I became a musician only through many quirks of fortune. If I had not quarrelled in the war with my major in the Shetlands, if after leaving Durban, our ship to the Far East had not turned around and headed for Egypt, or if I had not seen a certain book in a back-street shop in Florence, I would have ended up quite differently. The ‘long arm of coincidence’ piled one chance event on another, year after year, until the tide of my affairs threw me up on a shore where, for better or for worse, I have had to be content. This is therefore a tale of many changes, some of which may seem irrelevant, but all leading to one goal in the end.
When people learn I am a musician, they always ask me what I play. It would be most prudent to say something uncomplicated, like ‘the bassoon’, which would cut off further discussion, but I am tempted to be provocative. I usually say I can play most things in a mediocre fashion, but none of them well. This tends to puzzle most people, as they probably wonder how I can make a living, so I usually add that my real vocation is writing – either music or words. Nevertheless, they are not completely satisfied.
The point is, most people think all musicians must play, but there are many like myself who would hardly care to spend a whole lifetime in such a tiresome activity. We may be able to play perfectly well, but we prefer to do other things. In fact, I feel sorry for some of those great artists who are condemned to play the same few Beethoven piano sonatas all their lives, or the same Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, just because their whole reputation rests on a very limited repertoire. They are not even allowed to play anything else. If the greatest pianist in the world started to play Stockhausen’s ‘Klavierstücke’, he would soon be dragged off the stage.
My trouble is, I like to do a lot of things. And even what I do, I like to do in different ways. As a composer, I am therefore condemned as an ‘eclectic’ because I change a lot, but I am proud to be in the company of such as Picasso and Stravinsky, who could never resist trying out new ideas.
The truth is, some of us are always seeking intellectual stimulus, and the challenge of change is just one way of achieving this. My whole life has been one of change, often dictated by exterior influences such as World War II, but just as often through my own waywardness. As a musician, I could regret the fourteen years I lost, first as an architect, then in the army, but how much did I gain in knowledge and experience, even if the war was so many years too long? To be completely truthful, I don’t think those were lost years, but just a few too many.
In the following pages therefore, all will not be about music, because many other diversions and occupations have built up my main career. In any case, one can hardly have lived for years in the desert without a small mention of it somewhere. However, I promise to keep the blood and sand of the war to a minimum. Perhaps not a shot will be heard, only the silence of an unexploded bomb.
Autobiographies often begin with a tiresome account of nannies, tutors, prep schools, public schools and Oxford. This is altogether avoided here, because I was brought up in the much more stimulating Lancastrian school of hard knocks. Indeed, in the ’twenties, Lancashire had hardly heard of universities and public schools. People were more concerned with finding enough to eat than with the frills of life. In other words, it was a rough but homely place.
I was born in Cuerden, a rural area south of Preston, but after a year or so, my family moved to nearby Lostock Hall. We had a farm and the grazing rights of Tatton’s Park – a lovely valley which ran along the River Lostock for several miles – but we had no farmhouse, so we had to live in a village. (The family must have originated in nearby Brindle – I once came across the address “Adam de Brindle, Brindle’s Farm, Brindle Road, Brindle”, which seemed to say almost to excess where we came from.)
But the family legend was that we once owned nearby Hoghton Towers, until James I, after dubbing a piece of roast beef “Sir Loin”, overstayed his welcome (with all his noble hangers-on) by eating us out of house and home. This, coupled with the persecution meted out to Catholics, led to our reduced circumstances. My family was always very tight-lipped about the past. I learned never to ask any questions.
My grandfather bred coach horses – matched pairs and fours which went down well with the gentry – but with the coming of the motor car, this business languished, and we had to descend to more mixed stock breeding – anything on four legs. In any case, I didn’t like horses. At a very early age, I was put on an unruly horse called Peter, and I soon ended up clinging under his belly as he pranced round the stockyard. Not a pleasant introduction to equestrianism. If all horses were like Peter, I had already had enough.
My education was chaotic. As I was regarded at the elementary school as a bright boy – at least brighter than the normal sluggish intelligence – I was pushed up from one class to another, leaping over a year’s work each time, until I reached the top form far too soon, and at the age of eleven was mixed up with those about to end their education at fourteen. In this way, I missed the basic elements of most subjects, and naturally had enormous gaps in my knowledge, without those foundations which relate one thing to another. No wonder I failed to get a scholarship to the local grammar school. I didn’t even learn to write. Writing was taught in one of the years I leaped over, but nobody in authority noticed that such an essential ability had been forgotten. Both in and out of school, corporal punishment was regarded as a perfectly natural and healthy thing. It certainly did me no harm, and though the children were rough, they were well disciplined. As for crime – it was unheard of. I don’t think our village had a single delinquent. Plenty of drunks perhaps, but no real nastiness.
I have always envied those musicians who lived in musical families, who heard the finest players in their own homes, and were encouraged to study music from an early age. I had none of this. Though my mother had learned the piano somewhere around the turn of the century, by the time I was a boy, her playing days were over. It was said that at one time my father played the cornet, but I always thought this was a bit of a myth. However, he had a pleasant baritone voice and a bit of an ear for harmony. But the total musical knowledge of both my parents was very slight indeed, and their chief value lay in my father’s admonishments if he thought I neglected my studies. In the ’twenties we had very little music to hear. The brass band played at the field day once a year, there was the cranky old church organ on Sundays, and nothing else. I never heard two decent musical sounds throughout my entire childhood.
In my early years, my musical leanings must have been mostly revealed through my clogs. In our village, nobody wore shoes, because clogs were rainproof and lasted a long time, even though they were a bit hard on the feet. They also produced quite a noise, which I much appreciated. I always went home from school as fast as I could, shuffling the irons of my clogs along the footpath in rhythmic patterns of my own invention. Naturally, this wore out my clogs all too quickly, and my ears were boxed accordingly.
When I was six, my musical ambitions must have become firmer, or perhaps my parents felt some desire towards my refinement. The long-neglected piano was tuned, and it was arranged that I should go to a lady called Maggie every Saturday morning. She lived in Lostock Fold, a nearby poverty-stricken hamlet, and my lessons cost one shilling each. We used a book called ‘Smallwood’s Tutor’, which I found a bit dull, especially the scales, which to me seemed deliberately contrived to create trouble with fingerings. Maggie used to breast-feed her baby during the lessons, a procedure I found perfectly natural, as I remembered enjoying such experiences not many years before. However, after about six months, Maggie developed a nasty habit of whacking my fingers with a ruler when I made a mistake. This was not the kind of thing I went in for, so one day I waited for the moment she was about to use the ruler, snatched it off her, and despite her screams, gave her such a good taste of her own medicine that the lessons ended then and there. In reality she must have taught me a great deal, for when I began piano lessons again as a teenager, I was put to work immediately on Stephen Heller’s Studies, which are by no means simple pieces. It is remarkable that in the intervening years I must have forgotten nothing of that early training. It is even more remarkable how much theory and practice Maggie must have taught me in such a short time. Perhaps she was a good teacher after all.
Though I eventually came to love the organ, the one I heard at church in my childhood was a very unlovely thing, and the church choir was not much better. Later on, as a young man, I aspired to join the choir, but found that the only universal principle was to sing as loudly as possible and eliminate all musicality. So I found choralism an experience which was not enjoyable; it gave me a sore throat and probably ruined my voice in the process.
My earliest ambitions to join the choir at about the age of seven were fortunately thwarted by my friend Jimmy Clayton. Jimmy blew the organ (hidden behind a curtain together with the organist), and learning that I had inclinations to join the choir, he bet me the not inconsiderable sum of twopence that I did not dare sit on the front row of the congregation and sing as loud as I could. I accepted the bet, thinking that there could be no better way of informing the parson that I had a voice to take good notice of. When the Sunday came, I sat in glorious isolation on the front pew – in our church everybody sat at the back – and sang as loudly as I could. Indeed I went further. Noticing that the organ held on longer than the choir at certain points, especially at the ‘Amen’, I too held on as long as the organist. The parson’s face gradually changed from red to purple, and at last he sent my cousin Hannah from the choir to keep me quiet. I felt gravely injured, and for a long time refused to sing in church, standing in aloof silence. However, on the following day I hunted down Jimmy Clayton to claim my twopence, but he said that as he hadn’t blown the organ on Sunday, he had never heard me, so he couldn’t possibly pay me anything. Gullible as I was, I believed him. But in reality, he probably did me a good service. If I had joined that choir at seven, my voice would have been even more ruined than it was later on.
The best part of my childhood was spent in what my mother called ‘gallivanting’ that is, disappearing for the day into the local fields and woods, preferably armed with a catapult. I had a friend, Peter Ward, whose father owned a fair slice of land, and my family had a whole valley of the River Lostock called ‘Tatton’s Park’, used for mixed cattle breeding. But for Peter and me it was no fun to explore our own land, we already knew it. So we found great joy in trespassing over the whole locality, hunting game of every kind, being chased and shot at by game-keepers, and evading irate farmers. We once had a marathon with a particularly tenacious farmer, who chased us over ditches and fences all the way home, where we hid in a hayloft until, after much shouting, he finally went off. However, I was quite astonished when Peter burst into tears, so he went down in my estimation. I hadn’t realized that one could actually be so afraid!
However, those happy days came to an end, when we were both sent to the grammar school. Our fathers, being excellent friends, decided it would be a good idea to send us to Hutton Grammar School together. As they themselves both left school at the age of eleven, about 1895, they probably knew very little about education, even though they were local councillors and Justices of the Peace. By a brilliant but misguided stroke of genius, they decided to send us to grammar school, not at the beginning of the school year in September, but earlier, at the beginning of the summer term. In this way, they decided, we would be better prepared in September to begin again in the same form, repeating the same curriculum, but with a better preparation than the other boys. This plan, though good in theory, misfired catastrophically. Peter succeeded in failing his exams so well that he was kept down in the same form, but unfortunately, I finished eleventh out of thirty-two, so I was promoted to a higher form.
The basics of any subject are the most important facts. Everything else is based on them. How I could miss the first two terms of so many new subjects, and still get more marks than two-thirds of the form, has always puzzled me. It can only have been that the general level of intelligence was exceptionally low. This separated Peter and me from then on, and our friendship diminished quickly. He developed an oafish character and became very dull and backward, so that I no longer had any interest in him.
Hutton Grammar School (at that time, a very minor Public School), was no place for weaklings. Though it could boast of being founded in 1552, and had the best school reputation in the Preston area, it was like one of Dickens’ sinister institutions. Its traditions and schooling were like the most vicious and brutal establishments of the Victorian era. There was enmity everywhere. Half the boys were boarders (boys with parents in the colonies) and the rest were day-boys like me. This in itself led to a division which was absolute, with a perpetual state of war. Then the masters were mostly veterans from World War I, who showed two different kinds of scars of war. They were either aggressive, vicious and unlikeable, or shell shocked heroes who were soon shattered in such an environment. In this battlefield, the boys reacted just as fiercely towards the masters as the masters did to them, and the more the boys were flogged, the more they made life a hell for any master who could not command absolute respect. All told, the level of tuition was abysmal and tedious.
To me, the main trial of school life lay in the tyranny of Captain Keeley. He had been in a bantam regiment during the 1914 war, and tried to emulate his regimental motto:- ‘He is little, he is wise, he’s a terror for his size’. He terrorized the boys and even the headmaster. This latter titled himself ‘Colonel the Reverend C.P. Hines’ (another ex-war veteran), but Captain Keeley must have ridden over him with hob-nail boots. When Keeley appeared on the horizon, the whole school trembled. He was a bachelor, a small but heavily-built man reminiscent of a gorilla, completely bald, and with a complexion only one shade paler than a roaring fire. His delight was in making boys cry by punching their noses until they streamed with blood. His real aversion was for young boys who were taller than himself, and so his eye turned on me as soon as I appeared, with a view for future treatment.
My relationship with Keeley was one which, in the eyes of modern psychoanalysts, must have been the most formative thing in my life, but I will avoid a long account of this bloody saga. To cut a long story short, Keeley battered me cruelly for two years, with one objective only – to make me cower before him. He would hit me with his fists until I was almost senseless, but I never gave him any satisfaction. If I had been wiser, I would have mollified him by bursting into tears at the first onslaught, and thus saved myself much future agony. But I was too obstinate, and had to suffer accordingly for what was perhaps a matter of honour. In the end, I won the day, because he gave up his belligerence, and tried to win me over by being excessively genial, but I wasn’t having any of that either. Possibly, all this was very ‘character forming’, but just what it formed is not in the least clear.
Who can say how all this affected my school career? I had already started badly, in the final term of many subjects I had never done before. I shall never forget going home after the first day, with a bag bulging with books for homework on incomprehensible subjects such as algebra, geometry, French, Latin, physics and science. My parents were no help to me at all, they knew nothing whatever about the new disciplines I had to grapple with, and so I felt quite desperate in such a situation. However, I must have survived such a serious setback for (as I have said) I was promoted to the next form after only one term, and then worked my way up to the top, to take my final exams at only fifteen. Unfortunately, I was only second in the final matriculation exams (for university entrance), and only one university place was on offer, I missed such an august career. But I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had not had to suffer Keeley’s blows for so long. Perhaps I would have gained the few extra marks and won myself a university career. Perhaps instead, this would only have dulled my intelligence, and robbed me of many other experiences. Perhaps I should thank Keeley after all.
However, even though Hutton was such a brutal place, it did satisfy me in one very vital way, for it had such a thriving musical life. Music at Hutton was really quite a special thing, particularly in the unenlightened ’twenties. Both Colonel the Rev. and his wife were keen on music; there was a school orchestra, and special choral and instrumental tutors were permanently engaged. When I first went to the school, I thought the first orchestral concert was magnificent (though it was probably highly unmusical), and my immediate ambition was to learn some instrument and join the orchestra, preferably before the next concert. I had particularly noticed the flute playing of a junior master, Harry Wilkins, a friend of the family who helped me with the mysteries of algebra on Sunday mornings. He had a beautiful mellow tone, which I very much wanted to create myself, so my mother agreed that we should buy a flute. As usual, she thought the best place to go would be Reed’s salerooms in Preston, where there were frequent auctions. True enough, she came back with a second-hand instrument, which I hastened to try out in my bedroom. But it seemed so different from Harry’s instrument. There was quite a different mouthpiece with a bamboo reed, and I was disappointed to find I could only produce terrible squawks which were most unmusical. So I took the instrument to show the flautist Jack Abrams (the school woodwind tutor), and he declared it to be a clarinet, not a flute. Of course I was very disappointed, yet for some strange reason I never asked for the instrument to be changed. This could have been done quite easily, but I accepted the situation and arranged with Jack to have clarinet lessons, even though I had no idea what it could sound like. This is typical of that strange caprice of fate which has often led my musical career into paths which I never at first intended.
Nevertheless, my progress on the clarinet was so rapid that I was soon playing in the orchestra, and even supplanted as first clarinet a boy called Bowles, who had been learning much longer than I. Quite early in my musical career we played Haydn’s ‘London’ Symphony, and the E flat Symphony of Mozart which has an important clarinet solo. My skill was sung so high that it was decided that I should make my platform debut on the next Speech day, when it was declared that I had been learning for less than a year. I was to play in a trio arranged for clarinet, flute and piano called ‘Lo! Hear the Gentle Lark’, and the flute part would be played by Jack Abrams, and the piano by a noted professional called Richardson. The whole affair was quite brilliant, and the rehearsals promised well.
When the great day came, I left my clarinet behind the stage until the time for our trio. To my horror, when I went for my instrument, the bamboo reed was bent right over until it was almost cracked. I pushed it back into position, and tried to play a few sounds, but the result, even with great effort, was almost nothing at all. In a state of semi-paralysis, I went on the stage and sat down to play, not saying a word to Jack. In this piece the flute and the piano play a long, brilliant introduction, imitating the lark in a whirlwind of activity; then the clarinet begins all on its own, with a quiet, expressive melody. At this point, I managed to squeeze out the feeblest of sounds, but only by using my utmost strength and wind power. I got through the piece somehow, with many squeaks and grunts, and I must have looked like I was about to burst, with my eyes popping out, and gradually becoming the colour of a beetroot. I was abysmally ashamed of such a feeble effort, and especially after such good rehearsals, one would have expected the two professionals to ask me what had happened. However, as they said nothing, I attempted no explanation. Perhaps it was not quite as bad as it seemed, for we gave a repeat performance at a public concert the following winter. However, to me, it was torture, and the very worst beginning for solo performance in public.
A while after this, Jack recommended me to the conductor of the Preston Windband as a solo leader. In a wind band, the solo clarinet must be a virtuoso. He has to do all the brilliant work, while the other clarinets play easier parts. But I had bitten off more than I could chew. Not only were the solo parts extremely difficult, but the sheer volume of the whole band, crammed into an upstairs room at a pub, made it so that I had to play with the utmost force to be heard at all. This was very exhausting indeed, and certainly not music-making, so after two rehearsals I decided that windbands were not for me, and retired from the arena.
At school the orchestral music-making was always a happy experience, but the music lessons in the classroom were very unruly affairs. Mr Richardson, though a concert pianist of renown, was quite incapable of discipline. While he tried to teach us music by displays of keyboard fireworks, or by demonstrating how he could play any two melodies at the same time, we regarded the lessons as a bit of a joke. We would stuff the piano with newspapers before he arrived, or if we were asked to sing, pretended that we couldn’t find the right note to begin on. In the end, he had to have an extra master present to keep discipline, and inevitably his school career came to a rapid end. In his place, we had a man of very different mettle … Tom Duerden, who became cathedral organist at Blackburn, and who at the time was teaching his future sister-in-law, the famous soprano Kathleen Ferrier. Tom was no man for nonsense, and yet he was very kindly, so that we enjoyed his lessons. He taught us more about singing in one term than we had previously learned in years, and his handling of the orchestra was a delight.
We had another aspiring conductor at Hutton, a Latin teacher of tiny stature, whose name was Tyson, inevitably known as ‘Titch’. (Latin masters never lasted long at Hutton; nobody could understand why we should learn such a barbaric language, and nobody tried. Every master who came received such rough treatment; they always retired with nervous exhaustion after a couple of terms). Mr Tyson was actually at the height of his teaching career (that is, in his first term) when he proposed to the headmaster that he should conduct Haydn’s ‘Toy Symphony’ in a school concert. The headmaster welcomed this, and hired the necessary toy instruments for the parts. I was given the cuckoo to play, which disappointed me. It had only two notes. The rehearsals were not very interesting for one had so little to do, and the music was hardly inspiring. When we played at the concert, the sight of ‘Titch’ conducting was so comic, for he dressed up in his fancy degree-ceremony gown. The audience began to laugh, and then by instinct, and yet as if prearranged, we performers all ignored our parts and began to play whatever we could think of as loud as possible. Mr Tyson’s eyebrows shot up in sheer horror, and in a moment the whole hall was in an uproar. But the headmaster leaped forward and shouted us all into silence. Then he lectured us all on the seriousness of the music, that it was no joke, and should be listened to with reverence. We were then made to repeat the performance in its full state of dignity, (without much help from Mr Tyson, who must have felt quite subdued).
One day, when I was still only thirteen or fourteen, brought a decisive change in my musical career. During one of my clarinet lessons, Jack Abrams asked me if I would consider learning the saxophone with a view to joining him in a local jazz band. I had no idea Jack played the sax, and because he was such a brilliant flautist, I imagined that he could live only by playing the flute. However, the truth is that he was an obstinate man, and perhaps this lost him many opportunities. It was even said that he had refused a contract to record for HMV. In reality he was probably the greatest flautist in the North West, but there were few openings for his genius. He was a very brilliant player indeed. His repertoire consisted of those virtuoso pieces with intricate cascades of sound which were written deliberately to astonish the public of times gone by, but which one seldom hears today. But evidently this did not earn him enough to live on, so he turned to the saxophone to increase his income. Naturally, I was keen to join him in a jazz band, so a new alto sax was bought for me and in no time at all I was playing second alto alongside Jack every Saturday night. The change from clarinet to saxophone is essentially simple, except for the finer points of performance. Since we had no rehearsals, I had to sight-read every piece on the spot, and as we would play anything up to fifty pieces in an evening, that added up to an awful lot of sight-reading. Also, the second sax part is much more difficult to read than the first, which only plays the tune.
I think my final triumph at Hutton was when I played some jazzy sax solos in a house concert. Anything unclassical in those days was regarded as unethical, and to play anything jazzy was to risk the grave disapproval of Colonel the Reverend. However, as my pieces were welcomed uproariously, there was no disapproval, and I won the day hands down.
I became very keen on jazz and learned all I could. This was mostly done by listening to the American records played on Sunday afternoons (while doing my homework) by Radio Luxembourg. Such figures as Duke Ellington, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers became my idols, and I was so fascinated by the orchestration of such pieces as Ellington’s Mood Indigo and Creole Love Call that I would buy the records and then spend hours copying down the music. This taught me a lot about harmony and orchestration, but wasted a lot of the time I should have spent on my schoolwork. Nevertheless, as I had been pushed up so much from one form to another, I ended my school career in the same form as my brother, who was three years older than I. I took the university matriculation exam when I was only fifteen, and therefore ended my school career too soon, before I realised what was happening. However, I was not unhappy to leave school; it was such a place of repression. Looking back, I can see now that music was the only thing which had made my schooldays at all tolerable.
As soon as I left school in 1933, a big problem reared its head – what work should I do? My only desire was to be a musician; it was the one thing that appealed to me. But my father, who I admired for his practicality and good sense, pointed out rightly that the England of 1932 was in the depths of the ‘slump’, and to find any work at all was like looking for gold in a coalmine. Were there not already crowds of workless obstructing every street corner? But his most crucial and persuasive argument centred on the condition of Jack Abram’s jacket. Had I not noticed how his elbows were in tatters? What about his cuffs; were there any left at all? Did I want to be like that? In truth, I had noticed Jack’s cuffs, but the real significance of their non-existence had never occurred to me. For the first time I realised that he must be almost penniless.
With these thoughts in mind, my father sent me off to think things over on a walking tour up the Rhine – a great and memorable trip. But as it had to be accomplished on a budget of only thirteen pounds, any temptation to stray into concert halls or opera houses was automatically eliminated. Furthermore, the trip was hardly designed to give me inspiration, because I was given no ideas to think about.
Once back home, I found myself presented with a fait accompli. Like Thomas Hardy, I was to become an articled pupil to a local architect, three hundred pounds having already been paid for three year’s articles. I was not unattracted by the idea, for after all, I thought of architecture not only as a noble art, but a profession which would give me security while I could play jazz as much as I liked. (In those days the articled pupil system was a normal preparation for a profession. In architecture it was almost universal, but though it gave a very practical training, theory was largely absent, so exams had to be prepared by much arduous self-tuition).
Though I didn’t realise it at the time, the architect Alfred C.M. Lillie (known as Bertie) had a financial bargain. He paid one assistant £4.10s a week, and had three pupils bringing in £300 a year, so his workforce actually made a profit! To boot, he had the biggest practice around Preston, with work valuing £300,000 at any one time. As his average fees were 5%, his income must have been formidable. However, this did not stop him actually lowering his assistant’s wages in 1935 to £4 a week, on the excuse of the slump!
The foundation stone of Bertie’s practice was Masonry, for as master of his lodge, he had a monopoly. He had all the work he could handle, while giving out the building construction work only to a chosen few, presumably also Masons. The strategy of this racket was to advertise works for tender, and finally to advise the chosen few what prices they should submit!
In my innocence, I accepted these unethical practices as quite normal, and all part of the business, hardly noticing that other architects had so little to do.
The truth is that Freemasonry was a corrupt, evil racket. The Mason’s ideal may have been that of giving each other mutual support, but underneath it all was only a money-grabbing system, in which the better-offs clubbed together to look after themselves. As master of his lodge, Bertie spent his days not at architecture, but in organizing Masonic affairs, and it was obvious to us that his affairs not only embraced his clients and the builders, but all the professions, businessmen and people in public life. But if anyone came to the office, such as a commercial traveller, who was not a Mason, he stood no chance of an interview. Looking back, it was all corruption, which we took for granted. We were even part of it, for we made it work.
When I was seventeen, as I was the only assistant able to drive, I was given one of Bertie’s two cars, and told I was supervisor of all outside work. I quite enjoyed this, as it gave me real responsibilities while getting me away from the drawing board and into the fresh air. The office work was in fact boring, for we pupils were never allowed to design anything more ambitious than a semi-detached house, and there was very little opportunity for originality or enterprise. As for Art! Eventually, my articles completed, I was offered a position at £2 a week until I could find other work.
During these years, my jazz playing as a ‘semi-pro’ developed fast. After a while, playing second alto in Jack Abram’s ‘big’ band lost its appeal, for it gave no scope for individuality. The work was too mechanical, and I was more attracted to the growing vogue for small groups comprising a rhythm section and only two or three soloists. This gave plenty of opportunity for more creative playing in the improvisatory style of ‘hot jazz’ or ‘swing’, which called for highly musical qualities from every player of the group. My own ideal was the style of the American Coleman Hawkins, whose sax playing was highly extempore, with rhythmic zest and a deliberately rough texture.
I joined up with one player and then another, until finally we had a brilliant quintet of sax, trumpet, piano, bass and drums. We played permanently in one dance hall or another on Saturdays and toured anywhere in the Northwest on Thursdays for late night dances at a fee of £1 to £2 each. We played mostly without music, but I built up quite a collection of my own arrangements. It was during this period I had a mania for learning all instruments, so that I could play not only sax and clarinet, but also the guitar, double bass, trumpet, trombone, violin and piano. This multi-instrumentalism was a great asset for orchestration and arrangements, but perhaps robbed me of real brilliance an any one instrument.
