FROM HEAVEN WINGING
KEITH BRAMICH remembers
this magazine's founding editor,
Basil Ramsey, who passed away this week
It is with great sadness that we announce the death of Basil Ramsey, the founding editor of this online magazine, aged eighty-nine. His daughter wrote to me yesterday with the news that he had died peacefully, at home in North Yorkshire, following a long illness, on the morning of Wednesday 13 June 2018.
Basil was an organist, music journalist, publisher and editor with many many years' experience of writing about music, both in general terms, and about church and organ music in particular.
He was born in Chelmsford, Essex on 26 April 1929, grew up in London, was evacuated to a farm in Hertfordshire during the war, met his future wife at Christchurch, Highbury, and after the birth of the first of three children, moved to Rayleigh, near Southend. He was organist of two churches in London — St Luke's Old Street, and then St Giles, Cripplegate. Basil began his publishing career at Novello & Co, now part of the Music Sales organisation, literally working his way up the promotional ladder from tea boy to Director of Publications, with responsibility for taking on new Novello house composers, giving him an enviable collection of composer friends, including Charles Camilleri, Peter Dickinson, Bernard Herrmann, John Joubert and John McCabe. Eventually he branched out on his own, initially with his friend Benny Herrmann, as Basil Ramsey Publisher of Music, but got into difficulties when Herrmann died suddenly.
Basil Ramsey. Photo © 1998 Keith Bramich
Basil had a parallel career in music journalism, editing a series of high profile publications including the Musical Times, Music and Musicians, and Choir and Organ. One thing I discovered whilst writing this tribute is that Basil was also a composer/arranger: he was credited for a Christmas carol, From Heaven Winging, which appears on several CDs.
In 1996 two tragic events changed Basil's life completely. His wife died, and he had a serious stroke, which left him unable to walk, wheelchair-bound and living alone. For a while he remained editor of Choir and Organ, communicating with his team by fax, phone and post. Once a month, the editorial team, based in Harrow in North London, visited Basil near Southend, on the north bank of the Thames Estuary, for editorial planning meetings. But Basil felt that it was unfair to ask the team to work remotely, and to make this long journey every month, and he resigned at around the time that he turned seventy.
Any other man would have retired at this point, but Basil, confined to home, looked to the internet for a new way to reach out to those interested in classical music, and this striving for connections was phenomenonally successful and wide-ranging, with information coming back from Australia, Canada, China, Germany, Malta, New Zealand and the USA. A mutual friend, the English composer Adrian Williams, introduced Basil and I, and we began to work on various internet music projects together. It was a good match because I was working with the internet and wanting to move towards classical music. After working on a couple of smaller projects — I have been there — A stroke patient offers help to others, and the Basil Ramsey Programme Note Library, we both came to the conclusion that we wanted to run an online magazine, and, following three months' of planning, Music & Vision Magazine was born on 1 January 1999, nearly twenty years ago. '... we have faith in this unique venture', Basil wrote, in his introduction to M&V in December 1998, 'as people everywhere, and from every strata of society, come within the power and influence of good music.'
Basil on one of our monthly visits to the pub in Rayleigh. Photo © 2004 Keith Bramich
Whilst I used my programming skills to make an online magazine which updated itself every day at midnight GMT, Basil wrote to his enviable list of writers and other contacts, asking for new writing, so that we had something every day, from high profile authors including, in these early days, Robert Anderson, Peter Dale, Peter Dickinson, Roderic Dunnett, Trevor Hold, Robert Hugill, Wilfrid Mellers, Malcolm Miller, Bill Newman, Ates Orga, Jennifer Paull, Shirley Ratcliffe, Gordon Rumson, Howard Smith, Patric Standford, Gillian Weir and of course Basil himself.
In 1999 the internet was something new: most of our material for publication arrived by fax and post. Optical character recognition wasn't advanced enough to convert these paper documents into text, and so Basil typed out almost all of them into his desktop computer, slowly and laboriously, using just one finger, and then emailed them to me for publication. Basil's former magazine colleagues in Harrow were amazed to see Basil's own writing appearing on their screens, with coloured backgrounds and images, several days a week.
Basil was very proud of Music & Vision, and kept up the daily work on the magazine until 2006, when his health began to decline. Basil has been a generous colleague, a good friend, and a successful teacher: he trained his editorial apprentice well, and I've been able to keep things going here since then.
I'll leave the last words to Basil himself ... one of his Editorial Musings, on the subject of organ playing, first published here in 1999 ... followed by a selection of tributes from some of his colleagues.
Basil Ramsey at his computer at home in Rayleigh, near Southend. Photo © 1998 Keith Bramich
YOU NEVER KNOW
BASIL RAMSEY muses on organ playing
There remains a gulf between organs, those who play them, and the general
musical public. Having experienced a lifetime of a personal love-hate relationship
with this most mysterious of instruments, I find myself stuck rigid on the
halfway spot of indecisiveness.
Whatever criticism may be hurled at church organists, their devotion
to the task of accompanying Sunday services and taking a weeknight choir
rehearsal is a matter for praise, often a thankless task in difficult circumstances.
