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The usual response is: "Who?" On a very few occasions it has been: "Didn't he write 'You and Music'?" Yes, an ingenious study which defied convention in 1940 by relating a brief history of music backwards from the twentieth century. Born in 1905, the same year as Tippett, Christian Darnton only died in 1981. In a scenario familiar to all who have championed the cause of their own personal favourite amongst neglected English musicians, it is remarkable just how swiftly a craftsman and all his works, many once highly regarded by luminaries of his time, can disappear into the shadows. "The story's nothing new. Wildheart is dead." wrote Robert Nichols, following the demise of Warlock; the lines could apply equally to Darnton, who, like Warlock, set some of Nichols' poetry. More personally, 'A Contemporary Legend', the subtitle of Darnton's opera Fantasy Fair (1951), is now a rather melancholy epitaph for the composer himself. Once in a while, a brief reference to him appears in a larger volume: Britten's reaction to Darnton's criticism of his Three Two-part songs in 1932; Elisabeth Lutyens' account of a visit to Warsaw with him in 1939; and it would be easy to envisage him as merely a satellite. Yet his own world was as complex as any other, and those who remained faithful through a turbulent and finally, rather bitter life: Walter Leigh, Randall Swingler, Edward Clark, Denis ApIvor, to name but four stalwarts, were rewarded with the loyal friendship of a man who never ceased fighting for his beliefs and who wrote some extraordinarily advanced and underrated music.
This monograph therefore requires a fair amount of biographical detail:
Philip Christian Darnton was born near Leeds on 30 October 1905. The family had been ennobled to a Barony of the Holy Roman Empire in 1715 and were related to two families of peers: the Holdens and the Illingworths. Just before the First World War, his father, born John Edward von Schunck, changed his name to Darnton. Although this certainly avoided anti-German sentiments, this was not, as had originally been thought, the main reason, but in order to comply with terms in his mother's will. The family was extremely well-off and Christian was educated at home by a governess until he was nine, when he began composing. Apparently he was not allowed to attend public school but spent four years at a minor prep. school near Rottingdean, which he found fairly traumatic, his life up until that point having been particularly sheltered. Early photographs reveal that he was, to all intents and purposes, treated as a girl until he was about five. His mother was rather unconventional with an exceptionally strong personality, believing that he would be a musician if she played the organ as frequently as possible during her pregnancy. It cannot be doubted that she had a significant influence on her son's development: similar, although not as durable, to that exerted by Rose Grainger on Percy. The family travelled a great deal and the boy experienced the World Tour twice. He was to do little but travel during much of the 1960s and 1970s.
Darnton was later to complain that he had a succession of "unsympathetic and incompetent" composition teachers until he met Max Butting in Berlin, but always excepted Harry Farjeon, with whom he studied when fifteen and Charles Wood, who taught him at Cambridge. However, it was not until going up to Gonville & Caius' College in 1924 that his talent became obvious. In addition to Wood, he studied under Rootham and despite this latter relationship being cordial but unsatisfactory, wrote an enormous number of works during the next four years: over twenty in 1924, many for solo piano. There were already signs of the fastidiousness which always distinguished both his music notation and his use of the written word: the pedalling is marked with extreme care. Typically, many of these early pieces are laconic and concise, but several are rather more substantial, both in duration and significance. An early interest in psychology, which was later to result in the translation of a volume by George Groddeck, may be seen in the titles of some of these, in addition to a certain dash of Satiesque surrealism: Psychogenesis; The primitive exists in every man; To a dead goldfish. Also from 1924 comes The Chosen People, one of the briefest songs ever written: five rapid bars for the epigram: "How odd /Of God /To choose /The Jews." (Warlock's five-bar How many miles to Babylon? from the Candlelight cycle, was published in the same year, but certainly written several months earlier; so although Darnton does not best his colleague, he makes up for it by saying what he has to say three times as fast). In a similar vein are Four Pieces for Piano, the second of which is entitled Charades (on a chord played by Eugene Goossens at a party.) [The chord is: G# below middle C, B natural a minor third above, middle C# and D natural a minor second above]. He played Ireland's virtuosic Rhapsody for piano in the May concert of his first year at Cambridge, but other information from this period is sparse. Two contemporaries were to remain lifelong friends: Walter Leigh (for whom he wrote a very slight but charming An English Set of Lessons for keyboard) and Arnold Cooke. As was not uncommon at the time, Darnton took no degree at Cambridge, and after coming down in 1926, entered the Royal College of Music, where, at first, his principal study was conducting and the second, bassoon. Evidently matters did not run smoothly: the students' register shows that the precedence of these disciplines was reversed after his first half term. Again, he left with no formal qualifications, having resided for only three terms, the minimum required. However, he had made valuable contacts with the conductors Iris Lemare and Anthony Bernard, the latter proving a particularly useful colleague only a few months later.
