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Starting out

The BBC Symphony Orchestra in Bristol and Bedford. Small ‘orchestras’ in restaurants – Lyons Corner Houses – Alfredo Campoli, Albert Sammons, Max Jaffa. Author at Royal College of Music. Many musicians now in the armed forces provides author with opportunity of professional experience that leads to full-time orchestra employment

In September 1941 I was standing at the top of the steps behind the Royal Albert Hall facing the imposing but not unfriendly facade of the Royal College of Music. I was full of hope, confidence, and the ignorance of youth. I was to study clarinet with Frederick Thurston, principal clarinet of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and an established soloist. My second study was piano, and for this Mr Harry Stubbs was to be my kindly but unsuccessful guide. There were to be history lectures and theory and aural training sessions, and also the opportunity to play in one of the orchestras. As I set off down the steps and approached the doors of the RCM I thought, ‘this is it! I’m on my way.’ I was going in the direction I wanted to go, but, as always, I had no idea of what or where it might lead.

Early that morning I had left Bedford, where, the BBC Symphony Orchestra had been moved and where my family were now living, and travelled by train to St Pancras station in London. This was a journey I would do several times a week in the coming year, an empty first-class compartment often providing an impromptu practise studio. The LMS (as it then was) rolling stock was no better than the current privatised rail companies’, making embouchure control (the subtle formation of the lips and muscles around the mouthpiece) difficult. Still, it was possible to make up for lost time, when scales or arpeggios had received less attention than they needed.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra were now stationed in Bedford, then a quiet and attractive county town. In 1939, very soon after the outbreak of war, the orchestra had been evacuated to Bristol. The BBC orchestras, resident in London before the war, had all been relocated; the Symphony Orchestra, the Theatre Orchestra (later renamed the Opera Orchestra, and now called the Concert Orchestra), and the Variety and Revue Orchestras, (both disbanded many years ago), were all sent to Bristol. At that time, before the bombing had destroyed the oldest and loveliest part, Bristol was especially beautiful, and even now, in my view, it remains one of the most agreeable cities in Britain. Many years later it was, for a time, a very important city for me.

In their wisdom the BBC chose the CWS (Co-operative Wholesale Society) building as the headquarters for the Symphony Orchestra, and made the top floor into their studio. This had to be abandoned fairly soon as the frequent air-raid warnings required the conductor and orchestra to yo-yo up and down five or six floors, from the studio to the air-raid shelter in the basement.

For the next year or so the orchestra used various churches for studio broadcasts, and the Colston Hall for their season of public concerts, before relocating to Bedford, where they remained until the end of the war. The old Hall was excellent with good acoustics. Later I played there many times with the London Philharmonic. It survived the bombing, but in February 1945 before the end of the war it was accidentally destroyed by fire, (as the original hall had been). In 1951 I played at the opening of the present Colston Hall, in a concert given by the Royal Philharmonic, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham.

Playing in orchestral concerts in the Colston Hall, or anywhere else, still lay a few years ahead, though in fact it was to be much sooner than I could have imagined as I stood outside the Royal College of Music on that first day and daydreamed of things to come. A combination of circumstances beyond my control led to me remaining at the College for only one year. After two years of war a great many musicians had been called up and were in the Army, Navy, or Air Force. A number of them had joined or been posted to line regimental Military Bands, or the various entertainment units formed to entertain the troops. Many of the best younger wind players, had joined Guards’ Bands and the RAF Central Band, all stationed in London. In fact the RAF Central Band attracted a number of outstanding string players, too. It was their absence that gave me the opportunity in 1942 to join the Wessex Philharmonic Orchestra, based in Bournemouth.

As well as the musicians in the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra there were a number of other musicians working in Bournemouth. In most English towns of any size at that time there were still musicians playing in theatres, music halls and in restaurants. It was the custom, one that finally died out around 1950, for the larger restaurants and cafes, serving the ‘carriage trade’, to have a small ‘orchestra’. It was also usual for most large Department Stores to have a restaurant with its own small ‘orchestra’. The number of musicians would usually be between two and five, depending on the size of the restaurant.

Joseph Lyons, whose world famous Corner Houses in London were the flagships of his vast empire of Tea Shops throughout the country, employed 500 musicians on a full-time basis – as many as the BBC in its heyday employed on contract. In some of the Lyons Corner House orchestras there were as many as twelve players, and perhaps a singer as well. These orchestras played a very large and varied repertoire, ranging from Novelty numbers, such as The Teddy Bears’ Picnic, and The March of the Little Tin Soldiers, to selections from popular ballets – Coppélia, Swan Lake, or The Dance of the Hours, and operas – Pagliacci, La Bohème, Rigoletto, and even Rienzi. The Slavonic Dances by Dvorak, Hungarian Dances by Brahms, and some of the shorter Classics by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert rubbed shoulders with selections from The Merry Widow, The Student Prince, and Chu Chin Chow.

