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The story of the Arts Council’s ill-conceived opera competition for the Festival of Britain in 1951 is of a classic British funding cock-up. It was a starry-eyed scheme which did not command the resources to implement its outcome, compounded by competing artistic factions and longstanding resulting ill-will as a consequence of the publicity attendant on the scheme. The four ‘winners’, Berthold Goldschmidt’s Beatrice Cenci, Arthur Benjamin’s A Tale of Two Cities, Karl Rankl’s Deirdre of the Sorrows and Alan Bush’s Wat Tyler were perceived to be an embarrassment to the organisers on account of their nationality or political affiliations. Yet the project had been carefully organised, with a succession of assessments of the emerging works that were being submitted. The composers were anonymous, only identified by a pseudonym, and thus even the organisers had no inkling with whom they were dealing until the competition had ended. Arthur Benjamin chose the pseudonym "Stagestruck", Alan Bush "Dudley Underwood", Berthold Goldschmidt "Squirrel", and Karl Rankl "Charles Francis", while Lennox Berkeley who fell at the last hurdle, was "Timotheus" .

After the euphoria in musical circles at the success of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes in 1945, it was clearly thought to be a positive move to encourage composition of music for the lyric stage to build on a positive climate. Three operas were commissioned for the Festival of Britain, though none of them was a total success at the time. They were Vaughan Williams’s morality A Pilgrim’s Progress, first seen at Covent Garden on 26 April, and certainly a succès d’estime at the time, though not the full-blooded opera that many might have been hoped for, and its full stature only really recognised after it had been recorded long after. Secondly, George Lloyd’s John Socman, a traditional opera on the theme of a fourteenth century soldier returning from the wars. This was toured by Carl Rosa. An audience success, as owners of the CD of excerpts will know (Albany TROY 131-2), it was a stageworthy traditional opera which failed owing to backstage intrigues. Finally, Britten’s Billy Budd, not staged until the end of the year, and being for an all male cast was not seen as mainstream. (The first production from 1951 is on CD on VAI Audio VAIA 1034-2.) Unfortunately there was no opera from the competition that might have crowned this activity, though Peter Tranchell’s competing opera The Mayor of Casterbridge, rejected by the competition at an earlier stage, was produced at Cambridge in 1951, and might well have been capable of fulfilling the expectations of the organisers. Unfortunately it was side-lined by the simultaneous production of Billy Budd at Covent Garden.

The competition was announced in February 1949 and a promotional pamphlet was issued. It is not quite clear who the Arts Council’s intended audience for this competition was, but there was an unprecedented response. Indeed, one wonders if the Council knew themselves, for clearly they were hoping for entries of international stature. It is quite clear that entrants, several of them with experience of the German opera scene before the Nazi era, and the fact that they were living under the post-war Labour administration, the composers who were largely of a politically left sympathy, expected a socialist state to behave like a socialist state and provide funding. Thus the last thing that any of the entrants expected was that the winner would not be produced; they all approached it with the utmost seriousness. The state was commissioning an opera, this was an important milestone. They would all be disappointed.

There were several stages in the competition. The first deadline was to submit a form stating the intending composer’s qualifications and experience, over a pseudonym, by June 1949, and when it closed there had been an unexpected 117 applications. This was sifted down to 61 who proceeded to the next stage and were invited to submit an outline.

At this stage the competitors were still anonymous. Over a succession of meetings during the autumn of 1949 most of the outlines submitted were rejected by the judges. Rejected composers we can now see included many of the leading British musicians of the day, including Malcolm Arnold, Albert Coates, Arnold Cooke, Christian Darnton, Norman Demuth, Maurice Johnstone, Clifton Parker, Ian Parrott, Cyril Scott, Bernard Stevens and Egon Wellesz. At this stage three composers were short-listed and identified, and only then did the judges discover that they had chosen three composers who had not been born in the UK, two of them German. They were the Australian Arthur Benjamin, who had proposed setting Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, the musical director of the Royal Opera House, Karl Rankl with Deirdre of the Sorrows after J.M. Synge, and Berthold Goldschmidt’s Beatrice Cenci. Feeling that they needed a winning composer with an English name they also hurriedly considered the next three operas on the shortlist, which turned out to be Alan Bush’s Wat Tyler, Wilfred Mellers’ The Tragicall History of Christopher Marlowe and Lennox Berkeley’s Nelson. Alone among the judges Constant Lambert championed Nelson, but after he died Lennox Berkeley was forgotten on the remarkable grounds of excessive modernism. Eric Walter White, the Assistant Secretary to the Arts Council, whose brainchild the competition was, wrote to the chairman Steuart Wilson about the first three commissions:

In some ways I think it may be desirable for us to give publicity to the commissioned operas as soon as possible; but I realize that if there is to be a fourth commissioned opera and its composer happens to have an English name, it may be preferable to hold up press publicity until we can include him as well as the three composers mentioned above.

