Sir David Lumsden, FRSE. Principal of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Dance

Born: March 19, 1928

Died: February 25, 2023

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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

Alasdair Steven