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Memoirs By Humphrey Searle


In February 1925 Grandfather Schlich died; I was very upset by the news, though in fact he died suddenly, peacefully and in full possession of his faculties - he was 85. This meant the end of the Oxford household; my grandmother returned to Antwerp, where she lived until the end of her life, dying in 1940 at the age of 80. Aunt Gertrude set up house with Dorothy Broster (D.K. Broster, author of "The Flight of the Heron" and many other novels about the Stuart rebellion and the French Revolution; she became a sort of honorary aunt to us). Aunt  Eleanor had been married for some time; Uncle Willie went into digs in London, and Aunt Elsie decided to become an Anglican nun. The order which she entered, St. Mary's, Wantage, is not an enclosed one, and she was able to achieve her aim of doing social work within a religious framework. In later years she had a varied career, managing a home for unmarried mothers in North London and afterwards one for alcoholic debutantes at Virginia Water.

As none of our relatives could accommodate us, and our parents  were still in Burma, my brothers and I were parked on strangers. This meant in our case a family called Scott, who lived in the village of Beckley, about six miles north of Rye, in Sussex. George Dehany Scott had been at Harrow with Baldwin and Churchill (who was his fag, I believe) and rather resented having to work as an insurance agent - a kind of glorified door-to-door salesman. However he was kindly and well-meaning, if snobbish; his wife Gwen, though also kindly, was pious and sentimental and could sometimes be extremely tiresome. They had three children, John, a few years older than myself, who became an excellent mathematician and an instructor at Dartmouth Royal Naval College; Dulcie, a pleasant girl who was a few years younger than Michael; and Desmond, a boisterous boy who was much younger than all the rest of us.

Humphrey (15) and Michael (13)

After living in Oxford and London I didn't much like being in the country, which in later years I described as "cold, damp and full of Colonels", and there were indeed a number of retired Service officers in the area where we lived. Since we were only allowed to mix with the so-called "gentry", we had little knowledge of the real life of the country, and of course a visit to the village pub was out of the question, even if we had been old enough to go there. There was very little to do except bicycle riding and occasional visits to the cinema in Rye (we were strictly limited to Jack Hulbert- Cecily Courtneidge-type comedies). The most interesting days were those when Mr. Scott took us out in his car on his business visits, which extended all over East Sussex as far as Brighton and Worthing. We sat in the car and ate sandwiches while he visited his clients, but at least we were able to obtain a fair knowledge of the county. We didn't really get on with the Scotts - we were different kinds-of people, which I don't mean in any snobbish sense. Michael and I were both at boarding schools by this time and were only with the Scotts for the holidays; John, being younger than we were, had to put up with the brunt of the friction between the families. But as we were able to see some of our own relations from time to time, and some of the Scotts' relations who lived nearby were also pleasant, things were fairly tolerable.

One subject over which we quarrelled with the Scotts was religion. Our family was not particularly religious, but more for the sake of form than anything else we were made to attend Anglican Matins on Sundays at Oxford. I even went to Sunday School occasionally, and for a time became something called a King's Messenger, the exact duties of which I forget. Grandfather Searle's church near Southampton had straightforward but pleasant Anglican services, and the musical standard was high. But the Scotts insisted on carting us all off on Sundays to a High Anglican church at a village a few miles away which had all the paraphernalia of incense, acolytes and endlessly ringing bells. Our Protestant feelings were somewhat shocked by this - at the time I did not understand the value of dramatic ritual in religious services - and after some arguments we were allowed to attend the plainer Anglican services in Beckley parish church. This whole episode turned me increasingly against the Christian religion, and in later years I became a rationalist for some time.

I was head of the school for my last two years at Scaitcliffe, and Ronald Vickers decided to send me in for a scholarship at Winchester. I was most surprised to hear that I had won the second scholarship; the first was won by R.L.M. Synge (a relation of the playwright J.M. Synge) - he later became a brilliant scientist at Cambridge. I went to Winchester in September 1928; we scholars all lived in the mediaeval College itself, wearing black gowns (also a mediaeval tradition), and our education and board were free.

