Tony Fell: Forward-thinking music publisher


We generally think we know the people who shape the musical world around us: the singers we like, the instrumentalists whose work we admire.

But the executants sit at the end of a lengthy production process: an army of men and women work to make those performances possible.

Tony Fell was one of the senior officers of that army: as the managing director of the music-publisher Boosey & Hawkes for 22 years, he had a direct influence on the composers and the music the company promoted. It was no easy task: when Fell took up the reins, Boosey & Hawkes was in poor health.

Fell was an only child: his father had managed both the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and Scottish Orchestras. Young Tony studied the cello and piano, becoming proficient at both. After a degree in English and Modern Languages at King's College, Cambridge, Fell spent his two years' national service in the Royal Artillery.

He then joined Ibbs and Tillett, the leading music agency in London, where he became assistant London concerts manager. But finding that his dedication to music was inversely reflected in his salary, in 1956 "poverty drove me to ICI". He became an employee of their publicity department.

Two years later he was transferred to Johannesburg as assistant publicity manager of an ICI subsidiary, leaving after five years to become sales director at the Johannesburg printers Hortors. While there, he founded and conducted the Johannesburg Bach Choir.

In 1967 he became office manager of the company which published Drum, a South African investigative magazine; his responsibilities included the rotogravure and rotary lithography for its newspapers and magazines. The outspoken Drum had an urban African readership and reported on township life under apartheid.

In 1968 he returned to Hortors as managing director, and while there was headhunted for the job of managing director of Boosey & Hawkes. He was the Hercules these Augean Stables required: the company was an organisational mess, divided in an uncoordinated manner between its music-publishing activities in central London (which made money) and its instrument-manufacture in Edgware (which often lost it).

With Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Britten and Strauss among the "house" composers, B&H had once been at the forefront of contemporary music, but at the time of Fell's arrival it had been over a decade since the company had signed up a new composer – it was, he said, "like running an atomic power station without any physicists". Almost immediately he appointed David Drew, already editor of the B&H periodical Tempo. Working together, the two men conscripted an astonishing array of composers in Europe and North America, among them John Adams, Louis Andriessen, Berthold Goldschmidt, Henryk Górecki, H K Gruber, Robin Holloway, James MacMillan, Steve Reich, Kurt Schwertsik and Michael Torke. Fell also expanded the relationship with Leonard Bernstein to include the representation of most of his major works.

As he navigated the internal company politics from his office at the top of Regent Street, Fell also moved up the structure, becoming a director of the parent company that owned B&H in 1977 and, in 1985, managing director, Group Publishing. As his power increased, so did his scope to take awkward decisions to safeguard the long-term health of the enterprise.

In 1996, he retired from B&H, though he retained a place on the board for another four years. In 1997 he became chairman of the Royal Philharmonic Society, the august institution which in 1824 had commissioned Beethoven's Ninth Symphony for 50 guineas. In his eight years in the post he put new music, young musicians and live performance at the centre of its activities. He was behind the sale, in 2002, of the RPS archive to the British Library, which secured the Society finances and opened the vaults to scholars. Earlier this year the RPS made him an honorary member.

For almost four decades Fell was a guaranteed presence – latterly with his third wife, Janis Susskind – at any London concert where an interesting new piece was going to be heard, his urbane demeanour never quite concealing a boyish delight at the prospect.

Robert Antony Fell, music publisher: born Liverpool 27 December 1931; married 1957 Katinka Mullins (marriage dissolved 1967, one son, one daughter), 1968 Patricia Blackwell (marriage dissolved 1992, two daughters), 1993 Janis Susskind; died London 6 December 2011.