Winton Dean, who has died aged 97, was Britain's senior music critic, a profound and witty scholar who, from his estate in the Scottish borders, cast the keenest of ears on the music of Handel, Bizet, and every composer who had drawn inspiration from Shakespeare, while acutely observing every event enticing enough - or atrocious enough - to lure him to the Edinburgh Festival.
Enticements and atrocities sometimes turned out to be one and the same thing, and though no newspaper was lucky enough to have him as a staff writer - no newspaper editor could have withstood so trenchantly dogmatic a personality - some of his most searing responses were to be gleaned from quiet chats with him halfway through opera performances that were clearly en route to hitting the buffers.
His beliefs could be softly and succinctly expressed but he knew how to make a couple of words linger in the memory. It was, however, his big stuff - his series of books on Handel, the first (and finest) of them on the dramatic oratorios and masques (1959), the second on opera seria (1969) and their culmination in the two great volumes on the operas in general, completed when he was 90 - that indelibly lingered and really mattered. As a champion of Handel's dramatic genius he did not suffer fools gladly, particularly the extremist modern stage directors who loved distorting the works out of all recognition.
Spurred by the sting of his lash, these people were inevitably prone to dismiss him as fuddy-duddy, although since it was not in newspapers that Mr Dean tended to express himself - he was much too secure and scholarly for that - such directors knew they were safe from his scorn, or thought they were.
Opera Magazine and The Musical Times were the closest this superlative critics' critic - how else could we describe him? - got to a popular readership. But books, or chapters in books, were his metier. His expanding study of Bizet, first published in 1948, grew increasingly valuable, and his assessment of the operatic Beethoven in The Beethoven Companion (1971) proved no less so. His lectures, for those who had the luck to attend them, were special, and although, in appearance, he looked every inch a Colonel Blimp (in fact he served in the navy during the Second World War) he was a music critic - the genuine pure-gold old-school article, fascinating and never inaccessible - through and through.
When The New Grove wanted to commission an authoritative essay on the art of music criticism, it was naturally to Mr Dean that its editor Stanley Sadie turned. His illuminating 14-page response was as profound as it was thorough, from his opening words, describing the subject as "eel-like" in its inability to be grasped, right through to his mighty peroration where he catalogued the qualities - so multifarious, he declared, as almost to place contenders "among the mythical beasts" - required of the ideal music critic.
Born in Birkenhead, and educated at Harrow and King's College Cambridge, Winton Dean was the eldest son of the theatre director Basil Dean. At the height of his powers, which were nothing if not enduring, he was a critic of the calibre of his great contemporary, the wine authority Edmund Penning-Rowsell, whose long and learned articles on the wines of Bordeaux graced the Financial Times for many years.
Though his Scottish abode was originally his wife's, it inspired him to write a game book (he was reputedly a fine shot as well as a salmon fisherman). When, a year or so ago, the house caught fire, he gained new fame by refusing to leave the building before he had finished his breakfast.
He is survived by his son Stephen, who assisted him editorially on his books, and by his adopted daughter Diana.
Loading article content