Malcolm Smith: Boosey & Hawkes manager whose expertise made him a mainstay of the classical music scene
Friday 11 March 2011
Malcolm Smith was one of those unsung heroes whose efforts glue the fabric of musical life together. Joining the music publisher Boosey & Hawkes as manager of the Hire Library in 1969, he got to know thousands of musicians, whose decisions often depended on his efficiency. If you were a conductor or orchestral manager planning to perform, say, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring or an opera-house intendant putting on Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, it was Smith and his team who made sure the performing material – the parts the musicians put on their music-stands – was up to date and delivered on time.
Bull-necked, square-jawed, with a pipe wedged between his teeth and, in later life, an air-commodore's handlebar moustache, Smith looked the part neither of librarian nor of musicologist, but his knowledge of the huge Boosey & Hawkes catalogue was profound, as it was of classical music more generally, and British music in particular (he was proud to be a vice-president of the British Music Society). Many an audience will have heard a work in a concert programme or recording solely because Smith drew the attention of the conductor to a score he thought worth revival: he had the knack of putting his finger on the selling point of a particular piece, and backstage after a concert he would put a word in the right ear.
His knowledge was acquired first-hand. His background wasn't musical (his father worked for Southern Railway), and Malcolm's artistic career began when he won a scholarship to Bromley Grammar School; his acquaintance with music began with piano lessons there. He was to become a capable pianist but abandoned any ambition of a career at the keyboard when he realised that he would not make the first rank.
His first job was an administrative one at the local theatre in Bromley, where he also tried his hand at acting, sparking off his lifelong interest in the world of entertainment. Employment at Lloyds Bank in Piccadilly brought him into contact with a number of the bank's more important clients, who were impressed by his knowledge of the theatre; soon he could count people like John Gielgud and Raymond Huntley among his circle of friends. It may have been at the bank that he learned his ethos of customer service: the lowliest of musicians performing a Boosey & Hawkes work was treated with the same courtesy as the stars.
He enlisted in the RAF in 1952 and found himself posted to Malta during the filming of Malta Story – starring Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins and Flora Robson, and directed by Brian Desmond Hurst – and he appeared briefly in the film himself. Upon his return to civilian life in London, Smith soon found himself drawn to music management, becoming chairman of the LSO Club, a position he held for many years. His persuasive manner brought many distinguished conductors, composers and other musicians to come and talk to the Club.
His own knowledge of the classical repertoire was by now extensive, formed in part by his assiduous concert-going: on 22 May 1950, for example, the day before his 18th birthday, he was present at the landmark concert in the Royal Albert Hall when the Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad, with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Wilhelm Furtwängler, gave the world premiere of Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs. Two years later, in September 1952, when Toscanini conducted the same orchestra in two Festival Hall concerts of the Brahms symphonies, Smith was there, too.
His contacts went far beyond the world of music. When the first London run of Waiting for Godot opened in the Arts Theatre in March 1955 (the director was the young Peter Hall), he accompanied Marilyn Monroe: Arthur Miller, her husband, had come down with flu and asked Smith to escort his wife. He did indeed seem to know everyone. When he told his friends once that the Queen Mother had given him a wave as she was driven past, no one could be sure he was joking.
But it was his musical contacts that were the most extensive: Bernstein, Britten, Stravinsky and Vaughan Williams were among the many composers who counted themselves his friends. At the first London performance of West Side Story, in His Majesty's Theatre on 12 December 1958, Bernstein was angry that an upbeat epilogue had been added to his score and refused to go on stage; it was Smith who changed his mind.
His ability as a sketch-artist - occasionally deployed during concerts when he was bored by the music-making - earned the approval of Stravinsky. Smith had sketched him during dinner, and Stravinsky asked to see what he had been doing, writing in the margin: "I think this is very good. I.S." Another acquaintance was Anna Mahler, the composer's daughter: they met on a train to Vienna in 1950 - then a journey of several days - and were firm friends by the time the train pulled in.
Smith spent 23 years as manager of the Boosey & Hawkes Hire Library. For his last five, before his retirement in 1997, he was Repertoire Manager: the extension of copyright from 50 to 70 years gave a new lease of life to the B&H catalogue, and Smith was moved to help promote it. One of his last coups was encouraging the company to take on Anthony Payne's "elaboration" of Elgar's Third Symphony after Novello had turned it down: the work went on to enjoy huge international success.
Smith was an avid raconteur of musical stories, many of them from personal experience. As a staunch supporter of the Three Choirs Festival – he attended every one without fail for 55 years – he was in Gloucester when Vaughan Williams asked him to accompany him to the tailors to order a new pair of trousers. The tailor checked his records to confirm that he had the measurements he required and asked discreetly: "There's just one thing – which side do you dress?" "Never mind all that," the composer answered; "Just make it baggy round the knees."
Smith lived all his life in the house in Bromley where he had been born, but sacrificed a social life outside music to caring for his elderly father, who died just before his 100th birthday. Although when you found Smith in the pub after a concert, he'd be surrounded by friends, he was generally private about his own life. Perhaps that's why he took his passions so seriously – and there were always unexpected sides to him. He had, for example, an extensive collection of African masks, a large stamp collection all concerned with musical subjects, and a library of composers' autographs astonishing in its scope, often accompanied by personal greetings from the composer in question.
The clubbable Smith was also the founder and organiser of a group called Romeo – Retired Old Musicians Eating Out – and arranged more than 30 of their bibulous gatherings. There, another of his unusual talents would be revealed: he was a virtuoso player of fruit machines, and would always return from a session with a handful of pound coins and the comment: "Well, that's the drinks paid for."
After a career spent in daily contact with inflated egos, Smith had little time for self-importance. He loved salacious jokes even more when they sent up pomposity. He had a strong sense of tradition but laughed at pointless convention. He faced the onset of cancer with composure. To avoid a show of emotion at his funeral, his death was not to be made public until after his cremation. Instead, he has left a sum of money for a party in his memory.
John Malcolm Smith, music librarian and administrator; born Bromley, Kent 23 May 1932; died Orpington, Kent 17 February 2011.
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