Obituary: Patrick Saul

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
PATRICK SAUL was a classic example of the visionary outsider who, through a lifetime's personal dedication, leaves a lasting legacy of national importance; in Saul's case the British Institute of Recorded Sound (BIRS) now the National Sound Archive at the British Library.

Saul felt that a national sound archive should record everything and a major discussion point in the early 1960s was whether pop music should be collected. It was. This inclusiveness was extended to the classical music traditions of the Far East, to dialect recordings, to folk music, and the British Library of Wildlife Sounds.

He was born in 1913, the son of a dental surgeon whose house overlooked the Dover seafront from where in the summer the family was constantly serenaded by the band. This and his education at Dover College, then a tough public school that only cared for games and the officer training corps, did nothing to develop his musical understanding, which came from records and listening to European radio stations, which he later described as "a kind of musical university".

Saul started his working life as a bank clerk, and was a conscientious objector during the Second World War. Afterwards he read for a degree in Psychology as an external mature student at London University.

In his mid-teens he made the realisation that records could go out of print. He went to the British Museum, seeking to hear a cherished performance, only to find that they did not collect recordings. Appalled, he determined that something should be done, and it became his life's work.

The path for the establishment of the BIRS was set in 1947 when the Association of Libraries and Information Bureaux (Aslib) held a conference on the need for a national sound archive and a working committee, chaired by the music critic of The Times, Frank Howes, was established.

The institute was formally constituted in 1948, with Saul as Secretary, the holdings building on Saul's personal collection, and first moved into public premises in 1955, becoming a registered educational charity. Appeals for recordings resulted in rapid growth and many composers allowed the BIRS to copy their private off-air recordings, often from pre-war broadcasts.

The BIRS was at first housed at 38 Russell Square, in premises owned by the British Museum, where Saul would loom from an inner room through chaotic piles of recordings of all descriptions to greet visitors. Even in 1999, historical sound recording is still a discipline where the amateur collector and enthusiast is the focus of scholarly knowledge and research.

In 1960 the scholarly importance of sound recording was recognised by few academics, and Saul accumulated a circle of distinguished habitues at the BIRS whose expertise he drew on shamelessly. Specialists soon found themselves sucked into his web, as unpaid helpers, and contributors to the massive card index of the never-to-be-published fourth supplement of the World's Encyclopedia of Recorded Music maintained by Eric Hughes, who has himself recently died.

From the outset, Saul recognised that any successful scholarly organisation needed to publish a journal to underline its national and international standing, and the humble typescript format of the bulletin that was issued in 1956-60 belied its enormous ambition and high intellectual content, and after 18 issues it soon flowered into Recorded Sound (1961-84). Its cessation is possibly the only regrettable downside of the absorption of BIRS by the British Library.

Also from the first, Saul organised remarkable lecture-recitals, with leading speakers, the lectures always underlining the documentary value of sound recordings. After his degree, Saul had worked for Birkbeck College organising London University extension lectures, and, drawing on this experience and his good relations with the college, joint lecture programmes were started, later expanded after elegant premises in South Kensington were purchased, where the by then substantial collection moved in 1968. There the BIRS was able to organise and host its own lectures. Saul went for the big names, and not infrequently one found that the chair - such as the soprano Dame Eva Turner, or the pianist Claudio Arrau - was even more distinguished than the speakers.

Saul had strong Francophile sympathies, and he repeatedly promoted the distinguished baritone Pierre Bernac to visit the UK to give master-classes organised by the BIRS. Later, supported by the composer Sir Lennox Berkeley and others, he was the founder of the Friends of Pierre Bernac.

When wanting to cover Debussy, what more natural than for Saul to use his French contacts to persuade the composer's stepdaughter, Dolly Bardac, to recall her family life, illustrating her published text in Recorded Sound with a wonderful selection of photographs from her family collection.

One of Saul's early coups was to negotiate a formal agreement that the BIRS could record BBC programmes off the air, and it also became a depository for BBC transcription discs.

He was keen to publish specialised catalogues, and, recognising the responsibilities of a national collection to its countrymen, in 1966 he issued a catalogue of off-air recordings of music by 20th-century British composers, remarkable for its coverage of what are now historic performances, including the first performance of Britten's War Requiem in 1962.

Trying to develop this collection in the mid-1960s, he proposed that the BBC and Radio France should systematically broadcast the otherwise unrecorded music of a leading composer, and exchange copies of the tapes, and he commissioned me to compile a list of unrecorded Arnold Bax as the UK's contribution. The scheme failed to fly when his attempts to persuade the radio stations to implement the plan ran into the sand.

Saul was fortunate in attracting a board of governors who shared his vision. Although the institute's early years at Russell Square were funded personally by Sir Robert Mayer, supplemented by occasional Treasury hand- outs, in 1961 representations to government by leading figures in the world of music, including Myra Hess and Yehudi Menuhin, secured an annual Treasury grant-in-aid.

It has to be said that Saul was a canny operator in extracting the maximum funding from his various sources, but I am not sure he understood government finance. He rang me one evening asking me urgently to call at BIRS; when I did so he produced his annual budget bid documentation from the DES. "What do I do?" he demanded. I asked what the budget had been the previous year - I seem to remember it had been pounds 75,000. "Why not ask for pounds 85,000?" I suggested. "What we need is three million," he retorted. "But you cannot multiply a government budget bid by 30," I replied. "Why not?" he said, "it's what we need; these government people don't understand."

During his working life, he never appeared to be affected by even minor illnesses and never missed a day at the institute. He enjoyed a strong constitution that continued long after he retired in 1978, but in 1995 he suffered an incapacitating stroke.

Lewis Foreman

Anthony Patrick Hodgins Saul, sound archivist: born Dover, Kent 15 October 1913; OBE 1971; married 1971 Diana Hull; died Kingston upon Thames, Surrey 9 May 1999.

Comments