John Steane: Distinguished literary scholar and music critic

Friday 22 April 2011 00:00

An authoritative, urbane and avuncular figure, John Steane was never one to be defined chiefly by his profession. While a distinguished school master of long standing and an erudite literary scholar, to the wider public he also proved to be a most consummate chronicler of this country's musical life.

Spending his formative years in the Midlands, John Steane was educated at King Henry VIII School, Coventry. While there, he became a member of the cathedral choir, his early musical training capably overseen by its distinguished organist, Alan Stephenson. When, following the blitz of 14 November 1940, the cathedral was destroyed and the choir disbanded, Steane moved to the neighbouring Holy Trinity Church.

It was while undertaking his national service, between school and university, that he first met his lifelong friend and fellow future music critic, Sergeant Edward Greenfield. Subsequently taking up a scholarship to read English at Jesus College, Cambridge, he came under the influence of two academic heavyweights, the forthright F.R. Leavis and the celebrated Elizabethan specialist A.P. Rossiter. It was they who instilled in him the academic rigour that so characterised his later career.

Graduating in 1952, he immediately joined the staff of Merchant Taylors' School, Northwood, Middlesex, becoming head of English. Here, over the next 36 years, the breadth of his intellect and the warmth of his personality made him an inspirational guide for generations of students. While influencing many other areas of school life – sport, scouts, music and drama – he also served as housemaster of Walter House.

Steane proved to be a fine writer, initially distilling his extensive knowledge into what has become a seminal text, Marlowe: A Critical Study (1964). It was soon followed by a number of scholarly editions of Elizabethan literature for the Penguin English Library. In the interim came a concise yet sympathetic handbook on Tennyson (1966). A monograph outlining the history of drama at Merchant Taylors' School typically failed to mention his own not insignificant role in its development.

Able to write with equal facility on music, here again Steane proved to be a trusted guide, particularly for opera and vocal enthusiasts. While sometimes he may have had difficulty remembering where he had left his glasses, his memory for singers, casts, performance dates and defunct record labels never left him. In addition to contributing a wealth of finely written critiques to a wide range of music journals, including The Gramophone, The Musical Times, Opera and The Classical Review, his scholarship also regularly informed The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. He also wrote The Independent's obituary of Dame Joan Sutherland, who died last year. A familiar figure broadcasting on BBC Radio 3's CD Review, in addition, his sleeve notes, always meticulously researched, elegant and stylish, increasingly graced the catalogues of all the major record companies.

On a more expansive canvas was his large-scale critical study The Grand Tradition: Seventy Years of Singing on Record 1900-1970 (1974). Other acclaimed books followed, including Voices, Singers and the Critics (1992), three volumes of colourful vignettes, Singers of the Century (1996-2000), and most recently, a privately published memoir based on a series of articles originally written for Opera Now (2010). In 1995, he contributed to Elizabeth Schwarzkopf: A Career on Record.

As individual in print as he was in the flesh, Steane always revelled in the time spent chewing over new ideas with musicians he had come to know and respect. For him, this sharing of experiences was unquestionably what the job of a critic was all about. Particularly sensitive to mood, he was quick to appreciate difficulties and even quicker to give help and support.

In 2008, in a rare accolade for a critic, his 80th birthday was honoured by The Worshipful Company of Musicians. Twenty years earlier, on his retirement from Merchant Taylors' School, The Taylorian affectionately commented that his department was always a happy one and frequently a hilarious one. He had a great gift for friendship. One could not ask for a finer epitaph.

Kenneth Shenton

John Barry Steane, schoolmaster, writer, literary scholar and music critic: born Coventry, Warwickshire 12 April 1928; died 17 March 2011.

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