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Memoirs By Humphrey Searle


I found a room in Bayswater, a short and pleasant walk across Hyde Park from the Royal College. I spent my first evening in London at the house of Cecil Gray on the Bayswater Road. Cecil and I had first met at the Oxford Liszt concert; he was one of the few critics and musicologists who reacted against the German classical tradition and preferred composers like Berlioz, Liszt, Alkan, Busoni and van Dieren. He had written a History of Music on rather unorthodox lines, as well as books on Sibelius and Peter Warlock, of whom he had been a-close friend. He was fascinating to talk with , but it took time and usually quite a lot of whisky, to draw him out. Though shy, he was by no means the typical dour Scotsman. In fact he was a very generous host and I was not feeling at my best when I arrived at the College next morning to sing in a choral rehearsal of Vaughan Williams' Sea Symphony.

For my composition lessons at the college Walton had suggested that I should study with John Ireland. Ireland was chiefly known for his impressionist piano music - he was an excellent pianist - and songs, particularly his sensitive and lyrical settings of Housman and Hardy, apart of course from the famous "Sea Fever" The College compiled an official time-table of pupils for him, but he refused to teach in the building itself, and we all had to go to his studio in Gunter Grove, Chelsea. As I was a latecomer in the College term I was his last pupil of the day; when I arrived there were usually four or five of his other pupils in the studio, none of whom had had much in the way of a lesson. Ireland used to walk round and round the room, and as he passed one of his pupil's MS on the piano he would throw out remarks such as "Y'know, I am the only person who was a pupil of Elgar, and he said to me: " Don't use your trombones on the fourth beat of the bar; don't use your trombones on the fourth beat of the bar !" He would also make uncomplimentary comments on his colleagues, such as "That man Williams, gallivanting about all over America when he should be staying at home thinking about death", "Walton, coining money hand over fist" and "Master Britten, always having something to show in the shop window - if he farts they'll record it". (Britten had been a pupil of his at the College, and I gather they did not get on too well) But most of this prickliness was in fact assumed, and really he was a very endearing character. My short period of lessons with him led to a friendship lasting many years up to the time when he retired to the country towards the end of his life. He would sometimes take me out to supper at the Queen's Restaurant, Sloane Square, and we would have long discussions on music and many other subjects.

Ireland was very interested in primitive ritual and magic, an element which may be felt in some of his works such as "The Forgotten Rite" and "Mai Dun" (an evocation of the ruined Maiden Castle in Dorset). He was impressed by Arthur Machen who had written several books on these subjects ("he only lives in two rooms in Amersham, but he's got the works"). He also referred half humorously to what he considered the neglect of his music ("Mai Dun may not be done", "nobody loves me, nobody plays my music"). When Julian Herbage of the BBC pointed out to him that three major works of his were being broadcast within a few days, he countered with: "Hm - I suppose they want to kill it by overplaying it". But he had a good sense of humour and I enjoyed my time with him. Among my fellow pupils were Richard Arnell, Peter Crossley-Holland, Patricia Morgan and Peter Pope.

The College term ended in July, and in August I went to Germany to do some research in the Liszt Museum in Weimar - I was already thinking of writing a book on Liszt's music on which there was none in English at that time. This meant going to Berlin to get permission from Dr. Peter Raabe, who had been Curator of the Liszt Museum for many years and had written the standard German book on Liszt, published in two volumes in 1931.

Unfortunately Raabe had accepted a post under the Nazis as Director of the so-called "Reichsmusikkammer" in succession to Richard Strauss; however he received me most affably and allowed me to do any research I liked, short of copying out whole works. (I think he was a conservative rather than a genuine Nazi; he had done a lot for modern composers when he was the conductor in Weimar). He seemed to be impressed by the programme of the Oxford Liszt concert.

