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Sir David James Lumsden  (1928 – 2023), musician,.jpeg

Sir David James Lumsden  (1928 – 2023)
Principal of the Royal Academy of Music from 1982 to 1993, during which time he transformed the Academy into a world leading conservatoire.


Sir David Lumsden, educator and organist who transformed the Royal Academy of Music into a world leader – obituary

Sir David Lumsden, who has died aged 94, was principal of the Royal Academy of Music from 1982 to 1993, an era in which much consideration was being given to the role of the country’s elite music colleges.

As Lumsden saw it, a British musical education was “the best in the world for second violinists”. His ambition was to turn the Academy into one of the great international musical conservatoires, rivalling its well-funded counterpart in Paris and the internationally renowned Juilliard School in New York.

He was soon marketing the Academy as Britain’s “senior conservatoire”, a totally accurate claim based on longevity (given that it opened to doors in 1822), but one that irritated the likes of the Royal College of Music across town.

Student numbers were reduced to an elite group, big-name soloists such as the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter were appointed to “international chairs”, composers such as Olivier Messiaen were feted in well-publicised residencies, and the Academy’s student orchestras were sent on overseas trips to woo sponsors, investors and wunderkind musicians of the future.

The Gowrie report on London music conservatoires in 1990 fuelled Lumsden’s ambition. It recommended cutting numbers and spending more per student – but it also proposed closer working between the Royal Academy and the Royal College and eventually combining the two conservatoires. “If we don’t merge we’ll both end up as second-rate institutions with second-rate concerns,” Lumsden told the journalist Michael White.

He had not, however, counted on the scale of opposition from his students and teachers, the latter in particular feeling that the occasional appearance of star performers undermined their day-to-day work. There was talk of strike action and student protests but, despite feelings running high, the Academy’s staff voted against industrial action. Eventually, both institutions raised their game and the pressure for a merger receded, although in 1990 they did establish a joint performance-based undergraduate course.

David James Lumsden was born in Newcastle upon Tyne on March 19 1928. He was sent to Dame Allan’s School, in Fenham, but within a few days the entire school had been evacuated to Windermere, in the Lake District. Despite the risks, the boys were sent home during the school holidays, meaning that he witnessed the Tyneside blitz.

On one occasion, David and a group of friends had been swimming in Windermere when they saw a lone bomber roaring up and down the lake. “Suddenly we saw something bouncing on the water,” he told the Newcastle Journal in 2010. “Later we discovered it was the people preparing to go on the Dambusters’ raid.” Another time he narrowly escaped being mowed down by the Queen Mary while swimming in the Clyde.

Young David was billeted with a family who had wide artistic interests and who enabled him to meet interesting people, including a retired organist of Lichfield Cathedral who took him on as a pupil.

Another important influence was Bill Little, a music teacher at Dame Allan’s. “He was one of life’s great eccentrics,” Lumsden recalled. “He made me play the organ when I’d never played it before in my life, let me use his record collection and introduced me to St Nicholas’s Cathedral, which was a complete revelation.”

He won an organ scholarship to Selwyn College, Cambridge, studying with Boris Ord and Thurston Dart and completing his doctorate in 1955 with a dissertation on Elizabethan lute music.

Meanwhile, in 1954 he had been appointed organist of Nottingham University, his writ soon spreading into the wider city, where he was organist and choirmaster of St Mary’s, Nottingham, and founder and conductor of the Nottingham Bach Society.

After appointments at Southwell Minster and the University College of North Staffordshire (later Keele University), during which time he also taught harmony at the Royal Academy of Music in London, he succeeded Meredith Davies as organist and fellow of New College, Oxford. He was also a music lecturer at the university.

At New College, Lumsden broadened the repertory, particularly championing the music of Kenneth Leighton, and was behind the installation of the new organ in 1969 – financed by the college selling a coal mine in the North of England – that brought a new sound and look to the chapel. 

He was a gifted trainer of boy trebles and also doubled the number of adult male voices, taking the choir on two tours of the United States. Among his academical clerks (choral scholars) was James Bowman, who later achieved distinction as an international countertenor.

However, it had taken a disastrous broadcast of Choral Evensong to kick-start these improvements. According to Trevor Beeson’s book In Tuneful Accord: The Church Musicians, the singing chaplain had pitched the versicles too low. Enterprising members of the choir sought to remedy this, but in three different ways, creating a cacophony. Eventually an alert organ scholar played the right note and the chaplain and choir started again – all on live radio.

In 1976 Lumsden was appointed principal of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Dance in Glasgow, during which time he was instrumental in the successful “Save the BBC Scottish Orchestra” campaign. Four years later he moved to the same position at the Royal Academy of Music in London. In the Academy’s official portrait of him, painted in the Duke’s Hall by Jeff Stultiens in 1993, he can be seen three times: in the foreground on the hall’s upper balcony, on stage at the harpsichord, and in the distance at the organ console.

Despite his heavy administrative workload, especially at the Royal Academy of Music, Lumsden remained an active musician, notably with his interpretation of organ music by Bach and earlier composers. He was harpsichordist with the London Virtuosi and published a handful of books on lute music from the Elizabethan era, on which he was widely regarded as an authority. He was also vice-president of the Church Music Society.

