Aureole etc.

Golden Age singers

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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

JOHN RUSSELL F.R.C.M. (1916-1990)

A personal memoir of a friend and teacher, with reference to his friendship with Gerald Finzi



The sweltering summer of 1976, sprawled solitary in Hyde Park with iced coke and secret Consulate menthol cigarettes, end of term in sight, filling a battered diary with minuscule writing; naive, voluptuous entries sentimentalising about unsentimentalisable things. It was a time when everything was going my way, my uncle was giving me regular money, the powers-that-be in the Royal College of Music were starting to take notice of me, and most days it looked like tomorrow might not come. A double piano and composition scholar, I was in a little cosy world quite unaware of the opportunities that would present themselves in the near future. After an uncertain start, RCM life had become more enjoyable, I'd spent a year as a resident of More House along Cromwell Road, made some good friends, and I had completed the orchestration of my piano-duet work Nine Pins, reborn as Symphonic Studies, which was taken on board by the director himself, David Willcocks, and conducted by him that autumn.

But before that, and to my astonishment, and also indifference in many ways, I managed to win the 'Grade IV' prize for piano, awarded for the best examination performance of a student in attaining the top RCM level of 'V'. John Lill, my retiring teacher, told me above the pub noise of the Queen’s Arms (known as ‘the 99’ by RCM students) on the day I won 'You have one over me, I never won that prize when I was a student'.

Could it really have only been the way I tripped over my umbrella as I entered the examination room and showered the three bemused examiners with scores of my compositions? Certainly John Russell never forgot that moment, 'we thought 'we've got a right one here''. The Brahms Handel Variations had already become one of 'my' pieces, and together with Chopin's B minor scherzo and something else, which I forget, managed to convince John, 'Eddy' Kendall Taylor and I believe it was Alan Richardson, that I should win that year's prize. (Despite memory lapse.)

From the moment I entered the room that early-summer day I was aware of a truly benevolent aura, and felt drawn to it. Not to mention John’s frequent blowing through the hole in his throat, a constant reminder of his presence. I remember reading John’s article about his operation for throat cancer ‘starting from scratch’, and how ‘scratch’ had been the first word he’d had to practise saying over and over after the removal of his voice box. His disability was obviously irksome to him, but he coped well, and for me, who’d never known his much-loved radio voice, his burped speech only added to his stature and I clung onto his every laboured and precious word.

John didn’t seem to understand why I wanted to study with him after having studied with Lill for two years, and neither could many others at the college whose tongues wagged about it. But as I told John, who quoted me often, I didn’t want to study with anyone who would tell me ‘to put my fourth finger on C sharp’. Not that John Lill had ever told me to do such a thing, although I remember the bleak days of my first term at the RCM in 1974 when John Lill was on tour and his replacement Neil Immelman told me many times to use certain fingerings; Neil was charming, sophisticated and kind but I was so bored with the technical pianism which seemed to obsess him and often left the lesson holding back homesick tears. Lill wasn’t technical with me, it was always a matter of demonstration and style, and in that respect he had a lot of influence on me. The trouble with pianists was that so few of them appreciated or even knew of much English music. Most of the music I loved hadn’t been written for the piano, so pianists’ discussions about other pianists, famous recordings of the great piano classics and piano repertoire left me cold. John Russell, though on the RCM professors list as a ‘2nd study’ piano teacher, was more appealing to me than many of the other distinguished piano professors because I sensed he would feed that strong desire within me to be close to the English musical scene of the past, the time I never knew yet felt nostalgic about, and would understand fully when I said to him ‘John, I often feel I was born fifty years too late’.

