by Bill Harris
First Part: "
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young
I suppose most people
would agree that it is their earliest
experiences which remain with them throughout
their lives. One of my happiest childhood
memories is of my mother playing Tschaikowsky's
Fifth on the piano at home, my father
asking her to play passages he particularly
liked. We did have a gramophone, but
the records were mostly of comedians,
(Stanley Holloway and others) and I
enjoyed these, too.
At boarding school
there were occasional evenings when
we were invited to the music master's
house to hear records I particularly
remember hearing Elgar two, Sibelius
two, and Warlock's 'Capriol Suite' for
the first time.
Music apart, I was
strongly influenced by two books which
I found in the school library: "A Portrait
of the artist as a young man" by James
Joyce, and "Delius as I knew him" by
Eric Fenby. These two books have marked
me for life, and have remained a part
of me ever since, the first opening
the door to Ireland for me, a country
which has never ceased to fascinate
me, and the second, my interest in Delius,
although his music did not really strike
me with its full power for some years
Another formative influence
was hearing the radio broadcast of Tyrone
Guthrie's superb production of Ibsen's
"Peer Gynt", (resplendent with Grieg's
music.) Those who are either damning
or patronising about Grieg's score have
failed to realise how closely it is
bound up with the play. It breathes
the same air. I cannot have known, at
the time, of the link between these
two men of genius, Joyce in Dublin,
writing to the Norwegian in raptures
over Ibsen's final play, "When we dead
awaken", and receiving a gracious
letter in reply from Henrik Ibsen!
It had long been my
ambition to study at the Royal College
of Music. My main reason was that Vaughan
Williams had studied, and taught there,
and, to me, he was God!
This had to wait, however,
because after leaving school I was called
up for National Service, and I was to
spend two years in the army, in various
parts of the world.
It was while I was
stationed in British Somaliland that
I made a discovery about the British
attitude to music.
One of our officers
had decided to organise a Christmas
concert for the men, in which some of
them would take part, and I was enlisted
as pianist. I accompanied two men from
the north of England who had particularly
fine voices. Apart from their vocal
'turn', the rest of the show seemed
to be filled up with stupid sketches
acted out, full of double entendre,
and also some 'would-be' comedians.
The sketches went right
over the heads of the audience and they
were just bored, and the 'comedians'
were also given a rough ride. When I
had to go on with the two men I wondered
how they would react to us, especially
as we had not chosen 'popular' songs,
but Puccini, Edward German, Offenbach,
and so on.
Well, the audience
went wild about us, clapping and cheering!
The organiser had completely misjudged
the importance to people of music, well
sung. The Geordie and the Yorkshire
man were the success of the evening
(even though the Geordie had sung 'Your
tiny hand is frozen' in a foreign language
(his version of Italian.)
I believe there were
similar misjudgements during World War
Two, when the B.B.C. Symphony was evacuated
to Bristol, and, later, to Bedford,
but was informed that no recordings
were needed from the orchestra because
in wartime people wanted only 'light'
music and humour. So Sir Adrian used
to take them on country walks!
Similarly, when a company was daring
enough to put on a production of "Faust"
(Gounod's) at Sadler's Wells Theatre,
everyone expected a flop, what with
the blackout and the bombs - Wrong again!
The theatre was filled with audiences
starved of opera and prepared to risk
the dangers for the pleasure of fine
Eventually for me, when I was demobilised
and on the long boat journey back to
'Blighty’ I was able to return to my
home in Cornwall where I practised hard
in an effort to regain my non-existent
piano technique before trying for a
place at the Royal College of Music.
I had worked out a clever strategy to
fool the panel of professors there,
choosing unfamiliar pieces instead of
Beethoven or Brahms. I played two preludes
by Scriabin! (At the time - I was unaware
that one of the college professors,
Edward Mitchell was, in fact, a Scriabin
specialist, but I'm sure he cannot have
been on the panel that day, luckily
I also gave them a
juvenile work for string orchestra I
had written, with the title, "Dawn Music",
which sounded impressive. They passed
it around, making inaudible comments
to each other little knowing that it
had nothing to do with the dawn, but
acquired its title because I had recently
met an attractive young girl called
'Dawn’ ( a bad case of unresolved calf-love!)
I liked, and respected
my composition teachers (Patrick Hadley,
and later, Herbert Howells,) but they
really taught me nothing about orchestration
- I had to pick it up from reading 'Forsyth'
and from grabbing fellow students and
asking them to try over something I
had written to see whether it worked.
I also attended every one of the First
Orchestra's rehearsals on Thursday afternoons,
and learnt a lot that way.
I did get one (typical)
comment from Paddy Hadley, however:
I had made an orchestration of Debussy's
"Cathédral Engloutie" which I
brought to him. I could not have made
a more unfortunate choice. He taught
at Cambridge, and I was not to know
that he had banned it there. "No engulfed
Cathedrals" he warned any visiting pianists!
