Wyn Morris: Conductor whose gifts were undermined by his relations with musicians and administrators

Wyn Morris was one of the finest conductors that Britain has produced, an interpreter whose readings of the late-Romantic repertoire in particular drew excited reviews from the critics. But Morris's character was that of a Shakespearean hero, his immense gifts undermined by personal weakness – an insecurity which time and again poisoned his relations with other musicians and with the administrators whose approval he never realised he required. His ornery instincts, exacerbated by alcoholism, could make his behaviour unreliable to the point of self-destructiveness.

Morris's father was the composer Haydn Morris (1891–1965). The youngest of seven children in a mining family, who lost his parents at an early age, Haydn Morris was down the mines by the time he was 12 but managed to get himself through the Royal Academy of Music in London and earn the approval of Elgar for his compositions. Yet he turned down appointments at the Academy and in Canada and spent his life as a church organist and choirmaster in Wales.

Wyn Morris – who knew no English before he was seven – inherited something of his father's cussed pride and followed in his footsteps, studying at the Royal Academy and then at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, under the tutelage of Igor Markevitch. His real schooling in music, he was later to say, had come from listening to wartime broadcasts of Wilhelm Furtwängler on German radio – and in due course he was himself to be dubbed "the Celtic Furtwängler".

He had early experience as a conductor with the Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra, and at the head of a Royal Artillery band during National Service. In 1954, back in civvies, he founded the Welsh Symphonic Orchestra, remaining its chief conductor for three years. In 1957 he won the Koussevitsky Memorial Prize at Tanglewood, the Massachusetts summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and attracted the interest of George Szell, the martinet conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra.

Thus began a three-year apprenticeship under a man known as a formidable orchestral trainer; Morris rehearsed the orchestra for him and conducted the Cleveland Chamber Orchestra and Orpheus Choir. All went well until one day when the Orchestra had had some new recording equipment installed and Szell was being shown how it worked, asking Morris to take a rehearsal while he went up to the studio. Morris rehearsed a Tchaikovsky symphony, at Szell's request, and enjoyed the compliments of the players afterwards, many of them commenting what a refreshing rehearsal it had been. The implicit contrast was obvious to the jealous Szell, listening upstairs through the open microphones, and the next day Morris was out on his ear.

He had won a conducting competition in Liverpool in 1958, and on his return from the US served as music director of the Royal National Eisteddfod in Wales from 1960 until 1962. In 1963 he enjoyed critical acclaim with a performance of Mahler's Ninth Symphony with the Royal Philharmonic in the Festival Hall: "Never since the late Bruno Walter", wrote Mosco Carner in The Times, "do we remember such a persuasive and thoroughly idiomatic rendering of this mammoth score". At the time Mahler was very much a rarity in the concert schedules, but his music was to cement Morris' reputation as one of the most exciting British conductors.

In 1964 he was appointed conductor of the London Chamber Orchestra and made a Fellow of the Royal College of Music, and in 1965, with Isabella Wallich, he founded the Symphonica of London. Wallich owned a label, Delysé, that had specialised in Welsh music. She and Morris entered into a relationship that at some stage became personal as well as professional, although her autobiography, Recording my Life, is discreet on the matter. Over the next few years they set about presenting all the Mahler symphonies, in concert and recordings. The recording they made of Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn – the soloists were Geraint Evans and the young Janet Baker – was only the second time these songs had been taken into the studio.

Stepping in to take over some concerts for the Royal Choral Society after the death of Sir Malcolm Sargent in 1967, Morris was appointed the Society's conductor the next year – but his unorthodox methods divided its members and administrators. When he was fired in 1970, he set up The Bruckner-Mahler Choir with some 70 former RCS members who followed him into exile. Disruption followed him to the Huddersfield Choral Society of which he was named director in 1969: his fractious behaviour caused tension and his contract was brought to an end in 1974.

