OBITUARY: Desmond Shawe-Taylor

Chief Music Critic of the Sunday Times for a quarter of a century, without any formal musical training, Desmond Shawe- Taylor belonged to a generation of hard-working and inspired amateurs who learnt their trade as they went along.

Educated at Shrewsbury and Oriel College, Oxford, where he read English, Shawe-Taylor served throughout the Second World War in the Royal Artillery, and on demobilisation he was taken on as music critic by the New Statesman, at the age of 32.

There he remained for 13 years, as one of a galaxy of robust writers who between them turned the New Statesman into compulsory reading for people of all political persuasions. And it was to the arts pages that readers generally turned first for Shawe-Taylor's contemporaries as contributors included V.S. Pritchett, Desmond MacCarthy, Raymond Mortimer and Edward Sackville-West.

Shawe-Taylor and Eddy Sackville-West met in 1935, Shawe-Taylor staying a night in Sackville-West's rooms at Knole, in Kent, before they both attended a performance of Berlioz's opera The Trojans, at that time such a novelty in Britain that they thought it well worth a journey to Glasgow to hear it. A firm, if sometimes bumpy, but very creative, friendship formed that was to last until Sackville-West's death in 1965.

Immediately the war was over, Shawe-Taylor and Sackville-West's Oxford undergraduate friend Eardley Knollys alighted on Long Crichel House, near Wimborne, and the three of them bought it as a weekend retreat. They were later joined by a fourth partner, Raymond Mortimer, literary editor of the New Statesman, and at Long Crichel established a kind of male literary salon.

Guests of every kind tumbled over one another to stay the weekend. Sybil Colefax, Anthony Asquith, Graham Sutherland, Lord Berners, Nancy Mitford, Benjamin Britten, Henry Reed, Cuthbert Worsley, Rose Macaulay, Barbara Ward, Lennox Berkeley, Laurie Lee, Ben Nicolson, Derek Hill (who now has a studio there), C. Day-Lewis, and eventually Graham Greene and the great soprano Elisabeth Schumann all signed the Long Crichel visitors' book.

As both Shawe-Taylor and Sackville-West were early devotees of the gramophone, entertainment consisted of music, conversation and croquet, which Shawe- Taylor listed in Who's Who as one of his recreations. The ambience was one of informal comfort enjoyed with excellent food and plenty of wine.

Fortunately, two outstanding diarists, James Lees-Milne and Frances Partridge, were regular visitors to Long Crichel, and they have left indelible impressions of the sometimes rowdy, always stimulating, atmosphere. "Eardley, Desmond and Eddy lead a highly civilised life," Lees-Milne noted in 1947. "Comfortable house, pretty things, good food." He thought Shawe-Taylor "the gayest, sweetest tempered, most informative person in the wide world". Many years later, Lees-Milne recalled in conversation that life at Long Crichel had been "just hilarity from beginning to end. Unlike Garsington, it was quite unselfconscious. You were left alone. There was nothing organised. And there was never any nonsense about tete-a- tete conversations. Everyone joined in."

The quartet who entertained so generously at Long Crichel could be quarrelsome but they were all essentially civilised and rounded personalities, who contrived to create a home that Ben Nicolson thought "almost too good to be true". Writing to Sackville-West to thank him for a visit in 1949, he said, "I think the serene living you have achieved is miraculous." What Shawe-Taylor contributed in particular, according to the diaries of Frances Partridge, was "boundless high spirits, optimism, volatility, and interest in everything that comes his way".

A good deal of serious work was undertaken at Long Crichel. In 1948 Shawe- Taylor published Covent Garden, a history of the Royal Opera House, and then he and Sackville-West got down to their great collaboration, published in 1951 as The Record Guide. "It became absolutely awful," Shawe-Taylor confided to me during a visit I made to Long Crichel to research a biography of Sackville-West. "We decided that unless the Guide was going to kill us we had better kill it . . . It was the most awful sweat."

It was also in the end a tour de force, with Shawe-Taylor concentrating on a critique of gramophone records of opera and song. The overall result was the kind of guide you could take to bed and read as a novel, and although obviously many details relating to the records themselves are obsolete, Shawe- Taylor's and Sackville-West's succinct comments on various composers are written with a aplomb and striking vividness, amounting to miracles of compression, information and entertainment. It was intended as a selective, not a comprehensive, guide, and it is the stamp of personal preference that gives the work its special flavour.

In 1965 Shawe-Taylor's contribution to musical criticism was recognised by his appointment as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. From 1973 to 1974 he was guest music critic on the New Yorker, and for many years after retiring as Chief Music Critic (in 1983) he continued to contribute articles to the Sunday Times. Even before the onset, in 1993, of his Alzheimer's Disease, to be driven by Shawe- Taylor across Salisbury Plain from the station to Long Crichel was to recall the headlong dash at the wheel of Mr Toad. One of the hardest tasks that befell Derek Hill, on his occasional visits, and in particular the distinguished ophthalmic surgeon Patrick Trevor-Roper, Shawe-Taylor's last partner at Long Crichel, was gently to wean Desmond away from the wheel altogether, following a series of accidents that heralded the final sad demise of a mind that had always been accustomed to working in top gear.

Michael De-la-Noy

Desmond Christopher Shawe-Taylor, music critic: born Co Galway 29 May 1907; music critic, New Statesman 1945-58; Chief Music Critic, Sunday Times 1958-83; CBE 1965; died 1 November 1995.

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