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2

The BBC Symphony Orchestra

The author’s father joins the new BBC Symphony Orchestra as Principal Clarinet. BBC Symphony Orchestra in the 1930s – conditions, players, conductors (including Sir Adrian Boult, Arturo Toscanini and Willem Mengelberg), operations, sections A, B, C, D, E, repertoire performed, and the author’s memories of Toscanini rehearsing

In 1930 my father joined the newly formed BBC Symphony Orchestra as one of the principal clarinettists; the other was Frederick Thurston, later to be my teacher at the Royal College of Music, where he was the principal professor of clarinet. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was the first full-time contract symphony orchestra in Britain. It offered the players a degree of security and conditions undreamed of until then: a yearly contract that was likely to be renewed unless you did something really dreadful, a month’s holiday on full pay, and four weeks’ sick pay. With these advantages came some restrictions. Members of the orchestra were not allowed to accept engagements with any other orchestra, even if it was on a day when they were not required by the orchestra or during their holiday period. Permission was nearly always given to any player who was offered a solo or chamber music engagement.

Another condition of the contract, certainly for the principal players, was that they must have a telephone, still quite unusual in the 1930s. This was so that they could be contacted at any time if there was a change of programme or if they were required to replace a colleague at short notice. It seems that some players had developed the practice that if the phone rang on one of their free days, whoever answered would always say that the person required was out and that no one knew where they were, or when they would return.

At that time (during the 1930s) the orchestral manager was particularly disliked, probably rather unfairly, because he carried out the Corporation’s policy extremely efficiently. He also had an unfortunate name and a rather forbidding appearance. Mr Pratt had eyes and ears everywhere. Should any covert date be accepted and come to his ever-watchful attention, the unfortunate musician would be called to account and threatened with instant dismissal should this offence be repeated.

In 1939, just before the war, we were in the middle of lunch one Sunday when we heard the front-door bell. A few minutes later the maid knocked at the door and said, ‘Mr Pratt to see you, Sir.’ Before there was time to reply the dreaded Mr Pratt was in the room. Jack Thurston had been taken ill and my father was required to take his place. Mr Pratt, experienced in the ways of his flock, had come in person; he knew that phoning might not be the best way of contacting my father.

This event has stayed in my memory because as Mr Pratt was leaving, with my father in tow, he asked me if I liked music. When I told him I had recently started to learn the clarinet, he said ‘Learn the Eb clarinet, good Eb players are always in demand.’ I was then thirteen, and it was not until very many years later that I learned the truth of his words. The higher pitched Eb clarinet is used infrequently, but always has an important and exposed part to play. It requires particular study, if it is to be played well. Few clarinettists, at that time, made the effort to do this.

Conditions in the BBC Symphony Orchestra were not only better than in any other British orchestra, but the salary was regular and at a high level for those days. Tutti players (often referred to as ‘rank and file’), that is those string players other than the principals and sub-principals of each section, received £11.00 a week. Several woodwind and brass principals received £1000 a year. £750 was the average salary for principals, ten times the national average wage at that time, a far greater differential than any orchestral musician can achieve now. But this was nothing compared with what some of the most sought after players in the best Dance Bands received. A few were earning as much as £45 a week, more than double the salary of a bank manager. The security and conditions the BBC could offer and the opportunity to play great music in a fine orchestra was sufficient for my father to turn down a tempting invitation to join Jack Hylton’s famous Band. The advent of the BBC and the high salaries paid to those in a number of dance bands was in stark contrast to the many musicians who were only able to find occasional employment and those forced to give up their profession altogether.

When Dr.Adrian Boult (as he was then, later Sir Adrian) was appointed Director of Music and chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra he was able to attract a number of the most outstanding players to the orchestra as section principals, some of whom already had established solo careers. Distinguished artists happy to accept contracts included Lauri Kennedy, as principal cello, (in the early 1950’s his son, John, was principal cello with Beecham in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) and his grandson Nigel is the splendid, if controversial, solo violinist of our own time), Aubrey Brain, the eminent horn player (father of Dennis [horn] and Leonard [oboe]), Eugene Cruft, double bass, Robert Murchie, flute, Bernard Shore, viola and Arthur Catterall, as Leader. They were joined by younger artists who were already forging prestigious careers – Frederick Thurston, clarinet, Ernest Hall, trumpet and Sidonie Goossens, the harpist.

