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© Basil Tschaikov 2006
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Keep Music Live

Musicians playing in theatres – incidental music, opera, musicals; in Music Halls – conditions – playing for jugglers, trapeze artists and the Diaghilev Ballet Company and Sir Harry Lauder; for the ‘silent cinema’; for dancing.

Since men and women first started to make noises that through time developed into music, those who made the sounds and those who have heard them had to be in the same place at the same time. The Musicians’ Union’s long-time clarion call ‘Keep Music Live’ represents how musicians responded to the erosion of the relationship music makers and their audience had always had until the invention of moving pictures, sound recording and broadcasting changed this relationship for ever.

When my father became a professional musician in 1906, aged 12, there were more musicians playing in theatres of one kind or another than anywhere else. There was also a great deal of employment in hotels, restaurants and cafes, and on bandstands in the parks. During the summer months most seaside resorts had Pierrot shows and a band on the Pier or on the Municipal bandstand and a few of the larger resorts had orchestras with as many as 40 or 50 players. Musicians, as in nearly all cultures, were required whenever and wherever there was dancing.

Gradually from 1927 onwards, when the ‘talkies’ supplanted silent films and more and more people had wireless sets and gramophones, the number of musicians employed for outdoor entertainment reduced. There were still a considerable number of musicians employed playing in hotels, restaurants and cafes until the start of the war in 1939, but the call-up of musicians to the armed forces and rationing reduced their number considerably and within a few years this field of employment had virtually disappeared. In 1942, when I joined the profession, there was still a good deal of employment in theatres and Music Halls, though nothing like as much as in my father’s day. Dancing continued to be extremely popular, providing one of the main opportunities for men and women to meet each other outside the workplace.

Musicians playing in the Theatres

At the beginning of the 20th century many musicians were employed playing for a variety of theatrical entertainment in the London theatres. There were musical comedies and operettas, such as The Arcadians, The Chocolate Soldier and Naughty Marietta, the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, and seasons of opera and ballet at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and Drury Lane Theatre. After a successful London run productions would usually go on tour to the larger towns all over the country.

Many theatres employed a trio or quintet to play ‘Incidental music’ before the performance of plays, between the acts, during the intervals and at the end as the audience was leaving. Some productions had music especially written for them when there might be a small orchestra of as many as twenty players to play background music in appropriate places and, as in a number of the Shakespeare plays, to accompany songs, as well as play incidental music. Some of this music, such as Roger Quilter’s incidental music for As You Like It, the music Delius wrote for Hassan and, most famous of all, the beautiful music Mendelssohn wrote for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, has become part of the concert repertoire.

An essential talent required by all theatre musicians is the ability to sight-read quickly and accurately. Wherever musicians were employed there was usually less time allowed for rehearsals in my father’s day than there is now. When a show was on tour there would seldom be more than one rehearsal for the local musicians to run through all the music and, of course, for a deputy there was none. When one goes as a deputy one will not have seen the music before and will often find that the manuscript, from which one has to read the music, is in poor condition because during the rehearsals and on the tour, which nearly always precedes the London opening, a good many changes to the original production and music may have been made. Some sections may have been cut and then, possibly, reinstated; some of the notes may have been altered and in places additional music may have been inserted – and then taken out again. More often than not these alterations will have been made by each player in their own part at the time. All these amendments will have been recognisable to the player, but for anyone seeing the music for the first time and not being accustomed to the writer’s possibly rough and ready music penmanship, they can be very difficult, sometimes even impossible, to decipher.

These hazards are often multiplied by poor lighting (far worse in the early years of the last century), difficulty in seeing the conductor because of the cramped conditions in the pit and the fact that if the show has been running for a while the conductor will frequently take it for granted that everyone understands his beat. He is unlikely to be in the class of conductor I have written about with enthusiasm and, if the show has been on for a while, he may be rather bored. There will be places when, because the singer holds a note for longer than the written notation indicates, or the action on stage needs more time than the composed music allows for, the music has had to be stretched out. Some beats will have had to be subdivided so that the conductor has to give some more beats. In another place he will suddenly, without warning, start beating very much faster to deal with a hastening of the action on stage. If, as is quite common, there is nothing in the part to alert the deputy that one of these surprising events is to occur, the result can be a minor disaster. My own experience, when deputising at one show, was that it took me several visits before I could make sense of what the conductor was doing. One or two passages remained un-played. Fortunately for me they were well covered by what others were playing. Once again the famous caution that has saved me on a number of occasions – ‘if in doubt, leave it out’ – came to my rescue.

