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Memoirs By Humphrey Searle

Chapter 14:  "WHO'S STOLEN ME GARNI?" (Part 2)

Budapest 1961 with the conductor Mrs Joseph Udvardi

From Warsaw we took the midnight train to Budapest, where I had been invited to read a paper at the Liszt-Bartok Congress. (1961 was the 150th anniversary of Liszt's birth and the 80th of Bartok's). The journey took us across Czechoslovakia; as we were not-allowed to take any Polish money out of Poland, nor to leave the train in order to change money in Czechoslovakia, we were faced with a problem when we were asked to pay for our lunch in the dining car. Fortunately the Czech frontier officials, who spoke German, advised us to wait until we got to Hungary, where we could change our English travellers' cheques into Hungarian forints and use these. The train did not go through Prague, but passed Bratislava, a beautiful city which I hope to visit some time.

Superficially Budapest did not seem to have changed much since I was there in 1937; people were lively and cheerful, and there was plenty of good food and drink. We were accommodated in the modern Gellert Hotel on the Buda side of the Danube, and the lectures took place in the Academy of Sciences on the other side of the river. They were given in many languages, most of them intelligible to the majority of delegates, but there was a mass exodus when a speaker began to read a paper in Chinese which was promptly translated into Hungarian. (All the essays were later published in a special Liszt-Bartok number of the Acta Musicologica by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences). My lecture, on "Liszt and the Twentieth Century" mainly discussed Liszt's later, forward-looking works.

Among the British delegates was Gerald Abraham, an old friend from my BBC days, a charming man and an excellent scholar, who read an admirable paper on Bartok's relations with England. The other side of the coin in Hungary was shown one afternoon which Fiona and I spent with a leading Hungarian musician and his wife; they took us on a car drive round the outskirts of Budapest and complained bitterly about the present regime. I fear that their car may have been bugged for, on our next visit to Hungary in 1969, I found that they were no longer on the official list of approved invitees supplied to the British Embassy by the Hungarian Ministry of Culture, and so it would have been unwise for their sakes to try to make contact.

However, on the official side all went smoothly. We were invited to coffee at the house of Dr. Bence Szabolcsi, a man of great learning and culture who wrote an excellent book about Liszt's last works, "The Twilight of Ferencz Liszt"; among others who were present were the patriarchal Zoltan Kodaly and his young wife. Afterwards we all drove to the Opera for a Bartok evening consisting of "Bluebeard's Castle", "The Wooden Prince" and "The Miraculous Mandarin", which was superbly produced in a highly realistic style. Another of the joys of the Congress was Sviatoslav Richter's dynamic interpretation of the solo part in Liszt's second piano concerto.

On the way back to London we spent two or three days in Vienna. People seemed much more cheerful than in 1938; the war was over, the Allies had departed, and there were signs of increasing prosperity. The city had not been too badly damaged by war; in the restored Opera House, we saw a performance of Verdi's "Don Carlos" which was splendid apart from the fact the Elisabeth and the Eboli towered over the diminutive Italian singer who played the title role. I much preferred the pre-war production.

Having arrived back in London just in time for the recording of "Artists in Orbit", I was horrified to find that Douglas Cleverdon had expected me to write music for the final number, "The Circles in which we move", to be sung by the cast, accompanied by the orchestra. I discovered this on the morning of the recording; so we recorded the rest of the music, and in the afternoon, while the cast were recording the sections of the programme which did not involve music, I was lent a studio in which I wrote and orchestrated this final number. The parts were copied, we rehearsed - it with the cast (who had to walk round and round the microphone in a circle to give the effect of different voices approaching and receding), and finally got the whole piece in the can. But it was a near thing!

Fiona had always had trouble with her inside; in Warsaw, at the suggestion of Sonia Serocki, she saw a gynaecologist who recommended that she should return to London immediately and rest. But she insisted on coming with me to Budapest and Vienna; and unfortunately she had a miscarriage in December, after a seven-month pregnancy. She had other similar troubles for some years until she finally had a hysterectomy, since when her health has improved considerably.

We went to Madrid for Christmas (1961), where we again met Bernard Spencer, and then to the cottage at Guadarranque. This village contained a curious English community, mostly of failed artists who were inclined to ply us with drinks early in the morning, so that it needed a good deal of firmness to get any work done. I had been commissioned by the BBC to write music for a satirical cantata on the subject of the Golden Fleece with a text by Donald Cotton; Douglas Cleverdon was again the producer. Although our landlady allowed me to use the piano in her villa, I felt I needed one in our own cottage; I had bought an upright piano very cheaply from a friend in London and, as I was informed that it was impossible to obtain a piano in Spain, I had it shipped out to Gibraltar. There was then the problem of getting it through the Spanish Customs at La Linea. Fiona and I made endless trips to see officials, going as far afield as Malaga and Cadiz. Apparently we had insulted Spanish National Honour by wanting to import a piano. "Spain is an exporter of pianos, not an importer", they told me. I had only ever seen one Spanish piano in Madrid and it wasn't a very good one! However, eventually, after a great deal of trouble and expense we obtained a handsomely embossed document which allowed me to keep the piano in Spain, but only for three months; whether we would have to push it out to sea after that was not stipulated. At La Linea the Customs officials turned the piano upside down and removed all the keys; Fiona had packed some table linen inside it, and they evidently thought that this was concealing drugs. Finally, after much excitement the piano was allowed through the barrier and arrived triumphantly on a lorry, still upside down at Guadarranque, to the applause of the local population. We then found that its wooden packing-case would not go through the door leading to our tiny patio, and the case had to be hacked to pieces before we could get the piano in. Fortunately the prudent Scottish manufacturer of the piano had numbered all the keys in sequence, so that I was eventually able to put them back in order. Even so it never worked very well - the sea air must have affected it during the voyage - and it was hardly worth all the trouble it had caused.