Once it was ascertained that I really was sure I wanted to study with him, John accepted and thus began a friendship of fourteen years, until his death in 1990. Well, John was more than friend, he was like a father. In fact he referred to himself as my ‘mentor’. Only in name was he my piano teacher. He himself said in a letter: I don’t teach so much as hold court. People come in and out or stay – it’s just my style. It was a treat just to be able to spend an hour drinking milk or scotch, smoking cigarettes, chatting about everything and anything, but always learning some new story or anecdote about his great friend Gerald Finzi, or other assorted immortals from the past world of English music’s heyday. Every lesson John would allow me to pianistically wallow, perhaps in my favourite Elgar, busking big chunks of Gerontius, until I couldn’t remember the next bit, at which point he’d slip to the keyboard, cigarette hanging from his lips, and with tears in his eyes busk a similarly big chunk of The Apostles, exploding with exasperation, whale-like, through his breathing hole at any mistakes, saying afterwards how it was ‘the greatest of the three’. Sometimes I’d run through something I’d been learning (usually English) to which John would give me one or two general comments and that would be enough; such as of John Ireland’s Amberley Wild Brooks ‘you play it like one big wank’… Thereafter my rendition became more paced.

Thus he took me through my final two years at the RCM, inspiring a new self-confidence in my ability as a pianist and composer. ‘You HORRID boy, I can’t teach you anything’. He would introduce me to other colleagues at the RCM as his ‘enfant terrible’, and they would smile or laugh and marvel at our special friendship. His first letter to me, a very typical example of his style, began: My dear Adrian, Your letter has given your elderly dumb friend more pleasure than he can express. As you can well understand, it is easy to become possessive of a rare talent such as yours, and that I have always been determined not to indulge in. But I need not say that I’ll be around for just as long as I can be of any use to you as mentor (look it up in the dictionary) and for ever as a friend. So shut up.

As a ‘Brother Savage’, John soon introduced me to the fraternity of gentlemen who wiled away many hours without the possibility of an appearance by the wife. On many occasions John and I hailed a cab outside the RCM after my lesson (one very cold evening John truly frightening the cab driver with a coughing fit resulting in a spectacular display of under-collar steam) and headed off to The Savage Club, then in Fitzmaurice Place near Green Park. I recall the first person I met in those revered, dim rooms, propping up the bar – ‘Humphrey, this is one of my worst students, Adrian Williams’ – Searle’s 2nd Symphony had impressed me, although not knocked me out, at Watford Town Hall years before, whilst elderly concert-goers squirmed. Krips and the LPO doing Humphrey Searle in Watford – unthinkable now, almost so in the early 1970s. The composer acknowledged me but quickly resumed some involved conversation in 12-tone, furrowed-brow cigarette haze. I attended a few dinner-jacketed Savage Club dinners too, including one ‘ladies’ night’, all the boys on their best behaviour. Ladies’ night concert, John in tearful ecstasy at the piano accompanying Liza Lehmann’s In a Persian Garden with a cluster of distinguished singers in relaxed mood, including I think Margaret Cable and Marion Studhulme who I knew well at the RCM. Then me crashing through Balakirev’s Islamey to tumultuous applause and another guest Tanya Polunin saying ‘not bad’. Midget comedian Wee Georgie Wood being carried onto the little stage for some act. Then back to Reading by car with John’s wife Margaret.

It wasn’t long after I came to know John that I was invited to Ben’s Folly. John had lived in Reading for years and then in a house large enough for their six children in Burghfield Common, ‘The Hollies’. Before I knew John came Ben’s Folly; Ben, the youngest of the clan being an architect, designed the entirely wooden house next door to The Hollies, set well back from the road with large patch of land to the rear, sloping a little away to the west overlooking undulating Berkshire fields. Margaret kept John in order with a healthy diet, eggs from their own chickens, homemade brown bread, jam, yoghurt. Everything organic and home made as far as possible.

 The author with the Russells at Bens Folly, 1977

Even the rich Christmas cake which I somehow came to ice for them, melting the marshmallows, mixing the paste, peaking up the snow drifts, adding the little decorations; it became an annual tradition for me to ice the cake, a good reason to pay them pre-Christmas visits in later years.

The house creaked all the time, and one could hear everything everywhere, but the atmosphere was radiant and restful. John liked to just be in his study, enveloped in an aura of tobacco and old paper, musing over things, maybe scotch in hand, almost certainly cigarette. If I went in, a score would come off the bookshelf, and an anecdote woven around it. Like when the piano score of a certain concerto work was processed over creaking wood through to the western-facing lounge, and twangy Bechstein grand, and opened at the slow movement. Play it said John with a silent grunt, expectation in his eyes, and as I played, tears, as always, hiding just beyond flow.

