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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Memoirs By Humphrey Searle



I did not particularly want to write a Faust; there have already been admirable ones by Berlioz, Schumann, Liszt and Busoni, not to mention Spohr, Wagner Gounod, Henry Hugo Pierson and others. However when the BBC asked me to write music for a programme about Thomas Mann's Dr. Faustus I could not resist the challenge, especially as Mann's Adrian Leverkühn is very different from the Faust of Goethe, Lenau or the medieval puppet play; he uses the supernatural powers given him by the Devil for the sake of developing himself as a composer rather than on wine, women or power - in fact he has rather a miserable life, riddled with syphilis which he has deliberately contracted and ending in an epileptic fit. Mann’s wide knowledge of music enabled him to describe in detail many of the works composed by Leverkühn, and this was of enormous help to me, especially as he is supposed to be a 12-tone composer (a personification which annoyed Schoenberg very much , as he felt, quite unjustifiably, that he himself was being pilloried in Mann's character).

The BBC commissioned the poet and novelist Robert Nye to write the text of the programme; this is not a dramatisation of the novel, which would have been more or less impossible, but a discussion of the principal ideas in it, mainly in the form of a narration interspersed with quotations from Leverkühn's biographer in the novel., the egregious Serenus Zeitblom, from the Devil and from Leverkühn himself. Obviously if I had attempted to compose all the works attributed to Leverkühn in the book the programme would have gone on all night, so Nye made a selection of the most important and interesting ones, and in writing music for these I followed Mann's indications as far as possible. The work begins with a short poem which Nye had written as a prologue; I set this for baritone and orchestra, the singer being intended to personify Leverkühn as Faust. For this part I had an excellent artist, John Gibbs. The second piece is an “impressionistic” symphonic poem, Ocean Lights, which was intended to represent Leverkühn's ear1ier style, as were the two Blake songs, Silent Night and The Sick Rose; for the latter, as I had to avoid comparison with the well-known setting of the same poem in Britten's Serenade for tenor, horn and strings, I had a soprano singer rather than a tenor and made the music as dramatic as possible.

Most of the later music, which was supposed to have been written after Leverkühn's pact with the Devil, is pervaded by the "Esmeralda" theme; this is based on the musical notes (in German notation) in the name “Hetaera Esmeralda", the whore who gave Leverkühn syphilis. In English notation this comes out as B-E-A-E-Eflat.

The first "mature" work of Leverkühn's represented in this programme was his setting of Klopstock's “Spring Festival" for baritone solo, strings and organ. I set the poem in German, but shortened it considerably, retaining the more dramatic passages. Nye's text allowed for only a short extract from Leverkühn's next orchestral work, "Marvels of the Universe", but the “Gesta Romanorum", which was written for the puppet theatre with a small band defined by Mann as consisting of violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone and percussion, gave me opportunity of writing a longer piece. Robert Nye wrote a text based on "The Birth of the Holy Pope Gregory" which Mann specifically mentioned as being a favourite of Leverkühn's; this is for narrator and four singers, representing the Emperors Marcus and Constantine (baritone and tenor), Constantine’s sister (soprano) and Amor (counter-tenor). In his description of the piece, Mann seems to have been thinking of works like Stravinsky's Histoire du Soldat and so I gave it a slightly neo-classical flavour.

The two most important pieces of music in the Faustus cantata are the "Apocalypsis cum figuris" and the "Lamentation of Dr. Faustus". The former was inspired by Durer 's enormous fresco of

"that crowded wall, swarming with bodies, where angels perform staccato on trumpets of destruction, Charon's barque unloads its freight, the dead rise, saints pray... the condemned man, clung round, carried and drawn by grinning sons of the pit, makes a horrid descent, covering one eye with his hand and with the other staring transfixed with horror into bottomless perdition".

It begins with the words

"The end is come, it watcheth for thee, behold it is come",

sung by the countertenor who, in Mann's words, is

"the witness and narrator of the horrid happenings, whose chilly crow, objective, reporter-like, stands in terrifying contrast to the content of his catastrophic announcements".

His words are repeated by a double chorus singing antiphonally; then the men of the chorus sing

"For my soul is full of troubles and my life draweth nigh unto the grave".

