Music Webmaster Len Mullenger
THE MUSIC YEARS 1961-67
Extracted from Dr Wrights autobigraphy, Some Rain Must Fall
This article, or any part of it, must not be reproduced in part or in whole in any way whatsoever without prior written consent of the author.
One of the happiest periods in my life resulted from my writing a fan letter.
Sometime in 1961, I heard a broadcast of the Symphony No. 2 by Humphrey Searle conducted by Norman Del Mar. Hitherto, I had only responded to conventional classical music and adopted the erroneous attitude that music of the twentieth century was tuneless rubbish. Sadly it is an attitude that many so-called music lovers tenaciously hold. I cannot pass judgement upon such Philistines for I was one once. And, to think that, in my ignorance, I dismissed such geniuses as Bartók and Stravinsky. Today, in my thankfully enlightened condition, I am dismayed that self-appointed music cabals both disparage and assassinate modern music and deliberately blind themselves to its proven greatness and yet, conversely, attack others who display the evident faults and crass weakness in the music of their revered composers. This ethos can be encapsulated in a remark I once heard: Bach can do no wrong; Bartók can do no right!
I wrote to Mr Searle with what was clearly the unbridled enthusiasm of an adolescent. I did not expect a reply. He would be both too busy and too important to bother with an immature teenager. But, within two days, I received his gracious letter telling me to advise him the next time I was to be in London. I had no plans to visit the hagridden capital of England but I answered his letter to say that I would be in London on a Saturday in a fortnights time. He wrote back at once telling me to visit him on that particular afternoon.
I travelled on the Friday night and stayed with Mr and Mrs Alphonso Benedetto in Westbourne Terrace, Paddington. I walked from Waterloo station as I was fearful of travelling on the underground. The following day, I walked to St Johns Wood and knocked on the door of 44 Ordnance Hill. A flustered 46-year-old man came to answer it in his dark suit and Paisley tie. He seemed surprised to see someone so young. He led the way up some stairs to his Bohemian studio littered with scores, books and pencils. Expressing his reticent pleasure that I had enjoyed his piece, he said nothing more about his own music. When I tried to obtain any details of his own work he would reply by extolling some virtue in Bach, Beethoven or Liszt. His speech was breathless. He was somewhat shy and this was reflected in his precise matter. But he was kind. He poured himself a drink and offered me one before realising my age and so handed me a mineral water.
He talked about musicians he knew and in those hours I learned more about music than I had in seven years of learning. He showed me how Schubert composed, leaving lengthy gaps to be filled in later and how this style of composition was structural suicide. This was demonstrated when Humphrey played a movement from a Schubert Sonata in D. Over half of the movement was nothing more than one long expanse of broken chords. He went on to explain that another composer who also wrote some good tunes was Tchaikovsky and he posed the question as to whether he was really a composer of grand light music. It should not be taken that this was an uninformed or prejudiced attack on either Schubert or Tchaikovsky. We went on to discuss Alkan and Webern. Humphrey presented a very coherent case for continuity in music and expressed concern at music that was too long and could become tedious. "How can you evaluate a symphony lasting about an hour when some of it is very good and long stretches of it are ordinary, or poor?"
Another interesting feature was that he always called me Mr Wright and never David. It was not that he was unfriendly but that he treated me with respect.
I visited him several times and accompanied him to the Royal College of Music. I walked in the Stanford Room where the Irish composer, Charles Villiers Stanford taught for forty years. I examined the photographs of eminent musicians including a very young Herbert Howells playing the piano in his nightgown.
As I began to know Humphrey I realised that the words music and classical were often wrongly applied. When the pop group, the Beatles saturated the musical world, they were hailed as marvellous musicians ... and, yet, at the time, they could not even read musical notation. How could they possibly equate with Bach or Mozart? We were highly censured for being snobs. The truth of the matter was that we did not look down on people for liking pop music; that was both their choice and prerogative. The truth was, and remains, that there is no comparison between Bach and the Beatles. They are the antitheses of each other. Bach was a genius.
We were not snobs. The first concert Humphrey took me to was not of Beethoven or Brahms, but Duke Ellington, which concert left me spellbound. With Searle, I met many famous musicians.
