Antony Hopkins: Composer and broadcaster whose engaging delivery made 'Talking About Music' a success for 36 years

 

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The Independent Online

The name of the composer Antony Hopkins is synonymous with the radio series Talking About Music, which started in 1950 and ran for 36 years on the BBC. He chose the works himself, from a schedule of music coming up for broadcast, and his engaging delivery and gentle humour, accessible to the general listener without talking down, made his voice one of the most familiar on the air. Several of these talks can still be heard on the internet.

He was born Ernest William Antony Reynolds; when he was three years old the family moved to Italy for his father's health, but he died shortly afterwards, leaving an impoverished widow and four children (Antony was the third) and £110 in the bank. Hopkins's mother contacted Charles Greene, father of Graham Greene and the headmaster of Berkhamsted School, which her husband had attended. It was arranged that his former housemaster, Major Tom Hopkins, and his wife should look after the boy on a temporary basis as a boarder at the school – but he was formally adopted at the age of 13, changing his surname from Reynolds to Hopkins.

In 1939 he entered the Royal College of Music, eventually studying with the pianist Cyril Smith ("a quite marvellous teacher – and a genuinely great player") and with Gordon Jacob for orchestration. He won the Chappell Gold Medal for piano and the Cobbett Prize for composition, and it was his extraordinary aptitude for the latter that brought Hopkins his first work, writing incidental music for the BBC drama department, including for Louis MacNeice's productions of The Golden Ass and Cupid and Psyche (for which he produced 130 pages of orchestral score in less than a week). These were followed by many commissions for radio, film and theatre, notably The Pickwick Papers (1952 – again, all done in 11 days), Cast a Dark Shadow (1955) and Peter Ustinov's Billy Budd (1962), and many productions in the West End and at Stratford. He twice won the Italia Prize, a radio award, in 1952 and in 1957.

Hopkins always said that, after Smith, his other great musical inspiration was Michael Tippett. They had met at Morley College, where Tippett was director of music during the War, first singing in his choir then acting as deputy conductor and eventually helping to prepare the choir for the first performance, in March 1944, of A Child of Our Time. He would take his own music to Tippett, who would comment on it by demonstrating how the great composers had solved similar compositional problems. Hopkins was a believer in composing at the piano: "To me, sound is an integral part of the process; composing is more a case of nurturing something as it grows."

He also worked with Benjamin Britten in the early days – and to Britten dedicated his first opera, Lady Rohesia (1948), leading to a commission for the Aldeburgh Festival. There were several more operas, and music for the ballet, heard at Sadler's Wells.

Serialism passed him by: "I'm too much of a traditionalist, really," he said in a 90th-birthday interview. "I want warmth and humanity in music and [in serialism] it just wasn't there. Music became over-intellectualised, in my view, and I think that's what antagonised a lot of audiences also." But in Talking About Music he still managed to discuss pieces by the likes of Ligeti, Lutoslawski, Messiaen and Stockhausen. Several books emerged as spin-offs from the programme: Talking About Symphonies, Talking About Concertos, Understanding Music, and surveys of Beethoven's symphonies and concertos that brilliantly introduced the works for newcomers, but provided fresh insights on every page for those already familiar with the pieces.

Hopkins once wrote that he never considered himself to be a composer of significance – he called himself a musical odd-job man – but that, like Britten's raison-d'être for the composer, he hoped he had been useful. His radio talks were a significant contribution to my growing interest in music in the 1950s and '60s, and he taught at the Royal College of Music. From 1963-67 he was Gresham Professor at the City University and conducted widely, including, from 1952, the Intimate Opera Company. His own music shows him fluent in many different styles and deserves to continue to be heard. Too little of it was recorded, but for his 90th birthday a double CD of his chamber music and songs, and new works written in his honour, was issued on the Divine Art label – a splendid collection.

Away from music, a non-smoker and teetotaller, he admitted that "my vices have really been golf and fast cars". He was appointed CBE for services to music in 1976.

Ernest William Antony Reynolds (Antony Hopkins), composer, conductor and broadcaster: born Bush Hill Park, London 21 March 1921; CBE 1976; married 1947 [Muriel] Alison Purves (died 1991), 2012 Beatrix Taylor; died Ashridge, Hertfordshire 6 May 2014.

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