Our great aspiration was to win one of the Melody Maker band contests which were keenly contested in the Northwest, for they meant a big step up towards full professionalism. We won second prizes on two occasions, while I got prizes for clarinet and guitar, but never what I really desired – the sax prize. In fact, on one occasion, when I thought I had played sax particularly well, the judge’s chief criticism was of poor ‘phrasing’, and such a criticism made me think much more of the finer points of performance. Perhaps this was my point of change from being an instinctive player to a thinking one.
My peak of fame in jazz came when in one contest at the Bolton Palais de Dance, Lois Armstrong came on his first visit from the States. As he had no band of his own, he was to play with those from different bands who won instrumental prizes. As I was the one who got the clarinet prize (though I had only doubled on it briefly in Stardust) I found myself pushed on to the stage next to Armstrong, and we were off! No explanation of what to do, just play! The atmosphere was electric, Armstrong played like a man demented, and when he was exhausted, I had to take over as soloist until he was ready again. Then we would bring the piece to an end with a wild free-for-all and a great crescendo. The crowd went mad, Armstrong had sweat splashing off his face and I felt an elation like a primitive man riding a tiger. We played Tiger Rag, Saint Louis Blues, I’ve got Rhythm, Dinah – all pieces we knew backwards, but it was like discovering a new world. There was such a vitality and intensity in every moment that I was intoxicated with creativity in a way that I have never since experienced. In reality, this was Armstrong’s greatest period, he was reaching the highest peak of his career, yet he was still a 100% musician, uncontaminated by showmanship. In any case, he didn’t sing at the time, which was so much better.
The Armstrong experience expanded me as a musician and made me much more critical of those I played with. In hot jazz, one thing is certain – you can play with some people and not with others. If there is no mutual rhythmic ride created between players, one’s own vitality and creativity is deflated, leaving a sense of depression. One cannot make this unity happen, it must be intuitive. As my own playing was characterised by an aggressive rhythm, it is not surprising that I could only enjoy playing with very few others.
It is perhaps unfortunate that the only one of my playing companions who later became famous was one of those I didn’t care to play with. This was Eddie Carter, known in the fifties everywhere as ‘the man with the golden trumpet’. He was a gloriously lyrical player, but for me, his rhythmic sense was so poor I avoided him, though he persisted in begging me to play in his band. However, the way he pulled the tempo about, playing in a kind of loose abandon, was something I couldn’t stomach, so we went different ways.
Alan Mottershead was the greatest of my companions, as we felt and played very much alike. He became a professional, and began playing on the cruise liners which went to South America. He found me a place in one of the P & O bands, and I was sorely tempted to give up architecture and start a new life. But as fate would have it, I had just reached my RIBA intermediate exams, and to drop architecture exactly at that point would have been silly. I could first take the exams and then join a cruise band whenever I wanted, but things were to turn out differently. Much more differently than I anticipated.
One day in the summer of 1937 fate thrust me brusquely off my way along the fascinating and exciting road of jazz. I went for a day trip to Chester, and of course visited the cathedral to look over its architecture. But when I went inside, I was astounded. There was a sound such as I had never heard before – a great organ playing in a way I found completely overwhelming. Such a potent, noble sound cut straight to my heart. That was really music. But it was also music which I couldn’t understand, and therefore was all the more mysterious and alluring.
From that moment, I wanted not only to discover that music for myself, but also to play such a glorious instrument. My interest in jazz disintegrated like smoke in the wind. I refused to play jazz any more, even though the boys came to try to drag me off to play on Saturday nights. I avoided my friends among the semi-pros, attempting no explanation, because I could find none. In any case, I soon discovered that at that time, there was an unbridgeable gulf between classics and jazz. No musician could with any dignity belong to both worlds. The prejudice against jazz was strong and absolute, but my own motives were based only on my artistic instincts. The truth is, I had suffered a cultural shock like a hammer blow, and needed to reorientate my aesthetic ideals. Without help from anybody, this was not easy.
At first, I was more confounded than helped. As it happened, the wireless was then running a long series called ‘The Foundations of Music’. This seemed a promising place to start, but I found the broadcasts incomprehensible. In reality, the series comprised no more than Bach’s organ fugues, without any helpful comment or explanation. The music would start, and then I was soon lost in a tangled maze of sound which utterly confounded me. I had no key to the puzzle, so I was greatly discouraged. In fact, I began to think that things were much more difficult than they really were.
In order to explore this new musical world of ‘classical’ music, I went to whatever concerts Preston and Blackburn could offer – visits by the Hallé Orchestra, and the occasional celebrity. I remember being most struck by Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, but not at all impressed by string quartets and pianists. I was greatly attracted by the timbre of Paul Robeson’s voice. La Bohème, seen at Blackpool, seemed remarkably modern, and quite beyond my previous experience.
I was spurred on to join Preston Choral Society, conducted by Arthur Fountain, organist of Preston Parish Church, and once a pupil of Bairstow at York Minster. Nowadays, I would judge Fountain as more of a disciplinarian than a musician, for he ruled the choir with a rod of iron (but with very little musical expression), with never a pleasant word or smile. However, to us he seemed the great maestro, hardly to be approached. Nevertheless, one day I made bold enough to ask him about organ lessons, expecting to be repulsed out of hand. Instead, (finance being his first and only consideration), he leaped at the idea, hastening to point out that his fees would be three guineas a term (10 lessons), while I could practise on the Parish Church organ for 3 pence an hour.
As I agreed, he went on to mention that he had been asked to find an organist and choirmaster for Samlesbury Parish Church, at a fee of £17 a year. I asked when the post was to begin, so he replied, ‘Tomorrow’ (the next day being Sunday), and so I found myself playing the organ twice on the Sunday, before I had even begun lessons. This was rapid progress indeed.
The organ at Samlesbury was disappointing, the choir even more so, yet I stayed there for almost two years. I was offered much better posts; St James’s in Preston had a big organ and a fine choir, but I didn’t go. One reason was that at Samlesbury I was happy, and had formed pleasant friendships; but most of all, after Munich in 1938, one could see the war coming fast. Starting any new venture seemed pointless and without a realistic future.
In the meantime, my organ lessons with Fountain were most frustrating, almost counterproductive. He was the exact opposite of what I have become myself. I push a pupil on at a gallop, playing whatever music he prefers. Yet I not only teach him to play, but to understand the music, analyse its construction, and plan its interpretation. This results in a lot of conversation, so I largely ignore secondary details such as fingerings. Instead, for Fountain, correct fingerings was his only interest. We dragged slowly right through Alcock’s Organ Tutor in eighteen months, while I was fuming to begin on Bach. And as I played each piece, Fountain would stand behind me in silence, making no comment until at the end he would pencil a ring round some fingering error and say, ‘Do this again for next week.’ There was never a comment of any musical value. I was infuriated. To waste time and spend my money uselessly just for a fingering mistake made me disgusted, most of all, with myself. The only solution was to have fingerings so perfect that I could never be faulted. This was the only thing Fountain taught me – to be utterly meticulous. However, I have developed such distaste for finger indications that I have ignored then ever since!
As for Bach, I studied him on my own. I bought his complete organ works, studied them myself, and have been playing them ever since. Naturally, I had to spend much time at the organ, and almost every lunch hour I was at the keyboard, and every Saturday afternoon. I had a burning desire to get on. I could stomach Fountain no more, and when he put me to work on some very indifferent Trios in Canon by Gustav Merkel, instead of similar Bach pieces, I left him without another word. For I had come to a firm decision; one day I would be a cathedral organist, and I would be held back by Fountain no longer, but teach myself.
Looking back now, it would seem I was a glutton for work, for as well as my architects work and organ studies, this was the period when I was ploughing through a correspondence course for RIA exams. I had passed my intermediate exams about 1936, and then completed all my finals except the thesis about the time I decided to become a cathedral organist. However, this decision was already being overtaken by other events – one prominent example being the stamp of Hitler’s storm troopers’ boots across the frontiers of Europe. But to rush on to 1939 is still a little premature.
In 1937, I left Bertie’s office for a position at Preston Town Hall in the Council architect’s department. I became a junior assistant at £4 a week in a total staff of eight. Being the junior, I was condemned to a back desk in a dark corner, with the dullest possible work. For a year, I designed identical bus shelters for all the bus stops in Preston, in horrific purple tiles (this being the colour of the buses). However, I was relieved from this inspiring task in 1938 by Chamberlain’s fiasco at Munich. The balloon was said to be ‘going up’, and the day the news broke I met our Clerk of Works coming back from lunch. We went into a pub together, and got so drunk, we decided to take the afternoon off.
Next day I was called in to see the chief engineer, not for a reprimand, but to be told that as all councils had been instructed by the government to appoint air-raid shelter designers, I was now to be the Council’s sole representative. I was even given my own office. So for the whole year before the war, I crawled around all the cellars of Preston, choosing those most suitable for conversion into shelters, and preparing construction designs. Though the work was not inspiring, I was at least my own boss, and could come and go as I pleased. Naturally, my spells at the organ became even longer as my desk became more and more replete and overflowing with shelter designs. The work became so tiresome that in desperation, I applied to become town architect of Clitheroe. At the interview, I was offered the post, but having sudden visions of being stuck there for the rest of my life, I deliberately asked for conditions they couldn’t accept. The war was coming with relentless certainty, and I would have been trapped in Clitheroe in a ‘reserved occupation’ for the duration. In all probability, had I accepted the post, I would still be there!
However, things turned out very differently. As soon as war was declared, the whole of the Preston staff was switched to ‘ARP’ (Air Raid Precautions). My office was invaded by the Council engineers, as well as the architects, and my plans carried off in haste to protect the citizens of the town against deluges of Nazi bombs. (In actual fact, I don’t think a single bomb fell anywhere near Preston). As all the staff on ARP could claim to be in reserved occupations, (and therefore be exempt from military service) my office became too overcrowded with pacifists for my liking, and so I left them in contempt. To me, there was only one thing to do – find out how to get into uniform. Not that I was a warmonger in the least; it just seemed obvious that we had to fight, or succumb to a menacing and alien dictatorship. In reality, we knew absolutely nothing of why we should go to war, except for some vague sense of patriotism. While the youth of Germany were so well-informed by Hitler’s ‘propaganda machine’, we were innocents in a wilderness. We suffered no indoctrination, so we hardly knew what it was all about. As it turned out, we were saved far more by good luck than by good judgement.
My army career may not have had much relationship with my development as a musician, and therefore I could almost leap over the years 1939-46. However, this was not a completely fruitless period – even a few years in the desert need not be a completely negative experience. Indeed, the army gave me many cultural benefactions of unexpected kinds, and at no expense. For example, when as a student, I studied the History of Architecture, I never dreamed that I would ever see the pyramids, the great Egyptian temples of Luxor, such an abundance of Greek and Roman architecture, or the great works of the Italian Renaissance. Or indeed – that I would learn to speak that most beautiful of all languages – Italian. So after all, the war did have its gifts, even in the midst of such tribulation.
After war was declared in 1939, I went to recruiting offices, but nobody seemed to want me. I tried first to get in the air force as a fighter pilot, but I was failed on medical grounds because my heart would not accelerate fast enough. I then went round to the navy, and was offered a place in a navy band, but I felt this would be too unheroic. I then took courage and deciding to become cannon-fodder, went to my last choice – the army. There I was told there was no room for new recruits, but if I could wait, I would be sent for to join the Royal Corps of Signals.
After weeks of waiting, I was at last sent for to join the Signal Corps at Prestatyn, where I was put into a squad of potential officers. This squad was persecuted by the tyrannical sadist sergeant Blanchard, who toughened us relentlessly, physically and mentally. He would march us at the double up and down the sand dunes wearing gas masks until we were sick and groggy. Then make us dig deep trenches and then fill them in again. And then dig them again to find a mythical missing spade, and then fill them again. (This tough man of iron died soon afterwards of a bad cold). If this was signals, I had had enough, and asked for a transfer to the engineers, for I felt it was there that my architect’s knowledge could best be used. It was a happy choice, and I have always been glad I joined the ‘sappers’, for we always had something positive and helpful to do, even if it was only ‘disposing’ of an unexploded bomb. Most men in the army had long, dull and frustrating years of training and exercises, but we always had interesting work, which made the years pass more easily.
After a six-month cadet training course in tactics, explosives, bombs, mines, bridging, water supply, transport and general engineering, I was commissioned at Aldershot and sent to 652 RE Company, 6 officers and 260 men, at Nottingham, where I immediately received my baptism of fire. As soon as I arrived, the Nazi bombers came and shattered the factory areas of the town. As it seemed I was the only RE officer who had been trained in explosives, I was sent for to deal with a nasty situation. A factory had been destroyed, but one wall, five storeys high, was still standing alongside a main street, and had to be brought down. I rushed off to take a look, and sure enough, it was dangerous – it was waving about in the wind. I set a gelignite charge to blow away the one pillar which was holding everything up, but at the last moment a policeman ran up shouting, ‘Stop! We’ve found an unexploded bomb. It’s just round the corner.’ This had obviously to be dealt with first, so away I went to take a look. There was no problem, not even any need to dig. I had the bomb exploded in ten minutes. Then I rushed back round the corner, back to the wall.
I was most annoyed to find that by now a tractor driver had got a cable fastened up the wall, and was heaving away. The wall tottered back and forth, but nothing better happened. So I told him to back off and leave it to me. At last I lit the fuse, and everything came down, nicely blocking the street.
I was quite surprised when, back at the Company, our Commanding Officer, Major Simmons, gave me a reprimand because I had done the demolition without first submitting a written ‘project’ to him for approval. I was astounded by such petty officiousness, especially as he would never have understood my project anyhow. Inevitably, and unfortunately, the adrenalin flow produced by the bomb and the wall had not subsided enough for me to give a controlled reaction to such a stupid reprimand, so there was an element of insubordination in my response.
This episode started the friction between us which soon got worse. In fact, within two days I caused him more annoyance, in an episode which showed his silliness before the whole company. It would seem that Simmons, aspiring to military perfection, had shown in his monthly reports to headquarters a 5% increase in military efficiency each month until there could be no more improvement. (In reality, such an engineering company only works, it does no real drill or military training at all, that is not its purpose). The HQ Colonel (Officer Commanding Royal Engineers), spotting this incongruity, announced a snap inspection, knowing full well that he would really enjoy himself.
At the appointed time, the whole Company paraded by sections in line on a large parade ground in the Nottingham suburbs. There were five Sections in line, each with its officer in front, with Major Simmons in glorious isolation yet further ahead.
The Colonel arrived by car, and while still a hundred yards from us, stood to attention and shouted, ‘The Company will execute General Salute, Present Arms.’
The General Salute Present Arms is a most elaborate and difficult manoeuvre. I knew all about it. We had rehearsed it for a fortnight for the officer cadet ‘Passing Out’ parade at Aldershot.
Obviously, nobody knew what to do. There was an awful long silence with nothing happening. At last, as Simmons gave no command (he must have been quite stunned), I turned to my section and said something like, ‘You will come to attention, slope arms, follow me for twelve paces, halt and present arms.’ (This is a total of 17 movements!).
Hoping for the best, I did the manoeuvre myself and then looked round. My section was just starting to move, and gradually came up behind me in odd groups. At last, I shouted, ‘Present Arms,’ and they did it somehow. I thought this ghastly, but then noticed that the other Sections were much worse off; a complete rabble, men all over the place. Some had never moved. In the middle of all this chaos, the Colonel shouted, ‘Halt, Halt! Major Simmons, come forward.’
All the Company watched while Simmons stood before the Colonel, and his neck became red, then magenta, and then purple. Obviously, he was getting a grievous grilling. The Colonel called the officers forward, and turning to me, said, ‘You, what’s your name?’
‘Brindle, Sir.’ I replied.
‘Have you no rank?’
‘’Lieut. Brindle, Sir.’
‘When were you commissioned?’
‘Last week, Sir.’
‘Good. Now, Lieut. Brindle, would you explain to your CO how to General Salute, Present Arms.’
This I did, noticing that Simmons’s face was that of a man writhing on the rack in an agony of humiliation, but not without a gleam of hatred for me.
‘Now Lieut. Brindle,’ said the Colonel, ‘you will drill your fellow officers and your CO in this manoeuvre. They have no rifles, so they will use their sticks instead.’
Then he marched off to his car, to stand and watch the disorder which followed. The results were so obviously pathetic that he roared his distaste, and then came back to give us a bitter harangue. Then he dropped his bombshell: ‘From now on, I will be coming for an inspection once a fortnight, until you are a decent shower. Now call out the oldest serving sapper in the Company.’
It took some time to sort out who was not the oldest sapper, but the one who had been longest in the army. There was some confusion. At last a scruffy old dogger shambled forward, and on enquiry confessed to the name of Gurkin. ‘Gurkin,’ said the Colonel, ‘you mean Gherkin.’
‘No sir, Gurkin.’
‘Right, Gherkin. Fall in the Company and march it back to the billets. The officers in the rear and the OC last of all.’
At this, sapper Gurkin sprang to attention as if galvanised, marched smartly in front of the Company and shouted with unexpected vehemence and obscenity at officers and men alike. And so we were marched back to our billets in great degradation.
After this episode we were all very subdued, the officers morose, the men peevish and rude. We all dreaded the prospect of further inspections, for how could we work and train as well? There were even visions of night parades, with Simmons making a thorough pest of himself.
Fortunately, we were saved by the bell. Or rather by AG7. Major Simmons had a pal in the War Office, it was said, responsible for RE postings, and Simmons must have got on the blower so fast that before the Colonel could even arrange a return visit we were off. But unfortunately, our destination was a grim prospect – the Shetland Islands. (Contrary to maps, which show them in a tall rectangle brought down just north of Scotland, they are 200 miles further north, almost on the Arctic Circle, further north in fact than Bergen, Oslo, Helsinki and St Petersburg).
When we got there from Inverness, through storm and tempest, 652 Company was miserable. We went to work in the dark, and came back in the dark. The sun was never seen, covered by a rack of hurtling clouds. The normal weather was storm force 10, rising to hurricane winds. The roof was blown off the officers’ hut as I lay in bed, and was never seen again. A three feet thick sandbag fortification wall was flattened as I watched. Bundles of thick corrugated iron sheets flew over Lerwick like pieces of paper, and scattered all over Bressay Island, where we recovered them a fortnight later. (According to Army Regulations, Shetland was a maximum nine-month station, but as Simmons married a woman from Scalloway, the Company stayed there for two years, before being relieved to go to Burma!).
Amid all this tribulation, Simmons insisted that the officers should dress for dinner, that is, change from battle dress to ‘service dress’ and sit in silence as we ate. In the army, ‘shop’ is forbidden, as well as politics, state of the war, sex, etc., and as nobody was willing to open up any other subject, the meals passed in a nervous, gloomy hush. The food was abysmal; the highlight being a ‘savoury’, usually a single sardine on a piece of dry toast. All this farce was presumably enacted to show our military efficiency or our supposedly gentlemanly qualities. Fortunately, in all my later army career, I never came across such pomposity again.
Our main work was to blast out dugouts for the defences of Lerwick. Some imbecile tactical genius thought the Germans would invade Britain by crossing from Norway to the Shetlands, and then descend through Scotland into England. This silly idea caused us much stress, as the rock of Shetland is a particularly intractable granite which quickly ruined our pneumatic drills and machinery. Spares could only be delivered on the fortnightly boat from Inverness, so our progress was slow. As I was in charge of drilling and blasting, I got all the aggro.
The situation was not improved when Simmons, intent on improving our state of military efficiency, ordered us not only to march to work, but to go on week-end twenty mile route marches, and then sleep in the defences. Not only that, but he expected the defences to be manned at night with lookouts, patrols and sentries. This was highly unpopular and the men were very disgruntled.
One night he drove up from Lerwick, hid his car, and crept up to our dugouts, awakened a sentry who though asleep, was fortunately at his post, and asked to see me. In the fug of the dugout, I was too comatose to be easily awakened, and by the time I got my boots on, I was getting more and more bloody-minded. At last, confronting Simmons in the stormy darkness outside, my conversation was also too full of ‘bloody’ to be subordinate. There was certainly little politeness or military correctness. In fact, I threw caution aside deliberately, for I knew that I could stay under his command no longer.
The next day I expected to be summoned to the CO’s office, but he had obviously decided to avoid any further confrontation. He must have got on the blower to AG7 immediately, and within a week, I found myself posted in disgrace to 675 Engineers at Tadcaster, preparing to go, apparently, to Burma.
I was so happy to leave, even though the overnight boat crossing to Inverness was so stormy that I had to barricade myself in a corner of the officer’s lounge to escape the tables, divans and armchairs, which hurled back and forth as the ship heaved and tossed in the herculean tempest. I was indeed happy, because I felt my life had taken a definite turn away from misery, towards a more blessed existence. Indeed I was right. How things changed. How much would I have missed if I had stayed on in Simmons’s Company? My whole life would have been quite different.
675 Company turned out to be as happy as 652 had been miserable. There was never any ‘bull’. Major Bridgewater, my new OC, was a pleasant, genial man, kind and quite unmilitary, so that his officers were a cheerful lot, and the men always in good humour. I was made most welcome, and from then on, life became almost enjoyable.
Major Bridgewater was well over forty, a bit old for active service, and possibly this was why he tended to keep in the background, leaving the young officers to get on with their work. He guided, but never interfered or criticised. I sometimes feel remorse for the one time I was almost rude to him. This was on one day in the Western Desert when he must have felt that he should be more active and see what we were up to. He asked me to take him round the different sites we were working on, but rather than making this a happy experience, I took umbrage and didn’t treat him nicely at all. I hope he forgave me. He must have done, because later on when I left the Company, he was always pleased to see me again. When he left the army as a Colonel he even went out of his way to pay me a special visit.
In addition to the Major, there were five other officers – an adjutant Captain and four Subalterns. Captain Heron was a massive barrel of a man in his forties, who having been a commercial traveller in road materials, was a ceaseless fount of that kind of heavy humour which can be a bit wearing, especially in times of adversity. However, he was usually a most cheerful companion, completely unmilitary, and was never known to do any work. He must have had a bowel complaint, for he had to have his own thunderbox wherever he went, spending many happy hours there until it had to be jettisoned as ‘superfluous equipment’ when we left Egypt.
The other Subalterns apart from myself were Len Vincent, a young architect, ‘Dos’ Canales, a Cambridge student who often proved to be the brains of the Company, and Webster, who was a bit of a nuisance. He had a fixation about women and would boast about his imaginary exploits. We put this down to an inferiority complex brought on by the ridiculously small size of his male organ. Being married, he must have had some difficulty.
The Company was preparing to move overseas, to the Far East, so we all had to get the right uniform. I even had to buy a topee, a sun helmet (which I was never to wear). One night we paraded at Tadcaster station and amid much bloody-minded controversy between army transport officers and civilian railway staff, we entrained, and then with much violent shouting and shunting headed north, back to Scotland where I had only just come from.
We ended up at Gourock at the mouth of the Clyde, and it was there that, dodging out of the column, I bought myself something to study on the coming journey. At a little second-hand bookshop, I bought the English musical theorist, Ebenezer Prout’s ‘Harmony’ for a shilling (5p).
We boarded the Narkunda, a creaky old ship of some Far Eastern line, and when the convoy set sail, discovered that we were on the Commodore’s ship, leading a convoy of five lines of smaller boats, about 25 altogether. We headed out round Malin Head, the most northerly point of Ireland, and out into the Atlantic. At first we had some small destroyers dashing round us, making brave surging forays towards the awaiting U-boats, but this protection soon dropped away leaving us alone with a single escort, the Hawkins, a smallish cruiser. We felt somewhat exposed and under-protected. The convoy then continued on a zigzag course due west for so long (about a fortnight) that it seemed we must hit Canada any moment, but at last we turned away south-east, presumably heading on a longer leg for Africa, where U-boats would be waiting for us again. In the wonderfully blue tropical waters, we sailed bravely into a nest of vipers. The rear ships of the convoy got it worst, the ship next to us sank, and the Narkunda itself got two torpedo hits which, though most unpleasant, apparently did no grave damage.
We were relieved to reach Freetown in Sierra Leone, and go ashore while the ship was repaired by divers. But apparently their work was not good enough, for as we sailed on towards South Africa, the boat developed a list which increased fearfully, and one morning, as the ship could only go round in circles, we were abandoned by the rest of the convoy, which disappeared over the horizon. To make matters much worse, all this happened in the middle of a fantastic storm, with immense creaming waves whose streaming crests were 400 yards apart and as high as the stands of a football stadium.
The ship was obviously going to roll over, so all 4000 troops were called on deck, to stand on one side only, to re-balance the ship, but also ready to abandon at any moment. I was put in charge of a Carley float, a raft for 20 men, which would slide into the sea when I knocked out a wooden peg. I thought this a poor prospect.
Fortunately, with all the troops weighing on one side, the ship could steer a steadier course and avoid the worst of the waves. At last somebody did something somewhere in the bowels of the ship, and the list was gradually reduced, and the next day we could go below.
Then, one calm dawn, a golden, sunlight city appeared on the horizon, the most beautiful sight I ever saw, and at last we sailed into Durban harbour. It had taken us almost eight weeks to get there. It was with some relief that we marched to a camp ashore, staggering with our wobbly sea legs.
In the meantime, during the voyage, I had worked my way right through Prout’s ‘Harmony’. (Prout was, at one time, a renowned authority on all aspects of theory and composition, and published some fine books also on counterpoint, fugue, form and orchestration). I had expected the subject to be strange and difficult, but as I worked, I realised that I knew most of the essential material already and there was very little of real novelty. Copying the discs of Duke Ellington had, after all, been quite an education.