The few occasions when I have taken on the hazardous task of being a deputy I have found it quite terrifying. One feels under additional pressure because, generally, managements have an understandable dislike of deputies and would prefer that they could disallow them. You know that if you make a mistake, that in itself might be quite small, it could have a devastating effect. If it happens that someone on stage relies on a note or a passage of music to make their entry and it is missing, or in the wrong place, it can have serious consequences and if you were the deputy responsible it is unlikely you will be engaged for that show again. If you were the player who sent the deputy you will be in trouble and may lose your right to be away again.

When I was engaged to play at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in the quite large stage band required in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier there were only going to be two performances each week for four or five weeks. After several performances I was offered several lucrative engagements elsewhere, one of which coincided with a performance of Der Rosenkavalier. I decided to send a deputy, a player of some standing, to take my place. Unfortunately my deputy made one entry a bar earlier than the composer had intended and it happened to be in one of those places that was important for someone on stage. A day or two later, before the next performance of that opera, I received a less than pleasant letter from the orchestral manager at the Opera House telling me that my services were no longer required. Fortunately, as I only intended to do one of the three remaining performances I was not too concerned.

Many years ago, at a time when there was a great deal of theatre work, my father, who liked to show off his technical skill by improvising around the music actually written in the part, came a cropper when he sent a deputy who played exactly what was written. In the interval the artists on stage came to complain to the conductor, who was already on his way to the deputy at whom he had been scowling at each clarinet solo entry, to find out why the music sounded so different from what he was accustomed to. The conductor was starting to give him a hard time when the player showed him his part. On my father’s return the following day there was a stormy scene and for the rest of the run he had to be there putting in all his additional improvisations.

My own experience of playing for musicals is very limited. The only
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one that I remember enjoying after the first week or so was West Side Story, with Leonard Bernstein’s wonderful music and an outstanding production. The American cast, directed by Jerome Robbins, was tremendous and hyped up every night at a short stage rehearsal before each show so that when it came to the Rumble the Sharks and the Jets were appropriately violent in their fight. On several occasions actors were injured

The orchestra was made up of very good players from both the ‘straight’ and ‘jazz’ side of the profession. There were four of us in the woodwind section, all doubling, that is required to play more than one instrument. Both the alto sax players doubled on clarinet, flute and piccolo, another played tenor sax, clarinet, oboe and cor anglais and I, as the ‘straight’ man, played clarinet, Eb clarinet and bass clarinet. The string section was outstanding, most playing or having played in one of the major symphony or chamber orchestras in contrast to the brass which was made up of very good jazz musicians. Above all we had a great jazz drummer, Phil Seaman, who drove the music forward when needed.

At the same time as being the resident player for this show I was also playing in the Philharmonia so it was necessary for me to be away quite a lot. I was determined to make sure that my deputies never put a foot wrong. I went to a lot of trouble to see that none of the problems I have written about assailed them. I did it for them and also to make sure I had no difficulties with the management as it was rather a well paid job. I rewrote, in very clear manuscript, the pages where there had been changes, and also prepared instructions telling whoever took my place where there was anything not clear. At that time in the late 1950s there were not many clarinettists who could play all three clarinets demanded by the score; now there are very many.

Musicians in the Music Halls

The Music Halls were the most popular form of entertainment for at least 30 years or more before 1900 by when there were music halls in even quite small towns. Conditions and pay for the musicians were poor and for the mainly working class audience the seating arrangements varied but were generally lacking in quality and comfort. Some music halls were in pretty rough areas where, if you were sitting in the stalls, you might be unfortunate enough to receive a piece of orange peel (or worse) on your lap or head. In the large towns, on the No. 1 circuit, they were quite grand, with red plush, comfortable seats (and no orange peel), serving a more discerning and affluent clientele.

In London the best music halls were very fine indeed and attracted a high-class clientele, which used to be called the ‘carriage trade’. My father played at one when he was a young man, the Palace Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue. Here the conductor was the renowned Herman Finck; his composition In the Shadows was for many years very popular and to be heard in restaurants, on bandstands and, until the 1950s, it was often in the programmes of the many light orchestras broadcasting at that time. He was a good theatre conductor and something of a disciplinarian. It seems that my father frequently got the sack because he sent deputies without first getting permission, but as he was such a good player Finck would give him back his job each time. It was a job worth having and very well paid. It was truly a Palace of Varieties with artists of many kinds and it was chosen as the venue for the first Royal Command Performance in 1912. The programme would usually consist of 10 or 12 acts, or ‘turns’, and would include at least one comedian or a double act, a song and dance group , a singer or group of singers, a comedy or dramatic sketch, tap dancers or adagio dancers, who would sometimes do the Apache Dance. An up-dated version of this dance was used very effectively many years later in On Your Toes, the Rogers and Hart musical in which the jazz ballet, Slaughter on 10th Avenue, with choreography by George Balanchine, was a ‘show stopper’. The rest of the programme would be made up of, perhaps, jugglers, magicians doing card tricks or other sleight of hand deceptions, animal acts, a hypnotist, a contortionist, balancing acts that had tumblers and trapeze artists. Musical groups, often dressed as Gypsies or Russians and playing appropriate music, were very popular. Some of the musicians might be genuine Gypsies or Russians, though a good many had never been further east than Whitechapel in the east-end of London.

