The first biography of Sir Malcolm Sargent appeared
in 1968, a year after his death. Written by Charles Reid (whose biography
of Beecham had been published in 1962; one on Barbirolli was to follow
in 1971), it had Sargent’s sanction and in many ways was a fair and
thorough portrayal. Reid had collaborated with his subject who had even
read drafts of several chapters and made suggestions. This partnership
continued up to Sargent’s death, after which, as Reid put it in his
foreword, ‘the members of the Sargent family have not seen fit to continue
Sir Malcolm’s co-operation’. He generously concluded his foreword with
It had been conveyed to me by an eminent musical
personage, however, that it was feared I might be making too much
of ‘Sir Malcolm’s weaker side’. What this weaker side might be was
not defined. Malcolm Sargent had his limitations. He had his vanities.
He made his mistakes. I trust that these have not been overstated.
What concerns me far more is Malcolm Sargent’s strengths. These I
have stated as eloquently as I could. They were a need of his time.
They are an exemplar for times to come.
Reid’s Malcolm Sargent: a biography (Hamish
Hamilton) went into paperback.
Now, nearly thirty-five years after Sargent’s death,
it is time for a re-assessment, and in writing this new study Richard
Aldous has generally been extremely thorough in his research, so much
so that there are clear differences of fact between the two books. Aldous
even suggests that Reid’s job was to ghost-write Sargent’s autobiography,
whereas Reid made it clear that at Sargent’s suggestion, once he had
agreed to the publisher’s choice of biographer, it was to be a collaboration:
Reid would write the main narrative while Sargent would ‘intercalate
chapters of comment and perhaps additional biographical matter at various
points’. In the summer of 1967 Sargent read 300 pages of Reid’s typescript
‘and confirmed that he would be contributing chapters of his own’. Aldous
writes that on Sargent’s death Reid ‘possessed enough material from
the ghosted memoir to create a fair and well-written contemporary biography’.
He goes on to say that ‘Reid’s book ignited a debate from which the
conductor’s reputation has never recovered’. Those who grew up in the
Sargent era may look on this as a slight exaggeration: the book only
put into print what was already known. Much of the less palatable side
of Sargent’s character was only too familiar.
Aldous, however, has benefited from being allowed
access to much information that Reid was denied, and a series of well-conducted
interviews (including those with Sir Malcolm’s secretary-cum-manager
Sylvia Darley, and his son Peter) has added considerably to the overall
picture of the man. But if Reid’s biography could be said in any way
to have damaged Sargent’s reputation, Aldous’s book is hardly the corrective.
He opens new doors on Sargent’s womanising and his affairs. Of his marriage
Reid told us that he had fallen in love ‘with a slim, elegant girl’
who lived at Beyton, Suffolk who ‘was a keen rider and made many friends
in Melton hunting circle’. Rather more bluntly Aldous tells us that
Sargent’s doctor and regular golfing partner ‘must have been shocked
to discover that Sargent was sleeping with one of his domestic staff
. . a servant girl, just an ordinary maid’. Reid wrote of an idyllic
wedding, ‘of warm sunshine, silver lame and on English lace’ at which
the bride’s uncle officiated. Aldous paints a very different picture:
a shot-gun wedding because Eileen had become pregnant, followed by a
very difficult birth.
