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30 November 2012

Cataloguing the Malcolm Sargent Collection

Last week we began a new project at the British Library to catalogue the Malcolm Sargent Collection. As the project archivist, I will be posting regular updates over the next few months to illustrate the work in progress.

Papers from the Sargent Collection
The Malcolm Sargent Collection comprises correspondence, engagement diaries, repertoire books, concert programmes, press cuttings and photos, some compositions, and a small number of Sargent’s own conducting scores. A few personal possessions, including his batons and pocket metronome, are also included.  Assembled between 1920 and 1968 by his private secretaries, it provides an extensive record of Sargent’s professional life.

The 120 boxes of material are currently listed in files broadly corresponding to their original arrangement. My task will be to catalogue each of these files at a more detailed item level. My first few days have been spent working through the series of Sargent’s general correspondence from 1928 onwards. This series excludes correspondence relating to specific concert series or events. So far I have reached 1948.

Correspondence from 1928-1939 was found to be full of requests for Sargent to conduct or adjudicate at provincial festivals. It also includes numerous speculative enquiries from musicians seeking orchestral work, the opportunity to perform a concerto, or to have a composition performed.

There were fewer letters during the war years, but evidence of Sargent’s personal efforts to prevent talented musicians being posted abroad. In November 1944 he writes to the Government requesting that bass singer Norman Walker is spared a posting to Iceland in order to be available for a recording of ‘The Dream of Gerontius’. He considers his concerts “to be of national importance in entertainment value to civilians, factory workers and the Forces”. Walker later sang in Sargent’s Gerontius recording of 1945.

An unusual item is a copy of a humorous poem written to a friend during his second Australian tour in 1938, in which he describes lying awake at night and experiencing a vision of accidentally setting alight a hedge with a casually discarded cigarette, “A hedge of which she was so very fond / That had the culprit even been a parson / She’d ‘have him up’ – and sue the fool for arson”.

Sargent's personal effects
More sardonic is a 1945 New Year greeting to the principal trumpet-player of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra concerning his Christmas performances: “When I asked you if you would like a third trumpet to help you out”, he writes, “it was never my intention that he should play third throughout and the second play first …You do realise that as it was, my second trumpeter played far more of the ‘Messiah’ than you did”.

There is evidence of Sargent’s efforts to cultivate relationships with high society. In addition to correspondence concerning his membership of London gentleman’s clubs such as the Garrick, they include an invitation from the Earl of Clarendon to lunch at St James’s Palace, and messages acknowledging letters received by Montgomery of Alamein, Winston Churchill, and the Queen.

A letter from the Ministry of Education dated 8 January 1946 requests Sargent conduct for a film they are making called ‘Instruments of the Orchestra’. “The score has been specially composed by Benjamin Britten and, in the opinion of those who have heard it on the piano, it is a brilliant piece of work”.

Sargent agreed to conduct and provide the narration for Britten's work, which became famous as the 'Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra'. The British Library acquired the autograph manuscript of the ‘Young Person’s Guide’ earlier this year.

Letter to Sargent concerning 'The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra'
Some correspondence relates specifically to the Courtauld-Sargent Concerts, the main records of which are to be catalogued later. Examples include a heated discussion with Arthur Maney, Secretary of the London Symphony Orchestra, in which Sargent implies the orchestra has tried to claim more than it is due in costs for extra musicians. On another occasion, Maney is upset that the Orchestra’s name has been omitted from all promotional material.

Concert-related material also refers to the organisation of UK premieres of works including the Hindemith Piano Concerto, Szymanowski’s ‘Symphonie Concertante’, and Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto and Symphony of Psalms (“a curious score, the Violins and Violas are not used at all”). These examples suggest many more interesting records will emerge later in the cataloguing process.


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