Obituary: Bernard Wheeler Robinson

With the death of Bernard Wheeler Robinson amateur music-making has lost one of its most loved father figures. His greatest achievement was Music Camp, a powerhouse of amateur music-making whose output could eclipse all but the largest of music festivals.

It began in 1927 when a group of Cambridge friends took a musical holiday together, hiring a small village hall at Poynders End near Hitchin in Hertfordshire and camping in a nearby field with borrowed tents and kitchen equipment. From these beginnings things just grew. In 1935 Music Camp acquired its first permanent base at Bothampstead, in Berkshire, by which time the pattern of two nine-day music camps each year was already established, dented only by the Second World War years.

In 1963 Robinson and family moved to Pigotts, Eric Gill's former house, on the beech-ringed top of a hill near High Wycombe. Music Camp moved there three years later, to find not only space to expand, but after 1976 the possibility of indoor accommodation for smaller parties, making weekend events feasible in all but the depths of the Chilterns winter. Sooner or later you or I would have grown at best uncomfortable at invasion on such a scale: Robinson never did.

As Music Camp expanded, Robinson delegated more and more of the organising, until by the mid-1980s it could function effectively without him. But his spirit remained everywhere, and the ethos was the one he had deliberately fostered. The music-making was paramount: those who attended were expected to make it their first priority. Conditions were kept basic, not to say Spartan, which had two marvellous effects: stressing the music and sense of communing with friends; and encouraging the young and, more importantly, young in spirit.

All work was to be shared equally, not just chores like washing up, scrubbing and cleaning, but even carpentry and brick-laying; this fostered a sense of belonging rarely found in such a large musical organisation. It is a testimony to the family spirit of Music Camp that there are so many second and even third-generation Campers. And the spirit goes on: the 132nd Camp takes place at the end of this month.

Robinson managed to bring the best out of almost anyone: what an event looked like, or sounded like, wasn't nearly so important as what you brought to it and what you got out of it. The philosophy paid off. When Music Camp began, playing even the symphonies of Beethoven was an adventure; by the time Robinson was taking a back seat in the 1980s Campers were mounting their own Ring cycle and tackling scores like Messiaen's Turangalila and Chronochromie.

Robinson was committed to amateur music-making and indignant that what he described as "the mainstay of music, the vehicle of its existence, historically and financially, the medium in which it develops" got so little attention. With typical resolve he set out to survey this unquantifiably vast area, producing in 1985 his idiosyncratic book, An Amateur in Music.

He was the son of the distinguished Baptist theologian Henry Wheeler Robinson, but his own unquenchable search for truth and endearingly child- like curiosity drew him not to religion, but via mathematics to physics - new, challenging and exciting. After university (Trinity College, Cambridge), he stayed in Cambridge, working in the 1920s on Ernest Rutherford's team at the Cavendish Laboratory, and then spent nine years under Sir William Bragg at the Davy-Faraday Laboratory of the Royal Institution on X-ray crystallography. In the late 1930s Robinson was senior lecturer at the Military College of Science at Woolwich.

During the Second World War he spent three years at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, followed by two years at the Ministry of Aircraft Production. After the war he designed medical equipment at the Medical Research Council's laboratory in Hampstead for three years before moving in 1949 to the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington, where he was Superintendent of the Applied Physics Division until his retirement in 1964.

The surface appearance of anyone or anything held little in the way of interest or distraction for him: he was interested solely in substance. This, combined with his personal modesty and total lack of ceremony, won him many devoted friends. It also informed everything he did. In his violin- playing, for instance, he acquired just enough technique to get him through the literature and to penetrate directly to the heart and mind of some of the greatest music ever written. It was the same with whatever he put his hand to. Many friends received gifts of recycled joinery, assembled with ingenuity, imagination, care and almost no regard for final appearance.

In 1933 Robinson married Alice Dodds, a gifted musician and pianist. Some eighteen months after her death in 1958 he married the cellist Elizabeth Orloff-Davidoff, a daughter of Lord Howard de Walden. Robinson had a somewhat old-fashioned attitude to women, treating them with courtly respect rather than as equals, though any that demonstrated practical or organisational abilities was quickly accorded the status of an honorary man.

It was not so much failing health that marred his final years as the increasing deafness which began to cut him off from the companionship of friends and from the music he had done so much to foster. And, inevitably, came the losses of many dear and close friends from the early days of Camp. But there were compensations; in his eighties came the grandchildren who, literally, gave him a new lease of life.

David Mather

Bernard Wheeler Robinson, physicist and musician: born 6 June 1904; married 1933 Alice Dodds (died 1958; one son), 1960 Elizabeth Orloff-Davidoff (died 1976); died Speen, Buckinghamshire 7 July 1997.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

HR Manager - HR Generalist / Sole in HR

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - HR Generalis...

Business Analyst - Banking - London - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst - Banking - People Change - Lond...

HR Manager - Milton Keynes - £50,000 + package

£48000 - £50000 per annum + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Shared...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape