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The Composer as Conductor

Playing for Benjamin Britten, Malcolm Arnold, Pierre Boulez, Aaron Copland, Michael Tippet, William Walton, Ralph Vaughan Williams, John Cage, Igor Stravinsky.

During the 19th century, as orchestras became much larger and the music more complex, it was necessary for someone to direct this larger body of musicians. A number of the finest composers, Spohr, Weber, Mendelssohn, Berlioz and, in particular Wagner, whose treatise On Conducting had such an influence on the conductor’s role, were all also renowned in their lifetime as conductors, as well as composers. Richard Strauss and Mahler were also famous as conductors. Mahler, in particular, was so busy as a conductor that he had difficulty in finding time to compose between engagements. There have also been a number of outstanding conductors who would in fact have preferred to be remembered as composers. Furtwängler, Weingartner, Koussevitsky, de Sabata and Klemperer were all composers whose compositions were published and received a number of performances.

I played for quite a few composers who when conducting their own music did so extremely well. There were some others who were excellent conductors of whatever music they directed: Constant Lambert, who had a successful career as a conductor, mainly with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet and the Royal Ballet; Benjamin Britten, a wonderful musician who was also a fine pianist and an outstanding conductor. The best performance I have ever heard of the German Requiem by Brahms was conducted by him, as well as some very fine readings of Mozart and Schubert symphonies. He could be a hard taskmaster and could be caustic in his criticism. I played under his direction a number of times in the orchestra and on one occasion, the most frightening, I took part in a performance of the Janacek Concertino for piano and sextet at the Aldeburgh Festival, with Britten playing the piano. Oliver Knussen (the son of my old friend Stuart, from my Wessex Orchestra touring days) is another composer who has done a good deal of conducting mainly concentrating on his own music and the music from the second half of the 20th century, always obtaining very good results.

Pierre Boulez who has an international reputation as a conductor – he was chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 1971 until 1975 and the New York Philharmonic from 1971 till 1978 – and is probably better known in this capacity than as a composer. His compositions are yet to join the main-stream orchestral repertoire – will he be remembered as a composer or a conductor? There can be no doubt that since 1960 Boulez has brought his composer’s insight, sensitive ear and analytical mind to his interpretation of ‘modern’ music from Schoenberg and Webern to the present day and in the process demanded from orchestras a degree of accuracy that had frequently been absent. In my own experience it was his conducting of the Rite of Spring by Stravinsky that was particularly impressive. The part he played in establishing a standard of accuracy in the performance of the Rite of Spring cannot be exaggerated. It was with him when he came to conduct the Philharmonia, sometime in the 1960s, that for the first time that I can recall, we actually played what Stravinsky had written, rhythmically, in regard to note values and the correct balance of the parts. Over the years we played a wide-ranging repertoire with him including Debussy, Stravinsky, Webern and Messiaen, Haydn and Beethoven. He always brought clarity and balance to everything he conducted, but was most admirably suited to contemporary music.

Malcolm Arnold was for some years principal trumpet in the LPO. He was a very good player and brought that particular insight composers have to everything he played in the orchestra. There were some passages that, for me at least, when he played them (he frequently sat just behind me in the orchestra) made more musical sense than when played by anyone else. He was a natural conductor and not only of his own music. While he was still in the LPO we did a public rehearsal of Larch Trees, the first orchestral composition of his to be performed in public. It was also the first orchestral work to be given this opportunity with funds from the Society for the Promotion of New Music (SPNM). Later I played for him many times on film sessions when we recorded the music he had written. Some 40 years later I was able to arrange for Sir Charles Groves and the National Centre for Orchestral Studies Orchestra to give the first performance of his 9th Symphony, now a well-respected work, commissioned by the BBC but which they refused to broadcast until a good many years later.

Aaron Copland, Michael Tippett, William Walton and Vaughan Williams immediately come to mind as composers who, though they lacked technical expertise to a varying extent as conductors, brought a special musical insight to performances of their own music. There were some composers, of course, who were hopeless as conductors, having neither the temperament nor the necessary skill. When Sir Thomas Beecham, a friend of Frederick Delius and a champion of his music, was asked in a broadcast interview, ‘Did Delius conduct his own music?’ ‘Well’, he said, ‘I have seen in my time good conductors, not so good, competent conductors, indifferent conductors – but I have never come across such an abysmal depth of ineptitude as revealed by poor old Frederick. It was quite a common thing for him to beat five in the bar when it should be four. He beat 1,2,3,4 and, which turned it into five. Well, of course, the orchestra became almost distracted. The public became restless, ‘What’s going on? – what’s going on?’ Something always went on when Delius conducted a work of his own. But there was a time when he used to practise many hours a day – for weeks at a time in front of a mirror, endeavouring to understand this mysterious craft, but to no purpose at all.’

Working for John Cage was a very different experience from playing for anyone else. I played for him for a week when he was conducting the small group of musicians providing the music for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. The music Cage had written for this avant-garde dance company and the music that had been commissioned from other composers did not use music notation in the conventional way, nor were any two performances alike.

In one piece we were instructed to play as many notes as possible in the top register of our instrument in the length of time of each note value in the part, perhaps a crotchet or minim (1/4 or 1/2 note). How many notes each of us could play depended on the tempo that Cage selected. In another composition the players had to decide how much time to allow for each line of music in their part. Cage conducted this piece by holding up his arm as if it was the hand of a clock. He then moved his arm round the imaginary clock face, but at varying speeds. He might on one occasion go from 12 to 1 o’clock very slowly, when one had allowed a long time for that section, and then move from 1 to 3 very much more quickly. Depending on the section of music, one might have to play a section with long notes extremely slowly and the next section, which already had a good many fast notes, even faster, perhaps faster than one could manage. At the next performance it might be the reverse.

There was one composition with the instruction that when another player played a certain phrase one had to go immediately to another place in one’s part or perform some particular action. At one point in the trumpet part the player was instructed to make the loudest sound he could. The player on this occasion had an intense dislike for this kind of music and resented having to do things he considered inappropriate. We were playing in the large orchestra pit at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, which has a concrete floor and walls, and, as always, the normal heavy iron fire doors. At the appointed point in his part the trumpeter got up from his seat, walked slowly and deliberately across the pit to one of the fire doors and slammed it shut as hard as he could. The bang this made was like a bomb exploding. His intention was that Cage should be displeased, perhaps upset. Instead, Cage was delighted and said ‘Thank you. That is the best I have ever heard it!’

Igor Stravinsky was an undoubted genius and to have the opportunity to work with him even once was good fortune; I had this opportunity three times. That was indeed to have been smiled on by the gods. In 1936 in his book Chronicle of my Life, Stravinsky writes very outspokenly about the way conductors ‘interpreted’ his music. ‘With regard to the Sacre, which I was tackling for the first time, I was particularly anxious in some of the parts (Glorification of the Elect, Evocation of Ancestors, Dance of Consecration) to give the bars their true metric value, and to have them played exactly as they were written. I lay stress on this point, which may seem to the reader to be a purely professional detail. But with a few exceptions, such as Monteux and Ansermet, for example, most conductors are inclined to cope with the metric difficulties of these passages in such a cavalier fashion as to distort alike my music and my intentions. This is what happens. Fearing to make a mistake in a sequence of bars of varying values, some conductors do not hesitate to ease their task by treating them as of equal length. By such methods the strong and weak tempi are obviously displaced, and it is left to the musicians to perform the onerous task of readjusting the accents in the new bars as improvised by the conductors, a task so difficult that even if there is no catastrophe the listener expects one at any moment and is immersed in an atmosphere of intolerable strain.’

The first time I played for Stravinsky was in 1954, when I was in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He had come to London to conduct a programme of his own works at a Royal Philharmonic Society concert. He was already 72 and one might have expected that he would no longer be at his most vigorous, but though he appeared physically quite frail his mind was as agile and incisive as any I have experienced. His clarity of thought and certainty of intention was exciting in itself and he had the ability to make his wishes as a conductor clear, both in words and by his gestures.

A feature of much of Stravinsky’s music is his use of small note values: sixteenth, thirty-second and sixty-forth notes. When combined with the many changes of time signature, varying through 3/4, 2/8, 7/16, the very small note values call for great accuracy of performance. I had already worked with Ernest Ansermet, praised by Stravinsky, when we recorded the original version of Petrushka with the London Philharmonic in 1946. (I also took part in the recording of the complete ballet music for The Firebird when Ansermet conducted the Philharmonia many years later in 1968, a year before he died). But working with Ansermet had not prepared me for the extreme precision that Stravinsky demanded when he rehearsed his Orpheus. One felt his intelligence was like a razor sharp blade, stripping away everything that was inessential and dross.

