Obituary: Martin Dalby, producer '“ and talented composer '“ who put BBC SSO at centre of Scottish musical life

Martin Dalby, composer, music producer and former head of music BBC Scotland. Born: 25 April 1942. Died: 25 October 2018, aged 76
Martin DalbyMartin Dalby
Martin Dalby

Martin Dalby, who has died aged 76, was not an institution man. Yet as head of music for BBC Scotland from 1972 to 1991 he occupied a position within the Glasgow-based broadcaster that would typically have favoured an obsequious bureaucrat.

That he wasn’t is largely why the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is still with us today rather than an historical statistic.

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For it was during Dalby’s stewardship in Scotland, in 1980, that the BBC in London proposed the disbandment of its flagship Scottish orchestra as part of a selective UK-wide cull. Dalby would have none of it and put his job on the line to save it.

At a midday concert by the orchestra on the day the BBC’s intentions were leaked to the press, Dalby pinned his colours to the mast in a brief speech, in which he said “culture is somehow like a powerhouse to a nation. We all know what happens when you shut down the powerhouse. The lights go out.”

The ensuing musicians’ strike – during which he reputedly took coffee out to the pickets – and his fiery determination finally won the day, though sadly at the cost of the BBC Scottish Radio Orchestra.

We have him to thank for ensuring the SSO’s lights 
are, today, still ferociously ablaze.

He was born in Aberdeen, and spoke with an unmistakable north-eastern twang. He came from a musical family. His father, Yorkshireman John Dalby, was a respected educationalist and organist, in charge of the city’s music education system and organist of St Machar’s Cathedral. Martin attended Aberdeen Grammar School, before taking up a scholarship at the Royal College of Music in London to study viola with Frederic Riddle and composition with Herbert Howells.

After further compositional studies with Goffredo Petrassi in Italy, the 23-year-old had his first offer from the BBC in London to become a chamber music producer.

He found himself in illustrious company, working with a trio that Hugh Macdonald, who worked under Dalby in Glasgow before succeeding him as head of music, describes as “a veritable think tank of Britain’s musical brains” – a collective genius that was Hans Keller, Robert Simpson and Deryck Cooke.

Macdonald recalls many conversations with Dalby about the excitement of those days, including Dalby’s claim that he assisted Cooke with the orchestration of his monumental completion of Mahler’s unfinished Symphony No 10. Given Dalby’s unique sensitivity as an orchestrator – just listen to his exquisite arrangement of the Scott Skinner Cradle Song often used by the SSO as an encore – that’s not hard to believe.

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He returned north in 1970 to become Cramb Fellow in Composition at the University of Glasgow, but just over a year later, aged only 30, was appointed successor to Watson Forbes as head of music at BBC Scotland. He inherited a department that was relatively insular, but was quick to introduce a vital cosmopolitan dimension to the station’s output, based on his invaluable experience in London.

“I believed that I could bring some experience and imagination to the production of chamber music”, he once wrote regarding his aspirations for BBC Scotland.

As ever with Dalby he was understating his own vision. For not only did his ambitions serve the burgeoning presence of interesting composers emerging in Scotland in the 1970s and ‘80s through dedicated programmes of their chamber music played by new local ensembles, but his stewardship of the orchestra, especially after the strike, saw its fortunes increase with expanding repertoire, notable conductors and major UK and overseas tours.

But what of his composition? “What we got as a mover and shaker, we perhaps lost a bit as a composer,” Macdonald suggests. The thing is, Dalby was scrupulous about not programming his own music with the SSO. From time to time he would allow it, but by and large he was insistent about not using his position to promote himself.

That inevitably had a bearing on his compositional output. But the few orchestral works that did materialise over the years are exquisitely crafted, combining lyrical soul with biting modernism. Among the most beautiful is Nozze di Primavera, a wedding gift to his wife which quotes enchantingly an ancient wedding hymn.

The Mary Bean, written for the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and performed 
at the BBC Proms in the year 
he retired from the BBC, exudes simultaneously an ethereal charm and lifeblood potency.

Dalby had a waspish sense of humour that he often shared, over a dram or two, well into the wee small hours. And he was generous.

When Norman Mitchell, then director of music at Glasgow High School, commissioned an anthem for his school choir, Dalby responded with one of his most beautifully expressive religious works, Mater Salutaris. The commission fee? A bottle of Highland Park whisky.

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Dalby was a great supporter of the St Magnus Festival in Orkney, ensuring in its earliest years a broadcasting presence that would capture the excitement of those bold new works by its founder Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and broadcast it to a wider nation. The impact of that commitment in generating loyal audiences for later festivals was immense.

Just before his retirement, he returned to producing, notably on the epic radio project that was Scotland’s Music, an in-depth illustrated history of the nation’s music from the year dot. Its importance – along with writer John Purser’s accompanying comprehensive book of the same name – cannot be underestimated. The project won a Sony Gold Medal.

While incumbent at BBC Scotland, Dalby stated that “the day must come when I shall move away and the members [of the BBC SSO] will forget my name”.

That should not be allowed to happen.

Through his dogged passion, affable and accessible leadership, and tendency to “work outside the rules” of the corporation, Dalby positioned BBC Scotland and the SSO at the centre of Scottish musical life.

Despite settling down to a quieter life with his wife Hilary – a former viola player with the SSO – he is still talked about, and fondly remembered. Just as importantly, his music lives on.