John Amis was a music critic and broadcaster who became a household name thanks to his appearances on the BBC Radio 4 quiz programme My Music, in which he took part for two decades from 1974. Amis had an encyclopedic knowledge of music and delighted in the opportunity to entertain and inform others about his passion, whether on radio and television, at concerts or at summer schools.
Amis was born in Dulwich in 1922 to James Amis, a merchant banker, and Florence, a model. He was educated at Dulwich College, where he met the future musician Donald Swann. On leaving school, and after spending six weeks working in a bank, he decided that he would try to pursue his hobby, classical music, as a career. He joined EMG Handmade Gramophones, a record shop in London’s Grape Street, as a sales assistant in the early 1940s.
When the shop went into decline during wartime, he became the secretary of the London Philharmonic Arts Club, where he met William Glock, who later became controller of classical music at the BBC. In 1948 Glock invited Amis to run the Bryanston Summer School of Music, which he continued to organise over the next three decades at Bryanston and subsequently at Dartington. These were early incarnations of what have since become known as master classes, where established professionals provide teaching to young players just starting out. Amis’s excellent knowledge of music and already wide-reaching network of contacts across the world of music made him the ideal choice to manage the event.
It was in the same year that he married Olive Zorian, the violinist and founder of the Zorian String Quartet. The marriage lasted seven years.
In 1950 Amis made his first broadcast on the BBC’s Sunday-morning Music Magazine, discussing Stravinsky’s Orpheus. His television came in 1961, a piece about the cellist and composer Paul Tortelier for Monitor. With his relaxed style, detailed knowledge and clear passion for music he was a natural in radio and the newer medium of television.
In the late 1950s he tried his hand at singing, taking an audition at the Graz Opera in Austria. Amis later recalled the reaction from the director of the opera house: “Do I understand that you have done music criticism? Ja? Then why don’t you stick to it? Goodbye.”
The Radio 4 panel show My Music was first broadcast in 1967, created by Tony Shryane and Edward J Mason. The format, with the two teams of Ian Wallace and Denis Norden versus Amis and Frank Muir, was like a musical version of Have I Got News for You, where the ability to entertain was more important than the points.
Amis’s role on My Music came about as a result of fortuitous timing. When his friend David Franklin decided to leave the programme for health reasons, in 1974, Amis was recommended by the BBC as a replacement and took to it with aplomb. He continued in the role for the next 20 years, with some of the later episodes being broadcast on television on BBC2. For many years Amis had a column in The Tablet and was the London music critic for The Scotsman, a position he also gained thanks to William Glock.
In June and July last year Amis celebrated his 90th birthday with two special events: at the Aldeburgh Festival he gave a two-hour long talk on his experiences at the festival over 60 years. Then on 3 July there followed a two-and-a-half-hour programme on Radio 3, An Evening with John Amis, hosted by Louise Fryer. This included clips from some of the more than 500 interviews he had done with many of the greatest musicians of our time, including Aaron Copland and Benjamin Britten, for his Radio 3 programme Talking about Music.
Fryer told The Independent: “He was just this amazing quintessential English gentlemen with a limitless knowledge of music. He seemed to have known every important composer and performer of the 20th century and was still keen to share his experiences. The whole thing was very moving for him and he was very thrilled to be back in Broadcasting House and speaking to his audience.
“Right at the end of the programme he announced live on air that he was getting married to Isla – which was a surprise to me, and a wonderful way to sum up his continuing enthusiasm for life!” Fryer added that many listeners had written after the broadcast with their own memories.
As well as his extensive work on radio and television, Amis wrote a volume of biography, Amiscellany: My Life, My Music (1985) and My Music in London 1945-2000 (2006), a selection of anecdotes from throughout his career of which a reviewer wrote, “Amis makes us feel exactly what it was like to live through it all... a part of musical history.”
In recent years Amis had also taken to the internet to post reviews of concerts. The last paragraph of his last blog posting in June, on the Royal Philharmonic performing Damnation of Faust by Berlioz, epitomises his style: “The unforgettable orchestral moments were duly unforgettable - the three piccolos squirming about like eels, the graceful Sylphs, the eloquent viola solo and the Hungarians so brazenly brassy. It was a great evening, only slightly let down, as usual, when the bracing stops and the final heaven starts to bless too long.”
John Preston Amis, music critic and broadcaster: born Dulwich, London 17 June 1922; married 1948 Olive Zorian (divorced 1955), partner to Isla Baring; died 1 August 2013.
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