This was not my only musical activity. While I was in the Shetlands I had foreseen that my organ playing was temporarily at an end, in fact I hardly touched a keyboard again for many years. So I decided to start learning the flute – the instrument I first wanted to play as a schoolboy. Writing from Lerwick, I got Jack Abrams to send me a second-hand Rudolf Carte flute, with Langley’s Tutor, Bach’s flute sonatas and some pieces of the flute repertoire. From then on I practised whenever the army gave me time. (The other officers were not always tolerant, but on the whole, they let me do as I liked). The flute is not a difficult instrument to play in a mediocre fashion, but I wanted to become a virtuoso, so I pushed myself hard.
Unfortunately, playing alone is not always an inspiring experience, so I was very happy when we reached Durban, for the Durban Symphony Orchestra was badly in need of a second flute. I became very friendly with the first flute player, a very cultured musician, who really lived in style with black servants. He introduced me to a chamber music ensemble, and in no time at all I found myself playing with them in concerts as a soloist! This was indeed a happy time. We had orchestral rehearsals almost every day, with concerts twice a week. Marcus Dodds was then the conductor and we got on famously. One thing he had to do was stop me stamping my feet like a jazz player. Unfortunately, once one starts this habit, it is not easy to stop.
But at last the day came when we marched to the docks and boarded a cattle boat bound for the Far East. This would probably have meant Rangoon or Singapore, in which case we would have ended up on the River Kwai. Fortunately, we were spared this horrible fate, for we soon turned round and headed up towards Suez. What inspired this change we never knew, but the war in the desert must have called for our services much more urgently than the Jap threat in the Far East. How fortunate we were. Our destiny was once again changed for the better.
The trip up to Suez was quiet and blissful. I played chess on the bridge with the ship’s Captain, under an awning, with cool drinks whenever we liked. He enjoyed his games, he always won (I discovered afterwards that he must have known all the standard openings according to the book. He couldn’t loose). I had a more distasteful duty. I was in charge of a prisoner, a deserter who had already escaped from Egypt four times, and I had to return him to Suez at all costs. He was imprisoned in an iron cage in the forepeak, and I had to hear his complaints every day. When we reached Suez harbour we were first off the boat in a small tender. I had visions of him jumping over the side, so I handled my revolver prominently, with a grim face, filling it with cartridges and checking the action. This must have been effective because I was able to hand him over on the dock to a full parade of Military Police, to my great relief. I wonder if I would have shot him? Not likely.
From Suez we went up the Canal to Quassasin, where we collected our transport and stores, and then set off into the desert. It was a rough ride for the only road, which runs along the Mediterranean coast, was a mass of various sized craters, so rugged that it was often best to leave the road and take to the desert tracks. My official form of transport was a motorcycle, and my first taste of desert travel was a violent physical ordeal – the first of many. After two days, we reached Mersa Matruh, the first of our Headquarters along the Egyptian and Cyrenacian coast – Sidi Barrani, Salum, Tobruk, Derna and Benghazi. For the next eighteen months we moved back and forth in these areas and south to Siwa, as our army successively advanced and was beaten back. There is absolutely no point in describing these various comings and goings, dictated by the geniuses of strategy, because for us it seemed bewildering and pointless, for every square yard of desert is exactly like any other. So wherever we were, we still seemed to be in the same place, after much effort.
Our own work seldom involved engineering challenges. There were no bridges to be built because there were no rivers to cross. Our main occupations were destructive – to lay minefields or remove them without being blown up, and to destroy anything which needed destruction. Minefields were a major form of army strategy, for after a field was laid, a whole army could then retreat behind it and recoup in relative safety. Just as effective, and much quicker, was the ruse of putting up barbed wire fences with signs of ‘MINES’ (or a skull and cross-bones) fitted to them. This could stop the enemy until he found there were no mines there.
An alternative strategy was to lay minefields in the enemy’s path, without any wire or signs, and he would have to stop after there were enough dead bodies, and find out the extent of the field. As both sides indulged in this activity, without publishing plans of minefield locations, the whole desert became a potential death trap, with some fields wired and signed prominently and others not.
We were ill-equipped to do this work, with no special detectors for a long time. We could only prod with bayonets. Our own mines were even more dangerous to us than those of the enemy, for while the German Tellermine was a beautifully finished product and completely reliable, our own mines had been made in Egypt by saboteurs. They were like big flat tin cans with a loose lid. This lid was held off the detonator by no more than a matchstick, which was completely capricious. It could be very weak or very strong, so that the mine could go off at a touch, or not go off at all, even under a tank. (The important thing in clearing a field is to establish the pattern. Mines are usually laid in straight lines at regular intervals, so once the pattern is discovered, the rest is easy. Sometimes the wind helped, for sand erosion often revealed mines as slight humps in the ground). The most dangerous mines were those which were haphazard, and could easily be overlooked. There was a story of a keen RE Subaltern who, after clearing a minefield, tore up in his truck to his HQ to report his success, only to go up in smithereens as he pulled to a stop. True, or only invented? Like all army stories, there is possibly an element of truth.
After clearing a minefield the mines were piled up by the hundred in big dumps which were highly dangerous, because the Egyptian gelignite, already too old, began to ‘sweat’ and could have exploded at any moment. I came nearest to dicing with death when I had to blow up two of these large dumps which lay together alongside the main road along which our army was in a hurry to advance. At that time we were still inexperienced and ill-prepared for such a hazardous task, and the need for haste was asking for trouble. Particularly dangerous was the fact that detonators and fuses were in short supply and we had to make do with much less than we really needed. Also, the safe distance from such massive explosions was still not established, so it was all guesswork. An army regulation, published later, recommended one to be more than a mile away from such a vast amount of explosive, which must have totalled at least three tons. To walk away (as per regulations) would have needed thirty yards of fuse, which we never had in any case. My plan was to keep the army half a mile back, while my sergeant lit the fuse of the small dump (200 mines) and I that of the large one (600). Then we were to make a fast getaway in our truck. (This was all highly irregular and dangerous. One should only ‘walk’ away from an explosion). The sergeant lit his fuse and jumped in the back of the truck, which set off immediately at full speed. Then he bashed on the driver’s cab until he stopped, 100 yards off, waiting. My fuse simply would not light (fuses are much more difficult to light than they seem to be in films). Quandary. Should I run away, or stay? To run away would mean up to an hour’s extra delay for the army, while at my dump itself, I would leave a most dangerous situation. I had to try again and again. I did, and at last the fuse lit. I ran like a maniac, jumped aboard the truck, and we set off like mad. We had hardly got another hundred yards when the mines exploded, lifting us bodily in the air and throwing us forward. Arriving at the army advance force after such a sporting exhibition, and expecting some word of approval, the whingeing Brigadier in charge could only complain that his windscreen was broken! I gave him a searing glance and walked off.
After some dispute, I gave the order that the army had to wait half an hour, and true enough, there was a second explosion after a few minutes, which proved my point. At last I went forward with my men for an inspection. There was a big shallow crater, with metal and gelignite everywhere. We cleared the road as best we could, but the tanks and lorries were already rolling forward, much too soon, the tyres picking up wicked shards of metal for future trouble. We collected the gelignite, exploded it, and went off back to the camp. Another lesson learned? Yes, much longer fuses are better!
The trouble was, we had to learn by experience, and especially to learn what not to do. Carelessness in a minefield is not only suicidal, it can be murder. One man’s mistake is tragedy for everyone. Unfortunately this learning business often went too far. We were all-too-inquisitive, picking up strange objects and pulling them to pieces. This led to several deaths, which were reported as ‘due to enemy action’, and not to curiosity.
One day an enemy shell crashed into the cab of my truck and buzzed around like an enormous bee. It stopped, white hot. It was such a beautiful piece of bronze, I have kept it, even now, as a paper weight. I never unscrewed it; that would be tempting fate too far, so I still know nothing about the explosive inside.
Our other major activity was water supply. When we advanced we found all water sources contaminated. The Italians used an evil-smelling gum which made the water undrinkable, so we had to find other sources as fast as possible. After all, an army marches not only on its stomach, but on its water bottle. Blasting new wells was an exhausting affair. Fortunately, trenches dug near the sea were usually full of passable water the next day. The biggest water problem was the provision of fresh water for the railway which was being extended as far as Tobruk, making a total of 500 miles. Desert water is too salty for engines, so water had to be brought from the sweet water canal near Alexandria. This meant a pipeline with reservoirs and pumping stations for hundreds of miles. As the enemy destroyed everything now and then, we had to work hard at repairs.
One of my special responsibilities was beach reconnaissance, which I enjoyed enormously. I had to fly along the Mediterranean beaches in a Swordfish of the Fleet Air Arm, looking for sea mines or anything dangerous which needed blowing up or reporting. The Swordfish was an antiquated biplane, but it could fly low, and very slowly (60 knots), and land at only 40 knots on a short length of smooth beach. Unfortunately, I had to sit in an open cockpit facing the rear (as rear gunner), where engine fumes and turbulence made me sick. The plane flew smoothly enough over the sea, but over the land it went in a series of sickening swoops, with precipitous sinks and rises which were not good for the stomach. However, I found a tight belt was most helpful. My best find was an abandoned Italian liner, ashore at a terrific angle. We stripped it of everything, especially the wood, which was absolutely invaluable.
This scavenging was a great desert pastime, and filled many a happy hour. The place was littered with abandoned wrecks of lorries, tanks and even aeroplanes, which we stripped of everything useful. Our Company was short of lorries as we had more men than our transport could carry. This problem was solved by salvaging parts of Lancia lorries until we had rebuilt three of them, and they turned out to be the best trucks we had. My ambition was to find a better motorcycle. (There were no jeeps in the desert until after the campaign ended). The BSA 500cc bike I had was excruciating to ride. There was no rear springing and the front spring, a meagre steel spiral, was soon smashed to pieces. This made the bike horribly rigid. It was not only a ‘bone shaker’; it almost shook your bowels out. Instead, the Italian Guzzi was well sprung for desert terrain; but my ambition was to get a German BMW, a beautiful piece of machinery and ideal for the desert. Unfortunately, although we came very near to reconstructing complete bikes, there was always something vital that was missing, especially distributors.
The dangers of the BSA were soon made evident. On my first trip out of camp I was negotiating the potholes carefully, when a sergeant came up behind, and wanting to show off his skill, overtook me with a roar, hit a pothole and shot off into a minefield, ending up as an eruption of blood and sand. I almost did the same one day, following a column of tanks. There was so much noise, and flying dirt and dust, I decided to overtake. Just alongside the crunching tracks of a tank, I hit a mini-crater so hard I shot straight up in the air, but landed back in the saddle with my hands on the handlebars. The bike shot off sideways out of control, but fortunately away from the tank, into the desert. I tried to look quite casual, as if I had meant to do it, but the truth is, if the bike had gone the other way, I would have been under the tank tracks and not here today.
On the whole, we stuck the desert privations fairly well. Sandstorms were a nuisance; it could be very hot, but (worse still) it could also be very cold indeed. Water being rationed, we never had a bath (except in the sea), and all the meals were identical – Fray Bentos bully beef tinned in 1917, hard tack and powdered tea. There was no sun-tan lotion, I counted 13 new skins on my face, and then lost count. We never saw women, and didn’t miss them. One morning on my bike, in a sandstorm, I saw a wraith ahead which gradually revealed itself to be a figure in a skirt. I almost fell off. It turned out to be a nurse from an army General Hospital which had just moved into the desert as the campaign ended.
When things were quiet, I found the desert a beautiful and fascinating place, clean and peaceful. I think what probably made life so acceptable was the fact that, reduced to an existence shorn of every luxury and superficiality, we ceased to expect more than what we had. Real tranquillity comes when one accepts only the bare necessities of life. Those of us who longed for other things, especially women, were unfortunate and unhappy. (We were lucky in belonging to a guileless generation still not tormented and degraded by today’s obsession with sex. If we had been as troubled as the youth of the millennium, life could have been full of anguish. As for pederasts, I never even came across the word in so many years. Perhaps they were all conscientious objectors, or escaped to America like so many in the artistic clique).
In the desert, I lost contact with western music altogether. The only music we could hear on the radio was Arabic, and this seemed monotonous and uncouth, and always more or less the same. My hands were no longer used to a keyboard, and as time went by, inevitably, the vital coordination between fingers and the mind began to be lost.
However, I did touch a keyboard on one memorable occasion. This was one Sunday morning, when an army padre turned up for us to worship the Lord. He had a tiny harmonium which we off-loaded from his truck, and I sat at the keyboard in the midst of all our men. So I played the hymns, and the men sang with all their hearts. It was a moving occasion for everybody, as if it recalled the innocent, blessed world we lived in long ago. The men sang lustily and with much emotion. In All People That on Earth Do Dwell and Lead Kindly Light there were men in tears, even the tough old Sergeant Major was hiding his face by blowing his nose without a stop.
As for the flute, I gradually forgot it. I lost interest because practicing an instrument without any accompaniment is an incomplete experience, and is therefore unsatisfying.
However, I was able to keep on working at music theory with the help of army sources. In the Western Desert, the only way to get books was to join correspondence courses arranged by the Education Corps, and in this way I did courses in astronomy, geology, agriculture and music. I began music with a course in Strict Counterpoint, again using a book on the subject by Prout. This gave me a lot of trouble, as it is based on abstruse renaissance theories on the movement of voices organized in ‘Species Counterpoint’. One has to work step by step through five species in a way that is much more like chess than music, and though it stimulates intellectual activity, it filled me with inhibitions which took years to obliterate. My written work had to be sent to Cambridge for correction, but as it only returned six months later, I had by then already completed the course and gone on to something else.
In any case, I now know that to study Species Counterpoint was probably the worst musical study I could have chosen. It bears no relationship whatsoever to composition of an inspired nature, and is only a mechanism for cerebral exercises. There is absolutely no room for creativity. But who knows, this study may have started that taste for those elements of constructivism which were to characterise some of my later music. On the other hand, it should have given me forever such a strong distaste for any artificial structures, that I would shun them ever after.
My agriculture course, oddly enough, introduced me to the profession of journalism, which was to stand me in good stead in the ‘fifties’. I wrote a couple of articles for the Farmer and Stockbreeder about farming in the desert, which were published for the magnificent fee of four guineas each – the equivalent of two weeks army pay! But I didn’t do it for the money; I discovered I enjoyed writing for its own sake – it was a creative activity which I found fascinating.
I began the geology course for practical reasons. I thought that if I could find out the geology of the desert, I may find the secret of where to look for water. At a certain point, a well-drilling section of the RE arrived to drill for water, but they didn’t seem to have much geological guidance. The only drillers I spoke to had just reached 3000 feet, and decided to give up. Why was it that there was no water at 3000 feet, whereas the Arabs had made wells only 30 feet deep or less?
I also had an inspired idea that if I could become a water expert, I could turn the desert back to what it was in Roman times – a luxurious garden. From the air one could trace the lines of Roman irrigation trenches. Could it not be done again? (Of course I overlooked the fact that since Roman times, all the soil had blown away!).
However, my course books were not very helpful. They gave excellent information about the structure of the Earth in successive epochs, but for detailed analysis concentrated largely on the South Downs. This was a long way from what I was looking for. In any case, apart from the Salum Escarpment, there didn’t seem to be enough rock evidence to form an adequate geological picture.
Instead, astronomy turned out to be a fascinating study. It all began because at night, having no entertainment, we would sit and look at the stars, but without any comprehension. The sky seemed a vast puzzle, without any clues. It seemed to be so different to what we had seen before. There was so much of it, too many things to grasp or form into patterns. The clarity of the atmosphere made the seas of stars blaze, showing blizzards of galaxies. The tiniest stars shone out in showers, so that the sky seemed a vast carpet, stippled and speckled with light. No wonder that most of the star names come from the Arabs; they must have had the same evening pastime that we had, but obviously had the intelligence and observation to make more sense of it, mapping the skies and naming prominent objects.
However, my astronomy course sky-maps immediately changed my bewilderment into understanding, into tracing out the constellations and following the planets. I have always followed this study ever since, but with some regret. How I would love to change today’s dense, polluted skies, where one can hardly see anything, for those with such seas of light.
In doing the music correspondence course, I was working at a big disadvantage, for as I had no means of hearing the results of several sounds played together, my labours were largely guesswork. However, this problem was resolved for me in an unexpected way.
Once, for a period of only four days, I was put in charge of about five thousand Italian prisoners who had volunteered to work for us. We regarded this with great suspicion at first, guarding them with fixed bayonets, and watching every move, but we soon discovered that they needed no supervision at all, and would dig enormous distances of trenches a day, three or four times as much as our men could do (or felt inclined to do). They not only had energy, but enthusiasm. They were even more eager to end the war than we were ourselves.
One evening I heard a faint sound of music coming from their camp, and walking among the prisoners, I found the source – a guitar player. As my knowledge of Italian was limited to a few musical terms such as ‘adagio’ and ‘moderato’, I had to indicate by signs that I wanted to hear more. So he gave me a rumbustious rendering of what I later learned to be Albeniz’s Lejenda. Today, I would probably be horrified by such a performance, but then the sensation was electric. I found such rapid cascades of sounds absolutely fascinating. I asked to look over the instrument, and found it to be made in Catania, of rather poor materials, and with metal strings. However, it did have one fine point – a beautiful scroll head in the violin style, which gave it an illusory aesthetic character far beyond its real musical qualities.
Naturally, I was anxious to possess such an instrument, and as my anxiety was quite equalled by the prisoner’s need for tobacco, it was agreed that I could have the guitar in exchange for four tins of our army cigarettes (which were detestable, having been made, like our bully beef, for the 1914 war).
This transaction was soon completed, and I was the excited owner of an instrument which could produce all the elements of music – melody, harmony and counterpoint – but which according to Berlioz and Wagner, is an orchestra in itself. Not only that, it is the most convenient orchestra for the battlefield, as it can be slung over the shoulders while one enjoys the exercise of firing a tommy gun, throwing grenades or diving under an approaching tank. Unfortunately, it is a bit delicate, and is easily smashed to matchwood, so I got one of our sappers to knock up a box so that it could be thrown into the back of a lorry.
This guitar was to be my constant companion for many months and many miles, until at last I part-exchanged it in Bologna in 1945. On it, I worked out the remainder of my correspondence course work in counterpoint. Not only was it useful for that, but as I had no music of any kind except the flute pieces, I had to create something of my own to play, and in this way my composing career began. I wrote many pieces in the following period, but I worked under a great difficulty – I had no examples to copy, no samples of what the guitar can do. My only guide was what my fingers could cope with. My principal memory was of the jazz playing of Django Reinhardt, improvisations using florid, rushing, impulsive cataracts of sounds with few chords and no counterpoints. Reinhardt’s interpretation of Moonglow (recorded in 1935) was where I found my main inspiration. I still find the improvisations incredible, for there is such a rich variety of ideas expressed in rushing cascades of sounds, interspersed by restrained yet richly emotive moments of repose. I challenge anyone not to be deeply impressed by the quality of musicianship and inspiration in this piece. If it is not the work of genius, it comes very close to it. Inevitably, this was the first style I used, slightly tempered perhaps by Prout’s Harmony and Strict Counterpoint, and it has never ceased to be a prominent factor in my compositional style.
Of course I had played guitar in my jazz days, but that was plectrum playing (mostly chords), which was quite a different technique to the right hand plucking of the strings which I realised was necessary for classical guitar performance and compositions. I had to learn this new plucking technique on a metal string-guitar, and inevitably I had a lot of trouble, especially as my finger nails were very weak. It was only years later that I discovered some of the secrets of ‘finger style’ playing.
If I had not had the guitar, my musical experiences would therefore have been very thin on the ground. However, after campaigning ended we did at least have one musical experience which aroused much enthusiasm. We were told that Josephine Baker would give a concert that evening, and a whole Corps of men gathered round a large tent and an improvised stage. A honky-tonk piano struck up, the tent flap was flung aside, and ten dancing girls jauntily frolicked out amid a vast swell of cheers. We were utterly ravished at such a sight.
Then Josephine came on stage and sang; sentimental moonshine of course, but to us, it was like poetry, thrillingly beautiful. We had heard nothing like it for years. I found her voice was wonderfully rich and expressive, and her performance altogether moving.
We were unhappy when it all had to end at dusk, and it was then emphatically announced that nobody could approach the tent at night. Furthermore, there would be a large force of armed guards who would fire on anybody who came in sight. Presumably this deterred many lusty youths who had been dreaming up visions of an exciting night. Thus is youth’s ardour quenched!
Towards the end of the desert campaign, I was offered 14 days leave, the first since we left the UK. I was uncertain where to go, but there was not much choice – Alexandria or Cairo, or both. So my first leg of what was to become a marathon of journeys was a flight in a Swordfish to Alexandria with an old pal of the Fleet Air Arm. The turbulence and fumes were worse than usual, and as we banked acutely to land at Alex airfield, and flew round for ages with me almost falling out, I was violently sick over the side, and landed feeling quite groggy. I think the pilot did it on purpose as a gesture of goodwill! However, it was not a good omen for a holiday.
In Alex, I made for the officers’ hotel, the Cecil, and after a refresher at the bar, decided on taking a bath. This would be the first real one since leaving England, an historic event. But afterwards, I was astonished at the amount of sand in the bath. It seemed as if I had brought half the desert with me. Guiltily, I shovelled it down the plug hole as best I could; hoping the hotel drains would not get blocked, especially as the supply of water gave up in the middle of my efforts. The next day I got a garry (horse carriage) to tour Alex, but apart from a miserable zoo, there didn’t seem much to see. I was disappointed, so decided to leave for Cairo. In the train, I was glad to have my greatcoat, it was so miserably cold (February 1943) and so, arriving in Cairo, I looked forward to the luxury of Shepherds, the officers’ hotel.
Leaving Cairo station, I met up with another subaltern who was also aiming for Shepherds, so we agreed to join forces in a taxi. But no taxi driver seemed inclined to take us aboard until a young, well-dressed wog (we oriental gentlemen) arrived. He said that Shepherds had sent him to tell us that the hotel was full, and he was delegated to take us to their other accommodation. As he spoke such excellent English, we trusted him fully (always a grave error) and he promptly pushed us into the taxi which had first refused us, and off we went. However, the place we arrived at was not Shepherds. In fact, we didn’t like the look of it at all. It was full of coloured gents and a surprising number of young women. Perhaps a party? Our bedroom was a miserable cubby hole, and we were soon made aware that it was going to be a noisy night. There were giggles and shrieks galore, runnings along corridors and gallopings up and down stairs. I hoped it would quieten down soon, but the other subaltern decided this would be a vain hope. It would get worse. In fact, he said he smelled a rat, that we had been hoodwinked, the place was a brothel, Shepherds would have heaps of room and he was getting out. I decided to follow him but getting out was not easy, especially as a question of money was raised. There was no possibility of us paying a cent, so there was quite a hullabaloo, and the matter almost became physical. But in the end, we managed to make an exit, and at last we settled in to Shepherds with no further trouble.
The next day I went to see the pyramids, refused a camel ride (they were said to have a terrible disease), and strolled through the bazaar. Not really a stroll, because I was accosted at every step by persistent locals, trying to force me to buy everything from a clean sister to carpets, jewellery (false, of course), ancient Egyptian relics (more fakes), swatting sticks, etc. In the end, in sheer desperation, I went into a theatre to escape, but was so revolted by the noise and smell, I came away.
I was getting quite disgusted with Cairo. I wasn’t looking forward to another ten days of this stinking, noisy inferno, and felt quite miserable. After the peace of the desert, such a turmoil of humanity seemed intolerable. However, good fortune led my steps to the window of a travel office where there was a placard – ‘Luxor and Karnak – Two Day Tour’. I went in the shop, found that I could take an overnight train to Luxor, and arranged the trip then and there. Unfortunately, the overnight train wasn’t peaceful either. My fellow passengers didn’t seem to think anybody should sleep in a train, and were shouting all night. When I detrained at Luxor the next morning, I was shattered.
However, installed in the quiet of the Hotel Luxor, where I was the only guest, I felt much better, and went for something to eat. This proved to be something I had never seen before, quail. It was absolutely white (probably boiled all night) and had a stick like a toothpick through it. I didn’t know how to deal with such an odd delicacy, and instead of wrenching it to pieces and crunching away every scrap, I just nibbled at the edges and was quite dissatisfied. I was inspired to ask for toast and marmalade, but on being given a big chunk of stale bread and a jar of pickles, I just stuffed down what I could, and went out for a garry. As I got aboard, I was pulled off again by a man who introduced himself as my tour guide, and though he couldn’t speak English he clung to me for the next two days, however much I tried to shake him off. In the end he proved very useful, and under his supervision, I visited the Karnak temples, and then crossed the Nile to the Valley of the Kings, the enormously impressive Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, and the tomb of Tutankhamen.
The weather was hot, wonderfully hot after the cold north, and for two days I blissfully wandered round the temples I had studied for my architecture exams. It was a striking experience, especially after so long without seeing a single thing of beauty. I was more and more convinced that the unknown Egyptian architects and sculptors of 5000 years ago had far more aesthetic sense and artistic ability than we have today. Their works were not only exquisitely beautiful, but imposing and powerful. The architecture of Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright seem very shoddy and feeble by comparison. I felt ashamed at having ever esteemed such charlatans. As for Henry Moore! The wonderfully delicate intaglio wall sculptures put him in the class of one only fit to make mud pies!
