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By the end of the 19th century the east-end of London had already become home to many European Jewish refugees including a number of musicians. Knowing this and speaking virtually no English, the Tschaikovs quickly made their way to where at least they would find some people who would understand them. When a year or so later the father left the family the responsibility for providing for mother and eight children fell on the two eldest boys, Anton and Anissim, my father.

Even in the first years of the 20th century employment opportunities for boys aged eleven and eight were limited. However, by now my father had already acquired a good deal of skill on the clarinet and so, with Anton playing the violin, he made his début on the streets of East London. With their youth and instrumental facility they probably picked up a reasonable number of pennies, but not always enough to support a large family. My father told me how when things were really bad his mother had on one occasion been forced to break into the gas-meter so that they could buy some food.

One day as they were playing in the street Mr Mandelbaum, a wealthy antique dealer who was a great music-lover, heard them. Their talent impressed him and he made arrangements for them to attend the Guildhall School of Music where they were both later awarded scholarships. It was not long before Anton was leading the student orchestra. Unfortunately the need to earn money meant he had to accept engagements, which from time to time required him to be absent from some of the orchestra’s rehearsals. Excuses and guile got him through for a time until one day he was away from a performance the College considered important. When he was subjected to some searching questions and it was revealed that he had accepted a paid engagement, in place of fulfilling his obligation to the College, his Scholarship was withdrawn.

My father, then still only a boy, was extraordinarily fortunate to have the opportunity of studying with the great Charles Draper, the father of the British school of clarinet playing. His influence on clarinet playing was considerable since at one time or another he was also professor at both the Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy. His pupils included, amongst many others, Frederick Thurston and Ralph Clarke, principal and second clarinet in the BBC Symphony Orchestra, who in their turn were both professors at the Royal College of Music. Through them and subsequent generations of players Draper’s influence can still be heard today.

When my father had finished his lesson and the next pupil came in Professor Draper would sometimes say ‘All right young Tschai; get this chap started and see how he’s doing – I’m just off to get a newspaper.’. He usually did not return for an hour or so. Of course that sort of thing could not possibly happen now; nor could a boy of ten any longer be studying at one of our national music colleges. The following year, 1906, ‘young Tschai’, whilst still at the Guildhall, started to earn his living as a professional musician. He was now eleven – a little younger than usual to be working in the profession, though it was not uncommon for children of thirteen or fourteen, whilst still at school, to be playing in music halls, and some years later for the silent cinema. He must have been exceptionally gifted as the Musical Times reported that in 1908 he was the soloist at one of the Guildhall School of Music’s concerts playing the Mozart Clarinet Concerto and again in 1909, this time playing the Clarinet Concerto in F minor by Weber.

If a boy or girl in a poor Jewish family showed musical talent at an early age it would be encouraged. This was true in poor immigrant Jewish families everywhere. Of all the professions music is the easiest for a foreigner to join when they have only a limited knowledge of the language of their new home. This may account for the remarkable number of famous Jewish musicians, especially solo pianists and violinists, during the first half of the 20th century.

Most professional musicians at that time, certainly those who were Jewish, came from lower middle class or poor working class families. For those with talent music provided an opportunity to jump their class. In more recent times the children of black families, especially in the USA from the 1920s onwards, have followed a similar escape route through jazz and the dance and swing bands. Sport rather than music seems to have become the preferred way out of poverty and social deprivation since the 1950s.

In musical families there were always parents, uncles and cousins able to provide free or inexpensive lessons. A child that showed talent would be encouraged, though encouragement could sometimes be a euphemism for being obliged to work exceedingly hard, and by no means always willingly. A number of the older musicians that I worked with in the past (mostly string players) told me how they were made to practise for many hours and of the harsh criticism with which their efforts were quite frequently rewarded. Many of these young string players gained their early professional experience in the smaller music halls and cinemas. For wind players the main route into the profession was often from army and brass bands, where they learnt to play in ensemble and to sight-read.

By 1910 when a father, a skilled artisan – a tailor, shoemaker or hairdresser – might still be earning no more than thirty shillings (£1.50) a week, his violinist son, if really talented, might by the age of only sixteen or seventeen be earning five or six pounds a week leading one of the larger cinema orchestras. Some idea of the extent of the employment opportunities for musicians to work in the ‘silent’ cinemas can be gained from the number of cinemas in London alone: between 1909 and 1912 their number leapt from 90 to 400 and by 1927 it is estimated that over 15,000 musicians were playing in cinemas throughout the country. Then, suddenly, with the arrival of sound films, the ‘talkies’, everything changed and by 1932 all those musicians were unemployed. A sense of insecurity is endemic in all performers; doubt about their own ability has always been compounded by the vagaries of employment opportunities. The trauma caused by the loss of employment for thousands of musicians that the coming of the ‘talkies’ created had a lasting influence on the psychology of musicians for a number of generations.

Though my own circumstances in the 1930s when I was still a child protected me from the harsh realities of life that afflicted so many others, I was aware of something of the hardship and humiliation that they suffered. There was a regular stream of relations, all musicians, seeking financial aid from my father, at that time the only member of the family with a steady income. They were good musicians and competent players who had devoted their lives from an early age to practising their instrumental skills to the best of their ability. Now they were unwanted. And, worse, their skills fitted them for no other trade or occupation. Their indignity affected me profoundly and at a very early age I vowed that I would never allow myself to be in that situation.

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