Pierre Boulez was one of the most important musicians of the 20th and early 21st centuries. His own music is often considered forbiddingly cerebral, not least because musicologists have tended to focus on its construction, but I contend that the French literary and broader intellectual context was at least as important to the composer as musical techniques such as serialism. My research project, generously supported in 2020-21 by a British Library Edison Fellowship, uncovers the crucial impact of this context on Boulez, enhancing our understanding of his work and leading towards a more visceral, emotional response to his work.
Boulez’s reputation as the ‘angry young man’ of European modern music followed him for the rest of his long life. He was angry because music mattered hugely to him. Of course, this anger sprang from his rejection of the conservative French musical culture of his youth, from a desire to wipe the slate clean after the horrors of World War II, and surely also from his rejection of senior male role models, including his father who wanted him to train as an engineer. But, more profoundly, this violence and anger has striking parallels in Parisian artistic culture of the 1930s and 40s, and specifically from artists broadly connected with surrealism.
Antonin Artaud (1926)
One of the most important figures in Boulez’s artistic evolution was Antonin Artaud (1897-1948). He is best known today for writings including The Theatre and its Double, but for Boulez, Artaud was not primarily a cultural theoretician, but a performing artist whose work only truly existed live. It was Paule Thévenin, Artaud’s friend and later his literary executor, who introduced Artaud’s work to Boulez (she later also edited a collection of Boulez’s writings). Artaud’s final public performance took place at the Galerie Loeb in Paris in July 1947, where he read some of his texts surrounded by an exhibition of his drawings. This was an intimate space; ‘Boulez and his friends had to sit in front of the first row of chairs, and they found themselves almost ‘under’ the voice of Artaud when he was reading.’ Being within spitting distance of Artaud, still a charismatic performer despite his much reduced physical condition, was an experience that Boulez never forgot. Towards the end of his life, he recalled that Artaud’s performance ‘made an impression on me because what initially seemed to make no sense suddenly made sense very strongly.’
Few Artaud recordings survive: there are copies of Aliénation et la magie noire (1946) and Pour en finir avec le jugement de Dieu (1947) in the British Library. In Pour en finir… Artaud pushes his voice to its very limits;
through the extremes of expression, register and dynamics, he sought to transcend the limitations of human utterances. Listening to Artaud’s vocal performance alongside the final movement of Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata played by Maurizio Pollini, with its aggressive performance directions such as ‘pulvériser le son’, shows that they both inhabit a sound world where no holds are barred.
In the 1920s, Artaud was briefly associated with André Breton, the self-appointed leader of the surrealist movement. The French surrealist circle was a pluridisciplinary environment whose members had wide-ranging artistic and intellectual interests. Often these coexisted in one publication, as in the reviews Documents and Minotaure, whose pages provide a complete portrait of contemporary surrealism, from psychoanalytical studies of delirium to images provoking new ideas through incongruous juxtapositions. And Breton himself frequently combined photography, autobiography and fiction in a single publication; he also had a strong interest in ethnography and amassed an impressive collection of non-Western and esoteric objects.
One obvious connection between Breton’s stories – one that was particularly resonant for Boulez – is the recycling of the last phrase of his novella Nadja (1928), ‘La beauté sera CONVULSIVE ou ne sera pas’ (Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or it will not be). At the end of ‘La beauté sera convulsive’, a short story published in Minotaure in 1934, we read this extension: ‘La beauté convulsive sera érotique-voilée, explosante-fixe, magique-circonstancielle ou ne sera pas’ (Convulsive beauty will be erotic-veiled, exploding-fixed, magic-circumstantial or it will not be). Convulsive beauty is a physical shock, an instant unmediated reaction which has the power to reunite supposed opposites. It provokes profound sensations instantaneously which according to Breton, ‘could not come to us via ordinary logical paths.’
‘La beauté sera convulsive’ is illustrated by a photo by Man Ray captioned ‘explosante-fixe’: a female dancer wearing a full skirt and sleeves, perhaps a flamenco dancer in a trance, captured in a freeze frame with her arms, sleeves and skirt suspended in mid-whirling motion. This fleeting instant captured on film exemplifies ‘convulsive beauty.’ Images, it is suggested, are superior to words as conduits of convulsive beauty, provoking as they do an instant, unmediated reaction. And moving beyond Breton, I contend that music has an even stronger power to convey convulsive beauty. Music can only exist in time and in sound; its action on our senses is literally ‘moving.’ Unlike Breton, the Belgian composer André Souris, a friend and early supporter of Boulez, understood the unique power of music; he believed that ‘the language of music was more apt than any other to faithfully relay the deepest feelings’ and that music was ‘perhaps the medium most suited to surrealist expression.’
The impact of surrealism on Boulez has been underplayed: most obviously, he used a Breton fragment, …explosante-fixe…, as the title of several related works in the 1970s-90s, and this fusion of apparent opposites – explosion and stasis – is a highly apt metaphor for his music. A recording of an early version conducted by Boulez at the Proms on 17 August 1973, when compared with later versions, shows that its musical identity remained remarkably stable. This extract was recycled in later iterations of …explosante-fixe…, including the offshoot Mémoriale (1985).
In a letter to Souris written in 1947, Boulez wrote that his music was about ‘violence, shock, life’ and he believed ‘this is what is most lacking, it seems to me, in every work by the serial “school”.’ In the work of Artaud and Breton, Boulez discovered the ‘violence, shock, life’ which is the defining characteristic of his first compositions.
 Sarah Barbedette, ‘Différentes façons d’être voyant’ in Barbedette (ed.) Pierre Boulez [exhibition catalogue]. Paris: Actes Sud, 2015: pp. 23-37, at p. 25: ‘Boulez et ses amis doivent s’asseoir devant le premier rang de chaises, et c’est presque « sous » la voix d’Antonin Artaud qu’ils se trouvent lorsque celui-ci profère ses poèmes.’
 François Meïmoun, Pierre Boulez: La Naissance d’un compositeur. Paris: Aedam musicae, 2010, p. 59: ‘[…] ce qui n’avait initialement aucun sens prenait d’un coup un sens, et un sens très fort.’
 André Breton, ‘La beauté sera convulsive’, in Minotaure, 5 (May 1934): pp. 8-16, at p. 16.
 Cited in Robert Wangermée, André Souris et le complexe d’Orphée. Entre surréalisme et musique sérielle, Liège, Mardaga (1995), p. 6; ‘la matière musicale était plus propre qu’aucune autre à épouser fidèlement les mouvements intérieurs […] [la musique constituait ‘peut-être le moyen le plus conforme aux démonstrations surréalistes.’
 Wangermée (1995), p. 272; ‘Boulez disait ensuite ce qu’apportait sa propre musique: la violence, le choc, la vie. “C’est ce qui manque le plus, me semble-t-il, à toutes les œuvres de ‘l’école’ atonale”, ajoutait-il.’
Here we have two interpretations by Czech quartets separated by almost ninety years, each passionate and invigorating, but how different they sound!
I first became aware of the Bohemian Quartet (or Ceské Kvarteto) in a fascinating talk Robert Philip gave at the IMS Prussia Cove Open Chamber Music in 2013, in which he played their recording of Dvořák’s American Quartet. This initial encounter made a strong impression on me and I have since spent time at the British Library as an Edison Fellow delving into the Sound Archive's collection of early recordings of Czech quartets playing Czech repertoire. The Bohemian Quartet’s recordings are especially revealing, and exemplify an approach to expressivity and ensemble that differs markedly to some performance styles today. In particular, their use of variation in bow technique, portamento, vibrato, tempo and rhythm all stand out as noteworthy. Perhaps surprisingly, performance practice of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Czech music has received less scholarly attention than other national schools, and the work that has been done in this field is not often reflected in performance today.
A particular interest in Dvořák led to my proposing his lesser-known quartets for a recording cycle with my former string quartet (the Albion) for Signum Classics. One of the CDs also features Josef Suk’s short Meditation on the Old Czech Hymn 'St Wenceslas' for String Quartet, Op. 35a. Two discs coincided with initial visits to the British Library. The Edison Fellowship has since provided a valuable opportunity to dig deeper into questions that arose when listening to the Bohemian Quartet and recording Czech string quartets.
