Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Beecham and the Pastoral

One of the highlights of our Autumn 2008 publication programme will be a new biography of Thomas Beecham by John Lucas, who has written about Reginald Goodall and Otto Klemperer in the past. Informed by substantial new research, Lucas’s life of the conductor is certain to become the standard work. In this Vaughan Williams anniversary year, let us look at Beecham conducting the composer’s Pastoral Symphony at the 1928 Leeds Festival, notorious for its concerts of mind-numbing length.

Mishaps caused by tiredness were inevitable. In the first movement, Beecham, conducting without a score, had an all-too-obvious memory-lapse and was only saved from having to call a halt by quick thinking on the part of the leader, Willie Reed, who kept the orchestra on track. For the rest of the performance Beecham used a score. To some, the incident seemed, if not divine, then certainly musical retribution, for at the final rehearsal, keen to score a point off a composer for whose music he did not care that much, Beecham had deliberately continued to beat time after the work had reached its peaceful conclusion. ‘Why aren’t you playing?’ asked Beecham, who had conducted the whole rehearsal from memory. ‘Because it’s finished,’ said Reed. ‘Thank God,’ said Beecham. The orchestra enjoyed the joke, but others present thought it in dubious taste. Not that Beecham cared. Vaughan Williams would always resent Beecham’s lack of interest in his work. In the course of his career Beecham conducted four performances of the Vaughan Williams Pastoral in all. At the end of the last one, given at a studio concert in 1951 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, he is reputed to have leant down to the leader, Paul Beard, and commented, ‘A city life for me.’

More from this new Beecham biography over the coming months.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Drowned in ink

“I wish people would drown themselves in ink and let me alone,” wrote Edward Elgar to his daughter. This is quoted in a lively review by Hugh Wood of several books on Elgar in today’s Times Literary Supplement.

The anniversary year came and went with a couple of special issues in the consumer glossies, some new recordings and a flurry of concerts (although a glance at the events pages of the Elgar Society’s web site reveals a healthy selection at any time). There was no major new biography, but the books mentioned in Wood’s article look at Elgar’s world and his music from a number of different viewpoints. It was satisfying for us to read his conclusion that Diana McVeagh’s Elgar the Music Maker was “one thoroughly good result of this Elgar year.”

“Diana McVeagh has been a devoted Elgarian all her life and her previous book on the composer was written, as already mentioned, more than fifty years ago,” Wood continues. “This is neither a biography nor a technical analysis, but McVeagh has hit on the perfect way of combining the best features of both. No biographical fact appears unless it is directly related to Elgar’s music; no piece is discussed without consideration of its context…There is no superimposition of alien theories or of special interests, and there are no perverse reinterpretations. The last few pages deal with Elgar’s posterity and end with a beautifully balanced study of Elgar’s personality. This is a worthwhile, useful book; and in five years’ time when the other four are forgotten, it will still be bought and read.”

Thursday, 13 March 2008


Our colleague Ralph Locke has drawn our attention to a marvellous blog which has just celebrated its first year online: amusicology (also included in our links, below left). Directed from the keyboard by two Harvard PhD candidates, Ryan BaƱagale and Drew Massey, we are told the ”a” could stand for amusing (which it often is), abrupt (no entry is longer than 1,000 words) or even anarchic. Recent posts have included one about getting published as a young scholar, another about scaling the musicological walls (warning: contains material on the Grateful Dead) and a fascinating review of just two sentences from Alex Ross’ new book (sadly not one of ours) by Drew Massey himself. This delightful blog is worth fifteen minutes of anyone’s time.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Staking Out the Territory

We are pleased to distribute the publications of Plumbago Books whose latest, Hugh Wood’s Staking Out the Territory and Other Writings on Music has just been published in both cloth and paperback editions. Our music editor, Bruce Phillips, attended its launch:

A goodly selection of composers, performers, critics, art lovers and just ordinary chaps like me assembled on Tuesday 26th February at the Austrian Cultural Forum in Rutland Gate, London to mark the publication of a new book in the Plumbago Poetics of Music series entitled Staking Out the Territory and other Writings on Music by the English composer, teacher and writer Hugh Wood. The book was being launched in combination with an exhibition of drawings and paintings by Milein Cosman, whose instantly recognisable portraits of musicians and artists included one of her late husband Hans Keller, thus neatly encompassing the other sponsoring body behind the publication, the Cosman Keller Art and Music Trust. The speeches were short and witty: Julian Hogg speaking on behalf of the Trust, Christopher Wintle on behalf of Plumbago Books, and Hugh Wood on behalf of himself and of the many individuals who had contributed to the book, not least the William Scott Trust who had enabled the group of eight of the late William Scott’s paintings to be reproduced in colour within the book — Scott having been a favourite artist of Hugh Wood’s. The book itself, edited by Wintle, is a collection of Hugh Wood’s articles, reviews and other writings on music culled from various sources and written at various times over the last 40 or so years.

Wood’s writing is attractively pellucid, clear minded and sane, whether he is writing about the satisfactions of composition, composers and musicians he has known, books he has read, music he has heard. The tone is humane, humorous, witty, civilised, unpretentious and mercifully free of the jargon of music analysis or music theory. The book is full of apt quotations, strong opinions, and insights into musical history. Although Wood quotes with evident approval a couple of scurrilous remarks about publishers, we can all be grateful to Plumbago for bringing forth this happy compilation marking Hugh Wood’s 75th birthday.

Christopher Wintle’s speech, which can be read in full by clicking on the link here, concluded thus:

Anyone who’s spent time in Hugh’s excellent company knows how happily and tirelessly he dances along the highways and byways of culture: he loves all sorts of books and music; he has an appetite for good stories; and he shows a Krausian relish for the ironies of modern life. Indeed, the sheer scale of the book’s index might almost have impressed Michael Tippett. But as we talk to Hugh, we gradually realize we are being observed. For there, standing in the shades, unmoving and unblinking, is an emissary from the underworld, equipped by Zeus with mighty thunderbolts, ready to punish us for hubris, falsehood and any excursion into phoneydom. No composer to my knowledge has ever walked so tight a rope, or so gone out of his way to make sure that the furies start at home. Hugh startles us with the truth of circumstances that we can all recognize but few can bear to admit. On the very first page of the book, for instance, we meet the undergraduate of New College, Oxford trying to rehearse his music. He describes the

“long-suffering singers or instrumentalists at last convened in one place and now attempting to decipher their manuscript parts as indefatigably as any Foreign Office clerk, while trying to follow the erratic beat and wild grimaces of a nervous composer-conductor; and the final scene – recording session, of course always under-rehearsed, or disastrous performance to a little group of kindly-disposed acquaintances and the freshman who thought it was all the Scandinavian Society [p. 3].”

Later in the book he turns his beady eye on his composing colleagues past and present. How much time did those French composers who embraced Iberian eroticism actually spend in Spain? As little, it seems, as possible. And whatever happed later in life to the young Tippett who had yearned for Hitler to win the war so that he could eradicate the Empire he hated as he ‘hated nothing else’? Why, Companion of Honour, Order of Merit and … Commander of the British Empire. In Hugh’s hands, truth-telling is itself an Aristotelian rite of purgation.