• The Bridge Burford

Facing the Music


I was very flattered when Brian Kay contacted me and asked me if I would be willing to review his memoir. As Brian’s legion of fans will know, Brian has enjoyed not one but three stellar careers in the world of music, as a founder member and lowest voice of the King’s Singers, as a multi-award winning broadcaster and as a conductor, not least in our own neck of the woods with the Burford Singers. Now he has written Music, My Life, a full account of his story packed with anecdotes about the great and the good. If you think of Brian from his work in Burford as being solely concerned with serious classical music, you are seriously mistaken as the range of his activities shows. When I say he has worked with everybody, this is scarcely an exaggeration. He took tea with E.M. Forster at Cambridge, sang the part of Christus in the St Matthew Passion alongside Peter Pears as the Evangelist and performed at 10 Downing Street for three prime ministers. He was part of a backing group for Pink Floyd (he says the air was thick with the smells of unfamiliar substances), worked (separately) with both Flanders and Swann, shared a dressing room with Les Dawson at the Leeds City Varieties and played the part of Anne of Cleeves to Harry Secombe’s Henry VIII. With the King’s Singers he did 2000 concerts over 15 years (that’s about one every three days) with huge amounts of travelling in between.

When he eventually tired of this exciting but strenuous life, Brian was for a time a “kept man”, supported by his wife Gilly, a star soprano in Baroque repertoire. He then joined the BBC, initially as an announcer but quickly graduating to presenting his own programmes and choice of music. His radio work included Melodies for You, Friday Night is Music Night, 3 for All and Brian Kay’s Light Programme. On television he presented, amongst other things, the Vienna New Year’s Day concert and the first iterations of Cardiff Singer of the World. Overlapping with this was his work as a conductor with such groups as the Huddersfield Choral Society and the Cheltenham Bach Choir, later being conductor of the Leith Hill Festival which was founded by Ralph Vaughan Williams. His work in Burford is not neglected and it was particularly interesting to read about the performances by the augmented Burford Singers of Britten’s War Requiem at Winchester Cathedral and Tewkesbury Abbey in 2018. He writes that “People have often asked my why I enjoy working with amateurs so much. I’m quick to remind them that whereas Noach’s ark was built by amateurs, professionals built the Titanic!”

Interspersed within this story are three “Intermissions” containing a number of amusing anecdotes from the world of music. I particularly enjoyed the story of the blind pianist and his guide dog. (If you want to know more, you’ll have to buy the book.) If you are looking for a Christmas present for a friend who has the merest smidgen of interest in music, this could be just the thing.

Music, My Life: A Gallimaufry of Musical Memories by Brian Kay. 290pp. Published by Umbria Press, £16.95. Available now from the Madhatter Bookshop.

Gordon Elliot