Not unknown in some churches is the extreme nightmare of an unregulated
organ heading for the knacker's yard, a choir of two boys and a girl, a
hooty alto, bleating tenor, and two tremulous basses. A laugh? Try it.
Yet there are churches with a dedicated musician performing quiet miracles,
keeping standards at a respectable level by his own mix of enthusiasm and
knowledge, and using every harrowing experience as a challenge to convert
weaknesses into strength.
The Organ of Hucking Church, Sussex, England. Photo © Keith Bramich
To me, the trouble with taking the musical standards of the concert hall
to meet the organ — except in the hands of some fine players worldwide —
comes to pieces in the fact that organ playing is a challenging art requiring
exceptional command of the instrument before any thought of musical interpretation
can be considered. Its limitations in certain respects demand more of the
player than any other instrument, with the possible exception of the bagpipes.
(But there you sense that challenge is the name of the game.)
I heard an organ recital a fortnight ago by a fine and experienced player
in touch with his packed-out cathedral equipped with a good amplification
system for his commentary on the music, and a large video screen showing
his handling of the programme at the console.
The whole evening slipped into the pleasure of a musical experience for
these reasons: masterful technique, interpretative ability, exceptional
control of the means to an end, and music of quality with a few lightweight
titbits slipped in to provide relaxation.
I remember a notable French organist playing in the same cathedral several
years back. He thundered into his programme with Bach's 'Wedge' Prelude
and Fugue in E minor — a mighty piece of musical architecture — with no
regard for the audience's generally untutored ear or the futility of serving
the main course before an appetiser. The playing was generally apoplectic,
so the organ's easy descent into musical banality became evident. I returned
home saddened that the instrument's weaknesses had been so shamelessly exploited.
On the other hand, I have permanently stored in my mind's slim treasure
trove a performance of Bach's majestic Prelude and Fugue in E flat by a
continental recitalist whose playing was of superlative quality, thereby
gently lifting the audience into another dimension of musical existence.
Nothing can describe this when it happens, and it is best left inside us
to mature and remain as a yardstick for the occasion when something else
The organ is as capable of transmutation as any other instrument in the
hands of an inspired performer. If your experiences of the organ have previously
left you cold, persist and you may be astonished at what is possible.
Copyright © 5 June 1999 Basil Ramsey, Essex, UK
Copyright © 15 June 2018 Keith Bramich,
Tributes to Basil from his colleagues:
Sad news indeed. Basil Ramsey was a dear friend and a cultured man of music who endured more than his fair share of misfortunes in later life. A senior publisher at Novello until he became independent 40 years ago, he gave me the confidence to become a writer. RIP dear man. - Mark Valencia
So sorry to hear this news - Shirley Ratcliffe
I am very sorry indeed to receive this news - the greatest thing we can do for him is to keep going. - Jennifer Paull
He was a remarkably generous man who cherished his composers in ways that have virtually died out these days. - Peter Dickinson
Sad news indeed. My condolences to his friends, family and colleagues.
- Mike Wheeler
I'm so sorry to hear about this. - Anna Franco
I am so sorry to hear the news about Basil. Typically, he gave me great encouragement when I was just starting out on my reviewing career ... It was deeply imaginative of him to embark on a classical music website before almost anyone had thought of the idea. He was a pioneer, and a truly wise one.
- Roderic Dunnett
What an interesting life and legacy. - Anna Joubert
I am eternally grateful that Mr Ramsey had the notion of creating a classical music e-zine, and that together you allowed me to be a part of it ... I valued that experience more than you will ever know - especially the opportunity to go to Bantry in 2007. It was one of the absolute highlights of my life. - Kelly Ferjutz
Please accept my deepest condolences on the loss of a brilliant friend and colleague. - Halida Dinova
I read the sad news. Please accept my deepest sympathy. - Anett Fodor
Basil used to say to me that he believed in the spiritual power of music to communicate. A simple truth simply expressed, but one which stays in the memory, which gets to the heart of the matter. I recall appreciatively our editorial phone calls and his calm, reassuring voice, and for me he was a much-valued mentor, offering advice about writing, generous in his deadlines and word lengths, a friendly presence at the end of the editorial chain, for whom one could therefore feel comfortable to write. For a young critic (as I was in the 1990s), it was just what was needed.
His own credentials were always notable - a notable life in music, both creative and involved with dissemination, publishing and editing, and then at the helm of MT and The Organ. The shift to the online medium was exciting and admirable. Basil, with the help of Keith's computing expertise, was at the forefront of the digital era, M&V being one of the very first if not 'the' first classical music online magazines, and certainly the first daily one. It felt exciting to be involved, as it potentially could reach a wide readership and space was no issue. Basil encouraged my early pieces even offering to type the odd one up.
When Keith took editorial command Basil was always there in the background, responding positively to ideas for reviews, interviews and articles. Later he was less closely involved but I like to think he was still enjoying reading the fruits of his brainchild. I extend my sincere sympathies to his family, for he will be keenly missed. I personally shall remember Basil fondly for his warmth, his encouragement and his holding to basic artistic beliefs which I and many others could tune into, the intrinsic meaning and value of music and the art of communication. - Malcolm Miller
Basil Ramsey at home in North Yorkshire. Photo © 2005 Keith Bramich