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'Reminiscences' by Bill Harris

First Part: " A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Fool"

I suppose most people would agree that it is their earliest experiences which remain with them throughout their lives. One of my happiest childhood memories is of my mother playing Tschaikowsky's Fifth on the piano at home, my father asking her to play passages he particularly liked. We did have a gramophone, but the records were mostly of comedians, (Stanley Holloway and others) and I enjoyed these, too.

At boarding school there were occasional evenings when we were invited to the music master's house to hear records I particularly remember hearing Elgar two, Sibelius two, and Warlock's 'Capriol Suite' for the first time.

Music apart, I was strongly influenced by two books which I found in the school library: "A Portrait of the artist as a young man" by James Joyce, and "Delius as I knew him" by Eric Fenby. These two books have marked me for life, and have remained a part of me ever since, the first opening the door to Ireland for me, a country which has never ceased to fascinate me, and the second, my interest in Delius, although his music did not really strike me with its full power for some years to come.

Another formative influence was hearing the radio broadcast of Tyrone Guthrie's superb production of Ibsen's "Peer Gynt", (resplendent with Grieg's music.) Those who are either damning or patronising about Grieg's score have failed to realise how closely it is bound up with the play. It breathes the same air. I cannot have known, at the time, of the link between these two men of genius, Joyce in Dublin, writing to the Norwegian in raptures over Ibsen's final play, "When we dead awaken", and receiving a gracious letter in reply from Henrik Ibsen!

It had long been my ambition to study at the Royal College of Music. My main reason was that Vaughan Williams had studied, and taught there, and, to me, he was God!

This had to wait, however, because after leaving school I was called up for National Service, and I was to spend two years in the army, in various parts of the world.

It was while I was stationed in British Somaliland that I made a discovery about the British attitude to music.

One of our officers had decided to organise a Christmas concert for the men, in which some of them would take part, and I was enlisted as pianist. I accompanied two men from the north of England who had particularly fine voices. Apart from their vocal 'turn', the rest of the show seemed to be filled up with stupid sketches acted out, full of double entendre, and also some 'would-be' comedians.

The sketches went right over the heads of the audience and they were just bored, and the 'comedians' were also given a rough ride. When I had to go on with the two men I wondered how they would react to us, especially as we had not chosen 'popular' songs, but Puccini, Edward German, Offenbach, and so on.

Well, the audience went wild about us, clapping and cheering! The organiser had completely misjudged the importance to people of music, well sung. The Geordie and the Yorkshire man were the success of the evening (even though the Geordie had sung 'Your tiny hand is frozen' in a foreign language (his version of Italian.)

I believe there were similar misjudgements during World War Two, when the B.B.C. Symphony was evacuated to Bristol, and, later, to Bedford, but was informed that no recordings were needed from the orchestra because in wartime people wanted only 'light' music and humour. So Sir Adrian used to take them on country walks!

Similarly, when a company was daring enough to put on a production of "Faust" (Gounod's) at Sadler's Wells Theatre, everyone expected a flop, what with the blackout and the bombs - Wrong again! The theatre was filled with audiences starved of opera and prepared to risk the dangers for the pleasure of fine music.

Eventually for me, when I was demobilised and on the long boat journey back to 'Blighty’ I was able to return to my home in Cornwall where I practised hard in an effort to regain my non-existent piano technique before trying for a place at the Royal College of Music. I had worked out a clever strategy to fool the panel of professors there, choosing unfamiliar pieces instead of Beethoven or Brahms. I played two preludes by Scriabin! (At the time - I was unaware that one of the college professors, Edward Mitchell was, in fact, a Scriabin specialist, but I'm sure he cannot have been on the panel that day, luckily for me.)

I also gave them a juvenile work for string orchestra I had written, with the title, "Dawn Music", which sounded impressive. They passed it around, making inaudible comments to each other little knowing that it had nothing to do with the dawn, but acquired its title because I had recently met an attractive young girl called 'Dawn’ ( a bad case of unresolved calf-love!)

I liked, and respected my composition teachers (Patrick Hadley, and later, Herbert Howells,) but they really taught me nothing about orchestration - I had to pick it up from reading 'Forsyth' and from grabbing fellow students and asking them to try over something I had written to see whether it worked. I also attended every one of the First Orchestra's rehearsals on Thursday afternoons, and learnt a lot that way.

I did get one (typical) comment from Paddy Hadley, however: I had made an orchestration of Debussy's "Cathédral Engloutie" which I brought to him. I could not have made a more unfortunate choice. He taught at Cambridge, and I was not to know that he had banned it there. "No engulfed Cathedrals" he warned any visiting pianists! In my score I had unfortunately written a low B Flat for the bassoon. "Harris, you know what that will sound like?" he asked. "No Sir," I said naively. Putting his face close to mine he spelled it out for me: "It'll sound like a fart! ') .

