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HUMPHREY SEARLE by Francis Routh

© Francis Routh

This article was first published in Contemporary British Music by Francis Routh, MacDonald (1972) 


© BBC/Don Smith


Humphrey Searle's music is coloured, and limited, by his creative alignment with the 12-note style of Schoenberg. His was a conscious and deliberate choice. It is only partly true to say that his work is derivative from his Viennese models; but it is more, or less successful in performance in proportion to the degree to which he has assimilated the underlying artistic purposes which motivated Schoenberg, Webern or (later) Boulez.

Born in 1915, Searle's training was conventional, and entirely within the academic English tradition. After Oxford, where he read Greats, and associated with such unexceptionable figures as Sir Isaiah Berlin and Sir Hugh Allen, he proceeded to the Royal College of Music in London, where he studied, somewhat hesitantly, with John Ireland. In trying to discover a sense of artistic discipline, his attention was drawn in several directions; towards Paris, for instance, where Nadia Boulanger was attracting large numbers of distinguished and shortly-to-become distinguished pupils with her exposition of the neoclassical style. Eventually, after consulting other musicians, such as Walton, Humphrey Searle went for a six-month visit to Webern in Vienna. This gave him an insight into that composer's outlook, as well as a sense of purpose for the future. Though he has not written in the style of Webern, except for some parts of the fifth symphony, he gained an invaluable knowledge of music from the Viennese point of view, as well as an insight into Webern's technique; the importance Webern laid on every note, for instance, which is a different matter altogether from the mathematical approach adopted by some of Webern's self-styled successors.

During this formative period (1937) Searle had no doubt that the path indicated by Schoenberg was the one that music was destined to take. But the musical atmosphere in England before 1939 was, he considered, parochial. Not till after the war did any continental influence begin to be felt, though already in the 20'Ssthe Sitwell family had worked towards an internationalism of music, and away from the narrowness of the established English academic style: they associated with musicians such as Diaghilev, Busoni, Ansermet, and the English composers who chiefly felt the benefit of their patronage were Walton and Lambert. What appeared first in the 20's as frivolous antics were later to be taken for granted; the 30's, however, were a sadder period, with the shadow of fascism and war looming ever larger.

Searle was dissatisfied with the academic traditionalism that was rife in England at the time. Tradition was one thing, certainly; but one could be aware of, and even respect, tradition, without necessarily abiding by it; and the sort of Establishment attitude that was all too often the concomitant of it could practically be relied on to stifle artistic progress. Fresh air could only be admitted from outside; and although Searle was to some extent swayed by the other magnetic forces of Bartok and Stravinsky, particularly as far as rhythm and colour were concerned, it was to the Viennese school that he turned for his most constant and most fundamental guide-lines.

Returning to London from Vienna, he resumed study at the College. The war then intervened, and six years' service in the army delayed his start as a composer, though a few works date from the early 40's. He found early champions in his friend and colleague Constant Lambert, as well as the conductor Walter Goehr, both of whom performed several of his early works during the war years. Later he met René Leibowitz, the chief protagonist of the 12-note style, who taught in Paris after 1945, and who asked him for a 12-note piece. The result was the Intermezzo for 11 instruments, Op. 8 (1946). Various small pieces followed, until in 1949 he wrote Gold Coast Customs, Op. 15, for a radio performance. This was his first large-scale 12-note work. It was an ambitious setting of a poem by Edith Sitwell, for speakers, male chorus and orchestra. It was the first piece of a trilogy for speaker and orchestra; the other two works were The Riverrun, Op. 20 (1951), with words by James Joyce, and The Shadow of Cain, Op. 22 (1952), with words once again by Edith Sitwell.

Gold Coast Customs was first performed by Edith Sitwell and Constant Lambert. The basic series of it is built in alternating fourths and semi-tones; from it two other series are derived, by taking every third and sixth note respectively. These are used to point certain aspects of the poetry; the lyrical content for one thing, with which the poet occasionally interrupts the social satire, and the symbolic and satirically treated figure of the rich Lady Bamburgher.

In this trilogy Searle used the words to supply the inevitability of movement, and coherence of structure, that he felt to be endangered by his chosen style. However interesting the orchestral sounds might be, they did not necessarily have any sense of purposive direction. Themes and structures derived from key-relationships had been done away with; how then could the music move convincingly, and not merely consist of a succession of static sound-patterns? In this matter Searle anticipated very accurately an inherent quality of serialism that Boulez and his school were later to wrestle with.

Searle sought a solution in the use of words. Word-patterns and images supplied just that underlying movement and structure that was needed, particularly in a large-scale work. In a sense the music becomes secondary, like sound-effects; Edith Sitwell's verse itself possesses a musical structure - first idea, second idea, conflict, climax, coda. Moreover, words are used as much for their sound as for their meaning. Searle could hardly have chosen better for his first large-scale work.

