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Creating a National Spirit: Celebrating New Zealand's Centennial


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It is appropriate that this book is dedicated to John Mansfield Thomson who died on 11 September 1999. John was an enthusiast for exhibitions and, only a few days before his death, was engaged in planning a conference which would be the basis for a subsequent publication. 'I'm glad Bill Renwick is organising the conference,' he said, 'but I hope he doesn't think he's editing the book.' He was a determined editor right to the end.

John was born in 1926 in his grandmother's house in Blenheim. He was educated as a boarder at Nelson College, an experience which left him with a lifelong abhorrence for spinach and rugby. He worked for a time in the Blenheim branch of the Bank of New Zealand, managed by his uncle, and often referred to in the family as his uncle's bank.

Towards the end of World War Two, he went to Britain with the Fleet Air Arm, although he was too late for active service. After demobilisation, he decided that he really wanted to work in theatre and was employed as an assistant stage manager in a provincial theatre company, and for a time at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, with Michael MacLiammoir.

On his return to New Zealand, he completed a degree in history at Victoria University. With a number of friends, including Alistair Campbell and Bill Oliver, he founded a small literary journal, Hilltops and edited the first two issues. He also studied the flute with James Hopkinson, principal flute of the New Zealand National orchestra. The flute and the recorder remained lifelong interests.

In 1949, he returned to London, where he studied social anthropology at University College with Raymond Firth and typography at Camberwell School of Art. During the 1950s he maintained something of an itinerant existence, with a period in Sydney, where he began research on his first major work, the biography of composer Alfred Hill, A Distant Music, published in 1980.

By 1961, John had returned to London where he lived for more than twenty years. This was the period of his greatest success. His editorship of the journals Composer, Recorder and Music Magazine, and his work as a music books editor at Barrie and Jenkins and later at Faber and Faber, built him a substantial reputation.

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He was very much part of the scene at Aldeburgh around Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, becoming a lifelong friend of Britten's librettist Eric Crozier. With the New Zealand Music Society in London he did much to foster the cause of his country's composers and performers in London, and he was founding chairman of the National Early Music Association of Great Britain. From 1978 to 1981 he served on the Music Panel of the Arts Council of Great Britain.

Undoubtedly he reached the peak of his career as founder of the journal Early Music, which he edited for ten years. His skill as an editor, his ability to engage and encourage talented writers and his taste and knowledge of typography produced a most exquisite and scholarly journal. Reading the tributes to him in the 100th issue of the journal (November 1997), it is tempting to say that he was much more highly regarded in England than he was in his native country.

John was also a mentor for many young musicians. He relished the company of lively and talented young people, and helped many of them on their careers. One of these friends, Peter Phillips, founder and conductor of the Tallis Scholars, wrote recently in the Guardian, 'His magnetism was just what early music needed to establish itself in the first years and to draw together and rationalise the conflicting theories and idealisms of those pioneering days.'

Another Guardian correspondent, Professor William Roff, made a lovely comment on John's help for young people.

More than 20 years ago my elder daughter, who much later became a German scholar, was introduced to the language by John discoursing on the extraordinary amount of information on the labels of German wine. He specialised in a thoughtful and much relished enrichment of the life of others, and left the young his own as a model.

He returned to New Zealand in 1982 to undergo heart surgery, which unfortunately meant an end to his career with Early Music.

In his late fifties, he was now faced with beginning his career again back in New Zealand. The then newly established Stout Research Centre came to the rescue and he was appointed, in 1984, as the first J. D. Stout Fellow. John was, until his death, a valued contributor to and friend of the Stout Centre. He served on the board for many years, organised conferences and seminars, and was founding editor of its journal the Stout Centre Review (now New Zealand Studies) which he built into what is now a handsome scholarly journal. He was the most meticulous editor. In one of the early issues the text on a couple of pages was printed slightly too high; John demanded that the entire issue be reprinted, despite my protestations, as Director, about the parlous state of the Centre's coffers. He won, of course, which was only right. He also kept a watchful and critical eye on the quality of the wine at Stout Centre functions and lunches.

As J.D. Stout Fellow, John did the major research for his Oxford History of New page 11 Zealand Music, published in 1991. His work on behalf of New Zealand music resulted in the Biographical Dictionary of New Zealand Composers (1990). He was awarded an honorary DMus in 1991. He was founding editor of New Zealand Books. His last book, Farewell Colonialism, was, like this one, the record of a Stout Centre Conference. Among his voluminous papers there are at least four uncompleted books.

I first met John at the Darmstadt Festival of Contemporary Music in 1962. At the time he had been at Bayreuth and was fleeing from the heady world of the Wagner family. It was then that I understood John's great love of the whole world of music, of mixing with performers, composers, writers, librettists and editors, even when at times he didn't much like the actual music. I never heard him express any great enthusiasm for the music of Michael Tippett, but, when that composer visited New Zealand, John was the most congenial of hosts in the vineyards of his native Marlborough. His world was the baroque and the classical, music of balance and style: Purcell, Rameau and especially his beloved Haydn.

John had many gifts, but probably his greatest was for friendship. Even when his health was precarious, he would stagger out on a foul Wellington night to a concert to support the performers or the composer. In his last few weeks he turned the Cardiac Care Unit of Wellington Hospital into a salon. The nursing staff had never seen anything like it and remarked that he must know everyone in Wellington. One of my most cherished memories is of an evening a few days before he died. He had had a good day and was in fine form. The latest report on the National Library had arrived: he was suitably outraged by it and the word 'gobbledegook' came frequently to his lips. With his sister Janet, his niece Gillian and a few friends, we downed a bottle of good red wine and ate strawberries. It was an archetypal John occasion, full of good cheer and lively, if at times acerbic, conversation. It saddens me to think that there will be no more of them.

John was unique, and there are many people who miss him greatly.