Normally at C:T I reserve obituaries for composers. Today I want to spend a moment remembering a musicologist. I wish to do so partly because I have been surprised by how little has been written about him elsewhere, partly because I know that, through his teaching work, he was an enormously important figure for generations of students. Mostly I want to write about him because he was my friend.
John Tyrrell was the world’s foremost Leoš Janáček scholar. Born in Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia) in 1942, he studied at Cape Town, Oxford and Brno. In 1976 he was appointed as a lecturer at Nottingham University, becoming a Professor in 1996. With the support of the British Council and Czech Music Fund he worked on Janacek’s manuscript material in Brno from 1992. From 1996–2000 he was an Executive Editor of the second edition of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. He was appointed Research Professor at Cardiff University in 2000. His publications focus upon Czech music and Janáček in particular. These include Czech Opera (1988), Janáček’s Operas: A Documentary Account (1992), My Life with Janáček, translations of Janáček’s widow’s memoir of her life with the composer (1992), and Intimate Letters, translations of Janáček’s correspondence with Kamila Stösslová (1992). His magisterial two-volume life of Janáček, The Lonely Blackbird and The Tsar of the Forest, published in 2006 and 2007 by Faber, is the definite account. John was awarded honorary doctorates from Masaryk University and the Janáček Academy of Performing Arts and in January was named International Ambassador of Czech Music. This year’s Janacek International Festival, held in Brno from November 17th to December 5th will be dedicated to his memory.
That is the professional account. The grand man.
An alternative insight into his character, however, is summed up by friends and students who knew him at Cardiff. The first, told by a composer colleague of mine, went like this:
“I do remember once running after him to ask a question: ‘Professor Tyrrell, Professor Tyrrell!’ He span around so quickly and shouted: ‘For God’s sake! My name’s John!’”
Another, from a diminutive student:
“We were in his office and the doorbell rang. I jumped up to get it and he said ‘can you reach?’” [John could get away with this because he was also very short]
“Devastating. He once bought me a CD simply because I expressed some enthusiasm for a composer. He was an incredible tutor.”
From a music librarian:
“He was very pro-library, always giving at least two copies of his books to the collection when they came out. He always made time to spend with us. A joy for me every time he came in to the library.”
And in response to this:
“He was lovely—but did he speak to you via paper airplane like we did?”
John wore his phenomenal scholarship lightly, made himself available, was just a hugely respected, down-to-earth figure.
I met him at Cardiff in 2005. He was in charge of a study techniques module for postgraduates and ran the postgraduate forum with the Professor of Composition, Anthony Powers. It was through the forum that I really got to know him. Though his interest in every student was abundantly apparent, this felt particularly true of the composers amongst us. He was always keen to play recordings of our works during the forum, to discuss them at length. The composition PhD at Cardiff also required that composers write a substantial commentary to their portfolio of pieces. For many of us, more comfortable dealing with notes than words, this was the most onerous part of the process. John, who had no obligation to offer his time in this way, generously checked though many of these, offering detailed advice. There is no one I have met, before or since, that I would trust more in questions of syntax and style. He always ribbed me that I used ‘too many intensifiers.’ To this day I feel he looks over my shoulder as I write. On his retirement a few of us in the forum organised a collection for him. Asking people to give money to buy presents for John was the easiest job in the world.
At one of the Music Department composition concerts, to which he always came, John took a bit of a shine to one of my pieces. We spoke about it at length afterwards. This became the start of a friendship that continued after he left Cardiff in 2008. He became a trusted advisor in all matters, professional and personal. Mostly this was conducted via email: newsy notes and funny stories; requests for advice (from me), wise words (from him). He read through my own PhD commentary and also a couple of articles on the composer Henri Dutilleux. I also had the great pleasure of welcoming him to my native Pembrokeshire and visiting him in Nottingham. Our emails became a little more sporadic as time went by, until in September 2015 we lost touch.
That last email from him, as I was contemplating a turbulent time in my own life–a move to the South of France–fills me with such pain today. As ever he was full of advice, of concern about what lay ahead. His last words were to wish me good luck and invite me to visit him when back in the UK. After I moved I thought often of him, assuming that I would eventually get back in touch and it would be just as if no time had passed at all. Forgetting his age, I believed he was a permanent fixture in my life. Is there any stupidity quite as complete as believing that friends don’t die?
No doubt he would chuckle at my distress now. He was only too aware how tangled and complicated life can become, how easy it is to lose touch. And he was too great a person to judge the quality of a relationship by such mean measures.
That knowledge doesn’t diminish the pain, however. I will miss you terribly John. With the rest of the world I will miss your phenomenal scholarship. But most of all I, as with all who really knew you, will miss the funniest, loveliest most generous of men. A gentleman and a gentle man. Rest in peace.