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Richard Aldous
Hutchinson, London
302pp xviii 38 illus. Published 2001 18.99
ISBN 0 09 180131 1
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Sargent's enduring reputation is still highly coloured by the image of a white carnation in his buttonhole, and the sobriquet of Flash Harry (his official Christian name was, like his father, Harold), which originated during his very brief army service in the First World War. In his last years Sargent began working at an autobiography ghosted by Charles Reid. At his death in 1967 the ever tactless Reid tried to bludgeon Sargent's family into giving him the late conductor's papers, but to no avail. Reid nevertheless wrote a biography based on what he had already worked on with Sargent and whatever else he could glean from other sources. Richard Aldous has now produced a biography which uses the sources denied to Reid, such as family archives and papers retained by his former secretary Sylvia Darley. Aldous is an historian with a love of music, his portrayal of social conditions vividly detailed, but he is no expert musician though he clearly loves music. He makes the very dubious assertion that at New York's Metropolitan Opera, 'Mahler had no answer to Toscanini's physical energy [but Mahler was renowned for his excessive vitality on the podium] and ceaseless political manoeuvrings [but Mahler had gone to America from Vienna which to this day is a hotbed of political skulduggery]'. There is an unfortunate typographical error which also makes the point. 'When he returned [to Peterborough Cathedral] in the 1960s he asked to see the new organ consul'. Was this some civic dignitary perhaps?


Sargent (born at Ashford in Kent in 1895) came from a working-class background, was brought up in the Lincolnshire town of Stamford, and was a day boy at the town's school. His father was a parish church organist there, his music teacher an excellent lady who later also taught Tippett. Sargent worked his way through the AB piano grades to an ARCO organ diploma, joined the choir at Peterborough Cathedral and studied under its feared organist Dr Haydn Keeton, one of the old school. After his brief stay in the army he returned to the towns of Melton Mowbray and Stamford where he had teaching posts and conducting work with their amateur choral and operatic societies. It's hard to imagine Melton Mowbray, renowned for its pork pies, as a town which 'attracted a sexy crowd', but the Leicestershire hunts in the area were popular with the racy Duke of Windsor and his vast aristocratic entourage. He even attended annual G & S performances in the town, together with the Duke of York (later King George VI), marquesses, earls and rajas. Sargent obtained social status by amusing the upper classes, literally singing for his supper in Stamford. By 25 he was Dr Sargent with an external degree from Durham. But he was ambitious to get away from the provinces, where as an organist, schoolmaster and private teacher of piano and singing he could have remained for the rest of his life. Henry Wood visited Leicester on 3 February 1921with the Queen's Hall orchestra, an unusual touring venue for them so the De Montfort Hall was sold out. It also included, by invitation, the chance for a local composer to have a work performed. Sargent was chosen but, like Baldrick he had a cunning plan and withheld his overture Impressions on a Windy Day until the last possible moment, so late indeed that the angry Wood insisted that he should conduct it. It was a huge success; Wood recognised not only the worth of the piece but also Sargent's talent as a conductor and gave him the chance to repeat the exercise, this time at London's Queen's Hall on 11 October the same year. Sargent never forgot the debt of gratitude he owed to Wood. From that time on his image also changed, no longer did have a mop of thick upright bushy hair, it was slicked back with Brylcreem, his dress was now formal, expensive and above all, dapper. Meanwhile the ease with which he was having his way with women resulted in a highly unwelcome shotgun wedding to a servant girl at this early stage of his life, but nevertheless it did not distract him from his purposeful conducting ambition. His next move was to use his appointment to the Leicester Symphony Orchestra, created for him by a local impresario, to further his purpose, learning repertoire, inviting Wood to hear it, and engaging soloists of the calibre of Cortot, Backhaus, Schnabel, Solomon, Suggia and Moiseiwitsch all of whom then took word of his prowess back to London. Boult became a friend, Sir Hugh Allen invited him to teach at London's RCM, and Wood finally persuaded Sargent to give up any thought of either composing or playing professionally, but instead to focus exclusively on conducting.

