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Sir David Lumsden remembered

A tribute to Sir David Lumsden, ISM President 1984-85, delivered by Professor Jonathan Freeman-Attwood CBE at his funeral in Winchester Cathedral on 23 March 2023

I am very honoured to have been asked by the family to speak briefly about David’s impact on both the Royal Academy of Music and those with whom he worked over that very significant decade when he served as Principal. Reflecting on the task, and talking to many of his colleagues in the last couple of weeks, I soon realised that David’s public persona often eclipsed his nurturing of individuals – work done, as they say, ‘under radar’.

David was undoubtedly the most forward-looking and incisive game-changer of any UK conservatoire principal in the 20th Century. He arrived at the Royal Academy of Music, having run the Scottish equivalent, as a supremely respected musician of seasoned authority, intellectual rigour and proven vision. His intention of making his time in London as telling a possible was evident ‘from the off’. Although of tall and imposing physical stature – which, with his fine head of hair and insistent articulate delivery, could seem forbidding – David was essentially a man of enormous compassion and warmth. These qualities essentially allowed his legendary drive and sense of purpose to reach out to those on the ground.

As with many leaders taking over from a previous chief executive, David saw what needed to change and had to assess how to do it. Not blessed with the patience of Job, David wanted his ideals executed as soon as possible. His ambitions were delivered boldly and not always un-controversially. But his courage and determination created new possibilities and put the Academy onto a world stage to which it hadn’t previously aspired. David’s achievements were manifold and long-lasting. He started a friendship with the Juilliard School in New York that has since yielded annual projects which are still not replicated anywhere else.

He was effective and persuasive with politicians (famously with Keith Joseph) about the importance of musical excellence and what was needed to fund it. He persuaded Princess Diana to be President and he appointed a new generation of professors, most of whom would remain pillars of educational and artistic accomplishment well into the future. Indeed, he empowered them to join him in planning exciting projects. One such initiative was the annual festival dedicated to a great living composer, led by head of composition, Paul Patterson; Henze, Berio, Ligeti, Tippett, Messaien and many others were ‘in residence’ at the Academy whilst wall-to-wall concerts, many coached by the luminary in question, inhabited the lives of students. These festivals gave the Academy a special place in the world of contemporary music which is now part of its daily bread.

A particularly notable appointment was Sir Colin Davis who remained a regular for 27 years, conducting 7 operas and 55 concerts for nothing more than a decent bottle of whiskey for each visit. David inspired that loyalty through his vision. He also made sure the Academy forged ahead with media music, musical theatre and jazz and he was shameless about calling the old place, ‘Britain’s senior conservatoire’, which delighted and infuriated in equal measure. He reconciled ancient and modern with unerring facility.

But apart from all the public-facing work, David was a superb mentor – and, surprisingly, quite shy in thinking he could make a difference to an individual. I can say, unequivocally, that without his encouragement and direction I would not have ended up in his shoes 20 years after I arrived. I came in to do some ‘maternity cover’ teaching just at a time when David reckoned that the currency of performance education in the UK was under-valued. So, he teamed up with King’s College London and created a BMus in performance that changed the landscape of conservatoire learning, the levels of enquiry and the expectations amongst students.

I was very fortunate that David identified me as someone who could lead the degree. But here’s the really key part: I found the responsibility, as a 29-year old, quite daunting and all the signs were that I would fail. Many in his shoes would have waited for that to happen and replaced me. This BMus was, after all, a major cultural opportunity, a flagship for the Academy, and yet not everyone liked its broader academic demands. David met with me every other day, as I reported progress. He repeatedly told me I could do it; he laughed affectionately at some of my failures as if they were badges of honour, because getting through them was all part of the journey; he gave me some ‘killer lines’ to persuade others; he let me loose at strategy meetings; and he had that look of a great leader which conveys total belief and, un-patronisingly, he gave me the tools. I could set sail.

Some people were a little frightened of David: he didn’t pull his punches and he made it clear when he felt his time was being wasted, and no-one relished receiving a memo with his blue ‘bic’ biro bleeding through to the next page. I think I wasted quite a lot of his time, in retrospect. But I never felt anything but his encouragement. In fact, I was far more frightened of his secretary, Pam Farrow, who would ring my little rabbit-hutch of an office and say ‘Sir will see you now. Make sure you brush your hair’.

There were two memorable communications which encapsulate David for me: the first was when he left: he listed all that I had done at a time when he’d have been justified in reflecting only on his own legacy. The second was when I sat at his old desk in the Principal’s office, having started the top job. I rang him on the first day and said, ‘David, what’s the first thing I should do as Principal?’ Quick as a flash, he replied, ‘Ring the most famous alum and get them in as soon as possible, and then build it from there’.

I rang Sir Elton John who duly came in and became a wonderful benefactor. When I subsequently thanked David for his advice, he said ‘Nothing to do with me, my boy’! That was typical and a true measure of the great man.