Nathaniel G Lew points out in his AMS paper that the ‘competition lagged increasingly behind schedule, and by the time the commissions were announced, the Arts Council had postponed the deadline for the full scores from September to December 31, 1950. Several of the composers did not even meet this new deadline.’ Thus there was no chance that the operas could be produced in association with the Festival of Britain and when the Labour government fell in October 1951 any further prospect of official sponsorship of the winning operas fell with them.

Berthold Goldschmidt had recently written incidental music to Shelley’s play Beatrice Cenci for the BBC Overseas Service, and it was presumably this which suggested the play to him as an operatic scenario. Berthold needed a libretto in a hurry in order to enter the competition and he turned to his celebrated BBC European Service colleague Martin Esslin. His timing could not have been worse as Esslin was very busy and about to take up a new appointment and he refused. Berthold was focussed on him as collaborator and he put on the pressure as only Berthold knew how. To clinch the collaboration, Berthold offered Esslin a 50% interest in the work, and Esslin accepted and produced the libretto in a short time. Later Berthold discovered that the customary librettists fee should be very much less than that and tackled Esslin about it, who, annoyed, responded by saying that he had not wanted to do it and had only done so because Berthold had offered him such advantageous terms. Berthold could not see it and they never spoke again.

Berthold Goldschmidt clearly viewed his work on the commissioned work as serious and giving him a new status. At this time he would visit Box Hill or the gardens of nearby Polesden Lacey, where sustained by sandwiches and thermos flask he sketched his musical ideas, working out the various strands of the opera, and then setting them into full score on returning home in the evening. In the late 1940s Berthold used to visit Rickmansworth in the warm weather for outdoor swimming. At that time the German community of north London would visit Rickmansworth (directly accessible to them on the Metropolitan tube line from Finchley Road) where there was a series of lakes, known as The Aquadrome, where at this time there was swimming with a little beach, deckchairs and a small café. Here on a Sunday was recreated a semblance of similar outdoor facilities in pre-war Berlin.

Recounting how he approached the composition of an opera to Sue Lawley when he appeared on BBC Radio 4’s programme ‘Desert Island Discs’ Goldschmidt recalled the ‘enormous interest in opera when so many of our troops had been to Italy and encountered bel canto. I thought it would be nice to write a bel canto opera’. It was clearly an opera written for an English audience, and he went on to say that Beatrice Cenci was ‘an English opera written to be performed in English’.

Berthold Goldschmidt’s winning entry, viewed against its competitors in the competition, may well be seen as the toughest nut to crack among the winners, not least because of its gruesome plot. Of the winning operas Alan Bush’s Wat Tyler was taken up in communist East Germany. Bush, who had studied piano in Berlin, had longstanding sympathies in Germany, and had been present at the first performance of Hanns Eisler’s lehrstück Die Massnahme in 1931. Bush used his communist contacts first to mount a London concert performance with himself accompanying at the piano and then to obtain a production, the first of several, on East Berlin Radio in April 1952. It was staged at Leipzig in September 1953, and at Rostock in 1955, a BBC Third programme production followed in December 1956 and it was finally seen in the UK at Sadler’s Wells in 1974.

Arthur Benjamin, who after all was a pupil of Stanford, was more successful in penetrating the musical establishment with his opera, A Tale of Two Cities, and it received a BBC broadcast performance in 1953 before being staged by the New Opera Company at Sadler’s Wells in 1957, and on BBC Television in 1958. I have dim memories of the crowd scenes on the black and white screen, but nothing seems to survive for us to revisit today. In many ways it is the most successful of these operas, with a wide appeal, and it is surely overdue a full-blown stage production in the UK.

