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  Founder: Len Mullenger


Memoirs By Humphrey Searle

Chapter 12:   BREAKTHROUGH?

I wanted to go back to the BBC in order to earn some money, but Lesley would not hear of this; she wanted me to go on composing. Later in the year things slowly began to improve. David Gascoyne, whom I had met at one of Edith Sitwell's luncheon parties, had written an imaginative feature for radio called Night Thoughts and he suggested to the producer, Douglas Cleverdon, that I should be asked to write the music. This meant a breakthrough into BBC work and, since then, I have written incidental music for numerous productions, including texts by Shakespeare, Ibsen, Gogol, Camus, Dostoievsky, Buchner, Brecht, Anouilh, Giles Cooper, Louis MacNeice and others. The producers with whom I worked most frequently were Douglas Cleverdon, H.B.Fortuin, R.D.Smith, Michael Bakewell, Donald McWhinnie, John Tydeman and John Gibson. In addition, the BBC Drama Department commissioned me to write a radio opera on Ionesco's The Killer in 1963, a "spoken oratorio" on Blake's Jerusalem in 1970 and a cantata on Thomas Mann's Dr. Faustus in 1977.

Night Thoughts was probably one of the first BBC productions to use musique concrete. There was no BBC electronic workshop in 1955 and only discs, not tape, were available. To accompany the long dream sequence in the centre of the feature, we asked the famous percussionist James Blades to record all possible kinds of percussion sounds. We then played these backwards at various speeds; we could only make the speed either twice or four times as fast or slow; the BBC had no variable speed controls in those days. In spite of these technical handicaps we produced some very interesting sounds and were later congratulated by a French composer of electronic music on what we had been able to achieve with such meagre resources.

The choreographer Kenneth MacMillan was about to produce his first ballet for Covent Garden and, after hearing my Poem, he asked me to write the music for it. This was Noctambules, a rather fantastic ballet about a magician who can grant everyone their secret desires; thus he brings a rich boy and a poor girl together, promotes a private soldier to a field marshal who conquers his enemies, and restores her youthful beauty to an aging woman. Finally he falls in love with his own creation, the restored Beauty, and disappears with her to the dismay of his girl assistant, who is left dancing faster and faster in endless circles as the curtain falls. This libretto gave a great deal of scope for atmospheric music; as Kenneth had asked for "unusual rhythms" I gave him as many of these as I could. The ballet was produced at Covent Garden in March 1956 with Leslie Edwards and Nadia Nerina in the principal roles and conducted by Robert Irving; it received an ovation from the public, but for some reason was dropped from the repertoire in subsequent seasons, except for one revival in 1958.

Malcolm Arnold saw a performance of Noctambules and at once suggested to Muir Mathieson that I should be asked to write music for feature films. Mathieson was the musical director of Korda Films and had persuaded many British composers, including Vaughan Williams, Walton, Bliss, Alan Rawsthorne, Malcolm Arnold and others to write music for him. I had in fact done scores for two short documentary films about Norway for him, so that he knew I could write a tune if necessary and, during the next few years, I wrote a number of film scores for him and his former assistant John Hollingsworth, both features and documentaries. I found it difficult to learn the technique of writing film music, which has to fit the action on the screen down to a third of a second, but I eventually saw that, if the tempo is 1-60 or a multiple thereof, one can work out the lengths mathematically and still produce an interesting score. The chief trouble is that the music is the last element to be added to the film and the composer cannot even start work on it until the film has been finally cut; even after giving the measurements to the composer the film editors sometimes change their minds about the length of individual shots, so that adjustments have to be made at the recording session itself, where time is money, especially when a copyist is in attendance to write out new orchestral parts on the spot. In addition, producers sometimes have only a rudimentary idea about music, or cannot convey their exact wishes to the composer. In one feature film for which I wrote the score, the producer and director were at loggerheads, each telling me to write the music in different ways, and scores often have to be written very much against time. Writing film music can nevertheless be interesting and rewarding, and I have never despised it as an art; but I feel that film music should stay in the cinema and not be made into orchestral suites, with certain exceptions such as the film scores of Bliss and Walton. Of my documentaries, the ones I most enjoyed doing were the two about the Fuchs-Hillary Antarctic expedition, one on the work of Henry Moore, Greek Sculpture with Michael Ayrton and Woodland Harvest, a recent film on the work of the Forestry Commission. My most interesting feature film was "The Haunting", in which I worked with Robert Wise, the producer and director of "West Side Story" and "The Sound of Music", a kind quietly spoken man and the opposite of the usual image of the Hollywood tycoon.