Alan Rawsthorne was an interesting character, congenial one moment, and moody the next. He was something of a poser but did not exude any real encouragement or inspiration. I did have some lessons from him. He was preoccupied with a strictly classical approach to music, reminding me of the complex contrapuntal textures of Bach which, although clever and perhaps cerebral, seemed to destroy spontaneity. Rawsthorne was a lazy man. All his compositions were the outcome of cerebral activity and never the heart. He, like many others, churned music out and it was often dull and passive. On the other hand, Humphreys music was tough, strikingly clever and his heart was never far from any score of his. There was a variety of emotive content in his work ranging from slapstick humour to grim phycological feelings although, often, they were partially concealed by his expert craftsmanship.
Benjamin Britten was the rudest man that I have ever met. He had an unnatural and pronounced arrogance that stifled any room when he was present. He was scathing about other British composers and, on the rare occasions when he did say something positive about one of them, he immediately followed it up with a snide remark. He liked Elgar because he said that they had both come from the same ultra-superior stock. This so enraged another composer that he answered Britten by saying, "You and Elgar do have a lot in common. You both toady to the royalty and to the aristocracy. As for me, I could not live in someones backside!" Britten criticised Beethoven without mercy; he regarded Brahms as an amateur and he actually said that there had only been two really great composers in England, namely Purcell and himself. He staggered me by stating that he liked Schubert because he was effeminate and it was only when I learned that Britten was homosexual that I began to understand that remark. Britten hated conductors and musicians who refused to revere him. He was both hateful and cruel to many professionals. He had an abnormal predilection for choirboys. He once announced that he sometimes went to church to see their pretty faces. He had no manners, either. He would noisily emit wind and actually pose to do so. Later I was to discover that he had been horrid to Humphrey and I was told this by his friends who came to visit him and to make a fuss of his cat.
I did not care for Elisabeth Lutyens. Her bad language was legendary and I could not fathom her eccentricity. However, I believe she was a tortured soul and her music was interesting and, through her, I met the pianist, Katharina Welpe and encountered the music of her father, Stefan Welpe.
Peter Racine Fricker, like Rawsthorne, was something of a toper. Like Humphrey, he had a wonderful capacity for friendship. He helped me with the fugue and I spent some happy hours with him. I shall always be grateful to Peter for introducing me to the music of his teacher, Matyas Seiber and revealing from his exemplary scores many fascinating elements.
Before I had left my teenage years, Humphrey had become professor of composition at RCM and I attended his classes. I presented him with my own Symphony no 1 which I had entitled Rosalind. It was not his style and it was tonal. Nonetheless we performed it with the College orchestra and they genuinely liked it.
I met the eighteen-year-old Nicola LeFanu who had just written her Soliloquy for oboe. She was interested in experimental sounds and she was very fashionable. Her short skirts were not as risky as those of Jacqueline du Pré who had to negotiate a cello between her legs. I saw her and Daniel Barenboim, whom she later married, perform Beethoven. I also saw her play the Elgar Cello Concerto, a work which I subsequently examined in the minutest detail. But most of all I was enthralled with the Aeolian String Quartet (Sydney Humphries, Raymond Keenlyside, Margaret Major and a fine cellist, Derek Simpson). I adored Mendlessohns E minor, Haydns G major Op 77 no 1, Beethovens C major, Rasoumovsky and the Bartôk quartets were striking discourses.
As I did not play an orchestral instrument, Humphrey suggested that I take up the timpani and we went to the other college, the Royal Academy of Music where I met the famous percussionist, James Blades. Here I rolled my wrists, learned precise tuning and how to make the kettledrums roar. The pedal timpani were exciting and their astonishing range of sound effects motivated my desire for mastery of percussion.
I was allowed to play in the RCM orchestra and this is where I met Sir Adrian Boult who was a humble man. He would sometimes conduct us while he was still wearing his bicycle clips. He conducted us in Brahms Symphony no 1 and the Alto Rhapsody in which the superlative Sybil Michelow was the soloist. Here was a contralto vastly superior to the venerated Kathleen Ferrier, and this led me to appreciate that the greatest musicians are not always the famous ones! Today, I prefer Howard Keel to Pavarotti but, as far as I am concerned, the finest tenor of all times was Jussi Bjorling.
