Obituary: Antony Hopkins, composer and broadcaster

Antony Hopkins: Composer, writer and presenter of BBC Radio 3's much loved Talking About Music. Picture: PA
Antony Hopkins: Composer, writer and presenter of BBC Radio 3's much loved Talking About Music. Picture: PA
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Born: 21 March, 1921, in London. Died: 6 May, 2014, in Hertfordshire, aged 93

Antony Hopkins was widely known and admired for the instructive talks he gave on the Radio 3 programme Talking About Music. Such was his ability to cover all ranges and aspects of the classical repertoire, the talks were transmitted to 44 countries, for twelve years, from 1948. There was much protest when the programme was removed from the schedules, having been deemed too elitist.

Hopkins always reached out with an unfailing charm to both musicologists and enthusiasts alike – providing insights and nuggets of information about a composition.

He avoided using intricate musical terms and spoke about the mechanics of a piece without getting too involved in technicalities. If he did, Hopkins had the ability to explain complex musical terms in a most unpatronising manner. He introduced music to generations of children and was an inspiring communicator.

He was born Ernest William Antony Reynolds and changed his surname to Hopkins after he was adopted by the headmaster at Berkhamstead School.

As the result of a cartilage operation he was declared unfit for military service. In 1939 he became a student at the Royal College of Music, where he studied organ, harmony and piano.

Hopkins became a friend of the composer Michael Tippett and won the Chappell Gold Medal for piano.

He gave a recital, in 1943, with Dame Myra Hess in one of her famous lunchtime concerts in London’s National Gallery.

Tippett encouraged Hopkins in his desire to compose and he built a reputation as a composer of note and in 1948 had an opera, Lady Rohesia, performed at Sadler’s Wells.

The distinguished critic Ernest Newman described it as “the most riotous fun imaginable.” He also composed for the ballet but found himself much in demand for film music.

From the late Forties his name was seen as the composer of scores for such films as Here Come the Huggetts, The Pickwick Papers, Cast a Dark Shadow and the 1962 version of Billy Budd, starring Peter Ustinov.

They were all well received and many colleagues felt he would concentrate on film music or the theatre. He had already written the incidental music for the theatre production of Oedipus Rex at the Old Vic with Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson and Sybil Thorndike.

In 1953, the BBC asked him to deliver a talk on a Bach fugue. Hopkins demonstrated immediately that he could make a complex and musically intricate subject accessible to his listeners.

His unbridled enthusiasm and wonderfully mellifluous voice made him ideal for the radio and he was offered a contract to present Studies in Musical Taste, which changed its name within a few years, to Talking About Music. Hopkins usually talked on a major piece that was to be broadcast that week on Radio 3. The talk lasted 30 minutes and Hopkins played extracts of the music on record. It proved an enormous success with listeners and was one of the most widely listened to programmes on the station.

It was the Hopkins charisma that proved so beguiling. He never announced what the music was to be and championed many contemporary works – especially those by Britten and Tippett.

He tried to interpret what was in the composer’s mind as he wrote – his influences and experience from other works – and then suggested to the listener what to watch out for. Hopkins commented once, “I set out with the intention of seducing the reader aurally.”

He delighted in being provocative. It was his way of making people think and inspiring them to do further research, for themselves.

In one now famous programme he threw into the talk – almost as an aside – that Stravinsky’s cross-rhythms prepared the way for the ballet music in Bernstein’s West Side Story.

It was his love of the contrary and his warm personality that made Hopkins’ radio programmes such a success.

Hopkins also lectured at the Royal College of Music and held various posts at foreign universities, notably the University of Adelaide.

He wrote extensively and many of his books were best sellers. His autobiography, Beating Time, was delightfully self-deprecating and told of many near-disasters at concerts he was conducting.

Hopkins twice won the Italia Prize for radio programme and was appointed CBE in 1976.

He was a keen golfer all his life but, aside from music, his other real passion was fast cars.

He loved driving his open-top sports cars – usually an Alfa-Romeo – around the countryside of Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire at speed.

He once observed with a smile, “I’d rather have been Stirling Moss than Igor Stravinsky.”

In 1947 he married the soprano Alison Purves, who he had known from his youth.

She died in 1991, and in 2012 he married Beatrix Taylor, who survives him.