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  Founder: Len Mullenger


Memoirs By Humphrey Searle

Chapter 10: BBC BEDLAM

My father had spent the last years of the war in London, having finally been transferred to the Burma Office. He was now due to retire to the country, so he let me stay in the flat where he had been living, a basement apartment in Camberwell not far from where Aunt Elsie and her fellow-nuns had an establishment. This was not as depressing as it sounds, since it was quiet and clean and opposite a nice small park. The only problem was transport; I did not have a car, though I had driven both before and during the war, and anyway I have never liked driving in London. To get to Central London I had to walk some distance to a bus which took me to the Oval, and then take two separate tube trains. Owing to the bombing of London accomodation was extremely scarce, especially now that people were returning in large numbers to the capital, so I was lucky to have anywhere to live.

The BBC had kept my old job open for me, but I didn't particularly want to be a Chorus Librarian any more, so I applied for and got a job as a musical programme producer. This initially meant chamber music programmes, and some of these went out live at 9am every week-day, which involved the wretched artists in having to get to the studio for an 8am balance test. I felt very sorry for them, especially the singers, at having to perform at such an unearthly hour; they were mostly artists who had just managed to get on to the books of the BBC and were maintaining a precarious position there. I looked in at these rehearsals every morning on my way to the office, but as I had about twelve recitals a week to look after my "production" consisted of little more than drawing up the programmes over the telephone with the artists, seeing that various works were not repeated too often, and arranging for suitable programme notes to be provided for the announcers.

The BBC Music Department was in Marylebone High Street, in the office now occupied by the BBC Publications; I usually walked down to the George pub in Mortimer Street at lunchtime for a sandwich and a glass of beer and to meet my friends. When the Third Programme started in September 1946, my work became much more interesting, as the Third Programme music director, Anthony Lewis, now the Principal of the Royal Academy of Music, encouraged all the BBC music producers to put forward ideas for rare and curious programmes. The opening of the Third Programme was nearly disastrous for me. Before the first concert in the large Maida Vale studio; the BBC provided a generous cocktail party. The second item in the programme was Purcell's ode "Come, ye Sons of Art", which contains the duet for two counter-tenors "Sound the Trumpet". When my colleague Basil Lam witnessed two large men with black moustaches emitting long and extraordinarily castrated-sounding notes in this piece it was all we could do to restrain our laughter and avoid being thrown out.

In the very first week of the Third Programme I put on a concert of rare orchestral works by Liszt, including the first English performance of "Les Morts" which Liszt wrote in memory of his son Daniel, who was only twenty when he died; the song "Die Vatergruft", the 2nd Mephisto Waltz and several other pieces. The conductor was Constant Lambert, and he was an able and willing collaborator in a number of programmes of unusual and exotic works over the next few years; a list of these can be found in Richard Shead's biography of him. Constant would conduct anything interesting, no matter in what style, though he was not keen on doing the standard Austro-German classics, and twelve-note music meant little to him. However he did once conduct a broadcast of the Bach-Webern Ricercare when one of Schoenberg's pupils originally scheduled for the programme fell ill, and he told me afterwards how surprised he was when a score which looked so fragmentary on paper emerged so clearly in actual sound. We usually arranged these programmes over a drink in the George; it was no good writing him letters, and he was hopeless on the telephone, but once he was actually present he was full of ideas and most stimulating.

Among other BBC performances of that time which I remember were Beecham conducting Berlioz' Requiem - a shattering sound, even in the big Maida Vale studio - and the complete Trojans. This was probably the first English performance of the whole work, apart from Erik Chisholm's memorable production in Glasgow just before the war ( though that was not wholly professional). The BBC engaged a cast of French singers; they were not particularly impressed by Beecham's conducting of the music - he probably didn't know the score too well - until he came to the Royal Hunt and Storm, which of course he had conducted many times. Here they really sat up and took notice - his performance was terrific. Another notable event was Ravel's ballet Daphnis and Chloe, given complete with chorus under the well-loved conductor Pierre Monteux; he obtained marvellous sonorities from both orchestra and singers. An example of his gentle humour occurred in one of the rehearsals when a trombone player, having a rest of 280 bars or so, took out the evening paper and started doing the crossword. Monteux stopped the orchestra and said: "Excuse me, please, Monsieur le Trombone - good news?"

