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A Personal Recollection of the Founder of the Museum of Music History

Oliver Davies died in July 2020, and many of us feel his absence ever more keenly as time passes. How much one owes him. Not only a very remarkable pianist and musicologist, whose expertise spanned the centuries, he was also one of life’s great enthusiasts. As a mere lay person with a passionate interest in music, Oliver taught me – and countless others – an infinite amount, always driven by a sense of joy in what he heard, always fascinated by a recent discovery, whether a long-neglected score excavated during an evening session at the British Library, where one would regularly run into him in a state of high excitement, or the discovery of a brilliant young musician. His fascination with the personalities and lives of musicians led to the establishment in 1971 of the Department of Portraits and Performance History at the Royal College of Music, and these interests also underpinned his long association with the Royal Society of Musicians and inspired the founding of the Museum of Music History in 2003.

Oliver’s holistic approach to the history of music was well illustrated in his concern to perform works in context, hence his series of impeccably researched reconstructions of historical concerts, surveys of the musical histories of great British houses and reassessments of significant composers and performers, accompanied by meticulous programme notes, most recently in regular concerts for the Cobbe Collection at Hatchlands. Who else can one imagine equally at ease recreating Chopin’s last concert, performed at the Guildhall in 1848, or devising an Ivor Gurney programme (he knew all Gurney’s poems and their settings by heart), or performing the challenging piano score for Messiaen’s song-cycle Harawi? In a lighter vein, he organised bals costumés, together with appropriate music, at Apsley House, Osterley, the Reform Club, and the Savoy, encouraging participants to learn quadrilles and minuets in the preceding weeks.

Above all, Oliver’s unmatched gift for friendship, across an astonishingly wide range of people, was quite remarkable. He had the ability to bring out the best in everyone, perhaps because he always saw the most positive in them, lacking any sense of envy or schadenfreude; on the contrary, he took immense pleasure in the success of others. That generosity of spirit was immediately apparent to all, finding a ready response in the affection of friends, who admired and respected his knowledge and virtuosity, but worried about his disregard for his health and wellbeing. He lived frugally, devoting his resources to his overwhelming passion for collecting on behalf of the Royal College of Music and latterly for the Museum of Music History. Whenever one saw him, he was carrying an impossibly heavy briefcase laden with his most recent acquisitions. In his late seventies, he seemed to be busier than ever with concert commitments, and in May 2020, when he realised that he was seriously ill, he rejected the idea of conventional treatment, fearing that his piano playing would be compromised, and declared that he was far too busy to die. For Oliver, life was music, and music was his life.

In appearance, Oliver was slight in build, but with a striking profile, and especially when dressed formally for concerts, he reminded one of an early Romantic composer, recalling the famous portraits of the young Liszt by Lehmann and Scheffer, or later in life, perhaps likenesses of Dussek, or Weber.

It was an appropriate coincidence that he shared his birthday with one of his heroes, Sir George Grove, whose wide-ranging musical knowledge and sympathies he shared. How lucky we were to be the friends of this modest, delightful, and remarkable man.

More information on a Oliver Davies can be found here.

Lindsay Stainton, 2021