THE PRE-WAR YEARS1 by Gordon Green

In 1938 Alan Rawsthorne's Theme and Variations for two violins was played at an International Society for Contemporary Music concert in London1 and a year later his orchestral Symphonic Studies was given at a similar concert in Warsaw. These performances, and the success of his first Piano Concerto (1939) marked his arrival as a composer, and by the end of the War he was established as an important figure in contemporary music. The course of his eventual life is known; but of his earlier years much less is known, and it is of these that I have been asked to write.

His childhood and boyhood must have been both happy and fruitful. Of its happiness I know only by inference and from frequent spontaneous and entertaining references as a student to parents, sister, home and incidents of early life. Of its fruitfulness: from the first one was impressed by the breadth of his general reading, the variety of his interests and the fact that already his social sympathies extended outside the confines of the general and cultivated milieu into which he was born.

We met in January 1925 when he first appeared as a student at the Royal Manchester College of Music. He was nineteen years and eight months old. (Biographical notices usually wrongly put the date of his entry to the College at a year or more later.) He spent the previous two years at Liverpool University having brief flirtations, first with dentistry and then with architecture, before finally committing himself to music.

As a young man he was strikingly handsome: slim with blonde hair, pale complexion, exceptionally broad forehead and an oval face narrowing steeply towards the chin. Beneath the face the fine bony structure was clearly marked. There was a hint of Modigliani about the head and the face was Chopin-like, but with a mouth even more firmly moulded than Chopin's and without the disfigurement of Chopin's too large aquiline nose. His conversation was the most alert I have known.

He studied composition with Dr. Thomas Keighley, cello - a side-line - with Carl Fuchs and piano with Frank Merrick. Keighley's outlook was conservative - "if Elgar or Bantock do it, then it is permissible" was the dictum - and though Alan received useful technical guidance from him he must have gained little stimulus. But in those days Alan's interest in composition was equalled by his regard for the piano, and it was Frank Merrick who influenced him most, and whose lessons - more concerned with Music than with the piano - were most eagerly anticipated. Merrick showed the liveliest interest in contemporary music and also encouraged his brighter pupils to explore the less familiar regions of the repertory: early English keyboard music and the sonatas of Haydn and Schubert - music at that time almost unknown to concertgoers, I remember a broadcast by Alan of the Haydn Sonata in A flat (Hob.46) in which the Finale fairly sparkled, and my first hearing of a Purcell keyboard piece occurred when he played the beautiful Ground in C minor. On the other hand - this was forty-five years ago - he also played Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain.

Fellow students soon realized that Alan's was the one genuinely creative talent in the College, and were not slow to come forward and perform his compositions. Among those heard at student concerts were: Three Songs (words by De la Mare, Shakespeare and Villon), the first movement of a violin sonata and a lengthy work for soprano and piano with words translated from the Chinese.2 Although he loved the piano, he often said that he had difficulty in writing for it. One day, however, he gave me a Waltz in C minor: despite the dissonance of its middle section, the spirit of Chopin is not far away, and there is early evidence of his concern with compositional devices, for its coda is based on the first theme in rapid diminution. I included it in a broadcast recital early in 1928 - Alan's first BBC appearance as a composer (and, incidentally, mine as a pianist). Later I managed to extract another piano piece from him, a Ballade in G sharp minor. It contains a recurring thematic reference to Good King Wenceslas and the manuscript is dated Christmas 1929. He was to travel fast in the six years which separate this piece from the Concertante No.2 for piano and violin, and both his compositional style and his musical predilections were to change. In 1929 his musical predilections included an affection for the music of Brahms - he gave a fine performance of the Handel Variations - and his favourite English composer was Arnold Bax. So much so that when his studies in Manchester were coming to an end he wrote to Bax asking for composition lessons. Bax said that he would do better to study with Adam Carse, though some two years were to elapse before he took lessons, for only two or three months, from Carse - and the lessons were devoted entirely to counterpoint.

Meanwhile, his pianoforte studies were being pursued more vigorously. Lessons in Manchester continued until the summer of 1929 when Alan ceased to be a student of the College and Frank Merrick left for London. Thereafter, Alan studied with Egon Petri, first for one summer in Zakopane in the Polish Tatra mountains where Petri had a summer home, and later in Berlin. With these Petri lessons and the brief period with Carse his formal training ended. There followed nearly two years work at the Dartington Hall School of Dance and Mime - the only permanent post he ever held. He left Dartington in the spring of 1934, settled in London, and the struggle for recognition began - a struggle made easier by his marriage, in July, to the violinist Jessie Hinchliffe (they had met as students at the Royal Manchester College of Music).

At this time Alan was finally realizing where his innate musical sympathies lay (Bax had long since been superseded by Bartok and Stravinsky; Brahms was being displaced by Berlioz and Chopin) and the direction, creatively, he was to take. He fulfilled many routine commissions, scoring other people's music for this or that combination and gaining valuable experience thereby. In particular, he made arrangements for the Adolph Hallis Quintet, one of those ensembles, favoured by the BBC at the time, playing, excellently, music that was both light and good. Searching the pages of the 'Radio Times' of the middle nineteen-thirties one could find recurringly the hyphenated named of Jess: Haydn-Jess, Boccherini-Jess, and so on. Jess, a name derived from that of his wife Jessie, was the future composer of the Clarinet Quartet and the Third Symphony.

One of the most important compositions of the period was a chamber cantata for voice, string quartet and harpsichord heard at Wigmore Hall in February 1937. Constant Lambert was at this concert and it must have been soon afterwards that he and Alan met, and an intimate friendship began. Musically they had much in common and Lambert's influence tended to confirm Alan in the direction he was taking. (But Alan never shared Lambert's enthusiasm for Sibelius. Many years later, when visiting his sister near Manchester, he heard the Hallé Orchestra give a popular concert in which the Rawsthorne Hallé Overture was played. The imminence of Valse Triste found him making a beeline for licensed premises. When I joined him there he explained that, although he regarded Valse Triste as Sibelius's masterpiece, he felt he might afford to miss it for once!)

The publication of the Concertante No.2, his first appearance in print, was followed by the enchanting Three French Nursery Songs and the more important works mentioned at the head of this notice. They represent the beginnings of fame and the end of the early years.

It is difficult to write briefly about a personality so rich as his, though the later man was discernible even in the student - his reliability, sympathy and wisdom were such that, almost at once, one withheld no secret from him. During the rise of Fascism and the Spanish Civil War he was firmly on the Left. In his last years, less committed politically, he achieved, despite the hazards of health, something near serenity. Significantly, the last expression of musical faith I heard from him was one of awe and reverence for the late Beethoven quartets. In those last years the conversation, though now, perhaps, somewhat slower, was still witty, wise and often sparkling, but the underlying character was profoundly and imaginatively discerning - imaginative, because while many of us can sympathize with the neglected and deprived, he could also pity the debased; and this, surely, is the ultimate in human understanding.

1 See Volume 1 No.5 (Autumn 1991) of THE CREEL page 181
2 Tzu Yeh Song set to translations from the Chinese by Arthur Waley-first performed at the College on 13th March 1929. [Now recorded on Swinsty - cassette FEW 120]

[This article first appeared in the Programme Book for the Alan Rawsthorne Memorial Concert at Wigmore Hall on 24th November 1971].

Taken from THE CREEL, the Journal of the Friends of Alan Rawsthorne and The Rawsthorne Trust Vol.2 No. 1 Spring 1992

Return to Rawsthorne Front Page