The first post-war ISCM Festival was held in London in 1946. For this the Austrian section sent over the scores of Webern's last three completed works, the First and Second Cantatas Op 29 and 31 and the Orchestral Variations Op 30. These had not yet been published, but I was able to see the scores and to write what I believe was the first article ever published about them, in the now defunct Monthly Musical Record. (December 1946). The jury chose the First Cantata for performance in the Festival, and its world premiere, with the Schoenberg pupil Karl Rankl as conductor and the Australian-born soprano Emelie Hooke as soloist was a great success. Emelie Hooke was the only singer in the country who could cope with this kind of music. She was a very warm and friendly person who became a good friend for many years, and she was much mourned when she died.

I was seeing quite a lot of Edward Clark and his wife Elisabeth Lutyens at this time; Edward had included "Night Music in a series of concerts of contemporary music he gave soon after the war, and I was interested in the programmes given by the London Contemporary Music Centre of which he was Chairman. The twelve-note composer, Rene Leibowitz, came over from Paris for a short stay; he was Polish-born and had studied with both Schoenberg and Webern. He had written the first authoratative books on twelve-note music, "Introduction a Ia Musique de Douze Sons", and "Schoenberg et son Ecole" (later translated by Dika Newlin as "Schoenberg and his School"). He had formed a group of twelve-note composers in Paris and was one of the teachers of Pierre Boulez. He had also formed an ensemble of soloists from the Paris Orchestre National which played twelve-note music; he came to hear my Second Nocturne, which was being played at Sadler's Wells as an interlude in the ballet, of all things. He said that this was the most interesting piece he had heard in London, and asked me to write a strictly twelve-note work for his ensemble. I wrote the Intermezzo for 11 instruments which I dedicated to the memory of Webern and which contains a quotation from his Op 30. Leibowitz gave the first performance of this early in 1947 in Paris at a "Festival de la Musique Dodecaphonique" which, apart from works by Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, included compositions by Luigi Dallapiccola, Elisabeth Lutyens, Erich Itor Kahn, Leibowitz himself and his pupils Andre Casanova and Serge Nigg. I was able to get him to give a broadcast of several of these works in the BBC studios in the following summer, when the Orchestre National was passing through London on the way to the Edinburgh Festival; my BBC colleagues were most annoyed about this and felt that I had overdone things.

One of the BBC programmes which I asked Constant to do involved his conducting his Concerto for Piano and 7 instruments, a rather neglected work which is one of his best, though it is not easy to perform, and also doing the speaking part in the Sitwell-Walton "Facade" entertainment, of which he did several performances about that time. As all programmes still went out live, I asked Edith Sitwell to give a talk about the Facade poems in the interval while Constant took a short but necessary rest. I was glad to meet her again, and she was kind enough to send me a copy of a collection of her poems which included "Gold Coast Customs" . I was absolutely bowled over by the powerful and savage imagery of this poem, and determined to make a setting of it for speaker, male chorus and a kind of enlarged jazz band consisting of woodwind, brass, two pianos, percussion and double basses. It took me two years to write as I could only compose at weekends and not always then, but I think of it as the first of my large-scale twelve-note works.

The Third Programme was becoming somewhat solemn and esoteric - one Planner is reputed to have deleted Brahms' 4th Symphony from a proposed programme as being a "repertory work"-- so I thought I might brighten it up by introducing some programmes of absurd or comic music.- This led to a series called "Musical Curiosities" which ran for several years. We had three main kinds of music; parodies or pastiches - like Faure and Messager's Quadrilles on themes from Wagner's Ring or Chabrier's Quadrilles on themes from Tristran; works by people who were not normally thought of as composers, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Samuel Butler and Nietzsche; and pieces which were so bad as to be funny, like Bamby's Rebecca or Tolhurst's Ruth. I found some able collaborators in Constant Lambert and Alan Rawsthorne, who both came up with some brilliant suggestions, and also E.J.Moeran, who wrote an excellent script for one programme. Unfortunately Moeran was an alcoholic, which meant that though he often drank very little for months on end, once he started drinking it was more or less impossible to stop him. In these programmes the authors of the scripts usually read their own texts ; I had a date to meet Jack Moeran at the George shortly before the preliminary rehearsal, and was alarmed to be told by Constant that Jack was in another pub down the road "three sheets in the wind". The rehearsal was at 2, and the programme was due to go out live at 6pm, so I thought we would have four hours to sober him up. I hadn't reckoned, however, that he would be carrying a flask in his hip pocket... To let him go on the air in that state would have been disastrous; fortunately we managed to lose his spectacles temporarily, and the continuity announcer read the script.

