For that rare breed of discerning musicians, one of the great recording events
of 1998 was the issue of all Searle's five symphonies. As Humphrey's friend,
pupil and biographer may I lay to rest the curious falsehood and state that
there is not a sixth symphony.
When I spoke to Alun Francis in Berlin a few days ago I asked him why he
had undertaken to record these symphonies. He replied modestly that he had
always admired them because of their stunning originality. The first symphony
was recorded by the LPO under Sir Adrian Boult in 1960 and Sir Adrian told
us that while he was not in sympathy with the music it was 'a brilliant work
teeming with invention'. The story about a BBC orchestra who threatened to
go on strike if plans to play this piece went ahead is now well-known; it
was so technically difficult.
Boult's realisation was on the slow side and yet it captured the drama and
power of this impressive score. Francis clearly understands the idiom far
better and his speeds generally are more in keeping with the composer's
intentions although I find the Adagio a shade fast so that when the concertante
middle section appears, something of the high drama is lost. And yet his
stirring final Allegro molto shows up Boult's cautious performances.
This is both a splendid and important symphony. It is the first
serial symphony by a British composer; it has the essential qualities of
greatness in that it is original, structurally sound and faultlessly
orchestrated; it has tremendous excitement and drama as well as sections
of warm intimacy with brooding melodic lines.
Hermann Scherchen gave the première and he is on record as saying
that Searle is 'the greatest British composer since Purcell'. The German
conductor also said, "Here is a composer who lives in the present, who has
both the courage and integrity to write what he wants to write and does not
bend the knee to musical fashion. He is a master, not a slave."
The Symphony No 2 is Searle's most popular symphony, perhaps because
it suggests a tonality of D although remaining serial. During the composition
of this wonderful score, his first wife Lesley died and this was on Christmas
Day, 1957. Yet the work is not a nauseating wallow but a tribute and is very
positive. The outer movements are truly exhilarating and the slow movement
has a melody of strange beauty which is also referred to in the finalé.
The maestoso just before the end was once suggested to be reminiscent of
Walton and so Humphrey revised this passage. Walton had music lessons from
Searle for a few years after the Second World War, a vital fact which Michael
Kennedy ignores in his book on Walton. Both composers were great friends
and shared the wish to be original although Walton often "borrowed other
There is a therapeutic glow about Searle's Second Symphony as there
is about his other masterpiece written for Lesley, the Poem for 22 Solo
Strings, Op 18.
The Symphony No 3 dates from 1960 and is a fascinating work. The first
movement is somewhat fragmentary but impressively sinister; the middle movement
is a sparkling scherzo, although not everyone will see it like that, and
it is a tour de force. I remember a concert conducted by Sir John Pritchard
in which Lennox Berkeley's Serenade for Strings and the Elgar Cello
Concerto were positively received and the last piece in the programme,
Searle's Third, brought a standing ovation and demands for the central
movement to be repeated. The finalé is possibly the most romantic
movement Humphrey ever wrote. I am not quite sure it 'belongs' to the preceding
movements but it is exceptionally beautiful dispelling all that verbal rubbish
that 12-note music cannot have such qualities.
I think that Alun Francis takes the scherzo a little on the slow side and
he graciously accepted my observation. The revelation of this cycle however,
is the Fourth Symphony, which is the hardest to assess. At least,
it was until I heard this performance. I do not wish to bore readers with
all the problems of this piece but rather say that the orchestra and conductor
overcome all of them wonderfully well. And this says a lot for this orchestra.
Frankly, if they can play Humphrey's symphonies, and they can,
they can play anything. They are worthy of the highest praise. I heard them
première David Dorward's splendid Symphony No 2, again under
Alun Francis, and, yes, this is an unashamed hint that this work should be
Searle's Symphony No 5 has risen in popularity over the last few years.
It is a retrospective work recalling the composer's studies with Anton Webern
and memories of Vienna before it was occupied by the Nazis. It is a work
of mysterious shadows and has an enviable transparency. This is nostalgia
without the wallowing.
It is a pleasure to have the Night Piece Op 2 available since, like
the Fifth Symphony, it is dedicated to Webern. In my view, it is in
this piece that Francis and the Scottish Orchestra bring out the velvet
romanticism of Searle. And to think he was called an avant-garde! The
Overture to a Drama was premièred by Sargent at a Prom and
savaged in the broadsheets at the time. One wonders why. It is a piece which
aptly displays Humphrey's character. He was a man of tremendous humour with
a wonderful capacity for friendship. He was not arrogant or pompous but modest
and caring. He was precise and to the point, he was not a man of grand empty
These two discs, which are available separately, are very welcome indeed.
At last, a neglected master is now receiving the recognition he more than
deserves and Britain's most original and courageous composer can now be heard,
appraised and admired. But he is not a composer for the shallow or faint-hearted.
Searle web site