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Goodnight to the dodos

There are few heroes in classical music publishing, a musty world of well-meaning mugwumps and would-be minor villains. Not enough profit, I guess, to attract screen heroes.

David Drew, who has died aged 78, was the industry’s Humphrey Bogart. In 17 years as head of contemporary music at Boosey & Hawkes (1975-92), he stood for nothing but the truth: the music he believed in. By an unrelenting banging of his head against the wall, he brought a measure of fame and reward to a dozen composers whom posterity had left on the shelf.

Drew’s Dodos, they were called, men (and one woman) who had made some brief claim to attention and then, by accident or misfortune, got forgotten. The composers he signed include Kurt Schwertsik, H K Gruber and York Höller, three stubborn, witty voices working outside the deadly-dull Austro-German mainstream.

He retrieved Berthold Goldschmidt, once the white hope of Weimar Germany, from a cold-water flat in Belsize Park and put him, in his late 80s, on a continental tour.

Antal Dorati and Igor Markevitch, two important conductors, had their compositions brought to print and light as did Tona Scherchen, daughter of a master-conductor and an interesting fusion-maker of Chinese and European tonalities.

Most triumpantly, David turned a man he met in a bar into the first million-selling living composer on record, retrieving Henryk Mikolai Gorecki from communist oppression and modernist disdain to a place in the pop charts with his adhesive, part-sung third symphony.

David quit the job just as Gorecki became a hit, leaving the rest of his dodos in less attentive care and with far fewer performances. Now that he is dead, they risk fading to blank.

That would be a crying shame. David had exquisite taste. Not one of his dodos is a dud, though some require close and prolonged listening before the aesthetic reward shines through. B&H, like most publishers, are going through tough times. But their brand and their future lies in the talents that David Drew accumulated and the best tribute they could pay to this most dedicated of publishers would be to mount a festival of his dodos. 

I can’t see it happening, but wouldn’t it just be a heroic triumph? 

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David was also the world’s greatest authority on Kurt Weill and the greatest enthusiast. I tried for years to get him to write a popular biography for a series I was editing, but he simply knew too much to condense it and, in the end, left just the one indispensible guide to the works. Watching Weill’s Jonny Johnson the other week in a poor revival, I was minded how much fire David found in the piece. I meant to ring him afterwards, but forgot. Too late now.

 

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