In retirement Lumsden and his wife sold their six-bedroom house with its large garden in Cambridgeshire and settled in a large, upmarket apartment near Winchester. A crane had to be used to hoist their grand piano up to the second floor and in through a balcony window.

David Lumsden, who was knighted in 1985, married, in 1951, Sheila Daniels; she died last year. They had two sons, the eldest of whom, Andrew, is director of music at Winchester Cathedral, and two daughters.

Sir David Lumsden, born March 19 1928, died February 25 2023



by Alasdair Steven


Sir David Lumsden, who has died aged 94, was principal of both the Royal Scottish and the Royal Academy of Music in London. He faced challenging situations in both appointments as not only the manner of their funding was being considered but also the relevance of maintaining elite music academies. Lumsden was to prove a dogged campaigner on their behalf and, in Scotland, battled to save the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (BBCSSO)

Lumsden was acknowledged as a musical polymath: he was an organist, choir master, performer, conductor, teacher, administrator and harpsichordist. He was also an authority on Elizabethan lute music and served as chairman of the National Youth Orchestra and a director of Scottish Opera.

David James Lumsden was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and attended Dame Allan’s School, which on his arrival was evacuated to Windermere. Lumsden was swimming in the lake one day when he spotted a solitary bomber roaring up and down the lake.

“Suddenly we saw something bouncing on the water,” he told an interviewer some years later, “and we discovered it was the preparations for the Dambusters’ raid.” There was a master, Bill Little, at the school who encouraged him to study music and the organ.

He was fortunate to live with a family who had musical interests and there was much discussion about the arts. Through them he met a retired organist of Lichfield Cathedral who took him on as a pupil.

Lumsden won an organ scholarship to Selwyn College, Cambridge, in 1951 and completed his doctorate four years later with a dissertation on Elizabethan lute music.

His first posting was as organist of Nottingham University where he became much involved in the musical life of the city and founded the Nottingham Bach Society.

His reputation had spread and Lumsden held important appointments such as at Southwell Minster, the University College of North Staffordshire (later Keele University) and teaching harmony at the Royal Academy of Music in London (1959-61). In 1959 he became the organist and fellow of New College, Oxford where he also served as Lecturer in the Faculty of Music. It was a post he was to hold with distinction until 1976.

That year Lumsden was appointed principal of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama – now The Royal Scottish Conservatoire. Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, Principal, has written of his predecessor, “Sir David’s impact in his decade as Principal was remarkable in his pioneering vision, unfailing commitment, bold decisions and inspiring guidance and support to so many. His capacity for encouragement lay at the heart of his leadership. He was a very significant figure in British musical life.”

In his years as principal (1976-82) he transformed the Academy into a world-leading music conservatoire. He was an enthusiastic principal – recording Christmas Carols with the Academy’s choir and orchestra.

Much of his time and energy in Glasgow was acting as a leading campaigner and vociferous enthusiast on behalf of, ‘Save the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’.

In 1980 the BBC’s proposal to disband five of its orchestras including the BBC SSO led to unrest in the music world with strikes across the UK – even cancellation of two weeks of that summer’s BBC Proms. In Glasgow the unrest was unrelenting and Lumsden was in the forefront to preserve the BBC SSO.

A high-powered meeting was held with such notable speakers as Alexander Gibson, Simon Rattle (then assistant conductor at the BBC SSO) and Ian Wallace in the Theatre Royal. They pointed out how musical life in Scotland would be savagely reduced by the disappearance of such a large group of musicians. A performance by the orchestra outdoors with George McIIwham playing the bagpipes at Glasgow's Old Fruitmarket caused a major stir.

Andrew Faulds MP, the former actor, spoke vehemently in the Commons regarding the cuts. “Finally, the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra will be – if I may use the phrase – scotched, with 69 jobs gone. It is this disbandment that has aroused the greatest concern. I say that not as a Scot but because that orchestra has a long and distinguished tradition as a nursery for composers and conductors, and because of its contribution to the cultural life of Scotland.

“That decision was taken by the Broadcasting Council for Scotland. It was not taken in London. That, to my mind, makes the offence the more incomprehensible and the less excusable.”

When the strike was called off the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra had been reprieved.

Four years later he moved to the same position at the Royal Academy of Music in London. He set out to enhance the Academy’s international reputation and maintains its place alongside those in Vienna, New York and Paris.

One of his first major challenges was the Gowrie report of 1990 which controversially planned a merger between the Royal Academy and the Royal College. Lumsden argued powerfully that there should be such a merger otherwise London would risk losing its status as a centre of musical excellence. Lumsden cleared the air in a Supplementary Paper that suggested that a merger, “would help meet international competition head-on”.

Lumsden throughout pursued his teaching with his customary enthusiasm. He coached the Academy’s choir and took it on two tours of the United States. Lumsden did much to further the career of the counter-tenor James Bowman. They were to appear as organist and soloist in several recordings in the 1970s usually devoted to the songs and music of Monteverdi.