Experts in historical recording are united in their praise of the Bohemian Quartet, and particular for their achievement of a genuine equality across the four players. Chamber music specialist Tully Potter describes them as ‘by common consent, the first great modern chamber ensemble’ (liner notes to The Czech Quartet Tradition, Biddulph), and Robert Philip calls them ‘the string quartet acknowledged as the first modern “ensemble of equals”’ (Robert Philip Performing Music in the Age of Recording, 21). Celebrated violin pedagogue Carl Flesch first encountered the Bohemians in 1894, writing in his Memoirs:
Hitherto, one had been accustomed to see in quartet ensembles chiefly a foil for the dominating leader, as was the case above all in the Joachim Quartet... here for the first time one heard ensemble playing by four congenial individualities who were on the same technical level. (Philip Performing Music in the Age of Recording, 122-123)
Their career spanned forty years of chamber music making from the early 1890s to the 1930s, with few changes of membership in that time. By the time the ensemble reached its tenth birthday they had already performed a thousand concerts, and they kept up this pace for most of the quartet’s existence. They toured extensively throughout Europe and collaborated with the likes of clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld (1906), violist Lionel Tertis (1906 and 1929) and many other illustrious musicians. Great composers such as Elgar and Janáček were among their many admirers. On hearing them rehearse his String Quartet Elgar exclaimed, ‘The reason I have lived so long is so as to experience your performance’ (Tully Potter, unpublished chapter). Czech composer Janáček was similarly enthralled by their playing, writing to his muse Kamila Stösslová, ‘I’ve not yet heard anything so magnificent as the way the Bohemian Quartet played my work’ (Tully Potter unpublished chapter). When Czechoslovakia came in to being in 1918 the group changed their name to the ‘Czech Quartet’, although in practice the name ‘Bohemian’ stuck.
The Bohemian Quartet in 1895 Karel Hoffmann, Hanuš Wihan, Oskar Nedbal, Josef Suk
The quartet’s members knew Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) personally and were closely associated with the music of Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884). When the violinist Antonín Bennewitz (1833-1926) became Director of the Prague Conservatory in 1882 he, alongside the cello professor Hanuš Wihan (1855-1920), began encouraging more chamber music at the institution. In 1891, at Wihan’s suggestion, the Bohemian Quartet was formed. The original membership consisted of violinists Karel Hoffmann (1872-1936), Josef Suk (1874-1935), violist Oskar Nedbal (1875-1930) and cellist Otakar Berger (1873-1897). The upper three were pupils of Bennewitz, and Berger studied with Wihan. After Berger’s illness and early death he was subsequently replaced by Wihan, who then became the group’s cellist for the bulk of their career.
The quartet’s teachers were also closely connected to Dvořák and Smetana. Both professors worked alongside Dvořák at the Prague Conservatory (Dvořák later succeeded Bennewitz as Director). Bennewitz gave the public premiere of Quartet No.7 Op.16 in A minor (29th December 1878, Prague). Wihan premiered the ‘Dumky’ Trio with the composer himself at the piano, and was the dedicatee of Dvořák’s B minor Cello Concerto, the arrangement of Silent Woods for cello and piano, and the Rondo in G minor. The Bohemian Quartet’s original members also all had close personal relationships with Dvořák. Three of the group’s founders: Suk, Nedbal and Berger were also Dvořák’s composition students, and Suk was also his son-in-law. The quartet gave the world premiere of Dvořák’s G major quartet Op.106 (9th October 1896), having given the first Prague performance of the A flat Quartet Op.105 earlier in that year on 21st January.
Bennewitz premiered Smetana’s Trio in G minor, and was a founder of the Kammermusikverein in 1876, a chamber music society whose nationalist principles spurred Smetana to write his first string quartet later that year. In the British Library Archive there is a very interesting radio programme from 1995 (H5456/2) by Duncan Druce on ‘From my life’, in which he talks of the initial resistance to this piece in some quarters. The Bohemians, however, made it their own: they first performed it in 1892, and so it was part of their repertoire from the beginning. Nedbal’s delivery of the opening viola solo— turning round to face the audience and playing it from memory— was much commented on by many illustrious witnesses, such as Sir Arnold Bax and Eric Coates.
By the time the Bohemians made their recordings in the 1920s, Hoffmann and Suk were still in the group, but in rather acrimonious circumstances in 1913 Wihan had been replaced by the younger Ladislav Zelenka (1881-1957) and Nedbal by Jiří Herold (1875-1934). (Happily, though, the British Library also has a couple of short recordings of Oskar Nedbal. Nedbal’s departure caused a scandal as he ran off ran off with first violinist Karel Hoffmann's wife in 1906!)
Given its members’ personal connections to Dvořák, the Bohemian Quartet’s recordings should clearly be a starting point for anyone interested in performance practices for this repertoire. With their pedigree it is perhaps particularly striking that the expressive devices that this group used—with one foot still firmly rooted in the nineteenth century—have largely been overlooked, especially when we think of the interest in period performance and the rise of this with regard to the music of nineteenth-century composers. Dvořák seems to have been particularly neglected. As Martin Jemelka has commented in a recent article (‘Antonin Dvořák’s Music made on period instruments’ Czech Music, 2012), only a small handful of chamber music discs of this repertoire touch on historically informed stylistic awareness.
Although the Bohemian Quartet’s recordings date from the 1920s, they clearly embody a fundamentally nineteenth-century performance style. They played on gut strings throughout their careers, there is considerable flexibility in their approach to tempo and use of rubato (they are far from metronomic), ensemble is less tight, rhythms are more gestural than exact, and obviously portamento is much more audibly prevalent than vibrato. There are some lapses of intonation in these recordings, which perhaps should be put down to the players’ advancing years. Since vibrato and portamento have been discussed in studies of historical recordings elsewhere, albeit not greatly in relation to this repertoire, I would like to draw attention here to some different features—those involving the players’ use of the bow.
In a sense it is surprising that the bow has received so little attention, since any string player would agree with Louis Spohr’s proclamation that the bow is the ‘soul of playing’ (Milsom Theory and Practice in late 19th-century violin performance, 34). Robert Philip provides some clarity as to the Bohemian Quartet’s general style, and comments that the
old ‘German’ way of playing extended far beyond Joachim’s direct influence. Different versions of it can be heard in recordings of the Rosé, Bohemian, Capet and the original Budapest Quartet. . . . The so-called German school was therefore not just a narrow group associated with Joachim, but a wider culture of violin playing, which, for a time, resisted the trend towards more powerful and assertive styles. Its preference for a broad style of bowing, and little vibrato, was a continuation of early nineteenth century practice. (Philip Performing Music in the Age of Recording 192-3)
Earlier Philip describes the old German grip 'with the low elbow, the fingers are close together, and roughly at right-angles to the bow.'
Articulation markings seem to carry implications for bowing that are not exemplified in performances of this repertoire today. Where staccato dots are marked, the stroke is much more varied and often on the string (which is to say that the bow is not lifted off the string at the end of the note, as would be more common in modern performance). Moreover, any figure marked with a dot at the end is sometimes stopped rather than lifted. There are many examples of this in the Bohemian recordings, such as in the second movement Polka from Smetana’s Quartet No.1.
This recording is by a slightly younger Czech group—the Ševčík-Lhotský Quartet—which was made just a year after the Bohemian Quartet’s own. Again we hear the more on-the-string style that we encountered with the Bohemians. In the Ševčík-Lhotský’s rendition occasionally the bow will be thrown as an effect (e.g. violin 1 second movement bar 11), whereas the Bohemians were a little more controlled here.
Similarly, in the opening of the ‘American’ quartet of Dvořák both Hoffmann and Herold from the Bohemians prefer a more ‘on-the-string’ approach.
This prevalence for more on-the-string strokes might in part be a result of the old ‘German’ style of bow-hold described above, lending itself more to these kinds of on the string strokes. Clive Brown (in Classical and Romantic Performing Practice 1750-1900) and David Milsom (in Theory and practice in late nineteenth-century violin performance) have also both commented that in the nineteenth-century German school the upper-half of the bow was used more frequently for off-the-string strokes.
It is also noticeable that the Bohemians are not always consistent with their strokes: they sometimes vary articulation on a repeated passage on a second hearing. Often this is clearly for musical variety, but there are also examples where differences in articulation could be down to age. This is illustrated in the accompaniment in the first movement in this passage in the Dvořák ‘American' Quartet.
