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Memoirs By Humphrey Searle


I had enjoyed Winchester, and though I realised afterwards that the teaching tended to develop our brains at the expense of our knowledge of the outside world, especially for those of us who were scholars, and a good many of my schoolfellows opted out of the struggle for existence by becoming dons or civil servants. I went up to Oxford with mixed feelings - I loved the city and was glad to be back, but I was not allowed to do the one thing I really wanted to do, and I felt that the next four years were going to be a waste of time. My mother came with me to Oxford and introduced me to some people whom she and my father had known before the First World War, including the venerable poet and translator from the Greek, Gilbert Murray, and my father's old classical tutor, H.W.B. Joseph. The latter was now in retirement in a remote part of North Oxford; he issued an invitation to me - "Come to breakfast one Sunday; on Sundays we don't have breakfast till eight". I don't think I ever accepted it.

aged 19

My tutor for the first, mainly classical part of the course (Mods) was Henry Ludwig Henderson, a somewhat pedantic scholar with a strong Teutonic accent. However he was a good teacher, and I managed to get a second class in the exam, which was at least respectable. Socially Oxford was pleasant; some of my friends, including Robert Irving, had come on from Winchester, and I made some new ones, some of them for life. These included Maurice Latey, later Head of External Services at the B.B.C., and Stephen Swingler, the Labour M.P. who unfortunately died too early. The organist of New College, Dr. Sydney Watson, was very helpful to me and gave me some harmony lessons, as well as introducing me to Verdi, for which I shall always be grateful to him. One of my most moving experiences was playing the bass drum in Verdi's "Requiem" under his direction; the chorus and orchestra were amateurs and the soloists only semi- professional, but somehow this was an unforgettable concert.

I joined the Oxford Musical Club and Union, and there met new friends such as Joseph Cooper, now the popular chairman of the B.B.C. Television programme, Face the Music, the conductor Trevor Harvey and the singer Basil Douglas. I did little in the way of original composition, but made an arrangement for two pianos of my school composition, combined with another piece which I had written in the subsequent holidays; this was performed at the OUMCU by Joe and Trevor. I also made some arrangements of Chopin and Russian music for a ballet mounted by the O.U. Russian Club, an organisation mainly of White Russians, which was cultural and non-political. I joined the O.U. Opera Club, becoming its secretary at one time; one of our members was Edward Heath, then organ scholar at Balliol. We put on operas which were rarely performed elsewhere, such as Dvorak's "The Devil and Kate" and Rameau's "Castor and Pollux". We also gave concerts, in one of which we put on an early performance of Constant Lambert's "The Rio Grande" not long after it had been written; Trevor Harvey conducted, Joe Cooper played the solo piano part and Robert Irving the percussion. I sang in the chorus. I also took a few harmony and counterpoint lessons at my own expense) at the Music School, but as the training turned out to be rather academic, I soon gave the lessons up. I learnt a lot, however, from the weekly visits of Sir Hugh Allen, who was Professor of Music at Oxford as well as Director of the Royal College of Music in London. He used to play us classical and romantic works at his class, and I was particularly impressed by the late songs of Schubert, the "Schwanengesang", which I had never heard before. He had rooms in New College, so I was able to visit him-there now and then to discuss music.
When I progressed to the second part of my course, Greats, which mostly consisted of philosophy from Plato and Aristotle to the modern Cambridge philosophers (though Wittgenstein was not yet included) I had the good fortune to have as my tutor Isaiah Berlin, who was not much older than myself. Apart from being one of the most brilliant men I have ever met, he was and is a keen music-lover, and he was sympathetic to me in my predicament. Provided that the essays I had to write for him were competent he did not demand too much, and together we even formed a small private musical society which invited distinguished scholars such as Dr. Alfred Einstein, the Mozart expert, to address it. So I was able to continue my philosophical studies, even if in a half-hearted way, while also undertaking a certain amount of musical activity. I even wrote a few songs in 1935 during the vacation, settings of Shelley and Verlaine and two of James Joyce's early chamber music poems. I was already interested in Joyce at that time.
Oxford had long outgrown the "Bright Young Things" of Evelyn Waugh's time, though there were still a number of playboy undergraduates who owed their presence there to wealth rather than academic distinction, and we were overshadowed by the political ideas of Auden, Spender, MacNeice and Day Lewis, and, still more, by the political situation which had brought those ideas into being. Anyone with any sense could see what Hitler's advent to power in 1933 would mean, and this was reinforced by the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and by Mussolini's invasion of Abyssinia. In England the Tories were friendly with Hitler and Mussolini and the Labour Party buried its head in a pacifist sand. Only the Communist parties in all countries were resisting Fascism, and a good many left-wing intellectuals joined them for that reason. I didn't go as far as that, but the threat posed by fascism abroad, reinforced by the memory of the two million unemployed as a result of the Great Depression, the hunger marchers who came down from the North, and the Tory Government's cynical refusal to do anything to help the workers, turned me from a conservative into a socialist. Maurice Latey and I took part in several left-wing demonstrations in Oxford and also in Paris, which at that time had a "Front Populaire" socialist-communist government. And I have remained a supporter of Labour ideals ever since.

