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Memoirs By Humphrey Searle


On 1 September 1939 Hitler invaded Poland...

I had been told by the BBC that I would not be needed by them in the event of war - I was just 24 at the time. The BBC Music and Variety Departments decamped in great haste to Bristol, hoping for safety from the bombers; this turned out to be an unwise move as Bristol was bombed long before London was. I was left in London with nothing to do, and more important, no money; the BBC had promised to pay my salary until I joined the Forces, and then to make it up to the BBC level if my army pay was less than that. But owing to the disorganisation no money was forthcoming for a long time, and things became very difficult. I moved with the Brills into an enormous flat in Belsize Park Gardens, Hampstead. The winter was very cold and it snowed continuously, making it impossible to heat the vast rooms. Here I wrote my first twelve-note pieces, a set of piano variations, vaguely based on the van Dieren piano variations, and a string quartet, which paid homage to Schoenberg, Berg and Webern in turn. At that time there was a musical club called the M.M. (Mainly Musicians, but curiously enough the proprietor's name was May Mukle, the cellist) in Argyll Street near Oxford Circus, which put on occasional concerts. A programme of my works was given there in the winter of 1939-40 with the singer John McKenna, the pianist and harpsichordist Daphne Blackwall and the MacNaghten String Quartet; the programme included, as well as earlier works, the piano variations, the string quartet and the 1935 songs. The concert was well received, though the Times critic wrote: "This is the story of a young man who has taken the wrong turning", meaning twelve-note music. However, Edward Clark who came to the concert, particularly liked just those twelve-note works.

In order to get permission for the performance of the two "Chamber Music" songs I wrote to James Joyce. He was living in the Allier district of France, so communication was possible in spite of the war. His reply was typical:

Hotel de la Paix,

S.Geraud - Le Puy (Allier)


Dear Sir. You have my consent to set the poems you mention but subject to the permission of Messrs Faber and Faber, publishers, holders of the copyright. As it will not be possible for me to be present at your concert (to which however I wish all good success) perhaps your near neighbour and my good friend Mr.F.S. Budgen (39 Belsize Square, - N.W.3.) might go, if invited, and write me afterwards. The curious similarity of your two addresses has suggested this idea.

For the moment please do not send any music in MS. When, and if, your songs are printed I shall be glad and grateful to have a copy.

Sincerely yours,

James Joyce.

I was living at 39 Belsize Park Gardens. I hastened to see Frank Budgen, a lifelong friend of Joyce's who had already written a biography of him. He was a painter, and professed to have no knowledge of music, though he seemed happy about my settings of the poems. He was a charming man of tough physique who looked more like a sailor than an artist. I saw him from time to time until his death - he lived to be well over eighty.

Another resident of Belsize Park Gardens was the painter Michael Ayrton, who was living at the flat of his mother, Barbara Ayrton Gould. Michael came from a brilliant family; his father, the poet and writer, Gerald Gould, had died before the war, his mother had become a Labour M.P. and at one time was Chairman of the Labour Party. Michael had just come back from Paris at the age of 18 and thought he knew everything; in fact he was almost intolerable, as he himself admitted years later. But he had a brilliant mind and was already a very good painter; he also became an admirable sculptor, writer and broadcaster, and a much nicer person. We remained good friends throughout his too short life.

Charlie Brill was musical director to the Boulting Brothers, who were starting their film career and were as yet more or less unknown. He asked me to collaborate with him on scores for two films, a detective story starring Elizabeth Allan, and "Pastor Hall", based on a play by the German left-wing writer Ernst Toller. This was a dramatised version of the life of Pastor Niemoeller, who had commanded a submarine in the First World War, but had refused to collaborate with the Nazis or to let them interfere with his congregation. For this he was imprisoned by the Nazis, although he was not a Jew. I had met Toller at the Cafe Royal on his way from Germany to America just before the war; many of us would meet in the evenings inthe downstairs cafe, where we were allowed to drink till midnight provided we had something to eat. This was usually known as "the rubber sandwich", as it was passed round from one member of the party to the other. I liked the Toller script and wrote a certain amount of music for it, partly based on the chorale "Ein Feste Burg". - Before I could finish the score I was summoned to Bristol by the BBC, and I never saw the film when it was released. I wrote to the Boultings about my fee, and discovered that they had paid Charlie, but Charlie had not paid me. I might have guessed! Still, I suppose the experience was useful.

Life was not always peaceful in the Brill household. They were both excitable people, and I remember one particular occasion when they were having a violent quarrel, shouting, screaming, and chasing each other round and round the room; in the middle of this domestic upheaval sat Alec Whittaker, the first oboist in the BBC Symphony Orchestra and a tough-talking Yorkshireman, and myself, both drinking quietly. Alec was completely drunk; disregarding the circling Brills, he raised his glass and solemnly said: "Let us drink a toast - To the British Empire!"