When I was a child, my mother would occasionally take me on a shopping expedition to the ‘West End’ of London. I hated these visits. My especial hate was Oxford Street where I trudged along, down amongst a forest of legs, seeing nothing, and with no one to talk to. My mother and her friend would be chattering away and enjoying the shop windows way above my head – with only Mummy’s hand to assure me that I was not totally abandoned. There was one redeeming feature to these dreadful visits: at some point we would leave the horrors of the pavement to enter what seemed like an enchanted palace. It was brightly lit and everything sparkled; there were great columns from the floor to the high ceiling, with golden decoration, and the walls and floor were richly coloured. Wherever you looked there were counters laden with foodstuffs of every kind. There were boxes of chocolate and sweets, cakes of every size and description – piles of little cakes covered in ‘hundreds and thousands’, or with cherries on top; birthday cakes and wedding cakes like castles. Piles of buns, rolls, croissants, macaroons, biscuits large and small, loose or in decorated tins and packets, all inviting and tempting. There were counters with every sort of delicatessen – less inviting to me – with fancy bottles, tins, and packets of roll mops, anchovies, caviar, tongues, hams, exotic oils and sweetmeats. The display seemed never ending.

This was one of Mr Joe Lyons’s famous Corner Houses. We usually went to the one in Tottenham Court Road. As in all the Corner Houses there were several restaurants of different sizes in the same building, each with its own orchestra. We went to the one that served afternoon tea because it was there that my Uncle Jimmy conducted and led one of the orchestras, as his father had done years before on the pleasure boats on the Black Sea.

A smartly dressed man or lady (one can hardly refer to someone so grand as a ‘woman’), would direct us to our table. We always asked for one near the band, so that we could see and hear Uncle Jimmy – no doubt there will have been some who asked to be as far from the band as possible! – though on the whole, people went to a Lyons Corner House because it was special; not only did you get excellent food, you were waited on with style and civility, and you had musical entertainment as well, and all at a modest price.

Uncle Jimmy was considered to be good-looking, and as was the custom ‘played to the ladies’, directing some sweet and charming melody in their direction. The orchestra’s efforts would generally be rewarded by discreet and genteel applause. On the one or two occasions when my father accompanied us, he was always determined that the band should receive greater recognition. He would clap with considerable vigour; some of those enjoying their tea and seated nearby would be startled; others, thinking something was going on that they should be part of would join in. After several items the applause had grown considerably and by the time we left it was tumultuous.

During each ‘set’ the conductor/leader would be expected to play a couple of solos, though each and every piece was, to all intents and purposes, a ‘concerto’, since the leader played the first violin part on his own a very great deal of the time. But that wasn’t enough. He (it was almost always a ‘he’, though there were some Ladies Orchestras), would play one of the charming pieces by Fritz Kreisler, the great violinist, or one of the popular encore pieces – Meditation from Thais, by Massenet, or perhaps The Flight of the Bumble-Bee. In the best groups, if he was a really good player, he might include a movement from a concerto; perhaps by Max Bruch, the Mendelssohn, or one by Wieniawski.

Click for larger picture

Some outstanding violinists played in restaurants and cafés: de Groot, Albert Sandler, Alfredo Campoli (who subsequently had a long and distinguished solo career), Max Jaffa, and Albert Sammons, who was probably the best of them all. Later he was to become Beecham’s first Leader, before becoming a very successful and popular soloist. I remember his performance of the Elgar and Mendelssohn Concertos with particular pleasure, from my earliest days in the orchestra. He was also highly respected as a teacher, and is fondly remembered as a professor at the Royal College of Music.

In 1939, when the war started, virtually all the seaside orchestras were disbanded. Even the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra with its long history and considerable reputation, which unlike the other seaside orchestras employed musicians throughout the year, was forced to severely reduce its numbers. The players who had been made redundant by the Municipal Orchestra quickly formed a rehearsal orchestra, so as to keep in practise. They invited some of the best musicians who were playing in the theatres and the restaurant and café orchestras in the town and a few of the local instrumental teachers to join them. Two ladies living in Bournemouth heard about this group and decided to provide the money for them to put on a concert and appointed a young conductor, Reginald Goodall, to be its Music Director. They named the orchestra The Wessex Philharmonic. The extra players that were required were mostly recruited from students who were in their final year at the Royal College and Royal Academy of Music.

Many years later Goodall found fame conducting at the English National Opera and the Royal Opera House. His interpretations of the Wagner operas in particular were much admired. He was knighted in 1986. In 1939, when the Wessex Philharmonic Orchestra (later called the Bournemouth Philharmonic Orchestra) was formed, he was inexperienced, profoundly musical, and technically maladroit, as far as his control of the baton was concerned. He became increasingly experienced, and developed into a remarkable musician. Only his stick technique did not improve.

