Edmund Reid, violinist who broke through racial barriers to reach the top of his profession – obituary

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Edmund Reid
Edmund Reid

Edmund Reid, the violinist who has died aged 85, was often the only black musician to be found among the rank-and-file members of British orchestras; he recalled that after his audition for Sir Georg Solti at the Royal Opera House in 1964 it took two months for a committee to discuss “whether it was OK to employ a black man”.

Reid’s talent was not in dispute and he gave several successful recitals at the Wigmore Hall and Queen Elizabeth Hall, often accompanied by his pianist wife, Gretta Barrow. In 1978 they gave a joint recital for the Schubert Society of Great Britain to mark the 150th anniversary of the composer’s death.

In 1996 he appeared in A Mulatto Song, Topher Campbell’s dramatised account of the life of George Bridgetower, the British violinist of African descent who was the original dedicatee of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata before the pair fell out over a woman.

Much of Reid’s career was spent with the country’s leading orchestras, including the Royal Philharmonic. “When I started I told myself I wouldn’t get in an orchestra if I played as well as the next person, so I decided I had to be 300 per cent better,” he said.

Things were not always easy on tour, where his colleagues would quickly find accommodation while he would roam the streets encountering guest-house signs proclaiming “No blacks.” He took some consolation from those that added: “No Irish.”

Reid was a violinist of great sensitivity and integrity, known for setting a high musical and professional standard. In 1987 he won an industrial tribunal against English National Opera after the company refused to give him the title of co-leader despite his occupying the position on an acting basis for the previous two years. “I’ve had a pretty rocky time,” he told The Observer when reflecting on the degree of whiteness in British orchestral life.

Reid with the Rehearsal Orchestra - Adele Wagstaff
Reid with the Rehearsal Orchestra - Adele Wagstaff

Edmund Carlton Patrick Reid was born on December 4 1936 in Kingston, Jamaica, the youngest of four children. He was raised by his aunt Doris, a formidable character who introduced him to the violin. He was educated at Kingston College and gave his first recital at eight. At 16 he was awarded a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London, later taking lessons with Sascha Lasserson.

Reid’s first orchestral appointment was with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, before joining Sadler’s Wells. He also played with the London Symphony Orchestra. Having satisfied the Royal Opera’s selection committee he spent 10 years there, playing badminton in Covent Garden after hours, before becoming co-leader of the Welsh National Opera and later ENO. In a nod to his Jamaican heritage he also made guest appearances with the Reggae Philharmonic Orchestra.

Alongside his orchestral career Reid was a popular teacher, often consulted by professional violinists preparing to face audition panels with the major orchestras. He was happy to teach all levels, from beginner upwards, but insisted they practised regularly, “not so much the length of time, but regular concentrated work, ideally daily”.

In retirement he brought his experience to the Rehearsal Orchestra, where he was a supportive leader with strong opinions about orchestral playing but always ready to try an alternative. “If he disagreed with a conductor’s idea he would argue the toss with good humour,” recalled Levon Parikian, the orchestra’s artistic director. He also led the orchestra of Opéra de Baugé, a country-house opera company in the Loire Valley.

Edmund Reid was appointed MBE in 2020. In 1959 he married Gretta Barrow, a fellow student at the Royal Academy of Music, and together they recorded Havergal Brian’s Legend for violin and piano. She survives him with their two sons and two daughters.

Edmund Reid, born December 4 1936, died December 13 2021

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