Clearly Hoffman’s bow control is not the same—or perhaps this could also be put down to different priorities. If you listen again to the very start of the movement in the previous extract you can audibly hear Hoffmann put the bow to the string and the sound is slightly shaky.
It is worth pointing out that the Bohemian’s articulation and right-hand choices often link to emphasising rhythmic shapes and gestures. For instance, double-dotting is apparent in the extracts above in the first movement of the Dvořák ‘American’ and the Smetana ‘From my life’ opening. In the Smetana Polka we heard earlier the ‘quasi Tromba’ theme is double-dotted in the viola and violin, and is particularly striking when it reaches the first violin in terms of rhythmic gesture: the first two quavers of the bar are marked slurred with a dot under the second, and Hoffmann and Herold play with the beat-placement here to make the rhythm particularly dance-like.
In fact, wherever there are a couple of repeated rhythmic values together they are often played with a lengthening of the first of the group. One good example is the evocative harmonic turning point in the first movement of the Dvořák ‘American’
Often this rhythmic flexibility will be led by the first violinist, and there are many examples of this throughout the recordings. For me, the Bohemian Quartet’s rendition of the second movement of the Dvořák ‘American’ offers a masterclass in rhythmic flexibility.
In line with nineteenth-century practice the group significantly slows down into more restful passages of music and then rushes through more excited bits: listen again to the opening of the polka extract from the Smetana ‘From my life’ second movement above, and here again is a fuller version of the last extract to show how the group first pushes through, followed by an extreme winding down into the second theme.
Portamento is used by the players to emphasise the dissipating of energy in this passage—a device which is used with similarly effective results elsewhere.
The Ševčík-Lhotský Quartet also use rubato and portamenti in the manner of the Bohemians. As a final example, listen to this beautiful, swooping rendition of Osakar Nedbal’s Valse Triste played by the Ševčík-Lhotský Quartet recorded on 28th May 1929.
Although the Ševčík-Lhotský Quartet clearly had their own very different interpretations of Czech masterpieces, the fact that they also used similar expressive devices as the Bohemians bolsters the argument that these were fundamental to the character of this repertoire and not just the product of an unusual idiosyncratic ensemble.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many ways in which the time spent with these recordings during this Fellowship has influenced my approach to this repertoire in my playing. I am looking forward to building on the work undertaken during my Fellowship with a Research trip next month to Prague, as a recipient of the Royal Irish Academy of Music’s Amplify Grant. This visit will then feed back into my chamber music teaching at the RIAM, to help the students develop a performer-oriented understanding of stylistic traits and broaden their expressive palettes.
I am very grateful to the British Library and to Jonathan Summers for his guidance throughout this Fellowship, and to Tully Potter for sharing his fascinating materials and insights into the world of the Bohemian Quartet with me.
During my fellowship I also wrote an article on Ševčík’s teaching for The Strad magazine.
Guest blog by Edison Fellow Chas Helge who is currently writing his dissertation on Beatrice Harrison
Suddenly, the door opened and the King came in. He was quite alone. He came up to me… saying, 'Nightingale, nightingale,' he said, 'you have done what I have not yet been able to do. You have encircled the empire with the song of the nightingale with your cello.'
These are the words spoken by the cello virtuoso Beatrice Harrison (1892-1965) in 1955 for the BBC Home Service programme Scrapbook for 1924. Harrison, who was once a household name at the height of Great Britain’s colonial empire, lent her first-hand account to help create an historical snapshot of 1924. The monarch she is referencing is King George V. This interview is just one of the rare resources found in the Sound and Moving Image collection at the British Library. My Edison Fellowship facilitated travel to London to access this and many more primary sources for my dissertation exploring the career, life, and recordings of this outstanding early 20th century performer.
Beatrice Harrison’s development was meteoric. She was second of four prodigiously talented sisters: May, Beatrice, Margaret, and Monica. Their early musical studies were supervised by their firebrand of a mother, Annie Harrison. Annie was a talented amateur singer and pianist, and perhaps because she was not able to pursue a musical career herself, mobilized all of her family’s resources to the careers of her children as professional musicians. One of the most fascinating windows into the Harrison family’s lives are their practice journals. The girls were expected to keep meticulous records to document every hour of every day’s productivity. Annie’s devotion and tenacity paid off. Beatrice received exceptional training at the Royal College of Music, the Frankfurt Hoch Conservatory, and the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. While studying with the famous German cello pedagogue Hugo Becker (1863-1941), she won the Mendelssohn Prize at age seventeen.
In their early 20s, Beatrice and her elder sister May Harrison toured Europe and Russia performing the Brahms Concerto for Violin and Cello some fifty-nine times. During their travels, they met Gabriel Fauré, Sergei Rachmaninov, Alexander Glazunov, Gustav Holst, and David Popper. The Harrison sisters also brushed shoulders with the world’s political elite including European royalty, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and in England, King George V and his sister Princess Victoria.
Beatrice and May Harrison (BL Collections)
Beatrice became close friends with Princess Victoria, so close, that it was Princess Victoria who paid for Harrison’s beloved cello, the great ‘Pietro Guarnieri’. In August 1928 HMV made some private recordings for the Princess. Here is one of the third movement of Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor featuring Beatrice on the cello and Princess Victoria accompanying her on the piano.
Another recording, which can be heard at the British Library, is an interview conducted in 1986 with Margaret Harrison (1899-1995), Beatrice’s younger sister. Margaret herself was a prodigy as the youngest pupil of the Royal College of Music (age 4) and her piano skills were extensive enough that she toured with Beatrice in the United States (they even made it to Texas). Here, we can listen to Margaret create a portal, not only into the life of the Harrison family, but also into the private life of Princess Victoria.
Harrison’s greatest claims to fame straddle two different sides of the music world during the 1920s. Today, Harrison’s legacy endures for her recordings of the Elgar Cello Concerto recorded under the baton of Sir Edward Elgar himself. She was his preferred cellist for the concerto and he credited her for popularizing it after its disastrous premiere. They first recorded it together in 1919 and 1920 by the old acoustic process.
Elgar and Beatrice Harrison recording for HMV in 1920
A new recording was made by the electric process on 23rd March 1928 where two turntables were recording simultaneously. Using modern digital technology, these two recordings made at the same session have been combined to create a new stereo version. It also stands as the most accurate representation of what Elgar intended his famous concerto to express.
The second contribution Harrison made was as an international radio superstar. In 1924, she had a 'hard tussle' (her words) to convince managing director of the BBC Sir John Reith to have sound engineers go to her garden near Oxted in Surrey. Her vision was to recreate on live radio what she had successfully accomplished herself many times: marry the rich sound of her cello with the song of the nightingale. In the dark, positioned under an oak tree, surrounded by rabbits, microphones, and wires, Harrison performed Rimsky-Korsakov’s Chant Hindu accompanied by the sound of nightingales to a radio audience of a million people. Four years later she recreated this for the HMV microphone.
Meanwhile, the live broadcast was a hit. It was the first time the BBC had broadcast the sound of birds in their natural habitat. Harrison received more than fifty thousand fan letters and welcomed hundreds of visitors to her estate from every corner of the British Empire. They all hoped to meet ‘The Lady of the Nightingales.’ Harrison and the BBC recreated their broadcast every springtime for twelve consecutive years and later, in the 1955 Scrapbook programme mentioned above. Here is an excerpt from that broadcast describing what happened in 1924 and ending with her recollection of the King's comments mentioned above.
Harrison’s success even led to her appearing as herself in the 1943 British propaganda film The Demi-Paradise, and extraordinary scene where she plays in a garden with nightingales during an air raid for a radio broadcast.
Harrison embraced her status as an international British cultural icon and thus named her memoir The Cello and the Nightingales.
As an American, the Edison Fellowship was my ticket to accessing not only the British Library’s resources, but many institutions and individuals in London. The Harrison Sisters’ scores at the Royal College of Music and Harrison’s correspondence (contracts, internal memos, and letters) with the BBC at their archives in Caversham. Both the RCM and the BBC Archives were so very kind and helpful, especially the RCM librarians who made dozens of trips into the basement to pull up heavy boxes of music, I thank you for helping this helpless American.
