Obituary: Willoughby Pountney

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If few countries can boast such a rich regional musical life as Britain, this is surely a legacy of the vision, skills and energy of figures like Willoughby Pountney who, first in Birmingham and Oxford, then later on in the West Country, played a pivotal role in bringing professional repertoire and standards to three generations of performers and listeners.

Born in Birmingham in 1910, he became a founder member of the BBC Midland Chorus with whom he participated in many first live broadcast performances in the Forties. At the same time, as Director and Honorary Secretary of the Midland Music Club, he revealed himself to be an outstanding young impresario presenting figures like Benjamin Britten, Francis Poulenc, the singer Peter Pears, the oboist Leon Goossens, the conductor Edward Downes and the duettists Cyril Smith and Phyllis Sellick.

In 1945 he moved to Oxfordshire, and was for 30 years a lay-clerk at New College, Oxford under David Lumsden and Edward Higginbottom, whilst continuing to demonstrate his ability as a gifted conductor through his association with the Royal Military College of Science at Shrivenham.

Those who largely renounce conventional career opportunities to fulfil the exacting and unsocial hours required of a church chorister and freelance conductor receive but modest remuneration, but Pountney successfully supported his life-long passion for music-making through work as an independent sales representative and latterly as a civil servant.

On retirement in 1976 he settled in Clevedon, North Somerset where he deputised as a lay-clerk at Bristol Cathedral and for 15 years conducted the Nailsea Choral Society, signing off with a magnificent performance of Elijah on his 80th birthday.

To have been such an accomplished and versatile soloist and choral singer for some 70 years would alone distinguish him, but it is arguably as a choral conductor that this reserved and dignified man was of outstanding significance, confidently leading his singers and audiences away from parades of over-familiar war-horses into the stimulating world of little- known masterpieces by Dissler, Schutz, Respighi, Poulenc, Jancek, Jonathan Harvey and many more.

Pountney's exciting and imaginative programmes drawn from a lifetime of performing works under some of Britain's greatest conductors and composers not only attracted widespread critical acclaim but also indirectly transformed the musical climate of a considerable area through their invigorating influence on other choirs' approach to selecting concert repertoire.

Yet this was no impetuous dreamer; here was a man of vision who planned far ahead, skilfully budgeted each season's innovative concerts, never missed or misused rehearsals, hired his own players, wrote fine programme notes and delivered the publicity: a consummate maestro and impresario.

Few musicians can have earned greater respect over a longer period than did Willoughby Pountney. He will be fondly remembered by musicians of all ages across the country as one who inspired and led by example with his dedication, scholarship and tireless spirit of enterprise.

Andrea Argent

Edward Willoughby Pountney, civil servant and musician: born Birmingham 27 April 1910; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Clevedon, Somerset 11 August 1997.