But quite the most extraordinary divergence is
Aldous’s belief that single-handed Sargent formed the London Philharmonic
Orchestra. While he refers elsewhere to Thomas Russell’s Philharmonic
Decade (Hutchinson 1944) which covers the formation and early days
of the orchestra, he presents the facts in a very different light from
other commentators. Russell made it quite clear that Sargent became
involved because of the extra work he could bring the orchestra through
his involvement with the Royal Choral Society concerts, the Courtauld-Sargent
Concerts and the Robert Mayer Children’s Concerts. Jerrold Northrop
Moore’s Philharmonic Jubilee 1932-1982 – A Celebration of the London
Philharmonic Orchestra’s Fiftieth Anniversary (Hutchinson 1982)
credits Beecham alone, adding that the above-mentioned organisations
‘brought in Malcolm Sargent as conductor of many concerts’. Robert Elkin
tells a similar story in Royal Philharmonic (Rider and Co. 1946)
while Alan Jefferson, in Sir Thomas Beecham: A Centenary Tribute
(World Records 1979), states that ‘Courtauld and his wife had previously
offered Sargent the task of raising a new orchestra which they would
support, but he declined the opportunity.’ George Roth, cellist in the
new LPO, recorded his memories of the orchestra’s formation in the January
1983 edition of ‘Undertones’, the Newsletter of the RPO Club,
an extract of which was reprinted in The Sir Thomas Beecham Society
Newsletter No 100, April 1983. Nowhere does he mention Sargent;
he makes it quite clear that he and other players were joining Beecham’s
new orchestra. Yet Aldous quite simply asserts that Sargent ‘assembled
106 players’, the new organisation was named the London Philharmonic
Orchestra, and that the first season was divided equally between Sargent
and Beecham, with Sargent ‘deferentially’ taking the title of Auxiliary
Musical Director. He adds that ‘Sargent’s professionalism ensured that
the orchestra was on top form at its public debut’ – yet on 7th
October 1932 it was memorably conducted by Beecham to ecstatic reviews!
He goes on to say that Beecham ‘capitalised on Sargent’s illness in
1933 to assume full control of the London Philharmonic Orchestra’ and
‘in 1935 sacked eight members of the orchestra’. There is no questioning
the fact that Sargent was to some extent involved in the formation
of the London Philharmonic, especially near the end of July and at the
beginning of August 1932 when Beecham was conducting opera in Munich.
But to credit Sargent alone with the formation of the orchestra and
to be able to read (p.217) that in 1962 ‘Sargent had finally made peace
with the orchestra that he founded in 1932’ is little short of ludicrous.
Nevertheless, Aldous has written a very readable
and often entertaining book. It has many strengths and he rightly highlights
what was probably Sargent’s ‘finest hour’ – the war period when he brought
music to a Britain of blitzes and black-outs. But this new biography
shares a weakness with Reid’s study: neither writer seems to be in sympathy
with Sargent’s repertoire, most notably English music. An essential
ingredient is therefore missing: it is as if, to paraphrase a familiar
saying, ‘through and over the whole book another and larger theme "goes"
but is not heard’. Reid admitted that ‘in music there was no great affinity
between Sargent and myself’. Aldous does not show any love or knowledge
of the music which is the backbone to this life, writing, for example,
of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius lasting ‘two and a half hours’(p.110).
He is unnecessarily - and unfairly - harsh and dismissive of Boult and
Barbirolli, and even of works, tossing away Holst’s Choral Symphony
as ‘an uninspired work, rarely performed, and disliked by choirs and
Sargent’s repertoire may have been limited, but his
championing of British music really deserves a more thorough examination
than Aldous allows. Elgar remained his chief love, and while he conducted
Gerontius regularly, during those years when Elgar’s reputation
was at its lowest ebb he kept faith with the two oratorios, The Apostles
and The Kingdom, even though they would result in less than half-full
halls. Two performances he gave of The Apostles during the Elgar
centenary won especially high praise from the critics. He championed
both symphonies, particularly the Second (always observing the tenuto
on the trombones during the second of those two dramatic and climactic
breaks in the first movement, two bars after 65), and a memorable performance
of The Music Makers at his 70th birthday concert in
April 1965 preserved in the BBC Sound Archives and once issued on Intaglio
is a fine testimony to his conducting of Elgar.
Neither should one forget his championing of Delius.
It was he, not Beecham, who gave the première of Songs of
Farewell in 1932, a work he committed to disc, and he gave many
performances of A Mass of Life, most notably at the 1966 Proms.
After Charles Groves had revived Delius’s Requiem in Liverpool,
Sargent had planned both to record the work and perform it in London
in a concert that was also to have included the Cello Concerto with
Jacqueline du Pré. (On Sargent’s death, Meredith Davies took
charge of the recording for EMI while du Pré never played the
Delius concerto in public.)
