Wednesday, 30 June 2010

‘The Life of an Honest Man’

Thirty years in the making, Tully Potter’s monumental two-volume Adolf Busch is now at press and will be available in the UK at the end of July and elsewhere the following month. ‘Eagerly awaited’ hardly begins to describe the level of anticipation that surrounds it.

Adolf Busch was not only a remarkable musician but an admirable man living in desperate times. Potter’s biography will look at his life and work in detail and will certainly remain the definitive source for many years to come. Two CDs accompany the books, providing an opportunity to hear Busch’s playing as well as his own compositions.

If anyone is thinking of following in Potter’s footsteps and starting a biography of a many-faceted musician, here is how you begin:

We had the Glyndebourne recording of Don Giovanni at home when I was growing up, so I was aware of the name Fritz Busch. But I probably first heard of his brother, the violinist and composer Adolf Busch, in the early 1960s, through LPs issued by EMI as ‘Great Recordings of the Century’. I remember finding his violin tone strangely haunting. Living in South Africa had made me aware of the evils of racism; and when I learned how well Adolf Busch had behaved during the Third Reich years, when many of his colleagues had behaved abominably, I began to be interested in him as a man, not just as a musician.

Back in Britain from 1966, I developed a fascination for string quartets, although I had been led to believe that Beethoven’s late quartets were rather daunting. When I actually acquired the three LPs of the Busch Quartet that were available from Germany, I discovered that all one had to do was listen – and this I did, often into the early hours of the morning. I count myself lucky that my introductions to Beethoven’s Op. 59/3, Op. 95, Op. 131 and Op. 132 came via the Busch ensemble. The only drawback has been that the playing of Busch and his colleagues has spoilt me for anyone else.

Gradually I discovered that a number of Busch’s friends and pupils lived in London. By 1975 I had begun collecting memories of him; and it was borne in on me that these precious recollections were unique. Hearing Rudolf Serkin in concert and speaking to him further fired my enthusiasm; and whenever anyone from Busch’s past came to London, I would try to see them. I also wrote to many people, such as the delightful widow of his younger brother Herman. In due course many members of the extended family were helpful to me, the sole exception being Fritz Busch’s son, Hans.

I went up to Edinburgh on the milk train to interview the composer Hans Gál, a friend and contemporary of Adolf and Fritz Busch. The train was five hours late and I only just made it to the interview in time, but it was a memorable meeting. Dr Gál, a tiny man in his late 80s, had heard both Joachim and Mahler and could recall what they were like as musicians. He kept leaping up to demonstrate something at the piano. I twice interviewed Sir Robert Mayer, who could remember Brahms, and I travelled to Paris to meet the American pianist Eugene Istomin. Hearing him in concert, I was amazed when just about every wind player in Paris turned up to boo the evening’s other soloist, Gervase de Peyer, because he was using an English clarinet.

I got to know Paul, the son of Busch’s violist Karl Doktor; and Björn, the son of Busch’s second violinist and assistant Gösta Andreasson, was supportive – sadly Gösta himself had already retreated into a twilight world. I missed speaking to Horszowski, because I did not realise at first how well he had known Busch. Fortunately, with his wife’s help, I was able to make up this particular lack.

Discovering, through contacts with the Busch Society in Germany, that Busch’s brother-in-law Otto Grüters had compiled a detailed chronology of his life, and had noted down many of their conversations, was another spur. Although Dr Grüters had understandably made mistakes – some of which sent me on wild goose chases – his frequent personal contacts with Busch had provided invaluable material.

Over more than 30 years, I have written and rewritten, checked and rechecked. One particular paragraph took me something like 20 years to get right. When I started out, most Continental orchestras and other musical organisations had very little available in the way of archives – many German sources had been destroyed by Allied bombing. But much has been recovered over recent decades and digitised.

In 1984 a friend and I published a little home-made paperback called Adolf Busch: The Life of an Honest Man, Volume 1. It was full of mistakes and, as so often happens, Volume 2 never materialised. The title came from something written by Charles Péguy, which was a favourite quotation of Busch’s: ‘The life of an honest man must be a perpetual infidelity.’

I am grateful to Martin Anderson of Toccata Press for the opportunity to issue a much expanded biography. I have changed ‘Man’ to ‘Musician’ in the title and I am taking the precaution of publishing both volumes simultaneously! My text is very detailed in places and there are a dozen appendices but I believe that Busch’s importance, as a leading figure in tumultuous times, demands this exhaustive treatment. I hope I have managed to provide a picture of a whole era – among Busch’s friends were such giants as Max Reger, Fritz Steinbach, Albert Einstein and Arturo Toscanini.

Working on Busch’s life has been worth every minute and far from getting bored with him or beginning to dislike him, as has happened to many other biographers vis à vis their subjects, I now like him more than ever. Meeting many of his friends, among them Serkin, Gál and Sir Ernst Gombrich, has enriched my life.

