Monday, 28 January 2008

Rubbra at the BBC

This month we will publish a new book by Leo Black, Edmund Rubbra: Symphonist. Black, a pupil of Rubbra in the 1950s, presents the first full-scale study of his symphonies for fifteen years and a biographical sketch throws light on legends about the BBC and Rubbra as well as the vexed question of the composer’s mysticism. In this short piece, Leo Black reflects on tutorials with Rubbra and programming his music at the BBC:

Harmony and counterpoint “tutes” with Edmund Rubbra at Oxford half a century ago were decorous affairs. In a quite small room just on the left as you went into the Music Faculty building on Holywell Street, he would look through the exercises one had prepared during the week, and home in on anything that gave him cause to enquire, as a totally rhetorical question, "Did you really hear that in your head?" He was in his earliest fifties, robust but gentle, with a well-tended goatee beard, and his manner radiated an inner calm; to those on no kind of personal terms, with no inkling of his private life, it was convincing. Had we only known it, his marriage of the previous twenty years was even then breaking up in quite spectacular fashion, set against which he'd become converted to Roman Catholicism a few years before. Needs must when the devil… whoops, not quite the right cliché.

A decade later, there I was working in the Music Programmes Department of BBC Radio at a time when William Glock, brought in as Controller, Music, had diagnosed a chronic anaemia in the matter of red blood from abroad. I'd been working for the leading purveyor of the newest noises, Universal Edition Vienna, so I was in the shop window and found myself recruited to up the Stockhausen Quota. This and that piece of manifest nonsense soon had me disillusioned with my place alongside the avant-garde, where there seemed to be very little red blood and a lot of what the great contemporary master of insult, Kingsley Amis, called “pee-talking”, but the radio output was large enough to let a long-standing love of the First Viennese School and a feeling for the best products of the Second earn me my keep for many years still. Someone less on my mind than most was my old tutor, for whom I did regrettably little (another Oxford ex-pupil, Robert Layton, proved more loyal). That's a debt I hope my new book will help to repay, though in it I do have to pour a little cold water on the more lurid rumours of a Glock-led conspiracy to suppress the music of so well-established and major a composer. As he said, “in 1963 there were 26 broadcasts of Rubbra's music, and one of Stockhausen's”.

The main thing is that the past few years' vigorous catch-up course in Rubbra's music has confirmed to me how right Vaughan Williams was when he named Rubbra as his principal successor in the role of English symphonist. I stand by my title!

Monday, 21 January 2008

Imo in the Gramo

The praise for Imogen Holst: A Life in Music continues. In this month’s (February 2008) Gramophone, a moving review by composer and writer Geraint Lewis deftly evokes the charm, pathos and brilliance of “Imo”. It opens with a telling snapshot:

During the scorching Cambridge summer of 1974 I happened across Imogen Holst in the shadows of the Tudor Great Gate of St John’s, directing a Holst centenary singalong with an infectious mixture of blue-stocking charm and dancing determination. Her physical gestures were unforgettable – an elderly tennis player trying to conduct – and she magically lifted standards and spirits. Afterwards I dared to ask her about Benjamin Britten (rumoured to be gravely ill). The radiant blue eyes suddenly clouded and with tears forming she gripped my awkward schoolboy hand in hers and said “but I’m sure he will compose again”. I immediately sensed that here was a woman who thought far more of others than she did of herself.

To read the rest of this entertaining review, including the story of E.M. Forster’s cats and Imo meeting the Queen Mother, go to your local newsagent and buy a copy of the Gramophone. Then on to your local bookshop for a copy of Imogen Holst, edited by Christopher Grogan.

Monday, 14 January 2008

Nettle tea and a trunk full of documents

Christina Bashford, author of our recently published The Pursuit of High Culture: John Ella and Chamber Music in Victorian London, evokes the serendipitous nature of research in this moving piece:

The Pursuit of High Culture centres on the life story of one man. He is John Ella, an eminent, overlooked Victorian, whose activities as concert manager and prophet for serious chamber music gave him a unique and significant role in musical life in nineteenth-century London. As the Boydell publicity will rightly tell you, there is, within the book’s pages, much else besides (including the history of a concert institution and metropolitan musical culture). Yet it is Ella’s biography that gives the book its shape and structure, not to mention its ‘period’ flavour.

