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  Founder: Len Mullenger


Memoirs By Humphrey Searle

Chapter 16:  "TO BE OR NOT TO BE ?"

We arrived back to find our Ordnance Hill home in chaos. The 'friend" who was occupying the place had not paid any rent for many months, nor had he paid the bill for the telephone, which had consequently been disconnected. He had also let out part of the property to some actors who had fused all the electric power in the studio; and the place was filthy. To make matters worse, I had two visitors on the morning after we returned; I had been asked to write incidental music for Aeschylus' “Prometheus Bound" for Stanford University, and the Dutch director Erik Vos and the English translater Philip Vellacott both came round to discuss the production. Although it was August, the studio was extremely cold and I felt most embarrassed. We eventually obtained a court order against our “friend", but no money from him; he has since died, unmourned by me.

I had been invited by Sir Keith Faulkner, the Director of the Royal College of Music, to join the College's professorial staff in 1964. I had been unable to accept because of the visit to Stanford, but he kept the appointment open and I started working there in the autumn of 1965. Keith was formerly a singer and a British Council official in Rome and had taught at Cornell University for ten years. He certainly made an enormous difference to the College; by starting an electronic studio, a Contemporary Music Workshop, a wind symphony orchestra and a jazz band, he managed to bring the College into the 20th century at last, in contrast to the conservatism of his two immediate predecessors. I have been happy to teach there ever since.

Meanwhile I had started on "Hamlet". I had worked out a rough libretto while we were in Mexico; it mostly meant cutting although I dramatised the two scenes mentioned above. I started on the music in the summer of 1965, while staying with the Schilders and the Weinstocks. I based the whole work on a basic series which I derived from the setting of “To be or not to be", and from this series I drew themes associated with the various characters in the play. Thus the music has a kind of symphonic form and is not purely an accompaniment to the action. It took me until early in 1968 to complete the whole opera, in between bouts of other work. In addition to the "Prometheus” music for Stanford, 1 had been asked to write a work for the Cork Choral Festival. They had originally wanted it for May 1963, but part of the bargain was that the composer should be present at a seminar at which his or her work was analysed as well as at the performance, which was impossible while I was in Stanford. So I wrote a work for the 1966 Festival instead; Edith Sitwell had died in November 1964 and, in her memory, I set her poem "The Canticle of the Rose", a companion poem to "The Shadow of Cain", but much shorter. This setting was also performed at the 1966 Aldeburgh Festival at a concert given in her honour; Britten, Tippett and Malcolm Williamson had all written settings of other poems of hers.

The Cork Festival is rather a curious one; the concerts are enormously long and contain much folk-song and dance. Performers come not only from Ireland but from all over the world. The enterprising Festival Director, Dr. Aloys Fleischmann, an Irishman in spite of his name, commissions three or four new choral works every year, usually one from Ireland, one from Britain and one or two from Continental composers. These are analysed with great expertise by Dr. Fleischmann in morning seminars and performed in the evenings, often incongruously surrounded by Gaelic piping or Bulgarian folk dancing. The atmosphere is informal and cheerful, and there is usually refreshment after the concerts in the Lord Mayor's Parlour. Distinguished visitors to the Festival in 1966 included Sir Robert and Lady Mayer (she was Dorothy Moulton, the singer), Sir Robert was then in his late 80s but his wife insisted on him driving the three of us to the concert hall in teeming rain before parking the car. He took it very cheerfully.

Fiona's mother came over from South Africa that year and, in the summer, the three of us went to Malta for a short holiday. Although the climate there is splendid, it is not a very interesting island; there are few trees and the food mostly resembles NAAFI rations, but we had good meals at an Italian restaurant somewhat curiously called The British. There are however many handsome buildings on the island, especially in Valletta and Mdina. 1966 was the year that Britain won the World Soccer Cup, beating Germany in the final. The victory was very popular with the Maltese, who remembered the German bombardment of the island during the war and after the match, Union Jacks were to be seen in all the streets and draped over every car.

Early in 1967, William Glock asked me to write a vocal work for that year's Proms. I decided to set the lines about the river Oxus which form the epilogue to Matthew Arnold's long narrative poem "Sohrab and Rustum", preceded by an orchestral passage depicting the battle between the two champions. I saw the river as a symbol of life, carrying on despite all the ravages of war.