Aside from music, Darnton and Warlock had much in common: well-connected scholars and linguists both, with a joint sense of humour which might be described conservatively as Rabelaisian, they enjoyed some degree of intimacy in the twenties. Their relationship might have continued without incident had not the start of Darnton's professional career been particularly awkward. He had achieved a few performances of some of his pieces, notably the Octet for flute, clarinet, bassoon, cornet in A and string quartet on 26 March 1927, when it was conducted by Anthony Bernard at the Grotrian Hall. However, four days later, his parents mounted an entire evening of Darnton there. Doubtless they had his best interests at heart, and as Denis ApIvor points out, the composer had amassed an enormous body of work and had no other way of experiencing any of it. However, it resulted in the severing of many relationships, particularly the Gray/Warlock entourage, who disrupted proceedings with characteristic gusto, considering the whole affair as a rich debutant's presentation and arrogant in the extreme; while Rootham went out of his way to assure Edwin Evans of the BBC that he was not responsible for the young man's counterpoint. Darnton was only 21 and it was clear that his music was nowhere near ready for that kind of exposure; in retrospect, his future wife, Joan Bell, certainly thought so. The general attitude against such a well-trumpeted, not to say well-heeled advent, was to do him few favours.
As might be expected, the reviews of the critics were also almost entirely negative. Of the three brief pieces which comprised the Psychogenesis set at the time, The Star remarked "their chief merit is brevity", while the Yorkshire Post mused: "They were so soon done one wondered what they were begun for." On 1st April 1927, not altogether inappropriately, the critic of The Times was clearly bewildered by Darnton's first String Quartet, op. 23 (which had received its premiere by the Kutcher Quartet) and, joining the spirit of almost universal intolerance and facetiousness which the event had engendered, went so far as to suggest a title for the second movement: "The Lament of the Snails who have Lost their Shells."
A few remarks are needed here about Darnton's style, as his music falls fairly easily into three distinct periods. The years of experiment and development run from about 1924-1940, culminating in the Five Orchestral Pieces (of which more later) and probably the Second Symphony, sub- titled The Anagram, although much of this particular work is lost, making evaluation difficult. During the Second War, Darnton busied himself writing music for documentary films but while serving in the Civil Defence he suffered an horrific fall, which resulted in partial paralysis and a considerable change of personality, since he was rarely free from pain thereafter.
For the second period, lasting about fifteen years, he was under the spell of Communism and having decided that his music was too complex, determined to write specifically for mass appeal. The disastrous consequences of such a profound dilution of his style were not apparent to him until much later. Principal works of this period include two cantatas Ballad of Freedom and Jet Pilot; the three-act opera Fantasy Fair with a Brechtian libretto by Randall Swingler; and a number of other socialist anthems, including a Stalingrad Overture, and an Epic for Orchestra on the death of Stalin. Unfortunately, such left-wing sympathies merely added fuel to the fire fanned by his critics, and certainly appear to have increased the rapidity of his further fall from favour. As is known, at one time the late Alan Bush was practically the only socialist composer whom the BBC would tolerate. Darnton's musical language, particularly in his early days, was less readily acceptable than Bush's, being grittier, more dissonant, and frequently appealing more to the intellect than to the emotions.
