as I knew him
Dr David C F Wright
I had the privilege of knowing Alan Rawsthorne
rather well. In fact, I am one of the few people who can say that
I had music lessons with him.
I first met him at the home of fellow composer,
Humphrey Searle, in St John's Wood in 1962. Alan was a most congenial
man and very amusing. He was a great friend of Humphrey but then
Humphrey had a wonderful capacity for friendship. In fact, they
had many things in common. Sadly, they were sometimes indiscreet
as to their alcohol intake ... Alan far more so than Humphrey.
Humphrey wrote his Prelude on a theme of Alan Rawsthorne for piano,
Op 45, as a tribute to Alan
It is always difficult to write about a composer
one knew well and not to offend anyone, but it is true to say
that some of Alan's music is simply awful. The Symphony no. 2
and the string quartets may well be cases in point. But one can
probably say this about many composers. It is my view that he
was not adept at writing for the voice and he often makes the
unfortunate mistake of writing a difficult vocal line regularly
employing the area where the voice's change of register is involved
and the transition from chest to throat or throat to head can
be perilous. His orchestral music has often been called passive
or brown. Comparatively seldom is sparkle to be found in his music
although the Piano Concertos have a certain scintillation. His
music is generally very serious which, strangely, was at odds
with his personality.
Some of his work is lazy. He once said to me
that he often wrote music as a farmer would scatter seed for his
chickens to eat.
He was also a poser. He loved to have his picture
taken and had a penchant for hats. He was a normal red blooded
male and certainly loved female company and it often got him into
trouble. He was more than friendly with Isobel, the sculptress
wife of Constant Lambert, and at the time when Constant was still
alive and riddled with illness and alcoholism. But Alan could
also be a terrible grouch particularly when inebriated. Once at
a party at Elizabeth Lutyens' house, when he was the worse for
wear, we could not find him. When we did, he was asleep in the
bath snoring in an irregular time signature.
Yet, despite all of this, we liked him.
He was not an arrogant or conceited man who thrived
on causing trouble as, for example, did Britten. Unlike Ben, Alan
could take criticism and did so with grace.
But it is the unknown Rawsthorne that impressed
me. It may come as a surprise to some but he was very clever at
counterpoint and an authority on the various species of counterpoint.
Although it is not always shown in his music he approved of order
and clarity. Most surprising of all perhaps is that he was a good
teacher. It is a great pity that teaching did not appeal to him.
My friend, the late Gerard Victory, showed some of his work to
Alan and Rawsthorne said that changes had to be made because some
of it could be mistaken for Elgar and that 'no composer worth
their salt wanted to be found guilty of that madness.'
I spent a lot of time with Alan in which he explained,
among other things, and demonstrated baroque ornaments with an
amazing simplicity and, believe me, that is amazing. He could
solve problems of counterpoint with an uncanny ease so that when
some of my pieces would have instrumental lines that clashed harmonically
Alan could immediately rectify it and it always worked. He was
very gifted in this way.
But he was something of a rogue it would appear.
The slow movement of his Piano Concerto no.1 is almost identical
with a student piece of Denis ApIvor's written and performed some
six years earlier. At the time Denis was having lessons with Alan
and, while I do not want to become involved with any controversy,
there is some evidence to show that Denis has a just cause to
It is my view that Alan's best pieces were written
for the violin. There are two concertos and a splendid sonata.
I have to admit that my admiration for the Violin Concerto no.
2 (1956) is probably due to my intimate association with it but
the Sonata (1959) is a compelling piece and reveals Rawsthorne
at his best.
He was an uneven composer. His four overtures
fall into two camps. The Hallé Overture (1958) and the
Overture for Farnham are very poor where Street Corner is deservedly
popular if somewhat trite and the Fantasy Overture Corteges is
very profound and strangely moving ... but does it ever get played?
Corteges also shows us what is best in Rawsthorne
having some splendid counterpoint, a unusual clarity of orchestration
and his interest for musical devices of the past particularly
the fugue. Strangely, perhaps, this music is decidedly British
with glimpses of the stiff upper lip but without the turgid pomposity
of Elgar. I could argue a strong case that this is the best example
of Alan's orchestration and I do confess to loving the atmosphere
and nostalgia it so beautifully evokes. It was written in 1945
and conveys the mixed feelings of war and the peace. To me it
evokes my boyhood when we wore short trousers until we were teenagers
and those awful Fair Isle jumpers and girls always wore skirts
and ribbons in their hair. Childhood mischief and scampering away
in fun is in this super piece and, of course, the funeral processions
for the dead, the victims of war. Of course, all of this is not
what Alan intended to convey
Alan was a sensitive man. He had very deep feelings
on a number of issues and was a humanitarian which is revealed,
for example, in two contrasting pieces namely A Rose for Lidice
for soprano and choir of 1956 and the Lament for a Sparrow of
1962 which is not a trivial piece as suggested by the title. Many
British composers were deeply affected by World War Two. Cedric
Thorpe Davie and Bernard Stevens both wrote war symphonies or,
to be accurate, victory symphonies and it is believed that Vaughan
Williams Symphony no. 6 in E minor written between 1944 and 1947
is a war symphony. Alan waited ten years before writing A Rose
for Lidice saying that he did not want to vie with one of Martinů's
orchestral masterpieces, A Memorial to Lidice, written in 1943.
An equal clarity is found in the Concerto for
ten instruments of 1961 and the Elegiac Rhapsody for string orchestra
of 1964 the theme of which Humphrey used for his prelude.
There is always rivalry among artists and some
of it is very serious and damaging. Alan did not belong to the
carping camp and he disliked intensely those arrogant composers
who put other composers down with vitriol, slander and libel in
order to promulgate their self-importance. Rawsthorne and Walton
were very friendly and both came from the same lovely county.
It is interesting to note how many artists loved
cats. Humphrey and James Mason were two people I met who adored
cats. Long before Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote his variable musical
Cats, Alan wrote Practical Cats for speaker and orchestra and
recorded it with the marvellous Robert Donat as narrator. Although
Alan was fundamentally a serious man in his music, this work displays
his sense of humour. He once said that animals were easier to
live with than some people.
Rawsthorne was a paradox. As I have said, his
music, often very serious, ‘brown’ as some called it, was in contrast
to his outgoing personality. Yet this may indicate a certain amount
of laziness. Fast music takes more time and paper and much more
work and so to compose comparatively brief music was less arduous.
However, he did not fall into one of Elgar's besetting many sins
of writing movements entitled ‘allegro’ which were predominantly
slow and 'suicidally tedious' as Alan called them.
It is difficult to assess Alan's music. To be
perfectly honest, he is an interesting and important composer
but perhaps he has not written any work that is outstanding, nothing
that sets the heart aglow, nothing immediately memorable. But
again, that could be said of many composers. Like Shostakovich
he used a musical signature in many of his works which becomes
a tired cliché. I have to be in the mood for Alan's music
and there are times when I cannot take it and other times when
I marvel at its cerebral integrity.
But knowing the man is probably both an advantage
The best accolade that I can give stems from
a performance that Ngoc Le and I gave of his Cello Sonata of 1949.
After the performance Humphrey said, "This is the British Bach".
High praise, indeed!
Copyright David C F Wright
see also Alan Rawsthorne