QUADRILLE WITH A RAVEN
Memoirs By Humphrey Searle
Chapter 7: MARSHFIELD
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
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.
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
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
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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