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  Founder: Len Mullenger


Memoirs By Humphrey Searle

Chapter 13:  INTERLUDE

Luckily I was kept busy working on two scores which had to be finished by the end of January a work for 10 instruments, Variations and Finale, and a film about comic crooks. As it happened, the film recording and the concert containing the first performance of the Variations took place on the same day and with the same players, the Virtuoso Ensemble who were the principals of the Sinfonia of London. Before this I went to stay with my brother John and his wife Jennifer in Baron's Court, returning to Ordnance Hill in the daytime to work on the scores. With some help from two friends, Peter Racine Fricker and Lawrence Leonard, who wrote out some of the scores from my indications, I just managed to finish both works in time.

Reggie Smith, the BBC drama producer, introduced me to Patrick Wymark, the actor who later became famous for his performances in the Plane Makers, The Power Game and other tycoon roles. Pat was then a member of the Shakespeare at Stratford but wanted temporary accommodation in London as he was working on a TV film during the day and playing Trinculo in The Tempest at Drury Lane at night. I lent him the upstairs flat at Ordnance Hill and moved into the studio. Pat and I remained friends until his early death, aged 44, in 1970.

              Sketch by Juliet Pannett

After the film recording and the concert I went to Paris to visit friends there and then returned to more work. I was asked by the BBC to write music for a TV film about Henry Moore, whose sculpture and drawings I had admired for many years. In addition, since John Pritchard wanted to give the first performance of the second symphony at Liverpool in October, I had to get the full score finished. I also had a letter from Scherchen asking me to write a one-act chamber opera for the Berlin Festival in October. He said that the subject should be "rucksichtslos" -- "with no holds barred" - so I chose Gogol’s "The Diary of a Madman”, for which I had already written incidental music for a radio production with Paul Scofield; but I wrote entirely different music for the opera. Scherchen gave me certain restrictions; there were to be no more than four singing characters and an orchestra of 15, but electronic sounds could be used, and there could be silent characters. I had never tackled opera before and was rather alarmed at the prospect; I nevertheless accepted the challenge.

In April I went to Amalfi with Jocelyn Brooke; it was beautiful and I enjoyed the scenery. But my stay was cut short by a summons from Scherchen to discuss the opera at his studio in Gravesano in the Italian part of Switzerland. I stayed in his house and we sorted out the libretto, which in my original version had been far too long. He seemed pleased with the final result.

In London the choreographer Peter Wright came to see me about a ballet he was planning on the life of the Great Peacock Moth, based on the description by the entomologist Henri Fabre. The male moth cannot eat; it can only mate and then die. Peter heard a record of my Variations and Finale and asked me to expand them into a ballet score for him. The ballet was performed at the Edinburgh Festival in August, and has since been given in Stuttgart, Tel Aviv and elsewhere.

The cartoonist Gerard Hoffnung had been giving his celebrated concerts at the Festival Hall in which he combined music with witty repartee and visual effects; they were invariably sold out. He asked a number of composers to write pieces for them and I had done an absurd setting of "Lochinvar" for speakers and percussion for the first one. The percussion included a waldteufel, which makes a kind of farting noise, cutlery thrown into buckets, and police whistles and sirens, and Sir Walter Scott's deathless words were spoken by Hoffnung and Yvonne Arnaud - hardly a Scottish pair. I was on the committee of the concerts, which met in various curious places such as the Zoo; we visited the monkey house, where Hoffnung and Malcolm Arnold screamed at the monkeys and the monkeys screamed back. For the second concert I had suggested the idea of a Concerto for Conductor and Orchestra, in which each would be at cross-purposes with the other; unfortunately, I did not have time to write such a large piece owing to other commitments and had to be content with writing the music for "Punkt Kontrapunkt", in which two learned professors produce an endlessly complicated analysis of a piece by "Bruno Heinz Jaja", after which the work itself is played, lasting 30 seconds. I did actually use "total serialisation" in this piece, i.e. serialisation of rhythms, dynamics and orchestration as well as pitch and it seemed to work. On the night I was going up to Liverpool for the first performance of the second symphony, I was very sad to hear of Hoffnung's sudden death. He was an amusing person and a good man; unfortunately he was fond of food and was overweight, yet insisted on rushing about at high speed, which resulted in a fatal heart attack at the age of only 34.

The ballet, the symphony and the opera all went well at their respective premieres, and I began to think about another symphony. My friends Walter and Hylda Beckett (the former is a musician and a cousin of Samuel Beckett) were living in Venice at the time, and invited me to stay with them. I went several times in 1959, and was entranced by the beauty and atmosphere of the place. As the Becketts lived in an unfashionable part of the city, I was able to walk around and see many parts which few tourists visit, and found the whole scene fascinating. I sketched out a Venetian symphony, the first movement giving the general atmosphere of the city, including the chimes of some bells which 1 heard every day from a church near the Becketts' flat. The second movement was originally a nocturne ("Notturno lagunare") inspired by a boat trip at night across the Venetian lagoon, with the full moon shining on the calm black water and the island of San Francesco del Deserto in the distance reminding me of Bocklin's painting of  The Isle of the Dead.

The last movement, (Festa e Bora) was a tarantella, interrupted by the stormy wind which whistles down from the Alps on to Trieste, where one actually has to hang on to the rings in the walls in order to climb up to the castle in winter. Later, after a visit to Greece, I changed this scheme; I scrapped the original sketch for the first movement and replaced it with a portrait of Mycenae, and I altered the order of the other two movements, so that the work now ends with an adagio.

In the summer of 1959 I suffered from one of my serious nose-bleeds; on average they can last up to 48 hours. To add to my troubles my tom cat, who had been with me for ten years, was poisoned by a kindly neighbour. I really felt at a low ebb and, to recuperate, went for a fortnight to Cap d’Ail on the French Riviera where the Becketts were working at a Swedish summer school. They left after a few days, so I wandered around the area by bus, bathing, eating, drinking and soaking up the sun, though I am not a sun-bather. I returned for a performance of the second symphony at the Proms under Basil Cameron. After that things began to improve; I had not been able to look at a woman since Lesley’s death but in October, a girl with whom I had worked professionally rescued me from the Slough of Despond and life began to get back to normal.

In December I paid a short visit to Greece. Having read and indeed written so much Ancient Greek at school and at Oxford, I was fascinated to see some of the places I had read about - Athens, Delphi and Mycenae. The latter, even in broad daylight, still seemed to smell of the blood of the Atrides, and it suggested what is now the first movement of my third symphony.

In the spring of 1960 the New Opera Company gave the first British performance of  “The Diary of a Madman” at Sadler’s Wells, with Alexander Young in the title role. The BBC made a radio version of this production, directed by Barbara Bray, and it won the UNESCO Radio Critic’s Prize for 1960, which meant that it was broadcast in many countries of the world.

My friend Richard Gorer had commissioned me to write a string quartet. as I had written nothing for this medium so far. Since I did not want to write a quartet in orthodox classical forms, I wrote three movements in contrasting moods. These were played at the Darmstadt Summer School by the Juilliard Quartet in the early summer of 1960. Later I was asked to write incidental music for Peter Hall and John Barton's production of "Troilus and Cressida" at Stratford-on-Avon, and I spent some time there seeing the various plays. The first performance of the third symphony took place in September at the Edinburgh Festival, again under John Pritchard.

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