Felix Aprahamian – Diaries and Selected Writings on Music
Edited by Lewis and Susan Foreman
ISBN: 978 1 78327 013 2
Published 2015 The Boydell Press
Over many years, I have admired Lewis Foreman’s erudite writing on British composers and their music, meticulously, patiently, painstakingly researched for recordings’ booklet notes and for his books; notably Bax: A Composer and His Times - to which, incidentally, Felix Aprahamian contributed the Foreword to the original 1983 edition. Additionally, we have Lewis to thank for other important volumes on Arnold Bax, principally Dermot O’Byrne, Selected poems of Arnold Bax and his editing of Bax’s semi-autobiography, Farewell, My Youth. Furthermore, he edited, and was a major contributor to The John Ireland Companion that included memories of that composer by Aprahamian.
This new book on the very full life and amazing musical career of Felix Aprahamian, one of the 20th century’s most admired and respected experts on British and French music, is equally fascinating and illuminating. Aprahamian was very influential in promoting music in London particularly that of British and French composers. He was very interested in organ music and forged communications with Charles Tournemire, Maurice Duruflé and other leading exponents. During the Second World War he acted as concert director of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and was influential in arranging concerts of French music in London. He was music critic for The Sunday Times from 1948 to 1989. He was also a very familiar voice on BBC Radio 3 and the World Service. He was a very colourful flamboyant, outgoing character - and an unashamed gossip. I remember seeing him occasionally at Delius events – he was strongly interested in the Delius Trust and Society.
As I read through this large, very full tome, I kept making notes for this review – but soon I had to abandon such a notion because covering even a fraction of the items that interested me would have made such a review impossibly long. So in the following few paragraphs I will simply mention a few as tasters of the many.
Foreman states early on that Aprahamian was a victim of ‘genteel poverty' and as such was obliged to acquire authority as a reviewer to access music venues at little cost. Accordingly we note that he began such work with Musical Opinion and that he soon received a cheque for 10/6 to mark his successful first work. He remarked on a certain ‘benign, bow-tied gentleman who accepted my copy when I called in person (into their offices near London’s Lincoln’s Inn).’ He came to recognise that gentleman as Havergal Brian, totally neglected at that time, who was earning a meagre living writing Musical Opinion editorials and looking after contributors like Aprahamian.
In 1931 Aprahamian attended a concert in which Elgar conducted his Second Symphony. Afterwards he asked Elgar to sign a large photograph of himself which was dully framed and hung prominently in his study. Years later a lady called Mrs Hunter, who was a friend of Aprahamian's mother, caught sight of the picture and exclaimed that she remembered the composer so well and that he ‘often used to visit us’. Aprahamian remembers then that ‘the penny dropped’ as he realised that Mrs Hunter was the widow of Alfred Jaeger, ‘Nimrod’ of the Enigma Variations … She had changed her name during the First World War.
During World War II, Aprahamian worked, by night, as an air raid warden. He vividly remembered the horrors of the night when Queen’s Hall was bombed. He had been present at the final concert that evening of 10 May 1941 when Sir Malcolm Sargent had conducted The Dream of Gerontius. Aprahamian worked on through the war years, arranging all the administration details for LPO concerts outside London – a typical very busy page from his diary is included as an illustration. He was also busy through his sympathy for and great knowledge of French music, organising, from 1942, the Concerts de Musique Français for the Free French in London.
Turning to the Aprahamian diaries spread over nearly 200 pages and covering the period 18 January 1933 until 26 May 1944, I would mention a few more of his observations. Unsurprisingly there are many entries devoted to Arnold Bax and Harriet Cohen. On 1 February 1933 he attended the first performance of Vaughan Williams' Piano Concerto written for Cohen and played by her that evening. Incidentally it was quickly noticed that RVW had included a reference to Bax’s Third Symphony in his Concerto. Talking about RVW’s Chorale-Prelude, Cohen let slip that Vaughan Williams ‘wrote it for me … [he] told me he had my photo on his piano all the time he was composing it …’ she gushed. In the same month Aprahamian is then full of enthusiasm for Harriet’s playing in Bax’s Quintet noting that she ‘spins the third movement with such womanly passion’… and that later passages showed an appreciable tenderness. Later he remarks on Harriet’s naturalness – ‘if she wanted to scratch her side – well! She would – even if her skirt had to perform circumlocutions in the high air. She is a darling.’
