Obituary: Professor Arthur Jacobs

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Arthur Jacobs was one of the leading writers on music of his generation. Although he never occupied the position of music critic on a major newspaper, his writings, characterised by the forthrightness with which he always expressed himself and his impatience with any sort of affectation or pretension, were distributed across a wide range of media, from the daily, weekly and monthly press to books, both popular and scholarly.

Born in Manchester in 1922, and educated at Manchester Grammar School and at Oxford, Jacobs brought to the London musical scene what was firmly an outsider's consciousness, in many ways a great strength but perhaps his Achilles' heel as far as the advancement of his career was concerned. He several times began to establish himself as a critic for a London newspaper but was then passed over when it came to the possibility of a longer-term appointment. A directness that could sometimes come close to the abrasive, though rarely applied when not richly deserved, did not always endear him to others in his younger days.

He had begun his London career writing for the Daily Express, in 1947. He had a spell with the Evening Standard, and as a freelance wrote as second critic for the Financial Times and later the Sunday Times, as well as for the Jewish Chronicle. He was a regular writer for the monthly Musical Times, and for a while was acting editor, but for one reason or another was never asked to succeed formally to the editorial chair. In 1962 he joined the editorial board of Opera, where for 10 years he was influential as deputy editor, and for much longer than that, indeed right up to the present, as a leading critic. He was a passionately open-minded critic, wide in his knowledge and sympathetic, though by no means uncritically so, to new music and new ideas with a progressive outlook to match his own.

Jacobs had a strong mission to bring good, clear writing and dependable information about music to a wider public. His Penguin New Dictionary of Music, published in 1958 and still going strong (its sixth edition came out earlier this year), is a typical product in its brisk, no-nonsense manner. This is only one of several reference or semi-reference paperbacks he produced. It was followed by a Penguin Choral Music Symposium (1963). I had the privilege of helping him with the next, The Pan Book of Opera (1964), a valuable learning experience, for a young writer, in the application of scholarly method to writing for a broad readership, not to mention his passion for accuracy and precision. His last reference work was a Penguin Dictionary of Musical Performers (1990).

In 1970 he conceived the idea of a Music Yearbook, putting together an ambitious plan for a comprehensive reference work about musical life, which immediately proved to be a valuable and soon an essential adjunct to British musical life. He edited what is now the British Music Yearbook from 1972 to 1979, as well as a Music Education Handbook in 1976. These were energetic years; his productions also included a Short History of Western Music, no less, published in 1972. During this time he was teaching at the Royal Academy of Music, but in 1979 he took the opportunity to return for a time to the north as Head of Music and later Professor at Huddersfield Polytechnic. He also taught as guest professor at a number of institutions in the United States, Canada and Australia.

Opera was always at the centre of his interests. He was a firm believer that it was meant to be fully understood, and that meant it should be presented in English to English-speaking audiences. He was a good linguist himself and translated more than 20 operas, from Italian, French, German and Russian, in a fluent and direct style that sometimes betrayed (though not often inaptly) his early love of Gilbert and Sullivan (the subject of his first book, in 1951).

Typically, they covered a range of composers from Monteverdi (L'incoronazione di Poppea) to Berg (Lulu), via Handel, Berlioz, Rossini and Tchaikovsky. He wrote the libretto, after Saki's short story, for Nicholas Maw's One Man Show (1964).

Jacobs somehow managed, among all this diversity of writing and editing, to pursue serious scholarly research. He had a spell as visiting scholar at Wolfson College, Oxford, and decided to settle in Oxford for his last years. He appeared regularly at meetings of the Royal Musical Association, always ready to ask awkward questions. His chief passion was for the late Victorian era. He followed up his early Sullivan book with a full-scale, authoritative biographical study in 1984, Arthur Sullivan: a Victorian Musician, lively in style, rich in context, original and penetrating in its criticism. Then in 1994 came Henry Wood: maker of the Proms, again the product of fresh research. It is by these substantial contributions that he would most have liked to be remembered; although he also had the true scholar's humility and would never have wanted any of his writings to be called "definitive". He had further books planned when he became ill; he faced this with characteristic candour and courage, strengthened by the loving support of his wife Betty, whom he had married in 1953, herself a journalist then working for a paper in New Zealand, where she had long lived.

Stanley Sadie

Like countless others, I grew up with Arthur Jacobs's Penguin Dictionary of Music as a vade-mecum which saw me through every music exam and beyond, writes Fiona Maddocks. In professional life, I knew Arthur slightly for many years, from encounters at the first night operas he so assiduously attended or from correspondence in which, with great tact, he would point out an error or fact or a disputed date (such as Placido Domingo's real date of birth) in something I had published. Only in the last six months of his life, when he asked me to help with revisions for his sixth and final edition of the Penguin Dictionary of Music, did I have the chance to know him better.

Typically, as I quickly learnt, he wanted to put his affairs in order, and set about it with an indefatigable will and clarity of purpose, despite fast increasing frailty. Each meeting at his Oxford house had a clear objective. Not a moment was wasted. We would begin in his well-ordered study, papers laid out ready, completing our task before coffee was permitted next door in the light-filled breakfast room, often joined by his wife Betty. The tempting diversion of gossip or conversation was never allowed to interrupt the matter in hand. Arthur knew his time was short but, equally, he valued the time of others.

In an age which eschews formality and makes no distinction between acquaintance and friendship, Arthur Jacobs retained an old-fashioned respect for these boundaries, reserving his private thoughts for those closest to him but showing a shy, almost blunt warmth to those outside that circle which was all the more rewarding for being earned. Shortly before his death, still questing for the new, he had hoped to get to London for Die Soldaten at English National Opera. To his own regret, and to those of us who hoped to see him there, it was not to be.

Arthur David Jacobs, musicologist and critic: born Manchester 14 June 1922; member of the Editorial Board, Opera 1961-96; Professor, Royal Academy of Music 1964-79; Head of the Music Department, Huddersfield Polytechnic 1979-84, Professor 1984-96; Founder and Editor, British Music Yearbook (formerly Music Yearbook) 1971-79, Advisory Editor 1979-83; Visiting Fellow, Wolfson College, Oxford 1979, 1984-85, 1991-92; married 1953 Betty Upton Hughes (two sons); died Oxford 13 December 1996.

Comments