Antony Hopkins obituary

Broadcaster, writer and composer best known for his Talking About Music series on Radio 3 and then Radio 4

Antony Hopkins, who has died aged 93, was a man of many talents: composer, pianist, lecturer, broadcaster and author. But his enduring claim to the affections of classical music lovers sprang from the weekly series of half-hour talks he presented on the Third Programme, later Radio 3, and then on Radio 4 – Talking About Music.

Each programme explored a particular work, creating through a judicious mix of analysis and vivid metaphor a listener's Baedeker to a musical work. Along the way there would be enjoyable detours through musical or cultural lore, gossip about performances Hopkins had witnessed, and the occasional sarcastic aside at what he thought were wilful obscurities or longueurs in the music. The series built up into a fairly comprehensive education in classical music.

And yet this broadcasting work was at first only a sideline to Hopkins's busy life as a theatre and film composer, and arose by chance. In November 1953, when he was 32, he gave a radio talk that explained in words and musical examples the intricacies of a Bach fugue. It was described by Martin Armstrong in the Listener magazine as "a pyrotechnic display, by which I mean not flashy but brilliant – it did not seem to promise amusing entertainment, yet this was what Mr Hopkins's half-hour analysis was". A Third Programme producer, Roger Fiske, then asked Hopkins what he would like to do on the radio if given carte blanche. He suggested a half-hour programme on talking about works to be broadcast in the coming week, and the resulting series ran from 1954 to 1992.

Method, application, the slow grind of regular practice or forging a style – all the things that make the truly outstanding performer or composer – were utterly foreign to his nature, as he admitted with endearing candour. What he needed was the testing situation that called for a quick, improvised solution, executed with a mixture of bravura and self-mockery. It might be a film score for which the deadline was only a week away, a concert in the Royal Albert Hall with minimal rehearsal time (Hopkins was an able conductor as well as pianist and organist), or series of lectures on great choral masterworks for music societies around Britain. Like all chancers, he was accident-prone as well as lucky, and his autobiography, Beating Time (1982), is full of self-deflating stories – but disaster is always averted.

Hopkins's talent for improvisation showed itself at the age of six, when his adoptive parents, Major Thomas Hopkins and his wife, Lillian, used to catch him picking out tunes at their pianola. He was born in Edmonton, north London, to Hugh and Marjorie Reynolds, but Hugh died when Antony was four, and he went to live on a rambling country estate in Hertfordshire, where Thomas was the headteacher of Berkhamsted school. It was an idyllic existence, which Antony was able to return to in later life, as Thomas bequeathed his cottage to him.

At Berkhamsted, Antony's ability to extemporise endlessly on the organ or piano amazed the music teachers, as it also did at the Royal College of Music in London. With such a talent it was hard for a gregarious, precociously bright boy to practise, and in fact Hopkins never did acquire a secure piano technique – much to his own regret.

At the Royal College, he studied the organ with the eventual aim of becoming a teacher. But his involvement with the musical circle around Michael Tippett at Morley College set him on a different track. In 1944 Tippett passed on to Hopkins the job of composing incidental music for a production of Dr Faustus at the Liverpool Playhouse, and the success of that led to a call from Louis MacNeice, who needed incidental music for a radio play. The trickle of commissions soon became a flood, and, for around 15 years, Hopkins earned most of his living from composing.

Much of it was hack-work, but not all. In 1948 his one-act opera Lady Rohesia was premiered: the fearsome critic Ernest Newman described it as "the most riotous fun imaginable". The previous year Hopkins had married Alison Purves, a music teacher, and seemed set for a career as a composer.

But from the mid-1950s the flow of film scores and commissions started to thin, and Hopkins's other careers – as broadcaster, lecturer and globetrotting competition adjudicator – began to take over. By the end of the decade, his other roles had faded from public view, and he had become simply the "voice of classical music". Publishers courted him to write popularising books, and in 1961 he wrote Talking about Symphonies, and others followed until The Seven Concertos of Beethoven (1996). Add those to the 1,000-odd radio scripts, and the long catalogue of theatre, film and concert scores, and you have the record of a very productive life.

However, Hopkins was no workaholic. He had a lifelong passion for fast cars and was probably at his happiest when driving one of his open-top Alfa Romeos at a race at Snetterton motor racing circuit in Norfolk. As he revealingly remarked in his autobiography, "it is only in hobbies that one can achieve a satisfaction unsullied by regret". He went on to say, "I am continually aware of how much more I ought to have achieved," and his colleagues at Radio 3 were aware of his uneasy conscience at abandoning the rigours of composition for the easy rewards of broadcasting.

In the end he found a different kind of posterity, in the many music-lovers who remember Talking About Music with affection; in 1976 he was appointed CBE. The programmes were pragmatic, suspicious of theory, and had a rather British blend of undemanding formalism (deft descriptions of key changes and contrapuntal devices), a touch of biographical and cultural background, and a marvellously apt turn of phrase for capturing a mood or colour.

In the eyes of the "new musicology", which burrows away for the social and ideological underpinnings of music, it is a mix that is bound to seem dated and theoretically naive. But it may be the very lack of ideological baggage that makes Hopkins's books from the programmes endure.

Alison died in 1991, and in 2012 Hopkins married Beatrix Taylor, whom he got to know as she typed four of his books. She survives him.

• Antony Hopkins, composer, conductor and broadcaster, born 21 March 1921; died 6 May 2014

Antony Hopkins's Desert Island Discs

Antony Hopkins talking about Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No 2


Ivan Hewett

The GuardianTramp

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