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Golden Age singers

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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

QUADRILLE WITH A RAVEN


Memoirs By Humphrey Searle


Chapter 6: 500 COPIES OF MESSIAH

Back in England I stayed for a short time at my parents' house and then returned to the Royal College. This time I took a room in Hammersmith where I had friends. I didn't go to John Ireland again, as I wanted to learn some counterpoint and for this I went to the acknowledged expert, R.O. Morris, who had been at Oxford with my father. He was also an authority on crossword puzzles which he used to compile for the Times; he was married to the sister of H.A.L. Fisher, the Warden of New College. They lived in a basement flat in Glebe Place, Chelsea, surrounded by cats. I took lessons in orchestration with Gordon Jacob who was the principal exponent in this subject; he was also in charge of the conducting class. The student conductors were allowed to conduct the Second Orchestra and I was allotted the first movement of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony which I much enjoyed conducting. I also played the castanets in Ravel's "Daphnis and Chloe" under Eugene Goossens.

My money had all gone and I had to keep alive and pay my college fees by teaching. Before going to London I had taught Greek and the guitar (an instrument that I have never properly mastered) to a boy in a country house near Guildford. In London I alternated between teaching French to a rich young man in Berkeley Square (we ploughed through a translation of Dostoievsky's Crime and Punishment) and - a curious assignment - teaching logic to a clergyman in Mornington Crescent. In Mods at Oxford I had learnt the medieval scholastic logic, which one could take instead of maths, and it proved useful here. This kind of existence was rather precarious and, when I saw an advertisement in the paper for the job of Chorus librarian at the BBC ,Dyson (who had succeeded Allen as the Director of the College) strongly advised me to apply for it. I did so and got the job; Leslie Woodgate, the BBC Chorus Master, told me afterwards that he was frightened of me as I had been a pupil of Webern, but that he liked me once he saw me at the interview. So I left the College and finished my academic musical training; it had lasted nine months altogether, six in Vienna and three at the College.

At the BBC, apart from Leslie Woodgate who was charming, I found two old Oxford friends working in the Chorus department as assistant conductors, Trevor Harvey and Basil Douglas. I was paid the princely sum of £4 a week; my duties mainly consisted of carting 500 copies of Messiah and other choral works round London in taxis and delivering them to the members of the BBC Choral Society at rehearsals. This was a large group of amateurs; in addition the BBC employed two professional groups, the sixteen BBC singers who were on permanent contract, and the BBC Chorus who were engaged on an ad hoc basis, depending on the number of singers needed for any particular show. It was part of my job to act as policeman and see that these singers actually turned up at the rehearsals and broadcasts for which they were engaged. The BBC Singers had various.regular jobs, such as the daily Morning Service, and they acted as a nucleus in programmes which needed larger forces. For very big public concerts the BBC Singers, Chorus and Choral Society all combined together. Not all the broadcasts were of serious choral music; the BBC Chorus also took part in opera, light music and even variety shows, and so I was able to attend rehearsals for various different programmes. I also had to look after the Chorus Library and make suggestions for new acquisitions; needless to say the BBC soon acquired the complete sacred choral works of Liszt, in the Breitkopf Collected Edition. It was just as well as this edition became unobtainable when the war started. I had to see that the various bodies of singers had the music they needed for each show; this proved particularly difficult in the case of the weekly programmes of religious music introduced by Sir Walford Davies. This tiresome old boy used to send down illegible scraps of paper from Windsor, which I had to decipher and get copies distributed to the singers; often he would arrive at the broadcast itself with further additions and corrections. Re was hopelessly disorganised (and sentimental as well) and I was surprised that the programmes went on the air at all. (There was no recording in those days and everything had to go out live).

Though my duties were somewhat humble, I had at least got a job concerned with music and a foothold in the BBC; I have been connected with this organisation ever since. I also met a number of interesting people, particularly producers in the Music Department such as Julian Herbage, Herbert Murrill and Kenneth Wright. I used to represent the Chorus Department at the weekly meeting which discussed the presentation of music and the scripts to be read by the announcers, and I had the privilege of going to rehearsals of BBC concerts. Before joining the BBC I had been lucky enough to obtain tickets for one of Toscanini's fantastic performances of Verdi's "Requiem", and in 1939 he returned to do a complete Beethoven cycle for the BBC - all the symphonies and the Missa Solemnis. I was allowed to attend the final rehearsals on the morning of the concerts, which were in fact straight run-throughs without interruption, and were as exciting as the concerts themselves.