Boult gave us lessons in vocal and choral singing and I was privileged to sing in his choir. We sang Messiah - a truly spiritual experience as well as a musical one. There was a Haydn Mass and Brahms Song of Destiny. When a performance of Elgars Dream of Gerontius was scheduled I said that I did not want to do it. He replied, "Neither do I," and, seeing the surprise on my face, he made a famous statement which he later repeated on national television. He said, "If Elgars music is played badly, then you blame the orchestra; if it is played well, you blame Elgar!" Hitherto, I had thought that conductors only performed music that they liked! I still had a lot to learn.
Humphrey was not fond of long-winded music, disliking the longueurs of Elgar, Mahler and Bruckner although he found a very great amount to admire in the latter composers. "Long music has to sustain interest," he would say, "and so a composer must be original and have something different to say. Sibelius is an excellent example of an original mind." He went further and explained the musical device of the sequence and how this repetition of a passage at a higher or lower level of pitch must achieve something and not just be a means of padding out music. Boult demonstrated some tedious sequences in Elgar and that boring descending one towards the end of Tchaikovskys 1812 Overture. Conversely, he demonstrated how the sequences in Shostakovich always had a purpose and led somewhere.
I met Sir William Walton who was a most likeable man, although I have my doubts as to whether he was the best composer of his own music. He would conduct rehearsals minus his jacket and his trousers would go up and down on the elasticity of his braces revealing the top of his underpants. He hated the suggestion that he was Elgars successor; he told us plainly that he did not respond favourably to Elgars music. I remember one unforgettable remark that he made to us. He said, "I believe that Shostakovich is the greatest composer of the twentieth century and at the other end of the spectrum there is Elgar." I asked Walton if the stories were true that he had had extensive music lessons in 1946-8 from Humphrey Searle. "Yes, I did," he replied, "but we did not broadcast this about. Humphrey was painfully modest and I had had no formal composition tutor, he did not want to be known as my mentor. I could not have continued composing had it not been for Humphrey. He was the finest teacher anyone could have!"
Another interesting character was Sir Arthur Bliss who was the Master of the Queens Music. After a particular concert, we congregated in a pub and he announced that he was going to buy us all a drink. We gave in our orders eagerly but ended up buying our own as he had no money with him.
I was introduced to Pierre Boulez after a promenade concert probably in 1964 when he conducted Messaiens Chronochromie, his own Le Soleil des Eaux, before its revision, and Debussys Images. The soloists were Jane Manning, John Huchinson and John Noble. Backstage, I found Boulez courteous but cold. Sir Malcolm Sargent was a charming man; his conducting was sometimes on the brisk side earning him the nickname Flash Harry, but his facial expressions told us exactly what he wanted and he always kept to the score that he was conducting.
The most famous musician that I encountered was Stravinsky. The incident is almost unbelievable. He sat himself at the piano and improvised on a well-known British hymn tune. This surprised us, but the sounds he produced and the wonderfully-integrated improvisation, full of colour and expertly judged nuances was stunning. I shook his hand and asked him what was his favourite composition of his own. He reversed the question and asked me to tell him the work of his I most admired. "I dont know," I struggled. "Nor do I," he replied genially.
Humphrey had so many friends and not all were musicians. I was introduced to James Mason, another cat lover and I admired his velvet voice. He also made an unforgettable remark when he said, "All actors are schizophrenics or hypocrites, or both. We never know who we really are!" And it was a sheer delight to meet Margaret Rutherford.
Occasionally we went to the BBC. Once, in the canteen, I saw Robert Wagner who had been a favourite film star of mine since I was a boy. The waitress was equally surprised to see him and poured soup into his lap. He did not say much but he struck me as being potentially argumentative. My most abiding memory was that these famous and glamourous stars were usually unfulfilled and unhappy souls. They had fame and fortune but did not know who they were. The only actors who I met that seemed content and had not stopped belonging to the human race were Robert Ryan, a very brave man, and Gregory Peck.
Although an external student at RCM, I met fellow students from all parts of the world. One was an attractive Vietnamese girl. She had a kind, thin oriental face, not one of those bulbous or cruel-featured visages. She had long, straight, shiny black hair, dark eyes and a captivating smile. Her name was Ngoc but I found that impossible to say. As her other name was Niash, I called her Jacqui, the connection being the actor J. Carroll Niash who had played the Chinese Detective, Charlie Chan.
