Obituary: John C.G. Waterhouse

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The Independent Online
John C. G. Waterhouse was one of Britain's most respected musicologists - though the label of "musicologist" was always one he resisted.

The reason for that respect was straightforward: Waterhouse (the "C. G." distinguished him from his father, John F. Waterhouse, who wrote music criticism for the Birmingham Post) knew more about 20th-century Italian music than almost anybody else in the world.

His interest in Italy began early: after an education at Eton and Merton College, Oxford, he wrote his doctoral thesis (1966) on "The Emergence of Modern Italian Music, 1880-1940", and he assiduously ploughed this furrow for the rest of his life.

He was encouraged by the composer Luigi Dallapiccola to study the music of Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882-1973), and his researches eventually emerged as La Musica di Gian Francesco Malipiero (Nuova Era, Rome and Turin, 1990), which he wrote straight into Italian. A much revised English edition was in the final stages of production when he died and should appear later this year.

It was natural that, when the sixth edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians was being prepared (it appeared in 1980 as The New Grove), the editors should turn to John Waterhouse, and he contributed a substantial number of articles on Italian composers; he was updating and revising them for the seventh edition when he died. He also contributed to a generous spread of other dictionaries, musical guides and periodicals in Italy and Great Britain, recently adding International Opera Collector and Tempo to his fora.

But his reputation went around the globe, particularly for his work on the generazione dell'ottanta - the group of composers born around the 1880s, and including Respighi, Malipiero, Pizzetti, Ghedini and Casella: no matter where, if you were reading an article on the generazione dell'ottanta that wasn't written by Waterhouse, the chances are that the author would have consulted him. And one had only to ask: he would deploy his learning on behalf of other writers with as much enthusiasm as he undertook his own tasks.

His authority, too, was not the result of narrow specialisation: although the bulk of his prolific output concerned Italian music (often, prophetically, examining composers not "rediscovered" by the rest of the world until years later), his writings also encompassed figures as diverse as Nielsen, Sibelius, Gordon Crosse (a close friend), Alan Rawsthorne, Elizabeth Lutyens and Peter Maxwell Davies; and his lectures examined the seminal contributors to 20th-century music - Schoenberg, Debussy, Messiaen, Britten, Webern, Kodly and countless more. Other courses presented Russian music from Tchaikovsky onwards and the outstanding names in American music.

Those lectures were delivered first at Queen's University, Belfast, where he joined the Extra Mural Department in 1967 and, from 1973, through the same department (now the School of Continuing Studies) at Birmingham University, where he taught for 20 years until, in 1993, he took early retirement to pursue his own writings.

For the most part his students were ordinary men and women who gave up their afternoons and evenings to learn more about classical music. Waterhouse seemed to find the ideal balance, neither compromising his subject nor going over his listeners' heads, and the breathless excitement with which he talked about music inspired several generations of students to set about further investigation on their own.

His death was completely unexpected. His customary bubbly good humour was subdued by what appeared to be a bout of 'flu and he took to his bed. When his condition suddenly worsened, he was taken to hospital but was dead within two hours.

Some memory of the scholarship that was extinguished then may be preserved in a memorial volume of his essays, but the ready laugh, the spontaneous helpfulness and the nervous enthusiasm, articulated with a very English precision, are gone absurdly early.

John Charles Graham Waterhouse, musicologist, teacher, lecturer: born Bournemouth, Hampshire 23 April 1939; married 1990 Janet Gardner; died Birmingham 16 April 1998.