The passing of John White on 1st December 2013, at the age of 75, has left an unbridgeable chasm in the world of viola playing, teaching and research. He was entirely self-made, following his instincts and gifts to pursue a life radically different from that which might have been expected from his early upbringing in a small Yorkshire mining community. He was known and respected throughout the world through his books, his editions of rare viola music, his teaching, his adjudicating, his meticulous organisation of major international and national viola events and his playing, especially of the British repertoire.
A common thread runs through the many tributes which have poured in, celebrating his work and character. He is remembered above all for his integrity, his loyalty to friends, his unfailing commitment to his students, his unselfishness professionally and socially, his personal work ethic and insistence on high standards, his impatience with superficiality and overblown egos. These qualities were brought out in the eulogies delivered at his funeral and in the obituaries published in The Daily Telegraph and The Strad.
Below are some excerpts from what has been said and written about John, including tributes published in the BVS Newsletter of March 2014. Many will remember, too, the touching words spoken by friends after his funeral, some of whom had known him for 60 years or more, or worked with him, like the clarinettist Martin Ronchetti, as a colleague in the early years of his career. John maintained long-lasting friendships, kept alive by letter and telephone rather than by scorned electronic communication!
The quotations have been selected to reflect not only John’s personal relations with his friends and former-students-turned-colleagues, but also the unforgettable qualities for which he was so deeply cherished.
MARTIN OUTRAM’S tribute to John White
I will always remember John as an incredibly generous, loyal and supportive friend and colleague . . . Here was someone who had an inexhaustible knowledge of all things relating to the viola – its history, personalities and repertoire . . . As a teenager it became something of a game for me to burrow away to find what seemed to be the most obscure pieces and mention them in my next lesson in the hope that John might not have heard of them. However, I was always thwarted as I never managed to catch him out and on many occasions he had played the pieces himself, had a recording of them and ALWAYS copies of the music in his vast library. It really seemed as though there was no viola piece with which John did not have an acquaintance!
John was a brilliant teacher who possessed in huge measure one of the most inspiring qualities of any great pedagogue – infectious enthusiasm . . . He had a great gift in knowing how to lift his pupils, how to set the right height for the bar and, equally important, he knew when to stop . . . to this day in my own teaching the question ‘how might John have approached this?’ is a frequent refrain for me.
John corresponded widely all the time with violists and musicians from across the world. He was someone to whom so many turned for advice or off whom they bounced ideas – his feet were always on the ground and his opinions always valued.
John was a great inspiration in so many ways. A man who never forgot where he came from, able confidently to speak to anyone and able to put anyone at their ease . . . He was always a tremendous supporter of young musicians and in all his dealings he demanded the highest standards of conduct, commitment and dedication to the music. All of us who had the privilege to know him were inspired and affected by his love, loyalty and support.
SARAH-JANE BRADLEY’S tribute to John White
I first met John in about 1983 at a Hertfordshire County Music Viola Day with Harry Danks; little did I know at that point what a lasting influence he was to be later in life . . . He saw me through a formative time with National Youth Orchestra, as my teacher at the Royal Academy of Music and viola section coach with the European Community Youth Orchestra, offering constant help, support and encouragement throughout. John was also responsible for suggesting I form a duo with the violinist Marianne Thorsen which was later to become the basis of the Leopold String Trio. So, I have an awful lot to be thankful to John for. After my time at the RAM John became even more of a mentor, advisor and friend, often giving invaluable advice about the profession, viola matters and always being supportive about the tribulations of life in general. John was always modest and humble with impeccable Yorkshire values . . . One of his most memorable attributes was his utter integrity in all that he did. I often think what an incredible achievement he made, coming from a humble coal-mining family background, and what utter dedication and drive he must have had to achieve what he did. He often said himself that he could not have done so without the fantastic support from his family, and in particular his wife Carol.
For me, it is impossible to separate out John the person from John the musician as he was so passionately devoted to the cause of the viola. His enthusiasm and positive energy were infectious and a huge inspiration to many; he must have touched the lives of thousands of people and we all owe so much to him.
