This is a rum book: ostensibly the autobiography of a well-known and familiar flautist (soloist, ensemble player and orchestral principal), it is also disarmingly frank about its author’s personal life, and his personal opinions, over a period of nearly ninety years and, far from having the comfortable feeling of many books of this kind, its restlessness and contrary expressions of feelings and opinions, leave the reader wondering at the end whether he really knows the writer or indeed whether the writer even emerges as a likeable person!
Richard Adeney was born in 1920 and so is now in his ninetieth year - a startling fact in view of his familiarity as principal flute of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the English Chamber Orchestra and the Melos Ensemble. He played under Henry Wood and Wilhelm Furtwängler, and in the wartime LPO which spent so much time on the road giving concerts throughout the country contributing to the war effort by boosting morale and satisfying a tremendous public hunger for music.
In his teens, Adeney made a declaration of intent which is a touchstone for his future life and for the contents of this book. ‘First: That I would become the best flute-player in the world; Second: to have a huge amount of sex; Third: To make some sense of the mysterious and confusing world.’
He admits that he didn’t become the best flute-player in the world; but there’s a huge amount of sex in this book! Adeney is a homosexual, but not averse to sex with women if the opportunity arises and in fact he was married for a time. So what? But it is disturbing to learn that from the age of six he was subject to fantasies bordering on penis fetishism: ‘One, repeatedly, was that I was walking across a field in which there was a flight of steps leading down into the ground. I took these steps to a door which was opened by a man who showed me around an underground circular room. Around its edges were many naked men chained to the wall, and I was allowed to touch their penises’. Towards the end of his career he was still fantasizing - this time about carrying his penis on to the platform instead of his flute.
Early on his senior colleague Arthur Ackroyd (‘Ackroyd’s me name; all prick and teeth’) told him: ‘Never, ever forget that the conductor is your natural enemy’; and throughout the book there is a strange ambivalence between saying (virtually) that conductors are useless and then recalling performances that seem indelible because of
the conductor. In Adeney’s view, ‘a conductor’s job is to stir up the emotions of eighty or ninety hard-worked and probably bored people . . . and to make them feel the importance and excitement of a concert. . . . and not until you leave the concert hall does the real world come banging back’. I’ll buy that.
Adeney’s bête noire is Sir Malcolm Sargent, against whom he tells too many stories to relate here; but Celibidache (a one-time bulimic, no less) and Abbado also come in for severe criticism, Furtwängler, Bruno Walter and even Beecham somewhat less so. But I can’t really believe that Sir Adrian Boult was accustomed to ask the LPO’s orchestral attendant to check his fly buttons before going onstage; or that Sir Henry Wood, in the gents’ lavatory at the Royal Albert Hall, once said to the young attendant: ‘I’m feeling rather tired. Please will you undo my fly buttons and take out my cock for me?’ On the other hand, I do admit to laughing out loud at the story of the conductor at a concert in a boys’ school who told a delighted audience ‘the story of how a young man was so dejected at being turned down by the young girl at Arles (L’Arlésienne
) that he climbed alone up into a high tower and tossed himself off’.
If you’re still reading this review, it must be said that in spite of the sex and the procession of Adeney’s lovers, there is much fascinating musical stuff here - about his friendship with Malcolm Arnold (a fellow student at the Royal College of Music), about John Pritchard, about Britten and Pears, about Rostropovich, about du Pré and Barenboim, orchestral colleagues and, of course, conductors! Family history is interesting too - his father was a painter and knew Sickert (who then married his father’s first wife) and Henry Moore; his mother made that red dress worn by Guilhermina Suggia in the famous Augustus John portrait - and we learn that the dress was actually blue, but John changed the colour! There’s something about the technique of flute playing too, and the knotty problem of getting woodwind chords together (particularly the two flutes at the start of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream
overture). It is also very much to Richard Adeney’s credit that for twenty-five years he was a volunteer with The Samaritans in addition to his career as a professional musician.
At the end of the book Adeney says he has had ‘a gorgeous and fulfilling life playing the flute’, which might come as a surprise after the cynical tone of much of what has gone before. As to real personal happiness: I wonder . . . A highly recommendable book, nevertheless.