was even more brilliant, and who sang internationally in the bel canto repertoire (Maria Malibran: diva of the romantic age, 1987). Both were daughters of the Spanish tenor and teacher Manuel Garcia who had sung for Rossini, but whose harsh parental tyranny blighted the lives of his daughters.
April FitzLyon discovered much about the long-standing and ambiguous relationship between Viardot and Turgenev, and threw light on both artistic and social life of 19th-century Europe. In 1983 she helped to organise and wrote the catalogue for the centenary exhibition "Turgenev and the Theatre", at the Theatre Museum in London.
There was always a strong connection between the artistic figures who interested FitzLyon, the time in which they lived and the work she undertook. She continued to translate work that attracted her too, for example Zola's Au Bonheur des dames, the story in fictional form of the rise of the first Parisian department store (Ladies Delight, 1957), the Romain Rolland/Richard Strauss correspondence, and some contemporary French novels.
In 1975 she approached me with a Russian samizdat text Nikto (Nobody: or, The Disgospel according to Maria Dementnaya), a remarkable novel that showed the seaminess of the life of Bohemian dissidents and drop-outs, and which heralded the religious revival that was growing underground. It was published the same year. She later translated much Russian verse into both English and French, and with her husband completed a new translation of Anna Karenina.
The FitzLyons lived in Golders Green and later Chiswick, moving in intellectual circles that included many Russian emigres. Kyril retired from the Ministry of Defence in the early Seventies. They visited Russia both before and after the collapse of Communism, and for about a quarter of a century until her death April was General Secretary of the Russian Refugees Aid Society. She made many radio broadcasts for the BBC, contributed to Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, and produced articles and reviews for newspapers and journals including Encounter, the TLS and the Literary Review. She was a scholar of the old school.
The FitzLyons were an unusually affectionate and stable family. One son, Sebastian, became a businessman, first in France and latterly in Russia. The other son, Julian, is an information specialist.
Cecily April Mead, biographer, historian and translator: born Langton Herring, Dorset 22 April 1920; married 1941 Kyril FitzLyon (two sons); died London 17 September 1998.
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