The following obituary of March 2000 is republished with the kind permission of its author, Martin Anderson © and of The Independent Newspaper ©.



Lionel Salter was an active force in British musical life for seven decades, for most of them at its centre as an unobtrusive power for good. He was an all-round musician of the old school, his profound musicality complemented by a rapier-sharp intelligence and an industry so prodigious that it almost beggars belief.

Salter was a child-prodigy pianist, born into a musical family: through his teachers he could map his pianistic roots back to Liszt.

At the age of twelve he was already accompanying professionally, generally ballads and popular operatic repertoire. His long association with the recording studio began when he was fourteen (with Mussorgsky's Ein Kinderscherz) as the result of winning a junior prize in a Daily Express competition. Another childhood competition success demonstrated the capacity of his astonishing memory: he had studied the music for only ten minutes beforehand, away from the piano.

Salter continued to soak up music at St John's College, Cambridge, which he left with first-class honours in both music and modern languages, a twin capacity that was to become a hallmark of his career.

His main teacher in Cambridge was the idiosyncratic but profoundly learned Edward Dent; he also studied harpsichord with Boris Ord. His B.A. taken in 1935 and the B.Mus. that followed a year later weren't nearly enough to absorb his boundless energy: during his time in Cambridge he played in some hundred concerts, wrote music criticism for the student magazine Granta, and co-founded and ran the University Gramophone Society. He pursued his piano studies, too, with the Bach specialist James Ching and then, back in London, at the Royal College of Music, with the Australian composer Arthur Benjamin. And as if that weren't enough, he took on a few sidelines: the viola, the organ, with Arnold Goldsbrough, and orchestration with Gordon Jacob. He also had conducting lessons from Sir (then plain Dr) Malcolm Sargent and Constant Lambert.

His apprenticeship as a practical musician carried on at the Denham Studios of London Films, where he worked under Muir Mathieson, the music director. He edited and tidied up sequences of Arthur Bliss score for Alexander Korda's 1935 film of H. G. Wells Things to Come; he orchestrated the music of the regular film composers, such as Richard Addinsell; he composed; he acted as chorus master; he played the piano for whichever actor was supposed to be doing so on screen and, in what was later to prove an important advantage, he learned the language and techniques of cameras and film cutting.

Salter's long association with the BBC began in 1936 when, turning down an offer of work in Hollywood, he opted for the post of station accompanist for what was then the world's first television channel; he gradually moved up through the ranks, becoming chorus master, répétiteur and general assistant.

The Second World War drew him into work in both Education and Intelligence, teaching codes and screening the men returning from Dunkirk; his Intelligence activities continued in Algiers, where in 1943-44 he served as Chief Guest Conductor of the Symphony Orchestra of Radio France, then exiled to North Africa. His repertoire on the podium was almost as catholic as it was at the keyboard, encompassing music that ranged from opera via Baroque ensembles to musical comedy, so that his appointment, at the close of hostilities, as Assistant Conductor of the BBC Theatre Orchestra was hardly a change of direction.

Salter went on giving recitals, accompanying and standing in whenever a reliable keyboard player was required. He tackled, for example, the piano part in Stravinsky's Petruschka for Ernest Ansermet and without preparation: he was a phenomenal sight-reader. He became more deeply involved with the BBC, both as a practical musician (directing the Corporation's vocal groups for a month before the Proms season) and, from 1948, as an administrator, joining the Gramophone Department as a producer with special responsibility for the Third Programme (as Radio Three was known until 1970).

He gradually ascended through the BBC's hierarchy of starchy titles: he was European Music Supervisor, Artists' Manager, Head of Overseas Music, Head of Opera and Head of Music Productions for BBC TV (1956--63), in which position, drawing on the lessons he had learned in the Denham studios, he established the grammar of camera technique in music broadcasting and helped train the next generation of television directors and music producers and earned a reputation as a demanding perfectionist. In 1967 he reached the last-but-one rung on the ladder, as Assistant Controller, Music. The Controller then was that monomaniac devotee of musical modernism, William Glock, whose narrow passions claimed most of his attention; everything else was left to Salter, who finally retired from the BBC in 1974, though his voice was still regularly heard on Radio 3.

