THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Music blog

10 May 2017

New light on Humphrey Searle

1 – MS Mus. 1747-4 aHumphrey Searle, c. 1950. Photograph currently under British Library MS Mus. 1747/4

One of the current projects in the British Library Music Department involves a sizeable amount of material relating to the British composer Humphrey Searle (1915-1982), the 35th anniversary of whose death falls this Friday (12 May).  Although the British Library already holds an extensive collection of Searle’s manuscript scores and papers (now Add MS 71721-71862) which were acquired  shortly after his death, further deposits have since reached the Library from various sources.  These form a substantial supplement (MS Mus. 1747) to the existing material.

Searle made a name for himself in the 1940s and -50s as an avant-garde composer; indeed he has a serious claim to have been the first British writer of serialist music, jostling for this position with Elisabeth Lutyens.  Having studied with Anton Webern, and turning out to be the modernist patriarch’s only English pupil, Searle set his art on the mid-twentieth-century movement of atonalism.  He shared and pursued its ambitions to abandon, or transcend, the idea of key – the traditional foundation of melody and harmony – in favour of other techniques such as serialism, which took as its measure not the ear’s sense of consonance or dissonance but the individual, even mathematical values of the chromatic scale’s twelve notes. 

2 – MS Mus. 1747-4 b

During the Second World War Humphrey Searle served in the Special Operations Executive.
Photograph currently British Library MS Mus. 1747/4

This radical method of composition produced equally radical results.  However, Searle was keen to habilitate it and widen its appeal, understanding it not as a contradiction or abolition of tradition but as a logical development of the Western inheritance.  He composed in traditional forms – symphonies, suites and sonatas – and also wrote music for radio, television, films such as The Haunting (1963) and the stage, notably his opera Hamlet (1965).

Searle’s explorations of serialism’s possibilities, already well represented by the existing collection, are also illustrated by the material now being catalogued.  The supplementary material includes full autograph music scores of his first major orchestral work, ‘Night Music’, his second symphony, Op.33, ‘Five’, a solo guitar work written for Julian Bream, and numerous other works (MS Mus. 1747/1).  Elsewhere there is plenty more evidence of Searle’s spiky biro, including scores of incidental music for BBC plays and features.

3 - MS Mus. 1747-1-1  item 1 First page of autograph pencil score of ‘Night Music’, op. 2, 1943. British Library MS Mus. 1747/1/1, item 1

The majority of the new material, however, consists of Searle’s writings.  From the beginning of his career, he wrote pieces for music journals and magazines alongside his job as a music producer at the BBC; later he was a regular contributor on the airwaves themselves, especially on Radio 3.  Moreover, in his position as a pioneer, it fell to Searle to make the case for the new music which was changing the musical landscape so dramatically.  “Music is an aural art, not a visual design on manuscript paper”, contended the staunch tonalist Ruth Gipps; in 1960 she was not alone in considering serial music “often unpleasant, sometimes harmless, and…  invariably boring”. Against such charges Searle was willing to defend his approach by writing various talks in which he explained the thought and attitude behind the technique.  In one script, he seems to relish playing Liszt’s ‘Nuages Gris’ as an example of the disappearance of key and a melting into atonality.

4 - MS Mus. 1747-2-1-2  item 2
Explaining the roots of atonality in a talk prepared for Birmingham University. British Library MS Mus. 1747/2/1/2, item 2

Indeed, the life and music of Liszt was Searle’s specialist subject: he compiled a catalogue of his works and engineered the foundation of the Liszt Society.  The collection contains additional papers and correspondence related to this aspect of Searle’s work (MS Mus. 1747/3).

5 – MS Mus. 1747-2-5-1  item 1

 From ‘Quadrille with a Raven’, Searle’s memoirs. British Library MS Mus. 1747/2/5/1

Among the other material newly incorporated – correspondence, concert programmes, press reviews of his works – are typescripts of Searle’s memoirs, Quadrille with a Raven, which he completed only months before his death.  In these he recounts his service in the Special Operations Executive during the Second World War, offers anecdotes of Dylan Thomas, Constant Lambert and Alan Rawsthorne and relates how an overpriced Scotch egg brought about marriage.  There are also numerous photographs, which together span Searle’s whole life, along with juvenilia and papers relating to his childhood.

All this material is currently in the process of being described, catalogued and made available to readers.

6 – MS Mus. 1747-4 cHumphrey Searle with his first wife Lesley, to whose memory his second symphony is dedicated.  This photograph was taken in St. John’s Wood in north-west London, where Searle lived for the rest of his life. (1950s: photograph currently British Library MS Mus. 1747/4)

Dominic Newman, Music Manuscript and Archival Cataloguer

The British Library always attempts to identify copyright holders in order to give proper acknowledgement when reproducing their material. Please email music-collections@bl.uk if you believe you hold rights connected with any of the content included in this article.