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Obituary: Roderick Swanston

I am very sad to announce the recent death of Roderick Swanston, former lecturer and Academic Adviser in Music at Birkbeck, stalwart of the Birkbeck Summer School at Westonbirt, President of LUMDS (latterly the Birkbeck College Music Society) and speaker for ULEMLA (the University of London Extra-Mural Literature Association): someone fully integrated into the life of Birkbeck, as he was at many other institutions.

Roderick Swanston MA MusB (Cantab) FRCM FRCO GRSM LRAM was educated at Stowe School, the Royal College of Music, and Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he held the organ scholarship. As well as his work for Birkbeck he lectured for the Humanities Department of Imperial College, at King’s College, London, and for the Foreign Studies Programme of Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, USA. Until August 2004 he was a professor at the RCM, holding a number of posts including Reader in Historical and Interdisciplinary Studies. He was a frequent broadcaster on BBC Radio 3, and contributed to several music publications. His lecturing took him to countries world-wide and he led many musical tours and cruises. He was a Fellow of the Royal College of Music and former President of the Incorporated Society of Musicians. In his own words, "I am a jack of all trades, and Master of Arts.”

Anyone who met him would comment on three things: his broad and deep knowledge of music, from the familiar to the most obscure; his encyclopaedic interests in anything and everything, from film, painting and culture to detective fiction; and his rapier-quick wit - he was a man for whom the word ‘ebullient’ could have been invented. Generations of students and colleagues found him illuminating on his subject but also hugely entertaining, making his topic come alive at the same time as imparting insights and immense knowledge. One member of a Covent Garden audience, rendered helpless with laughter during one of his talks, commented: “What a personality!”

I had the privilege of knowing Roddy from my arrival as a music lecturer at Birkbeck in 1987. He was extremely kind to me, a nervous tutor who had never taught a group of adults before, both in the classroom (where he ‘inspected’ me with typical generosity and sense of humour) and at the Westonbirt Summer School. I took over when he decided to step down from being Academic Adviser and we kept in touch, though not so much latterly as his work took him away from regular lecturing.  He was a genial and supportive guest at the farewell party of staff and students when It was decided that music courses at Birkbeck should cease. I last saw him at St Mary Abbot’s Church in Kensington where he attended a performance of Geoffrey Bush’s ‘Missa Brevis’ in July 2016, with Geoffrey’s widow Julie. The news of his death came from an old Birkbeck friend a few weeks ago.

I am hoping to organise some sort of gathering of past students and staff from Birkbeck to remember his time here. There is to be a memorial service in Southwark Cathedral, arranged by his family, on Tuesday 30 October at 11am.

Roddy’s death leaves a big gap in the world of music and education. He inspired and entertained so many Birkbeck students (and staff) over the years. We are all going to miss him greatly.

If you would like to be contacted about either the Birkbeck gathering or the Southwark Cathedral service, please .

June 2018