I found Weimar a fascinating little town, with its memories of Goethe, Schiller and Liszt himself. The Liszt MSS were housed in his old home, the Hofgärtnerei (court gardener's lodge), which had been preserved more or less as it was in Liszt's own day; when I sat alone in the living-room looking at MSS in the silent afternoons I felt such a strong sense of atmosphere that I was sure that Liszt himself would appear at any moment. I was able to find the missing passages of the Csárdás Macabre, the British Museum MS being somewhat incomplete, and also to see some interesting works which have not been published to this day, such as the "Lélio" Fantasy and "De Profundis", both for piano and orchestra. All this gave me a lot of useful information for my book on Liszt's music, though I was not able to write the book itself till after the war.

I went on to Salzburg and enjoyed the beautiful train journey through the Thuringian Forest. I attended the Festival for the second time; I saw Toscanini's "Falstaff" again and his magnificent 'Fidelio", with Lotte Lehmann in the name part. Toscanini followed Mahler's practice of playing the third Leonora overture during the scene-change before the last scene. I feels this holds up the dramatic action besides repeating the drama of the previous scene, but in this case it was justified by the blazing performance he gave it.

Some Oxford friends, who had come to the Salzburg Festival, drove me on a day trip to Munich. Hitler had been a failed painter. He was refused admittance to the Vienna Art School before the First World War as his paintings were judged too conventional; and indeed they were not very good. When he came to power he took his revenge on the world of modern art. He arranged an exhibition in Munich of official Nazi paintings; this was housed in a spacious gallery which showed the pictures to their best advantage. They were completely representational and extremely dreary; a picture of a goat showed every hair on its coat, and there were portraits of the Fuhrer reading the Nazi paper Volkischer Beobachter at breakfast in his Berchestgaden eyrie and, still worse, one of him as a knight in armour. Across the road from this gallery was an exhibition of so-called "decadent art"; this contained works by the principal painters who had been prominent in Germany in the 1920s, and who represented the tendencies which Hitler hated. Among these were such master as Klee and Kandinsky, but even middle-of-the-road artists like Ludwig Corinth were included. The exhibition was deliberately housed in a cellar-like building which minimised the quality of the pictures, and on the walls were daubed slogans like "They have had four years' time" (since the advent of the Nazis to power). The whole experience was extremely depressing.

My Oxford friends drove me to Vienna at the beginning of September. I found a room in the Wollzeile, in the old central part of the city near the cathedral, and a few days later my friends drove me out to meet Webern. He was living in Maria Enzersdorf, a small town near Mödling, about ten miles south of Vienna where Beethoven had lived towards the end of his life, and where Schoenberg also lived for a time. Webern and his wife had a small apartment on the upper floor of a two-storey house on the edge of the woods; he was a great nature lover and adored the country atmosphere. His first words to me were: "You are late". He had expected me on September 1 and I didn't arrive there till September 6 or so; also he seemed displeased at my arriving in a large car with friends, although they did not come into the house. He obviously thought that I wasn't serious; I discovered afterwards that he had practically no other source of income apart from his pupils, and was expecting my fee at the beginning of the month. Not that he was grasping; his fees were not more than I could afford, though the total amount of my scholarship was only £100. By working hard I soon managed to convince him that I was indeed serious.

I showed him my harmony exercises from the Royal College, and he said that I ought to study Schoenberg's Harmonielehre. With some difficulty I managed to obtain a second-hand copy of this work which kept us occupied for nearly six months. It has only just been translated into English in its entirety; it is a fascinating and very thorough study of harmony, ranging from simple exercises up to the methods of Debussy, Bartok and early Schoenberg. I used to go to Webern twice a week and wrote harmony exercises for each lesson; he didn't just look at these but played them on the piano to see how they sounded and, if they sounded wrong, he pointed out the reason. He had an extraordinary ear; at my first lesson he talked for an hour on the properties of the common triad and was incredibly interesting. Clearly he had a real knowledge, understanding and love of the basic elements of music, which he imparted to his pupils. At any rate he made me feel that every note I wrote was important, and that there must be a reason for writing every note. 'Don't trust your ears alone", he said: "Your ears will guide you all right, but you must know why you do what you do".

