Graham Vick at the RPS Awards in 2019

A Tribute to Sir Graham Vick CBE

17 Jul 2021

‘How can we bind this fractured world together? Where can we look for our common humanity? I look for it in music.’

The rousing words of the great Sir Graham Vick CBE who has sadly died, aged 67.

For anyone who believes in classical music’s potential to touch a great range of lives beyond all conventional expectations, Graham was an exemplar and an icon. Time and again, he showed us the way. He was celebrated at the finest opera houses worldwide for so many artful, revelatory productions, but it was in unlikely and surprising spaces at home in the UK that perhaps his most important work occurred.

In the 1980s, he memorably staged Bernstein’s West Side Story with 300 unemployed people in Yorkshire. In 1987, he founded Birmingham Opera Company which with glowing confidence, pride and zeal has always put community at the very heart of artistically-audacious and musically-outstanding productions. Thousands of people who would never otherwise have participated in classical music have found a sense of empowerment, unity, pride and purpose through such ventures.

For amateur and professional participants, and audiences alike, Graham’s productions in an array of spaces across Birmingham were not simply performances: they were rallies, happenings, vigils; each of them unifying, each of them unforgettable. They included the UK premiere of Stockhausen’s colossal Mittwoch aus Licht in 2013 and Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in 2019, both of which were bestowed Royal Philharmonic Society Awards.

In 2003, the RPS invited Graham to present a significant lecture accounting the remarkable story of Birmingham Opera Company to date and the convictions it gave him for what good opera can do for society. You can read his inspirational, heartfelt words here. There remains so much here for today's opera-makers, indeed all classical music-makers, to draw upon.

In 2016, it was our great privilege to present Graham with Honorary Membership of the RPS which dates back to 1824 and has been granted through history to true luminaries devoted to music. At this time, in characterful fashion, Graham chose not to reminisce over achievements past: he seized the occasion to proclaim the urgent, civilising properties of classical music, and called upon colleagues nationwide to gather new strength and resolve to communicate that message louder than before. He said:

‘Music effects change by touching humanity. Through music we can harness and share the richness of cultural background and identity, the breadth of life experience and alternative perspectives available in our expanding communities and enrich all our understanding... It’s time for each one of us to step up and take responsibility for the well-being of our society rather than just taking.’

Indelible words which, in tribute to Graham, we should all indeed act upon.

Watch Graham Vick's complete 2016 speech on receiving RPS Honorary Membership here.

Read a transcript of the 2016 speech here.

Read Graham Vick's 2003 RPS lecture here.