While in London, I was privileged to meet the two leading Beatrice Harrison historians, David Candlin, Chairman of the Harrison Sisters Trust and Patricia Cleveland-Peck, author of many beloved children’s books and the annotator/editor of Beatrice’s autobiography, The Cello and the Nightingales. David was kind enough to invite me into his home and show me the Harrisons' church and graves and the Music House in Surrey. He also provided access to documents and countless photos I had never seen before.
Special thanks to Jonathan Summers at the British Library Sound Archive who manages the Edison Fellowships for help and guidance during my stay in London, and for accompanying me in Anton Rubinstein’s Cello Sonata and a Beatrice Harrison manuscript! Finally, thanks to Cheryl Tipp, curator of Wildlife & Environmental Sounds, for the use of a recording studio to finish the transcriptions of the recorded interviews.
Thanks to Somm Recordings for permission to use the Elgar recordings
Winifred Atwell in the late 1950s (1LP0248992 BL collections)
Guest blog by Edison Fellow Uchenna Ngwe who is studying Black classical musicians in Britain before 1960
Little is known about the early years of Winifred Atwell but she is thought to have been born in either 1910 or 1914. By the 1950s the Trinidad-born pianist had become a household name in Britain and Australia but has become a forgotten figure today.
Although various sources claim that Atwell arrived in London in 1946, BBC documents show that she actually appeared on at least two episodes of the radio programme Calling The West Indies in 1945, and was already living in London by this time. Her first appearance was as piano accompanist to a fellow Trinidadian, renowned singer and actor Edric Connor. In 1993, his widow, Pearl Connor, spoke to Stephen Bourne in this unedited interview about Atwell for the BBC Radio 2 programme Salutations.
Following the 1945 broadcasts, Atwell was asked to perform on the radio on a number of occasions over the next year before her inaugural TV appearance on the BBC’s Stars in Your Eyes on the afternoon of 21st October 1946.
Winifred Atwell made her name mainly from popular music but, as she continued to show in her stage act, she was also well-versed in standard classical repertoire. Soon after her arrival in Britain, she began taking piano lessons with Harold Craxton (1885 – 1971), a well-respected teacher at the Royal Academy of Music and sought-after accompanist. In another unedited interview for Salutations, Michael Craxton, Harold’s son, described Atwell’s visits to the family home to study with his father.
After working with a variety of agents from early on in her career, Atwell was represented by Bernard Delfont Ltd from July 1948. Delfont was a former music-hall dancer and theatrical agent before embarking on a career as a successful theatre and leisure impresario – his brothers Lew and Leslie Grade were also theatrical agents before both becoming television executives. This collaboration proved to be very successful and Atwell was in huge demand for her TV, radio and live theatre performances. By the late 1950s she was earning the equivalent of around £4,000 per TV appearance.
Michael Craxton also refers to Atwell's work with his father on Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor. On the 28th November 1954, Atwell made her classical debut at the Royal Albert Hall performing this piece with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Stanford Robinson (1904 – 1984). A few days later on the 1st and 2nd of December, Atwell recorded the work for the Decca label with the same ensemble and conductor. These sessions were Decca’s first ever UK stereo recordings but sadly this experiment remains unpublished and the concerto was only issued in mono.
Despite her abilities and considerable public draw, assumptions made due to her race and success outside of the classical genre meant that Atwell was not taken seriously as a classical musician. However, her work mainly with pop and jazz-influenced music led to the achievement of a remarkable amount of success during her career, including two British no. 1 singles – Let’s Have Another Party (1954) and Poor People of Paris (1956). Her highest-ranking classical recording was of the 18th variation from Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsodie on a theme of Paganini, which was performed on the soundtrack of the film The Story of Three Loves by Jakob Gimpel. Atwell’s version, with Wally Stott and his Orchestra, peaked at no. 9 in the UK charts in 1954.
I was pleased to correct details of Atwell’s early career through my Edison Fellowship research at the BBC archives at Caversham and to be able to put this into context with the rest of my work on Black music in Britain before 1960.
Magid El-Bushra with the Gerald Cavanagh Collection
By Edison Fellow Magid El-Bushra,
counter-tenor and Assistant Content Producer at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Sudanese boys growing up in Willesden Green tend not to fall in love with opera. But an encounter with Miloš Forman’s classic film Amadeus was to awaken a passion which has, in many ways, guided my life. I searched out scraps of information for myself about the art form until eventually, in my early teens, I arrived at two cultural waterfalls – the Royal Opera House, and BBC Radio 3. So, when I recently discovered that there was a collection of recordings in the British Library of Covent Garden broadcast performances on Radio 3 from the Golden Age of opera, the 1960s-70s, I knew that I had to get my hands on it, and I am eternally grateful to Jonathan Summers and the British Library Edison Fellowship scheme for allowing me to do so.
Gerald (‘Gerry’) Cavanagh, the owner of this collection of recordings, was, like me, an opera fanatic. He died in 2016 at the age of 87, leaving behind a house, two bedsits and a storage unit crammed full of opera-related paraphernalia, which attested to a lifetime dedicated to music and concert-going. Stephen Conrad, a family friend who was charged with the unenviable task of clearing out these properties, told me that in disposing of Gerry’s collection, he had managed to sell 45 feet of LPs! He was an avid collector – what we might now call a hoarder – but we have to remember that Cavanagh was part of a generation starved of culture during the war; music was a vital means of relaxation – something to be held onto.
As a young man in the 1950s, Cavanagh would spend his evenings in his favourite seats in the Upper Slips, (high at the top of the Royal Opera House, but with the best acoustic), with a BOAC shoulder bag hiding a clunky reel-to-reel tape recorder at his feet. (I was desperate to get my hands on those recordings, but unfortunately they seem not to have survived the house clearance!) He loved the core German and Italian 19th century repertoire most of all, but was a child of his time, and took a great interest in the musical developments in opera which occurred during his era. After retiring from a career in scientific research at Imperial College, Cavanagh and his wife Flo increased their cultural excursions from East Croydon, seeing more operas and concerts in a month than most people probably see in a lifetime. If a performance they were attending was being broadcast, they would set their recorder to tape it from the radio.
The Cavanagh Collection (C1734) that has made its way to the British Library consists of 302 reels of such recordings, mainly of broadcasts of live opera performances. There are also a few broadcasts of song recitals and orchestral concerts. In any case, the majority are of performances given at the Royal Opera House, but there are also many from ENO, Sadler’s Wells, the Proms, and from much further afield.
I set about beginning to catalogue the collection over the winter, but with my fellowship coinciding with a busy new day job at none other than the Royal Opera House, I always knew I wouldn’t have time to log every reel. Therefore, I decided to set particular emphasis on the recordings of operas from the ROH itself, as well as the recordings of contemporary operas, and to see where and to what extent there was an overlap between the two. My aim was to get a picture of what the collection can tell us about the context in which Gerald Cavanagh was consuming this operatic content.
As the majority of the recordings are taken from BBC broadcasts, I knew that the possibility that some would already exist in the British Library archive would be quite high. There are duplicates, but this does not mean the exercise has been a waste of energy. For example, the ROH broadcast of Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten conducted by Georg Solti from 17 June 1967, which already exists in the archive under the shelf mark 1CDR0028477, notes that ‘[the] recording has heavy distortion’, so it’s gratifying to know that backup now exists in Cavanagh C1734/044-045 for anyone who, like me, loves this opera.
With few exceptions, each reel is accompanied by a clipping from the Radio Times with details of the performance, and the date helpfully written in Cavanagh’s neat hand. I say helpfully, but sometimes one has to account for human error; for example, he dates the first broadcast performance of Peter Maxwell Davies’ Taverner (C1734/210) as 15 July 1962, when the opera wasn’t premiered for another 10 years.
To demonstrate the breadth of the collection, I have included some entries from further afield, such as Szymanowski’s Hagith (C1734/128), which appears rather exotically in a live performance in Italian with the RAI Symphony Orchestra. Finnish composer Aarre Merikanto’s modernist masterpiece Juha (C1734/252, previously unknown to me) is also in the collection. The latter sounds a bit like Schoenberg orchestrating an opera written by Bartók to a libretto that Janáček would have been drawn to (young woman in small town is married to lame old man but gets seduced by dishy merchant. Tragedy ensues).