This visit to Paris was in 1936; two years earlier I had been sent to learn French on the estate of my Belgian cousins at Mirwart in the Ardennes. They had a large 18th-century chateau there which they used for summer holidays from Antwerp. My Grandfather Schlich and one of his Belgian cousins had bought it early in the century, and they both took their families there, including-my mother, uncle and aunts as children. This time I did not stay in the chateau itself but in the house of the estate manager and his wife, and so was compelled to speak French all the time, which was very good for me. In the same summer (1934) my brother Michael and I went for a walking tour in Alsace. We had wanted to go to the Salzburg Festival, but the Austrian Chancellor Dollfuss had recently been assassinated, and we were not allowed to go to Austria for fear of war. If there had been a war then Alsace would hardly have been a healthy place to be in!

In 1935 Toscanini came to London to conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra for the first time. (He had visited England with the New York Philharmonic in 1930 and I heard part of his performance of the "Eroica" on earphones in the dormitory at Winchester; I had never heard such clarity and power). Sir Hugh Allen gave Sydney Watson tickets for one of Toscanini's London concerts, and to my delight Sydney asked me to go to the concert with him. We had excellent seats in the front row of the circle in the old Queen's Hall; the programme included Debussy's "La Mer" and Brahms' 4th symphony, and the performances were a revelation to me. Every detail was in place, the texture was brilliantly clear, power and delicacy were present when needed, and Toscanini remained absolutely faithful to the score. I noticed this particularly in the Brahms, which I knew fairly well from other performances and had never liked very much; now I realised that this was the way the music was meant to be played, and it thoroughly convinced me. Even a small point such as the end of the first movement, where most conductors make a ritardando on the drumbeats, but which Toscanini kept in strict tempo, struck me as absolutely right and what Brahms intended; indeed he marked no ritardando in the score. Since then I have been a devoted fan of Toscanini, even if we now mostly have to rely on records which he made in his eighties.

Shortly before this something happened which was to change the whole course of my musical life; while staying at Robert Irving's father's house in Winchester - he was a housemaster and the senior French master at the College - I heard on the radio the first English performance of Berg's "Wozzeck", given by the BBC Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult. I was utterly shaken by the power of the music, and was determined to find out more about Berg. I knew very little about atonal or twelve-note music. In fact the only authoritative article on it at that time, by Schoenberg's pupil Erwin Stein, was published in German in an obscure Viennese periodical. Robert had shown me Schoenberg's Suite for Piano Op.25, and I couldn't make much sense of it. However soon after the "Wozzeck" performance a former pupil of Berg's arrived in Oxford as a refugee from Germany. He was Theodor Wiesengrund-Adorno, a small, stout man with a huge bald cranium, a wide sensual mouth and thick pebble glasses. He had written a number of highly intellectual articles on music, philosophy and sociology; but he was by no means forbidding socially; he enjoyed jokes, and his performance of "Miss Otis Regrets" in a guttural German accent were hilarious. He was very helpful to me in my desire to learn about twelve-note music, and also later on when I was trying to make up my mind about a career. He went to America shortly before the war, and while in California he enraged Schoenberg by acting as adviser on twelve-note composition to Thomas Mann, who was then writing his book "Dr. Faustus", the story of a twelve-note composer who went mad through syphilis. In 1935 I went to Munich to stay with a German family in order to improve my German, but I didn't like the Nazi atmosphere at all. The streets were full of Storm Troopers lounging about and pushing people off the pavements to make way for them. There was a plaque in one street in memory of a Nazi who had been killed in the 1923 Munich putsch; everyone was supposed to give a Nazi salute when passing this, but most foreigners chatted loudly in their own languages and took no notice. I suspected the woman in whose flat I was staying, the widow of an army officer, of being an ardent Nazi, and I soon went on to Salzburg, where I stayed with the same Austrian family as had my friends Trevor Harvey and Basil Douglas. There I attended numerous events at the Festival, including Toscanini's incredible "Falstaff" at the Festspielhaus and Reinhardt's open-air production of Goethe's -"Faust" in the Felsenreitschule. I also went to a fine performance of Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique in the Mozarteum under Felix von Weingartner, who was the most renowned conductor of the Beethoven symphonies in the 1930s, much as Klemperer was at a later time. But Weingartner had been a pupil of Liszt, and knew the romantic tradition well. In fact he made the first electrical recording of the Berlioz - the sound was not good but the performance was most exciting. On the way back from Salzburg I stopped in Munich again for a few days. Richard Strauss was conducting some of his operas on the occasion of his 70th birthday and I saw him perform "Salome" and "Elektra". He was a small man, and he sat down to conduct, but he got extraordinary results with very tiny gestures and it was wonderful to hear a really authentic interpretation of the score.