At Winchester College aged ~16

Though I continued my classical studies, it was here that I really began to get interested in music. We were allowed to have a gramophone in our room, and we each contributed records to the general stock and played them in our spare time. Apart from the standard classical and romantic works we had records of some music which was fairly modern at the time, such as Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" and Honegger's "Pacific 231" and "Rugby". In fact I enjoyed the more violent music better than the classics; I loved Richard Strauss and even Wagner at that time, and it took me a long time to appreciate Haydn and Mozart properly. Also in College at that-time were two boys, both two years older than myself, who were brilliant musicians and later achieved fame in the musical world - Robert Irving, who became musical director of the Sadler's Wells (now Royal) Ballet and of Balanchine's New York City Ballet from 1957, and James Robertson, who became conductor of the New Zealand Radio Orchestra and then Director of the London Opera Centre. They were both brilliant pianists they had played Mozart concertos on two pianos at the age of twelve - and Robert in particular interested me. He sang, composed, played the cello and piano admirably, and in short possessed all the musical qualities which I lacked. I could play the piano a little, clumsily; I remember one awful occasion when we had a read-through of the first movement of the Mozart G minor piano quartet with Robert playing the cello and myself the piano, and I was still playing when all the rest had stopped. But I had developed a passion for music and was determined to do something about my shortcomings. I had piano lessons with the second music master, a pleasant but rather colourless figure, and began to try and compose in a rudimentary way - I wrote a piece for two violins and piano for my brother Michael, his violin teacher and myself to play - it leaned heavily on Strauss.

When the B.B.C. Symphony Orchestra was formed in 1930, a list of the instruments it contained was published, and I at once sat down to write a concerto for solo double bass and this enormous orchestra. I thought that there were enough concertos for piano, violin, cello and even viola with orchestra, and that it would be nice to write one for an unusual instrument; I didn't know the concertos of Bottesini, Dragonetti or Koussevitsky at that time. I showed some of the score of this curious piece to my piano teacher, who took it to our chief music master, Dr (later Sir) George Dyson, who afterwards became Director of the Royal College of Music. Dyson was an excellent musician - he was an admirable pianist and organist and a very capable conductor - but though he had written a book called "The New Music" on early twentieth-century developments he didn't really like modern tendencies, and his own music, such as the cantata "The Canterbury Pilgrims", was mostly in the English pastoral tradition, with a few more-dissonant passages here and there. However he was a fair-minded man; I don't suppose he could tell much from my score, which though not atonal or twelve-tone was highly chromatic, but he at once took me as his own pupil and gave me organ lessons - I had wanted to learn the viola, but this was not allowed. I also attended a harmony and appreciation class which he gave me once a week, and thus learnt some of the rudiments of music; I tried to play as much music on the piano as I could, and in the end became a tolerable sight-reader, though I have never really acquired a proper piano technique.

My main studies were still Latin and Greek; a small number of classical scholarships to New College, Oxford, were reserved for Winchester boys ( as both institutions had the same Founder, William of Wykeham), and it was necessary for me to get one of these to ease the financial strain on my father - his income from the Civil Service was not enormous, and he had three sons to educate and had to maintain his own establishment in Burma as well as ours at Beckley. I managed to avoid the more detailed studies in classical textual criticism and took extra lessons in French and German, which proved very useful later on; I even won the school French prize one year, although I was not a specialist in French. I also became interested in other subjects - literature, painting and archaeology. But I could never paint or draw; at our prep school an art master used to come up once a week from Windsor, bringing with him a small stuffed model of a camel which we had to draw. That was our sole instruction in art. We had an Archaeological Society which visited neighbouring country houses on Saturday afternoons in the summer, which was not only pleasant in itself but got us out of having to play cricket. (Though I did play Winchester football, soccer and cricket, I was never a keen gamesman, but liked running and walking).

From Left to right:

Humphrey Searle (Father), Humphrey Searle (Grandfather) and Humphrey Searle. 1930

Grandfather Humphrey Searle was also a composer of religious music e.g. Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis for unison female voices (1911).

I got my Oxford scholarship, and was due to go to New College in October 1933. Inevitably the question of my career was looming up, and of course I increasingly wanted to go in for music, in spite of my technical shortcomings. Robert Irving had written a piece which was played by the school orchestra in his last term, and I did the same in my last year. At Dyson's request it was fairly simple, although it did combine three themes contrapuntally in the manner of the Meistersinger" overture; I played the timpani in it myself - I was the regular timpanist at this time, as that was the only way I could play   in an orchestra. The piece went down well, I think; Grandfather Searle came over to hear it and was nice to me about it afterwards. (It was the only music of mine he ever heard, as he died in the following year). My mother was over from Burma at the time, and I told her that I wanted to make music my career. She had an interview with Dyson; apparently he walked up and down, beating on the table and insisting that I must take a degree at Oxford before deciding on a career. I would have liked to go to Oxford to read French, German and music, but this was impossible under the terms of the scholarship. So I had to resign myself to another four years of detailed study of classical texts, and my mother even made me promise not to try to write music while I was at Oxford.

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