Boult, Adrian Cedric

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Adrian Cedric Boult

Music director of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) beginning in 1930 and conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra from 1950 to 1957, English conductor Sir Adrian Boult (1889–1983) became something of a national icon in Great Britain due to his continued efforts to boost national morale through music during World War II. In addition to his work as a conductor, he championed the work of British composers and performers throughout the world, including composers Ralph Vaughn Williams and Edward Elgar.

An Early Interest in Music

Adrian Cedric Boult, born in Chester, England, on April 8, 1889, was the second and youngest child born to oil merchant and justice of the peace Cedric Randal Boult and his wife, Katherine, whose promising career as a pianist was thwarted by illness. Katherine Boult exposed her young son to music beginning in infancy. Young Boult responded, demonstrating remarkable musical talent: he startled his parents by picking out tunes on the piano at age 18 months and was composing music at seven years of age. A family friend introduced the youngster to British composer Sir Edward Elgar (1857–1934), whose music the boy would later conduct. The family attended the nearby Unitarian church during much of Boult's childhood.

Boult attended the Westminster School as a boy, studying harmony and counterpoint with his science teacher there. One of his favorite activities was to attend concerts at Queen's Hall in London, where he liked to study the score as he listened. Boult went on to Christ Church, Oxford, where he studied under Sir Hugh Allen (1869–1946), a distinguished conductor and one of the leading figures in British cultural life. In college Boult continued to develop his talents as a musician, singing in the Oxford Bach Choir and serving as president of the University Musical Club in 1910.

Boult earned a "pass degree"—a lower-level university or equivalent degree—in 1912 but was disappointed to learn that the school required him to wait five years before he could begin his doctoral work. Forced to put his formal education at Oxford on hold, Boult traveled to the Leipzig Conservatorium in Germany, where in 1912 he studied under composer Max Reger and eminent conductor Arthur Nikisch. He returned to Oxford to take his bachelor's in music examination in 1913 and received his master's degree from the school in 1914.

Launched Musical Career Despite World War I

Boult began his professional musical career in 1914 when he joined the music staff at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, one of the cultural centers of London. There, in February and March of that year, he helped to stage the first British performances of Parsifal, an opera by German composer Richard Wagner, playing the off-stage bells that the work called for. In 1915 he became the youngest conductor ever to work with the Liverpool Philharmonic Society.

When World War I broke out later that year, the 25-year-old Boult was spared from being sent to the front because of a pre-existing heart condition that disqualified him from active duty. However, he spent 1914 to 1916 as an orderly officer in Cheshire and North Wales, helping to drill new recruits. From 1916 to 1918 he worked as a translator for MI-5—the British Secret Service—helped out at the Commission for Foreign Supplies and assisted Food Minister Frederick Marquis in the war office. Meanwhile, in his spare time, Boult gathered musicians from the Liverpool Philharmonic Society to form a small wartime orchestra, conducting the group in concerts to entertain the area's war-weary residents.

The local musicians were impressed by Boult's obvious conducting talent and reported this to leaders of the local musical scene. As a result, Boult was invited to conduct the full orchestra in Liverpool in January 1916. The performance, which constituted Boult's debut as a conductor, included works by Liszt, Bach, Hayden, and several contemporary composers. This and other of the young conductor's performances prompted composer Gustav Holst to request Boult to conduct the first private performance of Holst's new orchestral suite, The Planets. Boult showcased the piece in a performance at the Queen's Hall in London in 1918.

Teaching Added to Responsibilities

Boult became a teacher at the Royal College of Music in 1919, although he continued his work as a conductor and welcomed his growing popularity among London's musical elite. The following year, he accepted an appointment as conductor of the City of Birmingham Orchestra (later known as the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra), where he worked for a number of years. He conducted first performances of the revised London Symphony by Ralph Vaughn Williams in 1922, followed by Elgar's four-movement Symphony No. 2 in E-flat Major, which boosted the latter composer's flagging popularity. Elgar wrote the young conductor, telling him that he felt confident that the fate of classical music was safe with Boult. This confidence was well placed, since Boult became known for his authoritative interpretation of many new pieces and his strong championship of 20th-century English music. Boult published The Point of the Stick: A Handbook on the Technique of Conducting in 1920 and received a doctorate in music from Oxford University in 1921.

As his renown increased, Boult began to conduct orchestras and symphonies all over the world. He kept England as his home base, however, and in 1924 accepted the directorship of the Birmingham Festival Chorus. After working for the first time as an opera conductor with the British National Opera Company, Boult became assistant musical director back at Covent Garden in 1926. Then, in 1927 he conducted the London Bach Choir and from 1928 to 1931 he conducted BBC-Radio's Bach choir. In the meantime, he left his position as teacher at the Royal College of Music in 1930.

Asked to Conduct BBC Orchestra

Boult not only left the Royal College, where he had happily taught for 11 years, but also his position with the City of Birmingham Orchestra to accept a new job as director of music for the BBC Symphony Orchestra. This conductorship brought Boult true international fame and marked the beginning of the most important phase of his career, since the British Broadcasting Corporation's reach was far and its pockets deep. However, Boult remained involved in the world of opera, and his conducting of Fidelio at Sadler's Wells Theater in 1930 and Die Walküre at Covent Gardens in 1931 are considered among his finest performances.