Another collaborator was Sir Stewart Wilson, then BBC Head of Music. He unearthed some absurd potted biographies of composers, set to their own music, by an American lady called Floy Little Bartlett, and sang them in his best fruity manner. I also had a lot of help from my friend Richard Gorer, to whom I had been introduced by Michael Ayrton. The Gorers were a talented family; I never knew the father - he went down in the Lusitania in 1917 - but the mother Ree, was a talented painter and a friend of many artists and writers, including Edith Sitwell, who dedicated a poem (Romance No.7 of her Early Poems) to her. Of her three sons the eldest, Geoffrey, is the well-known anthropologist; the second, Peter, was an equally well-known pathologist who died too young, while the youngest, Richard, has a wide and esoteric knowledge of music, particularly Czech music, and is also an expert horticulturist. He suggested many works for the Third Programme (not only for Musical Curiosities) which were unknown but well worth doing, such as Marscher's incidental music to the Goldsmith of Ulm, and the symphonies of Fibich. He was the best man at both my weddings, and my piano Ballade is dedicated to him. The 1947 ISCM Festival took place in Copenhagen, and I was sent there by the BBC, together with Kenneth Wright. This was the first time I had been out of England as a civilian since the war, and it was nice to see all the food one had forgotten still existed, such as fresh eggs and fish. The Danes were generous hosts, especially in the famous Tivoli Gardens, but much rather dreary Scandinavian music was played at us during the Festival. However I did make one discovery, the Norwegian composer Fartein Valen, who had developed an original atonal and lyrical style of his own. His Sonetto di Michelangelo was played in the Festival, and in my report for "The Times" I described it as one of the outstanding works there. This apparently benefitted Valen in Norway; he was a very shy and retiring man who lived the life of a recluse somewhere on the west coast, with practically no recognition from his fellow-countrymen. He wrote to me later that this article had brought him respect where previously he had only had "hate and abuse". His violin concerto was played at the Amsterdam ISCM Festival in 1948, and I had the privilege of meeting him there. He died not long (afterwards; later a Valen Society was formed to perform and record his works.

Professor Edward Dent, who had been President of the ISCM since its foundation in the 1920s, retired after the war in favour of the music critic Edwin Evans; however Evans died shortly afterwards and Dent was persuaded to stay on till the 1947 Festival. At this however he made it clear that he definitely wished to retire. Edward Clark was elected President, and he asked me to be the General Secretary, which was of course an honour for me. For the moment it did not involve much work; it chiefly consisted of answering correspondence from the different foreign sections, and I was able to do this by dictating letters in my office after BBC hours to a girl who took them down in shorthand and then typed them out for me.

I saw quite a lot of Michael Ayrton at this time - he and his first wife had a studio in All Soul's Place, round the corner from the BBC, and Constant also lodged there for a time. They occasionally put me up-when it was too late for meto return to Camberwell; Constant would usually start work at midnight and carry on till 4am, which explained why he was not at his best in the mornings. On one occasion when he had obviously had a late night I met him in the George about mid-day; he was considerably alarmed when he saw a black and white dog's head apparently in mid-air, looking through a skylight, and even more so when he turned to look at the wall clock and saw that its second hand was travelling backwards.

The Sadler's Wells Ballet performed at the New Theatre in Charing Cross Road before moving to Covent Garden, and Constant was on his way to conduct a matinee there, dressed in morning coat, cravat and striped trousers. He told me later that he found he was being pursued through the crowd by a little man whom he didn't much like the look of and so he dodged into a pub. This turned out to be a bad move as the little man followed him in and the ensuing conversation took place:

Little Man: Excuse me sir, you are Hannen Swaffer, aren't you?

Constant: No, I'm not Hannen Swaffer;

Little Man: But Hannen Swaffer always wears a bow tie.

Constant: But I'm not wearing a bow tie.

Little Man: (sinisterly) So I see.

Another story which Constant told me was of a time about 1930 when he was visiting the Sitwell home at Renishaw in Yorkshire. In the drawing-room a three-handed ladies' bridge party was taking place between Lady Ida (the mother of the three writers), a very proper Bostonian cousin, and a poor relation who was depending on staying in the house for the next two weeks. Osbert Sitwell and Constant were also there and, getting bored with the game, retired to the other end of the room where there was a piano, and Constant played Osbert his newly-written Rio Grande. When they returned to the ladies they heard the following remarks:

Bostonian Cousin: (rather affectedly) Oh how charming! It reminds me of Roger Quilter.