The last evening in Luxor I was buttonholed yet again by a local who wanted to sell a long string of tiny pearls, well over a metre. I thought it would be nice to buy it for my mother, but pretended to be quite uninterested. He asked 300 piastres for it, so I walked off in pretended disgust. Knowing that an Egyptian prefers a sale at any price rather than no sale at all, when he caught up with me, I offered him ten piastres, and never budged from that, until he gave way. Having bought it at a 2900 percent discount, I was then suspicious that the pearls were all false anyway. I never did find out.
Regretfully, I had to go back to Cairo, but instead of stopping there, I carried straight on to Alexandria, to find the weather very stormy and cold. At the Fleet Air Arm all flights were cancelled, and as the hotel Cecil was full, I had to be content with a transit camp. It was hardly fit to go out of the tents for days, but after too many catastrophic games of chess, I went to the Transit Office to try to get a lift ‘home’.
There I was told my Company had moved to Benghazi, and I would have to go there on a convoy of lorries leaving the next day. We set off in a sandstorm which never stopped for days. It was a brutal journey, bitterly cold, shaking about in the back of a lorry with other men huddled under blankets, unable to exchange a word. After 700 miles and several days, we reached Benghazi, where I could find no trace of my Company. At last, at RE HQ, I was told that 675 Company had been ordered back to Mersa Matruh – 400 miles back towards Alex. Leaving Benghazi in another convoy, I reached Matruh only to find the Company had gone to Burg el Arab, only 15 miles west of Alex.
When at last I reached the Company in an extremity of travel fatigue, feeling like the wandering Jew, I was told I had to go on to Alex without delay to take charge of a POW camp for a week, to relieve an officer on leave. Arriving at the POW camp, I found that I could see nearby, the transit camp I had left 1400 miles ago. How I wished that I had stayed on at Luxor for my full fortnight’s leave!
At the POW camp, I found I was not only in charge of 4000 Italian prisoners, but also a large engineering workshop, where the prisoners were making everything the army needed, from latrines to cemetery headstones. I went into Alex to get instructions from the RE Colonel. He more or less said: ‘Do what you think fit,’ and so, armed with such carte blanche, I went back to camp to assess the situation. This was to be yet another new and instructive experience. My chief aides would be the Italian sergeants, so I summoned them for a conference. They immediately began a tale of woe. The officer commanding the camp was a tyrant. He persecuted them ruthlessly. The men had never had a wash for weeks. They never had a day off. They had never been allowed to wash their clothes. He kept back their Red Cross cigarette issue, etc., etc. I had a lot of sympathy for the Italians, and I greatly respected their will to work, so I was much impressed with their lamentations. So much so that I declared the next day would be a holiday for everyone, to have a bathe in the sea and to wash their clothes, providing nobody tried to escape. This was enormously successful. Only one prisoner escaped, but came back the same day. Of course, I was regarded universally as a gift from the gods, and naturally (as I was not unaware), the sergeants could see that this was a golden opportunity to get other benefactions. Believing that happy men worked together, and being of a beneficent disposition, I allowed them every possible favour, one of which was to carry off any unwanted spare materials from the workshop. Naturally they carried off everything they wanted, whether it was ‘spare’ or not, and I didn’t really care one way or the other.
The previous officer in charge must have got wind of the chaos in his camp, for after two or three days, he turned up in a fury, disputing my authority for all the changes. Obviously he did not share my benevolent views, so I referred him to the Colonel who had given me total freedom. Just as this dispute was warming up, the prisoners started to come out of the workshop to cross the barriers to the prison compound, many of them obviously carrying copious loads. The officer exploded with wrath, ran over to a bunch of prisoners and knocked them to the ground, exposing piles of timber. Of course this revelation caused much friction between us, which ended as only it could end, by him taking over command again, and me making my way to Burg el Arab. If he wanted to lose his own leave, that was his loss. I couldn’t care less. At least I had given the prisoners a few days of relief.
At Burg el Arab I found the Company sitting around on the rocks in an unhappy state. After much travelling we were back near the canal zone, where we had started from. Why travel back 700 miles? We had thought the war was going west, the other way. Little did we know it, but we were going to have plenty more travelling in the wrong direction, but what for, we were never to know.
After nine days on the rocks, news came through. We were going to war again. No specific objective was mentioned, but it seemed only too obvious that we would go to Greece or somewhere nearby in the Eastern Mediterranean. Why otherwise would we go back so far east? The only instruction we had was to move off in our own transport, taking only what each man could carry as a ‘walking load’. Everything else had to be jettisoned. Some of the ‘walking loads’ were conspicuously heavy, but we had to abandon such a large mass of precious treasures acquired painstakingly over many months – captured beds, guns, lorries, tools, water cans, ‘antiquities’ bought in bazaars, Captain Heron’s thunderbox, and such-like superfluities – and make off to war. But all our valour and sacrifice was in vain, for we only arrived in Quassasin, our base camp in the canal zone, which we had already seen too much of before, when we first arrived in Egypt. And so we sat at Quassasin for twenty-nine days. Even our transport was taken away for shipment and we could go no further from our tents than our legs could carry us. Soon, any question of training had to be abandoned, there were no more excuses for keeping the men busy, and at the last they sat and sulked in their tents like rabid dogs, growling angrily as the officers guiltily escaped in borrowed cars to have lunch at the Greek Club in Ismalia. Very unsporting.
But at last the order to move off in battle order arrived! We entrained at four in the morning, and passed two murderous days in a crawling, flea-ridden oven, only to find ourselves dumped in the Sinai desert, and marched off to a camp blessed by the name of El Shatt! We were in no mood to give this place its proper name, especially when we found the camp had not a single amenity, not even holes in the sand. So we sat in the heat and cursed solidly for fifteen days. But at least we were not alone. There were thousands of others.
However, one night we had stunning news – we were to parade at the crack of dawn to be reviewed by an important but unnamed person. The troops formed a single line from horizon to horizon, and as the morning wore on, men dropped with fatigue, heat stroke and dehydration. But at last we saw in the distance that the line was breaking into a surging rabble of men. A mutiny? Or was everybody collapsing with sunstroke? Nothing of the kind. Soon we too were a rabble, eagerly pushing round General Montgomery’s car, hoping for some definite command. But he only asked if there were any Irishmen present, and after a few Irish jokes was ready to pass on. I saw him again several times later on, and he always said the same thing. As a matter of fact, Montgomery was not too popular with the old Eighth Army men. Having replaced what were considered better generals, he still had to prove himself. His long delay before Alamein did not augur well, in our opinion. Only as an afterthought did he recite his prepared speech – ‘You’ve done a great job over here, now we’re going to do a great job over there!’ But where? That was still the mystery, but at least it seemed we would definitely be going somewhere. So our morale was high as we once again humped our one-man loads on our backs (by now they were conspicuously smaller) and set out on our march to Suez. Three days later we sailed up the canal in our troopships (ours was the ‘City of London’, a promising omen) and out into the Med.
Yes, we sailed eagerly out into the Med., but to our disgust, turned left and entered Alexandria harbour. We couldn’t believe our eyes, for the quay was filled with lorries. Yes, they were obviously waiting for us to ‘embus’, but where to? To anybody who knows the army, the answer must now be obvious – Burg el Arab!
Forty-five days it had taken us. Forty-five days to travel from Burg el Arab back to Burg el Arab. Imagine our disgust as we lay there, trying to sleep on rocks, unwashed and thirsty, dreaming of the beds, water cans and the thunderbox we had abandoned there as a final gift to the Arabs, six weeks before.
Our boredom and frustration were relieved to some extent by our general having a brainwave. He believed his whole army would be better hardened (and cleansed) for its future struggles by marching to the sea (four miles away), swimming in the Med., and then marching back again … this was to be a well-coordinated effort, so the whole army struggled in dust clouds through miles of loose sand, arrived at the beach, flung off its clothes, and waited for the whistles. What a sight it was! Miles of naked men to right and left, as far as the eye could see. As the whistles blew, the mass of naked bodies rushed forward, and at last, splashing and cavorting in the spray, cooled off from the torrid heat. Then we lay on the sand, not only basking in the sun, but getting thoroughly grilled and burnt up front, back and sides. On the gruelling march back to camp, men were dropping out in droves through bleeding feet, sunstroke, dehydration and similar small maladies. Some had to be carried.
As this caper continued day after day, the army was decimated and demoralised, so the general decided to set us an example. He came himself. Fortunately for us, he had hardly splashed himself when he let out a bellow of terror, and ran from the sea holding his private parts in agony. He had been bitten by one of the vicious fish that abound in those parts. His car was sent for with urgency, and he was carried off to nurse his injury. The next day, and from then on, the bathing parade was off!
Again, as every day passed, we cursed the army. What cretinous intelligence had sent us off to the Sinai desert, only to bring us back again? But perhaps we were unfair. We accused the army of bungling, of not considering our little petty comforts, when in fact we should have been congratulating the General Staff on a great feat of psychological preparation. For instead of indoctrinating us with hatred of the Germans and Italians, they had prepared us for the new battles by a much more subtle and sure-fire method. We were made to be so utterly frustrated, so bored, so furiously bitter, that we were roaring mad to go to war. We would have fought the enemy cannon with toothpicks and paper bags.
And so, prepared at last in every fibre, we went back to Alex for the umpteenth time, re-embarked and sailed away. We had bets as to whether we were going to Greece or the Balkans, but as the days and nights dragged away without end, we lost our keenness. Some swore that we had turned round and were going back to Burg el Arab. Then at last we knew. Sicily. We were given air photos of our beaches, of Syracuse and Augusta, and told of our objectives. With our maps and battle orders, we were each given a little book – an introduction to Sicily with some rudimentary phrases in Italian. I pored over this until late at night, until I knew it all. But alas, the book had been type-set by an Egyptian, and there were so many errors that I had to unlearn much of my Italian in the following weeks. I remember my first error in saying ‘buon gawno’ (good morning) instead of ‘buon giorno’, with a strong ‘r’. But of course, such are the hazards of war!
So we landed in Sicily. To me it was a great day. That we were carrying the war at last into Europe was only a side issue. The great thing was that I was not only in Italy, but within sight of Syracuse. Soon I would see the Greek theatre, the temples of Apollo and Athene. Even from the first moment I was treading on the same soil as the Greeks landed on 2600 years before.
As we approached Sicily, the land seemed wrapped in a blanket of heat haze and dust which made the land and sea almost the same ashen colour. To the north there was the shuddering thunder of naval guns. Above, the sky was cris-crossed by vapour trails, wings flashed, and falling smoke trails told of death up there. On the sea, ships of every kind converged on our objective – the beaches at Avola, between Syracuse and the south-east tip of Sicily. On the way, we passed many sinking planes and gliders.
Our own landing craft had great difficulty in coming alongside our ship. The naval ratings seemed to be having a mutiny with their officer. The language was execrable. We boarded at last, and set off towards the beaches, but our steering was so erratic we either went in circles or headed too far north. Inevitably, we landed in the wrong place, but it didn’t seem to matter. The scene was one of utter confusion, the dust so thick that we couldn’t distinguish friend or foe. Our own objectives were to secure the Cassibile and Ánapo bridges intact, or to rebuild them. We should have landed further south at the Cassibile bridge, but being so far north we split up, some going south, while with my men, I went north to the Ánapo. There, apart from a few mines and unexploded bombs (ours), things were fine, so we pushed on round Syracuse bay and into the town, behind the enemy rearguard.
Syracuse main street was a scene of havoc and chaos – the length of the street was a morass of craters. Our own bombers had dropped stick after stick of bombs the night before, making a mountain of work for us. Our first real task then began – defusing unexploded bombs, levelling craters, repairing water mains and electric cables, and leaving the sewers to somebody else. Soon after we had to rush up to Augusta (our first naval base) to do the same, but as the navy was crying out for water, this had the most urgency.
This pattern of bridges, mines, bombs, craters, water mains and electricity became our constant headache. Once our forces crossed the Catania plain, bombing each successive town as they went round Etna, we had the same tiresome work at Paterno, Adrano, Bronte, Randazzo, etc., until we got to Messina. Added to this work was bridge rebuilding, for if our bombers failed to knock out a bridge, the Germans would do it for them.
As well as the chaos caused by bombing, before each advance our artillery would pulverise every potential strongpoint. As Sicily has an abundance of old hilltop towns, fortified from antiquity, these were the targets of strafing, bombing and cannon fire, which (presumably) were intended to reduce the enemy to dust. But he was not stupid. The troops would vacate a town to wait until the bombing finished and then reoccupy it before we could get there, so that the enemy seemed miraculously to survive the holocaust, springing like wraiths from the dust. To us, all the pulverisation was stupid and only retarded our own advance. As for the extermination of civilians…
At Potenza in Calabria, when only a scratch force of Germans held the town, a preliminary air bombardment killed almost 2000 of the population, while only sixteen Germans were later taken prisoner.
It seems incredible that our General Staff never tumbled to the enemy tactics, and as Italy has a succession of old fortified towns from top to bottom, one can imagine how the destruction all the way up to the Alps (1250 km) was to be enormous. And of course, our own engineering repair work was also colossal. Right from the start, it became obvious that without the help of civilian workers, the RE could never do more than a fraction of all that was needed. In the end, a big part of my work became the organisation of Italian ‘self-help’, to free our own men for other more urgent tasks.
After Sicily was fully occupied and Mussolini deposed, the Italians became our allies and helped us willingly, but even before that, the Sicilians had shown us no animosity but seemed rather to welcome us. We didn’t understand this. When we landed in Sicily our appraisal of the civilian population was most superficial and erroneous. At first we expected a very hostile reception. We had heard of the mafia and the only Sicilian we had ever heard of was the gangster Al Capone, so it seemed that in Sicily every man would be a potential Chicago gangster and we expected a gunman round every corner. However, things turned out to be very different. At first, what few people we saw were stunned and apathetic, but when we reached habitations which had not been battered, we were offered water and grapes in a kindly way, and at nightfall, whole families were ready to leave their houses to let us sleep there.
It soon became evident that the Sicilians were as cooperative as the Italian prisoners had been in the desert. They were just as willing to work, but their motives were sometimes questionable. They were not skilled workers, they stole when they could, and were not reliable. In fact at first, things went very badly through our own ignorance. We chose the English-speaking civilians not only as interpreters and foremen in charge of working gangs, but they were preferred for higher positions such as civil administrators. Since we could not speak Italian ourselves, this seemed the logical thing to do, but it was a gross error. Little did we know it, but we were sometimes employing the least desirable members of the community as leaders. For these English-speaking Sicilians were often men who had been repatriated from the United States for either criminal activity such as the mafia, or for political reasons. At the very least, their motives were seldom altruistic. Mostly, they were out for all they could get.
Our crass ignorance in these matters must have seemed a gift from the gods to certain unscrupulous members AMGOT (Allied Military Government of Occupied Territory). These were Sicilian-American officers chosen to administrate occupied towns, and some of these racketeers had a glorious time of bribery and corruption until they were found out. Many of them made a fortune during this period. Whether this be the reason or not, AMGOT was eventually dissolved.
Though I worked with Sicilians more than other Allied soldiers and though I soon learned to speak their language, and so dispense with untrustworthy interpreters, I never realised that we were not really conquering invaders at all. We were innocents in the hands of a people long-practised in the art of fooling invading armies. For thousands of years the Sicilians have seen invaders come and go – Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians, Normans, Moors, French and Spaniards. They have learned not to resist the invading hordes, but to exploit them. They have long ago learned that armies may come and go, but for them there is no meaning in victory or defeat. Their only objective is to survive, and their only means is to survive at the expense of the victors. This is why they have had to put on a mantle of stupidity, innocence and simplicity, whereas in reality they are vividly intelligent, cunning and ruthless.
Later on, returning from the Italian mainland, my dealings with Sicilians were much more difficult, and their attitude was considerably changed towards an aggressive exploitation. My visits to Sicily were made to settle various claims for engineering stores which had been ‘requisitioned’ in the invasion. It is true that we had taken whatever we needed regardless of ownership, yet not only were most claims greatly exaggerated; there were also many false claims for purely fictitious material. One claim was for an entire quarry of stone, another for millions of bricks. By now the main Allied armies were far off, and Sicily was occupied by a skeleton force at only a few key points. We were therefore very vulnerable. I quickly learned that the Sicilian mood had changed. The mantle of stupidity and innocence had dropped. We were now in such a weak position that we could be treated with arrogance. There was a strange feeling of being besieged. I had to cross much ‘unoccupied’ territory and found it highly dangerous. My truck would be directly assaulted in hilltop towns, or fired on when it was deep in a ravine. The only way was to drive like mad. Trains were derailed; the military arsenal at Vittoria was besieged. Food convoys to Italy were burned (for Italy was regarded as an enemy by Sicilian separatists). I was staggered when the Town Mayor of Syracuse told me he contemplated withdrawing all our troops within an armed perimeter. I thought him an old woman, and said I didn’t intend to let any Sicilian put me into retreat. But I understood his reasons when my billet was machine-gunned in the night.
I found too that it did not pay to make enemies. Many of the claimants for ‘requisitioned’ stores made it quite plain that I could make a fortune by cooperating with them. All I needed to do was to approve their claims and receive a golden handshake … nobody need know about it. But I never did cooperate and always ruthlessly cut down even genuine claims to their true value. But I risked my skin and was fortunate in being able to fly back north to the safety of the combat zone without further delay. I sometimes wonder at the charmed life I lived. Perhaps it was my sheer rashness which deterred any retaliation. More likely, they misunderstood me and thought their bribes were not sufficient.
When the Sicilian campaign ended, we should have stopped there. Our mission was complete, for with the Free French occupation of Corsica, our convoys to the East could at last pass through the Med, and our objective of denying the use of the Mediterranean to the enemy was achieved. Indeed more – Italy had become our ally. (Most unfortunately for the people, who suffered abominably as a result. Some form of neutral status would have been more humane.)
To carry the war all the way to the Alps was a highly questionable decision, on many points. First, any student of history will know that no invader has ever conquered all Italy. They have all given up and gone home – Carthaginians, Saracens, Holy Roman Emperors, Spaniards, French, and Austrians. Then, geographically, Italy is a fortress in itself. It is impregnable; extremely easy to defend, for the mountainous terrain, rivers, and inadequate road systems repel the thrusts of aggression. Thirdly, to expel the Germans from Italy would mean the destruction of much of the country itself, and the possible extermination of many of the people.
However, the idea of liberation had crept in, and this concept overrode all good sense and humane principles. So after Sicily, we crossed the Messina Straits to advance up into the mainland. A glance at a map will show that we had only two possible routes – along either the west or east coasts, where for much of the way, roads have the sea on one side and high cliffs on the other. (Furthermore, rivers and torrents cross the road ceaselessly. There are approximately 220 of them along the east coast between Calabria and Venice.) We should have learned a lesson from Sicily, for there we failed to advance to Messina along the coast road (the shortest route) and had to encircle Etna. The coast route was denied us, because the road was either blown into the sea below, or blocked by rock falls. We met this same situation all along the foot of Italy. Our advance depended entirely on the removal of avalanches, or bridging gaps in the road. A most arduous task. But in the end, we learned that this struggle was only a feint to draw the Germans to the far south so that the American 5th Army could land at Salerno. (This ruse must not have worked so well, for the landing was far from a walk-over.) However, it became clear eventually that we of the British 8th Army were to keep to the Adriatic side of Italy (the east) while the American 5th Army kept to the west – an easier route in places.
This is where my own destiny changed. I was promoted to Captain in a small specialized section which made decisions as to what sapper companies had to do, and who should do what. I no longer had to look after a section of 60 men, but only had a sergeant, a corporal, and a driver. I enjoyed a much greater freedom, but also a far greater responsibility. Almost contemporaneous with this change came an even greater one. We were transferred to the American 5th Army as British Increment, a mysterious designation, never clarified. We always said this was done to bolster the yanks, who always ran away. Eventually, the 8th Army became more of an international brigade. The main body of the British troops returned to the UK (for the Normandy landings in 1944) with all the equipment an army needs to fight with, and the 8th Army became a mixture of Canadian, Polish, French, Moroccan, Brazilian, New Zealand, and Italian troops, who were ill-equipped for such an arduous campaign.*
I ’didn’t like the Americans. They seemed an abrasive, noisy, boastful lot, and most objectionably, had all the luxuries we had to do without. (Our rations were miserable, so I was naturally disgusted to see a GI eating a REAL beefsteak, with ice cream on it!) I think they put on a lot of the rowdiness for our benefit, but fortunately, in my work, my contacts with them were minimal.
This began more or less when we entered Naples. As it happened, Vesuvius was in full eruption, with red hot lava flowing down the mountain sides, into villages, and out the other side. The sky was filled with clouds of ash, and it lay knee deep on the ground. One of our first tasks was to rescue isolated villagers up on the mountain. (This must have been a period of major seismic activity, as we had already seen Etna and Stromboli erupting strongly.) In fact, later on, when I had to fly back and forth to Sicily, the pilots used to navigate by the three volcanoes, all visible at once, which were spewing smoke and dust by day, and glowing red at night.)
In Naples, I came across my old friends in 675 Company again, so I stayed with them two or three days. After that, they went up the east coast, ending up at Trieste. Captain Heron eventually became a major in charge of a Road Construction Company, and Major Bridgewater was promoted colonel commanding a group of sapper companies.* “This differs from Liddell Hart in his book ‘The History of the Second World War’. Of course, he wasn’t there. But the soldier on the ground sees things very differently from historians.’
* * * *
It was in Naples that my guitar finally caught up with me. Months before, I had put it in its box at Burg el Arab, to be shipped with the Company stores. In Naples, the box was delivered marked ‘retrieved goods’ and spoiled by sea water, so it must have been the survival of a shipwreck! However, with the help of a kind Neapolitan, I got it in action again, this time with gut strings, which produce a more attractive sound than metal ones. At the same time, I made an important discovery; Italy was full of guitarists most willing to exchange information, to let me see their music, and most marvellous of all, to let me hear their gramophone records, especially those of Segovia. At last I realised the full beauty of this most expressive of instruments, the deeply emotive sound, its delicacy, and great versatility. Immediately, I formed a strong ambition to acquire my own library of guitar music, to learn to play the instrument to perfection, and to write my own music for it.
From Naples on, wherever I went, I searched out guitarists, met some fine players, and learned many of the secrets of performance. Unfortunately, at that time, I had very weak fingernails, so I could never hope to achieve the power of Segovia. However, at that time there was a school of playing by plucking only with the tips of the fingers. Nails were quite unnecessary. The recordings of Emilio Pujol using this technique encouraged me, for they showed what a beautiful intimacy of tone could be produced. I decided to try to follow his example, for it revealed what a potent means of expression was possible.
As for guitar music, I found that as printed music was rare, there was a widespread custom among guitarists of making their own manuscript copies, so that publications passed from one player to another. I too began making manuscript copies, and built up a large selection of music. Guitar pieces are usually short, and the music is written on one stave only, so the work is not arduous. However, such a piece as Manuel Ponceì ‘Variations on Folia di Espagna’ covered at least twenty pages, so it needed a lot of work. But I was most proud of the result.
Sometimes, where no manuscripts were available, I would copy from gramophone records, and thus I was able to repay those who were kind enough to help me, by giving them copies. Copying from recordings is almost a re-creative process, for one can only write down the music accurately when it becomes one’s own thoughts. Copying music is also a good way of learning not only the secrets of harmony and counterpoint, but also the very special kind of writing and fingerboard techniques needed for the textures a guitar can create with such reduced and slender means. ‘
According to Liddell Hart’s ‘History of the Second World War’, “the disbelief and discontent of the Allied troops was manifested in a growing rate of desertions”. No wonder. The laborious, wearisome slowness of our advance was a corrupting force, enough in itself to kill off any sense of military ardour. Our generals (especially Montgomery) could never move except by first building a ‘firm base’ which could take months of preparation (while the enemy built up an equally ‘firm resistance’). There seemed to be no enterprise, no exploitation of opportunities, only a hard, unrelenting slog. Even when no enemy was to be found (as on the Taranto peninsula), operations were carefully limited in scope, and the chance of rapid exploitation lost. It seemed, when the campaign was already eighteen months old, that the war would last for ever. By Christmas 1944, morale was indeed low. The whole campaign was a colossal mistake. I travelled the whole distance, from á vola in Sicily to Salä on Lake Garda (where we took the German Generals prisoner), but I prefer not to weary the reader with tales of the Gustav line, the Trasimeno line, the Gothic line, etc., and finally our advance into Bologna, and on to the Po. Instead, I will just recall something I particularly remember. One lovely dawn outside Bologna, when I was sleeping blissfully through the mighty cannonade which collapsed the German resistance, I was most annoyed to be wakened and kept awake by a furious singing of nightingales in the branches overhead. Even they wanted to dispute their territory, or was it the rebellion of nature against man’s trespasses? I prefer from now on to forget the war. I have already written about it quite enough, and think it high time to call a halt. So having got as far as Lake Garda, I will fall back to the period I passed in Florence, and then in Bologna.
In Florence (September ‘44), all the bridges over the Arno had been demolished except the Ponte Vecchio, so we were building a Bailey bridge across the remains of the old three-arch Ponte Santa Trinitã. This was a slow and difficult task as we had to re-use the old, battered masonry piers in mid-stream, and build three separate spans. One afternoon I took a walk of exploration through the deserted streets, and turning down Via del Corso near the cathedral, I saw a music shop with an interesting publication in the window – quite a substantial volume of 16th century lute music. I banged on the shop door, and at last the owner appeared, and showed me a copy of the book. This was Simone Molinaro’s ‘Intavolatura di Liuto’ (1599), transcribed into modern notation and edited by Giuseppe Gullino. I asked about this Giuseppe Gullino, and was told that he lived just on the other side of the cathedral, in Via Ricasoli. So I hastened there immediately, and found myself toiling up five flights of stairs to an attic – an architect’s studio high above the rooftops, looking right over the cathedral dome. A really captivating place.
