Obituary: Lt-Col Montagu Cleeve

Margaret Campbell
Saturday 16 January 1993 00:02

Stewart Montagu Cleeve, soldier, teacher and string-player, born Southsea Hampshire 20 October 1894, married 1944 Ruth Harris (one daughter), died Wimbledon 5 January 1993.

MONTAGU CLEEVE was a remarkable man who managed to combine a successful career as an army officer and a professional musician; he also pioneered the revival of the viola d'amore, neglected since the 18th century.

Montagu Cleeve was born in 1894 in Southsea, Hampshire, the son of an officer in the Royal Engineers who came from a long line of military stock. By contrast, his mother was a brilliant pianist and a talented painter. From a very early age Monty Cleeve was encouraged in his innate love of music and had his first piano lessons from his mother when he was seven. But at boarding school in Cheltenham there was no one to teach him and he gave up learning the violin until his schooldays were over - an action he regretted for the rest of his life.

When Cleeve entered the Royal Academy at Woolwich as a cadet, the taboo of music led him to an interest in science. When he was 24 he began relearning the violin, by which time he had a commission in the Royal Artillery and had served in the First World War, in which he had also helped to design the 14in ex-naval gun known as the 'Boche-Buster'.

Although still a serving officer, Cleeve managed to have violin lessons either when he was stationed near London or on leave from India. At first he studied with Editha Knocker and later with the Hungarian Emil Telmanyi. From this time onwards, whatever the difficulties, he managed to keep up with his music. He had his piano shipped to many outposts of the Empire and in 1933 gave the first ever violin recital to be sent over the air from Radio Delhi - in a temporary studio rigged up in a private bungalow where there was no air-conditioning, only fans which blew the music off the stands. When the fans were switched off, the temperature became unbearable and perspiration made stopping the strings almost impossible.

During the Second World War Cleeve was stationed in Hong Kong but was recalled by Winston Churchill to organise the resuscitation of the heavy artillery guns which had been hidden all over England since the signing of the Armistice. He was fortunate in finding the original Boche-Buster from the 1914-18 war and when it was reassembled at Dover, the order to fire was given personally by King George VI.

In 1946 Cleeve retired from the army and devoted himself to the serious study of the violin. He took his diplomas and turned to music as a full-time profession. He soon discovered he had a special vocation for teaching; he was violin master at Cheltenham College for Boys from 1951 to 1958 and later worked part-time at Emmanuel School, in Wandsworth, south London, subsequently holding similar posts at Sloane and Battersea grammar schools. He also taught at a number of preparatory schools including Downside, in Croydon. Cleeve continued to teach privately right up until his mid- nineties, when his health began to fail. When he was 90, he told me: 'I don't believe in age, only in being fit and doing what you enjoy most. In my case it's music.'

However, Cleeve will best be remembered for reviving interest in the viola d'amore, an instrument shaped like a flat-backed treble viol with seven playing and six sympathetic strings which sound when the top strings are bowed. It has its origins in the East, stemming from the Arabic kemengeh roumy, hence 'Viol of the Moors'. It was first heard in Britain in 1761 and enjoyed a brief popularity until around 1790 when it disappeared. It was Carl Dolmetsch, son of Arnold, pioneer of the present early- music revival, who persuaded Cleeve to learn to play the viola d'amore.

From then onwards he devoted his energies to this instrument. In 1965, with a number of intrested musicians, he formed the Viola d'Amore Society with the composer Frank Merrick as their first president (Ian White took over the Society in 1991).

In 1967, Cleeve attended a class run by the luthier Maurice Bouette and made his first reproduction. He made several improvements to increase the volume and assist tuning to meet the demands of modern music, increasing the strings to 18. Through the Viola d'Amore Society he gave concerts, commissioned works from contemporary composers and edited some 400 himself.

Monty Cleeve was a gentle man with a delightful sense of humour. But when fighting for a cause, he could be fiery and obstinate, and thereby added considerable colour to the musical world.

(Photograph omitted)

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