Boyd Neel | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Boyd Neel

Louis Boyd Neel, OC, CBE, conductor, administrator, lecturer, writer, surgeon (born 19 July 1905 in Blackheath, London, England; died 30 September 1981 in Toronto, ON).

Louis Boyd Neel, OC, CBE, conductor, administrator, lecturer, writer, surgeon (born 19 July 1905 in Blackheath, London, England; died 30 September 1981 in Toronto, ON). Boyd Neel was credited with revitalizing the chamber music genre in the United Kingdom during the 1930s. Initially a surgeon, he founded the influential Boyd Neel Orchestra and served as guest conductor for symphony orchestras and opera companies in London before coming to Toronto as dean of the Royal Conservatory of Music (1953–71). He also conducted the CBC Symphony Orchestra (1953–64), founded and conducted the Hart House Orchestra (1954–71), and conducted the Mississauga Symphony Orchestra (1971–78). A Commander of the British Empire and an Officer of the Order of Canada, he became a naturalized Canadian 1961.

Medical Career

Destined originally for a career in the British navy, Neel turned to medicine, studying at Caius College, Cambridge, and specializing in surgery. At that time a pianist and an amateur conductor, he went on to study theory and orchestration at the Guildhall School of Music in 1931, even though he still considered music a hobby.

Boyd Neel Orchestra

In 1932, while maintaining his busy surgical practice in London, Neel formed the Boyd Neel Orchestra, a chamber ensemble of 17 string players, several of them Canadians living in London. (Frederick Grinke, another Canadian, became concertmaster in 1937.) After a successful debut on 22 June 1933 at Aeolian Hall, the orchestra made several international tours and premiered Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge (written at Neel's request) at the 1937 Salzburg Festival. Its concerts frequently offered music of contemporary British composers and it premiered works of Arnold Bax, Gordon Jacob, and others.

The Boyd Neel Orchestra was in the vanguard of the baroque revival. Between 1934 and 1954, it committed to disc for Decca much of the chamber orchestra repertoire (1936–38), notably the first complete recording ever made of the Handel Concerti grossi Opus 6. Neel conducted at the first Glyndebourne Festival in 1934, at Sadler's Wells (1945–47) and for the D'Oyly Carte Company (1948–49).

During the Second World War

Before and after the Second World War, he was a guest conductor with many English orchestras including the Royal Philharmonic, the London Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. During the war he served as a medical officer, but also did a lecture tour of the Mediterranean for the Admiralty and, with the Sadler's Wells orchestra, gave several hundred concerts to troops in England. With his orchestra he visited Canada in the fall of 1952, touring in Québec, Ontario and the Maritimes.

Career in Canada

In 1953, Neel was appointed dean of the Royal Conservatory of Music (which at the time included the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto), holding the position until 1971. He was a leader in the campaign to build a new home for the faculty. The campaign was a success and resulted in the Edward Johnson Building (see Edward Johnson).

Neel was the founder in 1954 and the conductor until 1971 of the Hart House Orchestra (with which he toured and made several recordings), conducted the CBC Symphony Orchestra in some 27 performances between 1953 and 1964, and conducted several TV programs of opera for L'Heure du concert (1954–55), including Il Tabarro with Louis Quilico. He conducted the Toronto Symphony Orchestra for the first time on 15 February 1955, after which John Kraglund wrote in the Globe and Mail that, “Neel's conducting is conservative and undemonstrative. Indeed, it has about it the restraint which suits the intimacy of a chamber concert.” In the summer of 1955 Neel conducted the Hart House Orchestra in eight concerts at the Stratford Festival. Glenn Gould, Lois Marshall and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf were among the solo artists who appeared with the orchestra for that series.

After becoming a naturalized Canadian in 1961, Neel was a regular instructor for the Student Conductors' Workshop (run by the Ontario Arts Council and University of Toronto) from its inception in 1969 until the late 1970s. In 1972, he became the first conductor of the Mississauga Symphony Orchestra, continuing after 1978 as conductor emeritus. In 1977, he conducted a specially formed Toronto Chamber Orchestra in direct-to-disc recordings of Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik and Divertimento No. 11 (Umbrella UM DD-6), as well as Bach's Violin Concerto in E (with Steven Staryk as soloist) and other works (Umbrella UM DD-9). He also led the orchestra in two subsequent digital recordings: Britten's Simple Symphony, Elgar's Serenade, Air and Gigue by Arne (1979, Ultrafi ULDD-10) and Pachelbel's Canon and Other Baroque Favourites (1981, Moss D-MMG-112). A discography covering 1934 to 1979 appears in Neel's memoirs, My Orchestras and Other Adventures.

Writer and Radio Commentator

A calm, assured speaker and radio commentator, Neel was heard nationally on such CBC programs as Sunday Concert, Tuesday Night, Concerts from Two Worlds and his own Opera with Boyd Neel (1954). In 1961, he hosted a CBC school broadcast of Britten's Let's Make an Opera, and in 1972 he was the commentator for a documentary about Vaughan Williams. He contributed a series of essays entitled This Week's Music to the CBC Times in 1959. His writings also appeared in Opera Canada, the Journal of Music Education and the University of Toronto Bulletin. He was the subject of the CBC-FM series The Boyd Neel Memoirs in 1979. His memoirs, My Orchestras and Other Adventures: The Memoirs of Boyd Neel, were published in 1985.


Honorary Member, Royal Academy of Music (1965)

Honorary Doctor of Music, University of Toronto (1979)

Commander, Order of the British Empire (1953)

Officer, Order of Canada (1972)


The Story of an Orchestra (London, 1950).

“Small Orchestras: Musical Need,” Saturday Night Magazine (19 February 1955).

“Music in Canada,” Tempo vol. 38 (Winter 1955–56).

“Opera,” The Arts in Canada, ed. Murray Ross (Toronto, 1958).

“Laughter and Boos at Bayreuth,” Fugue vol. 1 (May 1977).

“Muzak, Ha!,” Fugue vol. 2 (April 1978).

My Orchestras and Other Adventures: The Memoirs of Boyd Neel, ed. J. David Finch (Toronto, 1985).

Further Reading