M501.c.95…a virtual browse with SW

Stuck for something to read over the summer? Look no further and join me on a fascinating browse along the shelves of the UL’s biographies of English musicians. There are, of course, literally hundreds to choose from so how to narrow the field? Help is at hand…I have been taking advantage of the UL’s “book and browse” service these past few weeks to wander along the shelves of our M501.c.95 section and am turning up some delights which simply ask to be investigated further. 

But first a little technical explanation is required for those who may not know how the Library organises this material on the shelves. Surely, you ask, by the last name of the composer or musician who is the subject of the book – that way everything on Britten or Orlando Gibbons or Webster Booth will be found together. Ha! Nothing so simple – and yet, the solution is very straightforward in a different way. Because the Library needs to make optimum use of space, books are shelved in five categories according to their size (a – e) and, until very recently, the half century in which they were published (since 2000, it’s been the decade) and because it’s impractical, nay, impossible to keep moving things around every time a new book on Elgar or Britten (for example) is acquired, once it’s been processed and given an overall classmark (M501 is works about English musicians – Irish, Scottish and Welsh can be found respectively at M505, M509 and M511) it’s simply given a running number and popped on the shelf. Thus M501.c.95.100 is the 100th book processed of that size in that particular classmark (M501) acquired between 1950 and 1999. Are you still with me??

But never mind the technical, librarianly stuff, the delightful thing about this pragmatic arrangement is that it makes for some intriguing bedfellows rubbing shoulders on the shelves. To start us off, I’ve selected a little sequence from the first hundred of the 600 plus titles in this half-century which have made me smile and wonder what such unlikely neighbours would have had to say to each other. But first, let me give you a general impression of those first 100: no fewer than 11 are on Elgar, Vaughan Williams comes in second with 7 titles, closely followed by 5 on Kathleen Ferrier with Sir Arthur Sullivan at 4, thus dealing with 25%. Now to business:

Ernest Irving with Vaughan Williams

We start my selection at M501.c.95.45: Cue for music : an autobiography by Ernest Irving (London: D. Dodson, 1959). Today, Kelville Ernest Irving is best-remembered for his work as music director at Ealing Studios from the 1930s to the 1950s. However he spent many years as a jobbing pianist/arranger/conductor in the theatre world of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The tipping point it seems came through the inspired use of a double-bass harmonic in his arrangement of a score by Edward German to fit the much reduced pit band. I say no more, but encourage you to read his memoirs which are littered with the names of the great and the good in the music theatre of the time: C. B. Cochrane, Noel Coward, Sydney Caroll, Basil Dean, etc, etc. From his Ealing Studios days, there is a lively account of the process of “laying down” the score of a film and the expertise and professionalism of the players involved. But in the days before specially-composed scores “all kinds of music were roped in,” he writes, “classical, light and vulgar, particularly the last…the Beethoven Coriolanus Overture was recommended for hewing down trees [!!]”. He commissioned many of the leading composers of the day to write film scores for him – RVW’s Scott of the Antarctic is probably the best-known. And it was RVW’s Sinfonia Antarctica, dedicated to Irving, which grew from the film score. In a little appreciation of Irving by RVW published in Music and Letters of January 1954 he includes Irving’s response to the gift of the Sinfonia Antartica score, which RVW hoped wold not become a white elephant: “Of course I shall be delighted to have the score. The objection to the original white elephant was, I believe, not its colour, but its appetite.” 

But I am already hopelessly side tracked – move on SW, your readers are dozing…

Thomas Whythorne

Next but one along on the shelf we are brought up with a mental jolt leaping from the 20thcentury way back into the 16th century with this little gem/curiosity (I leave you to decide): The Autobiography of Thomas Whythorne [1528 – 1596]; edited by James M. Osborn (M501.c.95.47). This extraordinary volume lay in deepest outer biblioland for literally centuries before it was unearthed in 1955. The manuscript is now safely in the care of our sister library in Oxford – the Bodleian. It offers, alongside Whythorne’s poems and songs, an invaluable first hand account not only of the life of a musician in the 16th century making his way up the ladder of his profession, but also of social life and customs at the time (spoiler alert – some of it quite raunchy…). The parallels with Ernest Irving are fascinating. To make things even more interesting/eccentric, Whythorne writes using his own special phonetic spelling: music, for example is “miuzik” and ‘used’ is “ywzed” and he uses the old Anglo-Saxon thorn instead of a ‘th’. This approach may at first seem daunting, but once you’ve grasped the basic rules it’s actually quite easy to read – just think how the word sounds when spoken. However, OUP in its mercy published a “translation” in today’s English as well which sits just a few stops along on the shelf (M510.c.95.55). Whythorne had languished in obscurity for centuries and his music generally regarded as not up to much, not helped by Charles Burney’s dismissive description of the songs as “truly barbarous”. Thank goodness, then, for Edmund Fellowes and Philip Heseltine (aka Peter Warlock) who rescued him from dusty banishment, recognising his music and poetry as an important body of work. There is an excellent account of Whythorne and his “autobiography” in chapter 4 of vol.2 of The Oxford history of life-writing [UL shelf-mark 700:25.c.201.106(2)] if you would like to follow this up in more depth before tackling Whythorne himself. And finally, if you ever need to write a preface, Osborne’s is exemplary.

Sidney Harrison

Leapfrogging once more along the shelf, we arrive at M501.c.95.50: Teacher never told me by Sidney Harrison. London: Elek books, 1961. Now, hands up who remembers Sidney Harrison? I certainly do…a wonderful pianist and a great communicator with a splendid sense of humour. He taught for many years at the Guildhall School of Music and his radio and TV programmes were always a delight. So many laugh out loud anecdotes in the book it’s almost impossible to choose one or two to share, but I guess we could all do with a Jolly Good Cheer Up so here are a couple that had me in delighted stitches:

On modulation: “Of course I had ‘done’ modulation at Guildhall, but professional modulation had no bearing on music at the pictures. I abandoned what teacher had told me – all but the very last stage of the process. The last stage of a modulation is to reach the dominant seventh of the oncoming key. I learned to spring straight on to it and play it very loudly. This not only introduced the new key: it quite obliterated the old. Very quick, Very practical.”

On a performance of the Schumann Concerto for television, for which the piano had been placed on a wheeled platform: “…when we came to a long orchestral tutti, piano and pianist could be moved out of the way leaving an unencumbered view of the orchestra. In the last movement, however, my shove back into position was a few seconds late, I began to play before I had come to rest, and so I swept into view like Lohengrin on the swan, playing as I travelled.”

And blow me down if there isn’t a connection with Hans Keller! Harrison was at the ISCM conference where Keller presented a performance of his functional analysis of Mozart’s K. 421 String Quartet. Harrison writes: “This was fascinating and enlightening. I wasn’t bowled over but it seemed to me that Keller was on to something important. It was all rather like taking some ‘clips’ out of a long film and putting them side by side without comment to reveal how all the events add up to one conception. The appropriate comment on a Functional Analysis of music is ‘I hear what you mean’. Apparently no-one else did – or if they did, they didn’t say. As a minority of one, and being the sort of man I am, I felt more and more convinced. On the impulse, I rose to speak. “I have been thinking I might borrow Mr. Keller’s attitude for my piano lessons. For a long time now I have believed that there are too many teachers who are deaf but unfortunately not dumb. I now wonder if we wouldn’t be better off with teachers who were dumb but fortunately not deaf’. Hans Keller, who had sworn not to speak [!!], gravely bowed his head.”

I hope that’s cheered you all up…until the next time, farewell. And, dear readers, I expect the borrowing statistics for M501 to go through the roof.


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