Darnton's eventual rejection of Stalin's ideals (although he maintained to the end that he was a great man) left him unable to compose for another fifteen years until he finally recovered his abilities in the 1970s. This protracted and painful third period contains two crowning works which, as Denis ApIvor put it, "justifies his long wait in the wilderness": the remarkable Concerto for Orchestra, founded on the pattern of ancient Greek drama, and the Fourth Symphony (Twenty Minute Symphony) of 1975-78, based on the tritone and therefore subtitled Diabolus in musica.
Following Cambridge, Walter Leigh studied with Hindemith. Darnton also went abroad to Berlin, and wrote several works under the tutelage of Max Butting, the most important of which was probably his first Violin Concerto, but again, much is missing: only a piano score is known to exist. While in Baden-Baden, he met the painter Joan Bell, whom he was to marry the following year.
Returning from Berlin in January 1929, Darnton took a post at Stowe School as second music master, which he loathed, as it involved teaching children who had no interest or aptitude, as well as covering for his Head of Department who preferred to go out hunting. He left after only a term for a final visit to Berlin, where he found time to write Two Compositions for Pianola, the second of which, in a whirling prestissimo of rhythms, with no bar-lines or time signatures, remarkably foreshadows some of the Studies for Player Piano of Nancarrow. Much of the year was taken up with plans for his wedding followed by an extended honeymoon in the Tyrol. However, once the couple finally arrived at a tiny albergo in Murano, Darnton spent most of December working at his first Symphony. This is uncomfortable music, the opening diatonic fanfares quickly becoming distorted by major sevenths, a favourite interval of the composer at the time. There is profusion of invention, perhaps rather too much, and considerable energy. The extremely unsteady mood prevails through the ensuing Lento which is again shot through with biting sevenths, while the final Vivo is a frenetic dance in 15/8, highly chromatic and opening most effectively on unison strings, marked ppp.
Contact had already been made with Edwin Evans, editor of 'The Music Lover' and a great supporter of the avant-garde, notwithstanding Rootham's remarks at the ill-starred concert. In 1931, following a lean period at the BBC when Darnton could make little headway in obtaining broadcasts or performances, Evans wrote personally to Adrian Boult, urging him to inspect the composer's Symphony: "He is one of the very few of our young men who have looked across the North Sea for wisdom." In spite of the minimal advancement which this procured, much good was done in drawing attention to the man and his music. Darnton was appointed Assistant Editor of 'The Music Lover' under Evans in 1932 and held the post for three years.
In the 1930s, Darnton produced three Suites for piano, which were later collected as op. 1932: the composer frequently employed an eccentric but logical system of opus numbers in his early works. Details of the first Suite are obscure, apart from the knowledge that the first performance was given in 1932 by Helen Perkin, whose career had been launched with her remarkable premiere of Ireland's Piano Concerto at the Proms two years before. Darnton's opinion of its successor, dedicated to Sorabji, was dismissive: "Of the Studio, with which this 2nd Piano Suite begins, not much can be said, save that it fulfils the function of all preludes in giving the audience time to settle down without having too much on which to concentrate." However, the work is particularly notable for the inclusion in the third movement of a chromatic 15th-century descant, which obsessed Darnton for the rest of his life. Entitled Litaniae mortuorum discordantes: De profundis clamavi, it was to appear again in the third String Quartet of 1934 and finally in the Fourth Symphony, where its tritones permeate the first movement. Both the First and Third Suites (there are no details of the Third) were performed at one of the Macnaghten/Lemare concerts, apparently the first instance of Darnton's new association with a fellow student at the Royal College, although it is not known whether composer approached conductor, or the other way round.
Two other works of this period deserve a mention. The most notorious, thanks to the circumstances surrounding it, was the Harp Concerto of 1934, written at the request of Maria Korchinska. The well-documented first performance on 12 April 1935 was an unmitigated disaster. Experienced orchestral players were in short supply that evening, and rehearsals had been stormy, all concerned having underestimated the difficulty of the work. Constant Lambert remarked that the performance was "obviously inadequate", which was mild, particularly for Lambert. Darnton himself designated it "the worst performed programme in the annals of Broadcasting House never have I been so upset" and was obliged to spend a day in the country to recover from it.