After a somewhat controversial romance, Boult married a divorcee, the former Ann Mary Grace Bowles, in 1933. While Bowles had four children from her previous marriage to tenor singer Sir James Steuart Wilson, she and Boult had no children together.

Having replaced Percy Pitt as conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Boult rose to the challenge of working with some of the world's finest musicians and soon proved that his talent and tireless nature could make even the best orchestra even better. His directorship of the orchestra entailed his recruitment of musicians and other administrative duties, as well as serving as chief conductor of the group.

Under Boult's directorship, the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave public concerts throughout Great Britain and broadcast performances from the BBC studios. Boult also launched a successful world tour with the orchestra, performing in Vienna, Paris, Budapest, Zurich, Brussels, Salzburg, Boston, and New York City. He also accepted invitations to be a guest conductor for orchestras in Vienna, Boston, New York, and Salzburg. By 1936 his fame had become so great that he was asked to conduct during the coronation of King George VI.

Boult developed a distinctive style of conducting. He was quite restrained on the platform, guiding his musicians through his natural authority and innate musicianship. He preferred to carry out meticulous rehearsals but was also known for producing excellent results with few practices. Tall, erect, and commanding, Boult could explode into a violent temper during difficult rehearsals, but he was generally known for his genteel, courteous manner and understated, old-fashioned speaking style. The conductor's ultimate goal was to preserve a composer's original conceptions and he strove to avoid "interpreting" the music as a means to impose his own personality on a piece. Critics believed that Boult was a master of both 19th-century classical music and the works of his British contemporaries.

Became Preeminent Conductor

Boult became the conductor-of-choice among nervous composers whose works were being publically performed for the first time, since the conductor's capability and sensitivity with new and unfamiliar music had become legendary. As a result, he conducted many pieces in their first public performances, including Arthur Bliss's Music for String (1935) and Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1939); Vaughn Williams' Symphony No. 4 (1935); and Paul Hindemith's Trauermusik (1936). He also premiered Arnold Schoenberg's Variations, opus 31; Alban Berg's tragic opera Wozzeck (1934); and Ferrucio Busoni's Doktor Faust (1937), garnering praise from critics for his willingness to introduce new pieces. These were considered some of his most notable operatic achievements.

Boult's reputation and standing as an icon of the British musical world was cemented in 1937 when he received a knighthood from the British royal family. He left his position as music director of the BBC in 1942 but continued as the BBC Symphony Orchestra's conductor. World War II began in 1939 and quickly interrupted the BBC's formerly hectic schedule. To escape the German bombing of London, the orchestra was evacuated to Bristol, then Bedford. Boult worked to maintain the orchestra's high standards, although morale became a problem as more and more key musicians left. Nevertheless, even during these trying years, he made several significant recordings. He also served as deputy director of the popular London promenade concerts—where part of the audience stood in a promenade area of the hall—from 1942 to 1950. When the war finally ended in 1945, Boult presided over BBC-Radio's Third Programme, introducing such revolutionary new composers as Gustav Mahler to the country.

Resurrected London Philharmonic after Losing BBC

Boult published The Saint Matthew Passion: Its Preparation and Performance in 1949. He remained with the BBC Symphony Orchestra until 1950, when at age 60, he was forced to retire by newly appointed director of music. It was alleged that the reason for Boult's removal was that the BBC Symphony Orchestra's quality had sunk to unacceptable levels, an assertion that remains controversial. Boult quickly rebounded from this setback and immediately accepted a position as musical director of the world-famous but flagging London Philharmonic Orchestra. He rebuilt the group and toured West Germany with it in 1951.

During his years with the London Philharmonic, Boult led the orchestra through the recordings of nine Vaughan Williams symphonies and many Elgar works. He also helped the group's resurrection by winning recording contracts with several American companies, for which the Philharmonic recorded works by Brahms, Hector Berlioz, Sibelius, and others.

Boult retired from the London Philharmonic in 1957 at age 68 and from then on worked only as a guest conductor. He remained much sought after, though, because of his sterling reputation for being impartial and reliable. He also found time to teach at the Royal College of Music from 1962 to 1966 and published his third book, Thoughts on Conducting, in 1963. Boult resumed recording in 1966 for the EMI label. His work during this short period, which included his direction of a televised performance of Elgar's Dream of Gerontius filmed at Canterbury Cathedral in 1968, is still considered among his finest. Chronic back pain finally slowed the energetic conductor in 1978, forcing him to do only seated studio work for several years.

Retired from conducting entirely in 1981, Boult died at a nursing home in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, England on February 22, 1983. A documentary, The Point of the Stick, was released in 1971, and his autobiography, the popular My Own Trumpet, was published in 1973. Numerous books were written about the conductor, including Sir Adrian Boult: A Tribute (1980); Malcolm Walker's Sir Adrian Boult (1984); Michael Kennedy's Adrian Boult (1987); Sir Adrian Boult: Companion of Honour (1989); and the publication A Portrait of Sir Adrian Boult (1999).


Boult, Adrian, Boult on Music: Words from a Lifetime's Communication, Toccata Press, 1983.

Contemporary Authors, Volume 114, Gale, 1985.

Dictionary of National Biography, 1981–1985, Oxford University Press, 1986.


"Adrian Boult (Conductor)," Bach Cantatas Web site, (December 20, 2003).

"Sir Adrian Boult Papers," Archives Hub, (December 20, 2003).