FELIX SWINSTEAD AT HOME
My father was the only musician in a large and
extended family, nearly all of whom tended to be artists (either
full-time or combined with teaching). Nonetheless my two brothers
and myself were constantly immersed in the sound of piano playing
from the two, and at one time three, grand pianos in the main
rooms of our house.
My father did most of his composing on my mother's
piano - she was herself an ARAM and a gold medallist of the Royal
Academy. He wrote his manuscripts with a thick orange coloured
fountain pen, a novelty in those early days, sitting at an immense
and beautiful dining table designed by his younger brother Charles
to seat at least sixteen guests. Composing was hard work and Felix
was under constant pressure from publishers to write more and
more pieces for children. Writing orchestral pieces and those
for concert performances was even more laborious as all the parts
had to be separately written out if he wished to hear any piece
prior to publication. He had a beautiful music script as his handwritten
'Concertstück' in the Royal Academy library will show. How
much more he could have written with access to the technology
All Felix's working life was spent at the Royal
Academy from his scholarship entry to full professorship and finally
retirement. In addition to teaching there he used the big rooms
in our house for teaching, pupils' concerts and musical get-togethers
of all kinds.
It is small wonder that my father welcomed the
breaks from this exacting and intensely hard-working routine which
were afforded by his trips as an examiner for the Associated Board.
These trips took him to the far corners of the world and he would
be away for many months at a time. He enjoyed the life on board
ships leading to his destinations, and he became quite an expert
in the game of deck quoits - or ‘tennikoit’ - which was played
on a court over a net. He would exercise cunning by pointing in
one direction and quietly dropping the quoit over the net in another
direction with the other hand. He came home with many trophies.
Felix's life at home was not without its lighter
side. He was fond of clocks and collected clocks of all sizes
and conditions, from grandfather clocks, station clocks to hang
on the walls, to any kind of clock movement to which he could
attach a pendulum and two weights. The merry tick-tocking resounding
through the house did not seem to disturb his musical activities
in the least. He would spend many happy afternoons browsing around
in the Caledonian market, returning with something bulky under
his coat which was rapidly deposited in his attic workshop "What
did you find?" - "Oh, only a few screws and things."
Another hobby was carpentry, and the scavenging
of pieces of wood whenever he might come across them. A surreptitious
visit to a wood yard could yield wonders on the throw-away junk
pile that 'might come in useful one day'. In later years he produced
two swings and a play pen for various grandchildren, and even
a sturdy table he made for my brother which is still in use today
by my son. The table he made for me had no matching legs and was
My father was loyal to all the generations in
his family. His ship-board game of Tennikoits was set up in the
garden and introduced to many Academy professors and their families.
He also acquired for us a croquet set and many putting courses.
No trip to the beach was without his tennikoit net and weird and
wonderful putting 'greens' on the sands.
At home we had many social evenings involving
fiercely competitive games of table tennis. Felix was even party
to devising a kind of balloon/rugby/netball in our downstairs
room with a long string fixed high up across opposite ends of
the room. Many from the Academy suffered bruises at this game.
Felix was venturesome when it came to automobiles.
We had our first - a Singer - in 1926. The first time he took
me out for a ride in it we parked on Haverstock Hill and he forgot
to apply the hand-brake. As the car slowly started descending
the hill backward he ran after it and with great presence of mind
seized the steering wheel and directed it round - into a shop
window! We later acquired a large open Sunbeam Tourer in which
we had wonderful holiday trips to beaches, to exciting and scenically
attractive places and all round Scotland. We reckon that we must
hold the record for pushing our car out of ditches, bogs and roads
'unsuitable for motor vehicles' and arriving petrol-less in deserted
Scottish villages. My mother always chose to walk down the steepest
hills and on one occasion when we slid out of one ditch straight
across the road and into the ditch on the other side was heard
to remark mildly, "Really, Felix dear, what are you doing?"
Accompanying my father wherever he went was a
small methylated spirit stove and kettle and hopefully milk and
sugar and tea. The holiday task was to find a sheltered spot where
we would protect the flame until the water boiled (if it ever
did) - while eating methylated spirit flavoured ham sandwiches.
Many a cup of tea was made in hotel bathrooms, in cupboards and
even, on one occasion, in a train.
Felix had a good sense of fun, and his music
is evidence of his humour. Many of his concert pieces, and especially
his "Oh dear what can the matter be?" could be relied upon
to bring laughter to any audience. It was not always so, of course;
on occasions he would come down to dinner looking glum and saying
"I can't compose", but later on he'd say to me "Come and
listen to this nice little piece, Barbie. I think you'll like
My efforts to play the piano were encouraged
but must have been irritating. I remember my father coming down
two flights of stairs to say gently to me "C sharp in the left
hand, Barbie.", and my mother mildly suggesting that I should
shut the front windows when practising my scales on a Sunday morning.
Talking and verbally philosophising were not
amongst Felix's pastimes. He once said to me "When people ask
me what I think about the war and things, I tell them that what
I think is all there in my music." He was referring at that time
to his very beautiful and haunting Ballade published in
During the war Felix took on the post of organist
in the church of St Matthews, Bayswater to 'help out'; and I was
lucky enough to be allowed to join the choir when they sang his
setting of the Te Deum. It was a great joy and one I will
never forget; set in unison it wanders through many keys carefully
following the rhythm of the words until it comes to a major climax
in the final passage, firm, simple and straightforward. It was
published by Banks in 1941.
Felix's music was very modern for his time. I
recently heard an electronic rendering of his Humoresque
on the WWWeb and although Felix would have shuddered to think
of anything so terrible, the piece came across remarkably well
amongst the 21st century compositions currently being played.
Of course those familiar with the music or with Felix’s music
in general could easily pick out passages lacking the tones and
nuances that were intended. I hope that no more of his music is
put on the Web in that way.
Recently my brother David Swinstead and I have
been gathering together all of Felix’s music we can lay our hands
on and have donated it all to the RAM Library in the care of Kathy
Adamson (tel 02078 737373). We have been unable to trace a copy
of the score of the orchestral piece Red Gauntlet which
opened the concert of his music given in his honour upon his retirement
by Ernest Reed and the Academy Orchestra at the Dukes Hall, nor
can we find the Piano Sonata that I am sure exists somewhere .
Any information on these two items would be welcomed.
I remember my dear father with a cigarette permanently
between his lips while the ash on the end grew to alarming lengths
before finally dropping off to lose itself between the white notes.
During the wartime shortages it was cold and he would try to warm
the keyboard by rubbing it with the sofa cushions he had heated
at the gas fire - scorch marks were much in evidence amongst our
furnishings. My father had a green velvet jacket that he wore
each year for Christmas - moth balls and all!
But it is for his children's pieces that most
people will remember and love him; they are always musical and
have a charm, containing many surprising and subtle twists - and
they all lie easily under a child's hand. One can easily understand
why Matthay and Craxton were anxious to encourage Felix to join
them in their novel teaching activities.
He was a person of whom one could say truly that
the world was a better place for his being in it.
Barbara Wilkins (née Swinstead)