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Obituary: George Rizza

31 December 2020

Kenneth Shenton writes:

GEORGE RIZZA, who has died, aged 94, was part of that hugely vibrant Italian émigré community who contributed so much to the broadening and enrichment of British cultural life throughout the course of the last century. A countertenor of solid talent and admirable range, Rizza helped to lead the way in reintroducing the voice to modern audiences in the years after the Second World War. Later, as a music-publishing executive, he helped to develop numerous emerging young composers of the day.

Born in November 1925, George Joseph Rizza was the youngest of three children of Italian parents who had settled in Aberdeenshire, where they ran an ice-cream parlour and confectionery store. It was at school in Huntly that his musical talents first came to the fore as he carried off numerous cups and prizes at local music festivals. A member of his local Catholic church choir, he went on to study singing at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, in Glasgow.

Moving to London in 1948, Rizza began his professional career as a countertenor in the choir of Westminster Cathedral. The new choirmaster, George Malcolm, favoured a more raw Continental timbre from his singers, far removed from the traditional Anglican sound. The choir was unusual, too, in having a boys’ section sing the alto line with backing from Rizza. He was equally at ease in the concert hall, in the company of his great friend and fellow countertenor Alfred Deller, and the pair made a great impression when broadcasting the music of Henry Purcell.

Rizza also began working for the music publishers J. W. Chester & Co., based in Great Marlborough Street. Founded in 1874, their catalogue comprised numerous contemporary foreign names alongside an impressive list of Scandinavian composers. By now bewhiskered, Rizza was in his element attracting an increasingly large number of British composers into the fold. Particularly grateful for Riza’s support was Lennox Berkeley, whose Duo for Cello and Piano bore a warm dedication to Rizza.

It was when participating in a performance of Verdi’s Aida at the Royal Opera House that he met the mezzo-soprano Margaret Lensky. They were married in Rome in 1967. Having subsequently enjoyed a successful career as a singing teacher, encouraged by her husband, she came to the fore as one of our leading composers of church music. She worked closely with the publisher Kevin Mayhew and the Royal School of Church Music. Her expansive output, influenced by Celtic spirituality, is cleverly and precisely imagined.

In 1973, Rizza was appointed managing director of music publishers Novello & Co.; he was the first Catholic to head the company since the founder, Vincent Novello, in 1811. It had recently been acquired by the Granada Group, and their injection of fresh capital allowed the company to expand its number of contracted composers to include John Joubert, John McCabe, Stephen Oliver, Thea Musgrave, Richard Rodney Bennett, Judith Weir, and Giles Swayne. In addition, as a vice-president of the Elgar Foundation, Rizza provided pivotal input and expertise in the development of the Elgar Edition.

At the same time, he brought his expertise to bear on a diverse range of other publishing companies, such as Goodwin & Tabb, Cinderella Music, Laurel Music, and the Mercury Music Company; and he remained a stalwart supporter of both the Performing Rights Society and the Anglo-Austrian Music Society. He also served on the board of the London Boy Singers.

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