Obituary: Bernard Wheeler Robinson

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The Independent Online
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.