John Cruft: LSO oboist and secretary who became a much-loved director of music and drama at the Arts Council

In the late 1960s, when Jennie Lee was Minister for the Arts, William Glock was Director of Music at the BBC, and Pierre Boulez conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, John Cruft was the much-loved and respected Director of Music and Drama at the Arts Council (where Arnold Goodman was then Chairman). Ironically, at a time when "serious" music was as about as unpopular as "popular" music was then popular, new music nevertheless had its most formidable and capable champions within the establishment. When Cruft retired from the Arts Council in 1979, having been its Director of Music for 14 years, it was found that three people needed to be appointed to fulfil the workload he had somehow managed on his own.

John Cruft came from a musical dynasty of Crufts. His younger brother Adrian (who died in 1987) was a notable composer. His father, Eugene, was the leading double-bass player of his generation, whose own father, also named John, was a viola player in the Carl Rosa opera and ballet company. Gene's childhood was spent travelling with his parents as the company toured from town to town. He said he had been brought up on port wine and bananas, and somewhere along the way he learned some circus tricks. Gene's father had been a founder member of the London Symphony Orchestra in 1904, and Eugene himself joined the orchestra in 1912, the year of its first American tour. The whole orchestra had been booked to sail on the Titanic's maiden voyage but some extra concert bookings meant that the trip had been brought forward.

John Cruft's father married Winifred Abels, a photographic model. She was a friend of Evelyn Sharp, the novelist and suffragette, and of Henry Nevinson, the war correspondent and women's suffrage activist. During a bombing raid in 1917 Nevinson escorted Winnie across London with an open umbrella, which he hoped she might find reassuring.

The conductor Adrian Boult became a close friend of the family. Indeed Winnie was so taken by his refined manners that she determined that her two sons should go to whatever school it was that Boult had attended, which turned out to be Westminster. John first attended the Westminster Abbey Choir School where he was part of a select group of boy trebles who toured Canada coast to coast. He also remembered carrying the Archbishop's heavy train at the opening ceremony of the old Wembley Stadium in 1923.

In 1931, aged 16, John Cruft became a student at the Royal College of Music, where he was to study piano, oboe (under Leon Goossens, the foremost – Cruft claimed the "only" – player of his day) and conducting (under Malcolm Sargent and Constant Lambert). From 1934, while he was still a student, he played regularly as first oboe with the Covent Garden touring company travelling around Britain.

Late in 1936 he joined the BBC Television Orchestra, a group of some two-dozen players with an average age of about 24. The BBC made its first electronically scanned broadcasts from its inconvenient home at Alexandra Palace in November 1936 to just a few hundred viewers who lived in the immediate vicinity. Every other day, the BBC Television Orchestra broadcast a concert that went out live between 3pm and 4pm, the same concert repeated (again live, recording came later) between 9pm and 10pm. Cruft performed in what he said must have been the world's first televised broadcast of chamber music, which in those high-minded days was Jacques Ibert's Trois Pièces Brèves for wind quintet.

Rehearsals began at 10 in the morning and ran for three hours, mainly to solve visual problems. The players performed in full evening dress, but in order to preserve the visual illusion of black and white the technology of the time required that what they actually wore were bright red jackets and bright yellow shirts. Cruft found the job excruciatingly boring. At the end of a year-long contract he managed to swap jobs with Jimmy Green, the cor anglais player of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, then the orchestra of the Covent Garden company. During his two years with the LPO, Cruft played under Vittorio Gui, Erich Kleiber for a memorable Rosenkavalier, and Sir Thomas Beecham ("who managed to make the Ring seem comparatively brief"). Two more cycles of the Ring under Furtwängler was a less congenial experience: "none of us could be certain what his beat was seeking". In 1939 Cruft went freelance, playing briefly in the Suisse Romande.

On his return to England, he enlisted with the Royal Signals. Bizarrely, a section in Canterbury had advertised for musicians, believing that their digital dexterity would make them well suited to work as telegraphists or switchboard operators. Cruft's section set sail for Cherbourg on 22 April 1940 but they were back in England by the 24th, waiting out the Dunkirk evacuation and the Battle of Britain. Music was encouraged within the section and Cruft recalled playing the Bax Oboe Quintet.

In 1941 Cruft went for officer training. He served in North Africa and then later in Italy, and was demobbed at Easter 1946. After the war the British musical scene was rather dilapidated. For a few months, Cruft played in the Glasgow Symphony Orchestra, where the second bassoon was regularly played on a Hammond organ. He soon found himself appointed as principal cor anglais player – "I presume there were no other candidates" – at the London Symphony Orchestra, which in those days was far from being the premier orchestra that it is today.

Cruft played a crucial role in determining what the LSO was to become. Within a year he was a director of the orchestra, and by 1949 he had become its secretary, a modest title that was changed at the appointment of his successor to managing director; but as Cruft remarked, if "secretary" had been good enough for Stalin, it was good enough for him. Whatever the title, the job was "the 24-hour, seven-day-week task of trying to keep happy a self-governing orchestra and its directors". During his 10-year tenure, Cruft oversaw the orchestra's transformation.

The orchestra had an exclusive contract with the Everest record label, the creation of a wealthy American who had made money out of missile guidance systems. Throughout the 1950s the orchestra trudged out to Walthamstow Town Hall where their repertoire was laid down in grooves. Everest's producer, Raoul Poliakin, told the orchestra that every session and rehearsal would be recorded as if it were a final take. Thus encouraged, the orchestra played its heart out the moment the red light came on, with the frequent result that only a single take was required.

A similarly lucrative venture came about in the mid-1950s when the LSO was the featured orchestra (on screen and on the soundtrack) in Hitchcock's remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Bernard Herrmann, who wrote the score to many of Hitchcock's greatest films, was a life-long associate of Cruft's.

During the orchestra's 50th-birthday celebrations in 1954 Cruft was physically assaulted by the orchestra's principal conductor, Josef Krips, who felt that he, Krips, had not received enough publicity. Later accounts claiming that there had been fisticuffs annoyed the meticulous Cruft: "He hit me, but I did not hit back."

It was at Cruft's instigation that Leopold Stokowski conducted the LSO in 1955. He had not conducted an orchestra in London since the 1920s. Cruft was also instrumental in persuading Pierre Monteux to come to the orchestra. The orchestra adored him and he became their principal conductor from 1961 to 1964.

Cruft became Director of Music at the British Council in 1959. Drama was added to that role in 1961. In some quarters it is thought that the job – which meant a great deal of travel abroad – also involved a certain amount of spying on behalf of MI6; certainly the Russians thought so. He left the British Council in 1965 to join the Arts Council.

After his retirement – an alien concept to Cruft – he was, from 1982 to 1987, director of the National Jazz Centre, where he was as admired by the likes of John Coltrane and Stan Tracey. He was a member of the council of the Royal College of Music from 1983 until 1990, and on the board of countless other music-related charities and organisations: the Council for Dance Education and Training, the Loan Fund for Musical Instruments, the Contemporary Dance Trust and the Electro-Acoustic Music Trust among them.

For many years, and when he was well into his eighties, he would spend all night manning the telephones as a Samaritan. Cruft was also a loyal prison visitor, following one prisoner – almost certainly a convicted murderer, though Cruft would not talk about the precise details – around Britain as he was removed between various prisons and mental institutions. John Cruft professed no spiritual allegiances, nor was he particularly atheistic, but he was a firm believer in altruism and kindness. In his personal life he was the most stoical person I ever met, eschewing all forms of personal comfort. His stoicism, however, was not at odds with his great good-humour and tremendous wit.

In 1938 John married Kiki McCormick, a red-headed beauty and a distant relation of William Morris. Her father was Pat McCormick, the vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, who first opened up the crypt as a refuge for the homeless, and whose radio broadcasts were famous across the world. Pat's father had been vicar of St James's, Piccadilly, where the young Stokowski had been organist.

John had proposed every fortnight for four years before he was finally accepted. "I never said no," Kiki said later. Once she had said yes they were married within the week. Separated for several years by the war, they wrote to each other every day. It was always difficult to imagine the one without the other. There were two sons, Sebastian and Benedict. Benedict is a fine violinist and Dean of the School of Music at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.

Christopher Potter

John Herbert Cruft, oboist and music administrator: born London 4 January 1914; oboist, London Symphony Orchestra 1946-49, Secretary 1949-59; Director, Music Department, British Council 1959-61, Director, Drama and Music Department 1961-65; Music Director, Arts Council of Great Britain 1965-79; Member of Council, Royal College of Music 1983-90, Life Governor 1990-2008; Governor, London Festival Ballet Trust 1980-84; director, National Jazz Centre 1982-87; married 1938 Kiki McCormick (died 2003; two sons); died Seaton, Devon 17 May 2008.

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