In the summer, no doubt through the influence of Milhaud, I was invited to be a guest composer at the summer festival in Aspen, Colorado. Walter Susskind, who was the chief conductor at the Festival, came to see me in London and we decided on a programme of some of my works which would be performed there. He was to conduct my 5th symphony, “The Diary of a Madman” and the Poem for 22 Strings, while I was to conduct "Put away the Flutes" and the Jocelyn Brooke songs in the version with chamber ensemble. Before going to Aspen we flew direct to San Francisco and spent three weeks with our friends in that area, including a splendid weekend party at Bill and Karen Crawford's rented home at Lafayette. We then flew on to Denver and changed on to a small plane which rose spectacularly above the mountains towards Aspen, 8,000 feet above sea level. In the winter, Aspen is a well-known ski resort; in the summer a number of students and professors, many from the Juilliard School in New York but some also from other parts of the States meet here for summer courses and performances. In the orchestra, the principals are professional players while the students sit in the back desks, but they achieve a very high standard of performance. The presiding genius was Milhaud, assisted by Charles Jones from New York; the atmosphere was cheerful and friendly. Most of the concerts take place in a large tent, which sometimes gets cold at night but “The Diary of a Madman" was given in the 19th century opera house, all plush

With Bill and Karen Crawford          

and velvet and a real period piece. Madeleine Milhaud produced it very ably, and all the singers and the orchestra were students; I was most impressed. The orchestral performances under Walter Susskind also went well and the whole enterprise was well worth while. Among the musicians we met there was Rolf Persinger, the principal viola of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, and son of the well-known violinist Louis Persinger. We went on a terrifying journey through the mountains with Rolf's wife Arden and their young son, driven in a hired jeep by Agnes Albert, our hostess from San Francisco; the road, pretty rough to start with petered out altogether at the top of the crest (about 14,000 feet high) and we had to scramble down over a series of rocky tracks; I didn't think we were ever going to get home. In later years we visited the Persingers at their beautiful house at Tiburon, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, and they came to see us in London when his orchestra was on a European tour.

Rolf Persinger & HS, Tiburon, San Francisco, 1967

During the Aspen season the Milhauds threw several large parties for the students and visiting musicians. At one of these, Madeleine noticed that Fiona was wearing a miniature gold cable car on a chain around her neck, together with a small crucifix and St. Christopher medal. "Quel sacrilege!" said Madeleine, "to wear that thing with your cross and medal". "Nonsense”, retorted Fiona, "the cable cars are pretty miraculous themselves. Besides, it was a present from Alta, a very good friend of mine". Madeleine said nothing more, but the following evening at yet another party they were giving, she beckoned Fiona over and handed her a jeweller's box which contained a small gold aspen leaf. "If you can wear that vulgar car around your neck’ cherie, you shall also wear this in memory of your time in Aspen . Fiona was delighted and wears it to this day.

From Aspen we flew to New York, and thence to London for the first performance of "Oxus" at the Proms, with the excellent Gerald English as the soloist. After that I was asked by Liebermann to go to Hamburg and play "Hamlet" through to the singers who were going to perform it; by then I had written the first two acts and the first scene of the third. Fortunately Tom Krause was free to undertake the title role, and Liebermann had assembled a strong cast, with Ronald Dowd as Claudius and Kerstin Meyer as Gertrude; Ophelia was sung by Sylvia Anderson, the American wife of Matthias Kuntzch who was to conduct the premiere. The fact that none of the singers appeared to be horrified by the music augured well for the performance. We agreed that the opera should be sung in German; Hans Keller and Paul Hamburger made a good singing version based on the well-known Schlegel translation. I had a meeting in London with the director August Everding, then of the Munich Kammerspiele and later to succeed Liebermann as Intendant of the Hamburg Opera, and the young Swiss designer, Toni Businger, who was responsible for the sets and costumes. Meanwhile, I was working hard to get the full score finished, which I managed to do by the end of January 1968; the Hamburg production was billed for the following March.

While I was in Hamburg, the BBC had decided to put on a concert of my chamber and choral music in the Concert Hall at Broadcasting House and asked me to write a new piece for chamber ensemble for the occasion; I wrote a piece called Progressions, which begins slowly but gradually increases in speed towards a central climax. Here I inserted some of the new effects for woodwind - chords and harmonies - described by Bartolozzi in his book "New Sounds for Woodwinds", but I subsequently replaced these by a more normal improvised cadenza for wind instruments. When Peter Mennin, the director of the Juilliard School of Music in New York, later asked me to write a larger chamber work for his school, I flanked Progressions with two further movements, Themes and Contrasts, making the work into a Sinfonietta for chamber ensemble which was first performed at the Juilliard School in May 1970, apparently with success.

I returned to Hamburg for the final rehearsals of Hamlet. The costumes were all in black and white, and so were the sets, which were ingenious, if somewhat clinical. Revolving panels had mirrors on one side and these were most effective in the play scene, when they were lit up by torches held by the courtiers. Both Tom Krause and the Laertes, Willy Hartmann are expert fencers - the latter was indeed the fencing champion of Denmark at the time - and so the duel scene in the last act was considerably extended; had I known about this in advance I would have written some extra music for it, instead of having several bars repeated many times, but by the time I got to Hamburg it was too late to make changes. However the duel was most exciting visually. The first performance was sold out; it went extremely well and was a success with the public. The reactions of the critics were mixed, the English ones being more enthusiastic than the Germans who are inclined to regard Shakespeare as their own property. Tom Krause was too exhausted to sing in the second performance two days later - it is a very long part - so we went off to Paris and returned in the summer to see another performance. Liebermann kept the opera in the repertoire for quite some time, and included it in the 1969 ISCM Festival in Hamburg.