He obeyed this rule himself with his own composition. On his piano I used to see the twelve transpositions of the note-row (and their inversions) relating to the piece that he was working on at the time. He appeared to try out in sound which transposition and which form of the note-row (original, inversion, retrograde or retrograde inversion) would be the best for his purpose, and he did not work out a mathematical order of row-forms. At that time he was composing the String Quartet Op.28 and then the First Cantata Op.29. He did not show "work in progress” to his pupils but, towards the end of my stay, he did give me an analysis of his Piano Variations Op.27 which had recently been published. I was present at its first performance in Vienna, given by the young Viennese pianist Peter Stadlen who now lives in London. Stadlen has described elsewhere (The Score 22/12) the endless. and intriguing rehearsals which he had with Webern for this piece; Webern refused to tell him what the note-row was ("You are a pianist; your job is to play the notes") but he was willing to show it to me as a composition student.

In fact it was difficult to hear any of Webern' s music or that of other members of the twelve-note school in Vienna at that time, except at chamber concerts given by the Austrian section of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) in obscure halls in remote suburbs of Vienna. Such modern Austrian music as was played in the concerts of the Vienna Philharmonic and Vienna Symphony Orchestras was usually by Franz Schmidt or lesser composers such as Egon Kornauth and Eugen Zador - hardly household names today. Berg’s “Wozzeck", which had had over a hundred performances in Germany and elsewhere in the 1920s, had not yet been performed at the Vienna State Opera. Viennese musical taste was extremely conservative; when Bartok's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta was given its first Viennese performance early in 1938, the audience hissed it and the orchestra had to burst into Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. The only new opera given at the Vienna State Opera while I was there was "Wallenstein" by Jaromir Weinberger, the composer of "Schwanda the Bagpiper" - hardly an avant-garde figure. And when Hermann Scherchen, who had been assistant to Schoenberg in the 1912 performances of “Pierrot Lunaire" and remained a leading protagonist of advanced music, came to Vienna and formed an orchestra of young players to present a complete cycle of the symphonies of Mahler, it was very much a pioneering effort. Unfortunately the cycle was cut short by the advent of Hitler and the Nazis in March 1938.

Apart from my private lessons with Webern I used to go to a series of lectures which he gave in a private house in Vienna. These were fortunately taken down by a short-hand writer, and have been translated and published as "The Path to New Music" and "The Path to Twelve Tone Music". (Universal Edition. 1960. (also in English translation)). Reading them now I can remember exactly how Webern spoke, very simply and colloquially without long complicated sentences, and asking himself questions which he then answered. These lectures give a really authentic picture of his personality. He was always quiet, was never unkind to other people, and only became angry when he thought artistic standards or personal relationships were at risk.

Webern suggested that I should take some classes at the Konservatorium, which was less fashionable than the well-known Akademie. My chief study was conducting; our teacher, Nilius, though not a famous conductor himself, was eminently practical and gave us many useful hints which I have found helpful ever since. I also attended some classes in musical history and a few piano and percussion lessons, and I played the cymbals in the students' orchestra, actually receiving favourable mention for this in the Press after our Christmas concert.

Apart from my Viennese fellow-students, many of whom- had to leave Austria after the Nazi occupation and subsequently settled in England or America, there were some British students learning music in Vienna. These included Anthea Musman, now the wife of the writer and BBC producer Christopher Holme, A.P. Herbert's daughter Lavender, and the Scottish pianist Jack Wight Henderson, who has been a professor at the Royal Scottish Academy in Glasgow for many years; he was studying with Liszt's pupil Emil von Sauer, who gave a recital in Vienna while I was there. Less of a virtuoso than Rosenthal, Henderson had an aristocratic dignity and complete command of music belonging to the great 19th century tradition.