Poor Relation: Oh, I thought it was Corrrrtot.

Lady Ida: (waking up, menacingly) Did you say Wagner?

Poor Relation: Yes.

About this time there occurred the great attempt to rehabilitate Charlie Brill. Although in his forties, Charlie had been called up in the Army and posted to th RASC as a driver. He then suddenly decided he was really a pacifist at heart, but instead of trying to thrash this out with the authorities he simply deserted. I don't think that the army made much of an attempt to find him, for he returned to his wife's flat in London, grew a beard, and even published some articles under her maiden name as Charles Currie. When the war was over he gave himself up and served a spell in Dartmoor. Now he had been released, and Rudolf Messel, cousin of the designer Oliver Messel, decided to pay for some concerts in which Charlie would reappear as a conductor As the Queen's Hall had been bombed and the Festival Hall had not yet been built these took place in the Winter Garden Theatre; its acoustics, though dry, were not impossible. There were three concerts in all, and Charlie included something of mine in each - "Night Music" in - the first one, the Highland Reel in a concert of light music, and an orchestration of Liszt's Csardas Macabre which I made specially for the remaining concert, a Liszt programme. The first half of this concert was conducted by Constant, and included the 2nd Mephisto Waltz and various rare works; Charlie conducted the Faust Symphony in the second half. He was twittering with nerves, as the only chorus available for the choral finale was the London Police Choir. He insisted on my accompanying him to the preliminary chorus rehearsal with piano, which took place in a police station. I suppose he was afraid he might never be allowed out again.

The 1948 ISCM Festival took place in Amsterdam. Alan Rawsthorne and Gerry Schurmann, the Dutch composer who lives in England, came over with us, and Gerry saved our lives after the opening concert. This was extremely long, and was followed by a reception at the Town Hall which consisted of interminable speeches in Dutch, after which we were given a cup of tea and a biscuit. Fortunately Gerry knew a place where we could find something more interesting, even at that late hour of night.

A short piece of mine which was played at this Festival was "Put Away the Flutes" for flute, oboe and string quartet. This had been commissioned by Peter Pears, always a generous patron of young composers, and he gave the first performance of it on the BBC, though he was not able to do the Amsterdam performance. While I was stationed in Scotland during the war my only link with the literary world was the weekly arrival of the New Statesman. One week I saw a poem in it called simply "Song" by W.R.Rodgers, of whom I had never heard, but I determined to set it at a later date. It was a poem about the futility of war, and was afterwards printed in Rodger's collection "Europa and the Bull" as "Song for War" Later I got to know Bertie Rodgers well when he was a producer in the BBC Features Department.

At the Amsterdam Festival Edward Clark suddenly thought of a grandiose scheme. The ISCM Central Office in London already had a full-time secretary-typist, a Hungarian girl who knew French and German. Now he suggested that I should be engaged on a full-time paid basis instead of working voluntarily as before. The delegates agreed that I should be paid £10 a week, but nobody seemed to know where the money was to come from. I said I would take a chance on this and would give in my notice to the BBC, I had enjoyed the BBC and we had done a lot of interesting works, including music by some older composers who were unpopular at the time, such as Charles Ives, (who was still alive) and Janacek. We had also put on an important series of programmes of British contemporary music, as well as works by Dallapiccola, Valen and other composers who represented the avant-garde. But I was finding it practically impossible to write music; apart from office hours, which even included occasional Saturday mornings, I had to go to recitals in the evenings to audition new performers and often had rehearsals and broadcasts at weekends as well. I felt that with the ISCM I would have more time, though if the BBC had been willing to offer me a job on a part-time basis I would have been glad to stay on.

It was also getting difficult for me to live in Camberwell. BBC programmes were allowed to overrun as much as they liked in those days, and I was sometimes in the studio till 2am, which meant that I had to ask friends who lived in Central London for a bed for the night, as the BBC would not pay for a hotel. In addition I had been having an affair with a musician whom I had known before the war She lived in the country, and I usually visited her there, but she came to London sometimes and I wanted to find somewhere where she could stay with me. So I was grateful when a pianist friend found a room for me in a house in St. John's Wood, and I moved there in June 1948. Like my posting to Scotland in the war, this move turned out to be a fateful one.

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