A work with a similarly unsettled genesis but a happier outcome was the Piano Concerto, written in 1933. Owing to the travels of Adolph Hallis, the virtuoso South African to whom it was dedicated, the work had to wait two years for its first performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The notation of the cadenza passage, a section of extreme waywardness, marked rubatissimo, quasi senza battute (as if without beats) gave much trouble to the composer, concerned as he was to get every single detail on paper. Further explanations appended to the manuscript also bear witness to his linguistic abilities: "I have done my best to supplement the inevitable sense of the music in indications of ritardare and accelare (not ritardando which is "getting slower" but the imperative "ritardare", "get slower")". One feels that Sibelius 7 would have been welcomed with open arms. This was the first occasion on which Darnton was supremely satisfied with the outcome of one his works: "everything conspired auspiciously" he wrote.
No doubt encouraged by the overwhelming success of the work, Hallis quickly founded the Hallis Concerts Society, and the first meeting was held early in 1936 with the purpose of presenting an accessible series of concerts of little-known chamber music from all eras, but with a particular emphasis on contemporary works. Chaired by the pianist, with Darnton as Secretary, the rest of the committee originally comprised Rawsthorne, Britten and Sophie Wyss. Britten quickly found the atmosphere uncongenial; his presence on future occasions was sporadic and soon ceased; while Wyss only lasted a little longer. Nonetheless, the programmes were of considerable originality and interest, Darnton frequently delving into the British Library to edit a Fantasy or Ricercare of Locke or Palestrina, which was then played by a string quartet and programmed alongside works by Webern, Balakirev, Hindemith or members of the Committee and their friends. Darnton, Rawsthorne and Britten all wrote works for the Hallis Concerts while Darnton's Minutes of the committee meetings are a lively record of racy and frequently bibulous occasions.
In November 1938, Darnton completed his Five Orchestral Pieces which were accepted by the jury of the International Society for Contemporary Music at once. Along with the Five Pieces for String Quartet they received their first and only performance in Warsaw on 14 April 1939, an event to which Lutyens, another English delegate, referred in 'A Goldfish Bowl'. All five are very short, totalling eight minutes as a set, each bearing a dedication and considered by ApIvor as "the most advanced yet by an English composer." Although the orchestration is stimulating, the instrumentation is large, embracing double woodwind, including two contrabassoons, six horns and three percussionists (in addition to timpani) playing nine instruments, including anvil, between them. The writing is uncompromisingly virtuosic throughout, particularly the second, Presto furioso. In no. 4, fragmented forms of the theme are passed from part to part, with Darnton clearly indicating to the players the main material as opposed to subsidiary figures; this results in wispy trails of sound which are very precisely calculated. No. 5 is one of the briefest but has the most magical ending, accomplished by the divisi of the strings into thirteen-part chords. Much rehearsal is therefore required for a short item in a programme, factors which may well have rendered the work financially unviable and doomed it to oblivion; certainly the BBC refused to touch it, despite a lucid and moving plea by the composer:" are we not, I ask myself, supposed to be fighting someone in the name of the preservation of Civilisation? speaking as one of the Oppressed Minorities, I hold also that a little word, 'culture', which the Germans spell with such a large K, is also an integral part of Civilisation; and that always the status of a people depends not so much on its relative advancement of technology and sanitary services as on its place in the World of Ideas. I conclude therefore when this precious thing is in danger of occlusion if not of eclipse, it is of the greatest importance to foster and encourage its exponents and representatives in the avant-garde of the Cultural Front " (letter to Kenneth Wright, 10/3/40, BBC WAC)
During the war years, only one work of Darnton's achieved major success in spite of his political persuasions, this being the Third Symphony. First performed at Glasgow in 1945, it aroused the enthusiasm of Lennox Berkeley, and certainly hastened the ensuing British broadcast, followed by recordings for Austria, Germany and France. It was the composer's first success for some time and "produced a spate of fan-mail as unexpected as it was gratifying." Such recognition was to be short-lived. Darnton spent much of 1949 and 1950 engaged on Fantasy Fair which he was writing for the competition linked with the Festival of Britain. Despite the whole-hearted support of Lambert, it appears that the work was never seen by the judges. Whether or not this was intentional, it should be remembered that in 1945, there were calls for Sadler's Wells to revive Merrie England rather than premiere Peter Grimes; in the confident year of 1951, with Vaughan Williams' The Pilgrim's Progress at Covent Garden, the general reaction of the public to a large-scale anti-capitalist opera written by a communist, which dealt with "the defeats and frustrations of life" may perhaps be guessed. Unsurprisingly, Darnton was devastated and from then on his output dwindled rapidly, a state of affairs which was exacerbated when the BBC later lost the only full score of his much-prized Jet Pilot, written to commemorate the death of John Anstee Martin, the son of his second wife.
