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Jacobs, Robert Louis (1904–1990)

Robert Louis Jacobs, writer on music and teacher died on December 26 aged 86. He was born on December 2, 1904.

Robert Jacobs combined an analytical mind and a romantic heart, the scholarship of the professional and the enthusiasm of the amateur. This balance sustained him as a writer and lecturer on music for nearly 50 years.

He was born in Melbourne, Australia, moving to London with his family in 1914. At preparatory school he was an early pupil of Harriet Cohen (then setting out on her own career as a pianist). At Balliol College, Oxford, he graduated in history. And after a period with a family legal firm, he went to Vienna in 1929 to study music, subsequently moving to Berlin where he studied the piano with Alice Schwabe and from where he contributed music criticism to The Times. Struck by stage-fright, he gave up performance aspirations to concentrate on writing about music. Returning to London in 1933, his Wagner in the Dent "Master Musicians" series came out in 1935 (and stayed in print for some 40 years). In the second world war Jacobs worked for the Ministry of Information censorship department in Bermuda, returning to writing on music with contributions to the La Bohème and Madam Butterfly volumes of Eric Crozier's Sadler’s Wells Opera Books in 1945-6.

In 1947 he began to lecture for the extra-mural department of London University, for which he taught WEA classes for nearly 30 years and where his skill at communicating the technicalities of music to non-musicians came into its own. His Harmony for the Listener: An Unconventional Textbook (1958) was dedicated "to the students of my WEA classes". In addition to his own books and music book reviews. Jacobs published three volumes of Wagner translations (one with Geoffrey Skelton) and worked on a Freudian interpretation of the Ring.

Robert Jacobs's musical tastes were overwhelmingly romantic and 19th century with Beethoven taking pride of place. He was widely and eruditely read in literature, psychology, history and intellectual history, but he never turned his back on more commonly-shared pleasures. The batting of the left-handed Frank Woolley gave him delight, and shortly before his death he was enjoying the novels of Catherine Cookson. Often hopelessly impractical, he was in youth an elegant ballroom dancer and river punter. As a friend, teacher and relative his special ability to give his full attention and the best of his judgment to whatever was brought before him at whatever level, will be missed and remembered.

His wife Isabel died in 1986, and he is survived by their only son Oliver.

Original publication

  • Times (London), 2 January 1991, p 12

Additional Resources

Citation details

'Jacobs, Robert Louis (1904–1990)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 October 2020.

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