Obituary: Sir Philip Ledger, former principal of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama

Sir Philip Ledger, The Principal of the RSAMD Glasgow
Sir Philip Ledger, The Principal of the RSAMD Glasgow
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Born: 12 December, 1937, in Sussex. Died: 18 November, 2012, in Cambridge, aged 74.

SIR Philip Ledger was an eminent church musician and conductor who had many celebrated musical collaborators, notably Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears. He succeeded David Willcocks as director of music at King’s College, Cambridge, where he was in charge of the musical content of the famous annual service of Nine Lessons and Carols. It was a duty he enjoyed and did with much grace and musical style. Another special commitment was, from 1982 to 2001, as principal of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama.

The present principal, Professor John Wallace, paid tribute to his predecessor: “Sir Philip Ledger dedicated his life to his students and education. During his 20 years as principal, he transformed the RSAMD into a conservatoire ready for the 21st century. He was responsible for the move from the old buildings around the Glasgow Athenaeum to the new Sir Leslie Martin-designed building, one of the finest conservatoire facilities in Europe.

“He was also behind the opening of the Sir Alexander Gibson Opera School and, under his leadership, the academy was the first small specialist 
institution to be granted degree awarding powers from the Privy Council in 1994.

“The present generation of staff and students of the Royal Conservatoire have cause to be grateful to Sir Philip for his visionary strategic leadership over two decades, which brought us to our present position as Scotland’s international conservatoire.”

Sir Philip was closely associated with the musical life of Scotland. He conducted carol concerts with the Scottish National Orchestra and the Youth and Junior Choruses in Edinburgh and Glasgow throughout the 1980s. In 1985, he conducted a New Year’s Day concert of The Messiah at the Usher Hall, again with the SNO.

Sir Philip was involved in the 1968 Edinburgh Festival when the music of Britten was highlighted. Sir Philip played the organ in the three church parables in St Mary’s Cathedral, where the choruses were drawn from many Edinburgh schools.

Philip Stevens Ledger was educated at Bexhill-on-Sea Grammar School and then gained a first in music at King’s College, Cambridge. In 1961 he was appointed Master of the Music at Chelmsford Cathedral, where he greatly advanced the standard of choral singing. Two years later he worked with the new University of East Anglia, where he was instrumental in starting the music centre. While there he met Britten and Pears, who asked him to become joint artistic director at the Aldeburgh Festival from 1968.

Their friendship grew over the years and Sir Philip conducted the opening concert of the newly restored Snape Maltings, performing many premieres of Britten’s music. Britten, always a stern judge of musical talent, insisted Sir Philip played continuo on his recordings of Bach and Purcell. He also made recordings with Dame Janet Baker and Robert Tear.

In 1974 he returned to King’s College, Cambridge, as director of music and during his eight years greatly enhanced the musical reputation of the choir – recording with EMI the music of many Renaissance composers. He recorded Nine Lessons and Carols and also some acclaimed organ solo works. He brought the choir an international reputation when he led tours of America, Australia, and Japan. His own music was tuneful, easily understood and accessible. It required a certain virtuosity from soloists and chorus and yet the music had a dramatic format that involved an audience.

As principal at the RSAMD, Sir Philip was a pioneering force for improving the facilities and educational standards at the conservatoire. The resulting concert hall, theatre and magnificent organ are his memorable legacy, which was opened in 1988 by the Queen Mother.

Sir Philip was a great believer in thorough rehearsal, and choirs knew he would not tolerate anything but the best.

His demands from the first rehearsal were unstinting. But there was a lighter side to Sir Philip: apart from his joy in making music he is remembered with much affection at the RSAMD when he conducted the carol concerts dressed as Charles Edward Stuart in full flamboyant court dress.

Sir Philip was made a CBE in 1985 and knighted in 1999. He also received many musical awards and held honorary doctorates from the universities of Strathclyde, Central England, Glasgow, St Andrews and from the RSAMD.

He published widely on musical matters and his admired Anthems for Choirs and The Oxford Book of English 
Madrigals are widely used.

In 1963 Sir Philip married the soprano Mary Wells, whom he had met while he was conducting the European premiere of Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land in Cambridge.

She survives him, as do their son and a daughter.