Sidney Thomas Mayow Newman (1906-1971)

2016 is the 110th anniversary of the birth of Sidney Newman, Reid Professor of Music at the University of Edinburgh (1941-1970) and today is the 45th anniversary of his death

Sidney Thomas Mayow Newman (b. 4 March 1906; d. 22 September 1971), C.B.E., M.A.(Oxon.), Hon. D.Mus.(Dunelm.), Hon. R.A.M., F.R.C.O., F.T.C.L.

Sidney Newman was born in North Finchley, London on 4 March 1906.  He was educated privately until the age of 11, when he won a music scholarship to Clifton College, Bristol.  By this time he had already been learning pianoforte and violin for five years; at Clifton he added organ and gained experience in conducting the school orchestra and playing in the Bristol Symphony Orchestra.  He showed unusual musical precocity and took his Fellowship of the Royal College of Organists while still a schoolboy.  In 1924 he won an organ scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford, and took the first and second parts of the B.Mus. examination in 1925-26.  He held the post of sub-organist at Christ Church Cathedral and was for a time in sole charge of the music in the chapels of Magdalen College and New College.  He also gained further experience as a conductor with the Oxford University Opera Club.  In 1928 he took his B.A. degree with a First Class in literae humaniores. Much of the following two years was spent at the Royal College of Music in London studying composition, orchestration, conducting, ensemble playing and violin under distinguished teachers and developing his skill in pianoforte and organ independently.  A short tour of continental music centres followed, in the course of which he visited Munich, Salzburg, Vienne, Prague, Dresden, Leipzig and Berlin.

If he had followed his original intention of becoming an organist it is doubtful whether he would have found scope for the exercise of his varied accomplishments and ever-widening experience, which fitted him ideally for a university post.  His first academic appointment, in 1930, was as lecturer in music at what was then Armstrong College, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.  Here he became conductor of the Newcastle Bach Choir, founded by his predecessor at Armstrong, Dr W.G. Whittaker, and played a leading part in organising musical activity in the University and in the community at large, bringing together professionals and amateurs.  Himself ever young at heart, he was particularly successful with students; his infectious enthusiasm endeared him to all with whom he came in contact and inspired their loyalty and devotion. 

Newman remained at Newcastle for ten years, and in 1941 he was appointed to the Reid Chair of Music at Edinburgh University in succession to Sir Donald Tovey.  During the war years’ opportunity and finance were limited, but in spite of many handicaps he was able to continue the work of the Reid Orchestra established by Tovey as an integral and essential part of music teaching in Edinburgh.  After the war he planned and carried through a drastic reconstruction of the music courses and degrees and built up the teaching force and other resources of his department so that he left it one of the largest University music departments in the United Kingdom.  Another important innovation which he introduced was the establishment of a resident professional string quartet in association with the Reid School of Music, a precedent which has been widely followed in other universities.

He had the gift of identifying himself enthusiastically and completely with the community he served; as in Newcastle, so in Edinburgh he was the moving spirit in much active music-making.  He regularly rehearsed and conducted the Reid Orchestra and frequently appeared as a pianist in solo and ensemble works.  He gave invaluable service over the years to such organisations as the Royal Scottish Academy of Music, Scottish Opera and the Edinburgh International Festival Society.  His part in the establishment of the Festival is perhaps not sufficiently well known; he was one of the small group who originally put forward the idea, and it has been truly said that without him there would have been no Festival. 

A major project which he carried through during his later years in Edinburgh with characteristic enthusiasm and in the face of formidable obstacles was the reconstruction of St Cecilia’s Hall in the Cowgate, an intimate eighteenth-century concert hall of unique character, which after many vicissitudes had fallen into decay and was in danger of demolition.  It was largely through Newman’s vision and drive that the hall was ultimately rebuilt to more or less its original plan and restored to its original purpose, with the addition of an adjoining gallery – now officially designated the ‘Newman’ gallery – to house the important collection of early keyboard instruments generously presented to the University by Mrs Gilbert Russell.

The life of an active teacher and practising musician coupled with his heavy administrative responsibilities in connection with the Reid concerts and as Dean of the Faculty of Music did not leave Newman much time for composition and writing, but he had to his credit songs, orchestral arrangements and reconstructions, incidental music and a spirited orchestral fugue which he completed during his last years in Edinburgh.  He published several articles in music journals and wrote programme notes over a long period for the Newcastle Chamber Music Society and Bach Choir and the Reid concerts.

When he retired from his Chair in 1970 his health was already failing.  He returned to his ancestral home in the village of Nailsworth in Gloucestershire, with which the families of both his parents had been associated or generation; but it was not given to him to enjoy a long retirement.  He died on 22 September 1971.

Abridged version of an article written by Newman’s friend, Robin Schlapp and published in the R.S.E. Year Book 1972-73