Obituary: Norman Del Mar

Norman Rene Del Mar, conductor: born 31 July 1919; Principal Conductor, English Opera Group 1949-54; Conductor and Professor of Conducting, Guildhall School of Music 1953- 60, Royal College of Music 1972-90; Conductor, Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra 1954, BBC Scottish Orchestra 1960-65, Royal Academy of Music 1974-77; Principal Conductor, Academy of BBC 1974-77; CBE 1975; Principal Guest Conductor, Bournemouth Sinfonietta 1983-85; Artistic Director and Principal Conductor, Aarhus Symfoniorkester, Denmark 1985- 88 (Conductor of Honour 1989-94); books include Richard Strauss 1962- 72, Anatomy of the Orchestra 1981, Conducting Beethoven 1992; married 1947 Pauline Mann (two sons); died Bushey, Hertfordshire 6 February 1994.

'THAT's the sort of thing.'

Countless British orchestral players will remember Norman Del Mar's much-imitated comment, habitually made at the end of the first run-through of an unfamiliar piece.

Then the hard work would begin - and nobody worked harder than Del Mar himself. His energy was prodigious, his knowledge of the score comprehensive and meticulous. The sheer number of works he had mastered was mind-boggling and his curiosity infinite: among the rarer names whose music he promoted can be found those of Blomdahl, Bacewicz, Havergal Brian, Don Banks, Dennis ApIvor, Lord Berners and Balfe, whose The Bohemian Girl he conducted for Beecham in 1951 - Festival of Britain year. He launched (and often relaunched) an amazing number of works by British composers. He loved extravagant projects - the Busoni Piano Concerto, Granville Bantock's Omar Khayyam, d'Indy's La Foret enchantee with the full complement of harps. Above all he loved Richard Strauss and his three-volume critical commentary on the composer's life and works is definitive.

As a horn-player (with Dennis Brain) in the Royal Philharmonic, Del Mar played some Strauss for Beecham and it was in 1947, when he was 28, that the latter arranged his professional debut. He conducted Macbeth and the Symphonic Fantasia from Die Frau ohne Schatten as part of a Strauss Festival presented by Beecham in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Strauss was present and during the rehearsal of the Fantasia (in Del Mar's own words) 'came up to the podium, glumly regarded the score for a few moments, muttered 'All my own fault', and went away'.

As Beecham's associate with the RPO Del Mar acquired both experience and repertoire, though it was as founder, in 1944, of the Chelsea Symphony Orchestra that he was best placed to explore some of the riskier parts of the repertoire - for example Hindemith, Poulenc, Stravinsky and Mahler's Second and Ninth Symphonies. In 1949 he was appointed Principal Conductor of the English Opera Group and made - not least because of his own histrionic gifts - a considerable personal success of Britten's Let's Make an Opera. The association continued for several years.

In the mid-1950s Del Mar began to work with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, mainly undertaking, it has to be said, the studio programmes which Sargent found too great an effort. However, this valuable apprenticeship led to his appointment as chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Orchestra which, in five years, he put firmly on to the map as an ensemble of fine quality. Naturally, too, he explored new parts of the repertoire, especially the music of Scottish composers including Iain Hamilton and Thea Musgrave, whom he greatly admired and to whom he dedicated his encyclopaedic Anatomy of the Orchestra. From time to time he crossed the road in Glasgow to conduct the Scottish National Orchestra and I can clearly remember performances of Bloch's Schelomo with the very young Jacqueline du Pre: the energy given off jointly by soloist and conductor was formidable. His Scottish connections continued over many years and, as recently as 1985, he conducted Strauss's Capriccio for Scottish Opera.

During the 1960s and 1970s Del Mar was more and more busy and successful. He conducted all the major British orchestras and gave some memorable Elgar with the Philharmonia. (Boult greatly admired his Enigma Variations.) He travelled extensively, often for the British Council, and made many recordings, among them works by Gerhard, Rawsthorne, Lutyens and Maw with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. With the same orchestra he gave premieres of music by Rainier, Wood, Crosse, LeFanu, Bennett and Dalby among many others. His championship of British composers continued in the early 1980s with a series of four EMI records on which he conducted the Bournemouth Sinfonietta.

His connections with the BBC also continued. After the musicians' strike in 1980 (during which he joined the picket-line outside Broadcasting House) he took over the Academy of the BBC - previously its Training Orchestra - and was distressed (as I was) when it became clear that the orchestra was not fulfilling the purposes for which it had been established and was not always - by its very nature - of an acceptable broadcasting standard. Del Mar found himself torn between loyalty to a group of committed young players and an objective understanding of the BBC's requirements. It was a wretched dilemma and it brought out his most sensitive and human qualities.

A happier occasion was a Far Eastern tour by the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1981 which he shared with Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, who was forbidden by the Soviet authorities to visit China. Del Mar had a huge success in Peking and Shanghai, conducting programmes which included music by Maw, Britten and Elgar. I shall long remember his quizzical delight when the encore provided by the Chinese turned out to have been written by two composers jointly, and his professional outrage when Rozhdestvensky, conducting Also sprach Zarathustra later in the tour, omitted the bells at a critical climax.

It sometimes seemed that fate was needlessly hard on Del Mar and it was characteristic that an expedition from Tokyo to Mount Fuji was an unmitigated disaster: low cloud and heavy rain obscured the mountain and there was a monstrous traffic jam on the return journey. He once refused to strike a match in the kitchen, explaining that he had only struck one match in his life and it had been 'a ghastly failure'. There was indeed a certain boyish clumsiness about him and it was odd, I always thought, that though he had watched Strauss at work and had observed his extraordinary economy of gesture, he seemed quite unable to emulate it. Like Strauss a very big man, his physical style was also very big, sometimes extravagant and not always helpful where tricky leads were concerned. One trembled when an emphatic down-beat gave him complete lift-off; not for nothing was he affectionately known as 'The Mass of Life'.

He was a man who inspired affection and loyalty (as well as exasperation). But those who knew Norman Del Mar best were aware, latterly, that despite his achievements and his popularity (he more than once conducted the Last Night of the Proms) he was in some sense a disappointed man. He had certainly hoped to inherit the BBC Symphony Orchestra. In 1985 he was appointed Principal Conductor, and later Conductor of Honour, of the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra in Denmark, where he did excellent work with a fine ensemble. But he would have loved a major British orchestra and, on grounds of musicianship, experience and enthusiasm, he no doubt deserved one.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£36000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk