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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Memoirs By Humphrey Searle

Chapter 18:  AMERICA AGAIN

1976 was the U.S. Bicentennial year and in 1975 1 had a letter from my old friend Newell Jenkins saying that they were “scratching their heads down at Clarion as to how to celebrate this without including too much Billings". (Billings was an American composer of the late 18th century, and was no doubt represented in many American concerts in the Bicentennial year). Clarion is the music society which Newell runs in New York; it gives concerts of chamber orchestral music, mainly by lesser known 17th or 18th century composers, such as Schmelzer, Steffani and Joseph Martin Kraus, but also including a certain number of contemporary works. Clarion decided to commission works from several American and European composers for this season, and Newell's friend Jack Hurley suggested that I might set "Contemplations” by Mistress Anne Bradstreet who was born in Northampton in 1612 but went to America in 1630 and became the wife of the Governor of Massachusetts. Apart from bearing eight children, she wrote a great many poems and, without her knowledge, her brother-in-law published a volume of these under the title "The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America". I liked "Contemplations" very much; it is mainly a pastoral poem in the 17th century tradition concerned with the immanence of God in nature, although there is a more dramatic central section which tells the story of Cain and Abel. Newell had engaged the excellent singer Jan DeGaetani as the soloist, and he had at his disposal a Mozart-sized orchestra including a harpsichord, which was ideal for my purpose. I did not set the whole poem, which would have been far too long for the 15-20 minute piece which Newell had asked for, but I was able to preserve its general shape sufficiently to give a good comprehensive idea of it.

The first performance took place on 21 April 1976 (our Queen's 50th birthday) in the Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York; it went very well, and the Press notices were favourable.

In order to finance the trip, I had arranged to give a number of lectures at American universities, beginning with Columbia, New York. It was extremely hot there, about 90F; but when I reached my next port of call, Bowling Green, Ohio, it was snowing; such are the vagaries of the American climate! In Bowling Green I gave a lecture-recital on Liszt with the American pianist Jerome Rose who has specialised in Liszt and has made a number of records of his music. Then I stayed for two days at Dayton, Ohio with Ann and David Nicholson; David is Fiona's first cousin and a high-level doctor who was concerned with the health problems of the astronauts at Houston, Texas. Then on to Athens, Ohio, where another old friend of mine, Neville Rogers, probably the greatest living expert on Shelley, is Professor of English. He had arranged for me to lecture on 12-tone music. My final stop was at Iowa City, where I was entertained by Jerome's colleague James Avery. He showed me a most interesting film, complete with laser beams, which the students of Iowa University had made of Scriabin's Prometheus, a work in which the composer himself had prescribed various colour effects in the score. James himself played the difficult solo piano part.

Scene from The Photo of the Colonel

After returning to England I was invited to give an introductory talk in connection with a revival of "The Photo of the Colonel" in Oldenburg. Their musical director, the Austrian conductor Peter Schrottner, had been assistant conductor in Frankfurt at the time of the stage premiere of the opera in 1963 and he was determined to put it on in Oldenburg before departing to take up a similar position in his native Graz. The opera was performed straight through without an interval, which is feasible if rather exhausting. Musica1ly the performance was excellent; the Berenger, Ernst-Dieter Suttheimer, sang his part without the cuts which had been made to it in Frankfurt, and showed great stamina - he is on stage practically throughout the opera. The other singers were very good and the orchestra played admirably under Peter Schrottner. My only quarrel was with the production. The whole point of the opening act of  Ionesco's play is that the existence of a ruthless killer at large in the Radiant City is only very slowly revealed by the Architect to Berenger, culminating in the murder of the Architect's blonde secretary at the end of the act. In Oldenburg the decor consisted of rows of coffins, the characters appeared in mourning and the stage was littered with torn-up pieces of newspaper - which must have given the assistant manager a headache to sweep up. So the game was given away from the start. Unfortunately, Ionesco never attends rehearsals or performances of his plays and, at this stage (I was invited to come to Oldenburg only three days before the first performance on 30 May, 1976) it was too late to alter the general shape of the production. However, I made some suggestions about individual details of the action which the producer accepted.

