Obituary: Sir Thomas Armstrong
Monday 04 July 1994
THOMAS ARMSTRONG was Principal of the Royal Academy of Music from 1955 to 1968, a leading figure in the musical world of Oxford University for many years and a champion of the performance of Bach's music in Britain.
Armstrong was born in 1898 and articled to the organist at Peterborough Cathedral, where he became sub-organist in 1915, before winning an organ scholarship to Keble College, Oxford. After serving in France during the First World War he resumed his studies and held posts playing the organ at Manchester Cathedral, St Peter's, Eaton Square, in London, and Exeter Cathedral, before being appointed organist of Christ Church, Oxford, in 1933.
Unfortunately many of the teaching registers of the Royal College of Music, in London, were swept into salvage during the Second World War, and so it is difficult to establish exactly when in the early Twenties Armstrong was taught composition there by my husband Ralph Vaughan Williams. One story remains which Tom Armstrong must have told me himself. Discussing operas, he said to RVW that he had been to hear Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier about a dozen times. 'Tom, Tom, I hope that you are not being taken in by that overheated music,' was the answer.
I did not meet the Armstrongs until many years later when RVW took me to lunch with them. They were then long established in Oxford, where Tom was Choragus of the University. Ralph and Tom had many shared friendships at that time - both were devoted to Bach's music. At this period, the late Forties and early Fifties, we heard a lot of musical gossip from other members of the Oxford Music Faculty which amused us. In spite of what sounded like blood- feuds, when recounted by good storytellers, there were many splendid concerts in Oxford. I remember one for the Oxford Orchestral Society's Jubilee in 1952, where a note in the programme said 'The works included . . . were chosen for their suitability to a solemn Jubilee . . . and because they are intimately connected with the Orchestra's tradition and those who created it.' The conducting was shared by Armstrong, Reginald Jacques, Guy Warrack, Sidney Watson and RVW. A photograph taken afterwards shows them all wearing white carnations in their buttonholes, relaxed, companionable and ready for a feast.
In 1955 Tom Armstrong became Principal of the Royal Academy of Music. We were living in Hanover Terrace, in Regent's Park, so we were near neighbours. There were several benefits for us - we came to know Tom's wife, Hester, well, we were often invited to concerts and operas at the Academy and we acquired Tom as a tenor for our madrigal parties. His son, Robert (now Lord Armstrong of Ilminster), was already one of our most relied-on singers. To have two Armstrong tenors was a delight to RVW. Good tenors are always covetable treasure.
Hester Armstrong was a wonderful hostess. Besides entertaining such vistors as we became, she was a great cherisher of the Academy students, aware of their difficulties, their love-affairs, their needs and their successes. Besides this she found it possible to continue the work she had started at Oxford, attending art classes and working at portrait busts and delightful figures of animals and birds. She was great fun to be with and I enjoyed her company enormously. They were very happy years for us.
In 1958 RVW conducted the Bach St Matthew Passion for the last time. He had given up the conductorship of the Leith Hill Musical Festival after 50 years, in 1955, but the Passion was a separate venture and one of his particular joys. That last year of his life two performances had been planned, to which he did not feel equal, so he asked Tom Armstrong to conduct one of them. This was, on both sides, a matter of generosity and of trust. Those performances were a demonstration of a shared love of Bach and both were memorable to everyone who took part in them or who were in the audiences.
After retiring from the Academy in 1968 Armstrong became Chairman of the Musicians' Benevolent Fund. I was a member of the Executive Committee and saw him frequently, both at committee meetings and during the setting-up of various of the fund's projects. He was a delight to talk with; his interest in literature and in all the arts was deeply enjoyable. He loved all things French; for many years going to France for holidays, often with his son, was one of the joys of his life.
I saw less of the Armstrongs when they went to live at Newton Blossomville, in Bedfordshire, though we still met and corresponded. When Hester died, in 1982, Tom played the organ at her funeral, one of the bravest things I have seen done, and he gave many of us who had been at the service the sort of party she would have given to friends with the help of his daughter, Helen, where affection and laughter held us all together in memory of someone we all loved.
After Hester's death, Tom moved to Olney, William Cowper's town, where the memory of that poet was a sort of companionship to him. But he was fortunate, too, to have a living companion when the violinist Rosemary Rappaport joined him. It made a vivid, lively and cheering household and kept his own alert spirit in good repair. His 90th-birthday party at the Garrick Club was a great occasion. Though he was finding that he needed a walking stick, he continued to spend holidays abroad, to come to London for the Council meetings of the Musicians' Benevolent Fund and to see his friends.
Though his body became frail, he never lost touch with life. His much-loved son and daughter, his grandchildren, his friends were always important. Robert told me that as Tom lay in bed during his last days he was composing tunes in his mind, not caring that they would never be written down, but sustained by music, the long delight of his life.
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