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Martin, Christopher John (1930–2011)

Christopher Martin, a marvellous musician who played in orchestras around Europe, the United States and Australia before gaining great respect for his artistry as a conductor in his adopted country, has died of leukaemia at Caritas Christi Hospice in Kew. He was 81.

A natural raconteur, he drew people into his love for the music he was conducting with reminiscences, stories and entertaining anecdotes.

Shortly before his death, Martin wrote a few notes on his life beginning with a quote from Jascha Heifetz, the great Lithuanian violinist who was his musical hero: ''Born 1900, played the violin''. ''What else is there to know?'' Martin commented, adding his own details: ''Christopher Martin, born April 13, 1930, played the viola and conducted a bit.''

Born in Tiverton, Devon, Martin started learning the violin as a teenager when his mother persuaded Ron Davey, a local mechanic and amateur musician, to teach her son. Davey, a man of vision, founded the Tiverton Youth Orchestra in 1944 to inspire young people with a love of music and give them the opportunity to learn an instrument. Realising Martin was exceptionally talented, Davey approached the Amory family, owners of the lace factory where he was then working, and persuaded them to cover the cost of Martin's weekly travel to London for lessons at the London College of Music.

At the age of 20, following his two-year stint in national service, Martin was accepted by the Royal College of Music to study violin and viola, still financially supported by the Amory family. This meant exposure to great musicians of the time and Martin counted himself fortunate to have been taught by Henry Holst, Angel Grande and Cecil Aronowitz, among others.

On leaving the college in 1953, Martin for a short time played with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra before becoming a founding member of the Edinburgh String Quartet. He also had his first experience of conducting when a group of string-playing friends, both professional and amateur, wanted to play together and asked him to conduct them. They formed the Christopher Martin Chamber Orchestra, which continued to perform for many years under his name after he had left Scotland.

After six years of playing viola with the Edinburgh String Quartet – his fondest memory was performing with the Hungarian pianist Erno Dohnanyi – Martin was appointed co-principal viola with the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra under Szymon Goldberg. The orchestra travelled widely in Europe and America and it was while playing at the music festival at Aix-en-Provence in France in 1962 when Martin met the Australian cellist, Annette Rosefield. They married in Cornwall a few months later.

In 1972, he was appointed senior lecturer in violin and viola at Melbourne University's faculty of music and a distinctly musical atmosphere pervaded the Martin household. Their three children, Simon, Naomi and Benjamin, all played musical instruments, while he and Annette played chamber music with their many visiting musician friends. Husband and wife also played in ensemble groups including the Paul McDermott String Quartet, and were closely involved in Music in the Round.

His charm, easy manner and passion for his subject made Martin a memorable mentor to many young players at the university, including the eminent violinist Elizabeth Wallfisch. Famed recorder player Genevieve Lacey played in the student symphony orchestra conducted by Martin and recalled: ''He could get to the heart of a piece very easily; he was an alarmingly perceptive listener. His imagination of how the music could sound was powerful.''

Particularly after he retired from the university in 1996, Martin gave much of his spare time to conducting community orchestras such as the U3A Orchestra and tutoring in music camps.

Music was all to him and he was thrilled when another of his musical heroes, the conductor George Tintner, praised his work at a national music camp. The Australian String Teachers Association recognised his contribution to music by presenting him with an achievement award.

Yet another string to Martin's bow was added in 1993 when plastic surgeon Miklos Pohl invited him to conduct the newly founded Australian Doctors' Orchestra – and 10 years later he was made conductor laureate. He was also an honorary life member of the Chamber Strings of Melbourne, a group he had conducted since 1983 and accompanied on a number of overseas tours. He conducted the Chamber Strings of Melbourne when they won the top prize at an international competition for young orchestras in Vienna in 1998.

A former student of Martin's, Kerry Murphy, associate professor of music and head of musicology at Melbourne University, describes him as ''a compassionate, humble, incredibly erudite man with a keen sense of the ridiculous and a fine wit. ''(He was) one of the most musical people I have ever encountered and someone capable of inspiring a love of music in all who came under his spell. I would defy anyone to know as much as Chris about violins – yet he wore his knowledge so lightly.''

Martin celebrated his 80th birthday last year by conducting a concert with the Australian Doctors' Orchestra, for which Elizabeth Wallfisch flew from Europe to play the G Major Mozart Concerto.

Martin is survived by his wife Annette, children Simon, Naomi and Benjamin, and granddaughters Emma and Edith Nelli.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 December 2011

Citation details

'Martin, Christopher John (1930–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/martin-christopher-john-16652/text28551, accessed 25 November 2017.

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