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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


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 of today!

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 later abandoned.

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 it."

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 1948.

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)

 



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