There are also opportunities to hear broadcasts which one would expect either to already be in the archive, or to already have been released commercially, such as Turandot, starring Birgit Nilsson and James King, broadcast on 15 January 1971, (C1734/282), and the world premiere of Tippett’s King Priam from 29 May 1962 (C1734/018). This performance was given by The Covent Garden Opera Company at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry, ahead of its subsequent premiere at Covent Garden, and I am delighted to have been able to identify these and add them to the Sound and Moving Image (SAMI) catalogue. Indeed, the works of Michael Tippett feature prominently in the Gerald Cavanagh Collection. Here is an extract from Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage from 22 April 1968 with the following cast - Alberto Remedios, Joan Carlyle, Raimund Herincz, Elazabeth Harwood, Stuart Burrows, Helen Watts, Stafford Dean and Elizabeth Bainbridge with the chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, conducted by Sir Colin Davis.
Equally prominent are the key works of the 19th century Italian operatic repertory. This excerpt, from Bellini's La Sonambula, broadcast on 20 March 1971, has the cast of Renata Scotto, Stuart Burrows, Forbes Robinson, David Lennox, Heather Begg, George Macpherson and Jill Gomez with the chorus and orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden conducted by Carlo Felice Cillario.
But what was always most interesting to me in this venture was not so much the process of cataloguing the collection. What really captured my imagination was more what the collection itself says to us as a piece of historical evidence. Because C1734 is more than just a collection of old tapes – it’s actually a snapshot of a cultural attitude which speaks volumes about how the process of listening to opera is shaped by our cultural institutions, not only in the 1960s and 70s, but also today. Who gets to decide what we listen to?
Despite the many transformations BBC Radio has undergone since the BBC’s foundation in 1922, the guiding principle of Inform, Educate, Entertain is one which can still be perceived today. The decisions and cultural objectives of a handful of men during those early days (from BBC founder John Reith, to BBC Music Directors Percy Pitt and Adrian Boult) would go on to shape public attitudes towards music and culture for decades to come. The Third Programme (forerunner to BBC Radio 3) ran from 1946 – 1970, and quickly established itself as one of the major channels for the dissemination of culture in Britain, with its commitment to the erudite exploration of the fine arts for six hours every evening.
The period covered by Cavanagh’s collection of tapes broadly corresponds to that of William Glock’s tenure as BBC Controller of Music (1959 – 1972). Under Glock, the Third Programme sought to define the BBC as an internationally recognised central point, from which the very newest music at the cutting edge of compositional trends would be broadcast into the living rooms of ‘ordinary’ people just like Gerry. During Glock’s tenure, those six hours every evening were expanded by 100 hours a week to a full daily schedule, which provided fertile ground for Glock (avoiding what he referred to as “the danger of musical wallpaper”) to support and nurture new music and new artists. This fit in squarely with the BBC’s lofty educational goal of forming and edifying the cultural taste of the nation.
The Royal Opera House, on the other hand, was then, and is now a completely different kind of cultural institution to the BBC, and with a completely different set of objectives and values. While there had been a recognised need to establish an opera company of international calibre at Covent Garden after the Second World War, music publishers Boosey and Hawkes (who acquired the lease for the building in 1944) and new Chairman and economist John Maynard Keynes all agreed that the fledgling permanent ensemble had to be run above all by a businessman. That businessman was David Webster, who had started his career in retail. Although the utopian dream was to create “a national style of operatic presentation which would attract composers and librettists to write for it” (according to John Tooley, Webster’s successor), “there were factors at work which would inevitably take Covent Garden down other paths”. In other words – the business objective of selling tickets took over from the cultural objective of nurturing new, indigenous work.
“In the fifty years since reopening after the war”, wrote Tooley in 1999, “less opera has been composed for Covent Garden than was originally hoped for”. Indeed, although contemporary opera is given space in The Royal Opera’s annual programming, the list of operas given their premiere at the theatre reads like a roll call of works which either met with critical disapproval, or simply sank without trace. Britten’s Gloriana (C1734/010, the Coronation gala premiere of which Gerry attended in 1953) was played to a “largely uncomprehending and unsympathetic audience”. Henze’s The Bassarids (C1734/192) was touted as an option for The Royal Opera but never made it (instead being recorded by Cavanagh from a concert performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra), as Webster was unenthusiastic. Richard Rodney Bennett’s Victory (C1734/136) and Tippett’s The Knot Garden (C1734/227) were both premiered by The Royal Opera “and ideally should have been repeated, but unfortunately our limited resources made that impossible”. The commitment to contemporary opera during this period seems half-hearted, more like a secondary consideration.
Although there is a great deal of traditional operatic fare in C1734, what is fascinating to me is the sheer breadth and range of new opera that leaps out from the collection, most of which we simply do not hear any more. In the selection I have catalogued, there are four versions of Tippett’s King Priam alone, not to mention the four separate recordings of Britten’s Billy Budd. Among many other examples, Robin Orr’s Hermiston (C1734/238), Henze’s beautiful and witty Elegy for Young Lovers (C1734/280), and Thomas Wilson’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner (C1734/213 – another new addition to the SAMI catalogue, I’m pleased to add) all rub shoulders with classics such as La Fille du Régiment, Otello and La Clemenza di Tito, painting a picture of a wonderfully eclectic and richly informed musical taste.
The irony is that Glock’s key policy of programming challenging, contemporary opera – the policy which seems to have done so much to shape Cavanagh’s musical interests – seems to have dwindled in recent decades. Conversely, since the refurbishment of Covent Garden, and the resulting addition of the Linbury Theatre nearly 20 years ago, The Royal Opera now has more space to devote to experimental work than it ever did. Glock’s idea that at the independent BBC, change should be preferable to stability, and that novelty guarantees value, has arguably been replaced by a ratings war with Classic FM, diluting the station’s content with what the Daily Mail calls “phone-ins and presenter chatter”.
The relationship between the two institutions, although necessarily symbiotic, has often been fraught by financial contretemps, usually, according to Tooley, when BBC budget constraints have forced the ROH to seek relationships with other broadcasters. But there still remain strong ties, with the BBC’s current chief Tony Hall having arrived direct from the equivalent position at Covent Garden being a prime example of this. These ties hint at my original question about who gets to decide what we listen to. It was a network of men from a certain background who assumed responsibility for curating the content which shaped Cavanagh’s musical horizons. Perhaps today we find something slightly distasteful in the idea of an Oxbridge-educated elite deciding what the cultural diet of an ‘ordinary’ listener should consist of, and yet it is possible to perceive that this is changing, and that people from more diverse backgrounds are now contributing, bit by bit, to the landscaping of the operatic ecology.
Nowadays, our musical resources exist digitally, to the extent that C1734 seems like an anachronism. I imagine most people under the age of 30 would regard one of Cavanagh’s reel tapes as an artefact from another planet. But there’s something hugely pleasurable about the process of setting up a reel-to-reel player, sitting back, and entering into Gerry’s analogue sound world. Maybe one day someone will catalogue the boxes of millennial minidisc recordings in my attic of the broadcast performances I used to record before the advent of online streaming. It’s comforting to know that there might be a place for them, in the same way that it’s comforting to know that Gerald Cavanagh’s collection – forged over a lifetime of discovery, shaped by a cultural landscape which valued investment both in operatic tradition and in operatic innovation – is now safe in the archives of the British Library, not surviving precariously in a damp storage unit in south London. The collection is a real treasure trove for anyone interested in opera, but more than that, it’s a window into another life, glimpsed through the prism of opera.
Gerald and Florence Cavangh at Glyndebourne. Photo by Stephen Conrad
Guest blog by British Library Edison Fellow Evgeniya Kondrashina
What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear of ‘Soviet music’? Is it the Red Army Choir with their military band songs, or the enigmatic symphonies of Dmitri Shostakovich? The British Library holds a large variety of Soviet and Russian music recordings, from different Western record labels as well as the official Soviet (now Russian) state record company, Melodiya.
My PhD research, supported by the Edison Fellowship at the British Library Sound Archive, explores Soviet and Russian classical music recordings in the West during the Cold War. I am investigating Soviet music recordings available in the UK from the 1950s to the 1980s.
