Obituary: Gerald Littlewood

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ANY FINAL assessment of how Humphrey Chetham's Bluecoat foundation of 1653 grew by 1969 to be Britain's foremost specialist school of music, Chetham's, will surely acknowledge Gerald Littlewood's role as having been seminal. His appointment as resident arts and crafts master in 1949, fresh from Loughborough Training College, will be seen as a decisive step in a remarkable evolution.

His arrival in Manchester happily coincided with the headmastership of the dedicated and visionary Harry Vickers. Through the Fifties and Sixties they managed an impressive succession of educational advances in which music always featured strongly. Not least of these was the grant-aid agreement with the neighbouring Manchester Cathedral, which introduced able choristers to Chetham's and involved the creative collaboration of the cathedral's organist Norman Cocker.

Littlewood immediately found ways of harnessing the budding expertise of these able youngsters in his mission to create a musical culture in which all could participate and from which a fine orchestra and choirs would emerge. Throughout this period a packed Free Trade Hall would resound each October to the music of more than a hundred Littlewood-trained children, many of whose instruments Littlewood had either made or repaired and who played music a good deal of which Norman Cocker had been encouraged either to compose or arrange.

It is difficult to believe the kind of schoolmastering of those early days. As one of only three resident masters Littlewood would call school reveille at 6.15am, have an orchestra practice under way by seven and, between breakfast and school, rehearse a choir of 30. Typically, his daily teaching programme included, in addition to his specialist art and crafts and his adopted music, English, Religious Instruction and PE. He also provided pastoral guidance, found time for chamber music, stage- and puppet- construction and wine-making. He might then spend the evening taking pupils on a lecture recital in aid of school instruments.

His instrument-making began in earnest when, in the mid-Sixties, he found a wealth of discarded seasoned sycamore in the ancient school laundry. Several Tertis model violas emerged which still speak with a strong, warm orchestral voice. His later instruments, made in a zestful experimental period after his retirement from Chetham's, were less likely to raise an eyebrow amongst chamber music players.

During his happy retirement with his wife Audrey and daughter Annie in North Wales, he threw himself into the life of the church and community, carving elegant choir-stalls, encouraging young people in church music, teaching string-playing with freshness and enthusiasm in a local school, singing light opera and performing salon music on the local pier pavilion. During the last two years, however, cancer took its toll.

Littlewood's generosity to all whom he befriended is legendary. He forgot none of the boys, and later girls, who came under his influence at Chetham's, would recount their memorable escapades and follow their progress with interest. A Lancashire Grammar School lad from Audenshaw, son of a policeman, he was at home with ordinary folk, loving the homely verse of the Lancashire dialect poet Edwin Waugh. He was less at home amongst professional musicians and gave pretentiousness short shrift.

Gerald Littlewood made things happen in the days before inspired amateurism became unfashionable, subsequently unacceptable. The heart of his significant contribution to Chetham's was to envisage, foster and sustain the ideal of a family community where music mattered and from which excellence could grow. Without his eclectic genius, Chetham's School of Music could not have gone on to develop its very special excellence.

Gerald Littlewood, music teacher: born Audenshaw, Lancashire 7 September 1927; married (one daughter, one stepson); died Old Colwyn, Clwyd 1 September 1998.