Skip to content

Sir Adrian Boult talks about his work with the BBC

In this interview with Bernard Keefe, Sir Adrian Boult talks about his work as Director of Music at the BBC from 1930, about the formation of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and about the freedom his position gave him to perform contemporary music.
Speaker Sir Adrian Boult
Genre Interview

Sir Adrian Boult

Prolific new music pioneer

Sir Adrian had been the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Music Director since its inception in 1930, and then from the end of the first season he had also been its Permanent Conductor, thereby fulfilling both posts simultaneously. Over the course of the intervening 19 years, as well as being at the helm for a panoramic repertoire of the great European classics, he had championed a vast range of contemporary music and prolifically pioneered a very substantial catalogue of first performances.

He tells us something about this in the revealing interview extract with Bernard Keeffe.  In the interview, which was aired on 7 November, 1965, Sir Adrian refers to “Sammons and Tertis” – they were the distinguished musicians violinist Albert Sammons and Lionel Tertis. Edward Clark and Julian Herbage, to whom he also refers, were the two BBC music programme planners who drew up the scheme for the creation of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Stravinsky was one of the then cutting-edge innovators whose rhythmically dangerous music held no difficulties at all for Sir Adrian’s ever unflappable cool-headed control. The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Viola in the 1930s, Bernard Shore, related that “Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was a tough nut to crack in the 1930s, and several foreign conductors made a terrible fuss of its difficulties and the orchestra’s shortcomings; yet Boult directed us in this work in Paris, that veritable sanctum of Stravinsky, without the slightest sense of strain or fuss of any kind”.

In 1950 he was unceremoniously retired by the BBC after a sequence of events that has been well documented in several publications. Suffice it to say here that it was a deeply hurtful experience for him after 20 years of devoted loyal dedication to the Symphony Orchestra and the BBC, during which time he turned down several very tempting offers to take up prestigious and lucrative posts elsewhere.

I personally experienced the magical kind of atmosphere that he could conjure up on some of the occasions when I played for him in my orchestral days of more than half a century ago – in contemplative or poetic passages the looseness of beat yet sureness of shape in his conducting truly could create an almost other-worldly aura.

Some of us who had personal contact with Sir Adrian Boult could be puzzled by his personality. He rarely if ever wore his heart on his sleeve, and in rehearsals (though not performances) it could seem as though he were intent on downplaying overt emotion – other than when his short fuse blew. But it was always patently clear that he was a deeply serious, profoundly feeling, and immensely cultured artist. After one rehearsal, I had the temerity to ask him if I could speak with him for a few minutes about some of the great composers he had known, and graciously he agreed. One comment that arose, although I can’t recall now how or why, I have never forgotten: “I always wish I could have conducted more opera in the theatre. I loved it whenever it happened”.It was so characteristic of the disarming nonchalance that protected a fervent artist.

Jon Tolansky © 2023

The interview was broadcast on November 7, 1985.

The recording is from the Tolansky/Tschaikov Collection at Music Preserved.

  • Sir Adrian Boult
  • Bernard Keefe

Browse the collection

Music Preserved offers you the choice of listening to many of the rare, historically and artistically interesting recordings in its collection.