He also championed Walton and invariably brought off
Belshazzar’s Feast splendidly, having premièred at Leeds
in 1931. The flautist Gerald Jackson once wrote of Walton’s conducting
of his own music: ‘I feel that he conducts his own music as well as
anyone else, with the possible exception of Sargent, who of course introduced
and always makes a big thing of Belshazzar's Feast.’) Sargent
oddly spoke of Walton having miscalculated where the chorus is divided
in the final section and had his choirs sing as one. But there were
helpful ‘amendments’. At figure 14, after the a cappella ‘shall
be found no more’ he had the tenors – always the weakest section in
an amateur choir - delete their exposed solo ‘be found’ so that they
could hear the strings and be sure of entering with ‘no more’ in tune.
His last Prom performance of that work was, in the words of The Times
critic, ‘as vivid and thrilling a performance as we have ever heard’.
Even The Daily Telegraph critic wrote that ‘there is no conductor
who understands the complex rhythms and tensions of Belshazzar's
Feast better than Sir Malcolm’. There was unanimous critical praise
too for what turned out to be his last Gerontius at the Proms,
in 1966. (‘Sanctus fortis’ was for Sargent an affirmation of faith:
for those who sang under him his range of facial expressions presented
a more human image of the man than the sleekly tailored person the audience
Today, to many people, the mention of the name of Sargent
conjures up a picture of him, carnation button-holed, amidst a sea of
banners and Union Jacks at the Last Night of the Proms, and probably
little else. His appearance at the 1967 Last Night, when he had almost
literally dragged himself from his death-bed, was the final act of either
a great showman or a very courageous man wanting to bid farewell to
his beloved audience. Probably both. The image of Sargent the showman
is what as much as anything has tarnished, if not damned, his reputation.
Reid wrote of some professional quarters nurturing a prejudice against
Sargent: ‘they damned or faintly praised his performances before he
even lifted the stick’. A life-long friend was Sir Thomas Armstrong
who had the highest regard for Sargent the musician. Just before
the end of his life, frail but mentally alert as ever, Sir Thomas shared
his memories in a broadcast interview [August 1994] with Daniel Snowman.
He spoke of Sargent as having ‘the most marvellous talent, and he had
many good generous virtues; he was kind to many people and I loved him
. . . I really loved him’ (a comment that should not be misconstrued).
It is a pity that Sir Thomas was not able to say more and that he was
not alive when Richard Aldous was researching and conducting interviews
for his book. More truths, indeed a separate chapter, about Sargent
the musician are what are needed in any thorough assessment. In Philharmonic
Decade Thomas Russell wrote of Sargent’s association with the LPO:
‘No choice of conductor could have been more happy than that of Dr.
Sargent. With his svelte figure, his incisive manner and his conscious
showmanship, added to the enthusiasm which he so easily displays and
arouses, he made the audience feel at once that they were in for a good
time. . . . His Raymond-Massey features, and his well-known facility
for speaking to a large audience, were further assets.’ But the pianist
Cyril Smith, in his autobiography Duet for Three Hands, revealed
another aspect of the man:
His brain is as immaculate as his appearance; it
seizes upon a point so rapidly that he seems to sense what the pianist
wants of the music even be fore he begins to play it. He takes the
unexpected quite calmly, as he did with me during a particular performance
of the [Rachmaninoff] Paganini Variations. There is one variation
in which the pianist’s hands have to rush up and down the piano independently
of one another, and in which he can easily take the wrong turning.
I did, and still have a horrible memory of watching my hands uncontrollably
playing entirely different sections of the music. For a moment I could
not think how to bring them together into the F major harmony, but
Sargent realised what had happened and rapidly collected the orchestra
to lead me back into the correct passage. He has an incredible speed
of mind and it has always been a great joy, as well as a rare professional
experience, to work with him.
These are points worth bearing in mind when Sargent
is readily dismissed out of hand. While one would not for a moment dispute
many of the criticisms made about him, points that Richard Aldous discusses
very fairly in this new biography, nor indeed would one want to be rash
enough to make too strong claims for him, it would be good for a moment
to set the showman and his button-hole aside and consider music alone.
Many of those of grew up in Sargent’s time may feel he occasionally
deserves a kindlier appreciation than his name is accustomed to receiving.
It would be a pity if this were the last word on the man.
See also review by Christopher