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH – Obituary
John White, born May 28 1938, died December 1 2013
John White, who has died aged 75, was the leading authority on the viola. He was a founder member of the Alberni Quartet and taught at the Royal Academy of Music for more than four decades, where his enthusiasm and kindly manner inspired generations of players.
His knowledge of Lionel Tertis (1876-1975), one of the first viola players to achieve fame, was unrivalled and after Tertis’s death White helped to establish a festival and competition in his name. Meanwhile, for composers writing for the instrument, White was often the first point of contact, helping them to understand its capabilities. An Anthology of British Viola Players (1997), his magnum opus, gave a comprehensive account of just about everyone associated with the instrument over the past century . . . During his National Service with the Coldstream Guards he was based at Wellington Barracks and played for state events at Buckingham Palace. On one occasion he had a clarinet thrust into his hands and was ordered to march in Trooping the Colour.
While still in uniform White won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, where he studied with Watson Forbes, whose scales and arpeggios he later arranged. With three of his fellow students he established the Alberni String Quartet, giving the premieres of works by Frank Bridge, Alan Rawsthorne and Nicholas Maw. They took lessons from Sidney Griller of the Griller Quartet, while Benjamin Britten coached them in Shostakovich; on one occasion they sought advice from Tertis himself . . .
He coached the violas of the European Youth Orchestra and the Gustav Mahler Chamber Orchestra and was the first British viola player to give masterclasses in Beijing; he also served on the juries of several competitions.
The World Viola Congress in London in 1978, which White organised, proved to be a seminal moment in his career. His knowledge of its history and repertoire helped to establish him as an authority on the instrument . . .
In 2010 White was the first British viola player to receive the Silver Alto Clef from the International Viola Society.
In his final book, Those Were the Days: a Yorkshire Boy’s Cricket Scrapbook, published in October, White revelled in his passion for cricket and his knowledge of Yardley’s career, illustrating it with more than 800 items from his vast collection.
John White married Carol Shaw in 1964. She survives him with their son and daughter.
TULLY POTTER’S tribute to John White
Tully Potter’s comprehensive obituary, containing many details of John White’s professional life and achievements, was published in the Strad on 5th December 2013 (see http://www.thestrad.com/latest/news/viola-player-and-pedagogue-john-white-dies). He made his personal tribute, however, in the eulogy he delivered at John’s funeral.
“I imagine everyone in this congregation will have had the experience of picking up the phone and hearing the words ‘John White here’. It always struck me as typical of John’s modesty and thoughtfulness that he never assumed you would know which of the many Johns in your life was calling you . . .
It is only when a friend has gone that you realise how many ties have bound the two of you. Because of his illness, John has been retreating from me for some time and I have lost count of the occasions over the past months when I have thought: ‘John would be just the person to help me with that, but I can’t really bother him with it.’
I think John’s most outstanding attribute was his enthusiasm, for the viola, for music in general, including light music, and for cricket . . .
Every few years, Jill and I would spend a week with John and Carol at the Lionel Tertis Competition on the Isle of Man. John made an immeasurable contribution to the workshop activities, not just in his visible role, conducting the ensemble classes and introducing the masterclasses, but beavering away in the background to ensure that everything worked smoothly and no one’s ego endangered the good atmosphere of the event.
John could be very singleminded but he never let anything obscure the essential warmth of his personality . . . He was meticulous in writing to thank Jill and me for any small thing we did for him, and if he promised to do something for us, he kept his word. I constantly find scraps of paper on which John noted down facts he knew would help my researches.
John’s generosity was something that usually showed in his eyes. But sometimes, as so often happens with people who suffer from chronic ailments, you could see from John’s eyes that he was in pain with his back, the legacy of playing too large a viola and slipping on an icy winter pavement. He obviously had very bad days but he rarely complained.
In all his multifarious activities, John was fortunate to have Carol faithfully by his side. They made an ideal team and it is sad that death contrives to split up such devoted couples . . .
John’s passing is still too recent for any kind of summing up. But I am sure that over the coming years, we shall find out just how much of himself he has left behind, and how many people’s lives he has touched in so many ways. I feel proud to have known him, and I bless the lucky chance that threw me into his path. I wish I could still have the living John in my circle of friends, but I am left with countless reminders of his unselfishness and kindness.”