The counter-tenor's description of the loosing of the four avenging angels (from the Book of Revelation), is followed by an orchestral description of the destruction of a third of mankind; here Mann prescribes glissandi on timpani and trombones, and I was able to base these on the Esmeralda theme. A "mocking, bleating bassoon" in its highest register accompanies the counter-tenor's description of the birds of the air who feed on the flesh of mankind; then the chorus, beginning with whispers, and accompanied only by percussion, gradually rises to a climax and leads to the "harsh choral fugue" on the words of Jeremiah; "We have transgressed and have rebelled". Mann describes this section as giving the impression of a fugue, yet the theme is not faithfully repeated; I have tried to achieve this by basing each of the four parts on a different form of the basic tone-row - original, inversion, retrograde and retrograde inversion (although the rhythm remains constant), punctuated by fortissiino chords for the full orchestra. This section ends with a picture of the condemned man looking down into the abyss.

The second part of the Apocalypse begins more light-heartedly; the part of the Whore of Babylon is described by Mann as “a most graceful coloratura of great virtuosity". Here I used Spanish rhythms and took the soprano part up to a G in alt. Next come parodies of "the different musical styles in which the insipid wantonness of hell indulges; French impressionism, bourgeois drawing-room music, Tchaikovsky, Music-hall, jazz" These offered plenty of opportunities for poking fun at different styles and Robert Nye produced suitably nonsensical texts for the devils to sing . Then came the chorus of hellish laughter, beginning quietly and rising to a tornado of sound, followed by the children's chorus, "icily clear, glassily transparent” and based entirely on the notes of the devils’ laughing chorus; for this Nye again wrote an excellent text. The piece ends with the "abyss" music for full orchestra and organ.

In "The Lamentation of Dr. Faustus", Mann describes Leverkühn as intending to "unmake" Beethoven's Choral Symphony. It is in three parts; Faust's lamentation, for which Robert suggested that I should set the final speech from Marlowe's Dr. Faustus. "Ah Faustus, Now hast thou but one bare hour to live" is a choral scherzo showing the carrying off of Faust to hell as a dance-furioso; for this Robert wrote a dance poem in the form of a jig, and in fact he called the whole programme "The Devil's Jig"; then, after the entry of the chorus a cappella and fortissimo with Marlowe's words "Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight", comes a purely orchestral Adagio, "the extreme lament", ending with "all the instruments retiring one by one until finally we are left with a single note, a high G on the cello”. I suddenly realised that the three sections of this piece corresponded in some ways to the first three movements of the Choral Symphony, so I prefaced each of the first two sections with quotations from the first two movements of the symphony, but substituting the Esmeralda phrase for Beethoven's themes. This may not be what Thomas Mann had in mind but it seemed to work quite well.

I finished the music in November 1977, but it was some time before the BBC was able to arrange for it to be recorded. The reason was that both the "Spring Festival” and the last two numbers need an organ, and the only useful one which the BBC possesses is in their big Maida Vale studio which is more or less permanently occupied by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. But we were able to use it for two days after the end of the Promenade season in 1979; we had four good sessions with the excellent Ambrosian Chorus, who read off their parts at sight without the slightest difficulty, the New Symphony Orchestra, the Sinfonia of London, with Wendy Eathorne, Paul Esswood, Brian Burrows and John Gibbs as solo singers. Fiona was the narrator in Gesta Romanorum. The BBC liked the programme when it was broadcast in the following March and they asked me for suggestions for future programmes

While we were in America, my youngest brother John stayed at Ordnance Hill during the week, when he was lecturing at the Ealing Polytechnic. Although his health had not been too good, we were startled by a telephone call from his wife Jenifer in the early morning of 5 February 1978 saying that he had died of a heart attack during the night. We immediately drove to Ramsden and tried to comfort Jenifer and her son Howard who had celebrated his 16th birthday only three days before. I made the arrangements for the funeral, in Ramsden church, and played the organ at it. I was closer to him than to any other member of my family, and I felt his loss, at the age of only 56, all the more as both our parents were dead and my other brother Michael was in Australia.