Jacqui was a cellist and of all the students she heard play she chose me as her accompanist. We played the Beethoven and the Brahms sonatas regularly. Our music sessions would extend into the early hours of the morning as her living quarters were close to mine in Paddington.
We were in a different world with our music. The ghastly din of London traffic, the poor Asian communities eating dog and cat food straight from the tins in Hyde Park, the gross immorality of Soho and the appallingly arrogant sophistication of Mayfair and Belgravia had no meaning in the uncontaminated world of Beethoven. This was reality, not the streets of London, the rat race of dog eat dog. There was Jacqui with her long, high-collared dresses and that mellifluous cello close to her body and myself at the Steinway absolutely at one with her.
As with Rosalind, there was not sexual involvement. Yet we were in love with each other and the other bond was music. In each others company, we were one. We never argued or spoke sharply to each other. We had only to look at each other and know exactly what we were thinking; we were soul mates.
I began to work on my Cello Concerto in 1966 which was dedicated to her. Sometimes, she and her friend, Sally Wendkos went to a local swimming-pool but only when it was a session for ladies only. Jacqui felt that her body should not be exposed to any man and, although she was not a Moslem, she believed this teaching passionately and she knew that I felt this way. I remember that she came back early one evening and said that she did not swim as there was a male lifeguard on duty as the usual female staff were sick! Because of her, I took an interest in the Vietnam war and there were times when we were in the city streets that we suffered verbal abuse. Jacqui was called a geek and a VC but she took it all, without complaint.
I had completed the large central slow movement of my Cello Concerto. We rehearsed it with the orchestra and at the end several players were openly and unashamedly in tears, including some of the young fellows. Humphrey said, "I wonder if people will like it; it is very deep and tugs at the heartstrings!"
"Is it no good?" I asked.
"Intensely beautiful," he said, "more a document of humanity ..."
Britten called it poncy music. He really was a nasty piece of work. Humphrey said, "He likes it but he is jealous of any and everyone elses success."
But Brittens remarks had cut me to the quick. I began work on my Symphony no 2. There was going to be nothing effeminate about this. It would employ saxophones, a flexatone, a guitar played with a bow, a wind machine, water gongs and, at the end, a sheet of glass would be smashed. It was lampooned without mercy but the students loved it, particularly the send-up of a theme from the Elgar Cello Concerto. It was daring and technically difficult to play. Several students said it was unstuffy music and gloriously non-pretentious.
There was to be a revival of this piece at the College in 1975 but the director, an egocentric self-styled arbiter of music dismissed it as rubbish. Well, I suppose he should know; he is responsible for material, arrangements and performances of music that is decidedly naff.
One conductor, who had been a clarinet student at RCM and was to make a name for himself as an opera conductor after leaving one of the BBCs provincial orchestras, was an absolute pain. He was a most unsympathetic accompanist-conductor and regularly drowned the soloist. "If they cannot compete with me or my orchestra, then they are not worthy of me," he would say. I am aware that many international soloists refused to appear with him. Nonetheless, the conductor was later to be highly praised for his Berlioz and Sibelius. He was an annoying show-off and, as I write this, I am thinking of another conductor, twenty-eight years his junior, who is following in his steps in the mendacious school of conceited conductors.
Not so Bryden Thomson, the best British conductor I met. He had studied with two first-class but very different conductors namely Hans Schmidt-Isserstedt and Igor Markevich. Schmidt-Isserstedt had conducted in Norway, as did Jack Thomson, having studied with Franz Schreker whereas Markevich had been a pupil of Boulanger. Jack brought a wonderful clarity into his performances and was an honest conductor. "If this is what the composer wrote," he would say, "this is what we will give him." He never took a score for granted. He would study it labouriously. He was a marvellous orchestral accompanist which may explain why BBC television asked him to conduct the Concerto competition in the first Young Musician of the Year contest. In the last years of his life, he rediscovered Bax for all of us and made superb recordings of many fine British scores - his Walton Symphony no 1 and Vaughan-Williams Fourth will never be surpassed.
A fellow student, whose name I cannot remember, began writing a Cello Sonata for Jacqui and me to play. Her composition of this piece was greatly hindered by her obvious but inexplicable infatuation with me. She pressed me to take her to a particular concert but I declined. If I took anyone it would be Ngoc. I did purchase two tickets but on the day of the concert Jacqui was not very well and suggested that I took this other girl. I said that I could not as it would be disloyal to Jacqui but she replied that she trusted me and I should not miss Peter Katin who was to be the soloist.
