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IBBS AND TILLETT: The Rise and Fall of a Musical Empire
by Christopher Fifield

April 2005
244 x 172 mm
Includes 78 b&w illustrations
724 pages
1 84014 290 1

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I have to thank you for the introduction to Richter which led to the first performance of the work – you may have forgotten this – but I have not and shd. like you to understand that I am very grateful to you for your kindness when I much needed it….Plenty of people are kind to me now!

So wrote Edward Elgar from Malvern in October 1901 of his Enigma Variations to N. Vert, the head of the concert agency that was to become Ibbs and Tillett. Vert, whose Conradian name also carried a hint of Conan Doyle, had been born Narcisco Vertigliano and is one of the foundation stones of Christopher Fifield’s engrossing story and whose retrieval here is a welcome reminder of the powerful base of musicians Vert established in the late nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries.

The leading British concert agency whilst it lasted Ibbs and Tillett offer a locus for the association between artist and concert venue as mediated by an agent. It is a story both prosaic and extraordinary; prosaic for the routine transaction of business made remarkable by the recorded details of demands, both overweening and practical, of fees, both astronomical and paltry, of venues, both lordly and lowly, and of artists both international and parochial. Into the story are woven names steeped in posthumous glory or else swept away by the Arnoldian tide. Who now remembers Vivien Chartres, the nine-year-old violinist whose performance on stage led to a summons to Vert for "unlawfully procuring on stage ... a child under the age of eleven" without proper licence. That Vert died shortly after was a sorry end; that one still finds postcards of Chartres is a posthumous relic of a now all-but-forgotten musician. Fees, negotiations, concert societies, and letters from artists either disgruntled or, very occasionally, gruntled are the recurring features of this monumental study so richly shot through with archival documents.

Artists were inclined to be demanding; Godowsky required star billing, Nathalia Janotha filled her dressing room with cats – not just a few, but several baskets of them which were carried up to her room and had to be fed and given milk. From Clara Butt’s Australasian tours come reports home from Robert Leigh Ibbs, whose name was coupled with that of John Tillett; fascinating ones, of the Nellie Melba "sing ’em muck, it’s all they understand" variety. "The Australian people are not musical, although they think they are" he writes Beechamesquely, noting that they’ll listen to Jan Kubelík but are suspicious of Elman (this was the 1907 tour), that Plunket Greene would be a ghastly failure, not even to bother with the cellist Joseph Hollman and so on. There are a series of remarkable letters from Moriz Rosenthal, whose accelerating demands for legal action are accompanied by a sharp deterioration in his command of the English language.

There are so many nuggets that it seems invidious to pick out a few but some caught my eye; Weingartner denying he was German and angling for a conducting appointment in London: Suggia demanding a fee of £3-4,000 nett for her Australasian and American tours (in 1927); Talich agreeing to conduct Delius; conductors such as Weingartner and Monteux agreeing to bring their own orchestral parts but sometimes demurring as to the cost involved – how often does one think of such things?; Benno Moiseiwitsch’s financial difficulties; fellow pianist Frederic Lamond’s sneering anti-Semitism (he didn’t want his name sent out on a brochure "with a crowd of Jew pianists, Jew violinists and Jew singers"; postmarked Berlin, 1935 by the way and Fifield elegantly skewers him with a deft thrust). Egon Petri’s marvellous letters act as counter-balance, so witty and funny, and even timing his performance of the Hammerklavier and finding over forty years he now takes an extra minute and a quarter over it; very important for broadcasts, of course, which Ibbs and Tillett facilitated. Or one can read about the Casals-Tovey Cello Concerto negotiations and the jittery Glazunov insisting he be paid in Dollars or French Francs after scares over sterling. Festival performances loom huge here; so did the issue of Protectionism and Permits in the early 1930s both in Britain and in America. The hair raising itinerary provided to shepherd Albert Coates, down to his cooking demands, pretty simple, and to ensure he has some cash on him; "he is too busy with music to think of details" – and by details they mean everything that’s not music. More recently we find that pianist Trevor Barnard "slapped Miss Lereculey’s face then went straight to the GLC and reported assault" What can this be about? We never hear; it’s straight from Emmie Tillett’s surviving diary for 1967.

Ibbs and Tillett always saw itself as more of a "service industry" to orchestral and other societies. Vert, the essential founder, was a figure more in the mould of Lionel Powell, an impresario, a word Ibbs and Tillett didn’t take to at all. They even turned down Yehudi Menuhin, a famous if logical error, for this reason insisting they were not personal managers or impresarios but strictly agents. They didn’t take conductors but did "place" them – composer-conductors especially such as Pierné, for instance, or Holst, Vaughan Williams, Stravinsky and Elgar.