Adolf Busch: the Life of an Honest Musician by Tully Potter will be published shortly by Toccata Press, distributed worldwide by Boydell & Brewer.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Discovering Jenkins

Andrew Ashbee's acclaimed introduction to the life and works of John Jenkins (1592-1678) has recently been published in paperback by Toccata Press. Jenkins was the most prolific and the most esteemed of English composers between the death of Byrd and the rise of Purcell. Here, Dr Ashbee reveals how he discovered this underrated master:

I was first made aware of a composer called John Jenkins in a book: Maidstone 1549-1949, commemorating the quarter-centenary of the granting of the town’s royal charter. It opened with ‘A pageant of history’, compiled by the curator of the Maidstone Museum, Mr. L.R.A.Grove, and included a paragraph about Jenkins sandwiched between two unedifying entries: ‘1590: The quarters of some traitors are displayed upon two poles set upon the battlements of the county prison’; and ‘1600: a baker is put in the stocks, with a sample of his bad bread placed before him, as a punishment.’ 1949 was the year I entered Maidstone Grammar School, becoming a flautist, and Jenkins was put out of mind. On moving to the Royal Academy of Music I noticed (in my first year) that the Peter Latham Prize was available to a third-year student presenting a 5000-word essay on a musical topic of their choice. I determined to enter, with John Jenkins as my subject, and during the intervening years found out what I could via the Academy’s library and that of the University of London. ‘John Jenkins and his times - a biographical introduction’ was ready for presentation at the due time, but no notice of the competition appeared. On enquiring why not, I was told that the competition had garnered no entries in the years since it was first offered, so it would not be held!

The exercise had naturally stimulated my interest in the composer, although my research had indicated that there was little published about him. Nor were there more than a handful of pieces by him available. In my fourth year I was fortunate to be included among a small group of students for a one-year course ‘The Performance of Early Classical Music’, which Sir Thomas Armstrong had arranged. We had the experience of some of the finest scholars and musicians as our tutors: Thurston Dart, Denis Stevens, Paul Steinitz, George Malcolm, Geraint Jones. We learned for the first time about microfilms and Xeroxes, about editing early music and ways to perform it. I also completed my B.Mus degree that same year. One invaluable off-shoot was that I was able to gain a Reader’s ticket to the British Museum (as it was then), giving me access for the first time to a wealth of Jenkins’s music in contemporary manuscripts.

The next logical step was to work towards a Ph.D. degree with Jenkins as my topic. A working title proved difficult to establish and I was sent to see H. K. Andrews at Oxford, who devised a lengthy one. But Thurston Dart, newly appointed Professor at King’s College, London, threw this out and we eventually agreed that Jenkins’s four-part music would be an ideal subject: of manageable size, with music varied in style and form. He offered the further temptation that my music examples could become a volume in the Musica Britannica series - this materialised in 1967 as volume 26.

When I began, I had no idea of the quality of Jenkins’s music. I became aware that two American scholars, Robert Warner and Helen Sleeper, had both studied him. Warner’s dissertation on Jenkins’s fantasias (1951) was the only substantial work. Helen Sleeper published very little before she died, except for a fine edition of various Jenkins pieces (Wellesley Edition, No. 1). But her notes are at the Pendlebury Library of Music, Cambridge, and these gave me many leads. When I compare the bibliography I made for the Academy competition with what is available now, I am gratified that I have played some part in bringing Jenkins’s music to a wider audience. Today editions of virtually all of his major works are published or planned. The one or two recordings of his music available in 1961 have been replaced by a substantial list of CDs. Likewise the few pioneering viol consorts of the 1950s have been replaced by a great number of amateur and professional groups, encouraged by the Viola da Gamba Society. My assessment of Jenkins in Harmonious Musick I as ‘the most important and successful mainstream composer of instrumental music in England in the fifty years between the death of Gibbons and the emergence of Purcell’ holds true. Of course his great contemporary William Lawes tends to acquire all the publicity. Lawes’s music is flamboyant, extrovert, angular and daring, compared with Jenkins’s quieter, smoother lines, with their subtle exploitation of harmonic and key colours. The one boldly fought for (and sacrificed his life for) his King, the other served his time quietly in the country, supporting Royalist families in those ‘Barbarous and Calamitous Times’. Both enrich our musical life immeasurably.

The Harmonious Musick of John Jenkins I: The Fantasias for Viols by Andrew Ashbee is available now in paperback from all good booksellers.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

‘Camerado, I give you my hand!’

In 1957 the Australian-American pianist and composer Percy Grainger was 75 years old and in failing health when he received a letter from a young Scottish composer named Ronald Stevenson. Stevenson requested Grainger’s reminiscences of his former piano-teacher Ferruccio Busoni, to be included in a book Stevenson was writing on Busoni. Grainger’s reply, dated 2 August 1957, would lead to 32 letters exchanged between the two men over the four years leading up to Grainger’s death in February 1961. Stevenson was 29 years old at the time, living in West Linton just south of Edinburgh, with his wife Marjorie and their two small children and teaching in various Edinburgh schools and in the Extra-Mural Department of Edinburgh University. He recalled that Grainger ‘gave me companionship through correspondence at a time when I needed it because there wasn’t a great deal of stimulation, cultural stimulation, in my life’.