We British students often met at the Sunday morning concerts of the Vienna Philharmonic in the Konzertvereinsgehaude, acoustically one of the finest concert halls in the world. We had many distinguished visiting conductors; Furtwangler conducted Beethoven's 9th Symphony and Toscanini conducted a programme of Moussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition", Mendelssohn's "Reformation Symphony" and Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony which infuriated the Viennese ("salon music", they said). Albert Coates gave a programme of Russian music (Borodin, Moussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov etc) which contained a number of first performances in Vienna; his tall figure caused the Viennese to describe him as a "typische Englischer gentleman” , though in fact he was half Russian. Among the Viennese conductors Bruno Walter gave a memorable performance of Mahler's 9th Symphony, which was recorded for the gramophone live from the concert hall.

We usually stood at these concerts at the back of the stalls; we also had standing places at the Opera, high up in the top gallery, for one Austrian schilling (nine English old pence). The lights were left on at the back so that the students could follow the performance with the score; the repertoire was extremely large - Mozart, Weber, Wagner, Verdi, Strauss, Puccini and many others. I went there nearly every night, and my operatic experience really dates from this period. Among operas I remember was a splendid production of "Don Carlos” with Bruno Walter; the great Alexander Kipnis was the King and a fine young Bulgarian tenor, Teodor Mazaroff, was Carlos (I never heard of him again; perhaps he died in the war). Walter also conducted "Rosenkavalier" with three members of the original cast, Lotte Lehmann, Elisabeth Schumann and Maria Olczewska; the original Ochs, Richard Mayr, had died shortly before. This was an unforgettable experience; there was also an excellent production of "Carmen" with a pretty young Danish singer and a very effective revolving stage. Bruno Walter and Weingartner were the principal conductors, with Josef Krips as third conductor. It was fascinating to hear "Aida” conducted by the two main maestri in turn - Weingartner was pure and classical, but dramatic, while Walter was warm and romantic and equally dramatic. I went to see "Die Walküre" and “Götterdämmerung” more out of duty than anything else. I had reacted strongly against Wagner by this time, and in "Götterdämmerung” I was embarrassed to see Elisabeth Schumann as one of the Rhinemaidens in a seaweed costume shivering in a tank at the side of the stage.

When I mentioned my feelings about Wagner to Webern he ticked me off; "He is a great composer and you cannot possibly dislike him". I was surprised at this as his own personal style was almost the opposite of Wagner's; I was even more surprised when he asked me to play the slow movement of Bruckner's 7th Symphony with him as a piano duet. When we got to the E major theme in 3/4 time he asked me "Could your Elgar write an arch of melody (Bogen) like that?" I replied that I thought he could. I suppose that Webern, brought up in the Austro-German tradition, revered all German composers and regarded others, even those like Debussy who must have influenced him, as somehow second-rate. I understand that Schoenberg's attitude was similar.

As Webern did not teach over Christmas, Jack Henderson and I decided to go to Budapest. We went by bus. The snowclad Hungarian plain stretched in all directions, surmounted by an enormous red sun in a clear blue sky. Budapest is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, with the wide Danube flowing between the modern city of Pest and the old town of Buda with its castle on the hill; I have loved it ever since and have always had a fellow-feeling for Hungarians. I visited the Liszt Academy where the Liszt scholar Dr. Kalman d'Isoz welcomed me very cordially; I was trying to trace the MSS of the unpublished Hungarian Historical Portraits by Liszt, but he was unable to help me.. (They turned up at the Hungarian Radio after the war and were published in Budapest). I tried to get the Csárdás Macabre published by a leading Hungarian publisher, but he said: "This is neither a Csárdás, nor macabre". So it was left to the English Liszt Society to publish this remarkable work in London in 1950.