In March 1978 Fiona and I went to Cyprus for the first time since 1970. Since the Turkish invasion of 1974, it was no longer possible to go to Kyrenia except through Turkey, and I gathered that it was now rather a sad place. All our Greek friends had escaped to the southern part of the island; this time we went to Limassol, where we were lent a very nice flat overlooking the harbour by our friends Beti and Douglas Naylor. They were consultants for the Shell Oil Company, and had rented the flat in order to entertain Middle Eastern sheiks, but were willing to let their friends occupy it when they were not using it. We were able to meet our old friends John and Vivian Guthrie in Nicosia (as British Commonwealth subjects they were allowed to come from Kyrenia into the Greek zone) and also Charles Papadopoulos of the CBC. We have visited Cyprus several times since then and have made many friends, including the writers George and Caroline Lassalle. Caroline writes chilling and successful novels under the pseudonym of Emma Cave.

We had scarcely returned to London in April when I received a telephone call asking if I would like to write music for a television production of the Oresteia of Aeschylus. Naturally I agreed and was put in touch with the director, Bill Hays, and the producer, Richard Brooke. A new translation had been commissioned from Frederic Raphael, author of many television plays, including "The Glittering Prizes" series, and the scholar Kenneth McLeish; they had got rid of the long choral odes which one finds in the translations by Gilbert Murray, and had split up each chorus into single lines for three individual speakers, often echoed by a singing chorus of nine. They put the three plays into modern English which makes them come alive as drama.

I discovered later that the project had been suggested to the BBC some years before by Michael Ayrton; he had proposed Frederic Raphael as translator and myself as composer while he himself would have designed the decor and costumes. It was a great pity that he did not live to design them.

We had a good cast , especially on the distaff side, with Diana Rigg as Clytemnestra, Claire Bloom as Athena, Maureen O'Brien as Electra, Dame Flora Robson in the small part of the nurse Kilissa and Billie Whitelaw and Sian Phillips as the chorus 1eaders. The men included Denis Quilley as Agamemnon, Anton Lesser as Orestes and Alfred Burke as chorus leader. Bill Hays, who was an admirer of Bartok and Janacek, encouraged me to write "primitive” rather than conventional music. He also asked me to write a lot of it; Agamemnon now begins with seven minutes of continuous music which is rare in a TV play. I was attacked by the critic of the Daily Telegraph for "attempting to turn the Oresteia into an opera”. I was able to point out that in the introduction to their translation, published under the title of "The Serpent Son", Raphael and McLeish say "Large portions of the play (perhaps as much as two thirds) were performed to music" (in classical tines) and that Bill was therefore justified in his demands. I thus had to write about two and a half hours of music in six months, which is certainly enough for an opera, and I may turn it into one if I have the time and opportunity. I enjoyed the project very much and am only sorry that it did not have more success with the public.

Lawrence Leonard had asked me to write a new symphony for him, and I had made several unsuccessful attempts in the previous few years to write a war symphony. One evening Fiona and I went on one of the Savage Club's annual boat trips up and down the Thames, with a highly distinguished band of Savages playing “water music"; there was a beautiful sunset, and the atmosphere was most stimulating. Suddenly Fiona suggested that I should write an orchestral piece based on the course of the Thames from source to sea, something like Smetana's Vltava, but on a larger scale. I thought this a good idea and immediately began work on it. Although it was interrupted by the Oresteia, it was finished in 1979. Basically it is a rondo called Tamesis, in which the "down river" passages alternate with thumbnail descriptions of the places the river passes through, e.g. Oxford (bells, dons' disputes), Reading (industry), Henley (regatta), Windsor and Eton (here I combined 'Rule Britannia" with the Eton Boating Song), Twickenham (rugby), and various places in London such as Chelsea (jazz), the Palace of Westminster and the Tower of London. I was uncertain how to end the piece, whether to let it fade away like Riverrun, to fade away but to end with two fortissimo chords like Vltava, or to rise to a climax as the river enters the sea; I eventually decided on the last. So far the piece has only been performed by the excellent student orchestra of Trinity College, London.