In the spring of 1962 we went to Rome, where I had been asked to sit on a jury, together with Petrassi and Lutoslawski, among others, for an international competition for composers. There we were joined by Fiona's mother and stepfather, who had flown over from South Africa. Afterwards they went to Guadarranque with Fiona, while I flew to London to conduct the recording of "The Golden Fleece". Fiona's mother, Mollie, inadvertently alarmed some neighbours of ours in Guadarranque, an elderly American couple who occupied one of the cottages nearby. As a girl, Mollie Maginess had lived for a time in La Jolla, California, and when the Americans asked her if she knew the States at all she mentioned this fact and was startled by their reaction; it seems that they were not married, but had run away together from La Jolla (which is not a large place) and they were terrified lest information about them might reach home! This couple had curious living habits - they would drink for six hours, sleep for six hours, drink again for six, sleep for six, and so on. They were never seen either buying or consuming more solid fare. The man also kept some liquor up a tree and would lower it with a rope when there was an emergency; this frequently occurred. At one party given by our landlady, the guests were given grapes soaked in anis, a local delicacy; the American woman took a long swig from the jar and commented:

"Gee, this is great, but why the grapes ?"

Shortly afterwards, I paid a brief visit to Heidelberg, where "The Great Peacock" was given at the theatre. Since Peter Wright did not want this theatre to use his own scenario, as he was intending to put the ballet on himself in Stuttgart, they made up another story which more or less suited the music. From there I went on to Munich, where my second symphony was conducted by Zubin Mehta in one of Karl Amadeus Hartmann's Music Viva concerts. Mehta had heard the work in Liverpool where he was assistant conductor to John Pritchard, and he has performed it quite often since, both in Germany and the U.S.A.

In June, presumably on the strength of "The Riverrun", I was invited to attend the opening of the James Joyce museum in his Martello tower at Sandymount, south of Dublin, described in "Ulysses" . I had never been to Ireland before, but a number of Irish friends from London, including Louis MacNeice and W.R.Rogers, went over for the ceremony, and I was given an introduction to Sean McReammoin of Radio Telefis Eireann. This was the beginning of a friendship which has lasted to this day; Fiona had not been able to accompany me on this trip, as she was in hospital, having had an emergency operation, but as soon as she was well we went to Dublin for a holiday, which was followed by many further visits during which we made a number of Irish friends.

Peter Wright's production of "The Great Peacock" took place in the late summer of 1962; he had asked me to extend some of the numbers, and the ballet now reached its final shape. In the autumn "The Diary of a Madman" was performed in Krefeld and Munchengladbach - the two theatres share the same company - and I was asked to return there the following year to conduct the German premiere of my third symphony.

The first performance of my fourth symphony took place in Birmingham in October 1962. I was invited to conduct and got on quite well with the orchestra, although they were rather noisier at rehearsals than my friends of the Sinfonia of London, with whom I normally worked for radio, television plays and films. In this symphony I had tried to refine my style, as I felt that some of my earlier music had been rather heavy-going in places. The result was a somewhat abstract work, in which the thematic material was reduced to a minimum and the textures were mostly bare, although I still tried to maintain a dramatic element in the music. The result pleased the critics - "New Symphony bespeaks a new Searle" The Times wrote - but the public were somewhat mystified. At any rate it was a work which I had to write at some time, and I think I learned a lot from doing it.

I had noticed at the 1960 Musica Viva performance in Liverpool of my third symphony that the discussion afterwards centred mostly on the other work in the programme, Prolation by Peter Maxwell Davies, then a young up and coming composer. It was obvious that a wind of change was coming in contemporary music, and I could not disregard it. Not that I have ever tried to "keep up with the Stockhausens", but naturally I have learnt something from the techniques of younger composers without consciously trying to imitate them. This new direction in music had the curious effect of causing me, from one moment to the next, to be no longer regarded as a wild avant-gardist but as an "old-fashioned romantic" instead. Not that I was worried.

While I was in Heidelberg during the summer I was asked to write a ballet for the Wiesbaden Theatre in collaboration with Imre Keres, a Hungarian dancer who had escaped from Hungary with his wife during the 1956 uprising and was now principal choreographer at Wiesbaden. As my two previous ballets had been based on plots I thought I might write an abstract ballet for a change; Keres was very practical, and worked out a sequence of dances, even suggesting the character of each dance and the number and sex of the dancers in each. I worked on this during the winter of 1962-3.