Events seemed to move quickly. He befriended Vaughan Williams and in 1924 recorded his opera Hugh the Drover for The Gramophone Co. (later EMI), in the days of pre-electrical acoustic recordings using very crude methods to secure balance and audibility. He followed it a year later with Holst's At the Boar's Head, and began to make a name for himself as an interpreter of new British music. When he took over Robert Mayer's Children's Concerts from Boult in 1924 and introduced words and phrases to illustrate themes to his young audiences, it enraged the Musical Times which concluded that 'the best place for him is at the door selling tickets'. But he continued to conduct them for 15 years until war intervened, even extending them to London's East End, an early example of what today we call 'outreach'. He was then asked by Rupert D'Oyly Carte to take charge of the music of a season of G & S operettas, and like a whirlwind swept aside the old chorus, replacing it with young fresh voices, galvanised the orchestra with his energy, cleaned up the scoring and solo vocal parts, and eradicated all the note errors that had crept in over the past 30 years. Known to the company's recalcitrant principal singers as the 'drill Sargent', it was his revision of tempi, using Sullivan's original markings, which upset them most. His work in 1927/28 with D'Oyly Carte, Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, and the Royal Choral Society in their semi-staged performances of Samuel Coleridge Taylor's Hiawatha at the Royal Albert Hall set the imprimatur on his career. Sargent did a fine job saving the first performance of Walton's Belshazzar's Feast at the Leeds Triennial Festival of 1931, for the chorus were finding its idiom too difficult to master. He turned a possible fiasco into a triumph and as a result became the most exciting choral conductor in the country, and succeeded the famed Sir Henry Coward at Huddersfield in partnership with the best of all choir trainers, Herbert Bardgett as his chorus master. Even Beecham conceded that Sargent 'is the greatest choirmaster we have ever produced; he makes the buggers sing like the blazes'.

Aldous presents an intriguing insight into Sargent's private life. His loveless marriage drifted further into the doldrums, though by 1926 he and his wife had two children, a daughter who was to die from polio in 1944, and a son Peter still alive today. Sargent was continually unfaithful, often drawn to his conquests more by social status than by sexual gratification and therefore 'slept with a number of spectacularly unattractive titled women'. To sustain his status on London's cocktail party circuit and his county image he dropped his parents. He met Elizabeth, wife of the industrialist Samuel Courtauld. It was she who had backed Beecham's Covent Garden activities in the 1920s, and then the pianist Schnabel, and who now recommended Sargent as conductor for her plan to set up a series of concerts with programmes which would juxtapose traditional repertoire with contemporary music. From July 1929 these became a popular subscription series of Courtauld-Sargent Concerts, with the young man sharing them with conductors of the calibre of Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer. Initially excoriated by the critics (one suggested that he 'and all other young musicians and amateurs need to learn of the heights in front of them instead of being assisted [by Mrs Courtauld] to crow more loudly on their miniature dung heaps'), the degree of detail demanded at rehearsals with the LSO, the outlawing of the deputy system (Wood must have appreciated the irony of this after his run-in with his Queen's Hall orchestra which led to resignations and the formation of the LSO 25 years before), and inspired programming led to a complete volte-face and much eating of words in the musical press. In 1932 the sub-standard LSO was replaced with the new London Philharmonic Orchestra, its musical direction shared equally between Sargent and Beecham. After Sargent conducted its debut on 10 October 1932 he collapsed. For some time he had been ill and only now was tuberculosis diagnosed; for almost two years he was unable to work, but it was an indication of his huge popularity that he was helped financially by friends and colleagues from the profession, public appeals, and fundraising concerts throughout the land.

