Vale Richard Toop

Richard Toop (1945-2017)

We are deeply saddened to hear of the recent passing of our beloved colleague Richard Toop on Monday 19 June, aged 71. Richard was an amazing musicologist, teacher and inspiration for many students who studied with him at the Conservatorium. Our thoughts are with his family. Read several moving tributes from his former students and colleagues.


Richard Toop (1945-2017)

Richard Toop was a highly influential musicologist internationally and in Australia, where he was based for the majority of his career. His teaching and analysis of recent music provided concrete inspiration for several generations of composers including Richard Barrett, Michael Smetanin, Gerard Brophy, Elena Kats-Chernin, Riccardo Formosa, Rosalind Page and Damien Ricketson. Richard’s work is frequently referenced in writings on contemporary music and his analysis of Brian Ferneyhough’s Lemma-Icon-Epigram was described by Paul Griffiths as “an analysis that belongs with Ligeti’s of Structures 1a as a modern classic of the genre.”

Richard was particularly associated with the work of one of music’s major post-war figures, Karlheinz Stockhausen. He was Stockhausen’s teaching assistant at the Staatliche Musikhochschule in Cologne (1973-1974), lecturer in the Stockhausen courses at Kürten (2002-2008), published multiple articles on Stockhausen’s work, and wrote the widely-read Grove entry on the composer. Stockhausen and other major composers such as Ligeti and Ferneyhough credited him with rare understanding and insight into their work.

In 1975 Richard took up a lectureship at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and migrated from England. He had a profound influence on music-making in this country, and the excitement of his lectures at the Conservatorium is remembered fondly by many – from senior figures such as Richard Tognetti, to those who heard him in 2010 when he retired from the institution. His wide and deep knowledge of modernism, conveyed through his teaching, program notes, music criticism, radio broadcasts and public talks influenced Australian composers and performers working in Australia and overseas. Richard’s pronounced wit and sense of mischief saw him take the role of polemicist, especially in the 1970s and 1980s, and his attacks on what he saw as aesthetic or intellectual laziness were usually couched memorably. On a personal level, however, he was more musically open-minded than his reputation suggested. He was also enormously generous with his time and resources for anyone interested in contemporary music.

Richard became head of the Conservatorium’s musicology department in the 1980s, influencing scholarship and younger scholars working on all facets of musicology. His knowledge of music of all periods and traditions was nothing less than encyclopaedic. Students sometimes played a game in which they would attempt to surprise him with musical facts he wouldn’t know. Few were successful.

Dr Rachel Campbell, Sydney Conservatorium of Music

Richard Toop
Alfred Hook Lecture – 26 March 2010
“10 Years In: A European Perspective on 21st Century Composing”


New music needs strong advocacy and Richard Toop was one of the strongest and best. He was passionate and persuasive about some of the most challenging repertoire that has ever been written: Richard made it all make sense. His superb intellect combined with his extraordinary communication skills were all part of scholarship at the highest level.  He leaves a huge hole in the scholarship of new classical music.

Professor Matthew Hindson AM, Sydney Conservatorium of Music


RIP Richard Toop: musicologist, profound thinker and pivotal figure for Australian music who was an important mentor and friend for me, ELISION and generations of composers, performers and musicologists (as well as the go-to international expert for so many areas of music). He lived the life he wanted to live – ‘salad is for rabbits’. ELISION will commemorate his life with a concert in August. His wit and brilliance will be much missed!

Professor Liza Lim, Sydney Conservatorium of Music


I was fortunate to be able to share with Richard Toop adjacent offices, multi-million dollar views, stimulating conversations, agreements over the post-war avant garde, disagreements about many other things, irreverent asides and not a little alcohol in the late 1980s and early 1990s when the Conservatorium rented space in 109 Macquarie St, later to be demolished to make way for the Toaster. In those decades Richard shaped the debate around new music with ferocious intellect and passion, and a devastating way with words. Sharing the office next to his I learned many of his enthusiasms and his generosity in running off cassettes of music one wanted to hear was legion. Yet the composer heard most often through those poorly sound-proofed walls, strangely, was Schumann, whose C major fantasy he loved to play during a free hour.

I have often spoken to students now pursuing careers in performing, teaching, composing and in other areas of music who retell stories of Richard as a spellbinding, highly entertaining lecturer. It was always a cause of considerable satisfaction to Richard that he had educated a generation of high school music teachers, performers and composers who could distinguish between pieces by Xenakis, Stockhausen and Ferneyhough purely on the basis of the sound.

His influence on composers, performers, writers and on critical debate on music was profound and endures to this day. The irony was that, although he often projected himself as an iconoclast, he himself became an icon and a role model for those who wanted to think critically about new music – it is hard to be a maverick when people keep agreeing with you.

Associate Professor Peter McCallum, Director, Education Strategy


Richard was a formidable musical intellect whose legacy, particularly in Australia where he taught at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, has informed generations of young musicians and shined as an uncompromising progressive voice in the local music scene. Although a musicologist, Richard was one of my undergraduate composition teachers and later my PhD supervisor, and a true mentor and friend. Richard could be demanding and would not tolerate mediocrity, however, he was tremendously generous with his time and knowledge. He was also a lot of fun – his anecdotes were the stuff of legends. Until his recent ill-health, he was the very model of an open and enquiring mind with an insatiable curiosity to stay abreast of what was going on around the world and what the next generation was up to. Richard made a huge contribution to musical discourse at large and was a huge influence in my life. His presence will be sorely missed.

Dr Damien Ricketson, Sydney Conservatorium of Music


Although I wasn’t able to be an adequate interlocutor on the subject of new music, we had many hours of happy conversation on music of the tonal tradition (and indeed pre-tonal music: Richard’s second greatest love was Renaissance repertoire), literature, concert-going and teaching. On virtually every subject, Richard exhibited true polymathic knowledge, and his thirst for interesting ideas was insatiable. I will sorely miss his stimulating conversation, his orotund delivery of bons mots, and his affectionate interest. RIP Richard. I hope the angelic choirs have welcomed you with a glorious Lassus motet.

Dr David Larkin, Sydney Conservatorium of Music


I was very sad to hear of the death of a great musical mind and inspiring mentor, Richard Toop. Richard was a great support for many people over the years, including myself. It was a privilege to have attended his classes during my undergraduate years. His open approach to musical experience and listening was unparalleled. His fascination and boundless enthusiasm in sharing knowledge was inspiring. He unlocked mysteries of musical complexity for generations of Australian musicians. He was a thoughtful and engaging conversationalist, always interested in what others were doing. He was kind and supportive, and a really lovely human being. He will be sorely missed by many.

Dr Joseph Toltz, Sydney Conservatorium of Music