The BBC career was pursued in parallel with active music-making: from 1948 he was the harpsichordist of the London Baroque Ensemble, playing also with the Vienna Capella Academica, and making a good number of recordings. He was esteemed, too, as a practical musicologist, acquiring a reputation as one of Britain's leading authorities on Spanish and Latin American music.

All the while he was writing, both for transmission (making some of his broadcasts in French) and publication, in a literary style that so blended elegance and directness that you could identify his prose long before you got to the attribution at the end. In 1948 he began to contribute reviews to the Gramophone, keeping up a steady stream of copy, always punctually, until just a few days before his death an unbeaten record of very nearly 52 years. His books include the bestselling Going to a Concert (1950), a sequel, Going to the Opera (1955), and The Musician and his World (1963), all intended to help curious outsiders come to classical music without trepidation.

He wrote literally thousands of programme notes for concerts, and sleeve and booklet notes for recordings; those he hadn't written himself he seemed to have translated. For over half a century he contributed articles on a huge range of musical topics to almost as wide a spread of dictionaries. He also translated countless Lieder and no fewer than a staggering 126 operas. And this was not mere Englishing: he was concerned to preserve both musical and verbal meaning, taking the task so seriously that at one point he contacted the Argentinean composer Alberto Ginastera to ask if he could make a change in Ginastera's music to preserve the dramatic point the composer was looking for; Ginastera immediately agreed.

Composition still distracted him occasionally: he wrote the music for two English-by-radio pantomimes of George Mikes, whimsical Hungarian author of How to be a Foreigner, and for numerous other radio plays; and a number of his pieces are in the Associated Board syllabi for piano and strings. If he wasn't writing, he was editing, words and music alike: for many years the programmes for the Proms and the Edinburgh Festival went through his hands; as a music editor, he specialised in opera, Baroque opera in particular.

As if that wasn't already enough to fill one mans time, Lionel Salter was also deeply involved in music education, particularly as an Associated Board examiner and a festival and competition adjudicator in venues all around the world. His judgments were always honest and direct, putting an unerring finger on the weak points that required attention, but always in such a kindly way that the young musician involved felt a real sense of encouragement.

Salter's critical judgments could sometimes be sharp, but they were never unkind: like Hans Keller, a BBC colleague of warm heart and trenchantly candid opinions, Salter's principal concern was with musical and personal honesty; there was never anything negative about his criticism, just as there was never anything negative about the man. His views weren't distracted by fashion, and he abhorred pomposity the converse of his own infectious personal warmth and ready wit. His encyclopaedic knowledge, worn lightly, was for sharing.

Indeed, throughout his life the single most powerful impression Salter made on almost anyone who met him was of an all-encompassing joy in music and an insatiable intellectual curiosity; even in his mid-eighties the age-belying sparkle in his conversation and his brimming, bubbling enthusiasm for everything he tackled in literature, painting, sculpture, travel, wines, and many other subjects beyond music galvanised people less than half his age: you left his company with a lift in your step. It is difficult to imagine British musical life without him; now that we have to, it becomes clear how much he was loved.

© Martin Anderson


Lionel Paul Salter, born London, 8th September 1914;

married 1939 Christine Fraser (d.1989); 3 Sons;

died London, 1st March 2000.






























Despite such appalling winter weather that the mountain passes were closed, Lionel Salter drove (with the assistance of sound engineer Stanley Unwin, better known for his unique appearances on TV), to record the 'cello virtuoso Pau Casals for the BBC, in voluntary exile in his home in Prades.

Here he had the opportunity to accompany Casals at the piano. A unique recording even exists of Casals whistling his famous Song of the Birds, accompanied by L.S.


Link to Lionel Salter's Film Scores

and Televison Opera Productions



Lionel Salter


Opera and Film



Lionel Salter biography


Opera Translations





Songs, Arias, Lieder


Programme Notes


Music and Books

by Lionel Salter


Graham Salter

Oboe, Workshops,


& Charles Dickens Books



order or discuss a text