The Best in Sound and Form and Hue: John Squire, Musician and Artist
by John Hugh Thomas
I should, I suppose, declare an ‘interest’ (as MPs are supposed to do, though they often seem to ‘forget’ these days) here. I have been acquainted with John Hugh Thomas, author of this book, for more than twenty years, and have felt able to call him a friend for at least the last ten of those years. I have admired many concerts conducted by him and have enjoyed (and learned from) my conversations with him. This book came to me as an inscribed gift from John Hugh.
However, I am certain that neither my pleasure in the book, nor my admiration for the achievement it represents, is the product of my friendship with its author. It is the result of many years of meticulous and wide-ranging research, with a weight of illustrative – and often revealing – detail, though that ‘weight’ is never allowed to become ponderous; it is too well-written for that to ever be the case. The book works on several levels, as biography, music history and social history, for example. It is a sympathetic, but judiciously critical, biography of a remarkable man of many talents.
John Squire was born at Liskeard in Cornwall on January 23rd 1833, and died at Ealing (London) on March 8th 1909 aged 76. Throughout his working life Squire was an employee of various banks. His first job in banking came in 1846 at the age of 13, in Liskeard, when he became a junior clerk at the town’s branch of the East Cornwall Bank, where his father and his older brother Frederic were already employed. Two years later he was transferred to the bank’s Bodmin Branch, where he stayed until 1857. John Hugh Thomas’ research suggests that Squire’s workload was probably lighter in Bodmin than it had been in Liskeard. This seems to have enabled Squire, still only a very young man, to involve himself in the musical life, such as it was, of Bodmin. As throughout the volume, the author’s research throws light on demonstrable (or very likely) connections with residents or visitors to Bodmin from whom Squire might have gained instruction in, and/or encouragement of, his growing fascination with music. He began to develop his skills as a violinist and pianist and to widen and deepen his knowledge of the history of music. By 1855 he was being singled out for praise in newspaper reports of charity concerts held in Bodmin and, indeed, back in Liskeard. At the very least his considerable potential was recognised, as in one of the reviews quoted (p.32) by Mr. Thomas: “Mr. John Squire has much improved since last we had the pleasure of hearing him in public, and he bids fair to become a first-class violinist”. Thomas paints a delightful picture of how the contacts Squire (still well under 20) made with the best of the older amateur musicians in and around Bodmin played a major role in his own development.
Late in 1857, Squire the banker had the opportunity to become, at least for a while, a professional musician. He was appointed organist of Kenwyn Church, Truro and also set himself up as a teacher of music in the city. Thomas quotes (p.56) an advertisement published in the Royal Cornwall Gazette in November 1857: “MR JOHN SQUIRE / having received appointments of Organist at Kenwyn Church and of Musical Director of the Truro Philharmonic Society, begs respectfully to announce that he will shortly be resident in Truro, as a teacher of Pianoforte, Harmonium, Violin etc. etc.”. With his usual energy, Squire threw himself into musical life though, equally characteristically, he was “not prepared to pander to popular taste”, seeing it as his “duty to present the best music available to the public” (Thomas, p.50). Squire never accepted that amateur performances could be slipshod or underprepared and insisted on hard work, thorough preparation and rehearsal, ahead of any performance. His seriousness in this regard did not always make him popular with all the musicians he worked with, either in Truro or elsewhere. Nor did he find life easy without the regular income that his career in banking had given him. He stayed away from banking for only two years, before accepting a post in the Miners’ Bank in Camborne, a smaller town some 12 miles from Truro. In these years Squire was, alongside his life as a banker and his musical activities, developing a reputation as a painter. For the rest of his life, he exhibited regularly (and presumably sold) watercolours, winning several awards. Thomas’ book reproduces nine of Squire’s paintings – all of them thoroughly competent and some of them far more than that.
I do not propose to trace the rest of Squire’s life; once he left Cornwall he worked in banks (as well as painting and participating in musical life) in Bristol, Ross-on Wye, Kingsbridge (Devon), Exeter and Swansea, before, post-retirement, spending his last years in London.
John Hugh Thomas’s narrative of all this is lively, well-informed and hugely readable. Along with its focus on Squire, the book, as Dame Janet Baker writes in a prefatory comment, through its “account of what musical life in this country was like, at a time when Britain was widely regarded as unmusical, is nothing short of an absolute eye-opener". In every chapter there are fascinating details, as when, in Chapter 3 (‘Ross-on-Wye – raising the musical taste of the town’) we are told (p.122-3) how Squire brough together his skills as an artist and as a musician, becoming both “Musical Director and Scenic Director” of an amateur theatrical society, the Ross Amateur Association. In the same chapter Thomas explains how Squire was “involved [with the Herefordshire Philharmonic Society] in performing classical symphonic repertoire for the first time”, which “gave him a singular advantage over many amateur musicians. While the majority were able to discover the major works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven by hearing them performed, very occasionally, or by playing them in transcriptions for piano, Squire was able to discover these works ‘from the inside’ as it were, the inside being at the centre of a symphony orchestra, directed by a knowledgeable and experienced conductor” (p.126). What Squire learned from experiences condition the principle on which he afterwards tried to work with groups of other amateur musicians. This is succinctly summed up in a letter published in The Cambrian newspaper in February 1891. The writer of the letter is not identified by name, but had clearly worked with Squire in Swansea: “Mr. Squire … with his well-known earnestness in the interests of art, will only consent to conduct a concert wherein both orchestra and chorus are complete in every respect, a condition not only due to the memory of the great composer who created the works, but in a special manner to the audience, who ought to have what they pay for in its integrity” (Thomas, p.250).