In my score I had unfortunately written
a low B Flat for the bassoon. "Harris,
you know what that will sound like?"
he asked. "No Sir," I said naively.
Putting his face close to mine he spelled
it out for me: "It'll sound like a fart!
I couldn't help liking him, complete
with the aroma of cigarette smoke and
whisky he seemed to carry with him,
and, of course, the spats that he wore!
I even forgive him for being rather
demoralising on one occasion. He had
been through a lot. I believe Philip
Ledger's recording of "The Hills" (his
large-scale choral work) didn't come
out until after his death, which is
He was an opera-man,
and loved his Wagner. He always insisted
that the arrival of the second ship
in the last act of "Tristan" was a great
mistake. (It brings King Mark, Melot
and Brangaene) and he even talked of
arranging a special performance in which
it would be cut! He advised me to go
to everything, and was glad that
I was going to 'Wozzek'! Whenever I
mention that I studied with him, someone
is sure to come out with their own 'Paddy
Hadley' story! He is remembered with
a smile always.
There was one occasion
at college when I learnt a great deal
in a very short time A pupil of 'Jack'
Thurston was having a lesson with the
great clarinettist and asked me if I
would play the Mozart 'Kegelstadt' Trio
for him. I was delighted, though I didn't
feel nervous at the time, (which was
I played the opening
flourish on the piano, and Mr. Thurston
said something, so I stopped abruptly.
"No! No! Don't' stop", he said. "I talk
all the time!" And he did, telling us
how to shape every phrase while we kept
I never learnt so much
in one evening as I did then!
Eventually I found
myself out in the wide, wicked world
attempting to make a living. Although
I had won a prize at college for a work
which was published, broadcast and taken
on tour by two distinguished performers,
nobody seemed interested, and the publishers
later told me they had no record of
it! As this publisher had managed to
lose the only score of an opera by Delius,
I suppose this is not surprising!
The hero of that story
turned out to be our friend Patrick
Hadley, of all people, who was able
to find it in the publisher's attic
and take it over to Grez-sur-Loing in
France, where I am sure the best champagne
came out in celebration! (In the meantime
the unfortunate Eric Fenby had been
laboriously working on a reconstruction
of the score from the orchestral parts.)
(See 'Frederick Delius'
by Peter Warlock, Page 187).
It was while I was
working in one of many dead-end jobs
in London, at Lyons' Corner House (serving
teas to the public) that I met James,
a young Scottish painter, doing the
same job. His life was like a counterpoint
to mine - lugging his canvases around
from one art gallery to another, with
little hope of success, while I vainly
tried to interest publishers, performers,
and the inscrutable BBC in my works.
He became the nearest thing I ever had
to a brother!
James lived in the
'World's End' area of Chelsea, a place
redolent with memories of misfits and
geniuses. Philip Heseltine died in Tite
Street" Oscar Wilde was arrested in
the same street: John Ireland was
organist at St. John's Church (no longer
there): Samuel Beckett's brilliant first
novel, "Murphy" 1(1938) is set in this
area: Vaughan Williams lived in Cheyne
Walk. The garden of Lindsay House saw
the first performance of "Dido and Aeneas",
down near the house boats, famous for
the activities of a certain mayor of
Chelsea who used to take girls onto
his boat and spank them, filling the
pages of the local press for months!
James and I became
increasingly interested in Ezra Pound,
and worried about his fate, arrested
and put in a cage by the American army
in Italy, treated abominably and finally
taken back to the USA where he was placed
in a mental hospital to save America's
embarrassment, although a great poet
and no madman! We were glad when he
was finally released, and he returned
to Italy. I set his poems in my 'Four
Settings of Ezra Pound' (1963) and ‘A
cycle of love and death' (1967 - Premiered
at the Wigmore Hall in 1973).
When James left to
get married I inherited his room, complete
with water dropping from the roof, and
the necessity of putting buckets at
strategic places, which made interesting
contrapuntal effects which would have
fascinated Stockhausen or John Cage.
James died in 1988
and I wrote my Wind Quintet, which I
dedicated to his memory, with the title
'Epitaph for an Artist'. I haven't heard
it, and I don't suppose I ever shall,
although a group who ran a competition
for Wind Quintets told me they had played
it through. I was not invited.
After James' departure
the spirit of that place left it.
Eventually I left to
make a home far from Chelsea, south
of the river with my two sons, taking
with me as many of his canvases as I
could manage, (they would have been
thrown out if I hadn't). I have most
of what I salvaged on my own walls now,
(I have always had the picture he did
of me many years ago.) Apparently I
was the world's worst sitter!
The sixties atmosphere
of coffee bars and discussions about
Colin Wilson's latest book were all
a thing of the distant past. People
didn't discuss or challenge the system
in quite that way. Television ruled
everyone's lives and you had to think
what you were told to think, and like
it! George Orwell had been right about
the 'thought police'. I'm glad James
isn't here to see it.
© Bill Harris