The Palace Theatre was so highly thought of that the Diaghilev Ballet Company and on one occasion Anna Pavlova, were willing to appear there. Pavlova, after her career as the most celebrated ballerina of her time, continued to dance as a soloist; her pièce de résistance was Le Sygne (The Swan), to a movement from Le Carnival des Animaux by Saint-Saëns. It was assumed that with a name like Tschaikov, and a noticeable foreign accent, my father would speak Russian, and that he would be able to interpret for her, but as he had come to England when he was only five or six years old he remembered only a very few words of Russian and was of no help.

The conditions for those working in the music halls in the London suburbs and around the country were quite different to those my father enjoyed at the Palace Theatre. The expected standard of performance and quality of the music was usually not very high. There would be new artists each week, bringing their own set of parts for the orchestra. The parts were often in a very poor condition, well worn and covered in the markings of the many musicians who had attempted to play from them over the years. There would always be a rehearsal on Monday morning when the parts were handed out along with arcane instructions from the conductor, perhaps ‘2,2,1 and coda’, or 2,3,2, and coda or whatever was required. 2,2,1 and coda meant that you were to play the first section of music twice, the second section twice, the third section once and then, at a sign, go to the section marked coda, bringing the music to an end. There would probably be brief instructions about getting faster and slower to match whatever was required on stage. The drummer had a particularly difficult job. He had to play the necessary ‘effects’ for the comedians and clowns when they fell over or hit each other. For them he might have to bang the bass drum or cymbal, hit the wood-block or blow a whistle; for jugglers, tight-rope and trapeze artists a side-drum role would usually be required before an especially difficult or hazardous trick. He had to be very wide-awake as no two performances would ever be just the same. With 10 to 12 turns to rehearse there was no time for much refinement. I am thankful I never had to do work of that kind, and particularly that I didn’t have to go as a deputy.

By the 1930s there were fewer music halls though some of those that remained had quite good orchestras. I remember going to see pantomimes at Christmas time at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire and Chiswick Empire. The orchestras at both were considered good enough to make regular broadcasts. The popularity of the cinema and television gradually killed off most of the few remaining Variety Theatres, as Music Halls came to be called. The last one to close was the Metropolitan Edgware Road, in London, finally bringing to an end a tradition of remarkable popular entertainment where there was a real interaction between the performers on stage and the audience.

Not long before it was to be demolished I did a couple of recording sessions in the old ‘Met’, when we recorded some of the old music hall tunes made famous by artists like Sir Harry Lauder and the Chocolate Coloured Coon. It was sad to see its former glory, now faded and in such poor condition and know that it was soon to be pulled down.

Playing for the ‘Silent’ Cinema

The arrival of the cinema was the first of the early 20th century inventions to have a profound effect on the lives and employment of musicians. It was welcomed by them because it brought an ever increasing amount of employment. There were musicians in every ‘silent’ cinema in the country and by 1914 it was estimated that there were more than 3500 halls throughout the country showing films. Quite a number of them had been theatres and music halls and though a few of them did for a time also have some stage performances it was not long before these ceased. Villages, not large enough to support a theatre, could afford to have a cinema, with seating for as few as 80 or 100 because cinemas required so much less labour and were therefore much cheaper to run. But, it seems silence was not golden and every cinema had to have music to accompany the films. In the small cinemas there were usually less than four players and in many of the smallest only a pianist or piano and violin, but in the large cities – London, Manchester, Glasgow and a few other large towns – there were orchestras of anything from thirty to sixty musicians.

While it lasted the ‘silent’ cinema provided an enormous amount of employment, in some cases to players of a standard not much higher than an average amateur though in the best cinema orchestras there were many fine players. In 1927 when The Jazz Singer, the first sound film, was released, ironically a ‘musical’, it was estimated that the majority of musicians were working in cinemas. Over the next five years the number of ‘talkies’ increased until by 1932 they had completely taken over. As a result more than 15,000 musicians were thrown onto the labour market, at a time when there was already considerable national unemployment.