I had moved to a room just off Portland Place, a few minutes walk from Broadcasting House, and I was soon introduced to the George pub in Mortimer Street. This famous hostelry, was mainly frequented by BBC producers, writers and actors, motor-car salesmen from Great Portland Street, and orchestral players from the nearby Queen's Hall. Sir Henry Wood is reputed to have named it "The Gluepot" as he could never get his players out of it. Here one might find Constant Lambert, Louis MacNeice, Alan Rawsthorne, Dylan Thomas, W.R. Rodgers, Michael Ayrton and many others. It was then a real rendezvous des artistes and not usually overcrowded; many BBC programmes were discussed and settled within its walls. In those days visiting conductors stayed at the Langham Hotel and walked across the road to the Queen's Hall for their rehearsals and concerts; they usually dined at Pagani's Restaurant in Great Portland Street. The Queen's Hall was bombed during the war and never rebuilt, though it was far finer acoustically than any of the present-day London concert halls. Pagani's was also bombed but survived for a time after the war as a single bar with an excellent restaurant above it. Then that too disappeared and the Langham was taken over by the BBC for offices and a studio. The George survived for a long time as a meeting-place, but was later frequented by students from the Polytechnic opposite and gradually lost much of its charm.

I used to meet Constant Lambert fairly often in the George, and also in "The Nest", a night-club in Kingly Street, off Regent Street. This was a simple, comparatively inexpensive club with negress waitresses - who intrigued Constant who always fell for exotic-looking girls - and a small but superb negro band which he liked as well. By about three in the morning the band had really reached its peak and the sound was terrifically exciting. Many negro performers, such as Fats Waller and the Mills Brothers would drop in after their performances at the Palladium and give a free show at the Nest. It too was a casualty of the war.

On Saturdays and Sundays Constant and I often met at lunchtime at the Casa Prada restaurant in the Euston Road, which had a pleasant proprietor and the signatures of many artists embroidered on panels round the walls. Richard Shead has described our meetings in his biography of Constant, so I will only say here that after lunch we would often go back to his "shooting-box", as he called it. He was separated from his first wife and lived in a lodge belonging to one of the big houses in Park Road, a stone's throw from Lord's cricket ground. Not that he attended the cricket matches, but he could sometimes be found in the first-class bar in Lord's Underground Station, which still existed at that time. At his shooting-box we played Satie and other absurd pieces as piano duets on his mini-piano, a curious instrument of which for some reason he was very fond.

It was about this time that I first met Edith Sitwell who came to do a programme for the BBC. I remember being very impressed by her personality. I was to get to know her much better in later years.

Early in 1939 a friend of mine, Rodney Phillips, kindly said he would put up some money for a concert which I was to conduct. We hired the Aeolian Hall in Bond Street (now a BBC studio, alas) and a small string orchestra. As we thought it best to do a somewhat out-of-the-way programme, we started with three pieces by the curious chromatic 18th-century Irish composer Thomas Roseingrave; Constant had copied them out in the British Museum, and I arranged them for strings. The concert, which took place in April, also included Liszt's "Malediction", a movement from a van Dieren quartet to which I had added a double bass part (with the permission of the composer's widow) and the first public performance in England of Webern's Five Movements Op.5 in his own arrangement for string orchestra. I wrote a short piece for the concert which was a curious mixture of Webern and Liszt, and I have since withdrawn it. We only had two well-known works in the programme, Bach's F minor clavier concerto and the Elegy and Waltz from Tchaikovsky's Serenade, which was not played as often then as it is now. Robert Irving was the soloist in the Bach and the Liszt. The concert was a success artistically and the reviews were quite good. Sir Adrian Boult, who besides being conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra was also the head of the Music Department (and hence my boss), came to the concert and gave me some free conducting lessons afterwards from time to time in his office.

I had written to tell Webern about the performance and to ask him if he wanted to write anything about his pieces. reproduce a translation of his reply.

9.111. 39.

Dear Herr Searle,

I was very glad to hear from you again at last with such good news: that you have a position in the BBC, are giving a concert, and especially that you are composing. I would like to get to know your work. What sort of orchestra are you using for your concert on 17.1V? Are they the strings of the BBC? Is it a radio performance or a public concert?

About my 5 Movements I would like to say: the first is really extraordinarily difficult. If you can't have enough rehearsals or your strings can't master the movement properly, leave it out and play only the other four! Or possibly only, 2, 4 and 5. That would work too. But naturally it is nicer if all 5 are possible. You have heard the Kolisch Quartet: the orchestra should play it like this too. But compare the quartet score carefully with the orchestral version. I think this comparison will give you a lot of information. If something were written about this in the programme it would be very nice But I can't do this myself, dear Searle. I can't fulfil your request. For the reason that I would so much like the young people to concern themselves with this at last. Write something yourself. Let me know how the rehearsals go:!!