Tears not so far away for me either; like discovering new treasure it was as if a cellist were with us in the room, that F-sharp rising to A, and falling chords anchored by the D major scale. Finzi’s great late work (Cello Concerto) was hardly known in the mid-1970s, like so many fine works by him and other neglected composers. ‘We listened to the premiere on the radio in 1956, while Gerald was in hospital.’ said John ‘The next day Gerald was dead’.

This must be as good a moment as any to talk about John’s close association with Gerald Finzi, which began shortly after the second world war.

In the early 1980s John and I talked about the possibility of publishing an article about "Russell and Finzi"; John very much wanted to write something himself, but an incident shortly after Finzi’s death made him reluctant.

On June 7th 1981 John wrote a little about it:

A horrible thing happened after Gerald died. The local paper asked me for a piece about Gerald and me, so I wrote an aide-memoire about the work we'd done together - which they printed verbatim! Then people wrote and said cruel things about "JR's conceit"....etc. So that's why the last 25 years have found me silent, except for such people as your dear self who have approached me.

From my reaction to this letter it seems that John had been chewing over the possibility of writing an article about Gerald Finzi and himself for some time, but hadn’t now the courage to do so. I was slightly impatient and wrote the following insolent note to John the same day I think 25 years is too long to stay in one’s shell. The Finzis have behaved welcomingly towards you…I wish you’d do the same and move towards them. Then write that blasted article!! So shut up…..

But on August 24th John wrote: Adrian, the more I think about the Finzi memoir (him and me, I mean) the more I'm convinced that it should be by someone else, in the 3rd person. The 1956 episode was VERY HURTFUL INDEED. The last one wants is for people to assume that here is an upstart clinging on to the back of a neglected composer (as he then was), and I thought that the only thing to do in my misery was to keep on playing his music ("Fall of the leaf", "New year music", Clarinet Concerto, etc.), but keeping absolutely clear of personal association. (The Finzi family made no move to get in touch at the time.)

Why do YOU not do a G.F.-J.R. piece? You, of the next generation, are nearer to me and Gerald's music than anyone else I know. You are in the picture, and I could give you yet more details than we have so far talked about.

I don’t recall having received ‘more details’, but on September 7th John came up with a short history of his association with Finzi:

Here are a few pathetic scribbles. Let the article speak via A Williams’

John Russell, the conductor and pianist, heard Gerald Finzi's music for the 1st time by accident - it was the cantata Dies Natalis at the 1947 Three Choirs Festival. He had recently been released from six years of war service with the R.A.F., and was out of touch with the world of music. These radiant sounds led to a lifetime of devotion to Finzi's music.

They met (also quite by accident) later that year, and the following 9 years were a constant adventure. Finzi was a widely-read, cultivated man, whose activities in addition to his own composing produced scholarly editions of 18th century works by Stanley, Boyce, Mudge and others. His sensitive response to poetry revealed itself in song-settings of words by Traherne, Wordsworth and Hardy. Russell felt a bright new world opening out to him, his moderate musical talent growing in range and in depth. In 1948 Finzi recommended him for the conductorship of the Newbury Choral Society, a post he was to occupy for 30 years. In one season he persuaded the committee to agree to an entire programme of Finzi's music - the Ceremonial Ode "For St.Cecilia", "Intimations of Immortality", "Dies Natalis" and an unusual work, the Grand Fantasia and Toccata for piano and orchestra, fierce, discordant and dramatic. Russell played it and the composer conducted it. Such was the success of this concert that Russell was emboldened to repeat it at the Royal Festival Hall, with the LSO, and the BBC Choral Society, with Richard Lewis and Peter Katin as soloists.

Thus one life was touched by the magic of the man and his music.

In addition, Russell's growing family were glad to take the advice of the family of Gerald and Joy Finzi as to which type of schools they should send theirs to....

The Finzi connection found its way into my own life, first through Lizbie Browne, that most gorgeous of gorgeous songs from Earth and Air and Rain, in which I accompanied Adrian Clarke at an audition for the late Sir Giles Isham at Lamport Hall. The newness and freshness of that song and its artlessly natural word-setting was totally burned into my musical personality that day in 1975; also recalling misty-blue Northamptonshire countryside.