I couldn't help liking him, complete with the aroma of cigarette smoke and whisky he seemed to carry with him, and, of course, the spats that he wore! I even forgive him for being rather demoralising on one occasion. He had been through a lot. I believe Philip Ledger's recording of "The Hills" (his large-scale choral work) didn't come out until after his death, which is rather sad.

He was an opera-man, and loved his Wagner. He always insisted that the arrival of the second ship in the last act of "Tristan" was a great mistake. (It brings King Mark, Melot and Brangaene) and he even talked of arranging a special performance in which it would be cut! He advised me to go to everything, and was glad that I was going to 'Wozzek'! Whenever I mention that I studied with him, someone is sure to come out with their own 'Paddy Hadley' story! He is remembered with a smile always.

There was one occasion at college when I learnt a great deal in a very short time A pupil of 'Jack' Thurston was having a lesson with the great clarinettist and asked me if I would play the Mozart 'Kegelstadt' Trio for him. I was delighted, though I didn't feel nervous at the time, (which was surprising!) .

I played the opening flourish on the piano, and Mr. Thurston said something, so I stopped abruptly. "No! No! Don't' stop", he said. "I talk all the time!" And he did, telling us how to shape every phrase while we kept playing.

I never learnt so much in one evening as I did then!

Eventually I found myself out in the wide, wicked world attempting to make a living. Although I had won a prize at college for a work which was published, broadcast and taken on tour by two distinguished performers, nobody seemed interested, and the publishers later told me they had no record of it! As this publisher had managed to lose the only score of an opera by Delius, I suppose this is not surprising!

The hero of that story turned out to be our friend Patrick Hadley, of all people, who was able to find it in the publisher's attic and take it over to Grez-sur-Loing in France, where I am sure the best champagne came out in celebration! (In the meantime the unfortunate Eric Fenby had been laboriously working on a reconstruction of the score from the orchestral parts.)

(See 'Frederick Delius' by Peter Warlock, Page 187).

It was while I was working in one of many dead-end jobs in London, at Lyons' Corner House (serving teas to the public) that I met James, a young Scottish painter, doing the same job. His life was like a counterpoint to mine - lugging his canvases around from one art gallery to another, with little hope of success, while I vainly tried to interest publishers, performers, and the inscrutable BBC in my works. He became the nearest thing I ever had to a brother!

James lived in the 'World's End' area of Chelsea, a place redolent with memories of misfits and geniuses. Philip Heseltine died in Tite Street" Oscar Wilde was arrested in the same street: John Ireland was organist at St. John's Church (no longer there): Samuel Beckett's brilliant first novel, "Murphy" 1(1938) is set in this area: Vaughan Williams lived in Cheyne Walk. The garden of Lindsay House saw the first performance of "Dido and Aeneas", down near the house boats, famous for the activities of a certain mayor of Chelsea who used to take girls onto his boat and spank them, filling the pages of the local press for months!

James and I became increasingly interested in Ezra Pound, and worried about his fate, arrested and put in a cage by the American army in Italy, treated abominably and finally taken back to the USA where he was placed in a mental hospital to save America's embarrassment, although a great poet and no madman! We were glad when he was finally released, and he returned to Italy. I set his poems in my 'Four Settings of Ezra Pound' (1963) and ‘A cycle of love and death' (1967 - Premiered at the Wigmore Hall in 1973).

When James left to get married I inherited his room, complete with water dropping from the roof, and the necessity of putting buckets at strategic places, which made interesting contrapuntal effects which would have fascinated Stockhausen or John Cage.

James died in 1988 and I wrote my Wind Quintet, which I dedicated to his memory, with the title 'Epitaph for an Artist'. I haven't heard it, and I don't suppose I ever shall, although a group who ran a competition for Wind Quintets told me they had played it through. I was not invited.

After James' departure the spirit of that place left it.

Eventually I left to make a home far from Chelsea, south of the river with my two sons, taking with me as many of his canvases as I could manage, (they would have been thrown out if I hadn't). I have most of what I salvaged on my own walls now, (I have always had the picture he did of me many years ago.) Apparently I was the world's worst sitter!

The sixties atmosphere of coffee bars and discussions about Colin Wilson's latest book were all a thing of the distant past. People didn't discuss or challenge the system in quite that way. Television ruled everyone's lives and you had to think what you were told to think, and like it! George Orwell had been right about the 'thought police'. I'm glad James isn't here to see it.

© Bill Harris

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