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The Earl of Harewood: Passionate music lover who ran the Edinburgh Festival, English National Opera and Opera North

John Calder
Wednesday 13 July 2011 00:00 BST

George Lascelles, seventh Earl of Harewood, exactly fitted the model for a late 18th or early 19th century Whig aristocrat: tall, cultured, liberal, curious about the world, and able to combine his interests, pleasures and career in such a way as to leave no clear demarcation line between them. Although he was a minor member of the royal family through his mother, who had been Alice, the Princess Royal, he took little interest in royal affairs, and after the bad court reception of Benjamin Britten's coronation opera Gloriana in June 1953, a commission given by the Royal Opera House at his instigation, he was not particularly welcome at Buckingham Palace. The picture given of the first Queen Elizabeth in that work, as a raddled and bad-tempered old harridan, was not considered to be very flattering to the new young Queen or appropriate to the occasion.

The great passion of his life was music. He became interested as a schoolboy at Eton and later at Cambridge; as a prisoner of war in Germany he requested the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians from his family, the many volumes of which he read from cover to cover in the camp. From 1951-53 he was a non-executive director of Covent Garden, but made his presence and influence felt in the planning of repertoire and engagement of artists, not least in the matter of Gloriana. He was also on the board of the English Opera Group, which Britten had founded to promote works not in the repertory of other companies. In the late 1950s he became an administrative assistant to Sir David Webster at Covent Garden.

Harewood was not particularly interested in what the public wanted, but lobbied for works about which he was enthusiastic or curious. He married two musicians, first Marion Stein, the pianist daughter of Erwin Stein, one of Schoenberg's most prominent pupils and an eminent musicologist, then Bambi Tuckwell, sister of the horn player, who was also a pianist.

Harewood found it easy to mingle with people from all backgrounds but still remain every inch an aristocrat; he was happiest in artistic circles and loyal to those whose talents he respected, but some took advantage of his generosity. He was prominent in the clique around Britten, but when his first marriage broke up Britten sided with his wife and he was frozen out.

After the war he began writing about opera for the New Statesman and Nation and then began to contribute opera articles to Richard Buckle's monthly magazine Ballet, which he helped to fund; this gave him the idea to start a sister publication in the same format and he started Opera. Harold Rosenthal was engaged as assistant editor, doing nearly all the work, and then the editor when Harewood, with all his other commitments, became bored with it. Rosenthal later became the owner when Harewood gave it to him.

Opera remains one of the most influential periodicals in its field. But perhaps the peak of his career came when he accepted the directorship of the Edinburgh Festival in 1961; it gave him the opportunity and artistic scope his enthusiasm needed.

The Festival had declined in international interest since the time of Rudolf Bing, its first director, but Harewood had the authority, as the Queen's cousin, to overawe the small-minded, penny-pinching and philistine city councillors who made up the bulk of the committee. His biggest mistake, I always thought, was to invite the committee to call him George, and to become too democratic and friendly.

In his first year he put the emphasis on the music of Schoenberg, with Franz Liszt in second place, and commissioned Richard Buckle to mount a large exhibition about Diaghilev. Although there were the usual complaints about modernist non-melodic music, the public attended and many were converted. The following year he promoted Janacek, bringing many foreign companies to the Festival.

He also introduced the first literary element by allowing me to organise a literary festival in Edinburgh's largest hall attended by more than 70 world-class novelists, discussing such topics as nationalism, commitment, censorship and the literature of the future in front of a fascinated public: this received international coverage. Harewood travelled around the world to find festival fare on a scale that would not have been permitted to any director less aristocratically prestigious.

He also brought the Festival drama programme up to date; major companies came from abroad and new European plays were produced. Alec Guinness's memorable performance in Ionesco's Exit the King started at the 1963 Festival, the year a second literary conference, devoted to drama, with over 130 participants, provoked a scandal; this was artificially stirred up by Moral Rearmament, who were strong at the time in Scotland.

The scandal concerned the brief appearance of the top half of a nude model in a demonstration of what the future of the theatre might be like (it was Britain's first "Happening"), and was seen by millions on television without objection; when the case brought by the Prosecutor Fiscal was thrown out of court, it still dragged Harewood into controversy at a time when his private life was under scrutiny, his marriage at the time being in disintegration.

He resigned in 1965: the real art and music lovers of Edinburgh soon realised that they had lost a Festival Director who had brought prestige and new blood by basing programmes on his own taste and enthusiasm. He widened the experience of the arts for the public because he wanted to widen his own horizons. Later directors have mostly not dared to be as experimental and forward-looking.

He next became a director, then managing director, of Sadlers Wells Opera (1972-85), helping supervise the transition from Islington to the Coliseum and the change of name to the English National Opera, in spite of the Royal Opera House's objections. Again, he widened the repertoire, engaging new singers, conductors and producers; he also changed the constitution of the ENO so that non-British singers could be engaged.

But his reputation again fell under a cloud because of a tour to Dallas and New York in 1984. He had been assured by the mayor of the former that there would be no difficulty in raising the money needed for an American tour from the well-heeled citizens of Texas, but only a small proportion of the sum was raised. Although the tour was an artistic success, particularly at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the loss to the company was serious and Harewood was blamed for his naivety and lack of commercial acumen; he declined to make any contribution to the loss from his own pocket. It played a part in his resignation in 1985.

After Edinburgh he also became a director of Australian Opera and organised two Adelaide Festivals. He was influential in setting up Opera North, based in Leeds, and was a director of that company from 1978 to 1981 when it was largely an associate of the ENO. It is now independent and successfully tours Northern cities.

Perhaps one of Harewood's longest-lasting contributions to British musical culture will prove to be his editing, revision and expansion of Kobbe's Complete Opera Book, a standard work which gives the plots of the operatic repertory with musical analyses and much historical detail. He edited three editions, and it now probably contains more of Harewood's descriptions, opinions and comments than Kobbe's.

After leaving the ENO, Harewood gave more time to managing his estate at Harewood House near Leeds. The Harewood fortune came from the profits that his ancestor, the first earl, had made from the slave trade, but it is probably now much diminished, especially as a result of his divorce, which cost him his large London town house on Orme Square. His enthusiasms were not limited to music. He was interested in all the arts, including an interest in jazz. He was also a keen supporter of Leeds United Football Club and served as president from 1962 until his death. His memoirs, The Tongs and The Bones, were published in 1981.

George Henry Hubert Lascelles, Earl of Harewood, musical and operatic promoter, author and landowner: born London 7 February 1923; Editor, Opera 1950–53; a Director, Royal Opera House, 1951–53, 1969–72; Managing Director, ENO 1972–85, Chairman 1986–95; Artistic Director, Edinburgh International Festival 1961–65; Managing Director, English National Opera North 1978–81; President, Football Association 1963–72, Leeds United FC 1962–; President, British Board of Film Classification 1985–97; KBE 1986; married 1949 Maria Stein (divorced 1967; three sons), 1967 Patricia Tuckwell (one son, one stepson); died 11 July 2011.

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