Obituary: J. M. Thomson

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The Independent Culture
WHEN THE history of performance practice in early music since 1975 comes to be written, no one will feature more prominently in it than the New Zealander J. M. Thomson. For it was he who, in founding Early Music magazine in Britain in 1973, provided a focal point for all the diverse figures in the early music revival - performers and academics - who suddenly seemed to be noisily everywhere.

Thomson was born in 1926 in his grandmother's house in Blenheim, South Island. He first came to Europe by boat in the late 1940s, initially spending as much time in Germany as England, visiting Bayreuth and making friends with Wagner's descendants. Given his talent for character study and fluency in writing he could have made something of this contact; instead, uninterested in money and shy of languages, he lived an itinerant existence between London and New Zealand, with one prolonged stop in Sydney, until he settled in London in the early 1960s.

In all three places he involved himself in the writing and production of music books and journals (he wrote a number of books on New Zealand music, including a biography of the composer Alfred Hill). He also played the flute, possibly to a professional standard, though in later life he referred reluctantly to this single brush with practical music-making.

However, in his own terms he only came of age once Early Music was up and running. Before that, at Composer and particularly as a music books editor at Faber and Faber, he had shown flare in encouraging the best from talented writers; but at Early Music he had much more scope, relishing the planning and the arguing, the designing and the consulting, especially with his friend and almost co-founder Howard Mayer Brown.

He also enjoyed being host in his own office, at all times of the day and night, to whoever might call, always ready to uncork another bottle of incomparable antipodean wine. It really did seem as though the party would never end; and one wondered how those exquisitely executed first issues of the journal ever came to be finished. Of course he was greatly helped by his staff and friends of those years - amongst whom Richard Bolley, Richard Abram, Nicholas Kenyon, Peter Campbell and Peter Phillips were pre-eminent - yet the lion's share was unmistakably his; and the pressure of setting and maintaining the higher standards coupled with what to him became the unsympathetic attitudes of his masters at OUP did nothing for his uncertain health.

Part of the success of Early Music came from Thomson's gift for friendship which was something quite out of the ordinary. It was so instinctive and even-handed that even the people he was determined to fall out with - one of the twists of his character was that he had a penchant for plots and feuding - almost never took against him but bemusedly waited for the clouds to lift.

Since he never had a partner and little close family one might have supposed he drew people to him calculatedly, to counter loneliness. But, though they must have been difficult times, not least when he first returned to New Zealand to have open-heart surgery, this was not really it. From an early age Thomson was a man of trenchantly independent spirit born of a self-confidence which gave him that driving sense of purpose, and even of mission, with which he promoted the music he liked and the glories of his homeland.

Thomson's time at Early Music ended when an inherited heart condition so worsened that he was forced to resign in 1983, passing the editorship to Nicholas Kenyon, and return to New Zealand for surgery. Those of us who watched him in the late Seventies have difficulty walking up a street and feared the worst underestimated his resilience: it was really only earlier this year that he succumbed again.

In the meantime he was able to publish his seminal The Oxford History of New Zealand Music (1991) as well as give new life to several literary, historical and musical journals based in Wellington.

John Mansfield Thomson, writer and editor: born Blenheim, New Zealand 10 March 1926; died Wellington 11 September 1999.

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