As my financial position was now easier I was able to take Lesley to Aix-en-Provence in the summer. After the success of Night Thoughts the BBC had commissioned David Gascoyne to write a second radio feature, to be called A celebration of Festivals. David was staying with Meraude Guinness (the widow of the Chilean painter Guevara) and various other friends, in the Tour de Cesar outside Aix, and the idea was that we should discuss the music for this new production. But when David. gave me his script, I found that it consisted only of a series of quotations and there was nothing for which I could write the music. (I am afraid that David has never written the text to this day). So I started on my second symphony, for which I had had an idea for a long time, using a very ancient piano in the upstairs room of a well-known cafe on the Cours Mirabeau. Life was pleasant in Aix and we had talks with various friends, including the painter Matthew Smith who had a studio in Aix at the time. Unfortunately the climate did not suit Lesley; she had that very fair skin which often goes with red hair, and she could not stand the sun. She was pleased that I was happy at being in the South of France, one of my favourite areas, for the first time in seventeen years, and I promised her that, if we went to the South the following year we would go later in cooler weather.

In the spring of 1957, Lesley and I were invited to the Prague Spring Festival, together with Malcolm Arnold and his first wife Sheila. This was the first time I had been to a Communist country and I didn't quite know what to expect. Our hosts, the Union of Czechoslovak Composers, were very friendly and generous, but we also met a lot of ordinary people in cafes and other places who were dcsperate for contacts with the West and wanted to tell us what conditions in their country were really like. Czechoslovakia was very Stalinist at that time, as was reflected in the modern Czech music we heard in the festival, mostly enormous heroic symphonies based on the principle of "social realism". Malcolm and I tended to opt out of performances of such works - there were plenty of other events in the festival, including an enchanting production of Dvorak's opera Rusalka - and so did the Polish composer Kazimierz Serocki and his wife Sonia. They were most genial and convivial companions and we have remained friends ever since; Serocki arranged for me to be invited to the Warsaw Autumn Festival of 1959, and again in 1961; I shall return to this later.

Apart from the concerts, there was also a congress about "problems of modern music" at which the Russian composer Dmitri Kabalevsky, a charming man who spoke excellent English, put forward the official Soviet "socialist realist" view of "music for the people". I felt I had to reply, and gave a general survey of tendencies in modern English music, stating which kinds of music were most successful with the public, neither the ultra-conservative nor the avant-garde, but the broad spectrum which lay between; I pointed out that our government had no need to compel composers to write in a certain style, and that it was up to each of them to express themselves in their own way. I don't think that Kabalevsky was annoyed by my speech and we remained on friendly terms.

On the return journey from Prague we went through East Germany to Weimar, where I wanted to visit the Liszt Museum again. Our visas only arrived at the last moment and we had to rush to catch the train, which took us through a beautiful landscape down the course of the Vltava and past Dresden. In Weimar we were met by a German musician, Bruno Voelcker, who had written a book on Liszt; he informed me that the Liszt MSS had been moved to the Goethe-Schiller Archiv, which would not be open till Monday; we had arrived on a Saturday night. So on Sunday we had little to do except walk round the town; it was bitterly cold and everything seemed to be shut. However, we were able to visit the Liszt house, which had now been altered to look much as it did in Liszt's time. It had become a tourist attraction and a guide was showing people around. Somehow the atmosphere of the house which I had experienced before the war had disappeared.

As we had been given visas for only two days, we had to leave Weimar on the Monday afternoon. I was intending to look at the Liszt MSS in the morning, but the local police had insisted that we report to them or else we would be arrested. This wasted a lot of time, so that when we reached the Goethe-Schiller Archiv we only - had time to greet the Director and hurry to catch our train without seeing any MSS We travelled to East Berlin and then took the U-Bahn through to West Berlin (this was before the days of theBerlin Wall). I was not sorry to leave East Germany which I found austere and drab, although West Berlin by contrast was garish and over-commercialised.

