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OBITUARY: Professor Ivor Keys

Basil Deane
Thursday 13 July 1995 23:02 BST

Ivor Keys, former Professor of Music at Nottingham and Birmingham Universities, was, in the 18th-century sense of the term, a complete musician.

He was also a child prodigy. In his early teens, while a pupil at Christ's Hospital, Horsham, he played the solo part in Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto, and he became the youngest ever Fellow of the Royal College of Organists. A period at the Royal College of Music was followed by his appointment as assistant organist at Christ Church, Oxford. War service with the Pioneer Corps intervened, and he was posted to Kenya. There he met and married Anne Layzell.

After the war he returned to Christ Church, and in 1947 was appointed lecturer in music at Queen's University, Belfast. He threw himself into the musical life of the university and the city, as teacher, lecturer, conductor, organist, pianist and composer. In 1951 his Clarinet Concerto won the Festival of Britain prize in Northern Ireland. A new BMus degree course was established, and the university authorities hastened the creation of the Hamilton Harty Chair of Music, hoping to anchor him to the Province. But in 1954 the attraction of the mainland was too strong, and he left to take up the chair at Nottingham University.

His 14 years at Nottingham saw a similar pattern of departmental expansion and civic contribution, the latter including the conductorship of the Nottingham Bach Society. In 1968 he moved to Birmingham to succeed Professor Anthony Lewis as Peyton and Barber Professor of Music at the university, and he settled with his family in Selly Park, conveniently close to the Edgbaston cricket ground.

Through the annual series of operas ingeniously staged in the elegant but operatically unsuitable concert room of the Barber Institute, Lewis and his colleagues had led the modern revival of the operas of Handel, and incidentally advanced the early careers of some of the outstanding singers in Britain. Keys continued the tradition, while widening its scope to include operatic rarities from Lully to Bizet. By collaborating with the Birmingham School of Music, as it then was, he laid increasing emphasis on the performance element in the undergraduate course. He also co-operated with the Drama Department in creating an integrated Music, Drama and Dance degree, before such combined performance courses became fashionable. Despite enticements to return to the older universities, he remained at Birmingham until his retirement in 1986.

This bare outline of Keys's university career give little idea of his influence on the musical life of Britain as a whole. His interests and activities were legion. He served on numerous committees, including a long association with the Royal College of Organists, and the National Federation of Musical Societies, whose work was particularly close to his heart. He was in demand as a performer, lecturer, examiner, adjudicator and broadcaster, both at home and in Africa, Australia and Hong Kong. He also found time to write on music, and to continue occasional composition.

Despite his public persona Ivor Keys was a private man, not given to gossip, and incapable of malice. He was in no sense a musical or academic politician, and he assumed in others the same absence of guile. Elitism was completely foreign to him: he played with the same commitment on a worn-out upright in a parish hall as he did on the Wigmore Hall Steinway.

A practising Anglican, he would have understood Beethoven's reported comment that music was a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.

Basil Deane

Ivor Christopher Banfield Keys, musician and composer: born 8 March 1919; assistant organist, Christ Church, Oxford 1938-40, 1946-47; Lecturer in Music, Queen's University of Belfast 1947, Reader 1950, Sir Hamilton Harty Professor of Music 1951-54; Professor of Music, Nottingham University 1954-68; Professor of Music, Birmingham University 1968-86 (Emeritus); CBE 1976; married 1944 Anne Layzell (died 1990; two sons, two daughters); died Birmingham 7 July 1995.

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