The Riverrun is rather different. It is a setting of the final section of Joyce's Finnegans Wake; the underlying basis of the piece is therefore literary. Joyce introduces an element that Sitwell does not; namely, Irish humour. Anna Livia, a river, flows to her grave, the sea; the words tell the sequence of her thoughts.

After this trilogy, Searle set about the task of applying his style to two principal categories of work: large-scale orchestral pieces and opera. What mattered, he felt, was not that a composer should adopt a particular style or technique, hut the use to which he put it. It must be moulded to the particular personality of the individual composer. There was nothing doctrinaire about Schoenberg, and Searle has had no hesitation in admitting a tonal influence if he wishes to, as Berg did.

Five symphonies and two piano concertos are interspersed with various smaller pieces. Of the piano concertos, the first is an early, romantic piece (Op. 5, 1944); the second is lighter in mood, blatant and percussive in style, somewhat reminiscent of Bartok, and very much influenced by Liszt, for whose music Searle has always had the greatest admiration. Indeed his study of Liszt (The Music of Liszt (Williams and Norgate, 1954) puts forward the hypothesis that Liszt in his later works anticipated the 12-note style. Naturally the influence of Liszt is most markedly felt in piano compositions, such as (apart from the concertos) the Ballade, Op. 10 (1947), and the Sonata, Op. 21 (1951), which was written for a concert on Liszt's anniversary. The Second Piano Concerto, Op. 27, which was first heard at Cheltenham in 1955, is not so much 12-note as freely atonal; its movements are continuous.

Of the symphonies, the first, Op. 23, was written in 1953 for Scherchen, and was cast in a traditional mould. The first movement, for instance, uses sonata form. The series is that of Webern's String Quartet, Op. 28, and consists of a succession of rising thirds, which give the harmony a tonal flavour. The four movements (Lento-Allegro deciso; Adagio; Quasi l'stesso tempo-Allegro molto) are played without a break.

The Second Symphony, Op. 33, followed five years later, in 1958. Its three movements are Maestoso-Allegro motto; Lento; Allegro molto-Lento, solenne. The work ends as it began, and also shows some typical Searle characteristics, such as the gradual build-up of complex chords, which are then sustained and repeated with increasing force. But the contradictions and problems inherent in constructing a large-scale form, such as a symphony, with a style such as Schoenberg's are here very apparent. A note row is by no means the same thing as a theme; there is little distinction between primary and secondary material; and the overriding importance paid to harmony, which was Schoenberg's starting point, not only leads, curiously, to a monotonous chromaticism, which makes a poor substitute for the tonal contrast of the classical sonata form, but also makes for unrelieved heaviness of texture.

The next two symphonies followed at two-year intervals. The Third, Op. 36 (1960), was programmatic; the Fourth, Op. 38 (1962), was fragmentary, after the manner of Boulez. Both are transitional, somewhat exploratory works. It was not until the Fifth Symphony, Op. 43 (1964), that Searle reached that height of achievement towards which he had hitherto been tending. This piece, which was written continuously over a period of three months, June-September 1964, is in memory of Anton Webern, and its sections are illustrative of the different moments in his career. The slow opening (Andante) recalls Webern's youth in the Austrian mountains, and the ensuing Allegro follows his career up to 1914. There is a short Intermezzo, from bar 148-bar 212, to depict his war service, when he undertook a variety of jobs; this is followed by another quick section (Allegro deciso) for that period when he resumed work again, up till the tragic climax of his death. The symphony ends with an Adagio epilogue, balancing the slow introduction.

The symphony succeeds because its effect is consistent with its means. The use of pointillism makes for greater rhythmic interest as well as lighter texture, and great contrast is provided by the serial treatment of the parameters. The composer here exploits those aspects of orchestral composition, particularly tone colour, which are proper and legitimate to his serial style, and avoids those that are foreign to it. In his use of the 12-note style in orchestral composition, a comparison of Searle with Gerhard is highly instructive. Whereas Searle derived his style from his use of the 12-note technique, Gerhard imposed his style on the material, within his chosen context of serialism. Moreover Gerhard moved beyond just pitch-serialism to a much greater extent than Searle.

Searle's first ballet score, The Great Peacock, Op. 34a, was based on his Variations and finale for ten instruments, Op. 34. Each of the ten variations that make up this work shows off one of the instruments, and was written for a particular member of the Virtuoso Chamber Ensemble. The finale brings them together. The ballet was performed at Edinburgh in 1958. Five years later, in 1963 at Wiesbaden, there appeared his next ballet, Dualities, modelled to some extent on Stravinsky's Scènes de Ballet.

