Classic Mornings

Polly Want Academy!


Recently, I decided to pay a visit to a parrot I hadn’t seen in quite a while.

This particular parrot has been around since 1979. I was hoping I’d find it, especially since it has been quoted in recent weeks. (I found that amusing since it’s the parrots that usually are the ones doing the quoting.)  I managed to find the parrot at the library of all places. No, it’s not what you might be thinking: a parrot at the library repeating “There’s no talking in the library.” That could be amusing too – for a short while. No, the parrot I was looking for was just where I had seen it last – on a bookshelf inside the pages of a 1981 book by Meirion and Susie Harries about The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. There’s a cartoon in the book (reprinted from Stereo Review, March 1979). In the cartoon a gentleman is sitting in a comfortable chair next to a stereo set as an announcement is heard from the speaker: “Played now by the orchestra of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.” The parrot, sitting on a perch off to the side, completes the announcement with the phrase: “Neville Marriner conducting.”  For those who have listened to classical music on the radio, it’s something they have heard countless times. The parrot presumably had heard it a number of times too. 

Neville Marriner, or Sir Neville Marriner as he’s come to be known, celebrated his 90th birthday on April 15th. We celebrated on the Classic Morning Prelude and Classic Mornings that day.There were all sorts of online tributes to the conductor, whose name is so well attached to the ensemble he founded and has led for years: The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. You don’t need to be a parrot to make the connection. I enjoyed Stuart Jeffries’ interview with Neville Marriner, published online by The Guardian on April 13th.  Sir Neville mentioned the cartoon – and an announcer in Vancouver who refers to the “Academy of you know where” conducted by “you know who.”

“Academy of St. Martin in the Fields” is a unique and interesting-sounding name.  I have sensed over the years that those who have never heard the name find it a bit odd, while those who know it like to wear it in their music discussions the way sports fans wear t-shirts and jerseys. While I was paging through the 1981 book, I had to chuckle as the authors pointed out that St. Martin in the Fields Church hasn’t been “in the fields” for some 300 years. It faces Trafalgar Square in London. (By the way, the term “academy” has been used for centuries to refer to a society dedicated to learning and the arts, primarily through the performance and discussion of music.)  The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields began life with a series of concerts at the church in late 1958 and early 1959. Neville Marriner was a violinist at the time – the Principal Second Violin of the London Symphony Orchestra and a member of 2 trios and a string quartet. For years, he led the ensemble from the “front desk” as a player, using the “nodding and smiling technique,” as the Harries describe it. Eventualy he began to conduct in front of the group when compositions requiring more players were performed and recorded. He still is active with the Academy from time to time, even as Joshua Bell is the current – and only the 2nd ever – music director. There have been others conducting the ensemble and Marriner has conducted orchestras around the world. But the association of Marriner and the Academy is still as strong as ever. 

For years now, I have referred to the ensemble and its conductor simply as “Sir Neville and the Academy” before or after a piece. That’s been a way of letting listeners know that I recognize the long-time association in a sort of informal way, and as though they were our friends. It’s like a shorthand reference to one of classical music’s superstar groups.  Yet I can’t assume that everybody knows who I’m referring to. So, on the other end of the selection I play, I may well say it was performed by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and - with the parrot in mind -  “Neville Marriner conducting.”  Listeners are being introduced to classical music all the time.  Nobody should be left out of the fun. But it is fun simply to refer to “Sir Neville and the Academy.”  I realize it could be misleading. “Sir Neville and the Academy” sounds like a great name for a band. Indeed, it’s a quite a band, if you will. And Sir Neville is quite a conductor.

Speaking of fun, did you have fun with the little musical puzzle of sorts in my last post? It wasn’t so much about getting the right answers as it was about reflecting on the fact that 3 famous pieces of music came together in the career of one famous actor, whose centennial we celebrated recently. The minuet – the most famous by Luigi Boccherini and perhaps in all of classical music - comes from his String Quintet in E, op. 13, no. 5, G. 275. That minuet is never the same once you’ve seen the original 1955 film The Lady Killers. I had been told that by a listener on the telephone years ago. It turned out to be true (I understand it was used in the 2004 remake as well). The Colonel Bogey March has been around for just over a century, since 1913. It’s most often associated with a film. But it’s not as often associated with its actual composer or it’s namesake. Both have pseudonyms. The composer is Kenneth J. Alford (1881-1945), who some refer to as the “March King” on the other side of the Atlantic. His real name was Frederic Joseph Ricketts, a military bandmaster who used the pseudonym Alford (his mother’s family name).  The story is told that the march was inspired by a golfer who whistled 2 musical notes (which became the first 2 notes of the march) instead of shouting “fore.” The rest is history, and the golfer, immortalized in the march,  is known only as Colonel Bogey. Neither golfers nor music listeners may be aware of the story (I came upon it by accident). Though the march was a part of both World Wars, it was made famous in more recent times in David Lean’s 1957 film  The Bridge on the River Kwai.  There it was presented with the “original instrument” of its inspiration – a whistler – many whistlers at that.   Sir Malcolm Arnold borrowed the tune and added a memorable countermelody in the Academy Award winning original score. (The film, its director and the actor also were honored with Oscars, as were screenplay and cinematography.) That came years 20 years before the Academy Award went to composer John Williams for his original score for the film Star Wars. The opening theme is one of the most memorable tunes in film history. It’s usually asociated with either the film or the composer. But take all 3 films, including Star Wars, and it’s the legendary actor Sir Alec Guinness (1914-2000) who should come to mind. His association with all 3 pieces of music was too irresistible to pass up, not to mention repeating the little game here in the blog.

In addition to the late Sir Alec’s 100th (April 2nd) and Sir Neville’s 90th (April 15th ) birthdays,  April 16th  marked the 90th anniversary of the birth of the late film composer Henry Mancini and the 125th anniversary of the birth of composer, actor, director, writer and editor Charlie Chaplin.  I played 2 selections on the Classic Morning Prelude that morning from a CD which the ensemble I Salonisti recorded years ago – piano quintet arrangements of tunes associated with those famous composers: Moon River and Smile, which wasn’t Smile until 1954 - 60 years ago - when it was given lyrics and the title by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons. Before that, it was the famous tune from Chaplin’s musical score for his 1936 film Modern Times. Mancini’s Moon River, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, was written for the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The film won Oscars for best original song and musical score.

So how do you top that April shower of celebrations? That’s simple: the 450th anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare!   He was baptized on April 26th 1564. Many celebrate his birthday on April 23rd. On the Classic Morning Prelude of April 23rd, I tried to celebrate 5 centuries of Shakespeare and music in 8 minutes – sort of a musical answer to the Reduced Shakespeare Company. If you begin to look up music inspired by Shakespeare, you’ll find it’s quite a task, but quite a tribute to Shakespeare. I’m guessing there’s no parrot around that can help you. But here, I’ll get you started: Purcell, Salieri, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Rossini, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Vaughan Williams, Shostakovich, Bernstein....

All of those celebrations and more were a part of Classic Mornings and the Classic Morning Prelude just during the past couple of weeks or so! Join me for Classic Mornings, Monday through Friday from 9 to noon, with the Classic Morning Prelude  at 8:50 on FM 90.9 and streaming online at