In August we had two calamities. One morning the ceiling of our sitting-room suddenly collapsed - it had cracked owing to the drought, a rare occurrence in England. I was in the studio downstairs, and fortunately Fiona had gone into the kitchen to make some coffee; otherwise she would have suffered the full weight of an old-fashioned ceiling made of lumps of plaster twelve inches thick. Although we have an insurance policy for both the structure and the contents of the house, the insurance company refused to pay more than a token sum, maintaining that drought was an act of God and was not supposed to occur in England.

Then on the next day we heard of the sudden death of our old friend Helen Letts, whom we had met regularly at least once a week at her house or ours and whose children had been almost a second family to us. She had gone into hospital for a routine check-up arid suddenly had a heart attack. At least she did not have a long illness; we still miss her very much. Shortly after this, Fiona and I spent a few days in St. Malo, staying in the old part of this pretty walled town, before I had to leave again for America.

In February I had been approached by the Music Faculty of the University of Southern California (U.S.C.) Los Angeles, to become guest professor for the academic year 1976-7. My old friend Ellis Kohs was a member of the Faculty and I suspect that he was behind this invitation. At any rate I was glad to return to California, and willingly accepted the invitation. My Uncle Willie died in September at the age of 88 and unfortunately his funeral was on the day that I had arranged to fly to Los Angeles; as the flight could not be changed, I was prevented from paying my last respects to someone whom I had always liked very much.

On my second day in Los Angeles, I went to an afternoon party at the house of Dr. Howard Rarig, the Chairman of the Music Faculty; here I was able to meet many of my future colleagues, including my immediate boss, Robert Linn, the head of the Theory and Composition Department., He and his wife Virginia are very charming people, and we at once got on well. In order to avoid driving long distances along the crowded L.A. freeways, I had asked the University if they could find me an apartment within walking distance of the campus; they gave me one in a block mostly occupied by graduate students, which was noisy but generally quite pleasant. Fiona joined me a couple of weeks later after I had had time to settle down.

My duties at the University were not too arduous; I gave composition lessons to advanced students and also an evening course on avant-garde methods. I found that the students' knowledge had increased considerably since I was at Stanford; they were now fully conversant with the music of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, and even with Berio, Boulez and Stockhausen, so that I found myself trying to keep ahead of them. But they were all very pleasant and friendly, and we worked well together. In the second semester, after Christmas, I also gave a course on Liszt, which seemed to be appreciated. Fortunately I had plenty of time for my own composition, and the University put a room with a piano at my disposal for most of the time. At weekends, especially when they included a public holiday, we often flew up to San Francisco and stayed with our old friend Dorothy Schilder; at that time she had a beautiful apartment on Clay Street, with a marvellous view over most of the city. As she had a job in a lawyer's office and was out most of the day, I was able to use her excellent piano.

The USC campus is very compact - one can walk its whole length or breadth in ten minutes - and the area between the campus and our apartment was mostly occupied by student hostels. But to the north and east was a rather slummy part of the city, mostly occupied by negroes and Mexicans and, although it was normally safe enough to walk to the campus in daylight, at night it could be dangerous; muggings often occurred, even on the campus itself, and the University authorities organised a small open gaily-lighted bus to take the students to their quarters in the evenings. This was driven by an agreeable black man called Horace, and was usually known as the "Rape Escape". I often availed myself of this service after evening classes or concerts on the campus. There was otherwise very little for us to do in the evenings, unless we were entertaining friends or colleagues or being entertained in their houses. The television programmes were appalling: the highest intellectual level was reached by “Bewitched” aud “I Love Lucy" and. although there was a re-run of the Groucho Marx quiz show, it did not come on until midnight. With little else to do we both began to write our memoirs.

We had been told that it was impossible to live in Los Angeles without a car, and in fact most of my colleagues at USC lived in more agreeable parts like Beverly Hills or Hollywood and drove long distances to work each day. I was not keen on driving by this time and Fiona's wallet with her driving-licence was stolen in San Francisco; it took months to replace it from the Vehicle Licensing Office in Swansea and, by the time the new one arrived, our stay at USC was coming to an end. So we managed without a car; there was a bus service which was infrequent and slow, and it took us ages to get to "down town", which is anyway not much of a shopping centre. When Gertrude Stein returned to New York after a visit to Los Angeles she was asked "How is it out there?", to which she is said to have replied "There isn't a 'there' there". Still, we managed to visit friends as far afield as Pasadena, a very agreeable place, in one direction, and Inglewood in the other.

The USC had asked me to send them some of my scores in case they were able to arrange performances of them during the winter. In this way, several of my pieces were heard at Faculty Composers' concerts: "Les Fleurs du Mal" was performed by a good young professional tenor, with a student horn player and myself at the piano; the cello "Fantasy" was excellently played by two students; the head of the guitar department played the piece I had written for Julian Bream; and a student conductor and orchestra gave an admirable performance of the "Zodiac Variations". In addition, a student ensemble conducted by Robert Wojciak performed the Sinfonietta in one of the famous Monday Evening Concerts in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I had hoped that "Kubla Khan" might also be performed at USC, but their chorus was otherwise engaged and their Music School possesses no organ which has a small but important part in it.


Peter Racine Ficker & HS (1967)    Peter & Helen Fricker with Jonathan & Ann Dunsby (1976)

Here an old friend of mine came to the rescue; Peter Racine Fricker had been a member of the Music Faculty of the University of California at Santa Barbara, 100 miles north of L.A. , since 1964, when we had both gone to America for the first time, and he visited us several times in L.A. He undertook to show the score to the choral and orchestral conductors in Santa Barbara and they agreed to do the work The choral conductor is Michael Ingham, a very talented baritone singer who has performed a great many operatic roles as well as giving song recitals with his wife, Carolyn Horne, who is an excellent pianist. But there was a last minute crisis; the male chorus, which was due to sing Brahms' Rinaldo in the same concert, was unable to tackle my work as well, so I had to rearrange the choral part for womens' voices only, which of course alters the quality of sound, though not disastrously; at least the tenor solo part was sung by a member of the Santa Barbara faculty. Michael Ingham secured a very good performance from both chorus and orchestra, and the work was well received. I was delighted to hear it at last.

Peter Fricker also asked me to give a talk about my own music in Santa Barbara, in the course of which I told the story of having been bowled over by "Wozzeck" when I was 19 in l934; I was astonished when Peter told me that he had had the same experience on hearing this performance - and he was only 14 at the time! It certainly changed both our lives from the musical standpoint. He wrote to Sir Adrian Boult, who had conducted Wozzeck but who had more or less retired from conducting by this time, telling him of our experiences, and I later wrote to him on the same subject; we both received charming letters back, giving some details of the performance and the various difficulties which attended it - nothing so complicated had ever been attempted in England before - and how they were overcome.

I gave various lectures at other universities, including Stanford, where I was glad to see many old friends after twelve years absence, and to Berkeley, where I talked to many of the students at the house of my old friend Andrew Imbrie. His opera, "Angle of Repose” , commissioned for the U.S. Bicentennial, was given in San Francisco around this time, it is an interesting synthesis of stories of California in the 19th century and the present day. The music, although ingenious, is perhaps a bit too complex to be really effective as theatre.

Another university where I gave a lecture was Northridge near Los Angeles and here I met the colourful Aurelio de la Vega and his charming wife Santa. Aurelio, a Cuban by birth, had left his native country on the advent of Castro and had settled in California as a young and unknown composer; he had attempted to have lessons with Schoenberg, who apparently treated him very badly, demanding large sums of money which Aurelio didn't have (in spite of his aristocratic background), and eventually throwing him out of his house. In recent years Aurelio has gone in very much for electronics and other avant-garde methods of composition.

The Arnold Schoenberg Institute at USC was opened in February 1977. It is presided over by Leonard Stein, who had been assistant to Schoenberg in Los Angeles and edited many of his theoretical writings after his death. There were two official openings; in the first one I was asked to give a talk on Schoenberg but as I had never met him, I was somewhat embarrassed. The music due to be played that afternoon included his second string quartet which is intimately connected with the story of his first wife Mathilde temporarily leaving him for the painter Gerstl, and the latter's suicide when Mathilde returned to her husband. I was somewhat worried about telling this story in public, as Schoenberg's three children by his second wife, his two sons Ronald and Lawrence and his daughter Nuria were sitting in the audience; but, as it had already been made public in H.H. Stuckenschmidt's definitive biography of Schoenberg which, incidentally, I had translated, and had taken place many years before these children were born, I don't think it caused any offence. The Archivist of the Schoenberg Institute, Clara Steuermann, widow of the pianist Eduard Steuermann, who had done so much to promote Schoenberg's compositions, is an extremely charming and intelligent person, and we became good friends. At the second opening of the Schoenberg Institute, Boulez gave a good speech, in which he hoped that the Institute would become a breeding-ground for new ideas for the future (as Schoenberg would have wanted) rather than a museum of the past. Various other personalities connected with Schoenberg also appeared on this occasion, including Stuckenschmidt and Rudolf Kolisch, the violinist whose quartet had given many performances of Schoenberg's works in his lifetime; he was also the brother of Schoenberg's second wife. We gave a small party for him afterwards at our apartment, but he was over 80 and appeared tired and frail.

