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Laureation address: John Wallace

Professor John Wallace CBE
Honorary Degree of Doctor of Music

Laureation by Dr Michael Downes
Director of Music and Artistic Director, Byre Theatre

Monday 1 December 2014


Vice-Chancellor, it is my privilege to present Professor John Wallace CBE for the Degree of Doctor of Music, honoris causa.

It is particularly appropriate that we should be honouring John at this St Andrew’s Day ceremony. He is a Fifer by birth and attended the High School in Buckhaven, where his father still lives and where John first learnt the trumpet. His very first performance as a concerto soloist was here in the Younger Hall, exactly fifty winters ago. The University Chamber Orchestra was conducted by Cedric Thorpe Davie and John performed the Capel Bond Trumpet Concerto in D with them, borrowing the University’s D trumpet for the occasion. He recalls that snow fell during the concert: he and his music teacher got caught in a snowdrift at Largo on the way home and had to be pulled out by a farmer’s tractor.

His career as a trumpeter progressed rapidly after that auspicious debut. By the age of 25 – having studied at King’s College Cambridge, the Royal Academy of Music and York University – he was the Assistant Principal Trumpet of the London Symphony Orchestra, and two years later he was the Principal Trumpet of the Philharmonia, a post he held for almost twenty years. In parallel with his orchestral career, he performed as a soloist with many of the world’s finest orchestras and conductors, and in 1986 he founded The Wallace Collection, which performs and records brass music from many different periods on authentic instruments. We were delighted to welcome The Wallace Collection in their most recent incarnation for the opening concert in our Brass Festival here last month, where they performed a huge range of nineteenth-century music as well as giving the Scottish premieres of two songs by Eddie McGuire with soloists from our Chapel Choir.

John’s interest in the trumpet goes far beyond that of a performer; he has been responsible for two of the most important books on brass playing in recent years, including an authoritative volume on the trumpet which he co-authored with Sandy McGrattan in 2012. John’s scholarly work has hugely enhanced our understanding of the complex technology of brass instruments and their development over thousands of years, of the unique range of music, jazz as well as classical, that has been written for them, and of the fascinating social history that surrounds their performance. As John made clear in a recent research seminar at the Byre Theatre, to learn a brass instrument in England or indeed Scotland for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was to engage in a rich and deep-rooted culture whose social impact was immense but which conventional musical histories have tended to neglect.

Notwithstanding his work as a performer and scholar, John has perhaps been best known in recent years for his inspirational leadership of one of Scotland’s most important cultural institutions. In 2002 he became the Principal of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, as it then was, and led its transformation into the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland before stepping down earlier this year. Under John’s guidance, the RCS became the only British conservatoire to teach dance and digital arts as well as music and drama: thanks to his work, it now offers an inspiring example of the integration of diverse art-forms into a cohesive programme, as well as a strong research profile which this University is proud to support through its validation of RCS research degrees.

John’s impact on musical life, however, ultimately goes deeper even than his separate contributions to performance, scholarship and education, significant though they all are. It is no exaggeration to say that his work has brought about a new understanding of the instrument he has championed. Through the unique quality of sound that his playing produces, he has established the trumpet as an instrument worthy of the same artistry that has been associated with string and keyboard instruments for much longer periods. This quality in his playing in turn gave trumpeters in the next generation the confidence to have an individual character in their sound. His artistry has also inspired composers of the stature of Harrison Birtwistle, Peter Maxwell Davies and James Macmillan to write new music for the trumpet, creating a vastly expanded solo repertoire for younger players to explore, and a situation very different from that a century ago when it was almost unheard-of for serious composers to write solo pieces for the trumpet.

John was the first player to play the entire trumpet repertoire – contemporary music, nineteenthcentury, baroque, Renaissance. His range of musical interests required him to find a new kind of technique, evolving new exercises and solutions to technical problems which have since been disseminated worldwide, and also helping to make him, as I know from the testimony of colleagues, a phenomenal teacher. Very few performers in the history of music can be said fundamentally to have changed the way in which their instrument is perceived, but John is one of those few. It was a privilege for all of us to observe his work at close hand during our recent Brass Festival, and I hope that we will have many more opportunities to work with John during his future return visits to his native Kingdom.

Vice-Chancellor, in recognition of his major contributions to the performance, scholarship and teaching of music, I invite you to confer on Professor John Wallace CBE the Degree of Doctor of Music, honoris causa.

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