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Sir Neville Marriner

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  • Born: Lincoln, England
  • Years Active: 1980s, 1990s, 2000s


Biography All Music Guide

All Music Guide:

Along with Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Neville Marriner is one of the names most closely associated with the reawakening of modern interest in Baroque and early Classical music. At the end of the 1950's, he founded the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, the first British chamber orchestra specializing in Baroque and early Classical repertory to find a large international audience, or to record extensively. Since then, as founder/leader of the Academy, Marriner has become one of the most popular and most recorded conductors in the world--he has more than 1300 performances available in the compact disc catalog at the beginning of 1997--acclaimed for his interpretations of composers ranging from Bach to Britten.

Neville Marriner was first taught the violin as a child, by his father. He studied with Frederick Mountney, and subsequently attended the Royal College of Music, beginning at age 13. He entered the military in 1943, at 19, and was wounded the following year. It was while convalescing in a military hospital that he first met Thurston Dart, a scholar and harpsichord player who would become an important collaborator. After his release from military service, Marriner concluded his studies at the Royal College of Music, and went to Paris to study with Rene Benedetti and attend the Paris Conservatory.

He joined the teaching staff of Eton College for a year after his return to England, and in 1948 was appointed a professor at the Royal Academy of Music. During this period, he also formed a violin-and-harpsichord duet with Thurston Dart, specializing in seventeenth and eighteenth century repertory. Their performances led to the formation of the Jacobean Ensemble, an early music group that recorded the Purcell Trio Sonatas, Marriner's recording debut, in 1950. For the next few years, Marriner kept busy with Baroque music, in collaboration with Dart and several other like-minded musicians, while his reputation in more general music circles also grew, culminating in 1956 with his appointment as principal second violin with the London Symphony Orchestra, a position he held until 1969. During the late 1950's, he also made a number of recordings as a violin accompanist, in collaboration with soloists such as the counter-tenor Alfred Deller.

The turning point in Marriner's career came in 1957, when he was asked by the music director of the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, in London's Trafalgar Square, to perform the music after evensong. Marriner arranged six programs, and to play them he formed a chamber orchestra of eight violins, two violas, two cellos, and a double-bass, which he named the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Their work attracted the attention of Decca Records' early music specialty imprint L'Oiseau Lyre, which recorded their performance of Couperin's Les Nations. At the time, the label was looking for a successor to the Boyd Neel Orchestra, the chamber group led by Boyd Neel, which had some success playing Baroque music on authentic size ensembles during the late 1940's and early 1950's, before its founder's departure. The unexpectedly robust sales of this recording, coupled with the favorable reviews, told the label that they were on to something with Marriner and the Academy. More recordings followed for L'Oiseau Lyre and its sister label Argo followed during the 1960's and 1970's as well as occasional projects for Columbia Masterworks, and by the end of that decade the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields had become the biggest selling chamber orchestra in the history of recorded music. By that time, the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields had been expanded from its original 13 players to 20 or more, including wind players, and was performing Classical symphonic works as well as Baroque material.

Record buyers and concertgoers found the group's light textures and quick (but not jarring) tempos refreshing. In many ways, they became the direct successors to the Boyd Neel Orchestra, even adopting some of its original repertory, such as Benjamin Britten's Variations On a Theme of Frank Bridge. In addition to the works of Bach, Handel, Telemann, and Vivaldi, the Academy also found success with the symphonies of Mozart, Haydn, and even Beethoven, and their top selling records also include performances of such twentieth century British composers as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Sir Michael Tippett.

Marriner's original approach to conducting was to lead the orchestra from the first chair violin position, as was the custom in most orchestras until the Classical era. Following his study with Pierre Monteux, however, he adopted the more conventional approach of conducting from the podium. It was as a conductor and leader of the Academy, specializing in chamber music, that Marriner became known around the world. In 1969 he took over directorship of the newly organized Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, his first overseas appointment, and he later took this orchestra on a tour of Europe. Additionally, he served as a guest conductor with the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony, and the Detroit Symphony. In England, he held the appointment as conductor the Northern Sinfonia, based in Newcastle. During the early 1980's, he also served as music director of the Minnesota Orchestra (formerly the Minneapolis Symphony). He has accepted numerous engagements with orchestras of all sizes, and has also conducted opera.

Marriner's name remains closely associated with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields (although the group has made many recordings with other conductors, most notably Sir David Willcocks and Iona Brown), and the group now has more than 300 recordings to its credit, all of them profitable and most of them critically successful as well. During the mid-1970's, however, Marriner lost a very important collaborator with the death of Thurston Dart, who not only played the harpsichord on many of their Baroque recordings, but also was responsible for some of the most inspired scholarship behind their approach to period music.

The sound of Marriner's recordings with the Academy has always been referred to by critics as athletic and crisp, and the playing of the group tends to be very tightly focused, with an extremely bright sound. Among dozens of praise-worthy performances on record of large scale works such as the Bach Brandenburgs and the Orchestral Suites, and Handel's Messiah, their performances of the Handel Concerti Grossi (Op. 3), the C.P.E. Bach, J.C. Bach, and Haydn keyboard concertos with Georgew Malcolm, all stand out with special vividness, and among their currently out-of-print analog recordings (as of early 1997), the Mendelssohn String Symphonies Nos. 9, 10, and 12 on Argo are especially worthwhile.

For many years, before the arrival on the music scene of numerous authentic instrument ensembles and the resurgence in popularity of full-size orchestras, the Academy had much of the Baroque and Classical field to itself, along with the attendant credibility--they were perceived to have arrived at the definitive approach to a given piece of music. Their only major competitor, Concentus Musicus, had a sometimes more jarring approach to the same repertory (especially where tempos and dynamics were concerned), and were less popular and recorded less often.

During the 1980's and 1990's, however, Marriner and the Academy found themselves undercut by the movement toward authenticity in music. The Academy's chamber orchestra dimensions had restored a measure of authenticity and lightness to pre-nineteenth century works during the 1960's and early 1970's, but during the 1980's, they found competition from chamber orchestras such as the Collegium Aureum, the Academy of Ancient Music and the London Classical Players, among many others, which used authentic period instruments and performing techniques dating from the Baroque and Classical eras.

This created a far more competitive environment, and a far more crowded marketplace, especially once orchestras such as the Academy of Ancient Music began undertaking such projects as the recording of the complete Mozart symphonies. Marriner's orchestra had to become more ambitious--where they recorded the middle-period Mozart symphonies piecemeal during the early 1960's, in the 1980's they recorded the complete symphonies of Mozart (and all of the known fragments) in a unified collection. They have also recorded the complete Schubert symphonic works in a unique collection that can safely be described as definitive for content, containing every note of music that Schubert is known to have intended for a symphony, right down to fragments of a projected Symphony No. 10 that end suddenly with the composer's death.

The Academy has complicated this situation with their re-recordings of various pieces, under Marriner and other conductors for various labels. Their work on the London, Argo, and L'Oiseau Lyre labels must often compete with re-recordings on Philips and EMI. The Decca, London, L'Oiseau Lyre and Argo material (the Argo and L'Oiseau Lyre stuff has mostly been moved to London) tends to have a freshness that the later work does not, though the Philips and EMI performances can also display a level of confidence and boldness absent from the earlier recordings.

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