I had two small commissions in 1979; my friend and colleague Julian Baker asked me to write some pieces for four horns for his ensemble at the RCM. These were first performed at a great jamboree of horn players which was held in the Guildhall School of Music at Easter 1980; 500 horn players from all over the country took part, and Alan Civil arranged Beethoven's Egmont Overture for them all to play - a truly splendid sound, especially as some of them had to play piccolo parts. My second commission was for two songs for the young baritone Francis Thomas to perform at a Wigmore Hall recital. Here I renewed my connection with Sacheverell Sitwell, who was in his 80s by this time and was the last surviving member of the famous trio of poets. I set his "On Listening to Music under Tropical Flowering Trees", a long poem from his late collection "Tropicalia", first published in 1972, and I coupled this with Osbert Sitwell's 'On the Coast of Coromandel", which gave me some opportunities for parody. I am glad to have been able to set poems by all the three Sitwells.

By now I seemed to have become a Pillar of the Establishment, since I was asked in 1980 to write works for the centenaries of two highly respectable institutions, Winchester College, which was celebrating its sixth centenary, and the RCM, which would be 100 years old in 1983. For Winchester, I wrote a kind of Academic Festival Overture based on tunes associated with Winchester, beginning with the morning hymn "Jam lucis orto sidere" which we used to sing at the beginning of each term on the top of St. Catherine’s Hill at some unearthly hour. The Master of Music, Angus Watson, gave me two further Winchester pieces, the anthem Fac Regem Salvum, and a secular round, “Let omnibus Wykehamicis in a Bumper now go round", said to have been sung at the "Annual Meeting in Town". I made this into a kind of polytonal fugue, as I was asked to write "Searle rather than pastiche". The overture ends with variations on the school song, Dulce Domum, which incidentally is not a glorification of Winchester College but says how nice it is to go home for the holidays. Angus Watson gave me an 18th century setting of it by Peter Fussel for oboes, horns and strings, and I followed this with variations on the theme in Spanish and in jazz styles, with a final apotheosis.

For the RCM I decided to write a larger orchestral work, a sort of historical suite in three movements, 1883-1914, 1914-1945 and 1945-1983, and am engaged on this at the moment of writing. I hope it will be exciting.

On our last visit to Limassol in March 1981, when we stayed with the Lassalles, I wrote some Cyprus Dances, based on Cypriot folk themes, for the young organist Robert Crowley. In September 1981, during three weeks in which we were asked to cat-sit in a beautiful apartment in Cannes while the owner was in America, I began music for a BBC programme in conjunction with Frederick Bradnum about the First World War poet Isaac Rosenberg, who was killed in the trenches on All Fools' Day, 1918. I set three of his fine but underrated poems, including the tragic but magnificent "Dead Man's Dump". I have also been asked to write a Fantasia for two pianos for the gifted duo of Anthony Lindsay and Simon Young, so I am being kept busy, at any rate for the moment.


I have been lucky enough to earn an adequate living for the last twenty-five years but, in the words of Christopher Isherwood's Mr. Norris, "I see breakers ahead". Taxes, rent, rates and prices are going up alarmingly all the time while royalties are not. Commissions are a matter of luck, and all I can do is to hope for the best in the future. In this mood I am reminded of the words of Paul Brunton, to whose books Lesley introduced me a long time ago: "No matter how desperate things may seem with yourself or with the world, still you must hope and hold on, knowing that the wheel will turn. It must turn". I do not regard this as naive optimism. I cannot believe in a purely mechanical universe, from which even many scientists have drifted away, and, if there is a universal purpose in life, one must try to do one's best as part of that process. To sit back and wait for good things to drop into one's lap is not enough. I admit that I have been lucky in having been asked to do many things which I wanted to do, but I have always tried to do the best I could within the framework that was given to me. Whether I have succeeded is for others to decide; I write for them, not for myself. But I have been helped by two very happy marriages which have given me confidence and for which I am deeply grateful.

One cannot turn compositions on like a tap; one has to wait for ideas to come, which may take a long time. And where do these ideas come from? They are certainly not "invented" by me since things often turn up which I didn't in the least expect; that presupposes some kind of outside source, the nature of which is unknown to us. Our critical faculty has to put these ideas into a coherent shape, to give them flesh and blood as it were. So our work stands or falls both by the qua1ity of the ideas themselves and by our treatment of them. I can only say that I have been fortunate enough to receive a large number of musical ideas over the years, and I hope that I have been able to do them justice. If I have failed, well, that's too bad! But I am hopeful that I may at least partially have succeeded, and that Edward Lear's "They" will be unable to "smash" me.


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