My first meeting with Joy Finzi was in the late 1970s when I visited her in rural Berkshire with a friend who was doing his GRSM thesis on Finzi. Then later on I joined the Finzi Trust. Through this, connections between the Russells and Finzis were re-established, though in a modest way. At about this time another friend, violinist and entrepreneur Paul Gray, established the Southern Pro Arte, the orchestra to which Joy Finzi gave her blessing as successor to the then disbanded Newbury String Players, and which had its inaugural concert at the Reading Hexagon in 1981. The late Marcus Dods was their principal conductor.

There was one memorable SPA concert in Newbury Parish Church on October 3rd 1981 which included theantiquated (Gerald Finzi’s own description) Romance for strings, which is dedicated to John Russell and which was included in the concert especially for John. At the request of Joy Finzi Farewell to Arms was sung by Julian Pike. John was present and wrote to me after the concert, which had included a little work by me:

Adrian, my dear boy! It was only when I got home on Saturday that I realised that you had got to where you wanted, and where you ought to be - for a part of your life at any rate - in the Finzi-Newbury-Russell ambience, and I had a little weep. What better "visiting card" than your splendid music (Do you ever cross ANYTHING out, or do you let it EASE itself onto paper, as did Schubert, Mendelssohn, Dvořák and (most of the time) Britten?) Gerald's restless soul must have been singing with joy somewhere.

In March the following year, 1982, John reported with delight in a letter that:-

Joy Finzi has made me a vice-president of the new Finzi Trust, which cheers me after all these years (along with D.McVeagh, J.C.Case, H.Ferguson et al) – a position made more visible in August at the Three Choirs Festival in Hereford at which the Finzi Trust held its first Three Choirs lunch in a marquee near the cathedral. (Intimations of Immortalitiy was performed at the Three Choirs that year if I remember correctly) John and Margaret were both present, and, ever a willing slave, I was commandeered to slice cheese for the buffet. John a few days later: Strange Finzi gathering! I seemed to be without doubt the only Elder Statesman present, except for Diana. [McVeagh] The Three Choirs that year was an appropriate prelude to my move from Surrey to the glorious Welsh marches the following month.

  The Russells, Hereford Three Choirs Festival, 1982

Indeed, continuing on from there, it was a fitting honour to have the financial support of the Trust towards a recital at the first Presteigne Festival in 1983 when I accompanied Brian Rayner Cook in Let Us Garlands Bring.

John had, in his possession, the original manuscript of Finzis Eclogue, in two piano version, as it was intended to be the slow movement of a piano concerto. As I pored over this treasure, I felt an almost unbearable closeness to a time I never knew, a time between the two world wars when Finzi was working in Gloucestershire, maybe at Chosen where westward falls the hill. Together with this gem were collected the original of a hitherto undiscovered Lullaby (Greek Folk Song) for SATB unaccompanied, and some scribblings and a letter by Vaughan Williams about the double bass parts of his Sea Symphony which John had performed with the Newbury Choral Society one year. Sometime in the 1970s I took the M/S of the Eclogue on one of the Welsh border holidays, so I could be near it and near my spiritual home at one time! The manuscripts are now safe in the British Library.

  JR Eclogue

John told me the story of the Grand Fantasia and Toccata, mentioned in his note earlier; how hed discovered the manuscript of the Grand Fantasia and the slow movement (later to become the Eclogue), both parts of the unfinished concerto, in Geralds house whilst on a visit.

It turned out that these had been written many years before and were simply gathering dust. It was Russells suggestion that Finzi wrote a Toccata to go with the Grand Fantasia, and as the Grand Fantasia and Toccata John premiered it as soloist in London in 1953. Needless to say we bashed through it both ways on the two pianos of the westward-facing lounge at Ben’s Folly, first me as the orchestra on the soft-toned upright Broadwood, John clattering away his broken octaves, spluttering at the mistakes. Then, the Eclogue, charming, simple, John with cigarette between his lips, an emotional silhouette against the golden light of the south-facing window.