Good luck!

How has the record of my Trio come out? I would like to have it. Can I get it? So you meet Clark? I am very glad. I like him very much! !! Only he never writes! Give him warm greetings from me. My new Quartet will soon be published by Boosey and Hawkes. I have read the proofs already! Write to me as soon as possible. Warm greetings from your A. Webern.

After the concert I wrote to tell him how it had gone and also to inform him about the first performance of his cantata "Das Augenlicht", which was given at the London ISCM Festival under Scherchen; it was Webern's first real success with an international public. I kept in touch with him right up to the outbreak of war.

It was about this time that I first met Elisabeth Lutyens; she was separated from her first husband, the singer Ian Glennie, and was about to marry Edward Clark. (She had three children by her first marriage and another with Edward) I didn't get to know her well 'till later on, but we both began to write twelve-note music independently at about the same time - we were the first British composers to do so. I had met Edward Clark in 1935 at Salzburg with Sir Adrian Boult, to whom I had an introduction; Clark had been a pupil of Schoenberg in Berlin before the First World War. During the 1930s he was in charge of modern music programes at the BBC, and was responsibie for bringing Bartók over to play his piano concertos at the Proms and Webern to conduct several concerts for the BBC. Clark left the BBC in 1936 and worked as General Secretary of the ISCM and Chairman of its British branch, the London Contemporary Music Centre. I shall return to Edward and Elisabeth later on.

In July I went on a holiday to the South of France. On the way an Oxford friend of mine and I went to Paris, where we stayed in Montparnasse. This still retained some of the flavour of the Hemingway-Gertrude Stein era of the twenties, and a number of artists, mostly of minor calibre, could be found in the bars of the Dome, the Coupole and the Rotonde on the Boulevarde Montparnasse. On my last evening in Paris my friend took me to a club in Montmartre where men were dancing together. I soon got bored with watching them, and I found a  club next door which at least had plenty of girls in it. I learnt later that this was a Lesbian club, but at the bar I met a girl who was certainly not a Lesbian. We went off together to the Midi next day; I was meeting friends at Cassis near Marseilles. I have always loved Provence, and at that time Cassis was still a small fishing village. The Casino had not yet been built, and the place was only full at weekends, when the Marseillais poured in for the day. I spent a very happy four weeks there before I had to return to Paris; my companion and I said sad farewells in Paris, hoping to meet again, but we never did.

In London I had moved to another room in Dorset Street, near Baker Street; the Devonshire Street establishment where I had previously lived had collapsed, as the Irish landlady was unable to pay the rent and all the lodgers were thrown out. While I was in France I had lent my Dorset Street room to a girl I had met through Oxford friends, Eleanor Currie; another friend of mine, Charles Brill, had asked me if he could use the piano there. Charlie and Eleanor were immediately attracted to each other and they were married a few months later. It was a curious match; El was the attractive daughter of an Irish general, while Charlie was a Hungarian Jew about twenty years her senior. He was charming and intelligent indeed, and a very competent conductor - he had been a pupil of Weingartner - but a considerable rogue in money matters. The members of his orchestra rarely got paid, and there were innumerable stories about bounced cheques. Constant, in a generous moment in the Nest, cashed him a cheque for £5, and was annoyed to discover afterwards that Charlie had spent the money, not on wine, women and song, but on going to a psychiatrist to find out why he had given Constant a bouncer. Constant, prompted by me, composed a rhyme on the subject:

How pleasant to know Kr. Brill

The most charming of-any his sex;

Such people as bear him ill-will

Are those who receive his dud cheques.

Nevertheless Charlie and El were happily married until his death twenty years later, and they had one daughter.

Eric Blom had asked me to write a book on Liszt for the Master Musicians series; after some thought I turned it down, since half the book was expected to be yet another biography of Liszt and I wanted to write a book entirely about his music. However H.C. Colles, then chief music critic of the Times, asked me to prepare a new complete catalogue of Liszt's works for the forthcoming supplementary Volume of Grove's Dictionary; I did this and it was published in 1940. (It appeared again, revised and renumbered in Grove 5 in 1954; for Grove 6 it was castrated and shorn of much necessary material). When I asked Colles about a fee he said airily: "Oh, we have a gentleman's agreement and I'm sure that I'll keep mine with you better than Mussolini will keep his with Chamberlain". Needless to say, neither of them did.


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