At USC the Theory and Composition Faculty normally lunched together every Friday in the University Restaurant; wives and husbands of the Faculty were welcome, and we usually had a cheerful party, especially if we were celebrating the birthday of one of our number, in which case toasts would be drunk and an enormous birthday cake produced. Often on Friday mornings there were illustrated lectures by outside speakers, composers, performers or other people associated with music, about their life and work. These speakers included the American composer Gail Kubik, Oliver Daniel, the head of the American copyright organisation BMI, the Australian horn player Barry Tuckwell and the British conductor Neville Marriner, who at that time was in charge of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra for part of the year. I was asked to give a lecture in this series in March and, as an illustration of my work, I played the New York tape of "Contemplations”. At the lunch afterwards there seemed to be a lot of mysterious comings and goings which I did not understand until champagne and a vast cake were produced in my honour; as my birthday is in August, by which time I would have left L.A. , my colleagues decided to celebrate it on the occasion of my lecture - a very kind thought which I appreciated.

The Professor Emeritus of the Faculty is Halsey Stevens, a composer somewhat in the neo-classical style and a man of great culture. He is the author of the standard book in English on Bartok; he had actually learned Hungarian in order to be able to read Bartok's letters in the original, as the translations provided for him had turned out to be inaccurate. Fiona and I spent several very pleasant evenings with him and his wife Harriett, a skilled potter, at their house in Inglewood, and we have often met them sifice then in England where Halsey and Harriett spent one summer.

I was also asked to give lectures at other colleges not too far from USC, including Irvine where Newell Jenkins was holding a summer course. At his apartment we met a remarkable man of Red Indian origin who was the Dean of the Faculty; he had an extraordinarily impressive appearance and manner, and made us reflect on the sorry way in which many Americans treat the Red Indians. We also visited my British colleague Bernard Rands, who was the conductor of a contemporary music group at the University of California, San Diego. We stayed at the pleasant small town of La Jolla, where Fiona's mother Mollie had lived more than fifty years before, hoping to get into films in Hollywood (she was stopped from going there by her father who feared that she might be corrupted by the Tinsel City). We also visited San Diego, an attractive city which I should like to see again, and spent a day at the fascinating Sea World nearby, with its many aquariums and performing dolphins.

At Christmas we visited Mexico City again; as Fiona's cousin Irene Nicholson had died, we were without many contacts. However one of my colleagues at USC suggested that we should look up the American composer Conlan Nancarrow who had lived in Mexico for many years - apparently he was more or less exiled from the USA as he had supported the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and was therefore regarded as a "Commie" by American standards, (he is probably nothing of the sort). He turned out to be an agreeable, if slightly quirky, figure who looks something like the pictures of Rip van Winkle; he and his wife, a young Japanese archaeologist, entertained us generously. Later we spent two days exploring the marvellous Anthropological Museum. Our second visit was on a Sunday, when the five million people in Mexico City all seemed to be on the streets. We despaired of ever getting back to our hotel either by bus or by taxi, when a car came along driven by the one person we knew in the city - Conlon Nancarrow; it seemed a strange coincidence. Later at USC I heard some tapes of the remarkable pieces he has written for the unfashionable medium of the player-piano; the increases in speed which it is able to produce achieve some very interesting results.