These players and a number of other principals were selected on the strength of their reputations. The majority of the other players gained their places following auditions held all over the country. As a result many very talented young musicians, some straight out of music college, were also offered contracts. The BBC used this method of recruiting, unusual at that time, from the start and, with a few exceptions, auditions have always been held when players have been required for any of the BBC orchestras. Today auditions are the norm, except for players with a known reputation who will usually be given a few ‘try out’ dates, followed by a trial period, sometimes quite protracted, before being offered a position.

From when I was five or six, my father would occasionally take me to a rehearsal where I would meet some of these legendary players. To me they were ‘uncles’ and ‘aunts’. It was quite common for kindly and generous ‘uncles’ and ‘aunts’ at that time to give youngsters a ‘tip’ – they would usually give sixpence (2 ½p) or a shilling (5p), the equivalent of £5 and £10 today. If one was ‘nicely brought up’ one had been taught to say, I don’t take money, thank you.’ But they always insisted and said ‘Don’t tell Dad’. And so one would take it!

Perhaps, as I have mentioned ‘aunts’ as well as ‘uncles’, it is worth noting the position of women in the profession at that time. Though there had been women in the profession for many years, except for harpists there were virtually none in the symphony orchestras until after 1945. Even during the time I was in the London Philharmonic and Royal Philharmonic Orchestras, from 1943 until 1960 the only women were the harpists. Even as late as 1948 even the harpist in the Royal Philharmonic was a man.

The BBC Symphony was the exception, as far as the major orchestras were concerned, though even in that orchestra only one wind player was a woman, the oboist Helen Gaskell. It was not until Walter Legge founded the Philharmonia in 1945 that women players started to be given an opportunity to show that they could match the men in skill and artistry – and surpass them! It was more than 30 years before equality of opportunity reigned in all the London orchestras. In those days of unabashed male chauvinism it was possible for Sir Thomas Beecham to declare, when asked why there were no women in his orchestra, ‘I find that if they are attractive they distract my musicians, and if they are not they distract me.’

One of my earliest memories is of going to Broadcasting House, shortly after it was built, when I was 6 or 7 years old. My father took my mother and myself on a tour of the newly opened building in Portland Place, a few yards from Oxford Circus. When we went onto the roof of this tall building, being a curious child, I wandered off on my own and was only just rescued from going over the edge. Many years later – when I was involved as a representative of musicians and engaged in battle with the BBC about the creation of Radio 1 and 2 (in order to close down the pirate radio stations) – I mentioned this to one of the BBC Directors. I had the impression that perhaps he might have preferred that the outstretched hand had not saved me from a fatal fall.

When the BBC Symphony Orchestra was formed, and to some extent until 1945/46, there were far fewer rules and regulations than there are now. It was quite easy for my father to take me to rehearsals at the Maida Vale studios where the Symphony Orchestra usually rehearsed and performed for broadcasts. It is much more difficult now that everything has become so much more bureaucratic. On the other hand standards of discipline, behaviour and speech were high. But neither Sir John Reith’s highly moral regime or Mr Pratt’s strictures had much influence on the strongly entrenched drinking habits of some members of the orchestra. Sir Adrian, a most abstemious man himself, seems to have taken a fairly relaxed attitude to this sometimes damaging foible. One or two of his most outstanding principal players would appear from time to time more than a little the worse for wear. But, remarkably, these players were usually able to continue to play extremely well, even when they had become unable to perform other movements with any degree of accuracy.

One very stout member of the violin section, an excellent musician, was sometimes unable to maintain his equilibrium and would fall off his chair. I was told that on one occasion, when this happened on a broadcast, Sir Adrian whispered to Paul Beard, who was then the Leader, ‘Oh! Dear! I think Mr.... is not feeling very well again tonight’. Now that standards are so high and competition so great behaviour of that kind would not be countenanced for a moment.

The full orchestra of one hundred and fourteen musicians came together only for the major concerts, usually in the Queen’s Hall. For the majority of broadcasts the orchestra was divided into a number of sections, the largest of which was between 75 and 85. However, the studio required for broadcasts had to be large enough to accommodate the whole orchestra if necessary. A suitable space that size is very difficult to find.

The Queen’s Hall, close to Oxford Circus in the centre of London, was much loved for its fine acoustics and an elegant appearance. When it was destroyed by a bomb during the war London was left without a really suitable concert hall. At the end of the war a fund was raised for its reconstruction, but for reasons never fully explained this money has not been used for this purpose and the hall has not been rebuilt.

