ONE of the saddest moments of Roger Nichols' musical life was when an aunt sat on his old 78 rpm recording of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Deanna Durbin.

"Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is my earliest memory of music," says Roger who, earlier this month was awarded France's highest honour, the Legion d'Honneur, for his services to French music. "I was about eight when I first heard it."

It was a further two years before he was introduced to music from France.

"Another aunt was responsible for that," he recalls. "She had been a pianist in her youth and she gave me the sheet music for Ravel's Sonatina when I was 10."

Another pivotal moment in Roger's musical story was his father's discovery during his RAF service of the Grieg piano concerto played by Australian pianist Eileen Joyce and a selection of Italian opera excerpts sung by tenor Beniamino Gigli.

"We were both absolutely amazed," says Roger. "My parents weren't especially musical - their experience of music came from dancing to Victor Sylvester's band."

Roger went on to read music at Oxford, where he was taught by British composer Edmund Rubbra, and it was after he graduated that he began to concentrate on French music.

Since then, Roger has written numerous books on French composers, edited many volumes of French music, and written and presented countless programmes on the subject for the BBC, and is well-known, both locally and nationally, for his talks and recitals.

"It manages to be serious without being solemn a lot of the time," he says, explaining how the music of French composers came to exert such a hold on him. "There is a grace and charm that appeals to me and a sensuality one can't ignore. Though it can be tough and challenging at times - Messaien for instance."

His dedication to French music and the determination to make it more widely known and understood by the British public has led Roger to one of the best moments of his musical career - his investiture as a Chevalier de Legion d'Honneur.

"The first I knew of it was when a friend rang and said Felicitations'. I had no idea what he was talking about. It was a very nice surprise and I was astonished that people had been working behind my back to bring this about."

It is a rare thing for a British citizen to receive the award, the French equivalent of a knighthood, and in being honoured Roger joins a select group which includes Sir Thomas Beecham, Winston Churchill and Harold Pinter.

The presentation, a personal gift from President Chirac, in recognition of Roger's services to French culture was made by the French ambassador, M. Errera, in London, at the ambassador's residence in Kensington Palace Gardens, a very splendid occasion attended by nearly 100 of Roger's family and friends, including the distinguished French composer Mtre Henri Dutilleux.

"I thought at one time that I might have been embraced by Segolene Royal," says Roger. "But they don't ask you to go to France any more and the political situation rather put paid to that idea."