Fiona had been given the name of Kenneth Bannister who was in charge of a Spiritualist sanctuary in a suburb of the city and managed to make contact with his wife who invited us to lunch on New Year's Day. When we arrived at their house we were astonished to see a record of Rosemary Brown's music, with a note on the sleeve by myself about a piano piece called "Grubelei" which she said had been dictated to her by Liszt; neither Mrs. Bannister nor any of her relations in the house could explain how the record came to be there. I had been sent "Grubelei" by the BBC a few years earlier in connection with a radio programme about Rosemary Brown and was asked what I thought about it. It is certainly in keeping with Liszt’s experimental style, being mostly written in single notes in each hand; it is highly chromatic, and one hand is written in 5/4 time against 3/2 in the other. The latter is not a thing that Liszt ever did as far as I know, but it is the sort of thing he might have done as I said in my broadcast, which was reproduced on this record sleeve without my knowledge! Since then Fiona and I have got to know Rosemary well and believe her to be perfectly genuine. Even if the pieces dictated to her by dead composers are not masterpieces - although some of them are very nice works - she has had no technical training in composition and could not possibly produce pastiches like, say, those by Joseph Cooper in his TV programme "Face the Music", or Ravel's "A la maniere de ....”

In May I was asked to go on a five-day visit to Madison, Wisconsin. This trip was arranged by the pianist Gunnar Johansen who had set himself the formidable task of recording all Liszt's piano works. (I believe the project is now complete). He had got the Music Faculty of Madison University to invite me to give several lectures, including one on Faust in music (for which I was provided by the University with a score of Spohr's Faust Overture, a surprisingly cheerful piece) and another on Liszt's late works, which Johansen illustrated on the piano, sometimes with his own embellishments. I visited his studio, several miles outside Madison in pleasant, rather English-looking country where he was able to make his recordings without disturbance. Madison is an agreeable small town; at one end of the main street is a Capitol, based on the one in Washington but deliberately built a few inches lower, and at the other the University campus. There is a lake just outside the city and some good restaurants, and so my short stay there was very pleasant.

During the first part of my period at USC I had written a Fantasia on British Airs at the request of a fellow-member of the Savage Club, Major Gerry Horobin, who was then the overall director of the five bands of the Brigade of Guards: the Grenadiers, Coldstreams, Scottish. Irish and Welsh. It was to be performed in the Albert Hall in June 1977 at a concert in honour of the Queen's Silver Jubilee, and Gerry suggested that each band should play their own national airs in turn; I thought that after a bit each band would get fed up with waiting for their turn and all five would play their own tunes simultaneously, causing an indescribable melee which could only be resolved by a combined performance of "Rule Britannia" in Arne's original version. I wrote the piece on these lines and sent off a copy to Gerry in January 1977; I heard nothing for some months, unti1 I received a letter from the Chairman of the Committee which was organising the concert, saying that Gerry had had a nervous breakdown and had left the Army. As a result, the performance was cancelled and I was not even offered a fee. Hearing of this, the conductor of the wind symphony orchestra at USC offered to give the world premiere of the piece as a tribute to the Queen - a very generous gesture, I thought - and had some students copy the parts. Unfortunately, as there were so many mistakes in the copies, and as there was no time to correct them before the concert, the performance had to be abandoned. When I got back to England, I corrected the parts myself and the first performance was eventually given by my friend-Harry Legge's Youth Wind Symphony Orchestra. It is only an occasional piece, but I found it quite amusing to write, although the numerous transposing instruments in this type of orchestra make it complicated to score.

The other work which I began in Los Angeles was a kind of cantata based on Thomas Mann's Dr. Faustus, commissioned by the BBC; more of this in the next chapter. A good deal of it was written during our various stays with Dorothy Schilder in San Francisco. Here we again saw the viola player Rolf Persinger and his wife Arden, whom we had met at Aspen ten years before; they made us welcome at their charming house on the San Francisco Bay at Tiburon. Fiona's birthday was on June 1st and, as Peter Fricker was in San Francisco for a few days, the three of us went on an agreeable steamer trip round the Bay. After this we repaired to a bar on Polk Street, an area well known as a haunt of male homosexuals (or gays, as they are now unfortunately called), but close to Dorothy's apartment. Here Fiona had an unexpected experience in the ladies' Powder Room. Two girls, one pretty, the other butch and mannish, tried to prevent her from leaving the room, promising her all sorts of delights if she would spend an evening with them. Fiona had to knee one of them in the groin in order to escape. When she told Peter and me about her ordeal we both roared with laughter, much to her fury! We were sorry to say goodbye to Dorothy when we left, and in fact we never saw her again; sadly she died not long afterwards. Her sister Patsy Linn, and Alta Weinstock, were passing through London after a trip to the Middle East, (where they could not be contacted by telephone or telegram) and it was our difficult task to break the news of Dorothy's death to our friends.

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