MUSIC AND J.B. PRIESTLEY
Music meant a lot to John Boynton ("Jack") Priestley (1894-1984), prolific as novelist, playwright and man of letters. As a boy he heard military band concerts in Lister Park, Bradford. He enjoyed chamber music; not only did he in later life invite the Griller Quarter and other great ensembles of the day to play at his h\ome on the Isle of Wight to his family and an invited audience, but at many stages of his adult life he was ready to participate in it himself, though his skill generally failed to match his enthusiasm. In fact he wrote an essay - reprinted in the volume Delight (Heinemann, 1949) - about the pleasure he derived from playing chamber music. I remember seeing him in a television programme shot not long before he died discussing with keen interest the fortunes of the Hallé Orchestra with its then principal conductor James Loughran. Nor were his interests in music confined to the classical sphere. When he was a young man he was often game to sing or accompany a comic song and all his life he retained feelings of nostalgia for the old music hall.
Unsurprisingly this deep love of music was reflected in his writings. He wrote a whole book, Trumpets Over the Sea (Heinemann, (1968,) telling of his somewhat accident-prone visit to the United States with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1967. Lost Empires (Heinemann, 1965), a novel, is set against a background of the pre-1914 music hall. His best known novel The Good Companions (Heinemann, 1929) describes the activities of a touring concert party in the late 1920s in which music plays a considerable part; one of its principal characters, Jerry Jerningham, has a gift for composing catchy melodies. The pleasures of domestic chamber music are alluded to in several novels, for example by the larger-than-life-Sir George in Let The People Sing (Heinemann, 1940) and most notably in Priestley's own favourite novel Bright Day (Heinemann, 1946), though which it runs like a thread. Turning to symphony concerts, Priestley's classic fictional reference is from Angel Pavement (Heinemann, 1930), in the chapter which explores the reactions to Brahms' First Symphony of a man visiting the old Queen's Hall for the first time. Part of an early chapter of Bright Day takes us to a pre-1914 concert in the "Gladstone Hall, Bruddersford" (really Bradford's St. George's Hall) offering the solid, late Romantic German fare of Wagner; Richard Strauss' Don Quixote and Brahms, the Fourth Symphony this time. The view of the music is different from the Angel Pavement excerpt as the viewpoint character is more sophisticated in his musical tastes. Festival at Fabridge (Heinemann, 1951) was published in the year of the Festival of Britain and told in rich detail how one community set about organising their Festival. This featured a good deal of music including concerts by a professional string orchestra, which plays, among other things, Elgar's glorious Introduction and Allegro; a snatch of the rehearsal of this is affectionately described. I read Festival at Farbridge in around 1957, during my mid-twenties, and it fired me with the ambition to organise a festival myself, something I had to wait nine years to fulfil. Low Notes on a High Level (Heinemann, 1954), described as a "frolic", is built around the vicissitudes of an imaginary wind instrument, the dobbophone. Sir Michael and Sir George (Heinemann, 1964) takes a quizzical look at patronage of the arts, including music. Daylight on Saturday (Heinemann, 1943), set in a wartime aircraft factory, includes mentions of the BBC's popular, twice daily "Music While You Work" radio programme and an ENSA Concert party and by implication suggests their value in improving output. Angel Pavement and Bright Day both allude to that commonplace of the inter-war period, the hotel or restaurant orchestra. Priestley's plays, too, frequently have musical references; When We Are Married (1938), The Long Mirror (1945), Music at Night (1937) and The Linden Tree (1946) are four examples, but others could be nominated.
The preceding paragraph has by no means exhausted Priestley's allusions to music, so many of which reflect his own enthusiasms. As one would expect, not all of them are conventional. Let the People Sing puts in a word for that unfashionable instrument the viola. The otherwise insignificant novel Three Men in New Suits (Heinemann, 1945) is noteworthy for its advocacy of Mahler and Bruckner, Elgar even, decades before they found, or in Elgar's case, re-found popularity in English concert halls. Priestley usually extols live music making rather than music which was to be had by the flick of a switch, although late in life he greatly enjoyed listening to his own collection of gramophone records.
His literary output ranged widely. He even wrote the libretto of an operetta, The Olympians, which had music by Arthur Bliss. This was first proposed in 1945 and most of the actual work was done during 1946, though Covent Garden did not produce it until early in 1949. It was not a success, the reasons for failure lying not so much with libretto, nor the music, which was in Bliss's sumptuous late Romantic style (and which I remember hearing on the radio at the time and much enjoying) but being ascribable in large measure to personality clashes between the conductor and producer. Priestley's writings inspired other music. The Good Companions is, when staged, a "natural" for musical treatment. It was made into a musical at least five times three times on film, in 1932 when George Posford provided the music for the songs and Louis Levy was the Musical Director, in 1956 when Laurie Johnson furnished some rather pale, if not unpleasant, music and, in more recent years on YTV for which David Fanshawe was the musical source, and at least twice on stage, in 1931 to music by Richard Addinsell, later famous for the Warsaw Concerto, and in 1978 when the music come from André Previn. (The latter ran only six months, however). Looking at other Priestley films, one recalls that the Austro-American musician Max Steiner wrote the incidental music for Dangerous Corner in 1934, Francis Chagrin for the adaptation of another play, the later (1946) An Inspector Calls (the film appeared in 1954), while Benjamin Frankel did the honours for the 1962 re-make of The Old Dark House, which is the American title of the early "Gothic" novel, Benighted (Heinemann, 1927). Most noteworthy, however, among Priestley-inspired music must be the incidental music written for his play Johnson Over Jordan, first produced on the London stage in 1939. This came from the 26 year old Benjamin Britten and was his first venture into writing for the theatre. The scoring was for single woodwind, with an extra clarinet, two horns, trumpet, timpani, percussion, piano and strings. The music made a powerful contribution to the play's general effect and would, I think, be worth occasional revival in the concert hall. The BBC have revived it and there are presently (1994) two recordings.
Music has often loomed large in English literature. One thinks of George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, Thomas Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree, several of the novels of Jane Austen, John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga and of those fictional detectives Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey, among many musico-literary references. Jack Priestley with the richness, enthusiasm and catholicity of his allusions to music, must rank high among these.
P L SCOWCROFT