Berlioz had been a favourite composer of mine since my schooldays, but he was not very popular at that time; he was frowned upon by the academic authorities and performances of his works were rare. But I remember a magnificent occasion when Sir Hamilton Harty, whose devotion to Berlioz was even greater than Beecham's, conducted the "Requiem" and the "Symphonic Funèbre et Triomphale" in the Queen's Hall. It was a most exciting evening, and the audience simply would not let Harty go. Needless to say, the critics next day tried to make out that the concert had been a failure, and I was able to counteract this in an article on the Symphonie which J.A. Westrup, to whom I had been given an introduction by Sydney Watson, printed in the Monthly Musical Record. This was my first published article; I have never found it difficult to write about music, though I don't claim any originality as a writer. At any rate writing articles from time to time has often helped me tide over difficult financial periods.

Sir Hugh Allen was taking an interest in my compositions at the time; he did not pretend to understand modern music, and said: "Show them to a really modern composer". He gave me an introduction to William Walton, then a leading composer, with Constant Lambert, of the younger generation. Britten was only just beginning to be heard of, and Rawsthorne and Tippett had not yet appeared on the scene. Walton was very kind; he looked at my songs and an overture which I had sketched out and gave me encouragement, which was what I needed. He did not pretend to know much about twelve-note music; apart from Adorno, who was a theorist rather than a composer, and Matyas Seiber, whom I did not know, (and at that time had not even heard of) there was no-one in England to whom I could turn for knowledge of that subject. Roberto Gerhard and Egon Wellesz did not come to Eland till 1938 or later.

I saw Walton again in 1936, when he came to Oxford and actually delivered a speech - a rare event for him - on the subject of Bernard van Dieren's "The Tailor", an opera with a libretto by Robert Nichols of which the Oxford Opera Club was intending to give the first performance. Hyam Greenbaum, the conductor of the BBC Television Orchestra and the husband of the harpist Sidonie Goossens, had agreed to conduct, and we had actually begun rehearsals, as the piano score didn't look to difficult. But when the full score arrived it turned out to be written for a large chamber ensemble rather than a normal orchestra, and it contained a number of very complicated passages which our amateur players simply could not cope with. So the production had to be shelved, ( and indeed the opera has not been performed to this day); this was a great pity, as van Dieren died in the same year at the age of only 48 - he had suffered from kidney disease for some time. So I never met him; but one can tell from his book "Down among the dead men" that he must have been a remarkable man. Later I met his widow, Frida Kindler, who had been a pupil of Busoni,  and we were friends for many years.
My father retired in 1936, as he was allowed to draw his full pension from the age of 48 onwards; he had bought a house in Beckley called Anfield on the top of the hill above the Scotts' house. Before his return he had let it to a colleague from Burma, an army doctor who held the rank of Colonel. When the Colonel died in the house we discovered two pistols among his effects, and it was my job to take them down to the village policeman, a large, red-faced, cheerful character. "Are they loaded?" he asked. I didn't know, so the policeman pointed the heavier pistol at the floor of his office and pulled the trigger. There was a loud explosion and a small hole appeared in the floor. The policeman evidently knew as little about small arms as I did, for instead of unloading the pistols he fired off the remaining shots into his cabbage patch.