There is, in short, a wealth of information and insight in this book – any reader would, surely, be fascinated by the several appearances in its pages of the great soprano Adelina Patti who, after her final tour of the USA, retired to Craig-y-Nos Castle, in the Swansea Valley. There are interesting details about three of Squire’s children, all of whom went on to have significant musical careers. The best remembered is perhaps William Henry (1871-1963). I knew of him before, but until reading this book I didn’t know that he was the son of John Squire. William Henry began the study of the cello from an early age, giving his first public performance, in Kingsbridge, at the age of nine – this book reproduces a photograph taken to mark the occasion. Just three years later he began studies at the Royal College of Music (cello with Edward Howell, composition with Parry and Stanford). After leaving the College, he soon established himself as a professional cellist. Impressed by Squire’s playing, Fauré dedicated his Sicilienne, op. 78 (1898) to him. Squire’s own compositions (over 250 in total) included a number of attractive miniatures for cello and piano, such as Gavotte humoristique, op. 6, Chansonette, op. 22 and Tarantella, op. 23, as well as some popular ballads. Later he became Professor of Cello at the RCM and the Guildhall School of Music.
The oldest of the Squires’ children, Emily, born in 1867, also performed in musical events organised by her father while still very young. She, like ‘Willie’, was accepted as a student at the Royal College of Music and went on to have a successful professional career; by the 1890s she was becoming “firmly established in her career, being recognized nationally for her musicianship as much as her artistry” (pp.278-9). The author quotes (p.323) a writer in the St. James Gazette, in 1904, describing her as “an artist of distinction”. He tells, us on the same page, that in 1907 she took the role of ‘The Angel’ in Elgar’s The Apostles at Gloucester, as part of the Three Choirs Festival, in a performance conducted by Edward Elgar. Less of a ‘star’ than either William Henry or Emily, but obviously a highly competent musician was Charles Barré Squire, born in 1881. Like both William Henry and Emily, he studied at the RCM, beginning in 1894 – in which year his father gave him his ‘best’ violin. He left the College in 1898, without any formal qualifications, but soon became a regular member of, and sometimes soloist with, the Queen’s Hall Orchestra, as well as undertaking engagements as a soloist in London and elsewhere. His playing made a favourable impression on the composer and organist Frederick Bridge (1844-1924) who engaged Barré (still only 18) to lead an orchestra he put together to perform his oratorio The Flag of England in 1897. Soon Barré was engaged to join an ensemble created to accompany Clara Butt during a tour of England and an extended visit to Australia. In 1916 Barré enrolled in the 11th Devonshire Regiment. At the end of the War, he worked as a freelance musician for some years; in the 1920s he was first violin and leader of several orchestras, including that of the Russian Ballet Company in London. In 1933 he was made principal second violin of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
There is so much that is fascinating in this book that I could praise or quote, but I always find it difficult to silence the voice of my inner pedant, so I will offer a few ‘negative’ observations. These largely relate to the book’s index. A lot of lesser-known composers of the Nineteenth Century are referred to in the book’s main text, but quite a few of them are absent from the index; so, for example, Richard Stevens and his glee ‘The cloud capp’d towers’ are mentioned on page 71, but Stevens, i.e. Richard John Stevens (1757-1837) makes no appearance in the index; elsewhere Thomas makes mention of “Eaton Fanning’s Song of the Vikings” – but, once more, the composer’s name is not to be found in the index. (To pile pedantry upon pedantry, the usual spelling of the composer’s surname seems to have only one ‘n’ – i.e. ‘Faning’. I have noticed only one error of proof-reading, again in the index; on pages 314 and 328 there are references to the Spanish violinist Pablo de Sarasate, but in the index (p.423) he appears as “Sarasate, Pablode”. These are, of course, utterly trivial matters weighed against the knowledge and insight which characterise this remarkable book.
I will close by saying a little about the book’s author, John Hugh Thomas. A graduate of Cardiff University, he was a member of both John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi Choir and Roger Norrington’s Heinrich Schütz Choir. He taught for more than thirty years at Swansea University and was also Head of Vocal Studies at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff. At various times he was Chorus Master of the BBC Welsh Chorus, Tutor and Director of the National Youth Choir of Wales and Conductor of the Cardiff Polyphonic Choir. In 1965 he founded the Swansea Bach Choir, which he conducted for almost fifty years, during which time it deservedly acquired a reputation as one of the very finest amateur choirs in Wales. Like John Squire before him, John Hugh Thomas demanded – and got – professional standards of preparation, responsibility and sheer hard work, from the amateur singers and musicians he worked with, a similarity which must surely have contributed to that understanding of Squire which is everywhere evident in this book.