Then it all went badly wrong. Just before a tour to Australia (which he took by storm), he gave an interview to the Daily Telegraph (June 1936) in which he expressed the extraordinarily ill-judged view that orchestral musicians had 'no job for life', 'he ought to give of his lifeblood with every bar he plays', and should receive a pension only 'when he has poured out ungrudgingly his whole strength'. After all his players had done for him during the dark days of his illness, this was his way of repayment and they never forgave him. Many great musicians joined in the chorus of disapproval and for Sargent, it meant that he had lost both the respect and affection of his orchestras forever. To a certain extent the Second World War united them all when Sargent toured nationwide with the LPO, during which he also managed to maintain his reputation for sartorial elegance despite the exigencies of wartime rationing. His appointment in 1939 to revitalise the Hallé orchestra was shortlived and he was pleased to switch to Liverpool for six years in 1942, leaving Manchester to Barbirolli. In blitzed London he was the last to conduct at the Queen's Hall before it was burnt to the ground on 10 May 1941, indeed with Beecham and Barbirolli in America and Boult with the BBC in Bristol then Bedford, Sargent was the only conductor of stature in London apart from the ageing Wood and the terminally sick Harty. His public profile was further enhanced by joining the team of four on Any Questions?, later the Brains Trust on BBC Radio's Home Service, and Sargent proved to be quick-witted, opinionated, and funny.

Where his life was distinctly unfunny lay with his family and his parenthood. He was estranged from a wife he had never loved, he had a tense relationship with his son, and a guilt-ridden love for his dying daughter who took seven years to die from polio. He never recovered emotionally from her death, and his very fine recording of Gerontius in 1945 is in many ways an outpouring of grief. Knighted in 1947, Sargent's recording career began to take off in this immediate post-war era. At this point Aldous lapses into tabloid reportage and the smut begins to fly with allegations of even more philandering, either euphemistically described as 'private information' in the (far too many) footnotes at the back of the book or from sources among those still with us, and how the claws are out! 'Susana Walton', refutes Sylvia Darley, 'was not to Sir Malcolm's tastes'. More agreeable apparently were the likes of Edwina, Earl Mountbatten's wife, and Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent (also Patron of his Royal Choral Society). It appears that Sargent's diary entries of 'Supper, 10pm' followed by a woman's name implied a lot more than just a meal.

From 1947 Sargent took over the Proms (the BBC had snubbed him by giving them to Boult after Wood's death in 1944) and his impact was immediate. Boult was uncomfortable both with the superficial rehearsal time and style of the concerts, and was desperate to offload them onto Sargent, whose energies were just what were needed. Boult was not being generous for by now he thoroughly disliked Sargent as much as he did the Proms, though if it was intended maliciously the plan backfired for Sargent immediately benefited from television coverage of the Last Night which began that very year. Revelatory was his British fee at the time, a fraction (at 65 guineas) of what Beecham (175) or Barbirolli (150) were getting, and very much the consequence of his penny-pinching, pound-foolish attitude to his finances and his refusal to employ an agent. He made up for it on foreign tours in order to sustain his lifestyle. He then succeeded Boult as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 1950-1957, after which he took Wood's title of Conductor-in-Chief of the BBC Proms, later enjoying a surprisingly good relationship with the innovative Music Controller William Glock. He was a pre-eminent recording conductor, always meticulously prepared and professionally organised in the studio, and much in demand by the world's top soloists, though by the mid-1960s the sales of his recordings were fast dwindling.

In his last years Sargent tended to lose interest in his mass choral societies. Authenticity was beginning to shape interpretations in performance, and that meant smaller forces and a reappraisal of tempi which held no interest for him. He continued to have an uneasy relationship with orchestral players. Still the pre-war 'lifeblood' incident rankled among the LPO's orchestral players but he was a necessary evil for them because he was always a draw with the public, especially out of London and more particularly overseas. After an arduous but triumphant tour with them to India, Hong Kong, Philippines, Australia, and Ceylon in 1962 the rift was partially, but never fully, healed. A tour with the RPO to eastern Europe was also an unhappy affair but followed with a life-saving one for the orchestra when he took them to America in 1963. As he gradually became more and more isolated from the musical scene, so his health deteriorated, and cancer was diagnosed in 1967. He made one final dramatic appearance at the last night of the Proms to give a short farewell speech coupled with a promise to return for the opening of the 1968 series, but that was not to be. His death (movingly described in this highly readable book) occurred on 3 October, the same day as his beloved Gerontius was first performed 67 years earlier, and it was the Angel's Farewell which Sylvia Darley was playing for him from his own recording as he slipped away. He never enjoyed a conductor's Indian Summer, like Boult, Monteux or Klemperer but his name will always endure even if his popularity resides more with the public and older generations of choral singers than with other musicians.

Christopher Fifield

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