Of Harriet’s long-term lover, Arnold Bax, Aprahamian, in a July 1933 diary entry, reports that Arthur Alexander told him that Bax conceived his orchestral works in patches beginning earlier in his career with piano improvisations but later keeping large portions of orchestral score in his mind and storing it all there precisely, for an indefinite period before picking up the threads again at some future time at the exact point where he left it. Aprahamian generously and touchingly presented Bax with a lampshade specially engraved with some of his music – material from the mystical section of the Epilogue of his Third Symphony.
A February 1933 diary entry shifts attention to John Ireland who is described as a very sensitive player and undoubtedly a good pianist. He does however emit great heavings and whistlings through his nose while playing … Apparently Ireland could be difficult to deal with. Aprahamian was told that Ireland – ‘… never gives a direct answer and leads publishers up the garden path.’
In March 1933 we find him describing Stravinsky, who had autographed Felix’s score of the ‘Sacre’, as 'a funny little fellow – immaculate in evening dress. When smiling he seems to be all mouth exhibiting teeth north and south …'
In June 1933, we learn about the death of Philip Heseltine (alias Peter Warlock). There seems to have been nothing mysterious about his suicide. It seems that his wife Barbara could not have been any cause, for Heseltine had a ‘great, great love for her’.
The entry for 6 September 1933 takes us to Paris and St. Sulpice - ‘It was no mild thrill to see Charles Marie Widor, the doyen of French organists presiding at the keyboard … [at length] I was right at the master’s elbow as he played.’ Widor consented to autograph Aprahamian's copy of his Fifth Symphony. Aprahamian noted that, Widor, 89 years old by this time, had gnarled and knotted hands and that he found difficulty in manipulating his feet accurately. Yet he seemed to have impressed and enchanted the pretty young American ladies who surrounded him that day.
Earlier that summer, Aprahamian had visited Delius at his home in Grez-sur-Loing. There he enjoyed ‘the mad riot of colour’ that was the garden and the kind hospitality of Delius’s wife, Jelka. He also notices ‘her immediate obeyance of everything Delius said throughout the hour we were with him.’ Delius admonishes, for instance: ‘Surely the gentlemen are not going to eat plums before wine?’ Aprahamian also notes how Delius becomes wistful at his memories of Paris. Delius mentions recent visits to Grez by Balfour Gardiner and Norman O’Neill - and Elgar. Delius flatly refuses to fly to England as Elgar had done. Aprahamian also notes that Robert Louis Stevenson had visited Grez in the summer of 1875 and had described it as ‘a pretty and very melancholy village …’ A later entry in the diary relates how Jelka had immediately fallen in love with their Grez property and Aprahamian, true to his love of gossip, relates the story of how Jelka was painting a nude girl in her garden in full view of a young curate who was ogling her through a pair of binoculars from the nearby church tower.
Finally I would just mention two brief composer observations in September 1933. Aprahamian enjoys Poulenc’s Double Piano Concerto calling it ‘catchy’ – who wouldn’t, and notes a performance of Walton’s Façade orchestral suite conducted by the composer – ‘long and lanky, in his usual slick and square manner.’
Part II of the book is concerned with Articles and Remembrances about Friends and Contemporaries stretching over another 150 or so pages and concerning amongst many: Ernest Ansermet, Arnold Bax, Sir Thomas Beecham, Ernest Bloch, Claude Debussy, Frederick Delius, Maurice Duruflé, Gabriel Fauré, Eric Fenby, Anatole Fistoulari, Alexandre Guilmant, Arthur Honegger, John Ireland, Sigfrid Karg-Elert, Rudolf Kempe, Wanda Landowska, Frank Martin, Olivier Messiaen, Darius Milhaud, Boris Ord, Francis Poulenc, Maurice Ravel, Albert Roussel, Victor de Sabata, Florent Schmitt, Arnold Schoenberg, Gérard Souzay, Igor Stravinsky, Maggie Teyte, Charles Tournemire, Louis Vierne and William Walton.
I will refrain from quoting from any of the above sources lest this review tests the patience of readers save to say they are all knowledgeable and occasionally wickedly funny.
Part III turns the attention to ‘Remembering the Great Organists’: Lynwood Farnham, André Marchal, Joseph Bonnet, Charles Tournemire, Marcel Dupré, Sir George Thalben-Ball, Virgil Fox, Nadia Boulanger, Jeanne Demessieux and the Alexandra Palace organ (in London).
The book is profusely illustrated including some three dozen photographs of Aprahamian and friends taken over many years (and a helpful index to the illustrations), with a delightful Foreword by David Lloyd-Jones who knew Felix Aprahamian very well.
A delightful book crammed with erudite and often witty observations of the English and French music worlds of much of the twentieth century.