There came a time at the end of my first year with John Russell (1977), when my pianistic ability was put to the test. To my utter astonishment I managed to get through to the final round of the Chappell Gold Medal competition at the RCM They didnt like you best grunted John with a wag of his finger and a twinkle in his eye. I had already booked my holiday … that went by the board, now I had to get down to it. There were only three weeks and I had prepared nothing for a 50 minute recital. But here was my chance to do anything I liked, so I submitted an entirely English programme which John thought completely mad. Rawsthornes Bagatelles, Tippetts Sonata no.2, Irelands Amberley Wild Brooks and April, Baxs Sonata no.4 and Graingers Country Gardens and Shepherds Hey. Of course in the eyes of most pianists it would be considered madness, but Ive never been one for conforming to taste or convention. I loved English music and felt it was still neglected. It was a tall order to memorise from scratch this type of programme to recital level in three weeks. Especially with hostile neighbours; my parents and I lived in a typical suburban semi-detached house, and a small one at that. Our twin neighbours were understandably irritated by my hours of piano practise, especially when the master of the house was on night-work and slept until mid-afternoon. It would have been a disaster, but for John and Margaret.

So for three weeks in the early summer of 1977 I lived at Bens Folly in the Berkshire countryside, practising for hours in the daytime gradually committing my programme to memory, sometimes going down the hill for drinks with John at the Hatch Gate pub in the village and talking to Frank behind the bar, sometimes trundling down the same hill on yellow peril the dilapidated old bike, sometimes driving their car in monotonous circles on their driveway just for fun (I didnt have a driving licence in those days).

I recall a walk down through villages and past remains of churches to Aldermaston one luxuriously warm day, catching a train there and being picked up at Theale by John. A summer gathering of family and friends, eating Margarets kedgeree (brown rice of course) in the sunset glow with lounge sliding doors open to the fields, and afterwards making a chorus of little whistles out of cow parsley stalks, John blowing with mirth in the midst. John loved visitors, old friends, family. He often used to say ‘All I did was meet a girl called Margaret, and suddenly the house was full of people’

A visit for a few days by the violist Bernard Shore and his wife Olive, then already quite elderly, John and Bernard performing for us Bernards own arrangement for viola of Elgars Violin Sonata, Bernard, Olive, John and Margaret with me in a line for a treasured photo. And then Major Dent down in Hillfields, aged 90, puffing to the piano by the windows overlooking great lawns, and singing (shakily but not bad for 90) Quilters O mistress mine to John’s or my accompaniment.

Bernard Shore and John Russell performing Shore's own arrangement for viola of Elgar's Violin Sonata

Suddenly a jolly chuckle and dozens of little explosions of what? what? when he couldnt hear something, finally grunting off into the dark labyrinths of his mansion.

Then in the quietness of a summers night on the balcony at Bens Folly, Margaret with quilt and futon outside their bedroom, and a little way along the balcony me with mine, both of us sipping Bournvita under the stars. Then in the early morning the crowing of the cockerel, Margaret descending the creaking stairs to let out and feed the chickens, dew like silk on my pillow. Breakfast of muesli, chopped fruit and yoghurt, maybe a new-laid egg, boiled.

And on a Sunday morning down to St Jamess in Reading for the Latin Mass. Johns Catholic faith, sparked off by his friend the baritone Owen Brannigan, was a constant source of solace to him, and I loved to watch and listen to him stewing the Missa de Angelis plainsong into romantic mush with his adoring little group of singers up in the choir loft. Then after Mass an alcoholic introduction to the priest.

We usually arrived home some time after Margaret, who had been to her Sunday Quaker meeting. Catholic and Quaker - living more-or-less in acceptance of each other in the same house, occasional teasing between the two.

Margarets Quaker leanings suited her well, a skinny, bony, once beautiful lady bred from a well-to-do family, still beautiful at times, matured into a keen gardener and green-thinker. We enjoyed endless discourses about ecological issues, my uncompromising youth tempered by her lifes wisdom, her conversation calm and her responses considered.

Somehow the lengthy stretches of piano practise and memorising, broken by these glorious distractions brought me to the point of readiness with my recital programme.

John was always close to tears at the swelling of the big melody at the end of the Bax sonata; following his reactions enabled me to know how to pace this section. I knew when I had hit the mark. I always played on the Broadwood, which I believe had been in Margarets family, so much more mellow than the grand.