In January 1963 I had an unfortunate accident while on a visit to Guadarranque. I was driving along the main street of Algeciras when a scooter shot out of a side road on my right and hit my car. The driver was unhurt, but his pillion passenger stuck out his leg to minimise his fall and it was broken. This caused endless complications with the police, as in Spain and some other countries, there is a rule that traffic coming from the right has precedence, even from a minor road into a main street. With me at the time was my landlady's son, who speaks perfect Spanish; but although the accident took place in front of a crowded open-air cafe he could find no one who would confess to having seen the accident. The police did not arrest me but warned me to be ready to appear at the trial of the case. This did not take place for some months, as the judge was away, and by the time a policeman was sent to Guadarranque to inform me of the date of the trial I was back in London, and that caused further legal complications. As a result, we decided to sell the lease of the cottage for the remaining three years of its five-year period, and fortunately found someone to take it off our hands.

1963 with Zulu
Humphrey was a great cat lover

In the early part of the dreadful winter of 1963 I was working on the "The Haunting" with Robert Wise, which meant endless trips to Elstree through the ice and snow by public transport, as it was impossible to drive. Meanwhile I had been asked to orchestrate the B minor piano sonata by Liszt for Frederick Ashton's ballet "Marguerite and Armand" - a formidable task. This was produced at Covent Garden in March 1963 with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev as the principal dancers and it has since become famous as a vehicle for this celebrated pair.

My abstract ballet "Dualities" was produced in May at Wiesbaden; here again the critics were impressed, but the public found it somewhat austere. (It has been the other way round with my more recent works, which have gone down well with the public while being attacked by the critics; I prefer it that way round!) In July, an interesting evening was arranged in London by the Poetry Book Society under its director Patric Dickinson; four British composers, Richard Arnell, Lennox Berkeley, Nicholas Maw and myself were asked to set the same poem by Robert Graves, "Counting the Beats". Naturally all four composers produced settings in different styles; afterwards there was a general discussion of the relation between words and music in which we all gave our views, and various settings of "Come away Death" was performed as contrasting works. The singer was Gerald English, with whom I had not worked before; since then he has become an admirable interpreter of my vocal music, and recently I made a setting of John Donne's "Nocturnall upon St. Lucies Day" especially for him.

Meanwhile I had been asked by Douglas Cleverdon to suggest a subject for a work for radio which the BBC might commission. Since 1960 I had become interested in the "new wave" of playwrights Beckett, Pinter and especially Ionesco, whose "Theatre of the Absurd" intrigued me very much. I had seen all his plays to date, and thought of making one into a radio opera; the trouble was that most of them were one-acters, and I wanted to write a full-length work. As "Rhinoceros" had already been set by someone else and "Amedee" didn't seem quite suitable, I chose "Tueur sans gages" (The Killer). This had been expanded by the author from a short story, "The Photo of the Colonel"; Barbara Bray, who was now living in Paris, gave me an introduction to Ionesco, and he was most helpful, allowing me to make any cuts or alterations I wanted to, since the play is fairly long. I cut out quite a lot of the first part of the second act, which hardly brings the action forward, but otherwise kept to the main structure of the play; lonesco wanted the opera to bear a different title from the play, so I went back to the original title of the short story. I worked on the libretto during a holiday on Corfu, a beautiful island which I hadn't visited before, and which in those days was still unspoilt. There we ran into an old friend, the American conductor Newell Jenkins; I was always coming across him in unlikely places - Palermo in 1949, Budapest in 1961, and now here in the tiny port of Palaeokastritsa. Naturally we were glad to see him, but his friend Jack seemed a little annoyed; he had hoped to get away from Newell's friends for once in this remote place. Of Newell more later.

I worked on the music of "The Photo of the Colonel" in London during the winter; I had to work fairly quickly, as Douglas Cleverdon had set a transmission date for it in the following March. In fact I finished the whole opera in five months, although it is not enormously long - about seventy-five minutes of music altogether.

Ionesco and his wife visited us in London while I was writing the music; I played him most of the first two acts, and he seemed to be satisfied Fiona and I also visited him in Paris in his apartment high above the rue de Rivoli - a formidable climb -and found it full of rhinoceroses which had been sent him by admirers; he and his wife were in the process of unrolling an enormous tapestry which had been sent to him from Yugoslavia and which looked like covering every wall in the flat. lonesco said mysteriously; "We must get away from the Italians - they will come and make a noise". He seemed to be living in one of his own plays.

I conducted the BBC recording of the opera early in 1964; unfortunately Alexander Young, who had given an admirable performance as the Madman in my first opera, was unable to undertake the leading part of Berenger, the "common man" who tries to solve the mysteries of the murders in the Radiant City, and we had to find a replacement at the last moment. Leslie Fyson sang admirably, but in difficult circumstances; the rest of the cast included Denis Quilley, John Noble and the veteran Edith Coates, whom I had known since before the war at Sadler's Wells.

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