Sir Philip Ledger, conductor, organist and for many years director of music at King’s College, Cambridge and subsequently principal of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, has died aged 74.
Ledger was born in Bexhill on the south coast of England and went on to study at King’s, the college where he’d eventually become music director. In 1962 he was appointed master of music at Chelmsford Cathedral, becoming, aged just 24, the youngest cathedral organist in the country. From 1965-73 he was director of music at the University of East Anglia – an institution then only two years old – and shortly afterwards planted further East Anglian roots by becoming an artistic director to the Aldeburgh Festival, working closely with Benjamin Britten.
Taking up the post at King’s in 1974 he succeeded Sir David Willcocks – director of music there since 1957 – whom he once described as the strongest influence in his musical development. It was Willcocks, he said, ‘who taught me the detailed practical expertise of the King’s job and how to solve the problems of the chapel acoustics’. As for his own views of what makes a good chorister, Ledger told Gramophone in November 1981 that he looked for: ‘A good musical ear and sense of pitch coupled with a high degree of intelligence rather than outstanding individual voices. I don't want 16 solo voices but rather a combined ability to sing as one voice. Of course exceptional solo boys come up every two years or so, and at the moment I think I have another winner in the wings. Although for fun the boys have sung a verse of a hymn in the style of the Vienna Boys’ Choir, we go at King’s for the head voice rather than the chest voice. We like good pianissimos, perfect intonation and texture; not stabbing staccatos or long-sustained fortissimos.’
In 1982 he took up his next post, which he held until retirement in 2001, as principal of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Ledger was thus an acclaimed choral conductor, educator and conductor – but also a superb pianist too. Despite his renown perhaps lying most with choral music, he might instead have become a concert pianist, Gramophone once writing that ‘he is as happy playing Schubert’s Winterreise as conducting the King's choir’. He’d been taught piano by Harold Craxton, and later also become a master of both the harpsichord and the organ. He was knighted in 1999.
To all that must also be added composer, Ledger having written a number of settings and arrangements of choral works. A disc of his music based around his Requiem - entitled A thanksgiving for life - was released by Regent Records in 2010, performed by the choir of Christ’s College, Cambridge, of which Gramophone wrote: ‘Ledger is content to explore simple yet thoroughly memorable melody and harmony in uncomplicated stanzaic structures. Yet, under the surface, lies a skilful legerdemain.’
Ledger’s discography, largely for EMI, was extensive and ranged widely across the centuries. He recorded polyphony by Palestrina, Monteverdi’s Vespers, Masses by Byrd, Handel oratorios (including Alexander’s Feast and The Choice of Hercules) and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and orchestral suites (with the ECO). From the 20th century he recorded Duruflé’s Requiem (with Dame Janet Baker and Stephen Roberts), a very fine account of Elgar’s Coronation Ode, as well as choral music by Britten, Bliss and Patrick Hadley.
One of Ledger’s longest musical relationships was also one of deep friendship. Robert Tear and he were fellow students at King’s and Tear was Ledger’s best-man. Together they forged a working relationship that not only enriched the concert scene in the UK but also resulted in a number of superb recordings, notably of the folk-song settings of Vaughan Williams and Britten, a disc of music by Madeleine Dring (a pupil of VW and Herbert Howells), and Parry and Tchaikovsky songs. Of their ASV disc of Schubert’s Winterreise, Alan Blyth wrote that ‘here we have a performance that attempts an even more anti-Romantic reading than either [Haefliger or Widmer] and has in Philip Ledger an accompanist who seems to be trying to imitate the effects of a fortepiano while playing on a modern instrument. At any rate the most startling aspect of the record, whether it is intentional or not, is the crisp, strict, extremely forward playing, with the singer, particularly in the earlier songs, almost reduced to supporting artist.’