Following his rejection of Communist ideals in 1956, Darnton spent many years travelling the world, during which period he wrote no music at all, but toyed with poetry and essays, some of an outrageously scurrilous nature. He was never known to mince his words and his letters frequently concluded with some smutty ribaldry or the latest double entendre from a press cutting, but he took the precaution of entrusting his large collection of pornography to Arnold Cooke before going abroad. In a study of this length, there is no time to do more than hint at Darnton's sense of humour, which, as has been mentioned, was usually black and obscene, if sometimes rather tiresome in its incessant puerility. A typical gem occurs in a letter to Alton Pickens, the painter, referring to Arnold Cooke's residence: "As you know, the house is called Syphilis Cottage, but for some reason the first syllable appears to have been dropped."
It was not until 1970 that the Concerto for Orchestra took shape. Much of it was written in the mountains of the South Tyrol, but not completed until three years later, the longest Darnton had ever taken over a work. Plans for the first performance were altered and delayed several times, but in 1976 the composer was fortunate to have it taken up with supreme dedication by Colin Davis, as many future performances by the BBC and others were cancelled.
In his last years, for intricate legal reasons that have yet to be fathomed, it seems that Darnton forfeited much of his income from a trust which had been funding him. It is unlikely that this had been foreseen, or the composer would surely have been less profligate in his travels abroad. The creation of the complex Fourth Symphony, Darnton's final work, completed at age 72, was also a thorny task, but shows no lessening of his powers, despite the impoverished circumstances under which it was written (his letters of this time constantly lament the lack of money). The first movement, Tempestoso, basically comprises four variations on the fourteenth-century descant he had used before. The second is a Notturno, the third a Piccola Fantasia Contrapuntistica and the finale, a Passacaglia with ten variations. "It's surprising what you can say in 20 minutes.Webern said a bibful in 3½ seconds (if I remember rightly) in Das Augenlicht." (chorus & orch., 1935) remarked the composer. Once again, arrangements for the first performance took some time to reach fruition, and when Edward Downes finally brought the work to life with the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra in September 1981, Darnton had been dead for six months.
"What a rotten country, what a wasted life" Denis ApIvor complained to me in 1994. This sounds harsh and it cannot be doubted that Darnton frequently appeared a monster unto many, a tragic figure working in a vacuum, and cursed by forever writing the wrong sort of music at the wrong time. Following the long silence which succeeded the Soviet-influenced period, he often warned a prospective listener that his music might be strange or unappealing, but that was simply because it had to be written that way. Naturally, it is good to know that in the end he felt he had again been honest to his true nature, even if the world was not then prepared to listen to it, but many questions remain: What happened to some of the larger scores, such as the Second Symphony and the Harp Concerto? Was there any recognition or support for his work from Russia, and if not, why not? Why did the upper echelons of the BBC so resist the avant-garde until the 1960s? When questioned about the value of his labours, the composer himself was in no doubt, but replied in typically evasive fashion: "'Is it worth it?' False question. Is it worth what to whom?" [letter to ApIvor, c.1972]
© Andrew Plant February 1997
· Fantasy Fair, a contemporary legend (opera, libretto: Randall Swingler), 1949-51. Unstaged, concert extracts only performed, London, 1953.
SONGS (voice & piano)
· The nun (Symons), 1924;
· The chosen people (Ewer), 1924;
· Les trois amis (C.Hallis), 1936, possibly perf. Sophie Wyss.
· Swansong (R.Nichols), 1935, five songs for soprano & orchestra; perf. May Blyth, BBCSO cond. Lambert, London, 1938.