I never experienced them myself but the horrors of ‘Number 10’ were known to me from childhood. ‘Number 10’ was an old warehouse, more or less under Waterloo Bridge, on the south bank of the Thames. It was damp and somewhat smelly and quite inappropriate as the home of Britain’s ‘premier orchestra’, (as my father always called it – especially once I had joined the London Philharmonic). But the acoustics were good and the players came to have a kind of affection for it. The main cause for alarm, especially for the ladies, was the regular appearance of rats. These would run about on the rafters overhead and up and down the staircase at one end of the studio. I never heard that anyone was attacked by these unwelcome guests. It may be that rats are a music-loving species, or perhaps this particular colony became so as a result of their association with this fine band of musicians.

By 1931 the BBC was describing the Concert Hall that was to be created within Broadcasting House as ‘Where a Thousand People will Hear Great Music’. It was designed especially to be the home of the BBC Symphony Orchestra – a very large orchestra – and it was said that it would provide Londoners with a major new concert venue.

Quite soon after the Hall was completed in 1932 it became clear that those responsible for instructing the architects were unfamiliar with musical instruments and the amount of space required in which to play them. This first became evident when the piano was to be installed. The very fine, beautifully panelled doors, even when opened to their full extent, were just not wide enough to allow the piano into the hall. This was not an insurmountable problem, and though troublesome and quite costly, it was not to be worst of their problems. When all the members of the orchestra assembled on stage they found that there was insufficient room for all the players and their instruments. In fact there was not even enough room for them all without their instruments. This was more serious and though in the end the BBC did find somewhere else it took quite a while to do so.

The orchestra had to remain in the dreaded ‘No. 10’ until somewhere else could be found. Eventually, in 1934, a more suitable venue was found: a disused former roller-skating rink in Maida Vale, a residential area a couple of miles from the centre of London. Over the years a great deal of time and money has been spent on improving the big studio – Studio One – which has been ‘home’ for the BBC Symphony Orchestra for sixty years. Though devoid of rats it has never been popular with musicians, perhaps because the lighting, air conditioning, and the acoustic are ‘un-loving’. That indefinable something that can make a place a delight to play in is missing.

In the Radio Times, which provided details of all the BBC’s programmes, the orchestra was shown as The BBC Symphony Orchestra (section A), or section B, C, D, or E. Section A was the full orchestra; sections B and D, usually between 60 and 85 strong, were responsible for the ‘serious’ (classical) music content. Sections C and E, with 40 to 55 players, played ‘lighter’ music.

A great deal of the music performed by sections C and E, still at that time played with the original orchestrations, has had little place in radio or concert programmes for some years. Too often when it has been played it has been re-orchestrated for a smaller orchestra than the original. With the advent of the commercial radio station Classic FM, some of this lovely music is being heard once again as the composer intended. The programmes section C and E played included works by Delibes – the ballet music from Coppelia, La Source and Sylvia; Massenet, and Messager (a favourite was The Two Pigeons ballet music); Bizet’s Jeux d’Enfants, and the orchestral suite from his opera Carmen; the lovely Wand of Youth suites by Elgar; and music by Coleridge Taylor, Grieg, Niels Gade, Edward German, Percy Grainger... They also played the inspired and delightful shorter compositions by Brahms, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, and Saint-Saëns, not to mention Beethoven, Mozart, and many others.

This music is often difficult technically and needs to be played with bravura and style. Just as much time is needed for rehearsal as for symphonies and concertos, and nowadays rather more because the repertoire is unfamiliar. Sadly, when it is performed – and even when recorded – it is too frequently under-prepared and un-stylistically performed.

It is a measure of that strange musical snobbery that is still endemic in Britain that in that otherwise excellent and highly informative book The BBC Symphony Orchestra by Nicholas Kenyon, there is virtually no mention of this music which between 1930 and 1941 made up about half the Symphony Orchestra’s broadcast output. Composers such as Eric Coates, Lehar, Satie, Britten, and many others, whose music we know but would be hard put to name – Haydn Wood, Montague Phillips, and Fraser-Simson, for example, all received first performances or first broadcast performances from these two sections of the BBC Symphony Orchestra (section C or Section E) under one or other of their two principal conductors.

At the beginning and for the first eight years Joseph Lewis was their most frequent conductor. Joe Lewis, as he was affectionately known by everyone, came from Birmingham. He was not a very good conductor but was unpretentious, a really delightful man (he even welcomed me with grace and charm when I was only about eight or nine). He gave the players time to express themselves in the music without getting in the way too much – always a virtue in an indifferent conductor. In 1938 he was succeeded as staff conductor by Clarence Raybould. Though a fine musician he lacked Lewis’s charm, was pretentious, and did get in the way.