However, Lennox Berkeley’s Nelson was actually the opera which most nearly met the criteria of the Opera Competition, with its heroic subject, its opportunities for elaborate spectacle and its romantic triangle between Nelson, his wife and Lady Hamilton. It was the first to be seen on the British stage when produced at Sadler’s Wells in September 1954, when the critics gave it a good reception, Scott Goddard finding ‘the music . . . entrancing, and there are things both moving and startling in the score, generous expanses of subtle music and keen points of dramatic emphasis’.

Karl Rankl’s Deirdre of the Sorrows remained a closed book in the face of the composer’s insistence that it should first be seen on the stage, and unperformed it remained on the shelves of the Oxford University Press until their music department moved their office from London in 1980 when it was thrown out by them. At that time, purely by chance, I had arranged to have lunch with a friend who worked at OUP. I arrived to find the place stacked out with boxes and rubbish tied up in bundles as waste paper. While waiting for my friend I soon realised the ‘waste paper’ was music going for pulp, and persuaded my friend to untie one or two. I thus found multiple copies of the dye-line vocal of Rankl’s opera, and was duly given one. It was this score that much later enabled me to programme two extracts to be specially recorded by BBC forces for a programme on the subject of Deirdre in opera which was broadcast on 31 October 1995. It was an eye-opener and revealed a vividly imagined and approachable score on a grand scale.

In the face of this competition how did Berthold Goldschmidt’s opera score? It is clear that when a performance was not forthcoming, to him conspiracy theory loomed large. He had been commissioned to write an opera, having been chosen by a procedure in which he had not been identified until late in the process. He had delivered and it was now up to the commissioners to complete their part of the bargain. The motives of the assessment panel in choosing Beatrice Cenci was not known to Goldschmidt, and they may perhaps also been seen as suspect by us half a century later. Nathaniel G Lew quotes the chairman of the judges, Steuart Wilson, in explaining that the panel had accepted Deirdre of the Sorrows and Beatrice Cenci "as much on their intellectual value as for their music; as [A Tale of Two Cities] is accepted on its potential stage value." Deirdre of the Sorrows and Beatrice Cenci, by composers armed with full German training, impressed the judges with their sophisticated continental styles, harmonic and contrapuntal mastery, and engagements with psychologically complex plots. Although the judges deemed them stageworthy, they entertained doubts as to their viability with English audiences.

Although the commission fee of £300 was paid, the lack of any news from the Arts Council and the consequential dashing of Berthold’s hopes must have been severely depressing. But not for Berthold the hole-in-the-corner concert performance at Rudolf Steiner Hall with which Alan Bush had to satisfy himself. He soon arranged for his many musical friends and contacts to arrange a piano run-through of the opera and the Arts Council had no option but to host this. Berthold invited as many influential musical figures as he could think of, though there is no record of who actually attended. On 21 June 1950 he invites Peter Crossley-Holland of the BBC to ‘a private run-through of my opera "Beatrice Cenci" ... [at] the Arts Council of Great Britain ... headquarters at 4 St James Square on Monday July 3rd at 6 p.m’. Also there was Vaughan Williams. Unfortunately it has not been possible to find a written assessment or description written by anyone present which might have given us the flavour of that evening.

In fact, it is clear that the Arts Council and especially Eric Walter White were very embarrassed by their failure to secure production – or even interest - in any of the operas. In his history of British opera published many years later Eric Walter White does not mention the competition. White turned to the BBC, writing to Leonard Isaacs on the possibility of broadcasting the music and was asked to seek the composers’ attitudes. On 27th November 1950 he wrote from 4 St James Square:

I have now received answers from three of the commissioned opera composers.

Mr Berthold Goldschmidt would be delighted to consider a broadcast of "Beatrice Cenci".

Mr Arthur Benjamin and Mr Karl Rankl are opposed to the suggestion. The former says: "I think it would be great mistake for a first performance, especially of a work so very obviously for the stage". Mr Rankl says: "I think it is very bad to have a broadcast of an unknown opera previous to a real production" adding that he would be delighted for the BBC to broadcast his opera after a real performance has taken place.

I believe that, when you saw Alan Bush last night at the audition of "Wat Tyler", he expressed his approval of the plan.

This means that you will have two operas under consideration; and I hope both composers will send you the necessary material as soon as possible, as requested.