· Ballad of Freedom (cantata, R.Swingler), 1941-2, tenor, narrator, SATB, orchestra.
· Jet Pilot (cantata, R.Swingler), 1952; perf. Ian Glennie, Boyd Neel Orch., cond. E. Cundell, London, 1953.
· Concertino (piano, chamber orchestra), 1926; perf. Joseph Cooper, BBCSO, cond. A. Boult, London, 1927.
· Symphony No. 1: begun Murano Dec. 1929, completed London 1931; also arr. for piano duet, Dedicated "To my wife".
· Viola concerto (viola, strings), 1933/5; perf. Bernard Shore, Lemare Orchestra cond. Iris Lemare, London, 1937.
· Piano concerto (piano, orchestra), 1933; perf. Adolph Hallis, BBCSO cond. Warwick Braithwaite, London, 1935.
· Harp concerto (harp, wind), 1934; perf. Maria Korchinska, cond. Ernest Ansermet, London, 1935.
· Suite concertante (violin, chamber orchestra), 1936; perf. Sascha Parnes, cond. Reginald Goodall, London, 1937.
· Five Orchestral Pieces, 1938; perf. Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, cond. S. Chapple, Warsaw, 1939.
· Symphony No. 2 Anagram: c.1939-40, survives in three incomplete forms (piano, short score etc.). Judging by the score it would appear to have been performed at some time.
· Stalingrad (overture), 1943; perf. cond. Malcolm Sargent, London, 1943.
· Symphony No. 3 in D, 1944; perf. Scottish Symphony Orchestra cond. Warwick Braithwaite, Glasgow, 1945.
· Concerto for Orchestra, 1970-73; perf. BBCSO cond. Colin Davis, London, 1976.
· Symphony No. 4 (Twenty Minute Symphony, "Diabolus in musica"), 1975-78; perf. BBC Northern SO, cond. Edward Downes, Manchester, 1981.
· Sonata, 1925; perf. Adolph Hallis, London, 1927.
· Suite No. 1, 1930; perf. Helen Perkin, London, 1932.
· Duo concertante (2 pianos), 1933; perf. Adolph Hallis, Max Pirani, London, 1938.
· Sonata No. 2, 1944; poss. perf. Adolph Hallis.
· Capriccio, 1949; perf. Adolph Hallis, 1949.
· String Quartet no. 1, op.23: 1924-5; fp Kutcher Qt, Grotrian Hall, London, 30/3/27
· Octet (flute, clarinet, bassoon, cornet in A, violin, viola, cello, double bass), 1926-8 perf. members of the London Chamber Orchestra cond. Anthony Bernard, London, 1927
· String Quartet no. 2, a.k.a. "String Quartet for Amateurs": 1933.
· String Quartet no. 3, 1934; perf. String Quartet of Basel Chamber Orchestra, Basel, 1935.
· Five Pieces for String Quartet, 1938; perf. Warsaw (ISCM Festival), 1939 (?)
· Epic Suite (violin & piano), 1947; perf. London, 1948.
There is also music to a number of films (mostly documentary or propaganda) and some incidental music for Shakespeare plays for the Old Vic, Bristol.
· Denis ApIvor: 'Christian Darnton', Composer no. 74, Winter 1981
· Andrew Plant: Entry for Grove 7 and Ph.D. thesis for the University of Birmingham (in preparation) Andrew Plant
Location of MSS: Christian Darnton Collection, British Library, Add. MSS 62717-62774; several lost.
[A paper given in the Department of Music of the University of Birmingham, Saturday 1 March 1997. Annual Study Day - 'Aspects of the British Musical Renaissance'] Most quotations are taken from letters held at the BBC Written Archives Centre, Caversham Park, Reading and are reproduced with their permission and that of the estate of Christian Darnton. With thanks also to the ApIvor collection held in the William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections. McMaster University Library, Hamilton, Canada.
ANDREW PLANT, 6 MANOR HOUSE STREET, PETERBOROUGH, CAMBRIDGESHIRE, PE1 1XS. TEL. & FAX: 01733 566693; e-mail: email@example.com
Andrew would be pleased to hear from anyone who might have further information on Darnton. He is sure there are some lost scores somewhere.
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