But, of course, the main virtue of the BBC Symphony Orchestra was that in 1930 it set extremely high standards, which were to influence orchestral performance in the years to come. It was the first orchestra in Britain to combine first class players throughout every section with conditions that allowed them to display their potential. It was the BBC’s declared intention to match the world class orchestras in Vienna, Berlin, Amsterdam and New York, Philadelphia and Boston. The Symphony Orchestra’s sheltered position within the BBC provided the opportunity for the performance of a far wider repertoire, especially of contemporary music, than any of the other British orchestras of the time. This still remains true today.

Sir Adrian Boult, was often characterised as rather a ‘fuddy-duddy’ (he was nicknamed ‘Saidie’ by the orchestra), and thought conventional as a musician. In fact he was remarkably catholic in his musical sympathies and adventurous in his programme building. His choice of programme for the orchestra’s first concert shows this very clearly:

The Overture Flying Dutchman Richard Wagner
Cello Concerto Camille Saint-Saëns
Symphony No.4 Johannes Brahms
Daphnis and Chloe
Suite No. 2 Maurice Ravel

It required considerable courage in 1930 to include Daphnis and Chloe, completed only 18 years previously, in the inaugural concert of a newly formed, and in some circles controversial, symphony orchestra. In their public concerts and studio broadcasts under his direction the orchestra performed a remarkable range of music. Between 1930 and 1950 the BBC and Boult continually extended the repertoire of the orchestra bringing to an ever increasing radio audience music that until then only a very small number of music lovers had been able to enjoy.

First performances in Britain included compositions as diverse as Schoenberg’s Erwartung (conducted by the composer) and his Variations for Orchestra op.31, Mossolov’s Factory (more usually known as Music of Machines), a number of Alban Berg’s major compositions including the Three Orchestral Pieces op.6, 3 pieces from the Lyric Suite, the Symphonic extracts from Lulu, the Violin Concerto and the first complete performance of Wozzeck – in the studio, with an all British cast – for which there were 18 rehearsals. In 1934 the orchestra, for whom this music was both strange and difficult, found this number of rehearsals somewhat of a strain on their tolerance. In the event it was a considerable success and Berg later expressed himself ‘delighted’. Other major works premiered in Britain included symphonies by Bruckner (9th), Mahler (9th) – and the first London performances of symphonies by Roussel (3rd), Martinu (2nd), and Stravinsky (Symphony in C), the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, also by Stravinsky (when I was 16 and was about to start at the Royal College of Music Sir Adrian allowed me to sit next to my father in the orchestra during a broadcast of the Dumbarton Oaks Concert. I doubt if that would be allowed now) and important compositions by Webern, Strauss, Bartók, Hindemith, Kodály, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Copland, Piston, William Schuman and Chavez.

British composers were particularly well represented with world premieres of works by Delius, Walton (1st Symphony, 2nd Facade suite), Bax, Ireland, Lambert, Bliss (the Colour Symphony, in its revised version), Vaughan Williams (4th and 6th Symphonies, Piano Concerto, Serenade to Music), and Britten (Piano Concerto).

This wide ranging repertoire that included many works that made use of harmonic and rhythmic innovations and instrumental techniques that were completely new and strange to the musicians, was broadcast before the invention of tape recording. Each programme, whether relayed from a concert hall performance or from a broadcasting studio, was played straight through. There was no possibility of ‘editing’ or re-playing short sections, where there may have been some false entry or poor ensemble, and then splicing it in.

Many of the most outstanding conductors were attracted by the standard and growing reputation of the orchestra. As well as the best British conductors, Sir Thomas Beecham, Sir Hamilton Harty, Sir Henry Wood, and Sir John Barbirolli, there were visits from the great names from around the world; Bruno Walter, Monteux, Koussevitsky, and what was considered the ultimate stamp of approval, Arturo Toscanini. He was given complete freedom with rehearsal time and everyone, including Boult, treated him with the greatest deference. All except Edgar Mays, officially titled Assistant (Orchestra and Artists). His job was to see that the orchestra was correctly seated, that there were the right number of chairs and stands, and that anything the conductor and soloists might need was provided. He was a large man, probably, though I am not sure, with an Army background. He certainly had the manner of an ex-Sergeant Major; jovially tyrannical, he had a loud voice and a pronounced Cockney accent. He was not at all intimidated by Toscanini and would welcome him when he arrived for rehearsal, ‘Well! How’s it this morning Tosci!’ At the interval of rehearsals he was prone to put his arm around the diminutive conductor’s shoulders and inquire if Tosci ‘would care for a cuppa?’