"Hamlet" at Hamburg 1968
from left to right
unidentified, Fiona Searle, Humphrey Searle, Rolf Liebermann

Meanwhile I had been approached by the writer Heike Doutine, who lives in Hamburg, to collaborate with her in a ballet for which she had written the scenario; it was about the letters of the alphabet and their behaviour in different circumstances, which sounds a bit unpromising but could have been quite dramatic. Heike, of Huguenot extraction, was known as a poet when she was young; in Hamburg I had several meetings with her and her husband Marcus Scholz, a TV producer. Over the next few years we explored the possibilities of getting the ballet put on; the chief problem was to find a choreographer who could tackle the fairly elaborate scenario. Eventually we found a choreographer from the Royal Ballet who was willing to undertake it and we all went over to Paris to see Liebermann, who by this time had become the Director of the Paris Opera. A date was fixed for the first performance to take place in Hamburg; the money for the production was found but, when the stage technicians refused to work overtime on a new production, the whole project collapsed. Fiona and I have nevertheless remained friends of Heike and Marcus and we have seen each other often in Hamburg, London and elsewhere. Heike has since written several novels, some of which have been translated into English, including one called "A German Requiem".

When Sir Georg Solti at Covent Garden saw a piano score of "Hamlet", he is reputed to have said "I can't read it, but I like it", and Covent Garden decided to put it on in the spring of 1969. A slight contretemps followed; in the summer of 1968 the Hamburg Opera Company were coming to the Edinburgh Festival and intended to bring Sandy Goehr's "Arden Must Die' and my “Hamlet” with them. Naturally Covent Garden wanted to have the first British performance of "Hamlet"; I was torn between loyalties to Liebermann, who after all had commissioned the work, and the desire to have a work on a Shakespearian text performed in English at our premier opera house. Eventually the problem was solved by the fact that the Hamburg decor for both operas was too large to fit the stage of the King's Theatre, that bugbear of many Edinburgh Festivals, and the Hamburg company substituted other operas.

In the summer of 1968 Fiona, her mother (who spoke perfect French) and I spent a pleasant holiday at a village in Provence, and I began revising "Hamlet” for the Covent Garden production. While we were there we heard the appalling news of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia and the crushing of Dubcek's "Prague Spring". Apart from feeling enormous sympathy for tbe unhappy Czechs, I was personally involved, as I had been invited to go to Budapest in the autumn to see Sandor Szokolay's "Hamlet", and Hungarian troops were participating, probably rather reluctantly, in the invasion. As I felt I could not go to Budapest while Hungarian troops were on Czech soil, I put off the visit.

Anthony Besch, who had produced "The Diary of a Madman" at Sadler's Wells in 1960, had been invited to direct the Opera School at the Toronto Royal Conservatory for the winter of 1968-9, and he proposed to put on the first English language performance of "Hamlet" in February. Covent Garden did not object to being anticipated, perhaps because Toronto is a long way away, and because it was being performed by students; Anthony was keen that I should go over for the production but there was a question of raising the money for the fare. Fortunately he was able to arrange some lectures for me and I was also helped by an old friend, Hugh Davidson, whom I had met many years earlier through Gordon Watson. Hugh by this time had risen to an important position in the CBC in Toronto, and he not only promised me some broadcasts but invited Fiona and me to stay in his house there. And so we were able to go.

I didn't like Toronto very much. It seemed rather flat and provincial and in February it was freezing cold. However we were given generous hospitality and were made to feel welcome by many friends. On our first Saturday night in Toronto, Hugh's house was burgled while we were out and a number of things were stolen including Fiona’s passport. We were just reporting this to the British Consul in some agitation, as we were intending to visit the USA on the way home, when a smiling Negro appeared with the missing passport; apparently he had found it discarded on a rubbish dump a mile away from the house, and he had discovered our address from the visa inside it. Although the next day was Sunday, Hugh actually managed to get a glazier round to repair the damage caused by the burglar, which would have been unthinkable in England; we had to go out again that evening and, when we returned, found that the house had been burgled again before the putty had had time to dry. Some of the property was later recovered and the thief, who turned out to be a l5 year-old boy, was caught.

