Obituary: Harry Rabinowitz, conductor and composer

Born: Johannesburg, South Africa, 26 March 1916. Died: Lacoste, France, 22 June 2016, aged 100.

Harry Rabinowitz. Picture: Fred Ramage/Keystone/Getty Images
Harry Rabinowitz. Picture: Fred Ramage/Keystone/Getty Images

Harry Rabinowitz was a prodigiously productive composer and conductor of classical music whose appeal crossed popular boundaries, including extensive work in film and television. In Britain he conducted for the London Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the BBC Revue Orchestra, was the music director for BBC Television’s light entertainment department, the head of music for London Weekend Television, and conductor of the scores for the extensively Oscar-recognised hit films Chariots of Fire, The Remains of the Day, The English Patient and The Talented Mr Ripley.

Following a career in television which had already lasted three decades until that point, his work in film began in earnest in the late 1970s with Peter Hyams’ Harrison Ford-starring war drama Hanover Street (1979). His othernotable gigs as conductor included Bernard Tavernier’s Death Watch (1980), Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981), Star Wars spin-off Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure (1984), Shirley Valentine (1989), Wim Wenders’ City of Angels (1998) and his final film, Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain (2003). His extensive work on Merchant Ivory costume dramas began with The Bostonians (1984) and also included Howard’s End (1992) and Surviving Picasso (1996).

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Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, Rabinowitz was the son of Israel Rabinowitz, an emigre Russian pharmacist who wasn’t allowed to practice in his new country due to having incompatible qualifications, and Eva Kirkel, a South African by birth. Although both of his parents were Jewish, Rabinowitz recalled on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs in 2015 that they weren’t a religiously observant family.

Studying at Athlone High School and reading politics and economics at the University of Witwatersrand, he began to play piano at the age of nine, and counted among his early jobs that of a piano player in a department store. In 1937 he visited Europe for the first time, seeing composers like Rachmaninov in the flesh, before putting his musical ambitions on hold due to the Second World War.

Rabinowitz fought in the South African army during the war, where he struggled with the racism of many of his supposed compatriots, eventually gravitating to the entertainment division and taking conducting lessons. He first led an orchestra at a variety show in Johannesburg in 1945, and the following year he moved to London to study at the Guildhall School of Music. An early boost in his career came from his old army friend and best man at Rabinowitz’ first wedding Sid James, then an established British star in his pre-Carry On years, who he bumped into again by chance on a London street. James took Rabinowitz to the office of the impresario Jack Hylton and vouched for him, opening the door to regular theatre work.

After a fallow post-war period whose personal highlights had included, said Rabinowitz, visiting the National Gallery’s Spanish gallery (he has recalled how Velazquez’ painting The Rokeby Venus ‘told’ him everything would work out well), he was the conductor of the Broadway musical Western Paint Your Wagon’s West End transfer in 1953. The same year, he became an in-house conductor at the BBC after a six-week trial, initially working within the radio department on live shows like Hancock’s Half Hour and The Goons.

In 1960 he moved across to television, and the BBC’s light entertainment department. Between this day job and occasional freelancing, he spent the 1960s contributing to a diverse range of entertainment and drama shows, whether as conductor, music supervisor or orchestra arranger. Among the more iconic names involved were Stanley Baxter’s Baxter On… series, The Ken Dodd Show and Cilla Black’s Cilla, and he worked on televised versions of Kiss Me Kate and The Mikado. He also worked on the David Janssen-starring mystery thriller The Fugitive and the movie Funeral in Berlin, the second instalment in Michael Caine’s Len Deighton-adapted Harry Palmer trilogy.

Throughout the 1960s Rabinowitz was also heavily involved in A Song For Europe, the show which decided on Britain’s entry to the Eurovision Song Contest. Often this would simply be as musical director for the heats in Britain, but on two occasions he accompanied the winning entry to Eurovision as their musical director; to Copenhagen with Matt Monro in 1964 with the second-placed I Love the Little Things and to Luxembourg with the Scots tenor Kenneth McKellar – who wore a kilt for the show - in 1966 with A Man Without Love.

From 1970 until 1977 he took on the role of Head of Music at London Weekend Television (LWT), which was an iconic part of the ITV network, before going freelance. His highest-profile jobs around this time included David Frost’s Frost On Sunday (for which he conducted performances by Diana Ross and Eartha Kitt), the popular children’s drama The Adventures of Black Beauty, the film version of sitcom Please Sir! and light entertainment shows featuring Larry Grayson and Reg Varney.

Into the 1980s Rabinowitz conducted orchestras for French singer Michel Sardou’s huge international hit Les Lacs du Connemara and musicals including the West End premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats, and arranged and conducted the orchestra on Barbra Streisand’s 1981 album Memories. In his later career he also conducted more of his own compositions, including a 1983 screen adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four and the same year’s television series Reilly: Ace of Spies, for which he was nominated for a BAFTA. Among his other career awards were an MBE in 1977 and a Radio and TV Industries Award in 1984.

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Harry Rabinowitz was married to his first wife Lorna, with whom he had two daughters and a son, from 1944 until 2000. He married his second wife Mary in 2001, and she survives him after his death at home in the south of France, three months after he turned 100. Maintaining a youthful vitality into old age – he put this down to not smoking, healthy eating and “sometimes I go days without alcohol” on Desert Island Discs – he retired at the age of 94 and played piano every day until his death.

David Pollock