Neel was born in Blackheath, London, and 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. He qualified in 1930, and became House Surgeon and Physician at Saint George's Hospital, London, and Resident Doctor at King Edward VII’s Hospital, London.
The Boyd Neel Orchestra
For Neel, at this stage, music was still a hobby. He conducted amateur groups and was persuaded to form an orchestra of young professionals, whom he recruited in 1932 from the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music. The Boyd Neel London String Orchestra (later the Boyd Neel Orchestra) made its debut at the Aeolian Hall, London, on 22 June 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 himself full-time to music.
Among the Boyd Neel Orchestra's early releases were the first recordings of Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis and 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 Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge. The orchestra toured Great Britain and Europe until 1939.
World War II to 1952
During World War II, Neel returned to medical work and the Navy, while continuing to conduct when time permitted. Britten wrote his Prelude and Fugue for 18 string instruments as a 10th birthday present to the Boyd Neel Orchestra in 1943. After the war, Neel resumed his musical career, conducting for Sadler's Wells Opera (’50 Rigolettos’ he recalled) from 1944 to 1946 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 and the United States, 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.
Toronto and later years
In 1952 Neel accepted the post of Dean of the Royal Conservatory of Music at Toronto, Ontario, in which post he served for 18 years, reorganising and rebuilding the Faculty of Music at the University. Soon after his appointment he formed the Hart House Orchestra in Toronto and toured with it extensively, at, among other events, the Brussels World's Fair in 1958, the Aldeburgh Festival in 1966 and Expo ’67. After this, he became Artistic Director of the Sarnia Festival Opera House on Lake Huron.
After Neel’s departure to Canada, the Boyd Neel Orchestra was renamed the Philomusica of London and continues under that name today. Neel was awarded the C.B.E. in 1953 and was an Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of Music. He became a naturalized Canadian citizen in 1961.
As a radio commentator, Neel was heard on such CBC programs as Sunday Concert, Tuesday Night, Concerts from Two Worlds, and his own Opera with Boyd Neel (1954). He also wrote a series of essays, under the headline "This Week's Music", for 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. Neel became an instructor for the Student Conductors' Workshop (run by the OAC and University of Toronto) at its inception in 1969 and continued to conduct with it until the late 1970s. In 1972, he became the first conductor of the Mississauga Symphony Orchestra, continuing after 1978 as conductor emeritus.
After his retirement, 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.
- See Time Magazine profile
- The Gramophone, p 178
- See, e.g., Neel's entry in The Encyclopedia of Music in Canada
- Stone, David. Boyd Neel at Who Was Who in the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company (2001)
- The Gramophone, p 183
- Published by Vox Mundi, London, with an introduction by Benjamin Britten)
- The Gramophone, July 1972, pp. 178 and 183.
- Neel at Answers.com
- Neel at the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada
- Neel, Boyd, and J David Finch My orchestras and other adventures: the memoirs of Boyd Neel University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1985. ISBN 0-8020-5674-1
- profile of Neel
- Description of how Neel started his orchestra
- List of some available Neel recordings
- Another list of available Neel recordings