The take over of Harold Holt is here as is the increasing passivity of the business in the 1960s despite innovative young staff, whose far-reaching proposals for reform were spurned. The miserable final years, as Emmie Tillett tried to control the business, make for depressing reading. Much admired though she was, the loss of music societies, lowering of fees, and haemorrhaging of staff and artists hit hard. Though they took on violinists Repin and Vengerov in the last days, the foray into Georgian folly – football teams from that country, wine and tea importing as a money making diversification – makes the eyes boggle.

Still, the surviving Audition Books open up a world where big names were on the foothills of their careers. Amongst the talented but ultimately unstarry names, now lost to us, are others that leap out. Here in 1921 is Walter Widdop, praised for his "fine robust voice, sings with great fervour" and a few years later we encounter a tenorial rival in Heddle Nash who sported "a very good voice [when] singing upper notes." Then there’s Sophie Wyss and her "charming voice, excellent singer." It’s noticeable too how often auditioners point out physical details; an awful lot of false eyes are noted as are excessive girth and short stature.

Fifield is characteristically strong on two musicians on whom he has written; Kathleen Ferrier, whose letters to the agency are published, and also Hans Richter, one or two of whose comments are rather shoe-horned into the text. The appendices are a remarkable contribution to scholarship and will provoke endless comment and speculation. In the earlier days male and female musicians were separated, which means a double check through the instrumentalists. Artists’ Brochures, Chamber Music brochures, letters from Elgar, the LSO tours of 1940-44, Emmie Tillett’s surviving diary entries – these are all amongst a phalanx of material that will be essential reading for students of the period and the musical fortunes of singers and instrumentalists down the century.

Inevitably in a study of this kind there are some slips. The proof-reading is generally excellent and the photographs are evocative and well printed and reproduced but, in the hope that more material will emerge requiring a second edition, I should note the following, frequently trivial concerns. Chaminade’s forename is missing an accent whilst Segovia’s has the wrong accent; Jan Kubelík’s and Albéniz’s accents are missing as is that of the Takács Quartet. The Czech violinist Ondříček’s name is missing an accent and a háček as is Janáček’s. Martinů is bereft of the ů. Huberman only has one “n” not two. Sarasate died in 1908 not 1907. Editorial brackets have incorrectly transformed Salmon into Salmon[d] in the assumption that Felix Salmond is correct but when Casals wrote Salmon he didn’t mean the English cellist but Joseph Salmon, cellist and arranger. Edwin Fischer wasn’t German; he was Swiss. I also find the bracketed insertion of decimal currency equivalents of pounds, shillings and pence an absolutely infuriating, and here inconsistently applied, practice. It breaks up the text, rendering it unwieldy and bloated and is in any case quite pointless; it doesn’t matter. What should matter more is a table of current values so that we can see the value of an artist’s fee or the price of a concert ticket in today’s monetary terms – and that should be tabulated in an appendix. I’m also dead against the missing comma in thousands; this modish Continental practice should be outlawed, as the eye can’t read the figure quickly; thus £225000 should be £225,000. The reference to A5 paper in the 1930s is anachronistic. The reference to "immigration" from Germany should read "emigration" (p.202). Decimal currency was introduced to Britain in 1971 not 1972. On page 204 it wasn’t Landon Ronald who protected "his" Hallé players; it was Hamilton Harty.

The "World in the 1960s" paragraph on page 321 is very clunky and should really be excised. Myra Hess’s reference to "dear Albert" should have the bracketed name Sammons after it; it’s picked up in the index but readers need to know in the body of the text. And her "beloved Harold" is not, as per editorial brackets, Harold Bauer but Harold Samuel, who had just died. There are some repetitions as well; Fifield twice uses the "usual promise" line given to hopeful artists within a few pages (that is, don’t call us, we’ll call you…); once is enough. It might have better if a tighter control had been exercised on chronological-cum-biographical matters. We hear of Max Mossel and his tours repeatedly before we hear who he was. Similarly it would make more sense if Fifield had introduced Keith Douglas before citing his long, amusing and indiscreet letter. It makes sense to know he was very wealthy here before reading it sixteen pages later. Regarding Woodford Green’s concert-giving I can assure Christopher Fifield despite his doubts that, yes, it can still attract eminent musicians. He cites Cortot’s 1929 visit but Solomon had been earlier. Tasmin Little has just visited and I saw Ruggiero Ricci there during his final British engagements. There’s life in the suburbs yet – just.

Which is more than can be said for Ibbs and Tillett. Read about how and why – and what it stood for – in this splendidly produced and acutely written study.

Jonathan Woolf

see also review by Rob Barnett

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