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 Quadrille With A Raven by Humphrey Searle.

 

Reviewed by Lewis Foreman in Tempo 208 (April 1999)


The world is suddenly divided into electronic haves and have-nots; those with access to, and knowledge of, the Internet, and those without. For music the Internet is a rapidly growing resource. This is a review of a book, and an  important book too, published on the Web since April 1998, although it has not appeared in hard copy. (Indeed it had, I understand, previously done the rounds of several publishers without success.)

The British music databases on Classical Music on the Web, while by no means yet comprehensive, provide a useful and convenient source of information for the composers they do cover, including catalogues, articles and pictures. Under the creative management of  Web-Master Len Mullenger, they look good, and have set high targets for accuracy and treatment. Humphrey Searle is a case in point. Mullenger provides articles previously published in hard copy, including Searle's 'Is the Symphony Viable Today' [From Twenty British Composers edited by Peter Dickinson (The Feeney Trust/Chester Music, 1975), pp.14-16. Readers might like also to remember Searle's earlier article on this subject in The Listener, 29 November 1962, not included on the Internet.]; a catalogue giving full details of orchestrations; and, most promisingly, the complete text of Searle's unpublished autobiography Quadrille with a Raven (Find it by typing Humphrey Searle in the Alta Vista search screen, to bring up many Searle options.)

After his death in 1982, Searle's music, never exactly high-profile, went into what seemed a terminal decline. But as the recent CD of three symphonies  demonstrates all too clearly, to encounter his music again after the passage of years is to find an approachable personal voice, a figure of some stature.  (BBC Scottish SO/A Francis, CPO 999376-2 (since this review was written, the remaining two symphonies have appeared on CPO 999 541-2. Ed. ) As his account records, Searle played a pivotal role in British music during its anguished honeymoon with the new music over the period after the Second World War. Yet as Jenny Doctor has made clear in her PhD thesis, British music's rapprochement with the new music in the 1930s and beyond was a far more constructive and pioneering affair than we have sometimes been led to believe, particularly due to Sir Adrian Boult when BBC Director of Music. [Doctor, Jennifer R: The BBC and the Ultra-Modern Problem: A Documentary Study of the British Broadcasting Corporation's Dissemination of Second Viennese School Repertoire, 1922-36. Thesis, PhD, Northwestern University, 1993.]

Searle and Elisabeth Lutyens need no introduction as the first British dodecaphonic composers. Searle's narrative thus provides a vivid personal window on the changing world of the new music before and after the Second World War. We follow him from the marriage of his parents in Rangoon in 1914; his birth and affluent middle-class childhood at his grandparents' house in Oxford; prep school, Winchester, New College Oxford. He studied music at the RCM, with John lreland for composition (but is bowled over - like so many others - by Boult's broadcast of Wozzeck in 1934), and preserves Ireland's uncomplimentary comments about his contemporaries ('Master Britten... if he farts they'll record it'). There follows study with Webern in Vienna. Searle is good at evoking the oppressive political climate, until the war intervenes and, owing to his linguistic ability, he eventually becomes a trainer with the Special Operations Executive.

We have 20 short chapters, which provide a first-hand account with some striking individual portraits. For its contribution to the history of Fitzrovia  - that 1940s Bohemian melting pot, which saw some of the most colourful characters of the period it is also invaluable. There are many larger-than-life characters: Searle's teacher Webern, Edith Sitwell, Constant Lambert, Edward Clark, Samuel Beckett, Basil Dean, Hermann Scherchen, Erik Chisholm, the Milhauds. Yet it is a great pity that Searle did not take some proper advice when he was writing - perhaps asked some kind literary friend to review the drafts as they were written - for while his story is a fascinating one (the world of which he tells is not widely documented even now, particularly at such authentic first hand) he fails to take advantage of all his opportunities. Thus in a comparatively short text, so much detail is omitted - so many tantalizing starts are made which only Searle could have elaborated, and are now lost for ever.

We can see Searle's strengths by taking a passage almost at random; this is from Chapter 74

After Christmas the BBC Music Department suggested that as the army had no use for me until March, I should join them in Bristol. There I found not only my musical colleagues but many members of the BBC Variety Department, and we all shared amusing times in the Victoria pub in Clifton. Also living in Bristol were Alun Rawsthorne and his first wife Jessie Hinchcliffe, who was a violinist in the BBC Symphony Orchestra. They shared a studio with Hyam (Bumps) Greenbaum and his wife Sidonie Goossens, one of the harpists in the orchestra. I had met Alan in London and had been at the first performance of his first piano concerto, for piano, strings and percussion, [Aeolian Hall, 14 March 1939] which was given in an enterprising series of concerts organized by the South African pianist Adolph Hallis. I liked it very much; Alan, though exactly the same age as Constant, had taken a far longer time to achieve recognition. However his Variations for Two Violins [Theme and Variations for Two Violins, Wigmore Hall, 7 January 1938] had made his reputation, and so had his Symphonic Studies for Orchestra, which were given at the Warsaw ISCM Festival in 1939 [21 April 1939]. I had not known Alan very well in London, but now got to know him much better. He, Jessie, Bumps and Sidonie would often meet their friends in the Llandoger-Trow, an ancient pub opposite the equally ancient Theatre Royal in the lower part of Bristol; Alan remained a good friend till the end of his life.

Bumps and I had met over the abortive production of 'The Tailor" at Oxford in 1936. [Bernard van Dieren's opera, libretto by Robert Nichols, was to have been conducted by Hyam Greenbaum for the Oxford Opera Club, but it proved too difficult for the available chamber orchestra.] Television had been closed down on the outbreak of war, [Greenbaum was the conductor of the BBC Television Orchestra] and he was made conductor of the BBC Variety Orchestra. He was an extraordinarily gifted man who could conduct anything, from Schoenberg to Duke Ellington. but he never made a real name for himself. He was a most amusing companion; I regret his loss sincerely, for he died young during the war' at Bangor, whither the Variety Department had been transferred.[New Grove states he died at Bedford on 13 May 1942] His much younger sister Kyla later became a fine concert pianist. I continued to see Jessie for many years. although not of late; Sidonie I still see from time to time and she has not lost her warmth and sweetness of nature.

While I was in Bristol I went to the first and only performance of Alan's, his 'Kubla Khan', which was written for the BBC's Overseas Service and was performed in their Bristol studios. It was for chorus and strings, with two soloists. I thought it was a very fine work, and the only reason it was never performed again was that the score and parts were destroyed in an air raid on Bristol. Alan's whole studio went up in flames, and both couples lost most of their possessions. I always hoped that Alan would write the score again. but e never did; I had begun to sketch a setting of the poem myself before the war, but put it aside and didn't feel like taking it up again till after Alan's death. (I made a new setting in 1974.)

The whole book is like this. Fascinating stuff, at times un-put-downable - but needing practical advice on developing the narrative, properly introducing characters, developing the set pieces. This all leaves us with a very real problems. Searle's is clearly an important first-hand account, but if it is cited in, say, the New Grove Revised, who is to say it will remain available on the Internet, an essentially ephemeral and unarchived medium. I am afraid the only solution is for key libraries and users to download the text, print it out, even bind it, and place it on a shelf! Where does that leave the copyright owner from the viewpoint of, say, the copyright in the USA? In fact probably unprotected, and it also seems rather sad that its readers will contribute no royalty to the author's estate. Perhaps some sympathetic and knowledgeable editor will yet take in hand this delightful, informative and largely well-written account, by so important a figure, and provide it with a scholarly context, conventional publication and a proper place in the literature. Meantime do read it - and it's free!

Lewis Foreman

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