In 1889 Sir Alexander Mackenzie, Principal of the Royal Academy of Music, proposed to Sir George Grove, Director of the Royal College of Music, that the two institutions should combine to create an examining body “inspired by disinterested motives for the benefit of musical education… which would genuinely provide a stimulus and an objective for a high standard of achievement“. And so the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music was born.
Today the ABRSM examines more than 600,000 candidates each year, in over 90 countries. Many musicians have spent at least part of their careers as ABRSM examiners. For some it has provided the opportunity to travel widely.
The composer William Alwyn had been a student at the Royal Academy under Alexander Mackenzie. In many ways he admired him, but he was no fan of Mackenzie’s teaching “The old tyrant would not allow even Debussy to be performed at Academy concerts on the grounds that this music was ugly, broke all the rules and was unworthy of the art sacred to St. Cecilia” (Winged chariot / William Alwyn. Southwold : Southwold Press, 1983). In 1932, probably on the recommendation of the new Principal of the Royal Academy, J.B. McEwen, Alwyn eagerly accepted the ABRSM’s offer for him to undertake an examination tour of Australia. A batch of letters in the William Alwyn Archive chart Alwyn’s life as an examiner. On the 29th April 1932 he set sail on the SS Otranto for Australia, leaving his wife and young son behind for the better part of a year. Travelling via France, Lisbon, Colombo and the Cocos Islands, Alwyn eventually reached quarantine control in Fremantle, and started his examining tour on June 8th.
From his time there, we have beautifully illustrated letters, with wonderful cartoon characters sketched principally for Alwyn’s young son, Jonathan. They chart the course of a 7 months’ tour. Alwyn coped with extreme heat, and some unusual exam venues. In Adelaide, exams were held in the Women’s Christian and Temperance Association’s Hall. The examiner sat under a forbidding sign warning that “Where there’s DRINK there’s DANGER”. Facing him was a stern portrait of the organization’s redoubtable founder, Frances Willard, that Alwyn ink-sketched into one of his letters. The tour of Australia was not easy, Alwyn had a disagreement with the Board’s Resident Secretary, Arthur C. Hull, who believed his marking was too severe : “….in one Centre when a convent heard from their ‘Order’ in Brisbane of your results, they decided to send me only £10 of entries instead of £40” (MS.Alwyn.1.12H.11)
Following the tour of Australia Alwyn returned to England before setting out in 1934 for a round of examining in Canada. This tour was to be rather more congenial. He met up with some old friends including the composer, Michael Head, a stalwart of the ABRSM exam scene, and brother-in-law of Alwyn’s friend, Alan Bush. Michael Head continued to examine for the Associated Board until 1976, when he died while examining in Cape Town.
The Canada tour passed off easily enough but was to have a strange sequel. A few years later Alwyn composed a set of simple short works for cello and piano Mountain scenes, the last movement of which was On the trail. In 1969 the composer received a rather surprising letter.
An explorer, David Smithers, who was about to take part in the Trans-African hovercraft expedition, had recently returned from an expedition to a remote area of Brazil, living with a newly discovered tribe of natives, the Erikpatza, who were occasional cannibals. The situation became a little tense when it became evident that the natives were peckish and that the explorers might shortly be on the menu. Smithers inadvertently saved the day when he played a tape of his young son playing On the trail. The natives loved it, and danced and sang along enthusiastically. The letter to Alwyn concludes : I therefore feel that I owe you a debt of gratitude. Without your tune we might have returned home disappointed or – who knows – provided the essential ingredients for a cannibal consomme.
There was a final coda to this letter. Alwyn revealed in his reply that On the trail was inspired by his visit to Canada, and specifically by music that he had heard played on a reservation for the Piikuni, a member of the Blackfoot Nation, at Pincher Creek near Calgary. It looks as though the music of the North American First Nations was just as popular with the tribes of South America.