Leopold de Rothschild

Leopold de Rothschild

The late Leopold de Rothschild was a lifelong supporter of the arts and, as Chairman of the RCM Centenary Appeal, helped raise the funds to make possible, among other things, the building of the Britten Theatre.


How did you become involved with the Royal College of Music?

I used to sing with The Bach Choir and they had voice trials (which we all dreaded!) once every three years. One particular audition was held at the Royal College of Music with Sir David Willcocks, the then Director of the College. Before he began the audition he said: “Can I ask you a favour?” I was so keen to successfully re-audition for the choir I said: “Anything”. He asked if I would join the College Council and of course I said yes. Thankfully I passed my audition too!


Has music always played an important part in your life?

Yes, very much so. I play the piano and am lucky enough to have lessons with John Blakely at the moment. I particularly enjoy playing Bach. I also really enjoy singing and believe I must have sung in more than 100 performances of the Matthew Passion. The Bach Choir, with whom I sang with for more than 50 years, used to give it two performances a year and we even took it on tour. So I think I know the piece pretty well now.


You were made the Chairman of the Centenary Appeal in 1982. What was your role in raising funds to build the Britten Theatre?

Well I’d never done anything quite like it before but I was wonderfully well served by my committee, particularly the Deputy Chairman Lady Airlie. I suppose the first important moment in the appeal came when I went to see the Chairman of the National Westminster Bank (which was the original bank of the College), and asked if they would contribute to the fund. He listened and agreed to donate what he thought was an appropriate figure. I dared to suggest a bigger figure – and got it! It was very valuable donation because the moment one bank gave a certain sum, the others all followed suit.

There were three objectives to the fundraising – the construction of a new canteen, library and opera theatre. And we did it in that order. At that time the College had a theatre for opera productions – known as the Parry Theatre – but it was in the basement underneath the main concert hall and wasn’t sound proofed. So you couldn’t have a concert in both spaces at the same time.

At the Christies auction

Did you organise many fundraising events?

We arranged a number of fundraising events including a big auction at Christies. Lady Penn, a member of the Centenary Appeal Committee, helped organise this event and it was a great success. I’d actually underwritten certain items – two pictures – and ended up getting both of them. They’re now really the best pieces in my collection. One belonged to Peter Pears and the other was a picture by Arthur Boyd, a leading Australian painter, and created specifically for the auction.

We also had a 14-hour ‘Musithon’, which was a day of music making to raise funds. One of the activities on offer was the opportunity to conduct the orchestra for a pound a minute. You could choose what you wanted to conduct and I decided on the overture from the Marriage of Figaro. I had a little coaching session with Sir David Willcocks beforehand, but when I got up on the podium the orchestra played it almost at half speed. So instead of paying about £3, I think it came closer to £10!


What are your memories of the opening gala performances in 1986?

It was a very exciting and proud moment for me, but I also felt a huge sigh of relief that we’d actually got there! I sat next to the Queen for the first half of concert and they opened the programme with The Building of the House by Benjamin Britten. I knew it had originally been written for the opening of Snape Maltings Concert Hall in Aldeburgh and thought I’d tell this to the Queen. She replied: ‘I know, I opened it!’


Do you have a favourite performance in the Britten Theatre?

I’ve seen so many, it’s hard to choose. But I very much enjoyed the recent production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, and I’ve heard it went down very well at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. I imagine it must have been very hard to translate some of the lines into French though!


Looking back on the appeal, you must be incredibly proud of what you achieved.

Yes, I still feel a tingle of pride every time I come to the Theatre. We would never have achieved what we did without so much support, particularly from Prince Charles, Sir David Willcocks and the Committee. I was also very grateful to Martin Harris for taking over from me as Chairman of the Appeal. Looking back on it, I enjoyed the experience enormously.

This interview first appeared in Upbeat (autumn 2011), the RCM magazine. Leopold de Rothschild passed away on 19 April 2012. Click here for his obituary.

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