Professor Basil Deane

Musicologist who enjoyed an energetic academic career in England, Australia and Hong Kong


Basil Deane, musicologist: born Bangor, Co Down 27 May 1928; Assistant Lecturer, Glasgow University 1953-56, Lecturer 1956-59; Senior Lecturer, University of Melbourne 1959-65; Lecturer, Nottingham University 1966-68; James Rossiter Hoyle Professor of Music, Sheffield University 1968-74; Professor of Music, Manchester University 1975-80; Chairman of Music Board, Council for National Academic Awards 1978-80; Music Director, Arts Council 1980-83; Director, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts 1983-87; Peyton and Barber Professor of Music, Birmingham University 1987-92 (Emeritus); married 1955 Norma Greig (died 1991; two sons); died Oporto, Portugal 23 September 2006.

Though a respected musicologist, Basil Deane was no ivory-tower academic: he left a trail of institutional and pedagogical improvements behind him wherever his appointments took him, in a variety of British settings but also as far afield as Australia and Hong Kong.

Deane's initial attempts to choose music as a profession encountered parental reluctance and so, after secondary schooling at the Methodist College in Belfast and Armagh Royal School, he entered Queen's University, Belfast, to study French and German - disciplines that were to stand him in good stead. With an upper second BA honours under his belt by 1948 - and a strong recommendation from Ivor Keys, then a lecturer at Queen's and soon to be the first holder of the Sir Hamilton Harty chair in music - Deane was able to persuade his father (a canon in the Church of Ireland) to drop his opposition to a degree in music. That decision was vindicated within two years when Deane - by now also a vigorous promoter of concert life at the university - secured a first class BMus.

A postgraduate scholarship took him to Paris in 1950-51 to study cello with Etienne Pasquier before his academic career began in earnest when, in 1953, he was named Assistant Lecturer at Glasgow University. A full lectureship followed in 1956; three years later he gained his doctorate with a thesis on the music of the French composer Albert Roussel (1869-1937), on whom he was to remain the expert. His book Albert Roussel followed in 1961.

Also in 1959 he was appointed Senior Lecturer at the Conservatorium of Music in Melbourne, where his laid-back curiosity was appreciated, as the composer Graham Hair recalls:

Basil came to the University of Melbourne to a post in historical musicology, but the early 1960s were also a time when Australian composers were establishing distinct voices of their own, and a fledgling group of modernists was receiving national attention. He always took a close interest in these developments, including local, regional ones, not just well-known names promoted by the London critics and the BBC. I remember particularly his lively participation in a large National Composers' Conference run by Larry Sitsky in Hobart in 1965, which revealed his characteristically liberal attitudes, open-mindedness and complete lack of any sense of snobbery towards the emerging compositional culture.

In Australia Deane added another weapon to his intellectual armoury, that of broadcaster. Introduced to the Australian television producer-director William Fitzwater at a lunch, he found a congenial companion and they began there and then to map out what would become a half-hour ABC TV programme, What is Music?, which would explore the five central elements of rhythm, melody, harmony, counterpoint and colour - and which both men intended would open up music to the non-specialist viewer. Deane's quiet control led Fitzwater to christen him "One-take Deano":

These were the days before autocue was available in ABC studios and Basil would amaze the crews with his phenomenal ability to memorise a script, with its pauses for musical examples and the sections which would have visual overlay to his text. In the stop-start method of camera rehearsal, he was never thrown by an interruption from the director requesting he go back to a particular line, nor paragraph even. And when the programme went live-to-air, or in later years, live-to-tape, he was always word- and nuance-perfect.

Deane and Fitzwater were to collaborate again on several occasions. A three-part series, Cities of Music, examined social, cultural and political developments in Venice, Vienna and Paris against the backdrop of musical evolution from the Renaissance to the early 20th century. The next series, the five-part Music is . . ., taking its cue from their first programme, examined those five constituent elements in more detail.

Two further documentaries followed from the Deane-Fitzwater collaboration - both, tellingly, of eccentric composers: a BBC biography of Percy Grainger filmed in 1969 in the stations of Grainger's life in Europe, North America and Australia, and a 1972 exploration of the inner world of Erik Satie.

By then Deane had long since left Australia himself. A lectureship had taken him to Nottingham University in 1966; he was to stay there two years, one contemporary from that time remembering his firmly held socialist views. The next six were spent at Sheffield University, where he enjoyed his first chair, as James Rossiter Hoyle Professor of Music; the second, in 1975, took him to Manchester University, and he remained there for five more years. In both institutions he made enlightened appointments some of which enliven their music departments to this day. As ever, his concerns were practical as well as academic: it was on Deane's watch that the Lindsay String Quartet came to Sheffield as quartet-in-residence, and they duly followed him to Manchester.

The dry warmth and unpredictable insights of his lecturing style, delivered in his soft Irish brogue, earned him a faithful following among his students - a reference to Debussy's Chanson de Bilitis, for example, as "post-coital" guaranteed an attentive audience. It was during his time in Manchester, too, that his short study of the Welsh composer Alun Hoddinott appeared (Alun Hoddinott, 1978).

For a while, Deane's career took him away from academia into arts administration. Having been a member of the Arts Council in 1977-79 (in parallel with two years, 1978-80, as Chairman of the Music Board of the Council for National Academic Awards), in 1980 he moved to London to become the Director of Music of the Arts Council. With increasing financial pressure from the belt-tightening of the early Thatcher government, Deane cut funding to the D'Oyly Carte opera company but expanded the resources available to the fledgling Opera North and to the Contemporary Music Network.

In 1977 he had been asked to come to Hong Kong to advise the University of Hong Kong on the creation of a music department. Those contacts bore fruit six years later when he was named founding director of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.

Deane's four-year stint in the Far East was followed by his final academic post before his retirement in 1992: from September 1987 he was Peyton and Barber Professor of Music at Birmingham University. Here he stimulated student performances, as he had done in his own undergraduate days, instituting a week-long festival at the end of the summer term which afforded the students both executive and administrative experience. And he indulged his enthusiasm for the music of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, presenting in October 1989 a staging of Cherubini's The Two Days, or The Water Carrier (in a translation by his wife, Norma) - a practical sequel to his earlier monograph Cherubini (1965).

Retirement brought no lessening of his energies. He had kept in touch with developments back home, and wrote a perceptive report on the requirements of music education in Northern Ireland in the late 1980s. In 1994, following the death of his wife, he returned to his native soil, devoting himself whole-heartedly to the activities of the Belfast Chamber Music Society and, with his new partner, the Portuguese children's writer Ana de Brito, entertaining lavishly in his house in Portaferry, where his music room boasted what Jan Smaczny, professor at Deane's Alma Mater, Queen's, called "heroic views over Strangford Lough and a velvety-toned grand piano"; it was "often the scene of generous musical entertainment".

Deane's appetite for practical music-making was undimmed to the end. At the time of his death, at his retirement home with Ana in Portugal, he had just launched a new concert series and was looking forward to rolling up his sleeves to get it moving.

Martin Anderson

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