Isaacs passed the scores on for reading by the panel but noted his own reaction:

We are awaiting the 2 scores. In the meantime O.M. reported on the Bush work, and I shall be doing so as well. It was rather disappointing. Leonard Isaacs 30.11

The panel who read Berthold Goldschmidt’s opera were Benjamin Frankel, William Alwyn and Gordon Jacob, the first two later to make ambitious attempts at opera themselves. Benjamin Frankel’s assessment is clearly written after expending some effort on the vocal score and he was in no way superficial or off-hand in his assessment:


My first criticism from an operatic point of view is that there is practically no attempt at vocal characterisation and the voices seem often to gabble the (inordinately long) libretto until they come to a significant moment – which is then made "expressive". No attempt is made to discriminate that which must be clear and therefore given help by a device (declamation, recitative, speech) and that which, being self explanatory can give musical opportunities. The resulting "setting" of everything indiscriminately makes an amateurishly and often unwittingly humorous effect.

There are excellent moments and Beatrice’s music is often lyrical & occasionally moving. Her aria at the opening of Act II is very good indeed but is approached so ineptly from a dramatic point of view as to make nonsense of her horror – and, incidentally, the implication of the incestuous episode in the prelude to Act II is too obvious and painstakingly German a device to be dramatically effective and remains merely repellent, not quite the same thing. Personally I think the work is a cantata – with occasional splendid & effective moments, but as an opera I find it a failure. Shelley’s play is full of tender portraiture and compassion and infinite sadness. Goldschmidt has managed the horror & the tragedy, but not the characterisation, not the human weakness & not in any way the raw painting of the scene. The libretto is impossibly long and as a broadcast work it would be pretty nearly incomprehensible. NO Benjamin Frankel, Feb 23 51

One also has a lot of sympathy with William Alwyn’s objections, particularly when assessing it from the vocal score:

Musically the texture is so closely interwoven that one longs for a lull in the counterpoint and relief from the gloom of the harmony. It has impressive moments and at times there is a lyric quality and one can admire the thought that has gone into this huge undertaking. I a dubious whether two hours of unrelieved gloom is suitable for broadcasting (the expense would be enormous) – indeed I am rather of the opinion that the subject is even too repellent for staging.

W Alwyn Feb 14, 1951

It is difficult to know what to say about this work as a proposition for broadcasting. It commands one’s respect as a very considerable achievement, and it has power and dramatic force and tension. It would take a great deal of rehearsal and is, as Alwyn says, exceedingly gloomy. This gloominess would to some extent be made more tolerable by stage-setting, but it is rather beyond the power of the panel to recommend it or not for broadcasting. It obviously cannot be rejected out of hand, as much invention and imagination has gone to its making. Gordon Jacob 14.2.51

It is not clear whether it was rejected and Goldschmidt notified or not, but later in 1951 Rudolf Bing wrote to John Denison at the Arts Council from the Metropolitan Opera, New York

... The particular purpose of this letter is to implore you to rack your brains and see if there is anything you can do for Berthold Goldschmidt. I personally think that his "Beatrice Cenci" is really a very fine opera and I would love to do it here, but cannot for the simple reason that a new production of this sort would cost $60,000. and I could not, with the attitude of the New York public towards contemporary works, hope for more than three performances ... Even "Peter Grimes", although by a composer well-known here, had not more than four or five performances with diminishing and shocking box office results.

... Failing all that, is it not possible to find some reasonable job for a worthy good musician like Goldschmidt? He has, of course, enormous operatic and musical experience. He is a first class conductor (you may remember he conducted Glyndebourne’s "Macbeth" at the Edinburgh Festival) and is certainly one of the best musical operatic coaches that I have ever met. He is an extremely nice, honest and highly intelligent man whose life now hangs in the balance both for economic and, even more serious, psychological reasons ...

Sadler’s Wells also considered the score but in the end rejected it ‘probably on the grounds of its gruesome plot’ The initiative to broadcast extracts now came from Berthold Goldschmidt who first wrote about it to Eric Warr at the BBC on 4 April 1952

As far as my opera "Beatrice Cenci" is concerned, I wonder whether it would not be practicable to broadcast two or three excerpts from it within an orchestral programme. This is, of course, only a suggestion, but I could imagine that the BBC audience would be interested to hear some fragments from the commissioned operas.

There is nothing unusual in such a procedure as quite a number of contemporary operas became known by the "Bruchstücke" prior to their stage-performance.