I was expecting to meet another sicilian-type character, but here was a man of strikingly different appearance. (Unfortunately, as we landed in Italy at the ‘wrong end’ – the south – we got the impression that all Italians were swarthy arabic types, and destitute, untrustworthy, etc. Of course this was a grossly mistaken notion. The people of the north are quite different; indeed they come from more Nordic races.) Giuseppe had a completely northern look, almost Scandinavian, with intense, pale blue eyes, and a head of thick white hair. He must have been about sixty at that time, but he had such a vital physique that he seemed to be in his forties. I later found that he would often run up the hundred steps to his studio without turning a hair, while I found them so steep that I had to pause for breath. But what was most striking was his intensity of manner. He radiated such a vitality of thought and feeling, everything he did and said was so alive and passionate that I was fascinated. His vitality was not a superficial enthusiasm of no great significance, but a kind of incandescence of the spirit. (He had been born in Genoa, and went to sea as a youth on the old sailing ships. It was only in his late thirties that he studied architecture and finally graduated in Florence.) In that first meeting, we talked so enthusiastically about his great passion – lute music – that I felt an immediate and intense friendship for this man who, at last, was somebody I could talk to freely about my own interests. As far as I know, Gullino was at that time the only musicologist transcribing lute tablatures since the work of Chilesotti. His enthusiasm was enormous, and I too was captivated by the purity and nobility of this music. (Lute music was of course an elaboration of the ‘strict counterpoint’ I had worked on in the desert, but instead of being a sterile academic exercise, I found it profound in spirit, lucid and radiantly beautiful.)
That was only a brief encounter, but we arranged to meet again soon. I went away feeling uplifted, as if life had begun again after so much stagnation. I had discovered a whole new world. We were to meet many times again, and I came to love his warm, enthusiastic, and generous personality, and we became great friends. We had many interests in common. We were both architects, both musicians, both interested in such kinds of things as astronomy and archaeology, but what was important (for otherwise even common interests can lead to stagnation), we responded to each other instinctively. What a blessing it was to be able to talk to him after so many years of the dull, commonplace conversation of my fellow officers. As well as having a large collection of manuscripts, he had a big library of guitar music, and a wonderful store of Segovia guitar records. His instruments included an old spinet, once belonging to the Este nobility, a renaissance lute, and several beautiful Mozzani guitars, one of them being a half-lyre with nine strings, for playing lute music. Every night, I stayed till after midnight, talking and playing guitar duets together for hours until, satiated, I would set off back to my billet, and Giuseppe returned to his drawing board, to work on yet more. Unfortunately, this period of our friendship was all-too-brief. After only a few weeks I had to leave Florence, and I never saw him again until well after the war ended. However, about six months later, when we had established our headquarters in Bologna, I made the first of several visits back to Florence, to be able to see him on a Sunday. This meant about nine hours travelling in one day over the Futa Pass, a twisting, tortuous road which climbs up from the Po valley to over 4000 feet before descending into the Arno valley. The road was a mass of potholes and bomb craters, but to me those Sunday visits were very precious and worth being shaken about for hours on end.
Giuseppe influenced me considerably more than I realised at the time. Later on he encouraged me to take up music as a career – he seemed to have such conviction that I had a future as a composer – but at that time, it seemed only the most impossible of pipe dreams. However, he put the thought in my mind, and the consequences were to be far-reaching. Our friendship was to continue intermittently until he died. I never saw enough of him again after our first few weeks together. Even when I lived in Florence permanently (from 1949 onwards) I did not see him often. He had so much work to do on Elba, his affairs took him to Rome for long periods, and when he was in Florence, he had to work so hard I didn’t care to disturb him too often. We had many projects together. His passion was the transcribing of lute tablatures into modern notation, and we planned to do many publications by our joint efforts. But we never did much at all, for all too soon he became an ill man. After he died I found that his work on lute tablatures had been prodigious. In his spare time (which means the hours when most of us are asleep) he had done a considerable amount of work on ten volumes of lute music. One of these, by Vincenzo Galilei, contained over three hundred pieces. But he had only published three volumes. Two others I completed and published myself after his death. But as for the rest, it seemed that he had been unable to work systematically. So many times he had begun work on one volume only to leave it half done because, impulsively, he had hastened on to investigate something else. Giuseppe died of cancer. But he was so strong, and his spirit so vital that it was a year of agony before it killed him. At the funeral, I was thunderstruck to learn that he would not be buried in the Catholic cemetery, nor would a priest be saying a requiem mass. I had known him as a deeply religious man, it was impossible for him to have been an atheist. But he had been a mason, and as such, an enemy of the Catholic Church. So he was buried in the ‘English’ cemetery, where apparently he was acceptable.
Giuseppe taught me many things, not the least important being that Italians are not the decadent, indolent race I assumed them to be, but lead just as full and vigorous lives as any other race. Furthermore, they live in an added dimension – a dimension of the spirit, in which they are abundantly endowed, and we others are by comparison, impoverished. Without this spiritual dimension, the amazing rejuvenation of the country since its hour of defeat would have been impossible.
When the war ended, my ‘work area’ was enormous – more or less within the triangle Bologna – Venice – Bolzano (on the Brenner Pass). So I was involved in a lot of travelling, especially as our HQ at Bologna was so distant from everywhere else. We were in strongly communist country, and often had no warm welcome; indeed at first we had threatening gatherings round our billet. This puzzled us no end, as we had no idea of the politics in that area. The truth is that in the whole of the North, Italy was on the brink of either civil war, or a ruthless communist takeover. However, at Bologna, I found myself in what one might call ‘guitar’ country. Both the great guitarist and guitar maker Luigi Mozzani, and the writer and music publisher Riccardo Vaccari had recently died there, and left a large circle of pupils and enthusiasts. One of these was Raffaele Suzzi, who boarded in the house of Vaccari’s widow, and I found a ready welcome from both. Through this friendship, I was able to explore Vaccari’s vast library of books, music and gramophone records. This was a never-ending field for research, and I must have absorbed a vast amount of knowledge through the help of these kind people. It was a very fruitful period indeed. Suzzi himself, like many guitarists, was highly enthusiastic, without having any distinctive musicianship, but he could produce the best guitar tone I had ever heard, not only full and vibrant, but also with a velvet smoothness. I searched out guitarists far and wide, including Macaferri and Ferrari, and in my army travels managed to include visits to guitar makers in the Cremona, Modena, and Bologna area, including the workshop of Mozzani at Cento. Mozzani had always been an experimentalist, searching for the perfect form of the guitar, and though he probably failed to improve on what has become the ‘classical’ design, his instruments were always works of art, though sometimes eccentric. I had always wanted to have one of his lyre guitars, like Gullino, but the workshop at Cento could not help me. Experimentalism was already abandoned, and the workers were concentrating on only one classical model. However, at last I did find a Mozzani lyre guitar at a shop in Bologna. It was in a poor state, and needed some repair, but the price was one I couldn’t refuse, only about six pounds. I had it repaired, and it has served me well ever since. But I suffered a bit of a swindle. After the repairs, I found all the beautifully carved ivory tuning pegs had been removed, together with the mechanisms, and replaced with very shoddy substitutes. I protested most strongly, but in vain. I had to be content with what was still a bargain. While I was in Bologna, Suzzi asked me to copy from gramophone records a Lute Suite by Sylvius Leopold Weiss (a contemporary of Bach) as played by Segovia, for he was anxious to have a copy of the music. I agreed to do this, but we only had an old mechanical gramophone and no new needles at all. So as not to spoil the recording, I used wooden toothpicks instead of needles, though this reduced the volume considerably, and made some passages quite indistinct. However, slowing the speed considerably helped me define the fast passages with more ease, though the resulting loss of pitch was quite troublesome. The Suite’s five movements were copied down on Saturday afternoons only, in about a month – so I must have been a very fast worker, or highly inaccurate! It was exacting work, but it taught me a lot about the precise qualities of Segovia’s sound in every situation, and the use he made of various fingerboard positions for colouristic purposes. (While copying this recording, I could not help but wonder at the almost modern richness of the harmony, and at the quite guitaristic fingerboard techniques. Later, I formed the opinion that the work was much superior to anything else Weiss wrote. The reasons were explained to me by Segovia some years later, as we will see.) Added to my studies of Vaccari’s guitar library, doing this record-copying spurred me on even more to compose for the guitar, and I filled a whole manuscript book with compositions. One of these at least was to carry me yet further along my musical odyssey – a piece called ‘Fantasia Passacaglia’: but more of this later.
To conclude the episode of the Weiss Suite, after I gave a copy to Suzzi, I had to leave Bologna for some time on distant affairs. Imagine my astonishment when eventually I discovered the Suite had just been published by the Ancona publisher, Berben. This seemed such an enormous coincidence, that I couldn’t believe my own copy had not been used, and I felt somewhat wronged. However, I felt I could not blame Suzzi. He must have given a copy to someone, who gave it to somebody else, until it got to Berben. This was my first introduction to music publishing!
* * *
In October 1945, I was given a month’s leave in the UK. This represented a week’s leave for each year of foreign service – most generous! The train journey to Calais was horrible – it took at least a week, with only hard wooden seats to sleep on. As Switzerland would not let us through without payment of so-much per carriage-wheel, we had to get right round Austria, Germany, Belgium and France, stopping and being shunted into sidings at every possible opportunity. At Munich, I was horrified to see the result of Allied bombings – acres and acres of jumbled bricks and masonry, with a single factory chimney standing in the distance. We had seen carpet bombings before, but nothing so inhuman as that! At Calais, the weather was so stormy, there were no channel crossings for a week, and we had to doss down in freezing cold, without the comfort of blankets, until the storm abated. At Dover, the customs gave us a surly welcome, and charged me £1 a barrel for the reimportation of my shotgun. This was a great welcome!
On the train to Victoria, I got fleas, the first I had met with since leaving the desert. Perhaps Italy had been cleaner after all! At Euston, I had a tiff with a porter. I gave him a shilling tip, which in my previous experience would have been quite generous, but he spat on it, and then threw it on the floor! At this, my taxi driver leapt out of his cab, shouting that nobody should spit on the queen’s face, or throw her on the ground, and a thorough altercation brewed up. But I walked away in disgust, without leaving any tip at all. None of this augured well for the happy home-coming I had dreamed of for years. In fact, I was in for a disappointing time.
When at last I got home, I was greatly hurt to see my father had become an old man, looking grey and ill. The years had gone by with a vengeance! My friends had either disappeared or got killed. Everything seemed terribly dull and uninspiring, so in an effort to bring a bit of joy into life, I got in contact with several girlfriends I used to have mild affairs with. But again, I was disappointed. They all seemed intellectually comatose, and in appearance, a bit faded. Not their fault, of course, for after all, many years had passed. I felt some obligation to put in an appearance in the Town Architect’s office where I used to work, but I was horrified by the moribund atmosphere and the pervading sense of apathy. How could I possibly go back to work there? It would be worse than being buried alive. No wonder that in the end, I was glad to go back to Italy. It was almost with relief that I packed my bags and set off, for I felt a strong need to feel free of everything I was leaving behind. My parents were the only tie left which bound me to the North.
Unfortunately, the coming winter was a bleak time. Bologna was eternally fogbound for months on end, and we were all feeling a sense of inertia, with no urge to put our hearts into the work. The other officers were like dead logs. Our Colonel took a strong dislike to me – he said I was unmilitary. As he had only just come out from the UK, I pointed out that once he had been abroad for four or five years, he would also have lost his military polish. This kind of remark did not endear me to him, but I had some reason for rancour. When our major was repatriated to the UK, I was next in line for promotion, as I was one of the senior RE captains in the area. But the colonel gave the promotion to a junior officer (who had previously been under my own command) with the excuse that as I had so little time left before demobilisation, it was useless to promote me. This was quite true, but according to unwritten army principles it was unethical and against the general practice. Indeed promotion could make a big difference to the six-month demobilisation pay we received after actually leaving the army.
Very soon, I had the chance to get my revenge. For some years I had often been the officer appointed by RE headquarters to take part in courts martial, and to conduct courts of inquiry. I became quite an expert. I was instructed to hold a Court of Inquiry at Bolzano into the disappearance of several RE lorries full of army stores, belonging to a sapper company which came under the Colonel’s command. At Bolzano, from the conflicting tales told by the officers and NCO’s, I soon formed the opinion that there was a cover-up somewhere, probably directed from the top. I determined not to be hoodwinked by anybody, and so began some detective work which uncovered a rat’s nest of collusion. In the end, I realised that there was a key witness who nobody had got at – a sapper who was in hospital a hundred miles away, in Venice. I hared off on what should have been a short cut to Venice, but the road was so snowbound, it took all day to get there. I took evidence from the sapper in his hospital bed at midnight. He had obviously no idea of what other witnesses had said, so he let the cat out of the bag. The lorries and stores had not been stolen, but sold, and everybody in the company, from the major downwards, was staging a cover-up. I was fairly sure that all this deception had been instigated by the Colonel himself, so as to save the reputation of his command, but that was his affair. Mine was to report the truth and nothing but the truth. The findings I finally reported were pretty damning for all concerned.
This was the last work I did in the army. I refused to work under a junior officer, and declined to have any further interest in army affairs. Instead, I took myself off in a jeep to Cortina d’Ampezzo in the Dolomites, for an army skiing course. This promised to be most enjoyable. There were only six of us on the course, four male and two female – one of these a smashing WREN officer (an admiral’s daughter) with whom I immediately formed a fairly ‘ close relationship’. Unfortunately this could not progress very far, because she was a complete failure at skiing, and had to drop out of the course, to my great regret. We had been getting on like a house on fire. To tell the truth, I was feeling very ready for a romantic interlude – I needed it.
Instead, we had to get on with the skiing, and had a very hard and domineering instructor. It soon became apparent that he wanted to show the other instructors that he could push his class into doing what nobody else could dream of. In fact, he pushed us so hard, that disaster struck all too soon. After starting on Pocol, the beginner’s slope, he was anxious to rush us on to pistes such as the Le Tofane and Faloria runs which are only for the champions, and need weeks of preparation. One bleak day, far too late in the day and hardly fit for skiing, he took us up on the cable car to the top of Le Tofane. When we looked over the brink at the start of the descent, I was horrified. The piste dropped down almost vertically for a hundred yards, inside a kind of funnel, and then disappeared sharply round a corner out of sight. This kind of thing should be taken with a leap into space, and a magnificent swoop, or not at all. We tried to do it by braking hard (with little effect), so that we soon fell into a tangle, and arrived at the bottom snarled up in a heap.
This was repeated again and again until one of the officers broke a leg. But there was no question of turning back. The instructor arranged a rescue party, and then pushed the rest of us on relentlessly. It was getting so dark, we couldn’t see the way any more, but he went on ahead, shouting like an idiot, while we fell all over the place as the snow turned to ice, and cut into our legs. Even standing up was difficult. The cold became intense, and as hour succeeded hour we struggled on ever more feebly, until at what must have been midnight, we got back to the hotel. I was suffering from acute hypothermia (though we hadn’t discovered that word yet), and stayed in bed for days, with no help from anyone. It seemed the hotel had emptied altogether for Christmas or New Year, I didn’t know which. At last I felt I must move, and staggered out to the jeep, covered in hotel blankets, well prepared with a bottle of ‘grappa’ – an enormously fortified Alpine drink, designed to bring back life to cadavers. It was almost 200 miles back to Bologna, and I took a swig of grappa every few minutes. By the time I got there, the bottle was empty, but I was as right as rain. A jeep has no heating, but a lot of ventilation. The thing which saved my life was the grappa, though it corroded my innards. And I was not drunk in the least!
This is not really a chapter at all, but a kind of parenthesis on our drinking habits. I may have finished a bottle of whisky in one day in the last chapter, but I was no drinker, nor was anybody else. We didn’t have the opportunity, because there was nothing to drink. When we landed in Sicily, we thought the wine would be great, especially the red stuff, and as it looked more or less like a fruit drink, and we knocked it back with abandon. Of course, we were soon as sick as dogs, and very much put off. I thought the white looked more bland and possibly not as strong, but after one session, I felt my head was bursting. This kept me off it for several years.
When the war in Italy ended, we were too busy to celebrate, but when the war in the rest of Europe ended a couple of weeks later, I thought this really called for a party. Unfortunately, I only had Capt. Smart for company. (He was utterly comatose, and suffering from an acute depression caused initially by some of his bomb disposal squad being killed in the desert, when they should have stayed alive. He blamed himself for this. I had carried out the court of inquiry at the time, and cleared him of responsibility, but he thought differently.) So, to celebrate, I got an invitation for us to join the officers of 664 Sapper Company, who lived close by, at the top of some five-storey flats. The evening started well, as the company sappers had prepared an enormous bonfire, with flames shooting high up, and roaring away. Great was the excitement as Lt. Jack Godfrey-Gilbert rode his motorbike through or over the flaming pile. Unfortunately, when his trousers caught fire, he had to be succoured with buckets of water. We decided to repair to the mess, and after toiling up the five storeys, we were ready for drinks. My capacity for beer is such that after only a couple of glasses, I feel quite exuberant, but also tend to be a bit volatile. So, when I noticed Lt. Scudemore lacing Smart’s whisky with gin, I was not polite, but seized the glass and the bottle, and threw them far out of the window. The other officers took little notice of this, which piqued me somewhat, so in order to attract attention, I threw a piece of furniture out of the window. After it went out, there was a short silence, and then a terrific smashing of glass down below, as the greenhouse suffered some damage. This thrilled me no end, so I threw out everything else available. But as I started on the chairs we were sitting on, Major Boswell took exception, grabbed me by the scruff of the neck, hauled me to the window, and held me outside, making to let me drop. He was a burly man, and obviously meant business, so I promised to pack it in, and behave myself. (I was really quite shaken afterwards, though as usual, I noticed a strange phenomena of being quite detached from what was happening, as if I were outside reality. As Shakespeare said, ‘all the world’s a stage, and we are but actors on it’. Perhaps this illusion of detachment is nature’s help in times of adversity.) Around midnight, I had to try to get Smart home. He was almost out on his feet, but when I got him downstairs and into the fresh air, he went altogether. I dragged him along, but being in a poor state myself, we ended in the gutter, and stayed there some time. Finally, I got him to his tent, and on his campbed. (He had always refused to sleep in the house, as it had no roof, nor doors or windows, and was ready to collapse at any moment.)
The next morning, I went to look at him. He seemed to have no breathing and no pulse. I felt quite preoccupied, so went off for help. As I came back, he staggered out of the tent and began to relieve himself, but just at that moment a low-flying aircraft swooped down with a terrific roar to strafe us, and then hurled off with a victory roll. Smart followed the track of the plane as it passed overhead, and then fell on his back in another semi-coma. Putting him to bed again, I was glad he was not dead, only the worse for wear. * * *
Some months later, Major Darbyshire arrived to take over command of our section, and again, drink could have been my downfall. In spite of his field rank, he had not been in the army long, so I tended to treat him like a rookie. He was really quite a mild, well-meaning person, but so much so that when I had a beer or two, I would put on an act of drunkenness or belligerence, just to provoke him, usually without any effect. This happened almost once too often. One evening we had an invitation from our sergeants to go for a drink after supper, a very rare offer. They lived, like us, in quite a nice villa overlooking the Reno valley, on a rather steep hill. I had noticed before that there was a grand piano there, but it was so completely useless that the previous occupiers never bothered to take it away. I had also noticed how there were some wide doors leading onto a terrace, and down below, a rocky slope down to the river bed. After a couple of beers, I felt the Major should be wakened up, so I pushed the piano to the window, got it in the right position, and then ran with it across the terrace, knocked the brick pillars to smithereens, and sent the piano over the edge, bouncing from rock to rock with clashing discords until it reached the riverbed. At last Darbyshire was aroused. He sprang up as if he had a wasp in his pants, but he was almost speechless with anger, and quite incoherent. The sergeants quietened him down, and at last he was persuaded to have another beer. Fortunately, I resisted further provocation. Going back to our billet, we had to sit in the back of a truck, and I couldn’t resist pretending to be fighting drunk, and challenging him to a punch-up. But he sat in brooding silence, taking no notice. Of course, all this could have been a court- martial offence. Fighting with the major is extremely bad discipline, indeed just the verbal threats were quite enough to give me years in the glasshouse. However, the next morning, I went down for breakfast and after a while, Darbyshire turned up. I expected a row, but though he looked a bit off-colour, he said nothing at all, and I decided to be quite courteous. In fact, I liked him much more after that, and showed him always much respect. Perhaps he made allowances for the beer, and for the years of servitude I had endured. Perhaps indeed, I had been quite mistaken; I had thought him weak, but instead he had shown tolerance and forgiveness quite beyond the capabilities of most gents of field rank and upwards, surely a sign of strength rather than weakness.
When I was at Cortina d’Ampezzo, the other officers on the skiing course gave me some information which was to change my future completely. Firstly, there was soon to be an Arts Festival in Rome, organized by the Central Mediterranean Forces headquarters, with competitions in the arts and music. Then, refresher arts courses were starting soon in Florence for artists, musicians and architects. I couldn’t find out any other details at Cortina, but as soon as I got back to Bologna, I found that as part of the Rome Festival, there was a composition competition for an orchestral work. But entries had to be submitted within a fortnight, or they would not be valid. This posed no mean difficulty, as I had no orchestral work ready at all. I had no time to waste. I decided the only thing I could do was to make an orchestral version of my only guitar piece which was substantial enough – the ‘Fantasia Passacaglia’. There were some parts which were too guitaristic to orchestrate with any success, but I had to make do somehow. I finished the work in a week, and sent it with all haste to Rome.
In only a few days, I had a message from Rome – I had won the competition, and my presence was needed at a concert where the piece would be played. I set off in all haste over the Futa pass, but passing through Florence, called in at the HQ of the Arts Refresher course, to ask if they had a place for me. Yes, I could join the next architecture course, under the supervision of my friend Jack Godfrey-Gilbert, of 664 company. This was great, but I wanted something even better. Having won the composition competition in Rome, could I join the music course instead? Yes, even that would be fine – no problem. So I fixed to join the course on my way back from Rome, after the performance of my Fantasia.
In Rome, I found the performance of my piece would be in an old opera house, in a general concert of pianists, singers, and instrumentalists, and it would be the only orchestral work. I met the conductor, an officer of some arts unit I had never heard of, who boasted of having conducted worldwide, with great renown. But to me, he seemed a bit of a windbag, which is never a sign of serious ability.
I asked about the orchestra, expecting something good, but apparently it was only a scratch orchestra, and due to some delay, had not yet rehearsed, or even been formed. To cut a long story short, my piece was played with no rehearsal at all, by a gang of second- and third-rate Italian musicians staggering from bar to bar. I must admit, the conductor did a magnificent feat, because he did get to the end without a complete breakdown. But it was a near thing. I was in agony at every moment; it seemed as if I were being disembowelled with a blunt knife. But it was accomplished – my first public performance. (I have since learned that first performances are often like this, and it is far better to keep away.)
However, the packed audience of soldiers, sailors, and airmen seemed more than satisfied, and roared their enthusiasm vociferously. I was called on the platform to take a bow, and to have a medal pinned on my chest as if I had led an infantry charge. Naturally, all this swelled my ego more than it should, but fortunately I didn’t take my accomplishment seriously in the least. After all, what I had done was by no means a highly creative feat of inspiration. After this, I decided not to go back to Bologna at all, especially as my demobilisation date was probably only about a month away.
I went back to Florence, joined the Music Course, and determined to stay there the rest of my time. (In the end, I managed to stretch this out to seven weeks, for reasons which will become obvious shortly.)
* * *
And so began the most glorious weeks of my army career. On the Arts course, I was left to do whatever I liked. I could compose music to my heart’s content, or study whatever I thought fit, ( for the officers running the Music Course realised that I needed no instruction from them, even if they had been able to give it). Unfortunately, the only place I could use a piano was in the back room of Ceccherini’s music shop, which was like an ice box, but I sat in my duffle coat, pounding the frozen keys in an ecstasy of creation. (In actual fact, I did only modest things, such as a Trio for flute, viola, and cello, which has been lost long ago. This trio caused me considerable difficulty, as it was my first effort at multi-instrumentalism, and a very different matter from writing for guitar.) Of course, I was able to see Gullino quite often, though I didn’t care to disturb his work too much. The truth is that more and more of my time became used up in other pursuits which were quite outside the field of music – I had discovered a girl friend, and was transported to other realms of bliss. Life was transformed, the years of adversity fell away, and I emerged reborn into days which vibrated with happiness. (I apologise for this lurid purple prose, but nothing else adequately fits the situation.) I did join in the course activities to a small extent, playing guitar solos in two concerts, and singing baritone solo with the male-voice choir, but as the weeks went by, I came to spend the whole of every day with my newly- found companion, Giulietta.
