Antony Hopkins CBE won fame through a programme with the simplest of titles and simplest of formats: Talking about Music.
Running from the mid-1950s, not just on what are now Radio 3 and Radio 4 but dozens of stations worldwide, it relied purely and simply on Hopkins’ brilliance at writing (and delivering) scripts which simplified the business of musical analysis without ever talking down. Grabbing the audience’s attention from the outset, in what for many years was a live programme, typified his approach, never better evidenced than in an episode on a supposedly ‘difficult’ Schoenberg work. He cued the first musical extract by imagining an astronaut alarmed as he stepped out onto a distant planet.
The 36 years of Talking about Music have nonetheless tended to obscure the breadth of Hopkins’ musical involvements. As a composer, his output included several operas, a ballet, film scores ‒ among them The Pickwick Papers (1952) and Billy Budd (1952) ‒ plus music for many radio dramas and stage productions, not least an Oedipus Rex starring Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson and Sybil Thorndike. Hopkins was a pianist good enough to have played at Myra Hess’s wartime National Gallery concerts. As a conductor he was (unfairly) typecast as a children’s concert specialist, though that did bring the cachet of conducting at the Albert Hall. There was also lecturing, the many books on music and an autobiography.
Speaking to CM in 2011, he said: ‘I’ve always maintained that my ability to communicate was helped by the fact that I didn’t have a long scholarly training. When people use jargon, they frighten their audience. You’d never hear me say this is the mediant of the subdominant in first inversion because it’s meaningless to the average person. I would usually look for analogy rather than analysis.’
Intriguingly, in discussions we had at his cottage deep in Hertfordshire woodland, Hopkins said he wished he’d been equipped to bring more ‘musical facts and history’ to Talking about Music. But the measure of his talent was the confession that when called upon to cover a work he didn’t know, ‘I’d simply listen to it once, then start writing the script.’ Even in old age, he loved to tell a story.
Antony Hopkins: 21 March 1921 ‒ 6 May 2014