He was born in Chester to comfortable middle-class parents and educated at Westminster and Oxford. Even as a schoolboy he was introduced to the world of music by a family friend, Frank Schuster who was a friend of Elgar and introduced the young Boult to the composer. He completed his musical education at the Leipzig Conservatorium where he learnt to conduct by watching the eminent Hungarian conductor Arthur Nikisch. He sang in choral festivals and at the Leeds Festival of 1913 where he went to watch Nikisch conduct, made the acquaintance of George Butterworth and other British composers.
During the World War I he worked at the War Office, and while still there in 1918 planned a series of concerts with the London Symphony Orchestra including several important recent British works: Holst's The Planets, of which he gave the first (private) performance, A London Symphony by Ralph Vaughan Williams, of which he gave the first performance of the revised version, and Elgar's second symphony which had fallen into neglect. Elgar wrote to him and said he felt sure the future of his music was safe in Boult's hands. In this way Boult laid the foundations for a long career as a champion of 20th-century English music.
In 1920 Boult was appointed to the conductorship of the City of Birmingham Orchestra (later the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra) and in 1930 made director of music at the BBC. When the BBC formed a Symphony Orchestra Boult became the chief conductor, combining both jobs in typically tireless fashion.
During the 1930s he became famous for the high standard of playing in the Orchestra, and for his capable performances of new and unfamiliar music, often rehearsed in very short time. Among these successes were the British premieres of Schoenberg's Variations, op.31, Berg's opera Wozzeck and Vaughan Williams' Symphony in F minor. In these years he married the divorced wife of Steuart Wilson, tenor singer and administrator.
During the second World War the BBC Symphony Orchestra was evacuated to Bristol, where they suffered from bombing, and to Bedford, where Boult strove to maintain standards and morale as many key players left. In these years he made memorable recordings of Elgar's Second Symphony, Holst's Planets and Vaughan Williams' Job. After the war the start of the BBC Third Programme saw Boult involved in several pioneering ventures for Britain, including the British premiere of Mahler's Third symphony and an early performance of the Fifth.
In the late 1940s Wilson was appointed director of music and sought to remove Boult. Suggestions that the standard of playing had fallen beyond Boult's ability to rectify were taken as a reason to insist on his retirement at the age of 60 in 1949, an incident which remains controversial to this day. Boult accepted the conductorship of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which in the thirties under Beecham had been the other crack London orchestra, but since Beecham's departure, was in need of rebuilding. Boult threw himself into this task and the results can be heard to this day in a long series of recordings beginning in 1950 and including in their early years a complete set of the nine Vaughan Williams symphonies and much Elgar. He obtained for the orchestra a recording contract with American companies and recorded Brahms symphonies, Berlioz and Sibelius, among other composers.
Boult was now a highly revered figure in British music, and despite advancing years continued to conduct new works, being valued for his impartiality and reliability. In 1966 he resumed conducting for EMI and until his death enjoyed an "Indian Summer", recording or re-recording his repertoire in interpretations which continue to be prized as exemplary. For example, having recorded much British music he was persuaded to record the orchestral music of Brahms and Wagner, which surprised many listeners, who did not know that his acquaintance with these works dated back to the pre-1914 era when he had heard Nikisch and Karl Muck conduct them in Germany.
Boult was the author of two books on conducting, and a selection of his essays was published after his death. He had also been a frequent broadcaster, notable for his courteous, understated Edwardian style of speaking.
Adrian Boult Hall
The Consrevatoire in Birmingham, [England]] (a department of the University of Central England includes in its home building the Adrian Boult Hall a venue for its students' performances, and other concerts, notably jazz and world music.