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So Long, Edward Greenfield

July 2, 2015
by the gentle author

Today I publish my profile of Edward Greenfield as a tribute to a great music critic and popular long-term Spitalfields resident who died yesterday afternoon aged eighty-six

Edward Greenfield  by Lucinda Douglas-Menzies

The entire ground floor of Ted Greenfield’s house in Folgate St was given over to an archive of thousands upon thousands of CDs. Stretching from floor to ceiling in each room were shelves of utilitarian design, lined with meticulously labelled brown archive boxes containing them all, while down in the cellar was stored his collection of over thirty thousand LPs. When you first walked through the door, it felt as if you had entered the storeroom of a music shop or the hidden stack of music library, but climbing the stairs to the first floor led you into the more congenial atmosphere of Ted’s domestic arena.

Ted lived up above, in the top three storeys of his magnificently tottering eighteenth century, in rooms stacked with more CDs, musical biographies, back copies of The Gramophone, programmes from concerts and opera – and innumerable notes and cards of good wishes that testified to his many friends and admirers.

“I once had a flat in Highgate but the LPs got me out!” he admitted to me as we enjoyed a reviving mid-morning vodka and lemon in his sunlit, panelled living room, lined with striking modernist portraits by Jeffrey Spedding of Ted’s musical icons, Mahler, Sibelius, Brahms, William Walton, Leonard Bernstein and Beethoven.

“I have been here in Spitalfields for thirty-seven years and it seems like no time at all. The whole place has changed, yet largely for the better I think. In those days, there was nothing between me and the church, nowadays you’d barely recognise it. My friends were shocked when I bought this house with a hole in the roof in 1979, but I could see the potential and so could my architect, because it was he who suggested I come to live here.

The builders were in for over two years, and then it took another ten years to get the panelling sorted out. This room alone took over a year. In the nineteen thirties, they thought ‘horrible old panelling’ and lined it with fibreboard and covered the walls with miles of bellwire attached to alarms, because this was the Co-op Fruit & Vegetable Department and they kept all their valuables here, using staples for the wire that created thousands of tiny holes we had to fill. And they installed a particularly nasty nineteen thirties ceramic fireplace that looked like it should have china rabbits over it – behind that we discovered this original coved fireplace recess.

Then I had a disaster when I moved in and only stayed fifteen minutes because there was a fire! Later, I had just moved my record collection of thirty thousand odd LPs into the cellar when there was flood. After the fire and the flood, I was expecting an earthquake. At that time, the two plots next door were vacant, where the houses had fallen down, and there were baulks of timber holding this one up. I had a party for one hundred and fifty people when I finally moved in and there were so many people the building was rocking!”

Ted Greenfield dramatised his own life with an endearing humour borne of a life of fulfilment at the heart of the British music scene as longtime music critic at The Guardian and subsequently as editor of the Penguin Guide to CDs. A trusted authority who continued to review regularly for The Gramophone into his eighties Greenfield forged friendships with many musicians who were the subject of his writing – from William Walton (“My great hero and a dear friend”), Michael Tippett, Benjamin Britten, Yehudi Menuhin and Mstislav Rostropovich to Leonard Bernstein (“The most charismatic man I ever knew”.). Ted Greenfield’s magnanimous optimistic temperament partly accounted for this, but it was further explained by his philosophy of criticism, which he outlined thus,“The first duty of a critic is to appreciate, to try to understand what the artist is trying to do and how far he has succeeded. You just have to try and sympathise.” As a critic, Ted Greenfield wrote to explore the intentions of the work he was reviewing, rather than sitting in judgement.

“I always wanted to write about records, but then I thought ‘I’ll never be able to keep myself,’ so I did Law at Cambridge where I wrote the Cambridge Union reports, and then when I went to the Appointments Board, they said, ‘Why not journalism?’ I think I’ve been very lucky, but equally I know you have to make your own luck to an extent. I try to look for the best side of things and to make things happen. I’ve written about a lot of people and they’ve become good friends. I’ve known many of the greats in music and politics over the years.”

When I asked Ted what music he listened to for recreation, he opened Who’s Who’s and showed me his entry which listed his recreations as “music and work,” and I understood that music was simply his life. Looking around, I realised that it was unquestionably a bachelor’s dwelling he inhabited, with few luxuries and comforts, and an atmosphere that was collegiate as much as it was domestic, displaying the charismatic disorder of books and papers you might expect in an undergraduate’s chambers overlooking an old quad.

Indeed, many of Ted’s Cambridge contemporaries remained lifelong friends including ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer Geoffrey Howe (“When he came to my party here, before all the buildings were put up, we were able to look across and see St Pauls”), ex-Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie ( “When I first visited him at Lambeth Palace, his wife had him doing the washing up”) and ex-Prime Minister Edward Heath with whom he shared a love of music. “Ted became a dear friend, especially when Margaret Thatcher took over and he famously was in the big sulk – he was a frequent visitor to Spitalfields in those days. I realised how vulnerable he was. Although he was entirely incapable of expressing human emotions, whenever he saw me he was plainly delighted. It was very amusing to tease him and have him tease me back.”

In spite of his immense knowledge and his friendships with all these establishment types, Ted was refreshingly lacking in pomposity and even a little subversive, wearing britches and nicely polished riding boots when he had no intention of going riding or even leaving the house. Drinking spirits in the morning was a rare experience for me but I recognised at once it was a habit I could get accustomed to – What could be more civilised than to sit in an old house in Spitalfields sipping vodka with lemon and listening to classical CDs? This was the life of Edward Greenfield.

Edward Greenfield (1928-2015)

Portraits copyright © Lucinda Douglas-Menzies

14 Responses leave one →
  1. July 2, 2015

    What a wonderful insight and tribute to an English gentleman

  2. Pamela V. Cullen permalink
    July 2, 2015

    I fondly recall his World Service music programme which lasted for many years until the BBC decided the listeners liked it too much and should have something more ‘modern’!

  3. Richard permalink
    July 2, 2015

    Thanks for this. So interesting. Wonderful picture of Mahler.

  4. July 2, 2015

    What a lovely man.

  5. Susan permalink
    July 2, 2015

    What a lovely tribute to a very interesting individual! (I would love to have seen more photos of his house…)

  6. Godfrey Valentine permalink
    July 2, 2015

    Thank you for your highly humanised article regarding the late Ted Greenfield: beautifully written by the Gentle Author featuring a man who shared GA’s appreciation of the finer points of life.

    It is always sad to consider the death of the important figures from all walks of life and my concern is to wonder if suitable replacements are now following on through the ranks?

    RIP Ted, and Thank You.

    Godfrey Valentine

  7. July 3, 2015

    R.I.P. Mr Edward Greenfield

    Love & Peace

  8. Carole permalink
    July 4, 2015

    Fascinating story. Let’s hope his house & its contents are safe from the wrecking ball….

  9. July 4, 2015

    I am very sorry to hear of the death of Edward Greenfield whose writing on music I so much appreciated. Thank you for this interesting article. May he rest in peace.

  10. Eric Gourlay permalink
    July 12, 2015

    Very sorry to hear about Ted’s passing. I first met him some thirty years ago through a mutual friend the late Denzil Freeth. In later years after he became incapacitated, I would visit him and have to get used to lethal vodkas at ten-thirty in the morning. I shal miss him a lot.

  11. Dan permalink
    October 8, 2015

    I recently heard about Ted’s passing, very sad news. He was a lovely man and had a wonderful personality. I remember having chats with him and cups of tea in his Folgate Street house.

  12. Vince permalink
    November 18, 2015

    When in the early 80’s I eventually woke up to the beauty and excitement of, primarily, opera then classical music I turned to the Penguin’s guide to classical music CD’s and Edward Greenfield’s bite sized critiques were invaluable in pointing me to, amongst others, Decca recordings of Wagner, Berlioz, Puccini and Verdi and the glorious singers of the time who remain unmatched and it was all down to Mr Greenfield’s knowledge and exquisite taste. Thank you.

  13. Gill permalink
    April 9, 2017

    I really enjoyed your article.
    Ted and his brother, Peter were part of my mother’s life, their mothers were best friends, so you could say that Ted was part of my life although annually rather than daily. He was a wonderful character and so interesting to visit in Spitalfields when we were in England from our home in Australia. I have only learned of his death in the last few months and am enjoying his last book, I have a few of his earlier ones. I do hope that his home will be used in some way to reflect the life he led, maybe as a museum to music, with of course the requisite bottles of red wine. I miss his fascinating emails!

  14. December 18, 2019

    What a lovely article in Ted’s memory, and thank you for showing my late husband Jeffrey Spedding’s fine portrait of Gustav Mahler. Jeff and Ted were kindred spirits, and our time spent in Folgate Street will always be unforgettable.
    RIP both Ted and Jeff. The world is a poorer place without you.

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