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He scotched London’s superconservatoire

Michael Gough Matthews, whose death is reported today, was a benign teacher and passionate director of the Royal College of Music. Many men and women owe him their careers in music. His kindly interventions saved countless students from dropout or despair. He joined the College as Registrar in 1973, became director in in 1984 and retired in 1993. He was the driving force behind building its Britten Theatre. In my social encounters with him, he was entirely charming.

There was, however, one issue on which we parted company. In 1990, the Conservative minister Lord Gowrie (later chairman of the Arts Council) put forward a long-discussed reform of London’s music conservatoires. It was generally agreed that there were too many – the Royal Academy, Royal College, Guildhall, Trinity and London College of Music – and that none of the five was functioning at world class.

Sir Keith Joseph, Margaret Thatcher’s closest advisor, had raised the issue in Cabinet after his daughter chose to study at Juilliard rather than at any UK music college. Why, he demanded, was there no British institution to match Juilliard, Curtis, Cleveland and Indiana for high-grade teaching? Why were we spending so much public money on so many colleges that were non-competitive except with each other.

Gowrie proposed a merger of RAM and RCM. It made perfect sense and kight have created a musical powerhouse with the best teachers and talent from both houses. Both, however, rallied their royal (below) and ancient supporters against the Gowrie reform, none more so than the RCM director Michael Gough Matthews (known as ‘MGM’), who was credited with killing off any chance of a merger.

In doing so, he preserved a status quo that was, and remains, far from satisfactory. May he rest in peace, gentle man that he was.


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  1. Tom Moore says:

    is proper to use “Scotched” as a verb? isn’t that like “to welsh”, “to gyp” “to jew down”? just wondering?

  2. Gary Carpenter says:

    The plan was to have wind and brass in one institution and piano and strings in the other. A typical civil service fudge. Under those terms MGM would have been dead right to resist.

  3. Andrew Gosden says:

    According to OED:

    Etymology: < Anglo-Norman escocher, eschocher to pierce (skin) (c1193) < escoche notch (c1190) < es- es- prefix + Old French coche notch. Compare Old French cochier to make a notch (c1307; Middle French French cocher).

    So, yes it is proper. And no it isn't like welsh etc.

  4. Daniel Mullin says:

    In my view, MGM was absolutely correct to preserve the independence of the RCM. The assertion that both the RCM and RAM were non-competitive is inaccurate. Both have produced generations of international prize-winners, soloists, top class chamber musicians and eminent orchestral players. I was privileged to attend the RCM under MGM and like anywhere, there were average students and some average teachers. If there were too many music colleges in London, why not do away with one of the lesser institutions rather than amalgamate the two flagship colleges?

    The fact that Mr. Joseph’s daughter chose to study in America, does not in my view equate to inferior education provided by the London music colleges. I don’t know what she is doing now, but I do know personally some of my contemporaries at RCM who are now world-class musicians, some at the very top of the business. I am also certain the same could be said of RAM. To get to those positions is not achieved by being non-competitive. I think the status quo equates to well over a century of musical excellence, and if these colleges are far from satisfactory then I can only thank the RCM for providing me with an education good enough to have sustained a professional orchestral career for the last 17 years.

  5. Daniel Mullin says:

    “Scotched” is the past-participle of the verb “to scotch” and perfectly correct in the context of the article.

  6. ABRC1972 says:

    I studied both at the RAM and the Juilliard School, and I couldn’t say which one is better. Probably what the conservative party wanted was to reduce the budget…

    • Violinqueen says:

      I went to Juilliard, my sister to the RAM. We both play now in the same orchestra and we both had terrific teachers back in college. Actually, the RAM and Juilliard have many projects together.

  7. I would tend to agree with those who would favor more diversity in the number and type of schools. While an instrumentalist or composition student will certainly benefit from a school that is top notch in all subjects, and while the synergy between highly talented students and what they can teach or learn from each other is extremely valuable, I’d venture to guess that most frequently it is the student’s main teacher as well as his or her natural ability (physical and mental), passion, discipline, and early exposure to musical study and experiences, that make the most difference in his or her conservatory training. As for “career”, politics and a special “rabbi” or mentor (who may or may not be the same as the student’s principal teacher) are essential. One societal advantage of having more, rather than fewer schools, is in the increased number of students that can be trained, whether or not they all become extraordinary professionals, or even professionals at all. It will seed the musical garden, increase the number of music lovers and the size of the musical market, and enrich and humanize the sensibility and perspective of the greater community.

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