In the interval of that concert he was presented with the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society. Perhaps because only that which is true and without blemish was acceptable to him, he pursued this ideal with his usual concentration of purpose. When he was presented with the medal by Sir Arthur Bliss, he put it between his teeth and gave it an examining bite. Fortunately for the honour of the Society and the composure of Sir Arthur, the medal passed this rigorous test and received Stravinsky’s approbation.

On the 29th May, 1963 Pierre Monteux’s long association with Stravinsky was celebrated at a concert given by the London Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall. On that date, exactly 50 years previously, Monteux had conducted the first performance of the Rite of Spring. In 1913 the work created a scandale; the audience were so inflamed and noisy that Nijinsky had been obliged to stand on a chair at the side of the stage and shout out the numbers to the dancers. On this occasion Stravinsky, who earlier that evening had attended a gala performance of The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, only arrived in time to hear the second half of this work, which even in 1963 was not often performed and one that orchestras still found difficult, and to witness the tremendous ovation this previously controversial music received.

The orchestra were unaware of his presence and it came as a surprise to them to see the very elderly Pierre Monteux leave the platform to make his way through the audience to greet Stravinsky who was sitting in one of the boxes. I have been told that the sight of these two veterans of 20th century music embracing with such affection was a very moving and unforgettable sight.

However, despite what Stravinsky had written in 1936 in his book Chronicle of my Life, it seems that Monteux was indeed one of the conductors who later in life decided to cope with the metric difficulties of bars of varying values by changing the way they were written and therefore conducted. Though Stravinsky did not show his displeasure, it is reported that he was rather unhappy with the performance.

The next time I played for Stravinsky was in the summer of 1963 when the Philharmonia was on an extensive tour of South America. To our surprise, in the middle of the tour, we suddenly found we were scheduled to do a concert in Rio de Janeiro with Stravinsky and his close associate Robert Craft. The programme consisted of Fireworks,the Symphony in C, and the ballet music for Le Baiser de la Fée, which Stravinsky conducted. In the years since 1954 he had become even more frail, but his mind was as clear and precise as before, and the performance was exact and memorable.

The third and last occasion when Stravinsky enriched my experience was in September 1965. He was now a mere wisp of a man, ill, and it seemed somewhat dejected, or perhaps just tired. He had flown to London from Hamburg to appear at the Royal Festival Hall for the European premiere of his Variations in Memory of Aldous Huxley. The other works in the programme were, Fireworks, The Rite of Spring and The Firebird Suite, in the infrequently performed 1945 version. Stravinsky conducted Fireworks and The Firebird Suite and Robert Craft, his associate conductor again, the rest of the programme.

Click for larger picture

Though he was unwell, during the interval of the rehearsal, as he sat, cosseted by his wife and wrapped in towels and blankets, he was kind enough to inscribe a copy of his Conversations with Robert Craft for me. A copy of that signature is testimony to the energy that still propelled this remarkable man, now 83, through a creative life spanning over 60 years, during which he had startled, affronted, and delighted generations of audiences.

I remember that it was a wonderful performance. The orchestra played at its very best; in fact above its best, as can happen on very special occasions when in the presence of someone inspirational, someone for whom everyone has respect. Every member of the orchestra took risks: played softer and louder than was safe, attacked entries with abandon.

Now, nearly forty years later it is no longer necessary just to rely on the ageing memories of elderly musicians or members of the audience who were present on that historic evening. The second half of the programme was televised by the BBC who several years ago made a video copy of this wonderful performance available to Music Preserved, on Licence, for its archives (at the Barbican library, within the Barbican Centre, and the Jerwood Library of the Performing Arts at Trinity College of Music). Now a commercial video has been issued of Stravinsky conducting this performance of The Firebird. On the video in the Music Preserved archives the whole of the BBC programme is available: Robert Craft conducts the Variations in Memory of Aldous Huxley, twice, with Stravinsky in the audience, and the concert ends with Stravinsky conducting his Firebird Suite. It is really moving to see how the performance and the audience’s standing ovation reanimated and delighted him. The audience demanded so many bows, obviously hoping for an encore, that in the end they would only let him go when he returned with his overcoat on, making it clear he was leaving.

Chapter 12


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