From the 1950s, technological advancements in music recording led to a widespread practice of listening to and collecting records. Three key technical innovations triggered accelerated growth in the record industry after the Second World War: the development of magnetic tape recording, the invention of the vinyl long-playing disc and the introduction of stereo sound reproduction.
The LP remained the main format for classical music listening in the home between the 1950s and the early 1980s, when it was gradually overtaken in terms of sales volume by cassettes and then CDs. The establishment of the LP format also led to an important repertoire phenomenon: all major classical music repertoire in the back catalogue of the main record companies was very quickly re-recorded during the 1950s for the LP format. This meant that the record consumer now had access to a huge variety of interpretations of the same music. Hence, by the late 1950s the Western classical music market was saturated with recorded interpretations of works from the traditional Western canon and listeners were hungry for new performers and repertoire.
Finally, the introduction of stereo sound in 1958 dramatically improved the quality of the listening at home experience, which for classical music was a much more significant factor compared to other music genres. The market for high-quality LPs of classical music took off, with music lovers investing in high-quality listening equipment and paying a premium for stereo vinyl releases.
By the mid-1950s, the largest Western markets for records were the USA, UK, France and West Germany. In Europe, the two record companies that were in the best position after the war were EMI and Decca in Britain. At this time, after the death of Stalin in 1953, the Soviet Union changed its attitude towards the West. An active programme of cultural exchange was established with a crucial role given to Soviet musicians of showcasing the excellence of Soviet and Russian performing arts to the West during their tours. Musicians’ tours could only cover several major cities, while recordings sold in shops and played on the radio reached far and wide across geographical territories. The 1950s saw a medley of Western labels issuing miscellaneously licensed Soviet recordings. A selection has been digitised for British Library Sounds, on a variety of Western labels, all taking advantage of the thaw in Western-Soviet cultural relations and the interest in Soviet classical performers.
A recording of the pianists Emil Gilels and Yakov Zak playing the Mozart Concerto for Two Pianos with the Moscow Radio Orchestra conducted by Kirill Kondrashin was issued by Period Records, a respectable US classical label, before going bust in 1957. Here is an extract.
Another US label, Concert Hall Records, released some recordings of the violinist David Oistrakh and conductor Alexander Gauk with the State Radio Orchestra of the USSR. Here is an extract from the slow movement of Beethoven's Violin Concerto.
In the mid-1960s the Soviet Union decided to concentrate on one exclusive partner in each of the capitalist countries. These were handled by Mezhdunarodnaya Kniga (MK), the book foreign trade organization of the USSR. The chosen Western partners were Angel (a Capitol Records label, being a subsidiary of EMI Group) in the USA in 1966, HMV (an EMI Group label) in the UK and Australia in 1967, Ariola-Eurodisc in West Germany in 1965, Chant du Monde in France and Victor in Japan. The Soviets did not want to have one partner for the whole of the capitalist world as this would have been too restrictive.
My research on the Edison Fellowship focuses on the UK partnership agreement between EMI and the USSR from the late 1960s to early 1980s. This exclusive licensing agreement allowed EMI to release over 200 LPs in the UK. These recordings comprised a vast and varied repertoire of Soviet and Russian music performed by the great Soviet artists of the day as well as some less well known musicians. Melodiya made the recordings in its studios in the USSR and then provided EMI with lists of the recorded master tapes, from which EMI chose the ones it wanted to release in the UK. The recordings from the Melodiya master tapes were then pressed on high-quality vinyl at EMI’s main production facility in Hayes, Middlesex. They were released on the Melodiya/HMV label especially created for this Russian series of music.
Below are photos from the dinner EMI held at ‘The Compleat Angler’ hotel at Marlow on the River Thames in August 1975 for Igor Preferansky of MK who was responsible for licensing Soviet gramophone recordings abroad. The top picture is of Tony Locantro (EMI business manager responsible for Soviet licensing agreement within EMI) and Lev Ershov (representative of the Soviet Trade Delegation). The picture below is (from left to right) of David Finch and Ken Butcher (both from the International Sales Division of EMI Records UK) and Igor Preferansky.
(Courtesy of Tony Locantro)
EMI chose the front cover image and back sleeve notes for the UK-distributed discs, which were different from those chosen by Melodiya, to accompany the same recordings for distribution in the USSR. For instance, many of the Shostakovich recordings were released by Melodiya for its domestic Soviet market with a simple photograph of the composer on the cover. EMI took a much more imaginative approach to its classical covers and interpreted the music of Shostakovich, especially his symphonies, with a variety of illustrations, providing visual cues about the music to the listener.One particular symphony is worthy of further discussion, his Symphony No. 13 or Babi Yar, which is based on the poems by the Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko about anti-Semitism and the massacre of Jews during the Second World War in Russia. Shostakovich composed the work in the spring and summer of 1962, just six months after the poems were published. These works were read as condemnation of anti-Semitism that existed in the USSR at the time, thus receiving a divided reaction within the critical circles. Consequently, finding a soloist and conductor for the premier of the symphony was not a straightforward matter: both Shostakovich’s first choices, the bass singer Boris Gmirya and the famous conductor Yevgeny Mravinsky, who premiered many of the composer’s symphonies until then, refused to take on the roles possibly due to pressure from the authorities. The Ministry of Culture was displeased with the strong Jewish content of the texts but the first performance went ahead on 18 December 1962 by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra with conductor Kirill Kondrashin. After the premiere, the composer and poet were persuaded to change the text to reflect that not only Jews, but Russians and Ukranians died at Babi Yar. The new version was conducted by Kondrashin on 10th and 11th February 1963. Further performances of the work took place in cities across the USSR but it was actively discouraged from public performance until the early 1970s.
Melodiya recorded Symphony No. 13 in 1971 and issued it with a neutral photography of Shostakovich on the cover. There was no reference to any Jewish content in the music whatsoever. EMI, however, releasing the licensed recording in the UK in 1973, chose to make a very vivid and explicit reference to the Jewish content of the Symphony: the cover shows a forlorn field where someone has dug a huge hole with scattered stones and a large Star of David in the background. This produces a much stronger visual impression than the straightforward portrait of the composer, as in the Melodiya case. Such a difference in approach to cover design is not surprising, if we remember that Melodiya was a state-supported company, while EMI was a private profit-oriented business with a strong marketing acumen.
Melodiya CM 02905/6
HMV ASD 2893 (BL Collections 1LP0140861)
The Edison Fellowship has been instrumental in giving me access to materials and people who have helped conduct my research. In addition to studying a wide variety of books and periodicals, I have looked at the LPs in the Melodiya/HMV series that were released by EMI in the UK over the 15-year period of the agreement. I have also studied the images and sleeve notes on those records in order to investigate the perception and presentation of Soviet music in the West. This crucial information helps us understand what kind of vision of Soviet and Russian music EMI, as the key distributor, was creating in the minds of British listeners during the Cold War. I was also able to listen to and compare the HMV/Melodiya recordings with Western recordings of the same repertoire, all held at the Sound Archive. The advice and explanations of the Classical Music Curator, Jonathan Summers, were instrumental in shaping my understanding of the broader classical music industry developments in the West at the time, of which Soviet and Russian recordings were a part. Jonathan also introduced me to important past employees of EMI, who provided information on the relationship with the USSR from the British point of view.
In parallel, I worked on materials of the Soviet Ministry of Culture held in Moscow, Russia, at the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (RGALI) and Russian State Archive (GARF). Bringing the British and Russian sides of the story together allowed me to construct a multifaceted view of events and helped understand the motivation and decision-making process on both sides of the agreement.
The licensing agreement with the USSR was crucial in making EMI a key decision-maker on which Soviet and Russian classical music recordings to bring to the British listener, how to present them through the choice of sleeve image and cover notes, and where to sell them across the country. It presented new repertoire and performers to the British public and, to a large extent, influenced the perception of Russian and Soviet music in this country for at least a generation of listeners.