Eric von Ibler, a colleague at the RSC and artistic director, of Schola Cantorum in Edinburgh has messaged, “David was an inspirational musician and wonderful principal. He is the reason I returned to Scotland to teach at RSAMD while still pursuing a career in singing.”

He and his wife retired to near Winchester. He was knighted 1985 and married Sheila Daniels in 1951 who predeceased him. He is survived by a son and two daughters.



by Kenneth Shenton


SIR David Lumsden was a vitalising force in many aspects of British cultural life, and one of the last of an outstanding generation of musicians produced by the University of Cambridge in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. He was a defining choral technician of the age, bringing the choir of New College, Oxford, to a level of excellence which had few equals.

Likewise, throughout his stewardship of both the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSAMD), in Glasgow, and the Royal Academy of Music, in London, his musical insight helped to mould the creative personalities of many of this country’s most eminent practitioners.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne on 19 March 1928, David James Lumsden was educated at Dame Allan’s School, in Fenham. Evacuated to the Lake District during the Second World War, he sang, as a schoolboy bass, under Armstrong Gibbs in the Windermere Choral Society. He studied the organ with Conrad Eden at Durham Cathedral, and then, when based in Salisbury for his National Service, took lessons with David Willcocks.

At Cambridge, his tutors were Boris Ord and Thurston Dart. He was the Organ Scholar of Selwyn College, and, for two years, also assisted George Guest at St John’s College. His research into Elizabethan Lute Music brought him numerous awards.

Lumsden began his professional career in earnest in 1954, when he was appointed Organist of St Mary’s, Nottingham, and undertook duties as the University Organist. At the same time, he founded and conducted Nottingham Bach Choir. His broadcasting career began in 1955.

Twelve months later, he succeeded Robert Ashfield as the Organist and Rector Chori of Southwell Minster. Here, he continued and enhanced the work of his predecessor by further enriching and expanding the repertoire. Lumsden was meticulous, exacting, and demanding, his quiet demeanour belying a dogged determination to achieve the very highest standards. While at Southwell, he also served as Director of Music of the University College of North Staffordshire, soon to become Keele University.

Lumsden revelled in the many opportunities afforded by the instrument, and was hailed as one of the leading organists of the time. Musically adventurous, precise and faultless, calm and consistent, he rarely failed to make an impact with his virtuoso. His performances of Bach combined musicality, feeling, and performance practice in exactly the right balance.

He played regularly at the Royal Festival Hall, appeared at the Proms, and toured both Europe and America. His continuo playing, his harpsichord realisations could make even the most austere music speak with a profound truth. Between 1972 and 1975, he was a regular member of the London Virtuosi.

He moved to New College, Oxford, in 1959, as Fellow, Organist, and Tutor, and was appointed a Lecturer in Music in the University. He continued his teaching at the Royal Academy, in London. At New College, he again expanded the repertoire and enlarged the choral body. One of his early recruits was the countertenor the late James Bowman.

Christmas Carols From New College was the first of some twenty LPs on the Abbey label, for whom Lumsden became principal adviser. Choir tours to both Europe and America further enhanced the choir’s reputation. In 1969, he oversaw the installation of the Grant, Degens and Bradbeer three-manual mechanical-action organ in the chapel. He became Sub-Warden in 1970, in which year, he also served as Visiting Professor at Yale University.

Six years later, Lumsden moved north, to Glasgow, to become Principal of the RSAMD. Throughout his time there, he presided over numerous developments that increasingly involved the Academy not only in Glasgow’s musical life but in activities much further afield. The Opera School was strengthened by a closer liaison with Scottish Opera, of which Lumsden was a director.

Under the aegis of Glasgow University, diploma courses became degree courses, while the study of both early and contemporary music intensified through a series of workshops and master classes focused on one or two great composers a year. No mere administrator, Lumsden also conducted the RSAMD Chorus and the BBC Scottish Singers, and was the continuo player for the Scottish Baroque Ensemble.

In 1982, he returned south, this time to London, to succeed Sir Anthony Lewis as the 12th Principal of the Royal Academy of Music (RAM). Here, he was initially constrained by historical attitudes, but later, using as his model New York’s Juilliard School, he set in train a whole raft of restructuring proposals that would affect both staff and students.

In an effort to raise the Academy’s international profile, student numbers were cut, course requirements were refined, and a greater focus was put on masterclasses with leading artists, through the creation of RAM International Chairs. Lumsden was also an enthusiastic advocate of Lord Gowrie’s radical 1989 plan to prune drastically and even further both students and institutions. It did, however, result in the creation of a joint faculty with the Royal College of Music.

Knighted in 1985, Lumsden retired in 1993. He served the Church Music Society as an editor. His other publications include An Anthology of English Lute Music and Thomas Robinson’s Schoole of Musicke. A Past President of the Incorporated Association of Organists and the Royal College of Organists, he also chaired the National Youth Orchestra.

His wife, Sheila, died in 2022. They had four children, the eldest of whom, Andrew, is the current Organist and Director of Music of Winchester Cathedral.

Sir David Lumsden died on 25 February, aged 94.

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