Whilst still in my first year at the Royal College of Music I heard about this orchestra from one of my fellow students, a composer/pianist, who also played percussion in the College orchestra. He told me that he had been to Bournemouth to play in this orchestra, and that it rehearsed on Friday evening, had two more rehearsals on Saturday, and a rehearsal and concert on Sunday. Sometimes this concert was repeated in a nearby town on Monday. And you got paid! Not Musicians’ Union rates – about which I knew nothing – but it sounded like a king’s ransom to me.

Without giving any thought to my suitability, I asked my friend, ‘Do you think there is any chance that I could play in this orchestra?’ ‘I’ll ask Mr Goodall,’ he said, ‘he comes into College from time to time.’ Some weeks later my friend told me that he had spoken to Mr Goodall who had said he would be willing to hear me play and that I should prepare some music and be ready to play for an audition in about ten days’ time.

I was so keen to do this entirely on my own that I decided not to tell my father or my RCM Professor, Jack Thurston (he was always called Jack by his friends and colleagues, though his name was Frederick). The relationship between Thurston and my father – both principal clarinettists in the BBC Symphony Orchestra – had caused some tension in my College lessons. My father’s remarkable virtuosity, especially his ability to play fast staccato passages (involving the rapid tonguing of detached notes) was envied by Thurston, and Thurston’s senior position as, ‘First’ principal in the section, was resented by my father. Sometimes, when I wanted help with a technical problem Thurston would say, ‘ask your Dad – he’s the one with the technique!’ When I asked ‘Dad’ he’d say, ‘You’re having lessons with Mr Thurston, ask him.’ So, though my teacher had sufficient confidence in me to allow me to teach his daughter, I never had the sort of confidential relationship with him that I tried to achieve with my own pupils.

On the day of the audition I was very nervous. I remember going into the room where Mr Goodall was sitting at the piano. I had expected a very assured and authoritarian person. In fact, he asked rather diffidently for the piano part of the music I was going to play, which gave me a bit of courage. I had decided to play the Four Characteristic Pieces by William Hurlstone. They are quite short attractive pieces by a gifted composer, now forgotten, who died when he was only thirty. I enjoyed playing them, and they had the added advantage of not being too difficult. I have no recollection of how well or badly I performed as I had no idea of the standard that was required. It must have been adequate because a month or so later I was asked to go to Bournemouth to play in the Wessex for one weekend. Fantastic! It seems that the second clarinet had been called up, and Goodall, hard pressed to find anyone at short notice, thought I might get by.

Once the initial joy and surprise had evaporated, terror set in. My only experience until then had been to play in my school orchestra, plus a few rehearsals and concerts in the amateur Bedford Symphony Orchestra and two terms in the College orchestra. Awareness of my ignorance and incompetence gradually grew as the date of the first rehearsal approached. It dawned on me that though I had listened to a lot of music, I had only played a handful of works. I had no experience of even the standard repertoire, the Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorak, and Tchaikovsky symphonies were still virgin territory, and I still had no real understanding of what skills and knowledge were required if I was to become even an adequate orchestral musician.

The repertoire I had played in the College orchestra was very small, and not particularly useful. I had played the Overture Euryanthe by Weber, which I think I only played once or twice again during the next thirty-five years or so, and a violin concerto by Sir George Dyson, who was Director of the RCM at that time. He is now remembered for his choral work The Canterbury Pilgrims which is still played occasionally. Sir George seemed a rather stern man to me then. I knew he had invented some piece of equipment that improved the machine-gun of his day. But he proved to be kind. When, a couple of years later, a corrupt management tried to treat me badly he was very helpful. Willie Reed, who usually conducted the orchestra, played his violin concerto. Reed was no conductor, but he had been the Leader of the London Symphony Orchestra for many years, and had a profound knowledge and experience of everything to do with the orchestra. When Sir Edward Elgar was composing his wonderful violin concerto, which had so inspired me when I was still a schoolboy, it was to Willie Reed that he had gone for advice on the technical aspects of the solo part.

The only works we played that I can recall as being useful to me in later years were the César Franck Symphony, a Piano Concerto by Mozart, and the Water Music by Handel, in the version re-scored by Hamilton Harty, which was always used until the 1980s. The advances of the ‘authenticity’ movement have, for the present, banished this version and other re-scorings to memory and older recordings. The only conductor of note for whom I had played until then, Leslie Heward, conducted the Water Music. He was highly respected in the music world and it was thought that he might join Beecham and Barbirolli as another British conductor with the imagination and charisma to raise an orchestra above itself. I certainly enjoyed the couple of rehearsals we had with him. Unfortunately he died too young for his promise to be realised.