I met her only by pure chance. On Shrove Tuesday, a dance was organized at the Savoy Hotel, and officers were invited by the English Contessa Asolini to meet girls of only the best families. I was not in the least keen to go; I was so absorbed in my work. But one of my fellow officers pestered me no end, because his girl friend would be bringing a companion, who would have to be looked after. I took rather a dim view of this, but for friendship’s sake, I had to give in, though I never even bothered to change out of my old battledress. When the girls arrived, and I was introduced to the girl I had to look after, I was struck dumb. I had not expected such a creature. She was absolutely exquisite, the most beautiful girl I had ever met. I was in love on the spot, and she proved to be no disappointment. She was intelligent, spoke good English, and I could talk to her about anything – music, art, poetry, literature, and she responded wonderfully. By the time the evening ended, my fate was sealed. I was wildly in love with Giulietta, and it seemed she was by no means indifferent to me. In fact she seemed to share my own feelings so much that I was surprised when she resisted kissing me in the taxi as I took her home. She sent me off right away. There were no doorstep kisses then, but once having established that she could exact respect if she so wished, from then on, she was just as frank about her feelings as I was. Soon, we were meeting every day, and they were glorious days, for Florence in the spring is the most beautiful of cities. She took me everywhere, telling me the history and art of the town, exploring old churches and palaces. We climbed up to San Miniato with its 12th century church like a jewel, and went to the cemetery to see the tomb of her family. We cycled in the Cascine, and went boating on the Arno. Once, we cycled out into the country to the family villa and farm. There, we could see the whole panorama of Florence below us. We were at Corbignano, just above the villa where Boccaccio wrote ‘Il Decamerone’. She had brought a picnic, so we ate under the olives and then lay looking up through the silvery leaves into the cloudless sky. It was all so perfect, it should have lasted for months, but I knew I had to leave all too soon.
I began to go to her home in the evenings, and she told me all about her family, the Borsi family, and their history which I found fascinating. She showed me the relics of her uncle Giosué who died in the first world war, fighting for Venezia Giulia. There was a copy of Dante’s ‘Divina Commedia’ steeped in his own blood from when he was killed. The last letter he sent his mother was kept in a special glass frame. There was not only his uniform and many mementos but also publications of his writings, for he had been an author and a poet. Details like this gradually filled in the picture of all I wanted to know about this unusual girl. She was so completely different from any I had met before, not only good-looking in a distinguished way, but also wise and good, and full of deep feelings. We were so much together that all my army friends took a lively interest in our romance. But naturally, her family was very interested too, for an Italian girl cannot be allowed to compromise herself. To have acquaintances with Allied officers was one thing, but to be seen to be out with only one for several weeks forms a situation which at a certain point must be either regularized or discontinued. To tell the truth, I was hardly aware of this, so that when I arrived at the Borsi house one evening, I was surprised to have Giulietta’s mother come to see me, rather than Giulietta herself. She said she was anxious for her daughter, who was in love with me, and asked what I intended to do. I said I loved her daughter, but was not very clear as to what I intended to do, in fact I had no clear ideas at all – I just felt that fate would decide. However, she seemed content with what I said, and there the matter ended. In fact, she never mentioned the subject again. But I was faced with a problem I had so far avoided.
The army had decided that officers should prevent their own men from marrying Italian girls. The results of such marriages were always catastrophic, for the differences of language, religion, culture, and customs were too great. (This was all too true. The Florence Consul told me in the ‘fifties that in the Florence area alone, over 4000 Italian girls had returned home after broken marriages.) So how could I do what I had prevented others doing? In any case, I would have to get the colonel’s permission, and I knew that he would almost certainly refuse, or create the maximum of difficulties and delays. There was one possibility, a rather drastic one. I could elect to be demobilised in Italy, and stay there to be married. But I felt this would create a future which would be crowded with uncertainties. The more I thought it over, the more certain I became that I wanted to marry Giulietta, but time was pressing us into too hasty a decision. We had either to get married right away, or I had to return to the UK for demobilisation, and then go back to Italy freely, as a civilian. At least this would give us some time to reflect and I would feel liberated from all constraint. I feared that destiny was pushing us too far, that we may both be the victims of an infatuation which may have no permanent quality.
It must be remembered that though Giulietta was a Catholic and I a Protestant, we both believed that marriage was for life. Divorce was not to be contemplated in any way whatsoever, so that we both thought of marriage as a sacrament which would be the foundation of all our future life. It seemed that destiny had decreed that it would do us no harm to suffer a little sacrifice for a short while. So I made the agonizing decision. If I returned to the UK for demobilisation, we would have time to reflect, and if after a few months we both felt the same towards each other, then we could go ahead and be married. So I returned to the UK in May ‘46, believing that I would be able to return quite soon, in a matter of weeks.
But I was greatly mistaken. I found that I couldn’t return to Italy again without a visa, so to get one, I wrote repeatedly to the Italian Consulate in London, but there was never a reply. Weeks went by. Eventually, when in desperation, I decided to go there myself, I understood why I never heard a thing. There were such crowds at the Consulate, I could hardly get in. There were long, noisy, disorderly queues of people, all trying to get Italian visas. The officials were so bad-tempered and uncooperative that it seemed almost impossible to get anywhere. At last I was interviewed, with much and obvious suspicion, and told that I could only return to Italy if I presented a sworn affidavit that I was going to get married there. This made me feel like a criminal, but I rushed out to find a solicitor, swore an affidavit, and rejoined the queues. But it was all a hasty effort in vain. I didn’t receive my visa until many weeks later. Unfortunately, by then Giulietta was ill. She had appendicitis, so my journey had yet again to be delayed. At last, towards December, we decided to meet each other in Switzerland (where no visas were needed) for the New Year. Frankly, after over seven moths, I was beginning to wonder if she really was what she had seemed to be last May. Could it be that all those glorious days in Florence had been an illusion? Certainly, in post-war England, with its drab, depressing, ‘austerity’ existence, it seemed impossible that she had ever existed. So as I set out for Lausanne I felt some uneasiness, and as I arrived at five in the morning, and she did not arrive until ten at night, I had a long day’s wait in an agony of apprehension.
But from the moment she stepped from the train, I knew with great joy that she was just as she used to be – and more, for now that all doubts were cleared away for us both, we could show our love for each other without fear of misunderstanding. We spent a week together there with her mother (for no Italian girl would go to such a meeting unchaperoned), a week of wonderful days. We had a boat trip on Lake Geneva, visited Zurich by train, and celebrated New Year at the Old India, where everybody toasted us. Our feelings for each other were fully confirmed, and when we parted it was all decided – we were to be married in Florence at Easter in the following April. *‘*Looking back now, it seems remarkable that apart from that week at Lausanne, we never saw each other for ten months. Indeed we never spoke to each other either, because at that time, telephone communication with Italy was not only extremely difficult, it hardly existed at all. In reality then, we were getting married after knowing each other intimately for only a few weeks. (Needless to say, we wrote to each other copiously and often, but a real correspondence is difficult when any reply cannot be expected for at least a couple of weeks, or may get lost altogether.)
Going back to my demob in May ‘47, this was a most unhappy day. After being de-loused, de-verminated, given a civvy suit, ration cards for food and clothing, and a complete loss of rank, I was thrust out into the street feeling degraded and humiliated. This day of liberation, which I had looked forward to for so many years, was after all a crashing delusion.
Since I had been on leave in October ‘46, my father had retired, the property at Lostock Hall had been sold, and my parents moved to Menai Bridge on Anglesey. So it was to there that I went home, to a place where I knew nobody, and where, apart from a shortage of food, it seemed as if the war had never existed. As a repatriated ex-serviceman, it seemed as if I were unwelcome, and to be regarded with indifference. Altogether, it was quite a traumatic experience. For over six years, the army had been like a mother, feeding and clothing me, giving me a home and abundant companionship. All it asked for in return was obedience and a bit of sacrifice. Once one accepted these conditions, life was easy. I now felt abandoned, deprived of all army benefits, and had an awful feeling that the future was menacing and uncertain. My change of status was also a shock, though some time passed before I realised that I, whom two hundred men had obeyed without question, was now less than nobody, and only to be ignored. I now had to decide how to begin life again, and how to earn a living. I had an idea that I could start up as an architect in Anglesey, but soon found there was no work. Building materials were so scarce that only works costing less than £200 were permitted. I then explored the possibility of completing my RIBA exams, but I was told by the Institute that I must do a ‘years rehabilitation work’ before I would be considered. I thought this a disgusting insult to one with so much engineering experience, and said so. Then I thought that the famous Professor Budden of Liverpool University School of Architecture would be more understanding and helpful, so I visited him with a view to being taken on as a student. But I was mistaken. He was all smarmy smiles and eulogies, but unfortunately there was ‘no room’. To him, I must have looked too old, whether there was room or not. Fortunately, I resisted the temptation of telling him that before the war, one of his students worked with us in Bertie’s office for vacation experience, and we used to laugh at his amazing ignorance of building practice. He didn’t know one end of a brick from the other!
There was a possibility of returning to the office in Preston, but I had no heart for such a small and dull existence. In any case, I heard they had so little to do, that my presence would have been superfluous. At this point I decided to burn my boats irrevocably, wrote to Preston to say I would never return, and then sent my resignation to the RIBA, thus severing any connection with architecture completely. This gave me only a small satisfaction, as I didn’t know where to turn to next. In sheer desperation, I decided to try to rejoin the army, hoping to get back to Italy, to Florence and Giulietta. What a vain hope! I was told that I could certainly rejoin, but I must be ready to serve anywhere, including the Far East. So I gave up the idea. I suppose I was like a drowning man clutching at a straw. I now believe the real reason I abandoned architecture was a psychological one. Having seen the wonders of what the Egyptians could do over 5000 years ago and the Italians in Medieval and Renaissance times, I felt a revolt against what British Architecture had been reduced to. I realised that as an architect before the war, I had not created a single thing which could be regarded as artistic. Artistry was not in our minds, and certainly the clients didn’t want it. They wouldn’t know what it was. They only thought of what they had to pay. The result was that, despite the beauties of older English buildings, today, if British architecture existed at all, it was little better than designing cardboard boxes. I felt in total revolt against it. My heart wept at the thought of going back not only to the drudgery of a drawing board, but to the absolute poverty of personal artistic creativity which would be my life. This is why, during this time, Giuseppe’s conviction that I should be a musician was always at the back of my mind, as well as Giuletta’s wish that I should be an ‘artist’. But how could it be done? As a performer I would really be quite hopeless. I no longer had any manual dexterity. I could of course have taken up the sax again, but fortunately I didn’t. If nothing else, I was already too old. Who wants to see an old man of almost thirty playing jazz? However, there was one possible temporary escape route which would give me a breathing space to solve my problems. I had served long enough in the army to qualify for the award of a rehabilitation grant, so why not try for a grant to study music? I wasted no time in sending off an application, but the War Office, quite rightly, made a lot of difficulties regarding my change-over from architecture to music. I had to go for a special interview in which my largely aesthetic reasoning rather foxed those interviewing me, so that, possibly in sheer desperation, they gave way, and I was given a two-year grant, providing I was accepted for study at a recognised ‘educational institution’. It is highly probable that they were counting on me not being accepted. They were almost right.
At first, I tried to get in the Royal Academy to study flute and composition. One of the teachers on the music course at Florence, Christopher Morris, had a brother teaching flute at the Academy, and kindly gave me an introduction, but this was to no avail. The Academy was already full. (Fortunately, because I would never have been more than a very mediocre flautist. I could never get a decent tone.)
Next, approaching the Royal College, I was asked to go for an interview and entrance exam. The interview was carried out by two gloomy and unresponsive old men, who I thought were too ancient for the job. I played one of my most brilliant compositions for the flute, but they didn’t seem in the least impressed. I don’t think they even bothered to listen. Then I went to sit an exam with a crowd of schoolchildren, whose average age seemed to be about fourteen. This was so simple, it was an absolute farce. In fact, it was so idiotically simple, I couldn’t believe it. I thought there was something crucially important that I was missing. The reality was that the quality of education in the years of the war was so bad, that to give schoolchildren half a chance, any exam had to be as easy as falling off a log. And yet I was failed. With hindsight, I can see now that nobody could believe I would fit in.
My next effort was with the Northern College of Music at Manchester. There, I went to see the director, and this time, there was no funny business. After a decent interview, he accepted me without further ado for a two-year course in flute and composition. But I was not happy in the least. The College was so dilapidated and sordid, so crushingly uninspiring for anyone with the least artistic sensibility, that the idea of studying there revolted me. And what would digs in Manchester be like? How could I think of taking a Florentine girl to live in such sordid misery? By the Grace of God, I never found out.
* * *
Again, fate intervened, and I was saved from the purgatory of Manchester by a miracle. My mother was not a literary person, and read hardly at all, except for the local newspaper adverts. There she saw that University College, Bangor, was advertising for local instrumentalists to join the college orchestra. Applications to be made to the ‘Music Department’. This was indeed a discovery. Right across the Menai Straits, opposite our house, there was not only a university, but a music department! But could I study music there? I leapt on the bike immediately, and lost no time in getting an interview with the registrar. He was a bit vague, and had no idea of what was going on in the music department, but he said I could see the lecturer in charge somewhere in the Museum of Welsh Antiquities, a rambling old building behind the main college. (In fact, the college built in a fine monastic gothic style, with a backdrop of Snowdon, the Menai Straits, and the sea, is said to be the most beautiful British university.) In the semi-darkness of the museum corridors, I stumbled over piles of abandoned Celtic tombstones, and finally entered a glorious sunlit room, with a great big bay window looking out to Snowdon. And the meeting I had there turned out to be the most welcoming experience I had had for many a day. There I met a greying Welshman in his late forties, who was ready to give me the whole of his attention for the rest of the day, if need be. Dr. Parry Williams, (a Doctor in both Music and Physics, and always know as ‘Parry’ or ‘PW’) wanted to know my whole story, and then was anxious to see any music I had written, even the exercises in strict counterpoint I had done in the desert. This was certainly, at last, a heart-warming experience, very different in its cordiality and sincerity from the interview I had had with the gloomy gents at the Royal College. Parry seemed quite happy with my work, and we sat and talked for some considerable time. Or rather Parry talked and I listened, for he was quite a captivating personality. I was waiting for some decision, but we never seemed to get there. Only after many diversions did he at last say I could study for a B.Mus. degree at Bangor, but it would be best if first I passed the London University B.Mus. Intermediate Exam. This could give weight to my entry application, and abbreviate my course. (In those days, both London and Durham universities had exams for external students only. There was no teaching at the universities for the exams, but these external degrees were much sought after, especially by the many who could never afford to go to universities.)
I wasted no time in applying for the summer London exams, which I sat with at least a hundred other applicants. I found the exams quite easy, and passed with no trouble at all. So my entry at Bangor was assured, and with the army grant to back me up, life suddenly became more assured and settled. I even felt such confidence that I arranged to be married to Giulietta, though as we have already seen, through the difficulties of getting an Italian visa, it was still to be many months before we could meet again, and still more months before we could be married.
My studies at Bangor were just what I wanted. Parry soon saw that I could teach myself, and left me alone. As there were no other B.Mus. students, there was no set routine of lectures, and my main time in college was spent in the library, absorbing every bit of information I could find. In any case, Parry was away most of the week on mysterious visits to Cardiff and London, but he would often come back with an armful of books that he thought may be useful to me. In this way, I was introduced to serialism in Krenek’s ‘Studies in Counterpoint’, and to Hindemith’s theories in ‘The Craft of Musical Composition’, together with what were the most recent scores and books to be published. Unfortunately, at that time England was musically very retrogressive, so that I never encountered really ‘contemporary’ music. The hero of the moment was Vaughan Williams, followed at some distance by Walton, Rubbra, and Bliss. Of course Britten had still hardly been heard of. In any case, the works of many of the great European names of this century were still not published (Dr. Kalmus’s UE editions of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern only appeared years later), and critical comment was hardly to be found. So in reality, I was hardly aware of a mass of works by the most progressive composers of the first half of this century. I was only to discover these when I returned to Italy.
Unfortunately, I had no companionship or stimulus from other students, as I may have had at one of the music colleges. The only other music students at Bangor were those who took music as a subsidiary subject for one year for a BA degree, so inevitably, I never found any intellectual stimulus there. Perhaps through Parry’s encouragement I came to regard university study as being directed only towards personal creative activity. In his absences, I would prepare an abundant portfolio of compositions, which he would look through with care on his return, though I think he deliberately avoided really critical comments. We did indeed talk for hours, but whereas he could be very informative on academic details, on factors of creativity, he would leave me to my own thoughts. In reality, we never seemed to have clear-cut conversations, and though our talks were often vitally interesting, the real outcome was never startlingly lucid, a fact I put down to his Welshness. Nevertheless, I found our discussions most thought-provoking, which is the most important thing.
In one thing he was truly brilliant. Fugue was then the peak of university study, and he had an extraordinary gift for improvising fugues at the keyboard at the drop of a hat, with a running commentary on the construction and form as he played. As I knew very little about fugue, this seemed an amazing feat of musicianship, especially as it demonstrated the ability to think constructively, perform, and talk, all at the same time – something I could never do, and never will.
During my first term at Bangor, I had an encouraging musical experience. I had applied to join the Philharmonic Society of the Guitar, and went to London to meet the president, Dr. Perrott, and attend one of the Society’s concerts. It was there I heard Julian Bream play for the first time, and one of his pieces was my own ‘Nocturne’ which I had dedicated to him some months previously. At that time, he was a freckle-faced boy of 13 in short trousers, but he could already play far better than anyone else I had ever heard. Later, I went out to visit him and his father somewhere in the suburbs, and again he played for me, and we chatted extensively. Unfortunately, I could see his father tended to dominate Julian’s character, and take command of any conversation. This was a nuisance, and interfered with any real relationship between us. But nevertheless, this was the start of a friendship which developed over the years. This ‘Nocturne’ eventually became my first published work, and though melodically it is less intense than I would now prefer, it is a surprisingly mature work which has been played world-wide, and issued on several gramophone records. Julian played it in his first public concert, at Cheltenham.
After the first term ended, as I said in the previous chapter, I went to meet Giulietta and her mother in Lausanne. Then, at last, after my second term, I returned to Florence to be married. It had been a long, long wait, and though I was by no means returning as a man of substance, at least I had a future of some kind in my hands (though I never realized just what a precarious future it was to be).
(Note): Through all this Summer of Uncertainties I worked ceaselessly at perfecting my Italian. Of course, I had already had an acquaintance with the language for three years, but I aspired towards a much more profound knowledge. Gullino had urged me to study by using Alessandro Manzoni’s ‘I Promessi Sposi’. He said that only by reading this could I become perfect. I had imagined it would be a book something like Fowler’s ‘Modern English Usage’, but it was quite different – a long historical tragedy about the oppression of Italians under the Spanish Hapsburgs in the 17th Century. It is a classic book, written by Manzoni in 1842, when he came to Florence from Lombardy to purify his Italian, basing it on the spoken and written language of Tuscany. I found his highly elaborate prose very heavy going, and to forge ahead, had to read with Manzoni in one hand and a dictionary and grammar in the other. Nevertheless, it led me to a perfection in grammar and a wider vocabulary than I could have achieved otherwise.
I returned to Florence on March l8th to be married on Easter Monday, April 7th. As Easter was late in 1947, this meant that Giulietta and I could be together for some time before the wedding, but afterwards we would soon have to be off. I had decided to get married in my officer’s service dress, but in order to arrive by train looking like a gentleman, I had used all my demob clothing coupons to have a new suit made by a tailor in Colwyn Bay. Unfortunately, as wearing drab khaki year after year gives one a longing for colour, I had ordered a tweed suit in a raw red hue which was almost violent. So, arriving at Florence station, I must have caused some consternation, as I looked neither elegant nor refined. Nevertheless, all Giulietta’s family and relations greeted me with great joy, though as soon as I was married, the suit disappeared before I could even notice, and a tailor was soon making me something better.
I arrived making another howler. In Italy, it is usual if not obligatory, for a traveller to bring presents for those in the family circle. Even more, a bridegroom must always bring presents for the bride’s family. So I was doubly bound by custom to bring a fine selection of objects which would demonstrate my esteem and affection. Unfortunately, my north-country upbringing had never included such fancy habits, and I had thought it sufficient to arrive with no more than what I stood up in. Of course this demonstrated that I had been brought up in a pigsty. I could of course have explained that in ‘austerity’ Britain, I could never have bought a thing, not even a bar of chocolate, but I never even noticed my omission. Of course, everybody was far too well-mannered to say a word. (Unfortunately, other countries have other customs, so that what may be well-mannered here may look less genteel, even barbaric, abroad.) Inevitably, I was to make many mistakes, but everybody was far too kind to educate me in Italian etiquette. I just had to live and learn. However, there was nothing lacking in either the artistic or historical qualities of the church where we were to be married, for the Borsi parish church was none other than that of the Medici – Brunelleschi’s great masterpiece, San Lorenzo. Better still; the actual ceremony was to take place in the Old Sacristy of 1421, which to me is Brunelleschi’s jewel. So we would be surrounded by tombs of the Medici, and an abundance of works by Donatello, Verrocchio, and Della Robbia. The young curate who we had chats with in preparation for the marriage explained that as we were a ‘mixed’ marriage (Catholic and Protestant), we could not be married in the main church, but had to be content with the Sacristy. But I was more than content. Who could wish for better? To me it was preferable to Westminster Abbey. Early in our discussions, he explained to me that I would have to swear to bring up our children in the Catholic faith, which to me seemed reasonable enough; but as in the end, this swearing seemed to have been forgotten, I had to remind him about it. But he said that by now, we could take it for granted. Despite this preparation, in the wedding itself, I put my foot in it at every step. My first real foul-up was the way I arrived at the church. I had been staying at the house of Giulietta’s aunt Nara, just round the corner from the Borsi house, so on the wedding day, I polished my brasses and Sam Browne belt until they shone as never before, and was well caparisoned and girded for the fray. As I had two best men (Italian custom), I had chosen Giuseppe Gullino and Giulietta’s cousin Aldo, and they arrived with some ceremony, to accompany me to church. However, we were all inexperienced. Neither of them had a clue, and the last wedding I had been to was in 1936, so we were soon at sixes and sevens.
As the church was just down the road, I was all for setting off and walking there. It only needed two minutes. But my two best men said we must go by taxi. I thought this excessively ceremonious and unnecessary, but I was bundled in, and we set off. But instead of going towards the church, we turned round and went the other way, round the corner, and stopped at Giulietta’s house. They wanted to get out, but I said no, we must keep on, I must only see the bride in church. This started a frenzy of discussion, with the taxi driver joining in, but I was adamant, and off we went again.
Arriving at Piazza San Lorenzo, I was quite surprised to see a larger crowd than usual, and a couple of cinematograph crews. I wondered what great event was going to take place. Perhaps a papal visit? But as I got out of the taxi, I was asked to get back in, and then come out again and do it properly, so that I could be filmed. After doing this several times and reaching perfection, I set off for the church, with the entire crowd and a cameraman behind me. The Old Sacristy was in the far left-hand corner of the church, right at the end of a very long nave, and as we approached it, the crowd broke into a run so as to crush in and get standing room. There were no seats, and as I soon got tired of the hullabaloo, I went out again, noticing two British generals watching me with some suspicion, especially as I neither saluted them, stood to attention, nor showed them any deference. After about twenty minutes, a couple of priests came out of the Sacristy, looking quite preoccupied, and asked me where was the bride? I said she was probably at home, one must always expect the bride to be late; it was almost a custom. At this, they broke out into a flurry of explanation which was not easy to understand, but it certainly became obvious that I had got it all wrong. We should all have come to church together – that was the custom.
So I set off down the church in all haste to fetch her, again with my crowd in tow. Just at that moment she came in at the far door, walking regally like the Queen of Sheba on her father’s arm, with her retinue and another two hundred onlookers. We all clashed in the middle of the immense nave, and milled round like a stampeding herd of steers, but at last, amidst a great clamour, we understood what had happened, and all was forgiven and forgotten. (In reality, I never realised for a moment the agony of waiting they had all gone through at home. Had I taken fright, and done a bunk at the last minute? The nervous atmosphere I had unwittingly generated must have been killing.) I took Giulietta’s mother’s arm, the procession was re-formed at last, and we all hastened to the Sacristy again, with the generals watching, looking rather piqued at not being the centre of attention. Giulietta looked absolutely glorious, not in white, but in very pale turquoise, with a lace veil. It knocked me down. From that moment on, I was reeling on the ropes.
In the Sacristy, confusion was rife. The altar area is not large, and it was already cluttered up and overcrowded with cine equipment and arc lights, to such an extent that we could hardly get in. However, at last we were kneeling before the priest. He fired off in Latin so fast, I couldn’t understand a thing. The arc lights, and the buzzing, clicking cameras made my head spin, and I became quite confused. At a certain point, the priest turned to me with an expectant look, but I didn’t respond in any way. After a long silence, Giulietta said to me in Italian, “Say something,” and I said “Si”, and the priest immediately galloped on. It would seem I had sworn my marriage vow! Suddenly we all turned round, rushed across San Lorenzo to the Martini Chapel, and started again, still watched by the generals. I was beginning to wonder if they were going to arrest me for wearing uniform after being demobbed. However, by now, I was in a dream-like state, and was only dimly aware of what was going on. Of course, we were having Mass, but I didn’t know it. My attention was mostly concentrated on a magnificent fresco before which I was kneeling – the ‘Annunciation’ by Filippo Lippi. I began to wonder if this was some special portent for our future. However, suddenly we were off again, this time by taxi together on our way to Santissima Annunziata. There we were to leave the bride’s bouquet and worship before a special picture, like all true Florentines, to complete the wedding. So yet again, we went in church, this time to kneel before the ‘Annunciation’ of Beato Angelico, even more beautiful than the other one. I wondered all the more what portent this had for us, it was too much of a coincidence. Coming out of church we bumped into the generals yet again. They both staggered back in astonishment. Was it possible we had been married three times over? To tell the truth, I myself had no clear idea by now of whether we were well and truly married or not. Everything had been so incomprehensible and abnormal that I had a dream-like impression that nothing had happened at all. Back at Giulietta’s home, there was no wedding feast in the British style. No speeches, nothing organised. We all had a quiet glass of wine and a tasty ‘rinfresco’ (small varied snacks) and rested after the fray.