I had been given an introduction to Bartók by Louis Kentner. Bartók's music was still not much appreciated, but I was a great admirer and wanted to meet him without wasting his time, if possible. So I took along the MS of the Csárdás Macabre which interested him very much; I even persuaded him to play it on the piano. (He was an excellent pianist with a very individual style, as may be heard from his records). He was a very quiet, shy man with enormous black eyes - the largest I have ever seen. He spoke excellent English - he refused to speak German - and he lived in a small house up the hill in the old part of Buda. Later on he was shamefully treated both in Hungary and America. I shall always be glad that I met him.

In Vienna the political situation was becoming more and more difficult. Shorn of her empire after the First World War and possessing very little industry, Austria existed mainly on foreign tourists who came to see the beauties of the Salzkammergut or sample the charms of a "Gay Vienna” which no longer existed. Very few people had any money; the aristocracy were mostly impoverished and there were too many trained doctors and dentists for the number of potential patients. Some people wanted to bring back the Kaiser (what for?). Others were Nazi sympathisers. The Social Democratic government of the 1920s had been ousted in 1934 by Dollfuss. His successor, Schuschnigg, had formed a semi-fascist organisation called the "Vaterlandische Front" which was supposed to keep Austria free from Nazism; but it contained a number of secret Nazis who simply changed uniforms when Hitler arrived. It was clear that a Nazi takeover was imminent. I asked Webern what he proposed to do if this happened; he replied that he would go to England or America if offered a job. As he spoke nothing but German and very broad Viennese German at that - this was obviously going to be difficult, especially in view of the general attitude towards the music he was writing. He even had some liking for the Nazis who at least called themselves Socialists, and thought he might fare better under them than under the right-wing Austrian government, who had disbanded his Workers' Chorus and Orchestra in 1934 and deprived him of his job as musical adviser to the Austrian Radio. One of his pupils, Ludwig Zenk, and his son-in-law Mattel; later the indirect cause of Webern's death, were Nazi sympathisers and, as a result, rumours reached Schoenberg in America that Webern had thrown in his lot with the Nazis. But this proved to be quite untrue. Webern behaved perfectly correctly; he was simply rather naive about the whole issue and was cruelly disappointed when the Nazis took over. His income was reduced to practically nothing; he had to work as a proof-reader for his publishers, the Universal Edition, and even had to stand through a performance of Orff's "Carmina Burana" (of all things! ) as he had no money for a seat.

My £100 scholarship had kept me in Vienna from September to Christmas; I still had £50 in War Bonds which my family had bought for me at my birth. So I realised that I would be unable to stay in Vienna after the end of February. Webern wanted me to return the following winter to study counterpoint with him. I wrote to Sir Hugh Allen to see if my scholarship could be renewed, but received a negative answer. So I had to go; Webern wrote a very nice testimonial for me, which I reproduce:

Februar 1938

Das Herr Humphrey Searle

in der Zeit von September 1937 -Marz 1938 mein Schuler was, er studierte Harmonielehre, sei hiermit bestatigt.

Ich bringe aber auch zumAusdruck, dass der bei erzillte Leherfolg mich ganz besonders erfreut.

Ich hatte an Searle einen ungemein arbeitsamen und getreuen Schuler und halte sein Talent fur unbedingt bemerkenswert und der Forderung wurdig.

So wunsche ich vom Herzen, dass Searle diese weitgehendst zu Teil werde und empfehle ihn mit bestem Gewissen und aufrichtiger Freuden.

Anton Webern.

- February 1938.

This is to certify that Herr Humphrey Searle was my pupil during the period from September 1937 to March 1938; he studied harmony.

But I would also like to express the fact that the course of instruction which he undertook with me has given me very special pleasure.

In Searle I had an extraordinarily industrious and loyal pupil and I regard his talent as absolutely remarkable and worthy of promotion.

So I wish from my heart that Searle will take part in this career to the utmost limits and recommend him with my best conscience and sincere pleasure.

Anton Webern.

I left Vienna at the end of February. Ten days later Hitler arrived there....

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