Felix Aprahamian

Self-taught critic who championed French music

The music critic Felix Aprahamian was a remarkable self-made man, an amateur who became a professional, whose enormous influence in musical circles was deeply founded in his practical experience of promoting music in London, notably by British and French composers.

Felix Aprahamian, music critic and concert organiser: born London 5 June 1914; Honorary Secretary, Organ Music Society 1935-70; Concerts Manager, London Philharmonic Orchestra 1940-46; Deputy Music Critic, Sunday Times 1948-89; died London 15 January 2005.

The music critic Felix Aprahamian was a remarkable self-made man, an amateur who became a professional, whose enormous influence in musical circles was deeply founded in his practical experience of promoting music in London, notably by British and French composers.

The son of an immigrant Armenian family - his father, Avedis Aprahamian (who had been born Hovhanessian), was naturalised at the turn of the century - Felix lived until the end of his life in the family home in Muswell Hill, London, to which they moved on 1 January 1919, after Felix recovered from diphtheria. There he accumulated the unique library which survives him.

Felix attended the local Tollington High School, and, becoming interested in the organ, had lessons from Eric Thiman, whom he assisted at Park Chapel, Crouch End. Felix Aprahamian would explain, half-jokingly, "I failed Matriculation because I discovered music", and otherwise only acquired formal education from evening classes, notably at the Working Men's College in Crowndale Road, where he later lectured. His father's carpet business was adversely affected by the crash in 1929, but even so he was able to use his contacts to find Felix a position in the City. He became an office boy in Fenchurch Street and Mincing Lane, but had no interest in the metal exchange or the produce markets, and at the same time was developing his musical interests by constant concert-going and by moonlighting with various organisations.

He worked for the Organ Music Society, of which he was assistant secretary from the age of 17. In this capacity he was soon in correspondence with the leading French names of the day - André Marchal, Charles Tournemire, Maurice Duruflé and the young Olivier Messiaen, even in his teens arranging their visits to London. When the society announced a series of improvisations in London, Aprahamian wrote to the leading composers of the day asking them to write themes, his respondents including Jean Sibelius, Benjamin Britten, Albert Roussel, William Walton and Constant Lambert.

Aprahamian's enthusiasm led him to strike up acquaintance with many composers, and he never lost an opportunity to have his copies of their scores inscribed. In August 1933, the 19-year-old Aprahamian with two friends visited Frederick Delius at Grez-sur-Loing, and while in Paris, with his London organ credentials, inveigled himself a seat in the organ loft beside the aged Charles-Marie Widor, the old man obligingly autographing Felix's copy of the score.

Thanks to his surviving diaries, these events are documented in amazing detail. Aprahamian could make a slim reminiscence go an enormously long way, and once, in the 1980s, to a group of visiting London press correspondents, he gave the full range of his contacts. One journalist said as he left the room: "That must the be most amazing example of sustained name-dropping I have ever heard!"

Quite where Aprahamian acquired his fluent French he never revealed, though he did well in the subject at school, and he would recall his father first taking him to Paris in 1923. Yet during the Second World War he was able to broadcast in French from Bush House and certainly conversed fluently with his French friends and colleagues, interpreting for others where necessary. When, in the late 1980s, a French radio team visited London preparing a programme on British composers, he was far from pleased when they stopped him in full flow and insisted on recording his contribution in English, over which a French actor later read a translation.

Working for ARP, he spent the war as concert director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and had vivid memories of the ruins of Queen's Hall the night after it was bombed - he kept one of the posters taken from the smouldering ruins. This took him to visit Keith Douglas, who for two years (1940, 1941) ran the Proms on behalf of the Royal Philharmonic Society from the Victoria Hotel, Rickmansworth. His work with the LPO led to an association with Sir Thomas Beecham, the conductor responding to Aprahamian's knowledge of Delius and the French repertoire, Aprahamian becoming an informal assistant.

Aprahamian's sympathy for and knowledge of French music led him to become in 1942 the organiser of the Concerts de Musique Française for the Free French in London, working with Tony Mayer, Conseiller Culturel from the French Embassy, which gave him access to all the leading French performers and composers of the day. He presented 104 concerts in all. On one occasion, he found the Princesse de Polignac standing in the queue outside the Wigmore Hall and was able to usher her inside.

After the liberation of Paris, a wide circle of outstanding French musicians and composers included Francis Poulenc, Messiaen, Pierre Bernac and Pierre Fournier, many of whom became personal friends. Aprahamian worked from 1946 to 1964 for United Music Publishers, the principal agent for French music in the UK, his job described as "consultant". In fact he promoted French music in the UK, from a delightful office in Bloomsbury lined with photographs of the greatest French artists of the day inscribed to himself and dominated by a piano piled with music. Aprahamian's energy at this time was prodigious, one former colleague describing him as "effervescent".

In 1982 Marchal's chamber organ was brought from the Basque country and installed at Muswell Hill specifically for Aprahamian's protégé the organist David Liddle. Aprahamian was particularly concerned with the promotion of Messiaen and Poulenc, and later became associated with the organist Jennifer Bate, facilitating the arrangements for the London premiere of Messiaen's Livre du Saint Sacrément and playing host to Messiaen and his wife. When in waggish mood, he would take one to the door of his house pointing out a tree against which, in a moment of emergency, Poulenc had relieved himself.

Aprahamian claimed his first contribution to the musical press was in 1931 and his first in the newspapers in 1937. He had his first by-line as a critic when he was asked by the Daily Express to review a concert he had not attended and, by managing to find a way of evoking Fauré's Ballade which he described as "evergreen", without actually describing the performance, found himself a working critic.

He made his name as Deputy Music Critic on the Sunday Times where, for 41 years from 1948 to 1989, he was required reading, notable for his literate and humane commentary, and for his desire to cover the breadth of London music-making rather than always the plums, and for his championship of the British and French music of the early 20th century at a time of serial extremes.

Aprahamian also contributed erudite and well-judged record reviews, writing for Gramophone from 1964 until 1975. In his later years as critic he found it increasingly difficult to meet deadlines, and Gramophone dropped him. His end as a critic came when he published a review of a Gennadi Rozhdestvensky concert on the night Rozhdestvensky was ill.

Aprahamian's innumerable programme notes set new standards for literacy and elegance, and his accounts notably of his favourite French repertoire deserve collection. He also wrote a great many articles, reminiscences and introductions to books, and edited and translated Claude Samuel's Conversations with Olivier Messiaen (1976). Nigel Simeone has published collections of his correspondence with Messiaen and Tournemire. Aprahamian was delighted when commissioned by John Murray to write his autobiography ("Byron's publisher," he would say), but was never able to make progress.

The warmth of London music's appreciation of Aprahamian was all too apparent when on June 1994 the Nash Ensemble presented an 80th birthday concert for him at a packed Wigmore Hall. The programme consisted largely of French music.

Aprahamian was celebrated for the brilliant detail of his recall, and once when engaged in conversation with Lady Bliss on the subject of butterflies impressed her and everyone present with his knowledge of the Latin names of all species mentioned. Thus, when he suffered a stroke in 1993, his characteristic tap of a finger on his temple with the remark "The old clockwork's still OK" was so reassuring. This, too, made his final illness so distressing when, after a succession of small strokes, he often would not recognise his visitors or remember. He also lost most of his hearing, which became distorted, organ music being most painful.

Felix Aprahamian was a showman, an autodidact and a complete one-off. He helped many young musicians develop their careers and was associated with many associations and musical organisation, perhaps being most proud of his presidency of the Delius Society. In 1996 he was appointed Officier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in recognition of his contribution to French culture.

Lewis Foreman



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