There was not much quietness either. Suddenly it was realised that two trays of food were missing, which raised quite a to-do, but Aunt Nina knew where to look. She went straight to the maids’ bedroom, and pulled the trays off the top of the wardrobe. Next, it was discovered that Giulietta’s young cousin Paolo was missing. He was only four, and had just been repatriated from Eritrea, and wasn’t used to such a quantity of confusing white folks. In the end he was found inside a cupboard. It was only when, at last, we both changed clothes together in the same bedroom that it seemed possible that a marriage had really taken place. Strangely enough, this simple act had more concrete significance for me than all that had happened that day. At last, it was something in which I was directly involved.
We went for our honeymoon by taxi, with Zia (Aunt) Nina, to Casalguidi, a small village near Pistoia, where we stayed in her house. Today it would seem ridiculous to go for a honeymoon to such an unexciting place – nobody would deign to go anywhere less modish that Capri or Amalfi. But travel was then so difficult, Italy was still very unsettled, the holiday resorts were crowded with Allied troops and not yet reorganized for civilian pleasure-seekers. In any case, we were going to have a lot of travelling to do, just to get back to Anglesey.
So we went to Casalguidi because it was difficult to go anywhere else. But perhaps more important was the fact that both Casalguidi and her Aunt Nina had a very special place in Giulietta’s heart, as they came to have in mine.
Giulietta took me to Casalguidi a week before the wedding to approve of our honeymoon retreat, and to meet Zia Nina again. Casalguidi was the family village, where Giulietta’s mother had been born, and where the family had lived for generations. (Aunt Nina was the last to remain, having married the local doctor.) To get there was quite an adventure, because the old pre-war buses were so packed that to get seats, we had to send Alessandro, our errand-boy, well ahead to claim a couple of places. Then we arrived later like gentle folk, and took our seats among the humble peasants, but not without some altercations, for some folks were not so humble, and disputed this high-handed custom as good communists should. However, we had to change at Pistoia, so that the moment we arrived, all our passengers threw themselves into a scrabble for places aboard the next bus. Naturally, the men got all the seats, and women, children and livestock filled the rest to bursting point. Of course I was last, hanging dangerously half out of the door, which the driver fiercely tried to slam shut with his lever. But I was no fool. I got my foot in the right place. However, this part of our journey was no longer as gentle folk, but as losers of an unequal battle.
My first impressions of Casalguidi were really quite wrong, but I have never lost them, and am glad they were like that. It was an unusually misty day when we arrived, still winter, and the village seemed silent and yet intimate, with a curious other-world quality about it. Zia Nina’s house was just off the main square. We crossed a bridge over a boisterous stream, and there was the house with a garden of pine trees, and behind them, vineyards going off into the mist. We walked off through the vines and olive trees, and climbed to the summit of Zia Nina’s property. There was no view. The mist enclosed us in a tranquil, poetic intimacy. We seemed to be above and beyond the world and all its turmoil. It was an idyllic oasis of peace, as if nothing existed beyond the mist. However, the quietness and tranquillity of that day must have been truly exceptional, for I later found that Casalguidi is usually filled with a raucous din which is one of its more unattractive characteristics. Renewing my acquaintance with Zia Nina confirmed my first impression that we liked each other a lot. The first time we met, a year before, was more important than I then realised. I didn’t know then that the meeting had been ‘arranged’ so that when I arrived at the Borsi house, and was shown into the lounge, I found there a small neat woman, who introduced herself as Giulietta’s ‘Zia Nina’. Of course we chatted away about Giulietta, and I liked her gentle, quiet manner, and the spontaneous intimacy which grew between us. She only stayed a few minutes, but later I learned that I was ‘approved of’ by the person whose opinion Giulietta valued most. For Zia Nina was more than an aunt, she was a second mother, to confide in with intimate thoughts. She was a widow with no children, and her affection for Giulietta was what she would have felt for her own daughter.
So in reality, when we went on our honeymoon to Casalguidi, we were going to Giulietta’s second home, and though the village may seem rather commonplace, I have a great affection for it. Indeed, over the last thirty years, I have often gone back to live there, and passed some of the happiest days of my life.
Our honeymoon was all-too-short, for we had to return to England in a fortnight. But we spent some lovely days, walking in the hills, up through the olive groves to the chestnut woods, where the view was wonderful. The Apennines stretch from Abetone in the west to Vallombrosa, far beyond Florence, in the east. On the plain below is Pistoia nearby, Prato further east, and in the far distance, Giotto’s tower and the dome of Florence cathedral. To the south, over the rolling, angular Tuscan hills, is Monte Amiata, beyond Siena – more than half way to Rome!
One day we went to see Donetta, the wife of Giulietta’s uncle Adimaro. He had been Prefect of Asmara in Eritrea, and was still held as a prisoner of war there by the British, years after the war ended. She lived in a lovely old villa called San Giustino, with her parents, the Principi dei Rossi. The villa belongs to the hey-day of Italian nobility, and looks quite impressive. In the hall is an immense canvas showing the Rossi family tree going right back to medieval times. There is even a pope or two. But the property is falling into ruin – too expensive to maintain, and too large to live in today. We met Donetta’s parents, and the old Prince dei Rossi was a very likeable man, delighted to show off his English (which was impeccable), and full of interesting conversation. There was hardly any air of ‘nobility’ about him, and certainly no snobbishness. I would have liked to have known him more, but he died soon afterwards.
On Sunday we went to the village church, and this was quite a revealing experience. I had always thought the people of this Catholic country would be most devout. But I was mistaken. Outside the church was a tremendous confusion, for as Sunday is the only farmer’s holiday, everything has to be bought and sold on that day – cattle, food, clothes, tools, everything. Half the square was the farmer’s market; the other half was filled with a big Communist meeting. Loudspeakers blared endless tirades against the Imperialists, the Church, the Government, and the Allies – in fact, everything I thought the Italians should be grateful for. The frenzied shouts could be heard all over the village. In my innocence, I expected this hubbub to stop during the church service, but I was wrong. If anything, the shouting reached a still higher pitch when the Mass began, and every word could be heard in church, drowning the priest’s Latin mumblings. The church was so crowded, everybody had to stand. All the men crushed behind the altar, and women and children filled the nave. (I stood in glorious isolation with my wife, among the women.) But it was apparent that attending the Mass was largely an empty ritual, to fulfil an obligation. Nobody listened to the priest or followed the Mass, except to cross themselves when the bell tinkled for the Elevation. People walked about, and talked in conversational tones, showing a complete lack of devotion and discipline, and when the Mass ended, the congregation poured back into the piazza, to swallow the Communist propaganda with more interest than they had given to the church service.
I know now that country folk could not be blamed for listening so willingly to Communist propaganda, while at the same time showing indifference to their own church rites. For the Communists were highly articulate, and promised them the earth, whereas the priest only mumbled in a strange language, and promised little in this world, and nothing very tangible in the next. (I did not know then that those who really wanted to worship, went to the earlier Masses, which were much quieter and more dignified.) In those years I often saw such perfunctory church services, especially in the country, but since then, things have changed. The Church fought back strongly against Communism, priests became quite combative, and the Mass in Italian has become intelligible and easily comprehensible, so that once again, the people take part in true worship with devotion. However, at the time of my honeymoon, these ideological battles were rather outside my immediate world. Later on, they were to become affairs of daily concern, but then they were soon forgotten as the day of our departure pressed ever closer.
Youth can be cruel and blind. I hardly realised the sadness and misery I was causing by taking Giulietta away. I was only happy in having a wife. It hardly mattered to me what dowry she brought, or what she had to take away with her. So I was amazed to see all the trunks of her trousseau we had to transport. I little knew that her ‘corredo’ had been prepared since she was a child. It is the Italian custom to build up a corredo sufficient for a lifetime – dozens of embroidered bed sheets and tablecloths, pillowcases rich in lace and delicate embroidery, towels of every kind, underclothes and nightgowns, everything a household can possibly want for years. We also had trunks full of clothes, kitchen hardware, books, and pictures – there seemed to be everything there except furniture. All these things had been lovingly gathered together over the years by Giulietta’s mother Lilia. They had a considerable value, but my only thought was how to get them through British Customs. I would have been happier with much less, but as it happened, we had no need to worry. Even Customs officials can sometimes be human.
So at last the day came to leave for England. Every possible relative and friend was there to see us off, and we left in a wealth of good wishes and a flood of tears. I felt most strongly how fortunate I was to have gained such a wonderful new family, but also I realised that part of me now belonged to these other most hospitable and admirable people.
Returning to Anglesey, we made the usual mistake of newly-weds – we went to live with my parents. Not that there was anything drastic, but unfortunately my mother had command of the ration cards, so we had to eat only what little she chose to buy. Anglesey was a paradise for black-market food, we could have lived like lords, but to my mother, that was quite unethical. So we starved. We had an egg each a week, and meat once a month. Our greatest source of food was the apples in the orchard, which were too sour anyhow. Even bread was rationed. This was not good for Giulietta, for she had conceived almost the day we got married. To add to these woes, the only doctor in the village turned out to be no better than a vet on a pig farm, with not a scrap of human understanding. All this was to have dire consequences for Giulietta’s health in the future. Things were so bad, she should have turned round and gone home. She must have had enormous courage to stay where she was.
At the university, my studies continued well enough. As well as Parry’s teaching, I studied piano with Miles Coverdale and violin with Constance Izard, both very excellent musicians. (They formed part of the professional ‘University Trio’ which played at weekly concerts and taught the students.) I fought with the piano always in the vain hope of being at least proficient, but especially in the first year, my fingers were so slow to lose their army tensions, I was frustrated. I studied the violin initially so that I would learn the playing techniques any composer should know, but I ended up by playing tolerably well, and for years to come, took my place in orchestras, either with the violin or double bass which I liked to play enormously.
When we were married, Giulietta and I had planned not to return to Italy until the summer of 1948, over a year later, but once the university exams were finished, we looked at each other and said, ‘what are we waiting for?’ and decided to set off for Florence right away. We couldn’t get there fast enough. However, this was by no means easy. There was no air travel for commoners in those days, and the train journey was murder. We had to stay overnight in London and fortunately managed to book seats from Calais onwards. Just as well. When refugees, expatriates and all the odds and sods of Europe crowded the corridors from Paris onwards, it was impossible even to go to the lavatory; indeed we had to fight to get possession of the seats we had booked. After all the Allied bombing, the railways were still being rebuilt, and we were constantly stopped and rerouted God knows where, through scenes of utter devastation.
After the first night, I decided I would fight my way to the toilet – I needed it badly. When at last I got there I found a carpet seller had taken possession and the toilet was full of carpets. Just then, the train stopped at the Swiss frontier customs depot, and before any passengers could get off, the train was taken by storm by a mass of brutal frontier guards. Anybody in the corridors was beaten mercilessly and herded with their bags into customs sheds, where they were stripped from head to foot, and their baggage torn apart. As I was caught up in this fracas, I was given the same treatment, until I made it evident that I did have a seat, and was allowed back aboard. (’This kind of thing went on for years, but was quite illogical, because if passengers had contraband, it was not for Switzerland, but for Italy. But of course the Swiss are very obstinate folk.)
Back in Florence, it seemed like a return to the Promised Land. We had three glorious months ahead of us, and for August, Giulietta’s mother and Aunt Nara had taken a house at Pietrasanta on the Versiglia seacoast, for both our families. By chance, I had news of the opening of the Accademia Musicale Chigiana at Siena in July, for three months, so I took a bus to Siena to find what was available. Count Chigi greeted me like the prodigal son. I was his first overseas student, and he was overjoyed. The courses would begin early the next week, running from July to September, and I could enrol to study conducting, composition, or any string or keyboard instrument. Among the teachers were many internationally known names, such as Georges Enesco and Gaspar Casadã, and one could enrol for a full course, or just as a listener (free of cost). The composition course was being run by Vito Frazzi, of Florence Conservatory, and there would be a course on film music, with Angelo Francesco Lavagnino, so I signed up for both of these and took the bus back home.
When the course started, Giulietta came to Siena for the weekend, to organize where I should stay, and where I should eat. As is Italian custom, the thing to do was to seek out relations, and get their advice, so we went to see her second cousin, Aldo Buonomini, who was director of the famous bank with the aristocratic title ‘Monte dei Paschi di Siena’. Through him, I was soon fixed up comfortably, with the added bonus that I could go to his house and use the piano whenever I liked. After concluding these affairs, we decided that we should walk through the town to see the cathedral, which I have always admired a great deal. It seemed very peaceful and quiet as we strolled along the Banco di Sopra, but as we got to the corner turning up to the cathedral, we found quite a dense crowd, obviously waiting for something. We could hardly get through, so we went in the bar on the corner to have a coffee, though even there the place was bursting with people. As we sipped our coffee, I asked the owner what everyone was waiting for. He told me that there was to be the funeral of two carabinieri killed in the recent battle with the communists on Mount Amiata. All of a sudden, there was a surging of the crowd, as a military band struck up with the Dead March further up the street, and the bar owner hastened to push everyone out of the shop and close the shutters. He said we could stay inside if we preferred, and watch through the shutters, an offer we were pleased to accept. From this vantage point we saw the procession appear from the cathedral square, and it was quite impressive. First came a military band, then a platoon of soldiers, then one of Carabinieri, then two black coffins carried shoulder high, then the town mayor and his officials, and last of all, the weeping mourners, who were joined by the onlookers, swelling into a great mass of people. Just as the coffins turned the corner by our bar, there was a shrill shout, followed immediately by a fusillade of shots, which in the closed street, sounded like cannon fire. The result was instantaneous. A savage, shrieking mob rushed at the bar, tearing at the shutters in an effort to get inside. I couldn’t understand what was happening. I thought the bar was under attack, so I fought to keep the shutters closed, hitting out right and left to keep people out. But Giulietta shouted “Let them come in!” so I backed off and let the avalanche surge forward, stamping into the ground a little man who was the first to fall, and whom Giulietta dragged out by the heels. Finally, the coffins, which had been let fall in the street, were carried inside by some who were brave enough to go out for them.
Outside, there was no let-up in the rifle fire, then a grenade shattered our shutters to matchwood, then another exploded in a room right over our heads, the plaster falling in showers. Things were getting too hot, so there was another stampede, this time to get out of the bar and as far away as possible. We crammed through into a rear room, then into a bakery, then a furnace room, and at last got out into a small yard. But the only exit went back into the street, so that door was soon locked, barred, and bolted.
We were not safe yet. There were shots in the room right over our heads, and we were quick to realise that that was where the terrorists were holed up. We were fast enough in getting back to the furnace room, at least thirty or forty of us. Luckily, there was a lavatory there, though extremely primitive, and it was quickly in great demand, without reserve, and with no great regard for privacy or decorum. Finally, as if we hadn’t had enough, there was a terrific banging on the yard door, which never let up until we plucked up courage to open it, to let in a carabiniere carrying the fiancé of one of the dead men. She was absolutely out, but he dropped her and ran off, leaving us to spread her out on the bakery table.
At last, after quiet had reigned for some time, and people were back walking the streets, we came out of hiding, feeling a great relief. I myself was still shaky. I had experienced a panic far greater than anything I had felt in the war. Perhaps it is that civilian panic is far more contagious than what soldiers feel. That morning, we saw news at the newspaper stands which made us realise that we should have stayed at home. The whole country was in crisis. The communist leader, Togliatti, had been shot (though not killed), and communists were taking control everywhere. Trains were stopped, shops looted, irate mobs roamed the streets. We could hardly stay were we were, indeed we would be lucky to get home.
We didn’t stand on ceremony, but like so many others, took the bus station by storm, and managed to get aboard the Florence bus, crowded not only to the doors, but on top as well. The driver was in a state of high panic, and hared off like a maniac, cutting corners, with his horn blaring without a stop. And he didn’t stop once till we got to Florence, where he flung open the doors and ran. We all ran too. The city was like a cemetery, with not a soul in sight, and every door and window barricaded. At home, we found everyone closed in gloom, just peeping out of the shutters now and again. We were short of food and milk, but the shops had either closed of their own accord, or been forcibly closed by gangs of communists. Things were bad for two or three days, but then at last, we were able to get bread and milk at the shop opposite, where the shopkeeper lifted his iron grille just enough for customers to crawl under. He was ready to slam it down in a crack, even if only a dog came in the street. We were resigned to a communist takeover. It had been on the horizon for long enough, and seemed inevitable, especially in Tuscany, always a communist stronghold, then and now. But one morning, everything burst open again, like a flower blooming. The magic word BARTALI had done it! Bartali had won the ‘Tour de France’. He came from Florence, and sold his bicycles down the street! The whole of Italy rejoiced, and nowhere more than Florence. The communist uprising was forgotten.
Historical Note: If Bartali had not won the Tour de France, Italy could very well have become a Communist country. Russia, then occupying part of Austria, would have had what she had always wanted – a direct route to the Mediterranean. This would have become a Russian lake, for it would have been ‘Yanks go home’ everywhere. The only real resistance against Communism would have been Franco in Spain. If he had not had help from the Italian air force in the Spanish Civil War, Spain would have been Communist since 1936. Franco has always been maligned, but in reality, he saved Europe, but got no thanks for it. There are many ‘ifs’ here, but they are not without real and valid substance.
’ Returning to Siena, I began the Composition Course with Vito Frazzi. Though I didn’t realise it then, this was not only a waste of time, but a very counterproductive experience. Why this was so, I will explain later. What I think needs investigation first, is why I went to him at all and why I later went from one teacher to another, always searching for a way ahead which proved to be so elusive. Perhaps the main underlying reason for this search was that I had an inferiority complex. I was already so many years behind; I was indeed at an age when my musical education should have been finished years ago. Instead, at the age of thirty, I had still a long way to go, and it seemed to me that I still knew nothing. Worse still, my artistic temperament was to lead me on for years, always striving towards more and more ‘progressive’ goals, so that my musical experience and education was still not finished when I published my third book, ‘The New Music’ in 1975. I was always to be searching, until in reality, I knew far more than most other musicians, and far more than, as a composer, I ever needed to know.
Half my troubles were caused by the fact that English music, and the English musical world, were so extremely retrogressive in those post-war years. We were only just emerging from the ‘folk-song revival’ artistic mentality, and Elgar was still thought to be ‘modern’. The main figures of European 20th Century music had barely reached the English concert platforms, and if they had, were not much appreciated. Britten had still not appeared, and when he did, by comparison with the Europeans, he had something almost Victorian in his art. I could have accepted this English retrogressive state, and joined in it easily enough. It would have made sense, for I already had the technique to do it. Indeed, the technical and aesthetic demands were meagre enough, and I would have had no need to keep searching. However, I was already aware that the real musical world was something quite different, and it never crossed my mind for a moment that I should have been content enough to be an English retrogressive. It would have been so easy to profit by the existing state of music in England, rather than struggle against it as I did, for so many years. Without realising what I was doing, I was becoming a ‘rebel’, which is never a profitable business, and certainly not to be recommended for married men with prospective families to support, as I was.
So I looked for a composition teacher who would show me the secrets of the art in an advanced form. The problem is that good composition teachers are as rare as caviar in Tierra del Fuego. Composers are so wrapped up in their own work that they are unable to see what a student needs. (Unfortunately, the student seldom knows himself.) I know now that the best form of teaching is self-tuition. Somebody should have locked me in a room, with all the books and scores I needed, to learn about the best music of this century, together with a library of gramophone records. After two months, I would have known all about it, and (more important) decided what I preferred to do. I am a natural at self-tuition; I absorb information like blotting paper, but the only one who ever saw it was Parry at Bangor, despite his academic background. The truth is that a good composition teacher should forget his own creative ideals, and help a student to discover his own means of expression and exploit his own potentialities to the full. Inevitably, this should include an unbiased panoramic view of the most prominent contemporary compositional practices. This is a fairly substantial task, and far beyond the interests or abilities of many great composers. And yet we continue to think only they can teach us. A great illusion.
So in the pursuit of my art, I went back to Siena and started the course with Vito Frazzi. He was a round man in his late fifties, with a flat face, and widely-separated eyes, which gave him a rather mongoloid appearance which was not particularly attractive. But he had a most pleasant and persuasive manner, and a husky, attractive voice, which beguiled me from the start.
In no time at all, he revealed to me his system, which was the foundation of all modern music. He had discovered the ‘scala alternata’, through which all modern harmonies and idioms could be formed; in fact there was no limit to its potentialities. The scala alternata is formed by alternate tones and semitones, there can only be two, and one of its main characteristics is that dominant chords cannot be formed in either scale, so that conventional tonic-dominant harmony is excluded from the start. Though Frazzi had little evidence of the strength of his claims, I swallowed the concept hook, line and sinker. It all seemed perfect. From then on, I wrote music exclusively with the scala alternata, even a whole string quartet. Gradually, I began to realise the many limitations of the system, the awkward results which it enforced, and the difficulty, harmonically, of excluding the ever-present diminished seventh chords which I detested. This wasted me a lot of precious time, and showed me that a man with a system was to be avoided like the plague.
* * *
Fortunately, Frazzi could only inflict a limited amount of damage on me, for I was torn from his grasp after only ten days. Zia Nara and Giulietta’s mother insisted on us going to Pietrasanta, and I wasn’t going to miss it for anything. This was my first real holiday for eight years, and I was going to enjoy it, and I really did. There was a glorious beach, where we swam and sunbathed all morning. Then we all sat down to a rich lunch, at least ten or a dozen of us. Then after a nap, we went back to the beach again. It was an idyllic time, and there was not a care in the world. The only blot on the landscape was when the yanks came in without being asked, and sprayed us and the whole house with DDT – an insecticide which eventually had to be withdrawn from the market, because it was harmful to all forms of life. Strangely enough, the one thing I was not happy about was the food. It was too good. My taste buds were only used to plain boiled potatoes and cabbage, and anything more elaborate was too tasty for me. Unfortunately, I suffered from an intense competition between two cooks of opposing schools. Maria, who was Giulietta’s mother’s cook, was a fine exponent of Tuscan cooking. But instead, Fina, Zia Nara’s cook, was famed for refined and elaborate cooking of a much more exotic nature. Tuscan food is really quite simple. Its beauty lies in the superb quality of simple ingredients. But Fina went far beyond that. She was a noble artist who loved to display the splendour of her efforts, so I fell prey to her excellence. Not only that, but the menu was full of novelties like wild boar, hare, calamari, and swordfish, whose succulence was too much for me. In later years, I loved her efforts, but not just then. It was too soon.
* * *
At the end of August, I knew Lavagnino’s Film Music Course was to start, so when we returned from Pietrasanta, I went off to Siena, just in time for the first morning. The word had gone round that we were to meet at the local cinema at 11am, so we all gathered outside, almost a hundred of us. Apparently it was Lavagnino’s plan for us to see a film, presumably of importance to the course, so we all trooped in and waited. I expected Lavagnino to give us a talk as to what to look for, or some kind of introduction to film music in general. Not a bit of it. We all sat through what seemed to me a particularly inane film, and then, without further comment, went off for lunch. This episode has always puzzled me, for later I was to find that Lavagnino was a compulsive talker, full of ideas and theories, which he was more than ready to expand on at the drop of a hat. Perhaps the crush of spectators intimidated him, but I doubt it.
I decided this was no good, so after that I explored the Course’s best aspect – the right to drop in at any time on any class, hear whatever was of value, and then go off to hear something different. In this way, I learned a great deal in no time, about string playing, keyboard techniques, conducting, even singing. Listening to such players as Gioconda da Vito, Casadã, Enesco and Fernando Germani was a rich experience, which added enormously to my own musicianship. But what impressed me most was the amazing virtuosity of many young players who had only just graduated. They could rip off pieces of Chopin and Liszt from memory, with almost a casual effort and insouciance which I found astonishing. (I little realised that they had probably been practising these pieces for months on end.) Of course the maestro in charge would then savagely tear their efforts to pieces, but all the same, I was made very well aware that, if I practised for a hundred years, I would never play like that. So it would be best to put any ideas of performance behind me, and if I did play at all, it would only be a secondary pursuit.
Strangely enough, one of the teachers, Prof Nardi, put me on the road to playing the piano without tying my muscles in knots. It only took him ten minutes. The truth is that in my pre-war organ playing, on old tracker organs, I always had to use force to keep the keys down. If manuals were coupled, the force needed was considerable. This meant that finger muscles could never relax, so that one had to deliberately exclude the most important aspect of piano technique – relaxation. Nardi knew nothing of this original cause, but he saw that I was fighting myself with tension, and in a few minutes, taught me a beautiful thing – how wonderful it feels to play with utter relaxation. It was a great discovery, and much to be cultivated, for it is easily forgotten. Altogether, apart from my counterproductive experience with Frazzi, I learned a lot at Siena that summer, for I covered a wide experience of many facets of music both in performance and as an intellectual pursuit. This encouraged me to return to Siena in later years, if only briefly, especially for the conducting and organ playing courses, and especially, when Segovia began teaching his first guitar course.