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Guest blogpost by Edison Fellow Myles Eastwood, a London-based producer and engineer who runs Eastwood Records
When George Martin died in March 2016 aged 90, the headlines predominantly focused on his work as producer of The Beatles. The infamous “fifth Beatle” moniker was taken up by both The Guardian and The Telegraph, whilst The Economist celebrated “their humble servant”.[i] Martin’s input as musical and technical enabler for the so-called Fab Four is well documented, but his role also spread into pastoral and even paternal territory – Paul McCartney spoke of a “second father” figure – so it’s no wonder the band and their producer are treated as synonymous.[ii]
Beatles and George Martin in studio 1966 (Wikicommons)
Martin’s discography beyond The Beatles also received some attention, though perhaps not as much as it deserves. Many of his obituaries celebrated the comedy and children’s records Martin produced for Parlophone in the late 1950s and early 1960s, several of which still hold up to contemporary ears, but beyond that his early Parlophone releases have not made it into mainstream cultural memory. Chris King’s review of a six-CD box set release of Martin’s work epitomises this pattern of reception:
While the concept of paying tribute to one of music's most illustrious producers is commendable, the truth is that his mainstream output during the 1960s eclipses the rest of his work, thus rendering the other CDs all but redundant. Perhaps a box set concentrating solely on Martin's 1960s pop productions might have proved the better option.[iii]
It is these earlier, ‘eclipsed’ records on Parlophone that have been the focus of my Edison Fellowship at the British Library. They are many and varied in musical style, often twee and quaint by modern standards, but they also say a lot about Martin’s formative years as a producer, and more broadly the musical landscape of postwar Britain.
Martin joined the German-British record label Parlophone in 1950 under the tutelage of Oscar Preuss, whose recording career was typical of his generation. Joining the Berlin-based International Talking Machine Company in 1904 aged 15, Preuss toured the world recording musicians from across Europe, as well as Brazil, Mexico and a number of Asian countries. Perceval Graves’ 1928 interview with him centres on his “log-book, [...] a complete chronicle of recording on Four Continents”, with Preuss recalling “long and tiring journeys, sometimes over miles of desert”, including one trip to Aleppo where wax disc shortages led to a two-week wait for the missing cases to reappear on camel-back.[iv]
Preuss’ attitude towards Arabic music is both uncomfortably colonial and endearing, with one Egyptian singer, a cotton magnate, thanking him for their sessions by gifting Preuss a rug that he hangs at home in South East London. Other projects are remarkably prescient of scenes from psychedelic recording sessions of the mid-1960s: “The amount of raw spirits, cocaine and other drugs absorbed by artistes and their entourage throughout sessions lasting from early evening till two and three o’clock in the morning [...] rather alarmed me until I got used to it!”[v] Yet Preuss’ description of musical devices, instrumentation and improvisation, alongside the pragmatic concerns of capturing the material on a limited medium (“their songs are customarily of an interminable length [...], a prompter is inevitable”), convey a sensitive listener who was, as Christopher Stone puts it, “a leisurely, rather cynically genial man, whom you recognise instantly as a master of his craft and a devil for work.”[vi]
Preuss retired in 1955, shortly before his death in 1958, and was succeeded by the 29-year-old Martin as head of Parlophone. The label was one of several EMI subsidiaries alongside HMV and Columbia. In his 1979 autobiography Martin bemoans Parlophone’s marginalised status in the organisation, held back by reluctant management staff and a limited budget. The label showcased a huge variety of music at this time including jazz, classical and various folk traditions, and when Martin began signing acts the label’s output diversified further still. Joy Nichols’ rendition of “Little Red Monkey” from 1953, sung alongside Jimmy Edwards and Dick Bentley, typifies Martin’s novelty output, a clip of which can be heard below.
More rare is the instrumental version performed by Frank Chacksfield, whose orchestras were middle-of-the-road powerhouses that churned out numerous light music releases during this period. This release features the composer himself, Jack Jordan, on the clavioline, an electronic keyboard instrument with a distinctly reedy sound.
Though Martin later claimed his ambition was to find an equivalent to Cliff Richard, an artist whose sales hugely bolstered EMI’s Columbia in the late 1950s, the route taken by the producer was somewhat circuitous. He tried his hand at “do it yourself” records in 1956, a proto-karaoke series of backing tracks performed by Ron Goodwin’s “Parlophone Pops Orchestra” and aimed at amateur singers,[vii] and when he began signing up comedians and variety acts such as Flanders and Swann it was difficult to predict which records would sell. “Mock Mozart”, for example, was a novelty release by actor Peter Ustinov, who sang the harmonies of a miniature opera parody by overdubbing his own voice and bouncing down takes between two tape machines. Martin spent hours coaxing him through the process, yet the record only sold a few hundred copies.[viii]
Martin also supervised a number of classical sessions when he joined Parlophone. Artists included pianists such as Sidney Harrison and George Chavchavadze, as well as the London Baroque Ensemble, whose rendition of the last movement of Mozart’s Serenata notturna, K. 239 conducted by Karl Haas can be heard below.
It would be tempting to paint Martin as the classically-schooled practitioner whose trained hand turned whatever pop he produced to gold. A cursory survey of his classical credentials throws up familiar biographical milestones. After serving in the Royal Navy, Martin won a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, following which he played oboe in various orchestras and worked at the BBC Music Library. He brought his compositional experience to numerous Beatles records, arranging string parts for tracks like “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby”, to the extent that some commentators have portrayed Martin as the literate Beatle, the one who realised ideas for the band members who could not read music.
Yet this would be a disservice to Martin’s eclecticism. Sidney Harrison was actually his senior and had recommended Martin years earlier to the Guildhall following a bout of written correspondence. In one letter Harrison advised Martin, who had sent him his own Chopin-inspired compositions, to “know his marine band and start arranging for them.”[ix] The London Baroque Ensemble was never quite as grand as its title implied, and Martin delighted in recounting the unassuming nature of the affair: having met eighteenth-century music aficionado Peter Ustinov at a party, musicologist and conductor Karl Haas “decided to form the London Baroque Society and invited Peter to be the President. Karl was the conductor, I was the secretary – and that was the London Baroque society”.[x] When the narrative of lofty classical producer was bolstered by classist connotations in relation to The Beatles, Martin was most at pains to set the record straight: “I’ve been cast in the role of schoolmaster, the toff, the better-educated, and they’ve been the urchins that I’ve shaped [...] It’s a load of poppycock, really, because our backgrounds were very similar. [...] I wasn’t taught music and they weren’t, we taught ourselves.”[xi]
What, then, might a suitable lynchpin be for understanding Martin’s career? Another Parlophone artist gets us a little closer. “My Lady Greensleeves” sung by Luton Girls Choir in 1950 is part of the prolific recorded output of a choir that began at the most local level (“The girls must live within five miles of Luton’s Town Hall”) and grew to international fame with appearances in front of the Royal Family, gracing iconic venues like St Paul’s Cathedral. The choir was run for several decades by the enthusiastic Arthur E. Davies, who wanted to revive the “dying art” of choral singing, and its membership ranged from schoolgirls to the age cap of 23. “Greensleeves” is of course the quintessential English folk song, and under Davies’ direction and an orchestra led by Ivor Novello Award-winning film music composer Philip Green, the choir achieved a rousing rendition.
This was part of the soundworld Martin inherited when he joined Parlophone. It is surely telling that the next time he encountered the tune he was hastily writing an arrangement to close “All You Need Is Love” for the Our World television special. “Write absolutely anything you like, George,” The Beatles asked him: “The mixture I came up with was culled from the ‘Marseillaise’, a Bach two-part invention, ‘Greensleeves’, and the little lick from ‘In the Mood’.” The broadcast went out in June 1967 to an estimated half a billion people.If Mozart, Chopin and other accepted greats were central to Martin’s canon then so too were the British traditions of folk song, community choirs and parochial classical societies. He may not have had a signature sound like other leading producers of his generation, say John Culshaw or Quincy Jones, but his eclecticism was a trademark of sorts.
Here I am positing the Englishness of Martin’s records not as some nebulous nationalistic quality, but rather a specific phonographic heritage unique to postwar Britain. It is rooted in a DIY mentality of re-purposing technology and circumventing corporate regulations. It draws on the sound worlds of revue, music hall and brass bands, as well as various non-Western music traditions, though always filtered through a Eurocentric lense inherited from mentor Preuss. These elements pervade British popular music of the 1960s as much as the loudly celebrated American strands of rock ’n’ roll, R&B and Tin Pan Alley, yet they receive considerably less scholarly attention. Music historians should dig here before signing off on George Martin’s inestimable contribution to recorded music.
