In Memoriam

On this page the BFE pays homage to those members who have passed away but who will remain in our memory. It is our wish to honour the memory of these departed friends.


Joan Rimmer 1918 - 2015

Joan Rimmer 1918-2015

Joan was born in 1918 in London.  Her musical skills were immediately evident: by age 12 she had gained a scholarship to the Royal College of Music and went onto become a student there, winning the prestigious Hopkinson Gold Medal, which she shared with the well-known pianist Cyril Smith. At the Royal College she took an early interest in what at the time were little known European composers such as Bartok, who may have stimulated her interest in folk music and ethnomusicology. Joan graduated just as the war started and began teaching music at Putney High School and Roehampton Training College and gave piano concerts. In 1948 Joan began 30 years of freelancing at the BBC.  Initially she played piano for the Home Service, made BBC records, including one with Spike Milligan, and produced music manuals for children.  By 1955 Joan had become a self-taught expert on a number of early and remote musical instruments and began presenting programmes on historical musicology covering bagpipes, harps and, in 1957, a programme on Chinese instruments, the shawm and sheng, with the strapline ‘a programme of uninhibited music from many lands, played on unusual instruments’.  This strapline epitomes Joan’s approach to her work and life – uninhibited and unusual.  

Underscoring Joan’s broadcasting was her meticulous academic work.  Her approach was forensic, combining comparative anthropological and archeological investigation into the context of music making, with a hands-on feel of the instruments which, if necessary, she would have reproduced by crafts-persons.  In 1961 she restrung the Brian Boru harp.  In addition to writing a number of books, she wrote for the Galpin Society, World Archeaology, the British Museum and Dance Research amongst many other academic journals and is internationally renowned as one of the first ethnomusicologists.  Her most well known work is her iconic book on the Irish harp, republished several times between 1965 and 1988 and continues to be cited.  At age 80 Joan was still publishing papers and was on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Dance Research. 

Just as Joan was a forerunner in the study of ethnomusicology, in her 70s she was breaking new ground in the study of historical dance. A report on the National Early Music Association’s 1991 International conference, entitled the Marriage of Music and Dance, provides a clear demonstration of Joan’s erudition, energy, enjoyment of life and her capacity to carry people with her.  Quote: ‘Joan Rimmer’s paper on the estampie, the early French dance, swept her audience along in a joyous succession of foot-tapping rhythms drawing on the rhythmic metre of a number of 12th to 14th century poems and songs, which suggest that estampies must have been exhilarating dances to perform.  This …should lay to rest for ever those tedious inventions so beloved of many exponents of early dance.’  A pathbreaker and a convention breaker.

Joan married twice.  First to James McGillivray an oboist in the Royal Philharmonic and to Frank Llewellyn Harrison, an authority on early church music, whom she married in 1966.  It is clear from an examination of both men’s careers that Joan swept them along in a joyous interest in the music making and dancing of rural people.  In the 1950s Joan and McGillivray had an extraordinary collection of early wind instruments long before interest had developed into comparative musicology.  Shortly after the war, when travel was by no means easy, McGillivray accompanied Joan to the Asturias to record music making at shepherds’ festivals, which Joan subsequently made into a BBC programme.   Joan accompanied her second husband, Frank Llewellyn Harrison, a musicologist at Oxford specialising in medieval and renaissance sacred music, on teaching sabbaticals in America, including at Yale, Princeton and Stanford, where Harrison met and established a 20 year friendship with Frank Zappa.  Once in America Joan spurred Harrison’s interest in ethnomusicology.  In later life Joan described driving Frank through the mountains of Mexico and Central and South America, making early tape-to-tape recordings of the music making of indigenous people - especially during festivals and in various stages of inebriation and trance.  Together Joan and Frank wrote on Spanish elements in Mayan music in the Chiapas, Mexico.  This was typical of her interest in tracing the diffusion of musical elements, and small changes in musical instruments, across time and space.  After retiring from Oxford, Frank took up professorships in Amsterdam and Utrecht in the 1970s, and Joan carried on her research, this time in comparative studies of folk music and dance in northern Europe.  In 1976 they returned to England and bought a small house in Canterbury, where Joan continued her research and writing well into her 80s.

Dr Penny Vera-Sanso
Senior Lecturer Development Studies
Birkbeck, University of London