Obituary: Alexander Hyatt King
Friday 24 March 1995
Born in Beckenham in 1911, he went to Dulwich College and thence to King's College, Cambridge, where he took a double First in classics in 1933. He later wrote that his choice of a career in the British Museum was made partly by a process of elimination: opportunities for carrying out research in humanities were few, unemployment at the time was great, and he didn't wish either to teach or to cram for entry to the Higher Civil Service. He heard that the museum planned to engage a number of temporary cataloguers, applied, came first in the interviews and took up his post in February 1934.
In his early years as a cataloguer, he learnt the rules which applied to the General Catalogue of Printed Books, and above all, the absolute requirement for complete accuracy which was a hallmark of all those who were trained in that hothouse. When the war came the cataloguing work was regarded as essential, because its publication earned much-needed American currency, so, apart from a short spell seconded to the Foreign Office, King remained in the museum throughout and in December 1944 was transferred to the Music Room to succeed William C. Smith as Superintendent.
On arrival there he found that the previous regime in the Music Room had left much to be desired and that there were large arrears of accessions. When, in retirement, he wrote a history of the museum's music collections he felt it wise to bring it to a close with the retirement of Smith's predecessor, Barclay Squire, in 1920.
From now on there were three closely interwoven strands in his career, in all of which he excelled. First, there was the management of the music collections. He reviewed the cataloguing practice in the Music Room to bring it into line with that of the main library and was presented with a particular challenge with the arrival in the museum in January 1947 of Paul Hirsch's library of music and music literature, an acquisition which at once placed the museum's music collection in a leading world position.
As well as the mechanics of cataloguing the collections, King organised exhibitions, one of which should be mentioned - the commemoration of the centenary of Mozart's birth in 1956. The booklet, Mozart and the British Museum, which King wrote to accompany it, remained a steady seller for some quarter of a century, but there was a more important consequence. Knowing that the heirs of the author and collector Stefan Zweig had in London his important collection of 16 Mozart autographs, including Mozart's autograph thematic catalogue, King successfully persuaded them to lend the collection for the exhibition and, thereafter, to leave it on permanent loan in the museum, where scholars could have ready access to it. A move which proved fortuitous for the future of the national music collection, for some 30 years later, in 1986, the owners decided to donate not only the Mozart autographs but Zweig's complete collection of his musical and literary autographs to the British Library.
In 1951 King was accorded a Deputy Superintendent, Oliver Neighbour, a remarkable music librarian with qualities complimenting King's. A harmonious working relationship developed which lasted 25 years and which enabled King to raise his sights from museum routine and play a crucial part in a series of external post-war initiatives. There was the establishment of the International Association of Music Libraries in 1951 (of which he was a founding Vice-President and later President, in 1955-59) together with an extremely active United Kingdom Branch, of which he remained President from 1953 to 1968.
This body joined up with the International Musicological Society to establish the Rpertoire Internationale des Sources Musicales, for which King energetically raised the necessary funds to compile the British contribution; much of this work was facilitated by an earlier project of which he, too, had been a leading light, The British Union Catalogue of Early Music, published in 1957. Another achievement of this period was the founding in 1948 of the British Institute of Recorded Sound, which was eventually (1983) to become the National Sound Archive, of whose Board he was Chairman (1951- 62).
The third strand in his career was of course his own work as a scholar. He had a lively, percipient and enquiring mind and, nurtured by his superior and mentor Cecil .B. Oldman (Principal Keeper of Printed Books 1948-59), his scholarly work grew naturally side by side with his official duties. The lengthy list of his writings in The New Grove bears testimony to the breadth of his interests, many arising naturally out of his work at the museum (Four Hundred Years of Music Printing; English Pictorial Title- Pages; the bibliography of "Lilli Marlene") and the history of the collections in his care. In 1961 he gave the Sandars bibliography lectures at Cambridge which were published in 1963 as Some British Collectors of Music c. 1600- 1960.
However, Mozart became his main preoccupation: the collection of his Mozart articles published in Mozart in Retrospect in 1955 (third edition, 1970) remains essential for those following the development of Mozart studies. His scholarly work secured him an assured place in British musicology; he was a Vice-President of the Royal Musical Association from 1959 and President from 1974 to 1978. There are many who will remember his kindness with great gratitude.
King retired from his post, by now in the British Library, in 1976 with an international reputation (the list of his writings includes many contributions to festschrifts for eminent foreign scholars of many different nationalities) which was not only a personal achievement but one which enhanced the collections to which he had devoted his life. His retirement to Southwold in Suffolk and his release from official duties gave him time to fish and watch cricket, always two favourite activities, and to pursue many loose scholarly ends for which there had not been time before.
He wrote three books about the music collections in the British Museum (Printed Music in the British Museum, 1979, A Wealth of Music, 1983, and A Mozart Legacy, 1984) as well as contributing a percipient and not uncritical memoir about his life in the museum, published in The Library of the British Museum in 1961. In the latter, describing those of his colleagues who impressed him most, he wrote: "The essential work of a great library had long been maintained by cultured, dedicated, self-effacing men of high erudition and scholarship concerned with using their intellect for the public good." In writing this he was setting out a personal ideal which he surely himself achieved in no mean measure. All those who benefit from the musical resources of the British Library stand in Alec King's permanent debt.
Alexander Hyatt King, music librarian and scholar: born Beckenham 18 July 1911; a Deputy Keeper, Department of Printed Books, British Museum 1959-76, Superintendent of the Music Room 1944-73, Music Librarian, Reference Division, British Library 1973-76; married 1943 Evelyn Davies(two sons); died Southwold 10 March 1995.
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