In the first half of 1939, the BBC mounted the London Music Festival and invited Toscanini to conduct all the Beethoven symphonies and the Mass in D. I was starting to get really interested in music and so my father thought it would be a treat for me to attend one of Toscanini’s rehearsals even though this had been strictly forbidden, since this conductor like many others and most musicians intensely disliked having anyone present at rehearsals. Because of his fame and the press interest in his every move, as well as his own volatile personality, his response to intruders could be volcanic.

The rehearsal was held in the elegant Queen’s Hall, where the concert would take place the following day. Somehow my father managed to smuggle me in and I was now sitting very still, well back in the stalls, which were shrouded in darkness. The orchestra assembled, tuned up, and then fell silent at a sign from the ever present Edgar Mays. A small figure appeared at the side of the platform and as he walked towards the podium carrying a large score I got my first and only extremely brief chance to see this legendary conductor. But I was not the only one to have hidden myself in the darkened auditorium. When the Maestro was nearing the centre of the platform there was a bright flash of light from near the front of the stalls. Toscanini turned and hurled the score at the light, and with a shout of annoyance rushed off the platform. The intruder, a press photographer, made a rapid exit, Mays returned to tell the orchestra the rehearsal was cancelled, everyone quickly packed up, and before I knew it my father and I were on our way down Oxford Street heading for Speakers’ Corner. Listening to the impromptu speakers and those who barracked them was to be my alternative treat.

It was only many years later that I learned why Toscanini reacted quite so violently. I am sure none of those present on that occasion will have known. It will have been assumed that this was just another example of his violent response to what displeased him. Harvey Sachs, in his remarkable book Toscanini, recounts how on two previous occasions Toscanini had had bad experiences with flashlights exploding right in front of his exceedingly weak eyes. Both should have been special and joyous celebrations.

The first time this occurred was at the farewell concert given to mark the end of his long association with the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra (later ‘Symphony’ was omitted. Every item in the programme received rapturous applause but no sooner had the final work ended – The Ride of the Valkyrie – than a reporter ran forward and snapped a picture of him. The flash temporarily blinded him and he rushed from the stage and did not return again. The next occasion was at the official first concert inaugurating the Palestine Orchestra (later to become the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra). This was an occasion of great excitement. Dr Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion and the British High Commissioner were present, and the demand for tickets was so great that those unable to obtain tickets climbed onto the roof of the hall in the hope of at least hearing something! Once more the evening ended badly. Another ardent photographer exploded his flashlight right in front of Toscanini’s eyes.

The relationship between Toscanini and the BBC Orchestra was always warm and over the years they developed an extraordinary mutual regard and affection. The recordings the orchestra made with him in the 1930s bear witness to this. In some way the orchestra seems to have been able to allow Toscanini to invest his performances with them with a special kind of spontaneity and freedom.

Another conductor of renown that Boult invited to conduct the orchestra, Willem Mengelberg, created a quite different relationship with the orchestra. Mengelberg was the long-time principal conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. He had a considerable reputation and with this orchestra had given many fine performances (a few recordings made in the 1940s provide evidence) that were distinguished by extremes of tempi and dynamics and by their flexible and subtle rubato which was always controlled and retained impeccable ensemble. He also had a reputation for being abrasive and on occasion quite disagreeable. When the members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra learnt that he was scheduled to conduct them it caused some apprehension.

In the event he made himself unpopular from the start. At the first rehearsal, after the usual introductions, he spent a good deal of time balancing the various sections and checking intonation. Then he started rehearsing the first item. After they had been playing for about 20 minutes or so he called for the orchestral manager. In his gruff voice and thick Dutch accent, loudly enough for the whole orchestra to hear, he said, ‘Iss dis a professional orchestre?’ It was not uncommon at that time for some conductors to adopt a rude and sometimes overbearing stance. This fine and proud orchestra did not respond well to this kind of treatment. Though the concerts went well the relationship never mended.

In its first fifteen years, the BBC’s enlightened music policy profoundly affected musical life in Britain. It played an enormous part in making it possible for everyone, wherever they lived, to hear an extraordinarily eclectic repertoire, thereby creating an audience for music throughout Britain that barely existed previously.

Chapter 3

 



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