Stevenson had performed and admired Grainger’s folk-music settings as a young piano student and learned of Grainger’s involvement with Busoni when researching the composer in 1955 while in Rome on an Italian government scholarship. The two men soon found that despite their 46-year age-difference, they had affinities in many areas. Both were pianists of staggering abilities and composers who combined a love for folk-music and demotic, working-class art with an aesthetic that proposed a ‘world music’ which would include the farthest reaches of humanity. Both made an art of piano transcription of a wide variety of works and were champions of little-known music and composers. Both were authors, striving to share their knowledge of musics of many times and places in the printed word and in lecture recitals. And both revered the work of Walt Whitman, that great poet of inclusivity, the pioneering spirit and the open road [quoted in the title of this post].

As the correspondence of the two men grew, their mutual admiration deepened. So impressed was Grainger with Stevenson’s writing that in 1959 he requested that all of Stevenson’s articles be sent to the Grainger Museum: ‘You are a magnificent worder. Your complete articles (now or in a near future) ought to make an impressive collection’. Stevenson soon realised that he wanted to write at length on Grainger and in his last letter to him, dated 7 February 1961, wrote: ‘My work on your music is growing out of hand and can now only assume the form of a book’. It is a correspondence which sheds light on the thoughts of one man coming to the end of his creative life and the other just entering into his most fertile period of productivity. They were like messengers crossing in the night, passing a torch.

These are the opening paragraphs of Teresa Balough’s introduction to Comrades in Art: The Correspondence of Ronald Stevenson and Percy Grainger 1957-61, recently published by Toccata Press and distributed by Boydell & Brewer. As well as the correspondence between the two composers, the book includes Stevenson’s many articles and lectures on Grainger and his music along with a CD of a lecture-recital by Stevenson, presented in Grainger’s home in White Plains, NY, in 1976.

We continue with one of Grainger’s letters to Stevenson (here without footnotes):

Dear Ronald Stevenson,

I found your article on Busoni very stimulating. It brought clarity into my thoughts about Busoni. When I first met him, in 1903, when he offered to give me piano lessons without payment, it was the originality of my sketches for Scotch Strathspey & Reel that attracted him.

By 1907 he had soured on me, but when we played thru the 2-piano version of Hill-Song No. 2 his hostility melted & he said, quite wistfully: ‘Das ist ein hübsches stück – das ist ein hübsches stück!’

And of course I talked to him of the various innovations I had already tried-out (irregular rhythms, unresolved discords, large chamber-music, etc.) or intended to try-out in the future (close intervals, gliding tones, etc.). And while I am not denying that he may have got his ‘music of the future’ from all sorts of sources I do suggest that he got enough from me to account for his ideas of music to-come.

It was the same with Stravinsky & Schoenberg. Neither of these superb geniuses developed their iconoclastic innovations until my innovations, as incorporated in the Cyril Scott Piano Sonata Op. 66 (incorporated by C. Scott with full written permission by me) had been freely played & heard in Central Europe around 1908 – my ‘unresolved discords’ of 1898 leading to atonalism, my irregular rhythms of 1899 leading to irregular rhythms of ‘Sacre du P.’ And when the 1st German War cut off compositional contact between Britain & Central Europe, what happens: These 2 geniuses dropped their British-rooted innovations & went back to less progressive stimulations. (Neither Cyril Scott or I have ever dropped our innovations.) Almost everything that European man does had an English-speaking origin: 5 o’clock tea, train, tram, steamer, flirt, bus, strike, lock-out, club, sandwich, lunch, golf, sport, skyscraper, chewing-gum, maxim-gun, revolver, etc. So why should it be otherwise in music? Is it not a fact that most musical innovations are English-speaking (according to the musicologists): Foweles in the Frith, Worcester Medieval harmony, Dunstable, William Lawes, Jazz? So if an English-speaking composer happens to invent, or revise (for of course Claude Le Jeune also had his irregular rhythms), or transform some aspects of music, why should it seem so unthinkable that it cannot be mentioned?

I do not expect my ‘serious’ music to be liked or respected. But I do think I am a natural innovationist & I would like to see some day an acknowledgment of the changes that have come over music thru me. I think it is only fair to Australia.

I think I did send you some remarks & statements by me about my music, did I not? Do you have Hill-Songs I & II (arranged for 2 pianos)? If not, would you like to have them? Hill-Song II (for 21 single winds) has just been recorded by a superb wind ensemble. When the disc appears, would you like a copy of it? Do you have Frederick Fennell’s flawless recording of my Lincolnshire Posy for band? If not, would you like me to send it?

I am getting stronger, I think. All the same, just writing a letter ‘shivers my timbers’.

Yours heartily
Percy Grainger