Few of us will immediately connect with the name, Finck, but this man’s activities as a West End theatre conductor in Edwardian England are fascinating. Finck was a long-standing conductor at the Palace Theatre, Cambridge Circus and had association with this newly-built theatre directly after Richard D’Oyly Carte’s plan to stage English opera continuously had failed in 1892. Finck would have been 20 when he first played violin at the time the theatre became the Palace Theatre of Varieties, one year after it was built. He soon rose to become an assistant then chief conductor and continued in his post for 30 years before moving on to Drury Lane’s Theatre Royal.
The book tells much about the people Finck met, the encounters and problems he found backstage and anecdotes concerning the shows and those who took part in them. He talks little about himself. The veteran theatre manager he first worked for was a spirited Charles Morton who had been respected in London for turning around the Alhambra and Tivoli theatres after financial collapse. Morton successfully revitalised them before being encouraged to come out of retirement to run the Palace Theatre at the age of 73. Finck, in his capacity as musical director and conductor, thought well of Morton but I would have liked to have been told more about the management style there. Over the early years Morton would send out a scout to weigh up acts being performed elsewhere in London. One of these was a Japanese acrobatic turn and although the scout returned with a thumbs-down Morton was told that the scout saw an excellent comic. Without delay, Morton engaged this comic, Alfred Lester, and made him the Palace house comedian for many years - he was that good.
We get a clear picture of how the rehearsals were arranged and the excellent rapport that existed between the Palace stage and orchestra pit. Many anecdotes concerning rehearsals and performances are seen from the perspective of the conductor. Nineteenth and twentieth century composers like German, Sullivan, Caryll, Coates, Cowen and Roland were social friends of Finck: writers like Burnand, Gilbert, Hood and Pinero; performers like Jessie Bond, Coutice Pounds, Ben Davies, Edith Evans, Noel Coward and Beerbohm Tree; as well as conductors like the Cellier brothers and Beecham all crossed Finck’s path and became friends with this jovial conductor. His interaction with such colourful characters over the years gave rise to anecdotes that provide us with a fresh slant on the West End theatre scene. I was particularly fascinated to learn a snippet about the young Elgar from Finck:
“When Elgar was having some of his music played for a matinee at the Palace ... he demanded two rehearsals. “I think you will find that the orchestra will do anything you want in one rehearsal”, I said, “and a second would have to be paid for specially.” They had one rehearsal; Elgar found his fears were not justified, and after the performance he wrote to me:
“I send you many thanks for arranging everything so pleasantly for me at the Theatre, and I shall be very grateful if you will convey to the gentlemen of the orchestra my warmest thanks for their very kind help yesterday ; the playing was beautiful.”
Snippets like this give helpful insight into the quality of musical performance and behind-the-scenes conversations in a theatre with few pretensions. A regular lightness and twinkle of amusement in Finck’s writing makes this biography very readable. Finck gives little of his personal interests and background but incidentals creep into many chapters. Not only does he appear a workaholic but tells us he is never to be disturbed in the mornings in his study whilst composing/writing. He must have had an excellent salary to be disclosing salaries of those around him and the fact that he can afford a maid for his wife.
The book gives us a fresh slant on the personalities of Cellier, Mackenzie and Sullivan; and how a group led by Finck would work through the night copying out band parts. He had close dealings with Solomon, a practical joker, who composed and orchestrated his own musical numbers - unlike some of his contemporaries who needed a team of four to get music ready for the theatre. He would have been thinking of Monckton and Stuart, no doubt.
A few chapters are devoted to his membership and antics at the Saville Club and its well-heeled occupants: it seems that this was the way he met notable composers, performers and managers; became invited to conduct Royal Command performances at Sandringham and supervise royalty visits. Finck was a composer for many pieces used in Variety shows and pantomime, a number of which were published by Cramer and Boosey. The only piece remembered nowadays and one that has been recorded is his piece, In the Shadows
, to which most of a chapter is devoted. It is good to find a new CD called A Finck Album
by the excellent Estonian operatic group that released The Arcadians
and Quaker Girl
a decade ago has been released by Divine Art, DDV62402 (review review
This very enjoyable read is a facsimile of an original 1937 edition, published two years before Finck’s death in 1939. Care has been taken to minimise loss of definition of the plates and to reproduce the pages clearly.
Raymond J Walker