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Never-to-be forgotten concerts

by Arthur Butterworth


Desert island discs have often been the topic of interesting conversation between musicians. The kind of music a person likes can reveal as much, if not more than any amount of probing verbal discussion: such as television interviewers wickedly delight in to the discomfort of their guests.

Young couples, seeking to get to know each other, wondering whether they are mutually compatible might resort to asking what kind of music appeals to the other. So this intriguing party game is not new.

It could perhaps be equally revealing were one to ask which particular concerts have been an influence on a musical person’s development. Not necessarily which favourite piece of music, for whatever reason that might be - perhaps a memorably romantic occasion, such as a marriage proposal, or a  wedding day – but rather for some purely musical reason: such as the subsequent musical influence that the occasion might have had in a person’s life.

There have been quite a number of such occasions for me; although perhaps not quite so many as might be imagined in a life of music spanning around seventy years. Of the hundreds of musical occasions I must have attended since the age of about ten, many are still happily remembered, others completely forgotten.

Reading Christopher Fifield’s most excellent and absorbing  biography of the great conductor Hans Richter, "True Artist and True Friend" (Oxford University Press) it is interesting to learn that Richter kept what he called his "conducting book", in effect an accurate and always maintained life-time diary of every solitary piece of music he ever conducted from the very beginning of his career to the very last concert he ever did.  "Now, why did I not think of doing that ?" – I said to myself; for in truth I have forgotten most of the concerts I have ever taken part in, whether as player or conductor. I regret now that it did not occur to me at the time to keep an accurate diary of all of them, no matter whether at the time they were important occasions or merely seemed to be routine concerts of one kind or another.   But it has not always been the concerts that I myself have been involved in that have, with hindsight, been some of the most truly musical significance in my life.

While many such occasions have certainly been memorable, perhaps only a handful have been so memorable that they might be regarded as truly seminal to my subsequent development as a musician. Here then are just some of the most important and vivid memories of concerts in my own experience.

In September 1937 I was still a school-boy. I had seen an advertisement for the then annual brass band championship to be held at Manchester. It had bemused me to read on the posters that the test piece was to be something I had never heard of before: the Brahms "Academic Festival Overture".  I managed to squeeze into the contest hall that September afternoon as soon as I could get away from school. Just appearing on the contest platform came the then distinguished Besses o’th’Barn Band from Manchester and thus I heard for the first time in my life this stunning concert overture. It was one of the most influential occasions of my life. From that moment on I became passionately devoted to Brahms, and have remained so ever since.

Some few weeks later I saw this work advertised for performance (in its original orchestral format of course) by the Hallé Orchestra.  I could hardly wait for this concert; but when I did at last hear the proper orchestral version I realised that the symphony orchestra was the kind of music I wanted to be associated with more than anything else in life. It had taken the relatively modest transcription for brass band to alert me to it. This proves yet again, the value of transcriptions; bringing to otherwise unsuspecting – and maybe dismissive – uncultured audiences just what immense musical riches the classics can reveal. I have played in and

conducted this Brahms overture more times than I could possibly remember, and it is still one of my most cherished concert works.

Ten years later – 1947 – I was due to be released from the army. At that time I was still in Germany and had made many truly musical German friends. As a farewell present to me before my return to England and civilian life, they had – secretly – arranged to take me to a performance in a private house of a performance of the Bach "Goldberg Variations" played by a distinguished harpsichordist, Hans Schmidt.  They thought that I should like this music. They certainly knew what they were doing!  I count this astonishing performance – one hour and twenty-three minutes, with all the repeats – as one of the greatest highlights of my whole musical life; it made me a devoted Bach-lover forever afterwards; an occasion I shall never forget, in that cosy drawing room, dimly lit only by three candelabra.

My orchestral playing and conducting career has of course included lots of favourite music, especially Sibelius, Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Arnold Bax. Many of  the earlier performances of their works have certainly been the most influential experiences: notably the first time I heard "Tapiola" and the Sixth Symphony of Sibelius, and the first time – as an examination piece – I had to conduct Bax’s "Tintagel" more or less at sight, an experience which made me a devotee of Bax ever afterwards.   However, some other concert occasions have been probably been even more memorable, and I wish it might have been possible for them to have been recorded at the time:

In 1951 the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Dimitri Mitropoulos came to the Edinburgh Festival. I went to this concert and sat behind the orchestra. This was one of the most stunning demonstrations of  sheer orchestral technique I have ever heard: Vaughan Williams’ Fourth Symphony I had long admired, but never before, nor since have I heard an orchestra play as on this occasion.

In 1960 at the York Festival I was asked to play with the London Symphony Orchestra in a performance of the Monteverdi "Vespers of 1610" conducted by Walter Goehr. This was a completely new experience, playing this very ancient music. Nowadays trumpets would NOT be engaged to do this, but rather the original early baroque "cornetti" would authentically be used as Monteverdi intended. Taking part in this music was a rare experience, not least for the enormously challenging part the trumpets were called upon to play, but even more so to hear the Dolmetsch Consort play the recorders in a way totally unsuspected that they could be played; the heartening sounds of Venetian choral music in those vast spaces of York Minster - like the Bach "Goldberg Variations" – proved to be another illuminating and most memorable new musical experience.

In the 1950s the Hallé under John Barbirolli, gave numerous, memorable performances of Elgar, most of which I took part in as a trumpeter: "The Dream of Gerontius" (on the centenary of Elgar’s birth: 2nd June 1957), both symphonies and "Falstaff" made deep emotional impressions whenever he conducted them, but probably the most memorable performance of the First Symphony took place one radiant September evening with the sun slowly sinking in the great west window of Truro Cathedral, when Sir Adrian Boult conducted the Hallé; this indeed was English music of an indescribable memory.

Such vividly recollected memories are the very stuff of a life-time’s musical experience; it is not just a matter of a pleasant, fond recollection, but something indescribably much more than that: as if such occasions were landmarks of deep emotional and psychical experience which influenced and shaped the whole of one’s subsequent understanding of the meaning and significance of virtually everything one experiences afterwards: giving purpose and insight into what life itself is really about.


Arthur Butterworth

Arthur Butterworth Writes - a regular column


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