At last the great day arrived when my effrontery would be put to the test. I set off by train for Bournemouth, excited and anxious, with my instruments, and a suitcase full of second-hand clothes. I had had to buy a dress suit, a ‘dark’ suit (for afternoon concerts), white shirts, a bow tie, and some black shoes and socks. If they had not been second hand I would have used up the family’s ration of clothing coupons for a year or so. A couple of years later, when I had become more worldly-wise, I would resort, as so many others did, to the black market, and buy additional clothing coupons.

When I arrived at the rehearsal venue I made my way to the second clarinet chair and looked at the music. I had arrived early so that I could try through some of the more difficult-looking passages in my part. If you don’t know the music – whether the Allegros will be fast, or the Andantes slow, or which passages are important and which are not, you can find that you have prepared the music at the wrong speed and wasted time practising those passages that are completely covered by the brass. The trumpets and trombones will be blowing away like mad – whilst you have ignored what will prove to be exposed and unexpectedly difficult passages. It takes quite a while before one gets the ‘feel’ of what is really important and what is not, when looking at a piece of music for the first time.

The other members of the orchestra gradually arrived and took their places and I was comforted to see one or two faces that I recognised from College. But there was still no sign of Mr James Brown, who was to play principal clarinet. I knew his name because he had been the principal clarinet in the BBC Empire Orchestra until it was suspended (never to be revived) shortly after the outbreak of war in 1939. It was never certain whether this orchestra, which broadcast to the furthest reaches of the Empire, usually in the middle of the night (it was all ‘live’ broadcasting in those days), had been set up to instil a love of Western European music in the hearts and minds of our then Colonial cousins, or whether Sir John Reith, the BBC Director General and a strict disciplinarian, believed it would serve to keep some of the unruly citizens of our far-flung Empire under control.

The musicians who had been employed under contract by the BBC, but whose services were not required because of wartime circumstances, could have whatever they earned elsewhere made up to something like their previous BBC salary, as long as it was considered to be work of national importance. James Brown had found employment as a postman. Only a few minutes before the rehearsal was to begin the news filtered through to me that Mr Brown was not going to attend that evening’s rehearsal. It seems that he had decided that The Royal Mail required his services more than the Wessex. Though it is so long ago, I recall that we rehearsed Valse Triste by Sibelius and a Beethoven Symphony.

I was therefore asked to move up to play the first clarinet part. Fear and delight struggled for supremacy in my ambitious breast. Throughout the rehearsal inexperience and incompetence vied with youthful, naive musicality. My egotism undoubtedly led me to believe that everything I had to play was as important to the performance as it was to me. It often comes as a surprise, when listening to a piece of music one has played many times, to find how little of one’s efforts are actually heard. Sometimes something more important is going on! – as the double bass player in the Paris Opera Orchestra of many years ago discovered. Whilst convalescing from an illness he thought he would go to the opera, something he had not done since he was a student. The night he went they were doing Bizet’s Carmen. After the performance he met a few of his colleagues from the bass section.

‘How did you enjoy the show?’ one of them asked him. ‘It was terrific! Do you know,’ he said, ‘when we are playing tu-te-tum-te all the time, there is a marvellous tune going on, Tum-tum-ti-tum-tum- tum-ti-tum-ti-tum!’ (the Toreador’s song).

At that first rehearsal my efforts would not have borne close scrutiny, but I suppose the general standard was such that I got away with it. Sufficiently, anyway, to be invited back again for subsequent weekends.

I had not told either my professor or my father that I had auditioned for Reginald Goodall because, from the moment that I decided I wanted to be a professional musician, I was worried that I would never achieve anything without people saying it was because of my father’s influence. I was so obsessed by this fear that I was determined to do something without any help from anyone. I was also aware that the family finances were not in too good shape, and that keeping me at College, even though I had gained a small scholarship, was an added strain on their resources.

Having survived several weekends at Bournemouth I thought it was now time to tell them my good news. In fact neither of them was at all pleased, even though the outcome had been favourable. I was too young, not ready yet, and, anyway, why had I not consulted them? – I was only just seventeen and had no right to go off and do whatever I liked. I was self-willed, undisciplined... and...and... And it was all true! But though I understood what they were saying was intended for my good, I knew that what I was doing was right for me.

The weekend concerts the Wessex gave in Bournemouth and elsewhere attracted good audiences and were well received. This encouraged the management to embark on a more ambitious project, a month’s tour of some of the towns and cities of southern England. It was to start in the last week in July, during the College vacation, and I was invited to join the orchestra as second clarinet. I accepted with enthusiasm, unaware that this was to be the start of my professional life, and that I would not return to the Royal College of Music for another twenty years.

Chapter 5


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