Neil Chapman, who died last week lived a life devoted to music and family. Born to a farming family in Underberg in what is now KwaZulu Natal in 1933, the youngest of five children, his family moved to Pietermaritzburg while he was young. After school at Merchiston Preparatory School and Maritzburg College, where he was Dux, he trained as a mathematics teacher. But his real passion was music, and he used the money he saved while teaching to fund study in Europe, with a view to a career in music. He studied in Vienna and later in Italy.
As an accomplished pianist he was an expert accompanist, he also excelled as a voice coach and conductor. His career took him to a role as Head of Music for the South African Broadcasting Corporation. At this time he met the love of his life, Emma, whom he married in 1971.
On one of their earliest dates, he took her to a concert which he was conducting. Afterwards Emma accompanied him to an after-party where he lay on the floor for a sleep, leaving her alone with a house full of musicians she didn’t know. Such was his charisma and loving nature this didn’t matter. His eldest daughter, Catherine was born in 1976. Having had enough of the internal politics of the SABC and seeking a better quality of life he started a new chapter of his, and his young family’s life with a move in 1978 to what is now Harare, Zimbabwe. While the liberation struggle was still going on, this may have seemed a risky move, but it was one that he never regretted.
His younger daughter Margaret (Maggie) was born in 1979 and he enjoyed the majority of two decades as head of the Zimbabwe College of Music in Harare. He was central to much of the musical life of the country, running the City of Harare Orchestra with his characteristic precise but un-showy conducting. He became a Chevalier of the Legion D’Honneur for services to music, and was commended for his work on the new national anthem. He also created courses on the traditional Shona and Ndebele music of Zimbabwe and on enthnomusicology.
The Chapman house was a centre of recitals, after-concert parties and what Neil would describe as “all manner of conviviality”. One of my abiding memories is enjoying listening to Chopin waltzes played on the piano and filling the house. An imposing but humane man he was incredibly proud of his two daughters and two grand-daughters.
After retiring from the College of Music he enjoyed his garden, traveling to see his daughters in the UK and his continued teaching of piano and voice. He particularly enjoyed several productions at the Edinburgh Festival, and took great pride in the role Maggie played on the Edinburgh International Festival Board.
He died after complications from an operation. He is survived by Emma, his two sisters, his daughters and his grand-daughters.