Music blog

Music news and views

01 March 2013

Update on the Malcolm Sargent Collection

The cataloguing of the Malcolm Sargent Archive has now generated over 4,000 individual catalogue records of Sargent’s general correspondence. Since my last blog post, coverage has been extended to the year 1958, by which time Sargent had become one of the most celebrated public figures in Britain.

Correspondence from 1948-58 covers a number of significant landmarks in Sargent’s musical life, including the Opening Ceremony of the 1948 Olympic Games, the Festival of Britain, and Sargent’s appointment and tenure as Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Cataloguer working on the collection
Researchers can benefit from the fact that the files of the 1950s contain significantly more carbon copies of Sargent’s own letters than are preserved in earlier years, providing a clearer view of his personal outlook.

This includes, for example, Sargent’s opinions on performance practice, which are often expressed in correspondence with music critics. Typical is an exchange with Frank Howes of The Times in May 1957 in which Sargent provides cogent arguments for his addition of several instruments to the score of Messiah, including horns (they were used once by Handel himself), clarinets and flutes (had they been available for Handel, he would have used them), and piano (‘it is difficult to understand people who really like the sound of the harpsichord’).

Whilst Howes is sympathetic to the co-existence of a practical ‘Victorian’ and more historically informed 20th-century performance practice, Peter Pears is less tolerant of Sargent’s practicality. ‘Surely it is not necessary to butcher it so?' he asks in dismay on seeing the cuts to be made in a forthcoming performance of the St Matthew Passion, believing them to destroy the dramatic narrative. Dismissive of such high-mindedness, Sargent sees nothing wrong with a version originally used by Walford Davies, and besides, ‘there is always the scramble for buses afterwards’.

Box of correspondence
If accounts of Sargent often imply vanity in his cultivation of a showman image and reputation as a social climber, the correspondence also reflects his benevolence as a patron, president or fund-raiser for a wide range of charities, and shows he often took a surprising personal interest in the fortunes of individuals unknown to him. Following his broadcast appeal for the RSPCA, for instance, he receives a letter from a Devonshire woman who has adopted a horse to save it from slaughter. On hearing she cannot afford to buy hay for ‘Gay Marion’ for the winter months, Sargent donates £5 for two consecutive years. On another occasion he responds to an appeal from a blind charity by funding private music lessons for the two sons of a blind man in Dorset.

Some requests are too presumptuous. There is no response from Sargent to a Falmouth mother who seeks a deposit to obtain a £2000 loan to build a bungalow for her family, necessary because she has no windows in her kitchen (‘I know a builder’, she reassures him). Likewise, he has no time to examine the work of a man who announces he has sacrificed his profession and devoted 14 years of his life to the composition of an oratorio (the benefit of which is ‘after years of constant attunement to this vibration of sound … I could quite easily compose four oratorios a year’).

Sargent’s sense of Christian duty is less sympathetic to appeals of a political nature. He refuses a request from Sir Steuart Wilson to sign a letter voicing opposition to the Communist-sympathetic Musicians Organisation for Peace. Likewise, he declines to become a member of the League of Empire Loyalists after they support his objection to changing the words of the second verse of the National Anthem: rather he believes it to be a mistake to shout aggressively one’s patriotism, especially as a frequent traveller. He also declines to support an appeal for African American singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson, stating that, as he does not know why America has blacklisted Robeson, he has not the ‘slightest justification in taking part in any disturbance on the matter’ (only belied by the fact he has written and underlined the word ‘Communist’ on the letter.)


The comments to this entry are closed.