Working with Morris, the impresario and record producer John Boyden said, "was a bit like trying to get a cat to fetch a stick". Boyden had set up a digital post-production studio in Staines and Morris, who then lived in Slough, "used to come down and beat my brains out about how he was the greatest this, that and the other". The ear-bending was obviously effective: when in 1984 Boyden needed a conductor for a Wagner recording, he booked Morris. "He walked out into Abbey Road in front of this enormous orchestra – the London Symphony Orchestra – and he later admitted to me in fairly basic Anglo-Saxon terms that he was terrified: he hadn't conducted an orchestra for nine years. Anyway, the record was excellent, and very Germanic – he made the LSO into a German orchestra."

A group of City businessmen had been present at the recording and decided to use the Business Expansion Scheme to fund a series of classical recordings: Morris was given the plum assignment of conducting the LSO in recordings of all the Beethoven symphonies, again attracting laudatory reviews. Since his concerts with the Orchestra were also well received, the LSO began to consider giving him a position – which is when Morris' personality kicked in and he decided he was not being recompensed properly, although he had been paid a handsome fee and was receiving a royalty for the Beethoven recordings.

He had, Boyden feels, "a certain sort of arrogance that was self-defeating. So when we had finished the Beethoven, he sent me a summons, he sent one to the LSO, he sent one to Pickwick [the record label], and he sent one to the company that had put the money up – and that rather ruined everything! He had a famous lawyer named [Oscar] Beuselinck. We had an uproarious meeting with him, and Beuselinck said: 'Next time you engage a solicitor, try telling him the truth!'" Morris had to sign a document withdrawing all his allegations.

Boyden was prepared to give Morris another chance and so in 1998 booked him to conduct the New Queen's Hall Orchestra in four concerts of late-Romantic repertoire in the Barbican – Bruckner, Mahler, Strauss and Wagner – some of which were repeated in regional engagements. But, as Boyden recalled, "he gradually disintegrated during the time we were doing these concerts. He started turning on the players – an attitude he must have learned from Szell, who could be a pretty nasty character and who must have gulled him into thinking he could be nasty to people. So after he behaved particularly badly to a brilliant soprano we had singing the [Strauss] Four Last Songs, I hoofed him out the door – with great regret, but realising I couldn't carry people with me into this sort of realm of madness. That was the end of him. It was a terrible shame, but I don't think he worked again."

Morris was now reduced to bending the ears of people he thought might be in a position to revive the career he had himself scuppered. The writer Norman Lebrecht was one of them:

"By the time I knew him Wyn was a self-made caricature of a sodden, elderly Welshman... He used to ring me every other year with a scheme that was going to change the face of music and revive his career. Inevitably, nothing ever happened... 'I think we can manage another bottle, don't you?' was the phrase I best remember from an alcoholic lunch."

For all his cavalier disregard for playing the system, Morris did occasionally put an official foot forward. Thanks to Delysé's track-record in Welsh music, it was he who conducted and recorded the music for the investiture of the Prince of Wales in 1969. A year later he conducted two works by Sir Arthur Bliss, then Master of the Queen's Musick. And, most improbably of all, in September 1991 he conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in Copland's A Lincoln Portrait, which sets Lincoln's Gettysburg Address; the narrator was Margaret Thatcher, not long deposed as leader of the Conservative Party.

John Boyden's respect for Morris' musicianship was undiminished by his personal foibles: "In certain repertoire, there's no question that he was head and shoulders above most modern conductors – and I really mean most, like 99 per cent of them. He had an understanding of breadth and depth, of long viewing. He wasn't dealing in bars... he was going for the sweep. And that was intoxicating at times. Wyn Morris was all feeling; he wasn't intellectual. So his music was usually very good because it was passionate... But his problem wasn't the music."

Martin Anderson

Wyn Morris, conductor: born Trellech, Monmouthshire 14 February 1929; married Ruth MacDowell (deceased; one son, one daughter); died London 23 February 2010.

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