With thanks to Joanna Hughes and Sonita Cox at the EMI Archive Trust, Mark Lewisohn and Kenneth Womack
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[i] Cf. Sweeting, A. “Sir George Martin Obituary”, The Guardian, 9 March 2016 https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/mar/09/george-martin-obituary (accessed 21 August 2017); “Sir George Martin - Obituary”, The Telegraph, 18 March 2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/obituaries/2016/03/18/sir-george-martin---obituary/ (accessed 21 August 2017); “Their Humble Servant”, The Economist, 19 March 2016; https://www.economist.com/news/obituary/21694967-jack-all-trades-behind-much-beatles-success-was-aged-90-obituary-george-martin (accessed 21 August 2017).
[ii] McCartney, P. “Paul McCartney on George Martin”, 9 March 2016, Paul McCartney [website], https://www.paulmccartney.com/news-blogs/news/paul-mccartney-on-george-martin (all accessed 21 August 2017).
[iii] King, C. “Produced By George Martin: 50 Years in Recording [review]”, Amazon [website], https://www.amazon.co.uk/Produced-George-Martin-YEARS-RECORDING/dp/B00005BCHH/ (accessed 10 August 2017).
[iv] Preuss, O. C. “Round the Recording Studios / No. 1 - ‘Songs of Araby’”, The Gramophone, March 1928, 411-412.
[vi] Stone, C. “Our Masters and Mothers”, The Gramophone, December 1929, 293.
[vii] “Sing to these Records!”, New Musical Express, 12 October 1956, 6.
[viii] Martin, G. (1979) All You Need is Ears, London, 53-55.
[ix] Lewisohn, M. “George Martin: A Sound Life”, Produced By George Martin: 50 Years in Recording [liner notes], May 2001, 4.
[x] Martin, G. (1979) All You Need Is Ears, London, 39.
[xi] Quoted in “George Martin obituary: The Beatles producer who made the Fab Four a worldwide success”, TheIndependent, 9 March 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/sir-george-martin-obituary-the-beatles-record-producer-who-made-the-fab-four-a-worldwide-success-a6920546.html (accessed 15 August 2017).
Evocative little photographs of 1956 show the violinist Frederick Grinke (1911–1987) alongside Vaughan Williams, rehearsing for a performance of The Lark Ascending in the marvellous acoustic space of Gloucester Cathedral. Grinke had a close and enduring relationship with Vaughan Williams and his music. He recorded the Violin Sonata and the Concerto Accademico as well as The Lark Ascending, and, along with David Martin, gave a performance of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D minor at the composer’s funeral. Grinke’s association with Vaughan Williams was not his only contribution to English music. He commissioned and premiered works from Arnold Bax to Edmund Rubbra, and was a champion of many other British composers such as William Walton. Here is a short extract from Bax's Legend with Joseph Weingarten at the piano.
A lifelong lover of English music, I’ve always been drawn to its advocates. My early work on John Ireland led me to Grinke, who worked closely with that composer and recorded much of his chamber music. As a current Edison Fellow of the British Library, I’m delighted to have access to numerous recordings of Grinke, both as a soloist and as an orchestra player, and to have the huge pleasure of spending time listening to and analysing them. In particular, I’m looking to find ways of capturing Grinke’s distinctive sound and performance style in words.
So what is it that makes Grinke such a special and much-loved violinist? Listening to the surviving recordings of him as soloist and orchestral leader reveals an extraordinarily distinctive and intense tone quality. Reviews of his time as a student at the RAM saw Grinke commended countless times, whether it was for his ‘sweet, pure tone’ or his ability to lead a string quartet ‘with rare spirit’. Grinke was also a regular concerto soloist at the RAM, a performance of Brahms’s Concerto eliciting the comment that he showed ‘remarkably good tone, flexible and warm yet free from sentiment’. This sweet pure tone is perhaps what most distinguishes Grinke as a violinist, heard for example in this recording of the finale of Mozart’s Concerto No.5.
Born in Winnipeg, in 1927 Grinke was awarded a scholarship to leave Canada to study at the Royal Academy of Music, where he was one of the winners of the prestigious annual violin bow competition. One of the RAM’s stars from the outset, Grinke devoted his subsequent career to working as a soloist and chamber musician, and, for ten years, as an orchestral leader. As an ensemble player, he founded his own Grinke Piano Trio, with cellist Florence Hooton and pianist Kendall Taylor.
Grinke Trio (photo courtesy Paul Grinke)
His first significant professional role saw him playing for six years with the Kutcher Quartet, and indeed his work with this ensemble dominated his early career.
Photo courtesy Paul Grinke
Grinke was also the longest serving and most distinguished leader of the Boyd Neel Orchestra. He took over as concert master in 1937 and remained in that role for 10 years. From the outset, the inexperienced but dedicated conductor Boyd Neel described the venture as a ‘communal effort’ to bring to a listening public a vast repertoire of music for strings which was at that time virtually unknown in the concert hall. Peter Pears, in his own tribute to this extraordinarily prolific and successful band of string players, described Neel’s real genius as attracting and keeping the right people: ‘They were a very good lot – Freddy Grinke, David Martin, Max Gilbert – all first class musicians, and devoted to him. They followed him like an eagle’. With this orchestra Grinke recorded solo parts in numerous works, including Bach’s ‘Brandenburg’ concertos and Handel’s concerti grossi, and I’ve been able to listen to his leadership of this band during my time as an Edison Fellow. Undoubtedly he brought to it an intensity of sound, and under his leadership it became one of the most distinctive small orchestras of the period. Vivacity, commitment and an emphasis on melody characterise so many of the orchestra’s recordings, such as the Abel Symphony in E flat recorded in 1940.
Zest, boldness, richness of sound are all features of the BNO under Grinke, playing either on his instrument by J. B. Rogerius of 1686, or on a 1718 Stradivarius loaned to him by the RAM.
During the Second World War Grinke was a member of the RAF Symphony Orchestra, playing alongside the members of the Griller Quartet, the Blechs and the Brains. David Martin, now Sgt Martin and married to Florence Hooton, was also a member. The orchestra toured the UK and played in National Gallery concerts. Grinke is seen below leaning on the piano.
Photo courtesy Paul Grinke
In 1947 the Boyd Neel Orchestra travelled to Australia and New Zealand. This eighteen-week tour was quite an undertaking. In 1947 the journey to Sydney by plane took 9 days, flying via San Francisco with a number of changes: Dublin-Shannon-Gander, Newfoundland-New York-Los Angeles-San Francisco-Honolulu-Canton Island-Fiji-Sydney. Advertisements for their tour appeared in newspapers in the autumn of 1946 and into 1947. There were concerts in many cities and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation broadcast a number of these, including the opening event. This took place in Sydney Town Hall. The great critic Neville Cardus was in the audience and wrote a long, highly appreciate article. Cardus was equally besotted with the subsequent concerts, very taken with the discipline, unity and vitality of the orchestra, and particularly drawn to Grinke, ‘who always plays like a man possessed’. Of the leader’s lively appearance as soloist in Bach’s E major concerto he wrote: ‘even the passages of rapid figuration were made melodious…we were given a Bach of free and creative energy, abounding in ideas and emotions…Such playing as Mr. Grinke’s has seldom been heard here; and the orchestral texture into which the solo was consummately woven was without a flaw’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 24 April 1947, p. 6).
After his departure from the BNO, Grinke continued to work as a soloist and teacher. He had joined the staff at the RAM in 1939, and after considerable service to that institution was appointed Fellow there. In the early 1960s he also taught at the newly-formed Menuhin School. He coached the violins of the National Youth Orchestra and acted as judge at international competitions. He appeared many times as soloist at the Proms and was created a CBE in 1979. Grinke was not only an inspirational player and teacher, but also a family man.
Photo courtesy Fiona Richards
Next to his wife Dorothy, he is buried in the church of St Mary, Thornham Parva, Suffolk, not far from his little cottage, Frog’s Hall, in the tiny hamlet of Braiseworth.
Photo courtesy Fiona Richards
I’m looking forward in my writing to trying to do justice to this remarkable and much-loved musician.
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