John Nicholson obituary

Other lives: Director of music at Gordonstoun school who also created the Schubertline website

My father, John Nicholson, who has died aged 82, was director of music at the Scottish boarding school Gordonstoun over two fruitful decades.

The number of international music professionals who graduated during John’s era was incredibly high, and he had a gift for being able to match pupils to instruments, even ones they had never considered. The percussionist Chris Brannick recalled that John persuaded him into action by saying: “You’re a music scholar and we need a timpanist. Really, all you do is hit it!”

When he arrived at Gordonstoun in 1972, it was struggling in the musical sphere. But by the time he left in 1991, it was a centre of excellence, often producing performances of a near-professional standard.

His love of music was nurtured by his parents, Mary (nee Radcliffe), a school head, and Cyril Nicholson, a bank clerk, who took him from a young age to performances of the Hallé Orchestra. John attended Manchester grammar school where he distinguished himself particularly in English. A child exhibitioner at the Royal Manchester College of Music (now the Royal Northern College of Music), he became a full-time student in 1958, studying piano and cello. He began teaching in 1962 and developed an interest in the potential for opera in school settings.

In 1968 he accepted a scholarship to study stage management at the London Opera Centre, and the following year he was invited to join the Royal Opera House stage management team, where he worked for three years under Stella Chitty.

In 1972 he accepted the post at Gordonstoun. He developed the school orchestra and choir, touring them internationally every second year. However, his foremost love was the operas, and supported by his second wife, the chorister and singing teacher Mary (nee Ferguson), whom he had married in 1971, he made challenging projects happen at the school, whether commissioning Norse operas by the composer David Bedford, performing Mozart classics, or staging the first non-professional production of Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring. He and Mary were also proxy parents to hundreds of children, offering pastoral as well as musical support.

In the mid 1970s John founded the Gordonstoun Concert Society, bringing international musicians into the orbit of the school. These included names such as John Ogdon, Steven Isserlis (who during his visit joined the school’s football team for training) and Pascal Rogé.

For more than 60 years, John suffered from the autoimmune disease ankylosing spondylitis. The disease lead to numerous operations, which he bore with patience and resolve.

In retirement he developed Schubertline, a website devoted to songs from the classical repertoire, which was launched in 2001 and still continues to supply online access to over four thousand scores.

He is survived by Mary and me; by three children, Harriet, David and Frances from his first marriage, to Jane (nee Bennet) which ended in divorce; and by nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Sophie McCook

The GuardianTramp

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