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News > In Memoriam > Sir David Lumsden (1928-2023)

Sir David Lumsden (1928-2023)

Sir David Lumsden, formerly Principal of the Royal Academy of Music and after whom the music centre is named, died in February 2023.
Sir David Lumsden
Sir David Lumsden

Sir David Lumsden attended Dame Allan's from 1939-1945. Sir David has inspired generations of Allanians over four decades since his visit to open our music centre, and will continue to do so for years to come.

The following is republished with permission from: © Telegraph Media Group Limited 2023

Sir David Lumsden, who has died aged 94, was principal of the Royal Academy of Music from 1982 to 1993, an era in which much consideration was being given to the role of the country’s elite music colleges.

As Lumsden saw it, a British musical education was “the best in the world for second violinists”. His ambition was to turn the Academy into one of the great international musical conservatoires, rivalling its well-funded counterpart in Paris and the internationally renowned Juilliard School in New York.

He was soon marketing the Academy as Britain’s “senior conservatoire”, a totally accurate claim based on longevity (given that it opened to doors in 1822), but one that irritated the likes of the Royal College of Music across town.

Student numbers were reduced to an elite group, big-name soloists such as the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter were appointed to “international chairs”, composers such as Olivier Messiaen were feted in well-publicised residencies, and the Academy’s student orchestras were sent on overseas trips to woo sponsors, investors and wunderkind musicians of the future.

The Gowrie report on London music conservatoires in 1990 fuelled Lumsden’s ambition. It recommended cutting numbers and spending more per student – but it also proposed closer working between the Royal Academy and the Royal College and eventually combining the two conservatoires. “If we don’t merge we’ll both end up as second-rate institutions with second-rate concerns,” Lumsden told the journalist Michael White.

He had not, however, counted on the scale of opposition from his students and teachers, the latter in particular feeling that the occasional appearance of star performers undermined their day-to-day work. There was talk of strike action and student protests but, despite feelings running high, the Academy’s staff voted against industrial action. Eventually, both institutions raised their game and the pressure for a merger receded, although in 1990 they did establish a joint performance-based undergraduate course.

David James Lumsden was born in Newcastle upon Tyne on March 19 1928. He was sent to Dame Allan’s School, in Fenham, but within a few days the entire school had been evacuated to Windermere, in the Lake District. Despite the risks, the boys were sent home during the school holidays, meaning that he witnessed the Tyneside blitz.

On one occasion, David and a group of friends had been swimming in Windermere when they saw a lone bomber roaring up and down the lake. “Suddenly we saw something bouncing on the water,” he told the Newcastle Journal in 2010. “Later we discovered it was the people preparing to go on the Dambusters’ raid.” Another time he narrowly escaped being mowed down by the Queen Mary while swimming in the Clyde.

Young David was billeted with a family who had wide artistic interests and who enabled him to meet interesting people, including a retired organist of Lichfield Cathedral who took him on as a pupil.

Another important influence was his music teacher at Dame Allan’s. Lumsden recalled: “He made me play the organ when I’d never played it before in my life, let me use his record collection and introduced me to St Nicholas’s Cathedral, which was a complete revelation.”

He won an organ scholarship to Selwyn College, Cambridge, studying with Boris Ord and Thurston Dart and completing his doctorate in 1955 with a dissertation on Elizabethan lute music.

Meanwhile, in 1954 he had been appointed organist of Nottingham University, his writ soon spreading into the wider city, where he was organist and choirmaster of St Mary’s, Nottingham, and founder and conductor of the Nottingham Bach Society.

After appointments at Southwell Minster and the University College of North Staffordshire (later Keele University), during which time he also taught harmony at the Royal Academy of Music in London, he succeeded Meredith Davies as organist and fellow of New College, Oxford. He was also a music lecturer at the university.

At New College, Lumsden broadened the repertory, particularly championing the music of Kenneth Leighton, and was behind the installation of the new organ in 1969 – financed by the college selling a coal mine in the North of England – that brought a new sound and look to the chapel.

He was a gifted trainer of boy trebles and also doubled the number of adult male voices, taking the choir on two tours of the United States. Among his academical clerks (choral scholars) was James Bowman, who later achieved distinction as an international countertenor.

However, it had taken a disastrous broadcast of Choral Evensong to kick-start these improvements. According to Trevor Beeson’s book In Tuneful Accord: The Church Musicians, the singing chaplain had pitched the versicles too low. Enterprising members of the choir sought to remedy this, but in three different ways, creating a cacophony. Eventually an alert organ scholar played the right note and the chaplain and choir started again – all on live radio.

In 1976 Lumsden was appointed principal of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Dance in Glasgow, during which time he was instrumental in the successful “Save the BBC Scottish Orchestra” campaign. Four years later he moved to the same position at the Royal Academy of Music in London. In the Academy’s official portrait of him, painted in the Duke’s Hall by Jeff Stultiens in 1993, he can be seen three times: in the foreground on the hall’s upper balcony, on stage at the harpsichord, and in the distance at the organ console.

Despite his heavy administrative workload, especially at the Royal Academy of Music, Lumsden remained an active musician, notably with his interpretation of organ music by Bach and earlier composers. He was harpsichordist with the London Virtuosi and published a handful of books on lute music from the Elizabethan era, on which he was widely regarded as an authority. He was also vice-president of the Church Music Society.

In retirement Lumsden and his wife sold their six-bedroom house with its large garden in Cambridgeshire and settled in a large, upmarket apartment near Winchester. A crane had to be used to hoist their grand piano up to the second floor and in through a balcony window.

David Lumsden, who was knighted in 1985, married, in 1951, Sheila Daniels; she died last year. They had two sons, the eldest of whom, Andrew, is director of music at Winchester Cathedral, and two daughters.

Sir David Lumsden, born March 19 1928, died February 25 2023

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