Drummond was born in London in 1934 to a Scottish sea captain and an Australian singer. He did National Service in the postwar period, becoming fluent in French and Russian, and was educated at Cambridge, where he discovered his passion for the arts, according to The Times of London. After university, he worked as a radio and television producer at the BBC, rising to become assistant head of music and arts at BBC Television before taking the Edinburgh post.
The various interrelationships between the arts were a special interest of Drummond's, and the directorship of a multi-discipline arts festival such as Edinburgh's was a dream job for him. The wide-ranging yet integrated thematic programs of his first and last festivals there, built around Serge Diaghilev (in 1979) and Vienna in 1900 (in 1983), are cited in several obituaries as among the best-remembered of all his achievements.
Yet he left the EIF unhappily, according to The Times, The Scotsman, Bloomberg News and The Herald (Glasgow), fed up with struggling with the frugal Scots politicians who determined the festival's budget.
Drummond went on, in 1985, to BBC Radio, where he became Controller (director) of Radio 3, the network's classical music and fine arts service, and Controller of the Proms. His high standards, dedication to difficult modern music and sharp tongue became well-known, and after a decade of tart remarks that got plenty of attention in the arts press — notable was a tit-for-tat with the popular, punked-out violinist Nigel Kennedy which Drummond started by lambasting Kennedy's "ludicrous clothes and grotesque, self-invented accent" — Drummond was driven out of the BBC in 1995 following conflicts with then-director general John Birt. (His farewell was programming the premiere of Harrison Birtwistle's cacophonous and aptly-titled Panic for the Last Night of the Proms, whose usual fare runs to Elgar and "Rule, Britannia!")
He spent his later years working on his book Speaking of Diaghilev (1997) and the autobiography Tainted by Experience (2000).
In a statement, three current officers of the BBC paid respectful — and tactful — tribute to Drummond: "He upheld the highest standards and fought constantly to ensure that classical music and dance kept their place at the centre of our cultural life. [...] He was a commanding personality, a great impresario and a valued colleague for countless artists and performers."
The ever-opinionated Norman Lebrecht, writing for Bloomberg News, put it less delicately: "Combative, irascible and unfailingly principled, [he] suffered neither fools nor any compromise in artistic standards."
Conrad Wilson wrote for The Herald, "His capacity to make enemies continued and seemed to increase ... Drummond was his own worst enemy. He retained what David Attenborough called 'an unlimited capacity for indignation.'" And The Times observed, "Drummond would cheerfully have slaughtered a considerable number of his colleagues — and not only the younger ones — who fell short of his own high standards or who failed to understand the transcendent importance of the arts."
John Drummond, who was knighted in 1995 for his services to music, is survived by Bob Lockyer, his companion of nearly four decades.