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Professor Barry Ife

(Elected 2006)


Appointed Principal of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 2004, Professor Ife had been Vice-Principal at King’s College London since 1997. ‘I taught at Birkbeck for 17 years – the formative part of my career. Birkbeck was my first love, and I still have deep respect for it. When I left at 40, my metabolism was entirely in tune with the College. At King’s people pulled my leg about having a day job!’

After completing his PhD at Birkbeck, Professor Ife remained to lecture in Spanish. He joined King’s in 1987, when he was appointed to the Cervantes Chair of Spanish; he is an international authority on the history and culture of Spain and Spanish America from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, and a leading musicologist. He was awarded the CBE in 2000 for his academic work in Hispanic Studies.

Latterly Professor Ife has been heavily involved in strategic management in higher education institutions: ‘While I was at Birkbeck the then Funding Council changed the funding formula overnight, resulting in the loss of 37.5 per cent of our income. I was on a small working party charged with devising a plan to save the College. We came up with a strategy to increase massively the size of activities, particularly in the postgraduate area. That whole experience made me realise how important Birkbeck was to me personally.’


President, Master, Distinguished Governors, Graduates and Guests.

G.K. Chesterton once remarked of Dickens that to live just one day of his prodigiously energetic life would be enough to kill most of us stone dead. Perhaps the same health warning ought to be issued to anyone seeking to follow in Barry Ife's seven-league footsteps. He began his academic career at Sweyne School in Rayleigh, Essex, and proceeded from there to King’s College, London in 1965, to read Spanish. Already, Barry was charting a complicated, two-handed course between two academic cross-winds, as musician and Hispanist, for in the very year of his entry as an undergraduate to King’s he became an Associate of the Royal College of Music.

He graduated from King’s with a first-class degree in Spanish in 1968 and in the following year was appointed to a Lectureship in Spanish at the University of Nottingham, a post he was to occupy for three years. 1973 saw his arrival back in London, but a mile to the north, in the Spanish department at Birkbeck. The next 15 years of his life were to be dedicated to this college. His PhD, which he obtained from Birkbeck in 1984 fed substantially into his book, Reading and Fiction in Golden-Age Spain, which appeared in 1985. Its fascinating argument is that Spanish fiction of the period 1490 to 1650 arose in a culture in which private reading was both a novelty and regarded with some suspicion by the authorities. Golden Age prose fiction developed as a practical exploration and defence of the powers of private reading.

During his years at Birkbeck, Barry maintained in his own research a counterpoint between music and the word, establishing himself in a short time simultaneously as an authority on the literature and culture of the Golden Age in Spain and as a highly-respected historian of music in the period. Though there is no word that possibly stretch across the full, six-octave, polychromatic range of Barry Ife’s interests and accomplishments, there is certainly nobody for whom the word Hispianist, if only it could catch on, would be more suited. Keyboards of any kind, whether designed to produce texts or music, seem always to have set Barry’s digits fidgetting. His Anthology of Early Keyboard Methods of 1983 made available a number of important sixteenth and seventeenth-century treatises on keyboard technique from Spanish, Italian and German sources, giving a steadying influence to the often fraught and fractious debates on early instrumental technique. His Early Spanish Organ Music and Early Spanish Keyboard Music, which both appeared in 1986, not only enlarged the repertoire of Renaissance keyboard music, but also provided an outstanding account of the cultural and aesthetic backgrounds to the music and a guide to the intricacies of instrumental technique

Nor was Barry’s manual dexterity confined to the keyboard. During the notable revival of the Birkbeck Players during the 1980s, he established himself as the set-designer and builder of choice for a number of their productions. He may perhaps remember us working through the night, I the apprentice to his sorcerer, sawing, sanding, planing, and boring holes into the already sadly-perforated surface of the then Harkness Hall. Barry’s great quality has always been his grasp of the practical dimension of things, so perhaps it might be thought of as another of his gifts to Birkbeck, that he should thus have begun, in the most material way possible, the remodelling of the fabric of the Malet Street building that was to culminate in the magnificent transformations of recent years.