The family moved into Annfield after my parents' return, but I wasn't there very much; apart from the Oxford terms I did some tutoring work and occasional reading parties during the vacation, though my 21st birthday was celebrated with a big family party at Annfield. The House had an outsize shed which we used as a studio; it contained Grandfather Searle's piano which was left to me after his death, and an outsize bookcase for books and music (I have both of them to this day). It was a pleasant house, and of course my brothers and I enjoyed having our parents home.
1936 was the 50th anniversary of the death of Liszt. I had previously underrated this composer, having been taught that he was "flashy and vulgar", but in 1936 three things happened which opened my eyes to his importance. My friend Ronald Crichton introduced me to the "Annés de Pélerinage",beautiful and original lyrical pieces which are certainly neither flashy nor vulgar; I read Sacheverell Sitwell's biography of Liszt published two years earlier, which gives a fascinating picture of Liszt's character and the times in which he lived, and the Vic-Wells Ballet put on "Apparitions" to music by Liszt, chosen by Constant Lambert mostly from Liszt's late experimental pieces and skilfully orchestrated by Gordon Jacob - the young Margot Fonteyn was the leading ballerina. I decided to put on a concert in honour of the anniversary in Oxford, a city more devoted to the veneration of Brahms and Joachim; the latter had visited Oxford many times, and his memory was kept alive in the musical soirees given by the Misses Deneke in their enormous house in Norham Road. I wrote to Constant Lambert, whom I had never met, and asked him if he would be willing to conduct the "Malediction" for piano and strings, a remarkable work which had only been published thirty years after Liszt's death and had not yet had a public performance in England. He promptly accepted the invitation, although I could only offer him an expense fee, and wrote me a most helpful letter about the programme which is reproduced in Richard Shead's biography of Lambert*.

* Constant Lambert, by Richard Shead. Simon Publications, London 1973.

The concert took place in the Carfax Assembly Rooms on November 8, 1936; the programme was as follows:

Five Pieces from the Weihnachtsbaum Suite for piano
Carillon - Abendglocken - Jadis - Hongroise - Polnisch.
Sydney Watson, piano
Romance Oubliée, arranged for string quartet and piano by Humphrey Searle
John Kirby - Anna Boyd -Stella Harvey - Phyllis Woodward - Humphrey Searle
La Lugubre Gondola
Csárdás Macabre (First performance)
Robert Irving, piano
Grand Galop Chromatique, arranged for two pianos, eight hands by János Végh
Sydney Watson - Philip Cranmer - John Gardner - Humphrey Searle
Mephisto Waltz No 3, for piano duet
Sydney Watson - Humphrey Searle
Schlaflos, Frage und Antwort
Sydney Watson, piano
Nuages Gris and Tarantella (Dargomijsky - Liszt)
John Gardner, piano
Recitation, Der Traurige Monch
David King-Wood - John Gardner
Malediction for piano and strings (first public performance in England)
Robert Irving, piano

I formed a small string orchestra of Oxford residents and undergraduates, including my brother Michael, and we rehearsed the "Malediction" in a kind Lady's drawing-room. I enlisted the help of my friends; Robert Irving, who had gone down from Oxford, agreed to return to play the solo part in the "Malediction" and also to give the first performance of the "Csardas Macabre" which I had come across in the British Museum. Sydney Watson and John Gardner also agreed to takepart, and another friend, the actor David King-Wood, recited "Der Traurige Monch" in German. Janos Vegh was a friend of Liszt and his successor as Director of the Budapest Music Academy, so presumably his arrangement of the "Grand Galop Chromatique" was authorised by Liszt. At any rate it caused a furore and had to be repeated; this was made funnier by the fact that we were playing on one grand and one upright piano. For the encore we changed over, like football teams at half-time. The concert was a great success; not only was it sold out, which I hardly expected to happen in Oxford, but a number of distinguished people came to it - Sacheverell and Georgia Sitwell who brought with them the great Liszt interpreter Louis Kentner and his pianist wife Ilona Kabos, Lord Berners, Cecil Gray, the well-known writer on music, and the actor and singer Gavin Gordon who composed the ballet "The Rake's Progress". The "Malediction" went extremely well; Robert played brilliantly and the strings performed with spirit, if sometimes with uncertain intonation in the more difficult passages. I think Constant Lambert was pleased with the result. I had met him a few times before the concert to discuss the programme, and we had an interesting correspondence which I reproduce in part here:


Your Liszt concert sounds most interesting-and if you think your local strings can manage "Malediction" I should be pleased to conduct it (if free). As regards the piano pieces I don't know the 4th Mephisto nor the csardas. The Mephisto-Polka is a poor piece hardly worth doing. The 3rd Mephisto on the other hand is a masterpiece and though almost impossible for two hands makes a good duet. I should also include "Nuages Gris" and some of the short later pieces. You can find the best of the later Liszt in vols. 9-10 of the collected edition. As regards the Boccherini ballet I should like to see it but doubt if any ballet less than twenty-five minutes is a practical proposition at the Wells.

(The last sentence refers to the Boccherini "Ballet Espagnol", an interesting work of which I had brought back a photocopy from Germany. It indeed proved to be too short for the Wells).

