Friday, December 16, 2011

CRITICAL PASTMASTERS

Having been a music critic for more than sixty years perhaps it is time to spill a bean or two. My first bean is dated 1951 when I was not only London Music Critic of the Scotsman but also organiser secretary of the IMA, International Musicians , which had association premises including a restaurant, in South Audley Street. I organised a 85th birthday luncheon for Ernest Newman (S.Times, articles mostly about Wagner). Acceptances came rolling in, but many of them gave evidence of old emnities: "don't put me next to Eric Blom (Observer); don't put me next to Cardus (Guardian)." A good number turned up but not Richard Capell (Telegraph); he developed a sudden funeral on the day.

Back in the forties Frank Howes (Times) and Capell were like Canutes trying to stem the tide of modernism. Stravinsky and Bortok were anathema. But both papers occasionally accepted crits from temporary stringers, usually from events abroad. Walter Lagge wrote some pithy pieces for the Guardian, William Glock for the Telegraph including a review of the first European performance, in Berlin, of Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms in 1930. Glock sent a rave notice but Canute Capell inserted negatives in front of William's words of praise. Later William was an excellent Music Critic of the Observer. That was until his editor, Ivor Brown, warned him: one more article about Britten, Tippett, Bartok and co, and I'll fire you. Next Sunday another piece about Bartok appeared and William was sacked.

Capell (1885 – 1954) had been a WWI correspondent, in 1928 wrote a classic on Schubert's Songs. At some point he had a stroke so that his face was lop-sided (we called him 'mad Caesar') His reviews confirmed that he was sick of the nightly grind, he never stayed to the end, couldn't get back to the card-table in his club soon enough.

Frank Howes had spent thirty-five years on the Times and was showing signs of weariness, his articles conscientious but predictable. Worthy books about RVW and Walton, good committee man, quasi elder statesman, wore sandals, chairman of the English Folk Dance & Song Society. After the Albert Hall UK premiere of Britten's entertaining Scottish Ballad I found myself walking across the park with Frank. He was angry. After ten minutes: "Just tell me, Amis, can this fellow Britten be serious?". Generation gap?

A couple of years after he had retired I met Frank one evening at Covent Garden: "Hello, Frank, nice to see you. We miss you, you know. "Yes, but I'll bet you don't miss my opinions." His successor on the Old Thunderer was William Mann who like many of younger generation of critics, went the other way, hooraying every novelty, regardless of quality. Bill's most quoted dictum was that the Beatles' songs were the best since Schubert.

Scott Goddard (News Chronicle) was sympathetic to the younger composers, and political events like the Aldermaston March. His paper gave him scant space so that he could only report, not comment. His copy was difficult to parse. He was not easy to befriend, not happy with his homosexuality, twitchy and, as was said of Mozart, "as touchy as gunpowder".

The American Cecil ( to be pronounced Ceecil) Smith and his successor Noël Goodwin were likewise kept short of space by the Express although that often seemed ok in Noël 's case. I remember one time during a Cheltenham Festival some of us lads went on a hike, ending up in a pub where Bill Mann sat down at an upright and quizzed us. It was embarrassing that Noël couldn't answer a single question. Enter the landlord with a tray of glasses, starting to quiz us about wine. We were all hopeless, couldn't tell claret from burgundy. All of us except Noël who guessed correctly every time, even one or two vintages. Was he in the wrong job, we wondered?

Noël was also successful with the opposite sex; married to a Bluebell dancer but at every concert or opera he had a fresh snazzy popsy in tow.

Martin Cooper (Telegraph) looked like a retired military man, moustache, bow tie, dogtooth tweed, catholic, dapper, French music a speciality, would never meet performers which I thought a mistake as he was therefore out of touch with the problems entailed in being an artist. It seemed like a divine retribution that his daughter Imogen became a professional, superb pianist, as we know.

Neville Cardus (1885 – 1975), many years on the (Manchester) Guardian, liked you to know that he was also something of an intellectual, larding his copy with quotes from Montaigne or de Quincy, sometimes poncey, one of his books begining "There was a sequestered purlieu…" when he could have just written "There was a park…" But Cardus also had great qualities. Uniquely, he gave you an impression of what it was like to be at the event he is writting about. I found his books move valuable that his reviews (of both music and cricket). My present day colleagues would do well to read in Conservations with Cardus what he says about writing criticism, that reviews should aspire to match the style and quality of the work of art under review.

Sometimes I used to sit with him at Lords in a little triangle of turf (a purlieu?) near the Tavern. While the spinners were on, we chatted. When the fast merchants were bowling we wrote. He was a better talker than listener. One time he was saying "Der Rosen…." when I managed to get a word in edgeways. When I had said my piece he continued "kavalier".

I found his views on life, music, even religion very sympathetic (which means I agreed with him). But he expressed them better than I ever could. Atheists both, we agreed that when we heard great music, we could believe in the Divine.

2 comments:

Frank H Little said...

You must have known people who shook hands with Brahms, Dvorak, even Tchaikovsky.

Laurence Vittes said...

Very nicely put - did you know Peter Pirie?