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Abraham, Gerald Ernest Heallocked

(1904–1988)

Abraham, Gerald Ernest Heal (1904–1988), musicologist, was born on 9 March 1904 in Newport, Isle of Wight, the only child of Ernest Abraham, manufacturer, and his wife, Dorothy Mary Heal, a jeweller's daughter. In spite of his strong musical interests, he planned a naval career, attending a naval crammer in Portsmouth. Ill health forced him to abandon this, though he retained a lifelong interest in naval history, and after studying for a year in Cologne he published his first book on music, a study of Aleksandr Borodin (1927), an autodidact like himself. Apart from some piano lessons in early life, he was self-taught, but during the following years he contributed widely to musical periodicals and also published monographs on Nietzsche (1933), Tolstoy (1935), and Dostoyevsky (1936), as well as an introduction to contemporary music, This Modern Stuff (1933; renamed This Modern Music in later reprints). He taught himself Russian and published two collections of his primarily analytical essays, Studies in Russian Music (1935) and On Russian Music (1939). In collaboration with M. D. Calvocoressi, he wrote Masters of Russian Music (1936). In 1935 he joined the BBC as assistant editor of Radio Times and subsequently served as deputy editor of The Listener (1939–42), remaining its music editor until 1962. In 1936 he married (Isobel) Patsy, daughter of Stanley John Robinson, a pharmacist; they had one daughter.

During the Second World War, when interest in Russian music was at fever pitch, he published Eight Soviet Composers (1943) and made a valuable behind-the-scenes contribution to broadcasting as director of gramophone programmes (1942–7), helping to lay the foundations of the Third Programme in 1946. He returned to the BBC in 1962, as assistant controller of music, after having spent the intervening years (1947–62) as the first professor of music at Liverpool University. He spent a further year as chief music critic of the Daily Telegraph (1967–8) before becoming the Ernest Bloch professor of music at the University of California at Berkeley (1968–9). His lectures there were subsequently published under the title The Tradition of Western Music (1974). Although the public tended to associate him with Slavonic and Romantic music, his scholarship was of quite unusual breadth and depth. He edited symposia on Tchaikovsky (1945), Schubert (1946), Sibelius (1947), Grieg (1948), Schumann (1952), and Handel (1954). He set in motion The History of Music in Sound (gramophone records and handbooks) and the New Oxford History of Music. The latter occupied him for the best part of three decades; he edited three of its ten volumes personally—the third, Ars nova and the Renaissance, 1300–1450, in collaboration with Dom Anselm Hughes (1960); the fourth, The Age of Humanism, 1540–1630 (1968); and the eighth, The Age of Beethoven, 1790–1830 (1982). During this time he also brought out his magisterial, synoptic overview of Western music, The Concise Oxford History of Music (1979). He was closely involved in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1980). His selfless work as an editor is nowhere better exemplified than in his completion of Calvocoressi's Master Musicians study of Mussorgsky (1946) and his work on seeing Calvocoressi's larger study through the press in 1955 (published in 1956).

Abraham was of medium height, with a genial and warm personality. His writings are exceptional in the field of musicology not only for their scholarship, which was always worn lightly, but also for their freshness, originality, and readability. He had the rare ability to stimulate the interest and engage the sympathies of the less informed as well as the specialist reader, and he commanded a ready wit with the gift for a felicitous and memorable phrase. Although he wrote widely on Russian music and literature, he was also the author of Chopin's Musical Style (1939), a penetrating study which was a model of lucidity, economy, and good style. Always a Wagnerian, Abraham long planned a book on Wagner's musical language. In the 1940s he even made a conjectural reconstruction of a quartet movement that was published by Oxford University Press. He also made a conjectural completion of Schubert's 'Unfinished' symphony in 1971.

Abraham held honorary doctorates from the universities of Durham, Liverpool, and Southampton, and Berkeley, and was a fellow of the British Academy (1972), and president of the Royal Musical Association (1969–74). He was appointed CBE in 1974. From 1973 to 1980 he was chairman of the British Academy's early English church music committee. Some of his finest and most absorbing writing is to be found in Slavonic and Romantic Music: Essays and Studies (1968). Whether as a lecturer or broadcaster, his erudition was always tempered by a keen sense of humour. The publication of Slavonic and Western Music: Essays for Gerald Abraham (1985), edited by Malcolm Hamrick Brown and Roland John Wiley, paid him fitting and timely tribute. Abraham had an abiding love of the English countryside and the music of Sir Edward Elgar, and from the early 1960s he lived in the Old School House, Ebernoe, near Petworth, Sussex, until his death at the King Edward VII Hospital, Midhurst, on 18 March 1988.

Sources

  • M. H. Brown and R. J. Wiley, eds., Slavonic and Western music: essays for Gerald Abraham (1985)
  • J. Westrup, ed., ‘A birthday greeting to Gerald Abraham’, Music and Letters, 55 (1974), 131–5
  • personal knowledge (1996)

Wealth at Death

£160,541: probate, 22 June 1988, CGPLA Eng. & Wales