Some of the musicians outside London and one or two other places were able to return to the jobs they had given up for the more financially and personally rewarding career as a musician. Some of the best players continued to have successful careers once the ‘talkies’ arrived, but there were far too many excellent players for the amount of employment available and a good many were reduced to playing in the streets in an endeavour to stave off complete ruin. It did at least give them the opportunity to keep playing, in the hope that they might at some time find employment again. If musicians are to maintain their playing ability they need to play their instrument regularly, everyday if possible.

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In the 1930s when I was a child, I remember an elderly man who used to walk round our neighbourhood playing the violin. As he walked down our road people would throw pennies out of their windows to him. One day when it was raining he sheltered in the porch of our house. Seeing him my mother invited him in for a cup of tea and as they talked it turned out that my father had known him many years previously. After that, every time he came round our way he would come in for a cup of tea and a piece of my mother’s celebrated Dundee cake.

When a new film arrived it was the job of the leader of the group or the ‘musical director’ in each cinema to select the music he or she thought most suitable to accompany it. The cinema would own a library of music similar to that played in the restaurants and on band stands in the parks and sea-fronts. Once again the arrangements made by Emile Tavan came in useful as they could be used by whatever size band the cinema could afford. If there was a chase, ‘hurry music’ would be chosen; for the love scenes, sentimental themes; for fights, loud music with plenty of bass drum and the clashing of cymbals (or in their absence loud thumping on the lowest notes of the piano) was essential.

‘Trade shows’ were held, usually in the morning in one of the large London cinemas, to provide the opportunity for cinema owners from all over the country to see new films and decide if they wished to show them. After a while some of the major films from Hollywood arrived with their own especially composed music for performance in the big cinemas where there would be a large orchestra. With especially composed music it was quite straightforward, except that it must be remembered that as there were no rehearsals everything had to be sight-read. But when there was no music composed especially for the film and instead sections of music had been selected from overtures, symphonies, selections from operettas, musical comedies and novelty numbers it was more difficult. On those occasions there would be a great pile of music on the stand and when a light flashed one had to go immediately to the next selected piece. For those who had the necessary technique and quick responses to do this these engagements were some of the most financially rewarding for the orchestral or ‘band’ musician.

Playing for Dancing

The traditional area of employment for musicians has always been to provide music for dancing. The coming of the gramophone and the increasing availability of recordings made from about 1901 onwards were by 1920 to bring about some big changes and the need for another kind of musician.

At the beginning of the 20th century the music for dancing was provided for the upper classes by groups of musicians very similar to those who played in the restaurants and on the bandstands, anything from a trio to a group of five or six players, violin, piano and drums with a flute, clarinet or trumpet added depending on the money available. At a grand ball there would probably be two or three violins, perhaps a viola, a cello and a double bass (nowadays often called a ‘string bass’ to distinguish it from the ‘electric bass’ now dominant outside orchestral circles), a flute, clarinet, trumpet, piano and drums. If it was a very grand occasion a trombone and a second clarinet and second trumpet might be added.

For most working people, in town or country, dancing would probably be inside or outside a pub, depending on the weather. On Saturday night it could be at the farm, Village Hall or Town Hall. Often a single fiddler, pianist or accordionist would be the only musician employed, possibly a member of the community with some natural talent. At a wedding or some other special occasion they might be able to afford a violin, double bass, and drums plus a flute or clarinet or trumpet if there were local players available.

Whether grand or not, the dances would be sequence dances such as the waltz, perhaps the St.George’s Waltz, the Valeta or the Eva Three-step. There were also the one-step, two-step, tangos and fox trots (still called saunters in Britain at that time). There were also the ‘turning couple’ dances, the Waltz, Polka and Schottische and the set dances such as the quadrilles, contra or country dances, and some of the older dancers still enjoyed the Lancers. At the same time as sequence dancing, the younger members of the upper classes had come to prefer free style though the less well-off remained keen on the sequence dances.

From about 1910, when the first ragtime records began to be issued in Britain, followed by more jazz type music, keen dancers in Britain started to hear about dances that were already becoming popular in the USA, and the music to which they were being danced. The new dances often had rather amusing names such as The Turkey Trot, Bunny Hug, and the Lindy Hop. At the end of the war in 1918, many women, who had been increasingly employed in the factories producing armaments and uniforms, as well as the men weary from life in the services, were ready for something new and exciting.

