Perhaps the least glamorous sort of conducting, aside from church choirs, is for ballet. Yet Robert Irving brought dignity and nuance to his work as one of the two most prominent ballet conductors (the other being John Lanchbery) in the second half of the twentieth century. He made several recordings, mainly for EMI in the 1950s and '60s, which attest to his sensitivity to the needs of dancers (who generally require slower tempos than are favored in concert performances) without seeming to plod. He composed some film and theater music of his own and was also known for his advocacy of contemporary music, but it was in the ballet theater pit where he made his greatest mark.
In his late teens, Irving attended Winchester College in his hometown and for university chose New College, Oxford, where he obtained his bachelor of music degree in 1935. He also studied at London's Royal College of Music (1934 - 1936) with the provocative Constant Lambert and the lackadaisical Malcolm Sargent. Significantly, he made his debut in 1935 with a theater group, the Oxford University Opera Club. Irving made no notable career advances until immediately after World War II, when he was engaged for three seasons as associate conductor of the BBC Scottish Orchestra in Glasgow. In 1948, he became principal conductor and music director of the Sadler's Wells (later Royal) Ballet in London, where he mastered the standard ballet repertory and remained until 1958. That year, he moved to America to become music director of the New York City Ballet, a post he held until his retirement in 1989.
At City Ballet, he presided over not only the big Romantic ballets, but also a number of twentieth century works. His most significant achievement in the latter realm was the company's enormous Stravinsky commemoration in 1972, which involved 22 ballets. Meanwhile, Irving moonlighted with the Martha Graham Dance Company, an ensemble working primarily with twentieth century scores. He conducted that company's New York seasons in 1960 - 1965 and 1974 - 1977. Irving also returned to the Royal Ballet as guest conductor from 1978. Irving didn't spend all his time in the pit. He guest conducted many concert ensembles, including the Philadelphia Orchestra; National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, D.C.; Suisse Romande Orchestra; and the major London orchestras. He received the Capezio Award in 1975 and the Dance Magazine Award in 1984.