This was smiled on by the BBC and eventually Leonard Isaacs was asked to select extracts for concert performance in consultation with the composer. Berthold wrote to him on 30 November 1952 proposing the following:

a) intro to 2nd act (pages 55-57 up to piu mosso)

b) Cenci’s aria & Lucrezia’s Song "Unfathomable Sea" (pages 75-82)

c) Orchestral interlude "Nocturne" followed by Camillo’s aria and Beatrice’s song (pp 118-124) and possibly rounded of[f] by the orchestral interlude that comes immediately after it, ending on the ¾ bar, Bb minor-chord on page 127.

The total duration of this sequence would be 22 minutes. It could be brought up to 28’ by the inclusion of the Prelude to the 1st act followed by the duo and terzetto (Lucrezia/Beatrice and Lucrezia/Betrice/Bernardo respectively (pages 1-12)

There always remains "Beatrice’s Song" (4 ½ minutes) as a "rocher de bronze".

This was accepted and two broadcasts were scheduled for 13 and 14 April 1953. The extracts from Beatrice Cenci were to be in the first half conducted by Berthold himself and the second half would consist of Nielsen’s then little-known first symphony conducted by Sir Adrian Boult, a total running time of 64 minutes, scheduled for an hour and a quarter with introductions. Shortly before it was due Frank Wade wrote to Eric Warr: ‘May I just check with you that the excerpts from "Cenci" are approved and agreed – our only reports (attached) gave no clear decision. FW 24/3/53’ Eric Warr replied:

Mr Wade

The report on the opera as a whole being doubtful C.T.P. jibbed at the expense of mounting it. Nor was he keen on undertaking a cut version that would be less uneconomical. The April performance is not, of course, a cut version but a few bits extracted. They were chosen – I believe in consultation with L.I. – by the composer who must know the best bits to extract for an orchestral concert. We trust that they are the "lyric parts" & "impressive moments" noted by Alwyn and the "excellent", "lyrical" and "moving" parts to which Frankel refers. Eric Warr 25/3/[53]

The performance was recorded off-air for the composer, and it was probably Berthold himself who played the recording to his friend Leonard Isaacs, who minuted about it at length when he was back in the office:

I heard a playback the other evening privately of a tape recording of the excerpts from the above opera given in the Third Programme last April or May under the composer’s direction. The casting had not been faultless, in particular Arnold Matters is far too ‘good’ a man to be able to be convincing as a revoltingly cruel villain and Jean Grayston’s voice is far too weak and spreading for the part of Lucretia, but I was very considerably impressed with the sound of the music. It had dignity and here and there nobility and the composer’s use of the orchestra was sometimes really imaginative and always completely professional. A good deal of the vocal writing is stylised – in the composer’s intention it concentrates more on dignity of vocal line rather than immediate characterisation – therefore the question of casting is one of extreme importance for the characterisation has to come through vocal quality.

With this in mind I must admit to having some doubts as to whether we were right in recommending to C.T.P. that he should not sponsor the whole work.. It is that sort of music which is pretty ineffective on the piano. I do not know whether any reports exist on the above broadcasts (13th and 14th May 1953) but I remain under the impression that we ought perhaps to think again about the whole work.
Leonard Isaacs.

However, soon after this Isaacs left the BBC and became the Principal of the Winnipeg Conservatory, Berthold lost an important friend at the BBC and the opera was forgotten until revived in 1988.

So of the operas that won or came near to winning, Goldschmidt’s Beatrice Cenci is the only one on CD. Of the others A Tale of Two Cities, Wat Tyler and Nelson have been seen on the stage or in concert performances, while soon after the competition five that did not make the short list were also produced: Brian Easdale’s The Sleeping Children, Peter Tranchell’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, Egon Wellesz’s Incognita, Arwel Hughes’ Menna and Inglis Gundry’s The Tinners of Cornwall. Apart from the two extracts broadcast in 1995 Karl Rankl’s Deirdre of the Sorrows has never been heard, not has Wilfred Mellers’ The Tragicall History of Christopher Marlowe, the other near runner up, which was subsequently withdrawn by its composer. Apart from Goldschmidt, the only one of these to have been heard, live, albeit a concert performance, for a long time was Lennox Berkeley’s Nelson, which was a memorable occasion with the Chelsea Opera Group in 1988 at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, but even that was fifteen years ago. The competition was held over fifty years ago, it is time we revisited it in performance.

This article first appeared in BMS News Issue 100 celebratiing 25 Years of the British Music Society.

British Music Society Pages


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