Every inch the Edwardian gentleman, Adrian Boult was the founder and first conductor and Music Director of the B.B.C. Symphony Orchestra in the early 1930’s, and continued to be so until the B.B.C. forced him to retire from that post because he was 60 years old – the B.B.C.’s official retirement age -the matter being very badly handled, with suspicions that there were personal reasons for this, and leaving Boult with a lasting bitterness.
I have seen him conduct on several occasions. During the war years the orchestra was moved to Bedford and made many of their broadcasts from there. On one notable afternoon, as a schoolboy travelling home from school on the Bedford line, I sat opposite to him in a railway carriage. He was reading a miniature score and as I stared at him in wonder, he looked up and smiled at me. Seventh heaven! I couldn’t wait to tell the family about it when I got home.
He was singularly undemonstrative on the rostrum. His baton was unusually large but he used it sparingly.
There was nothing of the exhibitionist about him. That may be one reason why critics sometimes faulted him for being too cool. He is rightly remembered as an interpreter of English music. Edward Elgar once wrote to him and said the future of his music was safe in his hands. In fact he had a very wide repertoire, premiered many new works and gave first British performances of Mahler symphonies, long before their present popularity.
Boult was a friend to many musicians. He encouraged Simon Rattle at the outset of his career (one can’t imagine two such entirely different conductors) as well as Vernon Handley, who in many ways has continued Boult’s self-effacing attitude to his work. He became the chief conductor of the London Philharmonic after the B.B.C. debacle, brought it to a new level of excellence and made many recordings, some of which are still available.
He enjoyed an Indian summer, working when he wanted to, re-recording many of the works that he loved. He was last seen on the rostrum, at the age of 87, in the pit of the Royal Opera House, conducting five performances of a ballet using the music of Elgar’s ‘Enigma Variations. By then he was known in the profession as ‘The Old Man’.
After his death in 1983, the composer Robert Simpson wrote ‘He had a goodness, a kindness, rare among the dangerous breed of conductors; he had so gentle and unassuming a nature that it was hard to believe that he could ever have had the urge to be a conductor…he could bark if he liked – though it never lasted long, and there was no malice in him..’