Among old friends I met Dr. Boyd Neel, who had conducted the first English performance of my Poem for 22 Strings at the Cheltenham Festival in 1951 and was now Dean of the Conservatory, and among new ones the very gifted Canadian composer Harry Somers and his wife Barbara; we spent a long evening at their house in a discussion about modern music which was recorded by the CBC. At the Conservatory the rehearsals went well; Hamlet was sung by a young professional baritone from New Zealand, Donald Rutherford, but the other parts were sung by students, with the exception of the veteran Welsh singer Howell Glynne, who was now a member of the Faculty and who took the part of the Ghost, singing off-stage while a vast projection of the head of Hamlet's father appeared on the backcloth. The conductor was the excellent Victor Feldbrill; the only difficulty in casting was with Osric, a part which calls for a high tenor, and there was none in the Opera School. I suggested that the part might be taken by a counter-tenor, and there was one, a tall slim negro who appeared in an elegant white suit and a cowboy hat. John Stoddard designed a very effective permanent set and costumes which were described as "Elizabethen mod" - mostly black and white and with a good deal of use of furs, which certainly emphasised the chilly atmosphere of Elsinore.

The performances went very well and we had an excellent Ophelia in Ricky Turovsky. There was a double cast for most of the parts and it was astonishing what the students achieved in a work which is not at all easy. The audiences seemed to like it and the performances were well attended.

William Mann, then the chief music critic of the London Times, was in the USA at the time. He came to the first night of "Hamlet" in Toronto and later wrote a very nice notice of it, as he had done of the Hamburg performance. Before we left Toronto Hugh Davidson drove us to see the Niagara Falls, a truly awe-inspiring sight, especially as in mid-winter the falls were half frozen over. Arthur Schilder's job had been moved from California to Maryland, about 40 miles south of Washington and I discovered that it would cost us very little more to return to London via Washington than if we flew direct. So we took the opportunity of spending ten days with the Schilders in their new home in tobacco country - very different from the Californian landscape, but extremely agreeable in its way. The Schilders had already made many new friends there, some of them from the U.S. naval base at Annapolis; we were lavishly entertained and it was marvellous to see our old friends again.

Back in London, preparations were being made for the Covent Garden production of "Hamlet". As Tom Krause was not available, the Canadian baritone Victor Braun had been engaged to sing Hamlet, with Donald Rutherford as his understudy. Ronald Dowd was Claudius, as in Hamburg; Patricia Johnson was Gertrude and Anne Howells, Ophelia. - The Laertes was David Hughes, a pop singer who had transferred to opera with admirable results; unfortunately he died very young. The conductor was Edward Downes, a former pupil of Scherchen whom I had known for many years; as producer, I suggested Donald McWhinnie, with whom I had worked several times for TV and radio and also in his stage production of "The Duchess of Malfi" for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Donald brought in the experienced artist Leslie Hurry to design the decor and costumes; he had already designed "Hamlet' as a play and as a ballet, but the operatic dimension was new for him. He constructed a permanent set which proved very satisfactory and included projections on the backcloth.

Together with Donald McWhinnie and Edward Downes, I had been asked to give a preliminary talk on "Hamlet" to the Friends of Covent Garden, who had provided some of the money for the production. I had expected about twenty or thirty people to turn up, as is usual on such occasions, and was alarmed to find the Opera House completely packed! I spoke for a short time, Donald spoke for an even shorter time, and then Edward Downes made up for our brevity by running through a good deal of the opera, with extracts sung by some of the cast with piano. I went to most of the final rehearsals with stage and orchestra; Donald Rutherford sat in on most of them, but one day I was worried to find that he was not there - he had had the bad luck to be stricken with encephalitis. However, Victor Braun seemed to be in good voice, and all went well up to the end of the final rehearsal; the first night also went well and I think was a success. But I afterwards heard that Victor Braun was losing his voice, although he insisted on finishing his performance. After it, he immediately flew to Munich to see his doctor; Covent Garden had planned six performances of the opera and we were all on tenterhooks to hear when Victor Braun would be well enough to sing - it was out of the question, of course, for Donald Rutherford to perform, and nobody else knew the part except Tom Krause, who was in America. Three performances were cancelled - "Not To Be" was the headline in one newspaper - and then it was announced that Victor Braun would be returning to London to sing in the fifth planned performance. By the end of the first act, at the point where Hamlet has to sing a high G flat on the words "0 vengeance!" it was clear that all was not well with his voice. But he continued to the end of the act and we all trooped out for the interval. When we returned to our seats, the orchestra was in place, but the curtain did not go up. Instead Edward Downes walked on in front of it and announced that Victor Braun's voice had gone and that the rest of the performance would have to be cancelled - and of course the sixth performance also had to be cancelled. We had asked some friends in the audience to come to our house after the show, but we put them off, and Donald McWhinnie, Fiona and I drowned our sorrows as best we could, with the slight consolation that, as Edward Downes told me, Covent Garden might be able to revive “Hamlet" two years later. All the same, to have had three different productions of "Hamlet” within a year was very fortunate.

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