About this time I received a telephone call from Basil Dean. He was putting on a new play by Lesley Storm called Favonia, about a statue of a goddess on a Greek island who comes to life with an alarming effect on the inhabitants; he said that Walter Legge of EMI had suggested that I be asked to write music for it. I had naturally heard of this famous theatrical producer who had been the director of ENSA during the war, and I had also heard many stories of his insensitive and even cruel behaviour to his actors. So I was somewhat apprehensive when I went to see him; he lived just round the corner from me in an elegant Regency house in Norfolk Road now, alas, pulled down by the landlords. By this time he had mellowed considerably and we got on very well; in fact, this was the beginning of a friendship which was to last until his death more than twenty years later at the age of 89.

Basil Dean had arranged for a West End production of Favonia; the money was put up by an American actress who was to be the leading lady. Characteristically, Basil sacked her after the first rehearsal, with the result that both the money and the production vanished; fortunately we had been able to record the incidental music in advance, and used it when Basil later put on the play at the Liverpool Rep. I collaborated with him only once again; in 1960 I wrote incidental music for a play called Out of this World which opened at the Windsor Theatre and lasted four nights in the West End. For the rest of his life he nevertheless looked on me as a kind of musical adviser.

In 1957 I was very much occupied with incidental music, although I also managed to write a short Toccata for organ - my first work for this medium and a suite for clarinet and piano for the summer school at Attingham near Shrewsbury, which was run by the composer Wilfred Meilers and which Lesley and I attended in August. Thea King and Gordon Watson played the Suite, and Gordon also played my piano sonata. In October we had a short holiday in Cassis which I had not visited since 1939; it hadn't changed much, except for a new casino on the pier. Then we went on to Basle where we met Egon Petri who had returned to Europe from California for the first time since before the war, following the death of his wife. I had always wanted to meet Petri, and Gordon Watson had given me an introduction to him. We spent a hilarious evening together - he was a very amusing man - and I managed to persuade him to promise to come to London and record some programmes for the BBC who had authorised me to approach him. However he was also rather depressed; he had hoped to settle in Europe again but found that he, perhaps the greatest pianist of his age, had been more or less completely forgotten. In Basle he had only one pupil who had followed him from America and, when he asked in a record shop if they had any of his recordings, the assistant replied: "Did you order any, Herr Petri?" Eventually, he returned to California and he never came to London.

We then went on to the Donaueschingen Festival where Stravinsky was conducting the first European performance of his ballet Agon, a work which uses 12-note methods in some sections. This was the only time I saw him conduct; he was very vigorous although he was 75 at the time, and I noticed that in the Bransle Gay, where the castanets have a regular rhythm in 3/8 against varying rhythms on the other instruments, he conducted, not the 3/8, but the other more complex rhythms. We also had a very pleasant meeting with Hans Werner Henze whose Nocturnes and Arias, a beautiful romantic work, was also performed at the Festival. Also staying in Donaueschingen with his elderly father was a keen amateur musician, Hans Otto Jung, the proprietor of a magnificent vineyard at Rudesheim on the Rhine; we have remained friends ever since.

Back in London I finished the second symphony in sketch form and played it on the piano to Lesley to whom I was intending to dedicate it. She had been complaining of a pain in her stomach, but otherwise seemed to be well; I persuaded her eventually to see her doctor. He sent her to a specialist who diagnosed a cyst on the womb and arranged for her to go into hospital. He said that the operation which he himself would perform was a simple one. But after it he asked me to go and see him and he told me that she had terminal cancer. I was working at the time on a radio production which helped to keep me going. The only people I felt I could confide in were a doctor friend, Frank Winton, a keen amateur cellist, and his wife Bessie Rawlins, a professional violinist. They saw me through this difficult period. Lesley died six days after the operation, on the morning of Christmas Day 1957. She was a marvellous person without whose help I certainly could not have achieved as much as I did. I loved her very much.

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