His administrative and organisational powers matured in another vital service that he fulfilled for the College. In 1986, the Funding Council for Higher Education decided to change the basis on which Birkbeck students were funded, a move which threatened to slash the College’s income by 37%. Barry Ife agreed to join the emergency committee, set up under the chairmanship of Sir Barney Hayhoe, to consider how the College was to survive this crisis. Their report recommended a radical restructuring, in which departments were grouped together into resource centres. There was no ho-hum about the Hayhoe report, nor in the urgent, but patient purpose with which Barry Ife set about explaining and advocating its recommendations in the College. I remember that, at the special college-wide meeting called to discuss the matter, it was Barry who rose to his feet to argue the necessity of the new plan. The commixture of a superb grasp of detail, unanswerable good sense (and good temper), along with his unmistakably deep loyalty to the College, was enough to persuade some of his more conservative colleagues to relinquish the previously unbreachable sanctity of the autonomous department. In many ways Barry’s speech was a turning point in the history of the College.

When, in the following year, he was offered the Cervantes Chair in the Department of Spanish at King’s College, London, he was able to accept it knowing the future of Birkbeck had been secured by his efforts and those of his associates on the committee. Immediately, on his arrival in King’s, he set to work integrating three separate schools into a single School of Humanities, which, within a decade, had more than doubled its intake of students and established itself as one of the most formidable groupings of Humanities subjects in any UK university, which claimed almost a clean sweep of 5 and 5* grades in the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise.

Despite his ever-widening arc of responsibilities at King’s, the momentum of his own research never flagged. From the time of his arrival at King’s, he had been developing a growing interest in the Spanish literature relating to the discovery and conquest of the New World. In a series of critical texts and editions, he has shown the congruity between the kinds of turbulent discovery and reassessment undertaken in the vast mass of reports and narratives emanating from the New World and the characteristic forms of the novel as it was emerging in Spain. In 1991, he published a new edition of one of the most important texts ever written in Spanish, Christopher Columbus’s journal of 1492. Ever the prestidigitator, Barry also saw the possibilities of new technology for research in the humanities very early. He had been involved at Birkbeck with a groundbreaking project to make Spanish-language texts available over the internet to wide audiences. He built on this experience at King’s, overseeing the development there of a huge machine-readable corpus of Spanish-language texts. Since 2004, he has been involved in a project to make available in digital form some of the most important and otherwise inaccessible contemporary accounts of the Conquest.

Barry remained Head of the School of Humanities at King’s until 1997, when he was appointed Vice-Principal of the college, and then, in 2003-4, Acting Principal. A feature of his inspirational leadership in King’s was his interest in fostering relationships with external organisations. He helped develop links between Kings and the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, the Globe Theatre, the British Film Institute, the National Film Theatre, the Royal National Theatre, the ICA, the Courtauld Institute of Art and Somerset House. He had a particular interest in developing deeper understanding between medicine and the humanities and a visit to the Palliative Care unit of King’s gave him the idea for The Art of Dying, an epic year-long programme of debates, lectures, workshops, displays and performances which took place in 2002 and 2003. His architectural prowess was drawn upon once again in enlarging the physical stage upon which King’s operates. He initiated a plan to snap up the former Public Record Office and turn it into the magnificent Maughan Library, and led the replanning and development of the Strand and Waterloo campuses.

He was awarded the CBE in June 2000 for services to Hispanic Studies, though he might have been awarded it for any number of things besides.

In 2004, he moved from King’s to become the Principal of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. His immediate responsibility was to oversee an energetic programme of events to celebrate the School’s 125th anniversary, perhaps the highlight of which came when, in February 2006, he attended Buckingham Palace to collect the Queen's Anniversary Prize for further and higher education. This was awarded for the Guildhall Connect project, through which the Guildhall School makes connections with young people in East London, encouraging and inspiring them to make a range of different kinds of music and, as Barry himself put it ‘introducing new generations to the power and pleasure of making music on their own terms.’ In December 2006, he was the regional coordinator for the Scarlatathon, or the First Global Scarlatti Marathon that took place in December 2006 in anticipation of the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death in 2007. This must have been a highly agreeable task for Barry, who published a study of Scarlatti in 1985. More than 150 performers aged 15-65 from 14 institutions, 11 cities and 7 countries, played 556 Scarlatti sonatas in one day.

Naturally, Barry has for many years been in demand to serve on committees and advisory boards of all kinds. He is a member of the Strategy Group of Universities UK and part of the ThinkTank for Yougov, a British Internet-based market research firm. He also serves on the board of the London Centre for Arts and Cultural Enterprise and on the London String Quartet Foundation Board. He is a superb leader, tireless in his efforts to promote the flourishing of the institutions with which he has been involved. Sometimes tireless people can be a bit – well - tiresome, but Barry has always, in everything he does, radiated a gently amused, optimistic calm that is deeply invigorating. We thank him for his many years of service, both to this institution and to the University of London, and welcome him now as Fellow of Birkbeck.