In Europe, from the beginning of the 20th century, the Military bands had started to give the saxophone a more prominent role; then, in America, the Gilmore and Sousa Show bands started to feature the instrument. Just as recordings were becoming more available, Rudy Wiedoft began recording saxophone solos, many written by himself. He was a virtuoso and a charismatic performer whose most well known composition, Waltz Vanite, was tuneful and difficult, and it inspired many young players to follow his example. In the 1920s there were more and more young musicians who wanted to play the saxophone. In fact it became a craze that, with the influence of recordings from America, was to change the personnel in the bands that played for dancing and lead to what came to be called Dance Bands. They were to provide the music for dancing until the end of the 1950s, when the advent of new forms of popular music once again changed the music and the bands young dancers preferred.

Between 1910 and 1920 the new dances were played by the same kind of bands as before except that the wind instruments, in particular the cornet or trumpet, were given the melody more frequently. If you are willing to accept the sound quality you can hear what these bands sounded like on a number of recordings made at that time. To those brought up listening to CDs it may come as a shock to hear what delighted even the most discerning music lovers well into the 1930s.

After 1920 the old style dance orchestra now rapidly became the Dance Band with the saxophones replacing the violins and cello and the brass instruments playing a bigger part in carrying the melody. Naturally, it was where the Upper Class danced (yes, class was still very important then), that the new style music was played and the bands were first heard. This was to be the Jazz Age, the era of the ‘flapper’, with much shorter skirts, the Charleston and High Jinx. Older folk saw this as the road to ruin and the loosening of moral restraint. 30 or so years later quite a few of those who had danced to the ‘sinful’ saxophone could be heard saying the same thing about Rock and Roll and jitterbugging. Dancing and the music for dancing have a lot to answer for and no doubt will continue to do so. For some strange reason the saxophone continued to be associated with sin even as late as 1945. At the Three Choirs Festival held in Worcester that year, it is reported that in a part of Vaughan Williams’s Job, where there is a solo for the saxophone, the ecclesiastical authorities demanded that the movement in which the saxophone was heard be omitted. They did not want the profane sound of the saxophone to be heard within the Cathedral.

As always the size of the band would depend on the venue and the clientele. Most bands had 7 or 8 players; a big band in the 1940s might have as many as five saxes, four trumpets, three trombones, guitar, bass and drums. In the night clubs and hotels, where the Jack Hylton, Roy Fox, Jack Payne, Lew Stone, Ambrose, Billy Cotton and many other bands played in the 1920s and 1930s, the players were paid by the week, in what might be called a ‘full-time’ engagement. In time the top bands would become Show Bands often being top of the bill at music halls and in due course broadcasting regularly. The BBC was to have its own resident band, Henry Hall’s BBC Dance Band.

Many of the best players were in the big name bands, though some of the very best actually wanted to play jazz There has never been enough work in Britain for a musician to earn his living entirely by playing jazz so those musicians with families settled for the next best thing, playing commercial dance music. However, the vast majority of musicians playing for dances were not in the name bands. They were predominantly free lance musicians. Some were full-time musicians, but many more were part-time, more usually known as semi-pros. The latter earned their living in many different ways: as clerks, manual workers, professional men, including quite a few school teachers.

I first met Jack Brymer, the doyen of clarinettists until his death in 2003, when we both joined the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1947. Previously he had been a schoolmaster who also played five or six nights a week in ‘gig’ bands. He told me that quite frequently he earned more from playing in the bands than he did as a schoolmaster. But being a schoolmaster was regular employment he could rely on, and there would be a pension when he retired.

There were as many gig bands as years later there were to be pop groups, but there were also a lot of free-lance ‘pick-up’ bands, groups of musicians that were engaged for ‘hops’ in the local Town Hall, Dance Halls, Working Men’s Clubs and anywhere else large enough. The new bands varied just as much as the old-style bands had always done. Now a trio would be piano, bass and drums, or the same group with a front man playing clarinet, saxophone or trumpet, depending on the funds available. Larger bands with 2 altos and a tenor sax, two trumpets and trombone and a rhythm section, and the ‘big’ bands and swing bands of the 30s and later might have two altos, two tenors and a baritone sax, three trumpets and two or three trombones, guitar, piano, bass and drums, and often one or two vocalists. There was a vast amount of employment for free-lance full and part-time dance musicians. The best paid work, Hunt Balls, Debutante Balls, Marriage Receptions, University celebrations and Barmitzvahs, was mainly done by the considerable number of free-lance musicians based in London.

From 1920 onwards the separation of those musicians playing ‘straight’ music - orchestral musicians – and those playing ‘dance’ or jazz orientated music increased. For some years this led to them joining separate organisations that would look after their employment protection. I will return to this topic in a later chapter.

Chapter 14


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