Now, unfortunately, for many of the ‘middle men’ of music history (people like Ella), there are no surviving archives containing the hard documentary evidence we need to do solid research. And for music historians, this is something of a tragedy, because it makes the writing of detailed biographies well-nigh impossible. Indeed, in the early days of my research into Victorian chamber music (in the mid-1980s), I concluded this was the situation as regards Ella, even though I had discovered, with considerable frustration, that only thirty years earlier, archives relating to Ella’s life had been extant. A 1950s article from the periodical Music and Letters, written by an amateur music-lover named John Ravell, made tantalizing references to such materials, but gave no source of reference as to where they could be found. I had searched high and low in bibliographies and in the catalogues of libraries and archives for an indication of where these materials might be, but with no success. So eventually, having been unable to trace Mr Ravell either, I accepted that the trail had gone cold.

Imagine my utter surprise and delight, then, when a few years later I received a letter from that very man, John Ravell. He had somehow discovered that I was researching London chamber music concerts, and wondered whether I might be interested in visiting him, as he had a few bits and pieces which he thought I might like to see….

What he had, I slowly learned, was a large cache of manuscripts relating to John Ella: pocket diaries, photographs, scrapbooks, letters, account books and so on, all kept in a large, rusty iron trunk. The material had been in the hands of indirect descendants of Ella’s, and had been both located and later saved from the rubbish tip by the extraordinary persistence and foresight of John Ravell himself. Over three or four years, as I gained his trust, Mr Ravell, then in his late seventies, allowed me access to the entire collection.

It was quite a palaver, even a ritual. I would visit his house, a great barn of a place - musty and austere - in north London, on Friday afternoons at 3pm. On arrival he made me tea, nettle tea to be precise, and we sat and talked about chamber music, historical research, John Ella (of course) and other things. Eventually he would tire of talking and bring me one of the manuscripts and leave me alone at a makeshift desk, to make feverish notes for a couple of hours. Then came more tea and conversation, and I would leave to make my two-hour journey home, eager for the next Friday when I could continue my work. Although progress was slow, the excitement of this discovery, the smell of the Victorian notebooks, and the buzz I got from feeling the immediacy of John Ella’s life before me, and from knowing that this was all material that had never been worked through thoroughly, is difficult to explain. Suffice to say it got me completely hooked, and once a week I travelled happily to the world of nineteenth-century London music and musicians.

Meanwhile John Ravell became thrilled that I was pursuing this line of research, the more so when I told him I had decided to write a definitive biography of Ella once my PhD was completed. A book on Ella had been something he had always wanted to see – the true recognition of Ella’s importance - but he had latterly come to realize he would never write it himself. Now, nearly twenty years later the Ella papers are safely housed in Oxford University libraries and I have finally finished the book I promised John Ravell such a long while ago. Unfortunately, Mr Ravell has not lived to see the completed product. I regret that intensely, because it would have given him great pleasure to see John Ella’s significance recognized on the bookshelf. For like John Ella, John Ravell was a quite exceptional and visionary man.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Lord Berners and the idea of the amateur

Writer, composer, pianist and teacher Peter Dickinson has published a number of books with Boydell and the University of Rochester Press, including studies of Copland and Lennox Berkeley, but most recently a fascinating series of interviews with and about John Cage entitled, appropriately enough, CageTalk. His next book, for publication in the second half of 2008, will be another collection of interviews, this time about Lord Berners (right, in a striking self portrait).

Berners (1883-1950) was not only an accomplished and highly respected composer, but also a painter, writer, wit, builder of follies and, famously, a man who used harmless vegetable dyes to colour his pigeons. For this reason, as Harold Acton mentions in one of Dickinson’s interviews, “He was always treated as an amateur, which was really a pejorative term in England.” This is one of many interesting themes in the book: the English have never liked polymaths or Renaissance men (or women) – perhaps it seems too much like showing off - and the word “amateur” comes with an almost obligatory sneer. Yet, as Acton continues, “it really means that you love what you are practising. Whether [Berners] was painting or composing or writing he enjoyed it very much.”

In another interview from the book, composer Gavin Bryars is quoted as saying that, so far as the work of Berners and Satie is concerned, “its ‘amateur’ nature is its strength…the independence of spirit and confidence in the quality of their imagination, and the range of work that imagination generated, are themselves sufficient reason for prizing the ‘amateur’ status above that of the competent professional.” Bryars maintains that “He did just the right amount of everything…if he’d spent more time on his music he could have become a duller composer.”

Bryars is almost certainly right. No less a composer than Stravinsky considered Berners to be one of the best English composers of the century. “Stravinsky took him seriously; Bliss, Goossens and Sauguet did; Lambert especially. Sorabji – one of the greatest British composers – took him very seriously…Berners was friendly with all the members of Les Six.” It seems his pastel pigeons have allowed many to get away with not treating Berners with the respect that others like Stravinsky were able to extend.

More from Peter Dickinson’s fascinating book over the coming months.