Michael Freyhan’s tribute to John White

John White (1938–2013)

John White was known and respected by violists throughout the world and will be remembered with deep affection. He cared about people, he cared about his students, his colleagues, his family, and his life was devoted to helping others. He was a quiet but strong personality, interested only in the genuine, and impatient of impostors and large egos. He knew what was important and demanded even more of himself than of others.

Born in the Yorkshire coal-mining village of Royston, near Barnsley, he received his first violin lessons from his father. He continued his musical studies at Huddersfield Technical College, where he took the decision to switch to viola. While serving out his national service he was awarded a scholarship to study with Watson Forbes. He proceeded to the Royal Academy, where he became a founder member of the Alberni Quartet. Coming into contact with Britten and other British composers he encouraged many of them to write for the viola, and they responded with works dedicated to him. His desire to explore the byways of the repertoire and encourage new compositions for the viola was transmitted to his students, many of whom inherited his spirit of exploration.

As a performer John played with vigour and with a passion emanating from his love of music, but he was drawn by instinct to teaching. Accepting a post at Hockerill College in Bishop’s Stortford, he developed the musical life of the College, bringing in musicians from outside to give concerts and provide inspiration for the students. He was much in demand as a chamber music coach and, in addition, began to conduct and train young players in orchestral technique. He went on to become viola tutor for the European Youth Orchestra.

As his reputation spread abroad he was invited to sit on the juries of international competitions. He was the first British violist to give master classes at the Beijing Conservatory. He held long-term appointments, teaching at the Royal Academy for more than thirty years and serving on the committee of the Lionel Tertis International Viola Competition for a similar period. He continued to edit and publish, bringing out collections of Tertis arrangements from the original manuscript or transcribed from recordings, as well as previously unpublished works by Alwyn and Bowen. His Anthology of British Viola Players, published by Comus Edition, dates from 1997, and his monumental biography of Tertis, Lionel Tertis, the First Great Virtuoso of the Viola, first published by Boydell and Brewer in 2006, has just been updated and reprinted in paperback. It draws on material from his private archive. Some of his Tertis treasures came to him from the late Harry Danks, a former student of Tertis, whom John White acknowledged as an irreplaceable friend and mentor.

His answer to ill health was to work, and his last years were extraordinarily fruitful in publications. Finally, returning to his roots and his ‘other’ passion, he wrote a book on Yorkshire cricket, which was published shortly before his death.

John is survived by his wife Carol, his companion of almost 50 years, as well as by their daughter and son.

Michael Freyhan | British VS Newsletter, March 2014