The English-born Canadian Conductor, administrator, lecturer, and writer, (Louis) Boyd Neel, wanted to be a pianist as a child. His mother, Ruby Le Couteur, was a professional accompanist, and his father was an engineer. Destined for the Royal Navy, Neel went to Osborne naval college and then to Dartmouth. Soon after he was commissioned, the armed forces underwent a drastic reduction (the so called ‘Geddes axe’), and Neel left the navy to study medicine at Caius College Cambridge, specializing in surgery (BA degree in 1926; MA degree in 1930). After graduating, he became House Surgeon and Physician at Saint George's Hospital, London, and Resident Doctor at King Edward VII’s Hospital, London. At that time, while practising medicine, being a a pianist and an amateur conductor, he went on to study theory and orchestration at the Guildhall School of Music in 1931 (or 1930).
For Boyd Neel, at this stage, music was still a hobby. He conducted amateur groups and was persuaded to form an orchestra of 17 young professionals, whom he recruited in 1932 from the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music. Several of them were Canadians living in London. (Frederick Grinke, another Canadian, became concertmaster in 1937). The Boyd Neel London String Orchestra (later The Boyd Neel Orchestra) made its successful debut at the Aeolian Hall, London, on June 22, 1933. After the concert, Neel returned to his surgery and delivered a baby. By December 1933, the orchestra was invited to broadcast by the BBC. When Decca offered Neel and the orchestra a contract, he left medicine to devote his full time to music. Its concerts frequently offered music of contemporary British composers and it premiered works of Arnold Bax, Gordon Jacob, and others. The orchestra was in the vanguard of the Baroque revival and between 1934 and 1954 it committed to disc for Decca much of the chamber orchestra repertoire, notably (1936-1938) the first complete recording ever made of the George Frideric Handel’s Concerti grossi Opus 6.
Among the Boyd Neel Orchestra’s early releases were the first recordings of Ralph Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and Benjamin Britten's Simple Symphony. Neel conducted the first music heard in the new Glyndebourne opera house in 1934, in private performances, at John Christie's invitation. In 1937, Neel and his orchestra were invited to the Salzburg Festival, for which Neel commissioned Benjamin Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. The orchestra toured Great Britain and Europe until 1939. B. Britten wrote his Prelude and Fugue for 18 string instruments as a 10th birthday present to the Boyd Neel Orchestra in 1943. Before and after World War II he was a guest conductor with many English orchestras including the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, and BBC Symphony Orchestra.
During World War II, Boyd Neel served as a medical officer in the Navy, but contined o conduct when time permitted, and also did a lecture tour of the Mediterranean for the Admiralty. With the Sadler's Wells orchestra, gave several hundred concerts to troops in England. After the war, Neel resumed his musical career, conducting for Sadler's Wells Opera (1950 Rigolettos’ he recalled) from 1944 to 1946 (or 1945-1947) and the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company for its 1947 and 1948 London seasons at Sadler's Wells, performing the Gilbert and Sullivan operas. Beginning in 1947, with the Boyd Neel Orchestra, he embarked on a series of world tours, playing in Australia, New Zealand, Canada (in the fall of 1952, they toured in Quebec, Ontario, and the Maritimes) and the USA, and appearing in festivals such as Edinburgh and Aix-en-Provence. Neel published a book about these experiences called The Story of an Orchestra in 1950. See more on the orchestra at Boyd Neel Orchestra - Short Hoistory.
In 1953 Boyd Neel was appointed dean of the Royal Conservatory of Music of Toronto (Conservatoire royal de musique) (which at the time included the Faculty of Music, 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.
Boyd 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 1953-1964, and conducted several TV programs of opera for 'L'Heure du concert' 1954-1955, including Il Tabarro with Louis Quilico. He conducted the Toronto Symphony Orchestra for the first time on February 15, 1955, after which John Kraglund (Toronto Globe and Mail) wrote '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.
Boyd Neel became a regular instructor for the Student Conductors' Workshop (run by the Ontario Arts Council (OAC) and University of Toronto) at its inception in 1969 and continued his connection with it until the late 1970’s. 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) and of 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: B. Britten's Simple Symphony, Edward Elgar's Serenade, Air and Gigue by Arne (1979, Ultrafi ULDD-10), and Johann Pachelbel's Canon and Other Baroque Favourites (1981, Moss D-MMG-112). A discography 1934-1979 appears in Neel's memoirs, My Orchestras and Other Adventures.
A calm and assured after-dinner speaker and radio commentator, Boyd 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 was host for a CBC school broadcast of B. Britten's Let's Make an Opera and in 1972 he was the commentator for a documentary about Ralph Vaughan Williams. He contributed a series of essays, 'This Week's Music,' to the CBC Times in 1959, and his writings have appeared in Opera Canada, the Journal of Music Education, and the University of Toronto Bulletin. He was the subject of a CBC-FM series - 'The Boyd Neel Memoirs' - in 1979.
Boyd Neel was awarded the a Commander of the British Empire in 1953, an Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Music in 1965, an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1972, and an Honorary Doctor of Music from the Toronto University in 1979.. He became a naturalized Canadian citizen in 1961.
After his retirement, Boyd Neel worked on his memoirs, which were edited and published posthumously by his close friend, J. David Finch. The book also includes an extensive discography of recordings of the Boyd Neel Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neel for Decca Records between 1934 and 1979. Neel died in Toronto at the age of 76.
Boyd Neel is one of a handful of conductors who can rightfully take credit for discovering (or, more properly, rediscovering) an entire performing genre. The fact that music was his second career, makes his achievement even more remarkable. Since the 1970’s and the growth of popularity of early music, the existence of string orchestras has been very common, with dozens springing up every year. But in the 1930’s, the idea of a professional ensemble of chamber orchestra dimensions was virtually unknown until Boyd Neel decided to found one.