60 Years in Music

SIX

  While I was playing for Gerald Finzi he encouraged my interest in
composing. I had written some pieces, including two concertos, one each for
oboe and clarinet, and he gave them a tryout and offered some advice. I then
wrote a large rhapsodic piece in Latin American rhythms that was accepted by
the BBC and performed by the Concert Orchestra. Listening to it with pride I
thought I had found my metier. But then I found a new and better direction to
take my composing, or so I thought.
 Since the end of the war, English musicals had been limping along in the
shadow of the Americans. “Grab me a Gondola” and “Salad Days” seemed
parochial compared with the sweeping music and stories of “South Pacific”
and “Oklahoma”. But in 1960 “Oliver” hit the London stage. A first rate show
with its own English style, it became the most successful musical since the
war as it didn’t just ape the Americans.
 Its composer was Lionel Bart, a cockney lad, musically completely
uneducated. He was sometimes called “a whistling composer”. Though if that
was true he could certainly whistle to good effect.
  For a while I had been toying with songwriting and with a friend, Peter
Green, had already written one, “What’s Going On Down There”, a scurrilous
piece full of dreadful double entendres which Billy Cotton’s Band, who had a
BBC radio show every Sunday lunchtime, actually performed on air.
 This was the band that had been instrumental in giving Lionel Bart his
start as a songwriter. And talking this over one day with Aubrey Johnson
(whom you may remember from “The Drayton Arms” during my student
days), he suddenly piped up, “Why don’t we have a go at writing a musical.
How difficult can it be if Lionel can do it?”

 Eighteen months later our show was finished. It was called “Change Your
Tune”, and after we had recorded it and presented it to endless potential
backers, we had our answer.
 “Very, very difficult!”

 Here I should pause to thank our four leading actors, Sally Bazely, Ann
Pidgeon, Peter Gilmore and Warren Mitchell, who gave it everything. People
liked it but not enough to put enough money into it. Looking back, I am glad
that it never got on, as it was, a bit like the curate’s egg, good in parts, but the
rest stank.
 After this long ego trip I found myself looking for work. I had lost my
position with the LSO and, for the next couple of years I led a precarious life.
There was an opera season near Ipswich in a grand house; concerts up and
down the country; occasional dates with the New English Orchestra
(mentioned above); some extra work at Sadlers Well, given to me by Percy
Showan, now their orchestral manager; and occasional work with the Royal
Philharmonic Orchestra via my original teacher, Jack Sylvester.

 With the RPO, we were directed by its founder and principal conductor,
Sir Thomas Beecham, for whom, every concert was an occasion. Elsewhere I
have collected anecdotes about musicians I have known, and there are one or
two about Tommy, but here is another.
 The RPO was on its first tour of the USA. They had decided to play the
two national anthems only twice – once before the first concert, at the Music
Academy in Boston, and again after the last one, at Carnegie Hall. Tommy
had his own way with everything and especially with national anthems. For
the English anthem he would shuffle slowly onto the stage, leaning a little
backward, polishing his glasses. About halfway to the rostrum he would
abruptly shoot out a finger, at which the timpanist would begin a roll,
carefully timed to crescendo until Tommy was on the box, by which time it
had become thunderous. Then, CRASH!, the cymbals started the anthem,
which was taken at a very stately tempo with some florid work by the horns, a
big rallentando at the end, and another great crash from the cymbals. A
unique interpretation.
 At the final rehearsal in Boston, Sir Thomas addressed the orchestra.
“Gentlemen and Lady….”
 This to include Tina Bonifaccio, the harpist, and the only woman.
“I am told”, he continued, “that the American anthem is an old drinking
song”.
 He paused as a few giggles ran round the orchestra.
“We shall therefore play it as such.”
At the concert he proceeded to play both anthems in the way I’ve
described. After the final cymbal crash of the American one (and remember,
the “Star Spangled Banner” is a rather long anthem), there was a brief,
astonished silence, followed by a yell. The audience leapt to its feet and
applauded for nearly ten minutes.
  Next day, in the New York Times, Olin Downes, the paper’s music critic
wrote, “It has taken an Englishman to show us how to play our own National
Anthem.”

 Tommy revelled in surprising the orchestra; rehearsals were kept to a
minimum, unless there was a soloist. By this method, he would have the
orchestra on its toes for the show as no one knew quite what the maestro was
going to do. I have recently bought a reissued CD of Schubert’s “Great”, his
9th symphony in C major, on which I was playing. The critics are raving
about its brilliance and clarity, even though it was recorded in the mid-50s.
 While I was with the RPO, apart from Beecham, we played for Otto
Klemperer, Hermann Scherchen, Sir John Barbirolli, Benjamin Britten and
Aram Khachaturian (who amazingly bought the orchestra a drink).
  I also did a season at Glydebourne as a member of the stage band in “Don
Giovanni” where I learned the finer points of croquet and whist as we had
plenty of time off stage.