Aureole etc.




Golden Age singers

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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

WILLIAM ALWYN


A MEMORY WITH A MORAL by WILLIAM ALWYN

The year 1927 was a memorable one for me. This was the year Sir Henry Wood performed my first symphonic work at the Proms (The five preludes for Orchestra) and the year I was jolted into awareness that a composer's path is beset with the snares and entanglements of international copyright.

When my father died I was barely eighteen, a student at the Royal Academy of Music holding scholarships for both composition and flute. But there was no money available to pay for my lodgings in London, and to ease the family difficulties I left the Academy and launched into an inglorious career as a schoolmaster, highlighted only by my cricketing prowess and a brief entry in Wisden as testimony. At twenty I returned to London to teach Harmony and Counterpoint at the R.A.M., gave piano lessons at a shilling an hour at a dingy school of music in the East End, and augmented my income with monotonous hours of fluting in various London theatre orchestras.

The summer of 1927 found me with a holiday engagement at Broadstairs as a member of the local band. Our tiny orchestra performed in a ricketty bandstand on the sea-front doing our best to intone In A Monastery Garden in the teeth of what seemed a perpetual gale. Golden youth is a nostalgic dream of golden summers, but that August was dank and wet. Much of our time was spent in a marquee rehearsing for evening concerts which never materialised - rain stopping play. Our conductor was Captain Waterhouse (fortunate survivors of the Great War still clung to their temporary army ranks - a concession granted to them by a grateful Government). Waterhouse was the unique possessor of a heckelphone with which he had his one moment of glory each year at the Proms in Delius's Dance Rhapsody. He was also a Wagnerian, and used our abortive rehearsals to indulge his fancy with selections from Gotterdammerung and Die Walkure - the sound of our ten-piece band struggling through The Ride of the Valkyries was, alas, but a faint echo of the grandeur of Bayreuth.

I lodged in a boarding house in a Broadstairs back street with other members of the 'municipal orchestra'. What morning post I had was brought in with my eggs and bacon. I had two letters on that fateful morning; one was a registered letter. I broke the seal and read it with dismay. It was from a firm of solicitors representing a well known publisher. Would I inform them immediately why I had infringed the copyright of the composer Grieg, and what action did I propose to take before they took the matter to court?

What did they mean by infringement of copyright? Grieg had long been dead. He could have no objection. Indeed, I thought that he might have been rather pleased by my arrangements of his Lyric Piece for four flutes which I had written for the virtuoso London Flute Quartet who, to my gratification, had broadcast the pieces...

No time to think. I was late, and the morning sunshine meant that I was due on the bandstand. I ran to the nearest telephone kiosk and put a trunk call through to Gordon Walker, the leader of the Flute Quartet. He was consoling. 'Leave it to me', he said, 'I will do my best for you and see the publishers myself'. I hurried on to the bandstand, relieved but resentful at my own stupid ignorance of copyright, performing rights, mechanical rights, and all that these involved. It was only during the intermission that I remembered the second letter. It offered me a contract as 3rd Flute and Piccolo in the London Symphony Orchestra for the Three Choirs Festival at Hereford. My symphonic career was launched.

Hereford Cathedral with the L.S.O. was a scarce-believable transformation from Broadstairs and the municipal band. Those were the great days of British music. Contemporary British composers were not then apologetically sandwiched between Tchaikovsky and Beethoven but were performed as a matter of course. And the 1927 Festival was a feast indeed. Elgar himself conducted his Second Symphony, the Violin Concerto (magically played by Albert Sammons), Cockaigne and The Music Makers. Beatrice Harrison was soloist in the Delius Cello Concerto. Vaughan Williams conducted his The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains and his 'Pastoral' Symphony with Dorothy Silk, a disembodied voice with the purity of an angelic choirboy remote in the organ loft.

I was entranced by the pagan riot of HoIst's The Hymn of Jesus. But best of all was Elgar's own interpretation of The Dream of Gerontius. At the mighty climax Elgar, a supreme interpreter of his own works, seemed suspended in a gesture of ecstasy, but the orchestra struck the great fortissimo chord with immaculate precision and my piccolo shrilled to the utmost of my breath.

During an interval on a sunny September morning I stood in the Cathedral precincts among the great. George Bernard Shaw was chatting to Elgar. These men had no niggling worries about copyright. Shaw it was who, with his letters to the press, laughed out of court the iniquitous 'Twopenny Bill', a bill to fix a standard two penny performing right for any work, be it a symphony by his friend Elgar or a three-minute popular song. Then Gordon Walker, just back from London, came over to me.

'I've managed to fix it', he said. 'What happened?' I asked nervously. 'I had to hand over your manuscript, and the publisher tore it up in front of my eyes, and then I was given the biggest dressing down I have ever received in my life'. He added: 'In future, my boy, you had better learn something about the laws of copyright'.

I took his advice. It is never too soon to learn.

Alwyn is believed to have written this article for the Royal Academy of Music magazine.


Readers may be interested to know that the famous 1927 Three Choirs Festival Dream of Gerontius conducted by Elgar was recorded by EMI using its newly-introduced mobile recording van. Parts of the performance (including Alwyn's clearly audible piccolo) are available on compact disc CDS 754560 2 in Volume One of EMI's 'The Elgar Edition -The Compl ete Electrical Recordings of Sir Edward Elgar'. The three disc set also includes recordings of the Symphonies Nos I and 2. Falstaff and The Music Makers.

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