But it is in opera that Searle's other main achievement lies, apart from the symphonies. His first opera, The Diary of a Madman, Op. 35, was presented by the indefatigable Hermann Scherchen at the 1958 Berlin Festival. It has since been staged in this country. It is in one act, after the story by the nineteenth-century Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, whose grotesque style is in keeping with the serial idiom. This opera is a grim fantasy, starting with a correspondence between two dogs, and finishing in a lunatic asylum. As with his trilogy for speaker and orchestra, Searle looks to words not just for their direct meaning, or realism, but for their atmosphere and symbolic association. The composer's underlying thought in this and ensuing works is the position of the individual in society. The effects of madness and unreality are further achieved in this work by the use of pre-recorded sound effects.

His next opera, The Photo of the Colonel Op. 41, is a full-length three-act opera. The composer wrote his own libretto, after the story by Eugene lonesco. The work was given a radio performance in this country in 1964, and a stage premiere in Frankfurt in June of the same year. As in the earlier opera, there is symbolism in plenty, though it is sometimes obscure. For instance we can assume, though we are not told, that the killer stands either for death, or an enemy of society, or both.

The composer's total avoidance of key, and total chromaticism, are consistent both in this work, and with the style of his previous opera. He looks to the subconscious world of the imagination as a match for the 12-note style. The words say one thing, mean another, and imply still another. The orchestral accompaniment is entirely subservient to, and independent of; the voices, and consists for the most part of colourful sound-effects, supplemented by the occasional use of pre-recorded sounds, such as breaking glass, traffic noises, water splashing, and so on. Occasionally Searle uses directly representational music, such as the distorted playing of the pub-pianist in the bistro scenes. He experiments with rhythmic speech (the architect), portamento (the drunkard), and a sort of wordless musical chuckle (the killer). The vocal lines are angular, after the manner of serialism, and in the case of the principal character, Bérenger, monotonously so; not till the final scene with the killer does Searle allow the 12-note series, which consists of three groups of four adjacent semitones, to be used step-wise in this crucially important vocal part.

Unfortunately this effect of long-awaited musical relaxation runs directly counter to the dramatic movement, which works up to its climax at that very moment when Bérenger meets the killer; indeed it continues its built-up momentum until after the final curtain.

His third and most ambitious opera, Hamlet, was first seen in Hamburg in 1968. In adapting Shakespeare, Searle has made his Hamlet into a dreamer rather than a revenge-seeker; an interpretation derived from Goethe's Wilhelm Meister.

Clearly everyone has his own idea of Hamlet: and equally clearly no one could turn the whole of Shakespeare's play into an opera. Searle has kept the main lines of the play, omitting a few scenes - the opening ghost scene is replaced by a prelude, with the curtain up, showing the platform - and he has also left out the scene between Polonius and Reynaldo, and the scene where Hamlet rehearses the Players. The scene where Hamlet appears to Ophelia and looks at her for a long time without speaking, is shown in mime, rather than being related by Ophelia; and the scene where Hamlet replaces the King's letter to England, carried by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, with one of his own, is also shown on stage and becomes part of the scene in which Hamlet encounters Fortinbras' army. Otherwise Shakespeare's scenes remain as they are, though of course much reduced in length.

Searle does not see Hamlet as mad: he pretends to be mad to deceive Polonius and the King, and he is liable to fits of ungovernable rage, as in the 'nunnery' scene and the scene where he leaps into Ophelia's grave and struggles with Laertes. He ranges widely in mood, for instance from the elation of 'The play's the thing' to his next appearance with 'To be or not to be', where he is clearly contemplating suicide, even though he knows that the play is to be put on before the King. And from this mood he turns to the sudden fury of the 'nunnery' scene with Ophelia: Searle has followed Dover Wilson's suggestion that in the previous scene Hamlet has overheard the King's plot to set Ophelia at him while the King and Polonius watch the encounter, and this explains his rage against Ophelia. A modern psychologist might call Hamlet cyclothymic.

Searle sees Polonius not just as a tiresome old fool but as a dangerous man, dangerous because stupid and wholly devoted to the King's cause. Similarly he feels that Ophelia should be shown with as much character as possible, and she gradually grows in dramatic power through '0 what a noble mind is here o'erthrown' to the mad scene, in which she is not just the 'airy-fairy' mad girl of some productions but is attacking the other characters, particularly the King and Queen, in revenge for the loss of her father and of Hamlet's love. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern again are not just comic characters: Hamlet is genuinely pleased to see them at first, and only turns against them when he realizes that they, like Ophelia, are being used by the King.