He wrote again on October 5th; (this is the letter which is reproduced in Richard Shead's book). His last letter of November 1st was mostly about trains, rehearsal times, etc., but I can count myself lucky to have had three letters from him, as he was never a good correspondent. This was the beginning of a friendship which lasted till his death in 1951. At that time he was not only one of the two leading young British composers, but also the brilliant author of "Music Ho!", published two years previously, and the musical director of the Vic-Wells Ballet which had been founded by Ninette de Valois in 1932. She had been a member of Diaghilev's company and, like Diaghilev, she insisted on high musical standards for the ballet; she would not have the hackneyed l9th-century divertissement music to which dancers loved to show off. She found an admirable partner in Constant Lambert whose musical taste was both impeccable and original. He would find a composer to write a new score, adapt older music which was suitable for the purpose and, having a very wide knowledge of painting and literature, would see that the three arts were properly combined with the choreography. He was also one of the best conductors for ballet there has ever been and, during the war, when no orchestra was available, he accompanied the ballets on the piano. I shall have more to say about him later.

I was very keen on ballet at the time. My mother and I were often taken by a family friend to see the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo perform at the old Alhambra Theatre in Leicester Square. This company had inherited most of the repertoire of Diaghilev's company, including choreography, decor, costumes and a good many of the dancers, such as Massine, Lichine, Woizikovsky and Danilova, as well as younger dancers like Baronova, Riabouchinska and Toumanova. Their standards of dancing were extremely high and they created many new ballets of their own, including Massine's famous "symphonic ballets" Choreartium, Symphonie Fantastique and Seventh Symphony. I was too young to have known the Diaghilev Ballet, so this was a link with the past for me, and an exciting experience it proved to be. At this stage I really knew more about ballet than opera, for I had only seen rather obscure operas at Oxford, and Covent Garden tickets were far too expensive for students to afford.

A number of celebrated pianists gave recitals in Oxford while I was there, usually in the Town Hall, which is not the most comfortable hall in the world. However I enjoyed hearing Moriz Rosenthal, who had been a pupil of Liszt and played in the grand manner; he was a short, squat man with enormous moustaches, and he ended his recital with a brilliant fantasia of his own which combined various Strauss waltzes in most ingenious counterpoint. Equally brilliant was the young Vladimir Horowitz, then the new discovery of the international concert world; but the most impressive was Rachmaninov. He had a long, Russian face, a gloomy expression and close-cropped hair; he played some Schumann and the Chopin B flat minor sonata, in which he adopted Anton Rubinstein's idea of playing the funeral march as if it were a procession arriving and leaving, the first part being a continuous crescendo, with the second part, after the Trio, beginning fortissimo and gradually dying away. I found disconcerting, but Rachmaninov made up for it by his performance of the extraordinary ghostly finale; it really sent shivers down my spine. He ended with a group of his own works; the advertised programme did not include his most famous piece at the time, the Prelude in C sharp minor, but he clearly knew he would not be allowed to leave the stage without playing it. So, when encores were demanded, he glared at the audience and, with the utmost distaste, plunged into the opening three fortissimo bass notes.
In my last year at Oxford I became the music critic of the undergraduate weekly "The Cherwell"; apart from reporting concerts I arranged a series of articles on contemporary music which praised various underrated composers like Bartok and Berg and attacked some sacred cows such as Sibelius (a good composer indeed, but his reputation was very much inflated at the time) and the English folk-song school. In those days it was considered unpatriotic if not indecent for a British composer to eschew the English pastoral tradition and to bow down before strange Central European gods, an attitude which lingered on almost into the 1960s. As a sideline I did some film criticism for the Cherwell; the best films, mostly French or Russian, were shown at a small, rather uncomfortable cinema at the unfashionable end of Walton Street ( then known as the Fleapit). We praised these at the expense of the glossier films shown on the commercial circuit to such an extent that the manager of the latter threatened to forbid us to review his films at all.

About this time Sir Hugh Allen offered me a scholarship to study anywhere abroad I liked; I would go to the Royal College in London after the end of the Oxford term and take up the scholarship in the autumn. Naturally I jumped at the idea; Allen suggested that I should go to Nadia Boulanger in Paris, but Adorno helped me to persuade him that I should study in Vienna with Webern (Berg had died in 1935), and he himself wrote to Webern asking him to accept me as a pupil - Webern agreed. I wrote to my father to tell him the news; his reply was as expected: "In that case you can't take the Civil Service Exam", and he intimated that the small allowance he was paying me to supplement my scholarship would cease as soon as I left Oxford. "To hell with the Civil Service Exam", I said. I took my final Oxford exams, thus qualifying for an M.A. degree, and left Oxford prepared to face any consequences that might follow.

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