The day of truth arrived, Tippett Sonata no.2 98% memorised, telegram from John waiting at College: It’s only the Chappell! Ordeal over. I was told that David Willcocks, then Director of the RCM, had slipped into the back of the hall astonished first to see one of the contestants for the Chappell Gold Medal trip up the top step of the concert platform and lurch across into the piano - only to give a hyperventilated crash-through of English Country Gardens. I got the Hopkinson Silver. Thank you Louis Kentner, Jimmy Gibb, Eddie Kendall-Taylor. It was more than I had ever imagined for myself.

Then back to Burghfield, evening glow to the west over rolling countryside, with the sort of satisfaction and relief that only third place can give.

Fons Belly! You horrid child wrote John, reacting to my spoonerism; I could hear his explosive burps as I read his letter. Those letters, like little friendly missiles containing some small thought or anecdote or expression of affection. His response was a photocopy of a competition from The Spectator in which entrants had to be Lord Spooner himself, telling off his slow undergraduates - this will make you splutter into your cornflakes. Indeed it did, what with showing tightness in your breasts but now limply sagging behind or threatening to stop the authorities from greying your pants…I can still hear John’s own spluttering, loud blowing, accompanied by red face, watering eyes, degenerating into prolonged wheezing and use of handkerchief beneath collar. John was familiar with such old-fashioned English tomfoolery, having known personally the inimitable Stanley Unwin. The same letter went on: It reminds me painfully of a real clanger. Yesterday I got a charming letter of thanks from Peter Pears in reply to condolences on the death of B.B. – addressed, of course (in his own handwriting) to "Ben’s Folly". How clumsy can one get? O dear!

John had an enormous number of friends and admirers. His welcoming warmth endeared him to all who met him. In my case it was certainly that plus a healthy distaste for stuffiness which drew us close as friends.

During the 1980s he was invited to become editor of the RCM magazine, which publication suddenly became more approachable, too much so for some. Even I was asked to contribute; an article about Bernard Stevens’ 60th birthday concert at the Workers Music Association … Many complained about the magazine’s tone, saying it had become more like a student rag than the formal RCM magazine they’d known. Maybe my childish offering hadn’t helped. In the end John resigned. He fitted only very roughly into the RCM establishment, but he loved time spent there, loved the company of other musicians, those he’d spent his life working with.

Here is a lovely piece of observation in a letter shortly after Bernard Stevens died: I enclose the Times obit. Of Bernard [1916-1983] I assumed at first that E.R was E.Roxburgh, but it is so unlike him and his style that I wonder if it might be E. Rubbra, except that he’s coming up to 82! (Cripes! Is he still alive?)

On Monday in the S.C.R [Senior Common Room] there were Ridout, Horowitz, K.Jones and J.Lambert, all discussing technical matters. I could almost see the wraith of our dear ‘Elder Brother’ hovering over them.

He was larger than life-size among us, it is cruel that all that vitality should be gnawed away by the relentless CRAB. [Bernard Stevens had died of cancer]

I recalled how John had been delighted to be given the all-clear for cancer some years after his operation. ‘You’re not going to die of cancer’ his doctor had told him. ‘What will I die of then?’ ‘I haven’t the remotest idea’.

During the 1980s correspondence between us slowed as I became ever more involved with ‘real life’ in the Welsh borders and John and Margaret withdrew for longer periods into home life. We sit quietly in the Folly the Friday about 7.30pm, Ma making bread and me writing to you.

I managed to get over to ice the Christmas cake occasionally.

His last letter came about four months before he died: I’ve been 6 weeks and 4 to follow – treated for a stroke. L H is useless and right leg is dragging and cannot stand up if I’m sitting down. Write to me about you when you’ve time and cheer me up. Love from us both …. PS Was with Edwin Roxburgh when it happened in London. He got me back to Reading, saw me into hospital and in fact saved my life! When I told him so he said ‘John, don’t be daft, I just happened to be in the right place…’

The end came that autumn; Margaret in her own special way broke the news over the telephone, how John had suffered another bad turn during the night …‘he didn’t survive’. It was I who took John’s place in the organ loft, surrounded by the streaming-eyed souls of his beloved choir. Missa de Angelis from above. Requiem mass below.

Adrian Williams


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