The music is based on a single note-row, which was suggested by the setting of 'To be or not to be'. From this, several themes are derived and associated with the different characters: Hamlet has at least two, as well as a figure on the brass which appears in his moments of rage. The Quieen also has two themes, one representing how she sees herself; and the inversion of this which shows how Hamlet sees her, and is connected with the ideas of lechery, incest and 'country matters'. Hamlet's and the Queen's themes appear in the Prelude: the King's theme first appears at the beginning of the opening Court scene on the bass clarinet, and Laertes' and Polonius' themes are heard soon afterwards. Ophelia's theme first appears on the oboe at the beginning of her scene with Laertes: Horatio's theme is heard on the violas in the previous scene. It bears some resemblance to the Fortinbras theme, though the latter is of course of a more military character. In Ophelia's mad scene Searle has not given her roulades and cadenzas but music more in the style of folk-songs in a modern idiom, which is more suitable to the words. He has set the text in English, but it has been possible to adapt Schlegel's well-known translation to the music without too many changes. The language of the Play Scene, and also of the First Player's speech in Act I, was archaic for Shakespeare's time, and therefore he has written the music for these scenes in a late romantic idiom which is different from that of the rest of the music. In general the orchestration is restrained, with occasional outbursts, and there is little doubling. Hamlet's four chief monologues are each treated in a different way: '0 that this too too solid flesh would melt' is an outburst against the King and Queen when Hamlet is left alone for the first time; '0 what a rogue and peasant slave am I' takes the form of a triple crescendo; 'To be or not to be' is naturally mostly quiet; while 'How all occasions do inform against me' has a more military atmosphere, with Fortinbras' troops passing in the background. There are some moments of parody, as in the Osric scene, and when Hamlet addresses Yorick's skull we hear the faint music of parties long ago.

Searle was, with Elisabeth Lutyens, the first British composer to put into effect the 12-note teaching of the Viennese school. In his work we see clearly the limitations of that school; particularly the limitations of form and structure. He has never moved far beyond the serialisation of pitch that Schoenberg put forward; other elements, such as rhythm, remain very simple in Searle's music; he has certainly never been a follower of Boulez or the later Cologne School, who would say that the style of pitch-serialism is now outmoded. Such is the price of fashion.

Variations of theme and tonality, which the classical composers practised, is replaced in 12-note music by variation of texture, colour, instrumentation. It is in the smaller works, where the possibilities of variety are comparatively limited, that the 12-note composer is starkly confronted with the irreducible raw materials of his art, which admit of no short cuts or gimmicks. A characteristic example of a smaller work is the Three Songs of Jocelyn Brooke, Op. 25, for voice and piano. These songs are atonal, not serial, and the melodic line has all the appearance of a theme except the melodic content; this is a deficiency which no amount of manipulation can disguise. Instead of the richness of the rejected tonal idiom, with its multiplicity of devices for effect and contrast, Searle substitutes the grey, anonymous tones of the standard European composer of the 50's. This feature is not so obvious (though it still exists) in the arrangement of the songs with Chamber Ensemble; nor in other smaller works, such as Oxus, Op. 47, which is a setting of Matthew Arnold's poem, for voice and orchestra. In this piece the semitonal groups which make up the series are given the extra dimension of orchestral colour, and appear as build-up chords, or clusters, at varying dynamic levels. But the fundamental vocal lines are remarkably similar between the two sets of songs. They are typical of the orthodox 12-note style, and, not surprisingly, contain several points in common

When he abandons the strict path of orthodoxy, and admits the warmth, colour and contrast of tonality, Searl reaches the highest level of artistry in small-scale compositions. An example of such a work is The Canticle of the Rose, Op. 46, a setting for unaccompanied mixed chorus of the poem by Edith Sitwell, and written in memory of that poet, to whom he owed so much. Edith Sitwell wrote The Canticle of the Rose when she read that vegetation was beginning to grow at Hiroshima. (Edith Sitwell Selected letters, p.154.)

Apart from his composition, Searle has been extremely active. Since 1965 he has taught at the Royal College of Music, and numbers several promising composers among his pupils. He has been a prolific writer apart from writing three books, he has translated several more, and contributed articles to Grove's Dictionary on Schoenberg. Webern and Liszt. He benefited to some extent from the swing in fashion in the early 6o's, and a number of his works have had radio performance in mind. The theme of the individual in society, which runs through all the operas, extends also to his latest work, a setting of Blake's Jerusalem; a prophetic vision of the ideal society, written during the industrial revolution. Searle has attempted to apply the 12-note style to every category of piece, large or small; and also, as Schoenberg did, to bring his composition into a wider context of human experience than a purely musical one.


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