I arrived in a taxi to collect this fellow student. She emerged from the house dressed like a film star. Her hair was up and decorated with flowers and a few miniature beads. She wore a knee-length black dress with a low back, barely black tights and black shoes. She was quietly perfumed. She snuggled into me in the taxi and at the concert which I found discomfiting. To make matters worse, all the music was of the romantic variety. Katin played Rachmaninovs Piano Concerto no 2 which did not succumb to the slushy realms of Tchaikovskys Pathetique Symphony which concluded the concert. My companion sobbed silently at the excessive sentimentality of this final work.
She hailed a taxi and I expected her to get out at her address and I to proceed to Westbourne Terrace. But she asked me in an she was not somebody you could easily refuse.
She flopped in a chair opposite me. It was not tights she was wearing but stockings. She extricated herself from the chair in an unladylike fashion. "Pour yourself a drink," she said, "Im going upstairs to freshen up."
I was apprehensive. I wanted to open the door, flee down the corridor, open the front door and disappear into the dark autumn night. But how would I explain myself at College the following morning?
She was gone for what seemed ages but eventually appeared. I nearly had a heart attack. Her hair was down and her eyes smouldered. She wore a very short red slip.
"Are you ready?" she purred.
"Ready? For what?" I panicked.
She crossed her arms at the elbows and took the bottom of the red garment and pulled it over her head, dropping it to the floor. Petrified with shock for a moment I saw her playing with the ties of her white silky underwear.
No longer reduced to stone, I ran out into the night. I was faster along the Bayswater road than the traffic. I was exhausted when I arrived at the Benedettos. I had a lot of different feelings. I had never seen a woman like that before; I had seen many dead ones in the mortuary but here was a vibrant woman doing what women do so well, ensnaring men. What was going to happen? Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Would she shout rape and circulate some accusation around the College in the morning?
I had little time to worry. Alphonso had a message for me. Jacqui was ill and wanted me to go to her; her landlady was away. Although it was late I summoned a taxi. Knowing where she kept the key, although I had not used it before, I let myself in. I called her name, no answer. I went upstairs and tried several doors, eventually finding the right one and entering, finding Jacqui curled up on a bed dressed in her nightgown. I picked her up and put her into bed. Her lovely face was stained with tears. She threw her arms around me and said my name as only she ever did. "David. Hold me."
I held her close. I felt her trembling and heard her sobbing.
"Do I call a doctor? Is there anything I can do?"
She nodded. "Kiss me," she said.
I did. Her breath and mouth tasted and smelled foul, but it did not matter. Her sobbing subsided. Then she went limp. And she was dead. And in my arms. I held her for a long time. I did not want to let her go. Eventually, I did and called the police.
The news was at the College the next morning together with details of my involvement so the threat of the seductress was eliminated. She was most upset as well.
There was a post-mortem and an inquest to which I went. Ngoc had died of candida which she had contracted in the swimming-pool. A week before her death she had undergone a thorough medical, cervical smear test and the inquest were given the information that she died a virgin. How insensitive evidence can be.
The swimming-pool was condemned and closed. Its owners were brought before the Court and fined. I did not attend the legal proceedings. I cursed swimming-pools, the Americans for their cruel involvement in Vietnam and condemned the metropolis itself. I have only walked those streets a few times since the fateful October of 1967 and always with the crushing fear of a momentous tragedy.
Nor could I make music my career after that. My heart was as heavy as lead that had burst through into my soul. I died that day too. I have never had real confidence since.
I still have the recording of Jacqui playing my Cello Concerto. I have heard it twice in thirty years. Hearing it causes me far too much pain ... and yet this is all I have of her. And it is not enough.
Humphrey came to me. His first wife had died unexpectedly on Christmas day in 1957. He shook my hand and held it strongly for quite a while. We saw the pain in each others eyes.
"Sometimes words are not enough," he said.
And so, the happy period of my life came to an end with one of the saddest events. And things were not going to improve, either.
Outside my window the refreshing rain is falling and a young bird is singing.
Continue with Ngoc
© David C.F. Wright 1996 - Revised 1997
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