After Christmas the BBC Music Department suggested that as the army had no use for me until March, I should join them in Bristol. There I found not only my musical colleagues but many members of the BBC Variety Department, and we all shared amusing times in the Victoria pub in Clifton. Also living in Bristol were Alan Rawsthorne and his first wife Jessie Hinchliffe, who was a violinist in the BBC Symphony Orchestra. They shared a studio with Hyam (Bumps) Greenbaum and his wife Sidonie Goossens, one of the harpists in the orchestra. I had met Alan in London and had been at the first performance of his first piano concerto, for piano, strings and percussion, which was given in an enterprising series of concerts organized by the South African pianist Adolph Hallis. I liked it very much; Alan, though exactly the same age as Constant, had taken a far longer time to achieve recognition. However his Variations for Two Violins had made his reputation, and so had his Symphonic Studies for Orchestra, which were given at the Warsaw ISCM Festival in 1939. I had not known Alan very well in London, but now got to know him much better. He, Jessie, Bumps and Sidonie would often meet their friends in the Llandoger-Trow, an ancient pub opposite the equally ancient Theatre Royal in the lower part of Bristol; Alan remained a good friend till the end of his life.

Bumps and I had met over the abortive production of "The Tailor"at Oxford in 1936. Television had been closed down on the outbreak of war, and he was made conductor of the BBC Variety Orchestra. He was an extraordinarily gifted man who could conduct anything, from Schoenberg to Duke Ellington, but he never made a real name for himself. He was a most amusing companion; I regret his loss sincerely, for he died young during the war, at Bangor, whither the Variety Department had been transferred. His much younger sister Kyla later became a fine concert pianist. I continued to see Jessie for many years, although not of late; Sidonie I still see from time to time and she has not lost her warmth and sweetness of nature.

While I was in Bristol I went to the first and only performance of Alan's, his "Kubla Khan", which was written for the BBC's Overseas Service and was performed in their Bristol studios. It was for chorus and strings, with two soloists. I thought it was a very fine work, and the only reason it was never performed again was that the score and parts were destroyed in an air raid on Bristol. Alan's whole studio went up in flames, and both couples lost most of their possessions. I always hoped that Alan would - write the score again, but he never did; I had begun to sketch a setting of the poem myself before the war, but put it aside, and didn't feel like taking it up again till after Alan's death. (I made a new setting in 1974).

The BBC had arranged lodgings for me in a house quite near their studios; this belonged to a pleasant couple who, however, wanted me to drink cups of tea and chat with them in the evenings, when I was trying to work on a symphony which was to include my 1935 overture in its last movement. They felt I was being standoffish, but I could only compose in my spare time. So I was glad when I was asked by John Davenport to stay in his house at Marshfield outside Bristol. I had met John through Frida van Dieren in London; he was basically a writer, but he had an enormous knowledge of all the other arts and talked as if he had complete control of all contemporary artistic activities. He was a short, powerfully built man, with a terrible temper when roused, but was normally charming and affable. He had recently returned from Hollywood, where he had earned some money writing film scripts, and this he invested in a large Cotswold stone house in Marshfield, a village about twelve miles east of Bristol. He had a tall, beautiful wife from New England called Clement; they had just had a baby daughter, Natalie.

John's house was so large that he let rooms out to his friends as paying guests. These included William Glock, then a pianist (he had been as pupil of Schnabel) and musicologist, and later successively music critic of The Observer and Head of Music at the BBC; the composers Lennox Berkeley and Arnold Cooke; the musicologist Henry Boys; and Dylan and Caitlin Thomas, who came later. Living in the same village were the painter Robert Buhler and the novelist Antonia White ("Frost in May"), so we were a lively party, and I don't know how Clement coped with us all. I used to go into Bristol by bus every day during the week; in the evenings we all went across the road to the local pub. Here I sometimes used to play the piano, and Caitlin, who looked like an Irish fairy with her long golden hair, would dance wildly to Liszt's "Les Preludes" and a few other pieces that I knew by heart. During the day Dylan and John were closeted together, working on a detective story "The Death of the King's Canary", which has only been published recently because of its libellous remarks about living people.

This was an idyllic and amusing existence, especialy in wartime, but it could not last for ever. I had to register for the Army, and in April I was told to present myself at Horfield Barracks, Bristol, the depot of the Gloucestershire Regiment. Hitler had invaded Denmark and Norway, but his blitzkrieg in France had not yet begun. I handed over the unfinished score of my symphony to Lennox, who kindly undertook to complete the orchestration. My mother saw to it that my things were rescued from the Brills' London flat, except for my piano, which I understand was the recipient of a great deal of beer at parties during the war, though it has survived to this day. The Marshfield period, though short, saw the start of many friendships. Those with Lennox Berkeley, Arnold Cooke and William Glock have lasted all my life1 and those with John Davenport and Dylan Thomas until their deaths. A few months after I left the household split up; William Glock and Clement Davenport went off together, John became successively Head of the Belgian Section of the BBC and literary critic of the Observer, Lennox joined the music department of the BBC, and Arnold Cooke went into the Forces. But I was able to keep in touch with them periodically, as I was stationed in the army in Bristol for the next few months.

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