Jillian Mary White

Doctor of Music


Mr. Vice-Chancellor, had I the voice to do so, it would be entirely apt if I were actually to sing the praises of this afternoon’s honorary graduand, since, for much of her early life, Jill White seemed destined for an operatic career; but, although song has been a golden thread in her life, she eventually found a different vocation – that of musical ‘animateur’.  The way Jill’s career has developed, indeed how she has made a unique and personal contribution to our musical culture, can be likened to that process through which sown seeds can lie dormant for many years, suddenly to bloom when the right conditions conspire, as when long-denied rain brings a thousand flowers from apparent desert.

When Jill was a young girl in 1950’s Leicestershire, someone remarked that she “had a contralto”.  Reassured that this was not some dreadful disease, with the help of wonderfully supportive parents, the resources of the Market Harborough Public Library and the advice of the local church organist, she set about exploring the world of music and singing.  The Leicestershire music service was then in the hands of an educational visionary - Eric Pinkett – and it was through his prompting that Jill, still a schoolgirl, toured Scandinavia in Gluck’s splendidly-named opera ‘The Drunkard Reformed’.  A scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music followed.

Her studentship over, Jill stayed in London having private lessons and supporting herself through a part-time cataloguing job at the BBC.  There she met Leo Wurmser, one of a number of highly-gifted musicians employed by the BBC who had fled Nazi Europe.  An inspiring man, he convinced Jill that she should join the opera class in Vienna and helped her to secure an Austrian Government Scholarship.  This had to be supplemented by part-time work and, during her four years in Vienna, she taught music in a gymnasium, had a clerical job at the International Atomic Energy Agency and cleaned an art gallery.  There she was known as ‘flamingo’ because of her passion for pink.  When she left, the gallery gave her a first-edition Hogarth print (of a choir rehearsal) which has since been joined in her house by an eclectic and intriguing art collection, some of it commissioned from young artists.

Unsure that she wanted to depend on her voice and such roles as it afforded, and influenced by her non-musical experiences in Vienna as well as by illness she had herself suffered, Jill returned to London in order to become a doctor.  She set about getting the necessary science A-levels, again supported by a part-time cataloguing job at the BBC.  But soon the BBC offered something more seductive, the post of archivist – sifting broadcasts and recordings for those that should be permanently preserved.  This kept her fascinated for the first five years of the 1970’s. 

The composer Charles Ives, though now recognised as a founding father of American music, was little-performed in his lifetime.  This did not affect him much materially – he made a million in the insurance business – but, after the odd bruising encounter with performers of and listeners to his daringly innovative music, he would come home to his wife (whose name, poignantly, was Harmony) and ask “Are my ears on wrong?”  Well, the BBC discovered that Jill’s ears were decidedly on right and in 1975 gave her the creative opportunity she craved, making her a music producer working out of Birmingham’s Pebble Mill Studios.  There she produced more than 2,000 programmes, including complete cycles of the songs of Brahms and the keyboard works of Haydn.  She devised a series on cathedrals and their musical resources, in the course of which she worked with John Rutter, a meeting which later resulted in Jill producing his CDs, one of which won a Gramophone Award.  Other seeds for the future were sown in broadcasts from the festivals of the Midlands and involvement in the beginnings of ‘Young Musician of the Year’. 

In 1986 Jill became the Senior BBC Music Producer for the fourteen counties of the southwest, based in Bristol.  In doing so, she broke through what feminists have called a ‘glass ceiling’; but she had other kinds of glass on her mind and turned double-glazing sales person: she was sure that, if only the problems of external noise could be solved, St George’s Brandon Hill would become one of the country’s leading venues for recording chamber music – and she was right.  In addition to her BBC duties, Jill found time to institute the course on radio and CD production at the Birmingham Conservatoire and to join the management committees of the Cheltenham and the Bournemouth Festivals.

Then in 1992 a friend prompted her to apply for the directorship of the National Youth Orchestra, a post which has occupied the most recent decade of her life.  In it, she made her own special additions to an already glorious garden.  Years of looking after the physical comfort of great performers spawned instant innovation: the appointment of an Alexander Technique specialist to attend every orchestra course and finding funding for anatomically-sane chairs to go to every rehearsal venue.  Her links with the Cheltenham Festival led to chamber music concerts, given by members of the orchestra and embracing new works written by young composers who attended the orchestra’s courses, becoming a fixture in the Festival programme.  BBC links produced more frequent broadcasts and commissions for world premières.  Jill herself produced CDs made by the orchestra.  Visual arts and dance specialists became regular contributors to the orchestra’s courses.  When music based on Shakespeare was played, a team from the Globe Theatre came along; and when Holst’s ‘The Planets’ was in repertoire, distinguished physicists visited and some orchestra members made a fine orrery.

Dame Ruth Railton, who founded the National Youth Orchestra, called her book about it ‘Daring to Excel’ – not a bad epithet for our university.  At the same time as we were seeking strategies to offer that opportunity to excel as widely as possible, Jill was inaugurating a series of regional NYO open days, staffed by orchestra professors and members, aimed at raising the aspirations of youngsters who might not naturally think of themselves as potential members of the orchestra.  And, of course, there has been song, including a splendid coup-de-théâtre at a Promenade Concert, when the audience quietened in expectation of an orchestral ‘firework’ by way of an encore, only for the entire orchestra to stand and sing Gibbons’ The Silver Swan’.  The orchestra’s fiftieth anniversary tour of Europe included Mahler’s ‘Song of the Earth’.

At the time of its fiftieth anniversary, John Drummond, the BBC’s Controller of Music, called the orchestra “a national treasure”; he could have said the same of the person who then had the orchestra in her care.  Jill has, indeed, been honoured by the Royal Academy and the Royal College of Music, by the Birmingham Conservatoire, the Royal Society of Arts, the Worshipful Company of Musicians and the Polish Composers’ Union – she is also a Freeman of the City of London.

A photograph was taken at the fiftieth birthday concert, of Dame Ruth Railton with the three Directors who had succeeded her; the first a Bristolian, the second a former Senior Lecturer in Music of this university and the third, Jill, a Bristolian by adoption.  Today we properly honour that Bristol connection and the achievements of someone whose motto could easily be ‘only connect’.

The first person to process through this Great Hall to receive an honorary doctorate of music was Ralph Vaughan Williams.  It is little known that he completed his magical romance for violin 'The Lark Ascending' just three miles from here at Kingsweston House, then owned by Napier Miles, who is remembered in an annual prize for one of our music undergraduates.  The piece was first performed at a concert of the Avonmouth and Shirehampton Choral Society.  It was inspired by a poem of George Meredith’s with these lines:

                        “ For singing till his heaven fills,

                        ‘Tis love of earth that he instills,

                         And ever winging up and up,

                         Our valley is his golden cup

                         And he the wine which overflows

                         To lift us with him as he goes.”

Mr. Vice-Chancellor, it is for inspiring the upward, singing flight of others and thus enriching our love of being on earth, that I present to you Jillian Mary White as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Music, honoris causa.

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