In the meantime, before we returned to North Wales, I decided to meet Luigi Dallapiccola, whose name was beginning to be noted in England as somebody really leading the avant-garde. He lived in Florence just out of town on the Via Bolognese, so I arranged to pay him two or three visits. (As a matter of fact, he must have been composing his opera ‘Il Prigioniero’ at that time, and could ill afford to waste his time on me.) He was only a small man (as his name suggests), and possibly on that account, a little stiff and over-formal, and though I was to know him well, and on friendly terms, over the coming years, I never knew him to really unbend. As I was looking to him for composition advice, I showed him a piece I had written for orchestra, and quite unexpectedly, instead of looking at the piece as a completed work to be assessed as a whole, he began a dissection of the orchestration, which obviously was not to his liking. But as there was no explanation for this dismemberment, it took me some time to realise just what he was about. As I then used the traditional orchestration technique which exploited the doubling of instruments, and as he himself much preferred to use only pure instrumental colours, I had done the opposite of what he preferred, and therefore he spent a long time altering my work, note by note, to fit in with his own ideals. It would have been much quicker, and more fruitful, to have a straightforward chat about our orchestration ideals. As a matter of fact, I was to use his method of my own accord in the end. I was to return to him again for lessons two or three years later, but I always found his inability to avoid getting lost in the small detail most frustrating and unproductive. Unfortunately, as we shall see later, it took me a long time to realise that we were incompatible, and that I would never learn the secrets of creation from him.
* * *
At the end of September, the time came to pack our bags and set off back to North Wales. But Giulietta’s mother made sure we did not go empty-handed. She had prepared two whole trunks full of food – pasta, rice, and polenta – at least 50 kg., which would keep us alive all through the coming winter. I was again worried by the customs examination at Dover, but when the official looked at the food in astonishment, and asked how many of us there were, Giulietta replied that we still didn’t know, but there would be at least three of us. The officer laughed, and let us through with a smile.
When we returned to Anglesey, this time we had our own cottage called ‘Snowdon Villa’ at Llandegfan, on the Straits between Menai Bridge and Beaumaris. It was a lovely spot, looking right over the water to Snowdon. We had hoped to be better off for food, because the local farmer was helpful, but we had extra mouths to feed. My brother Jim had taken an engineering post in Ghana, leaving my parents to look after his two sons who went to a small private school in Bangor. So every weekend, we had two voracious appetites to satisfy, and Giulietta’s supply of pasta dwindled all too quickly. I scoured the nearby fields for rabbits and pigeon with my shotgun, but the bag I came home with was never bursting. On the whole, we were always hungry – not a good state for Giulietta, expecting a baby.
As there were no buses, I bought a second-hand motor bike to get to the University, but it was no match for the powerful army bikes I was used to. In the end, I was glad to get rid of it at the same price I paid for it. At the University, I found I had to read French and English as well as Music, because the Arts Faculty had ruled that the B.Mus. degree should include subsidiary subjects. I had not done any French since 1933, so feeling that I must make a hurried revision, I re-read a whole French grammar in a month, and then felt more confident, especially as my knowledge of Italian was a great help. As it happened, I need not have bothered, because the general standard of French in the class was abysmal. I ended the course as an ‘A’ student with ‘exceptional abilities. English was more difficult, as for some time I mistook ‘English’ as being a course in creative writing, rather than a study of literature. I enjoyed writing short stories and plays, until the tutor pointed out to me that I was not answering questions in an orthodox way, and that instead I should concentrate on memorising extracts of poetry and prose to re-quote in exams on writers such as Chaucer, Pope and Browning – a prospect I viewed with despair, for I had no interest in such work. I had hardly begun the Autumn Term, when I was struck with a wild idea – as I had already passed the London Intermediary, I could sit the Final London Exam in December, and possibly cut short my studies. I spoke to Parry about this, but he seemed a bit doubtful, because the London Final had the reputation of being difficult. However, I went ahead with the idea, especially as the set work – Elgar’s ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ – was a work I thought I knew well. I had deputised as second clarinet in the Hallã´ orchestra in a performance in Blackburn about 1937, and after a quick look at the score, I saw there would be no difficulties. And so in December, I hared off to London for the Finals, held somewhere in Kensington. The papers on Counterpoint, Harmony, and Fugue didn’t seem to make much sense, as if the person asking the questions had forgotten to provide the clues. Then came the ‘viva’ exams. The examiners were Herbert Howells, Gordon Jacobs, and George Oldroyd – all of them lesser-known composers. I had the ill-fortune of being assigned to Oldroyd – said to be more of an academic than the others. His questions about the Elgar piece proved to be easy enough, but we began to get at cross-purposes when he asked me where the climax of the work was. This was easy enough, and the answer was obvious – the point where the chorus and orchestra are joined by the full organ. He asked me what I thought of this effect, and my answer should obviously have been that the organ added power and majesty beyond any other means. Unfortunately, the comment I did make was not what Oldroyd expected. I said that though the organ added power, its solid, monolithic tone nullified the colour of orchestral instruments, and therefore its use was to some extent counterproductive. We began to argue the point, and I was stupid enough to insist that as I had played clarinet in the piece, I should know, for when the organ began to play, I felt my own instrumental tone so swallowed up that it seemed useless to continue playing. From this point, our opinions diverged more and more, and Oldroyd was obviously on the point of a nervous fit. Just then he was called out of the room, and I sat there, looking at his desk. I became aware that it was covered by a sheet of paper about a yard square, full of what seemed to be exam marks. I could see my own name upside down, so I turned the sheet round, read the marks, and quickly put it back again. It seemed I had got 86% in History, and high 60 or low 70% in Counterpoint, Harmony and Fugue. Obviously, these must be excellent pass marks, but when Oldroyd returned, it seemed probable that he thought differently, for he dismissed me with marked rudeness and ill-temper. I realised that the possibility of my passing the exams was now rather remote, and returned to Anglesey somewhat chastened. I was right. When the exam results came out, I had failed.
Too late, I had learned a lesson – never, never, never argue with the examiner. He is always right. Give him the answer he wants, even if you think it is plain stupid. Another thing – an examiner can’t stand somebody who has his own opinions. This is not allowed.
* * *
As January approached, Giulietta’s child became due, but we waited and waited, and nothing happened. On January 7th, we decided to take a walk through the fields of Llandegfan, thinking a short walk would do her good. Unfortunately, we got so lost in a maze of footpaths, stiles, and woodlands that our walk turned into a marathon. After two hours, she had to lie down for a rest in a farmhouse, and I decided to phone for a taxi. But as nobody knew of a telephone in that district, we set off again wearily. As it started to get dark, I began to imagine the nightmare of childbirth in the depths of a wood, for I had not the slightest idea of what it involved. The thought horrified me. Giulietta could hardly put one foot in front of another, but at last we made it back to Snowdon Villa. I put her to bed, expecting the worst. Indeed, the worst did happen in the night, and I had to get her to the nursing home in Bangor, where she had the agony of waiting another 24 hours. At last the message came through – I had a baby daughter. A daughter! Impossible! We Brindles only had sons. This was most upsetting.
When I saw the baby, I was even less happy. She was like a little old wizened woman. Not a bouncing beauty at all. I was so shocked; I couldn’t speak to anyone for days. When we left the hospital, and the taxi man actually dared to kiss the baby (expecting a bigger tip) I was most offended. Babies should not be kissed. It gave them all kinds of diseases. And so we got her home, and from then on life was changed enormously. Everything revolved round the baby. (Needless to say, in the end, I became certain that my daughter Diana was by far superior to all other babies, who were only to be pitied for their ugliness, inferior intelligence, and lack of all those superior qualities which she possessed in such abundance.)
* * *
At the University, the prospect of Final Exams began to loom large, and I had to orientate my work exclusively to the academic objective of passing examinations. The exam I feared most was Fugue. In all probability this would comprise the writing of a fugue for string quartet in three hours – quite a feat in itself, but especially so when it is expected that all the technical artifices of fugue must be demonstrated – episodes, strettos, pedal points, inversions, retrogrades, and so on, all arranged so as to produce a satisfying artistic result. I struggled for months to conquer this objective. At first, I could only write a fugue in a week, then I could manage one in a whole day, and at last I could complete a whole work in only three hours, but only just. (Inevitably, this intense and daily work on fugue caused me to revolt against this noble form for the rest of my life. Looking back, I have never again attempted any fugal activity whatsoever! ) But in the exam, to my horror, I found that the exam paper comprised not only Fugue, but Counterpoint as well. I had to write a fugue for string quartet, and a four-part canon for piano, all in three hours. I felt this was grossly unfair, I wasn’t prepared for it, but there was no time for feelings. I had to work twice as hard. I finished the fugue in ninety minutes, and so had ample time for the canon in four parts, ending in a state of near-exhaustion. As to the quality of the music, I think it must have been most doubtful. For the Exams, another feat I had to master was that of memorizing music examples. In university essays and exams, it is important to quote music examples galore, and as one of my papers was Contemporary Music, I chose fifty-four examples I could fruitfully use. So I set about memorizing these, even though it seemed extremely difficult. After a week of toil, I had only memorized four short examples, and I began the second week in desperation. All of a sudden, I developed a ‘photographic memory’, and in a few days, I could write out every example. This visual memory has remained with me ever since, and is a great acquisition, for it makes many things much easier – performing, transcribing, analysing, even recalling something one has not seen for twenty years.
The external examiner for Music was Edmund Rubbra, renowned at that time especially for his symphonies, which were written in a rather post-Elgarian manner. There was no ‘viva’ exam, which disappointed me, for I had made a considerable study of the Set Work – the ‘Symphony in C Major’ in one movement, by Sibelius. But it was probably just as well, given my previous disputes with Oldroyd. Indeed, I felt that given the prodigious array of music examples I had quoted in my paper on Contemporary Music, and my enormous effort in the Fugue paper, I could hardly be failed, so I had no preoccupations about the results. However, after the examiner’s meeting to assess results, Parry was kind enough to come out to Snowdon Villa to tell me I had passed, and to congratulate me. In truth, I felt that all the merit was his, and any congratulations should have been given to him. After all, without him, I would have got nowhere.
* * *
In reality, apart from my University work, I had been going through troubled times. For months, Giulietta had been ill with recurring fevers, and the local doctor seemed unable to help. In the end, he sent her to a clinic in Bangor Hospital, where a specialist examined her, and took some X rays. In the end, he diagnosed tuberculosis of the right lung. He spoke to me in private, explaining that her illness was serious, but as there were no beds available in the special sanatoria for this disease, he could only recommend me to keep her in bed, and wait for the end. Of course, I was horrified. He said the illness was due to malnutrition, and the birth of our Diana. I knew too that it was due also to her own sense of self-sacrifice, for in order to feed me and my hungry nephews, she would often say she wasn’t hungry, and give us her own food. At that time, tuberculosis was regarded as an illness which few survived, and then only by living in sanatoria at high altitudes and in a dry climate. There was no prospect of a cure in North Wales, and not even enough food to prevent her going into a terminal decline. There was only one thing to do – pack up all our belongings, and return to Florence, where we could be sure of the best medical attention, better food, and the care of her own family. So once the University exams were finished, we were already packed, and ready to go in a couple of days..
I was most happy to be back in Florence, with Giulietta being cared for not only by her immediate family, but by her aunts and cousins as well. We lived with her parents and her sister Laura, and their care for her and kindness to me were wonderful. My own relationship with her mother was really quite special. She was such a kind and loving woman that I grew to love her more and more, without any of the traditional ‘in-law’ stress that others experience. As soon as we were settled in, Doctor Bersi, our family doctor, was called and he recommended a consultation with a tuberculosis specialist, Prof. Alessandri. When Alessandri came, I expected it to be a very serious and sombre meeting, like my experience in Bangor; but not a bit of it. Instead he made it such a light-hearted affair, I was furious. As he examined Giulietta, he whistled and sang operatic arias, and seemed to treat what to me was a deadly serious matter with a very casual air. In the end, he pronounced the patient to be quite ill, but well within his ability to cure, and then left the house with a wild burst of song. I had no faith in him. I took him to be no more than a quack, especially as his first prescription for a cure was an experiment. He tried injections of a new miracle drug, the antibiotic streptomycin, but after two or three months it was obvious this was ineffective. So then he fell back on the old remedy of collapsing the affected lung, Giulietta began to live a fairly normal life, and eventually she was completely cured. So after all, Alessandri was right and the pessimistic Bangor specialist quite wrong. (’To do Alessandri justice, streptomycin is still regarded as the effective cure for tuberculosis.)
In the end, I grew to appreciate Alessandri enormously. Our fortnightly visits to his surgery were always filled with song, and he was a great art connoisseur. Like most Florentine professional men, he was a fanatical art collector, and the walls of his study were completely covered from floor to ceiling with paintings of great discrimination. So our visits were not only curative, but quite animated artistic experiences, which I enjoyed greatly. What a contrast to that miserable clinic in Bangor!
It was three years before Giulietta was completely cured. At first, we went for periods in the mountains, but soon her character made it impossible for her sit idly, rest and do nothing. Soon she began to work in her mother’s office, running an embroidery business, and living almost a normal life. Indeed, as she recovered strength, she worked more and more, and following her habitual instinct, almost excessively. Every meal time, at one o’clock and eight o’clock, I had to go up to the office and shout for them to stop work, and come and eat. I often had to pretend to be angry to get any result; indeed I was lucky if we ate within the next hour! Unfortunately, I am a very punctual eater.
* * *
Once we were settled in Florence and Giulietta’s illness was under Alessandri’s care, I had two main problems – how to complete my musical education, and how to support my family. This latter was to be extremely difficult, if not impossible. For a foreigner to get work in Italy at that time was forbidden; not only were there already too many Italians unemployed, but my residence permit was not for work, but only a temporary visitor’s visa, subject to renewal every few months. If I had were caught ‘at work’, I could be thrown out of the country permanently. Anything I did had to be well hidden from the authorities. However, I gradually developed some ‘free lance’ earnings power through a network of activities which was so varied that it needs explanation at some other point. What did come as a godsend at that time was a Fellowship of the University of Wales, which for two years gave me the finance for further studies.
Looking back now, I think my need for ‘further studies’ was mostly a psychological one. In reality, I already had a good musical preparation, but having wasted so many years, I supposed myself to be inferior in knowledge and sensibility to those who had always been musicians. I know now that most musicians are not very intellectual, or knowledgeable outside their own small world, so I need not have worried on that account. However, through feeling inferior, I felt compelled always to learn and discover even that which was almost intangible. I was eternally looking for some fount of wisdom, inspiration, and creativity which would fill me with what I thought I lacked. As will be seen, this search proved largely fruitless, for the real fount of wisdom and creativity is only within ourselves, if only it can be made to flow, and cannot be passed on from one person to another. Perhaps indeed, it involves a life-long journey of self-discovery and fulfilment. One thing is certain: ‘further studies’ is really an unending occupation, and is not completed in a set period.
The University Fellowship had two requirements which I took too seriously. I should have ignored them altogether. One was that I should study at a ‘recognised institution’, the other that I should become proficient in Welsh. As for the Welsh, I hastened to get a three-volume language course sent out to me, and set about learning as fast as I could. But after struggling for weeks, I found I had got nowhere. The language was quite impossible. I would say I am a tolerably good linguist, as I can speak French, Italian, and Spanish, and I even learned Arabic in Egypt. But I found Welsh unlearnable. Fortunately, the need to become proficient in Welsh became less and less urgent as time passed until I forgot all about it. In any case, nobody ever asked me about my progress.
However, I did try to study at a ‘recognised institution’, even though it was a difficult requirement to fulfil and almost led me into a disastrous situation. I found that Italian Universities did not have music courses, so it seemed that the only possibility I had was to study for a Diploma in Composition at Florence Conservatory. This would have been of little benefit to me, as the Diploma would have been only the same standard of qualification as I already had. Worse still, the government-controlled syllabus was outdated by fifty years, and could have involved me in much tedious and useless work. Also, to enter the Conservatory at all was not easy; in fact I was just beginning to discover the extents to which Italian officialdom will go. I found that the amount of government red tape I had to unwind was a daunting proposition, and the obstacles in my way were beyond reason.
I had to satisfy a mass of regulations, including such essentials as producing certificates of my criminal records, freedom from certain diseases, a Consul’s testimonial of good character, records of my education since I started school in 1920, etc. But the worst requirement of all was that I had to have a certificate of having passed the Italian school-leaving exams at the Elementary Level. Of course, I didn’t have this, so the conservatory admissions officer decided I had to sit the necessary exams (in Italian, Geography, Maths, and History) with all the children who entered the conservatory from elementary schools at the age of thirteen. This proposal was so idiotic that I dropped the whole idea on the spot. Just as well. As we will see, good-fortune had still not forgotten me.
* * *
When we returned to Florence, I went to the English Church on Sundays, and soon discovered they needed an organist. I was keen to start again. so I introduced myself to the Rev. Bailey, Archdeacon of Malta, who was the Anglican priest. And so started a relationship which lasted for the next eight or nine years. In Victorian and Edwardian times, there were so many affluent English in Florence that they built themselves two churches, one each side of the Arno, as if they were two separate parishes. By the time I came on the scene, the church-goers were reduced to about two dozen old ladies, and two or three men, none of them as affluent as their predecessors. However, both churches had fairly good organs, so I could practise as much as I liked. I made such rapid progress that I felt encouraged to take up the instrument seriously once again. As luck would have it, Fernando Germani (of the Sistine Chapel) was starting his summer organ course at the Siena Accademia Chigiana once again after the war’s interruption, so I applied for a place and was asked to go for an interview to demonstrate my playing ability. I prepared two pieces – ‘A Ciaccona in C minor’ by Buxtehude, and the old war-horse, Bach’s ‘Toccata and Fugue in D minor.’ I played these on the magnificent concert organ of the Accademia, and Germani expressed himself as being satisfied, but I think that from that single hearing he saw what I most needed, and concentrated my studies on nothing else but pedal technique and interpretation. My pedal technique was too haphazard. Being based on English concepts, it was only a rag-bag of random usages, and had no real system at all. So Germani concentrated hard on teaching me his principles, and making me practice until I was perfect. I found it quite difficult, but as I appreciated the rationale, I persevered till I had mastered the system. As for my interpretation, Germani saw that I regarded notation as only an approximation of the composer’s intentions, to be deformed as I thought fit. So he brought me round to his ideas of a very firm tempo which produced much more vitality, and was probably nearer the composer’s intentions than my haphazard rhapsodising.
Germani had a most kind and genial personality, and we got on together extremely well. In later years, we met occasionally, especially when he gave a concert I could go to. Perhaps the most valuable thing he gave me was confidence in myself and in my ability as an organist. It seemed that if a man like Germani took me seriously, I was not so bad after all.
* * *
While I was in Siena, I ran into Janni Cristou, a young Greek composer who I had met before, and whose music I admired quite a lot. We agreed that it would be futile to take part in Frazzi’s Composition Course, especially as Cristou thought Lavagnino was infinitely better as a teacher. He had stayed some time at Lavagnino’s home at Gavi, near Genoa, and was most enthusiastic about his teaching qualities and the vitality of his ideas. (In reality, even though Lavagnino was taking the Film Music course at Siena, and in later years became the king of Italian film music, at that time he had hardly got his foot in the studio door. In any case, in 1949, the boom in post-war Italian film making had hardly begun.)
I was rather attracted by the idea of studying a bit with Lavagnino, who was a young man I rather liked, with a pleasant, companionable nature, and quite obviously a vivid artistic personality. So I sought him out at Siena, and we discussed possibilities, ending with an agreement that I should go to Gavi as a paying guest after the Siena courses finished.
Getting to Gavi was not easy. I had to take a train to Genoa, and then a bus which wandered interminably over the Ligurian Alps, climbing over mountain tops, and plunging into ravines for 50 miles, until I felt quite sick. Gavi was a town only fit for backwoodsmen, but I was made most welcome by Lavagnino’s family, though I could hardly understand a word of their dialect. The food too caused me difficulty, it was so spiced, and the Genoese pesto was piled thickly on everything.
On the first morning, Lavagnino started in earnest. He obviously needed money badly, but equally obviously, he was more than prepared to give full value. Each day he would begin a lesson immediately after breakfast and then talk solidly till lunchtime. Then, for a rest and a breath of fresh air, we would go for a walk, and he would talk just the same. On our return, the lesson would be resumed till supper time, and after that we would go to the local cinema (which showed a different Western every night) for an analysis and discussion of the film music.
But twelve to fourteen hours talk a day was too much for me. I was soon completely exhausted and disorientated, especially as the discussions were really monologues. I soon found that though I did not agree with all Lavagnino said, it was best to say nothing, because to express a conflicting opinion brought no satisfaction, only catastrophic consequences. The truth was that Lavagnino was a brilliant, enthusiastic, and imaginative talker. He spared not an ounce of effort in his mammoth homilies. But unfortunately he had nothing concrete to offer, as his ideas were random, completely vague, and inconclusive. Though his lessons would range over the entire length and breadth of music, he quite ignored my particular problems, and all his talk was just straw in the wind. And so, as I searched in vain for something to grasp and hold on to, I became more and more bewildered and confused, until at last my mind would accept no more and I longed to pack up and go home.
I think the real trouble was that Lavagnino himself was going through a crisis of uncertainty, so that his elusive, incomprehensible discussions were really self-searching which may have helped him solve his own crisis, but only confounded me.
Fortunately, I had a good excuse for going back to Florence, because after only three days I became quite ill with tummy trouble. It must have been too much pesto genovese. Whatever it was, it meant an awful journey. I had to catch a bus before dawn, at five in the morning, and my misery was acute as we trundled over the bitterly cold moonlit mountains and down to Genoa. I was not only being crucified with griping pains, I felt most discouraged, with my self-confidence as a composer torn to shreds and scattered in the icy wind. And so my brief episode with Lavagnino ended unhappily. We have since met several times, but I never once referred to his teaching, nor to my rapid departure from Gavi, and my failure to return.
Years later, we had a long chat on the beach at Porto Ercole, where he has a big luxury villa next to that of Queen Juliana of Holland. He told me how, when I went to Gavi, he was almost destitute, and finding great difficulty in getting any work at all. He paid visits to Rome, trying to get work from film directors, even sitting on their doorsteps in the hope of being able to beg a few words. His tenacity of purpose must have paid off, for in the ‘fifties and ‘sixties, he had a monopoly of the best film work and through writing for over three hundred films, he was a very rich man. But he ended by confessing that in all those years he wrote very little real music indeed. Nevertheless, he had few regrets. At least he had done his trade well.
After my adventures in Gavi, I still had to find a ‘recognised institution’ at which I could study, to satisfy the Fellowship requirement. Fortunately, while I was at Siena, I had been told of a course at the Accademia Santa Cecilia in Rome. This highest of all Italian music institutions ran ‘Superior Studies of Perfection’ for those already having completed Conservatory courses, and the course in Composition was taught by no less a celebrity than the famous Ildebrando Pizzetti, the ‘ Ildebrando di Parma’ acclaimed by D’Annunzio.
Having been prevented from entering Florence Conservatory because I had no Italian Elementary School qualifications, I thought it unlikely that I would be accepted for an even higher course, but nevertheless I sent a tentative enquiry to the Accademia secretary. In reply, I was asked to go to Rome to see Pizzetti himself, who was not only teacher of the Composition course, but also Director of the Academy. I was indeed honoured. This was certainly a different welcome from the red tape of Florence Conservatory. So I set off for Rome with a bulging portfolio of compositions under my arm.
The Accademia was in Via dei Greci, just off the central Via del Corso, and I was surprised to find that it was not the splendid palace I expected, but seemed to be a few tatty rooms occupied only by a porter. However, after being ushered along dark, silent corridors, we entered a large room, suddenly bursting with sunlight, a room filled not only with an immense grand piano, and desks, chairs, couches, libraries and cupboards of an epoch long gone by, but also with music piled up in every square inch of available space, music never dusted since Garibaldi entered Rome in the Risorgimento. And there was the great maestro. Unexpectedly small. As he sat behind an immense desk, he seemed to consist of little else but a pair of thick, gold-rimmed, spectacles, and a black velvet jacket. He had only a frail form, a thin monastic face, with white hair combed stiffly back from his scalp, and pale, weak eyes peering from his thick lenses. The black velvet jacket was in fact an affectation from which he could never tear himself. Indeed, I have never seen him dress in anything other than his velvet jacket and black pinstripe trousers, even to conduct the premiã´re of his latest opera. In short, he was very much a creature of habit. He was in reality an elderly man, living in the past (his first opera success had been as long ago as 1913), and therefore was well set in his ways, both as a man and as a musician. (To me, he looked formidably old, but later, I found that he was still not yet seventy.)
He gave me a kind welcome, though his voice was weak, and I noticed his inability to pronounce ‘r’ (possibly an affectation, common in ‘posh’ Italian). He said very little indeed, in fact we had hardly exchanged the barest pleasantries when he asked to see my compositions. I gave him a bundle of scores, and he opened the first one and stared at the first page for an agonizingly long time. At last, with a deep sigh, he turned the page and continued his long scrutiny. I was getting anxious for him to look at the other scores too, as I thought there were much better things to look at, but he seemed so engrossed in what he saw, it would have been rude to interrupt. As time went by, I felt smaller and smaller, and less and less worthy of such concentrated and laborious attention. At the end of about twenty minutes, he looked up, and said slowly, “The Course begins on December the tenth”. I was quite astonished. I would have willingly confessed to being too presumptuous in applying for the Course, but instead, I was accepted without question by one of highest musical authorities in Italy!
* * *
And so began my long stay in Rome. It was so extremely difficult to get accommodation because of the coming ‘Holy Year’, but fortunately I was able to live with Len Townsend, an ex-army friend of mine who worked at the British Embassy, and who was good enough to put up with my comings and goings over the next two years. For I found it best not to stay in Rome all the time, but to go home to Florence on Thursdays and return on Mondays.
When I arrived at the Accademia on December 10th, I was told that Pizzetti was ill, and he had asked for me to go to his flat in the suburbs (this was to happen often enough). When I got there I found him sitting at an old upright piano, whose keys were bespattered everywhere with ink. Obviously, he composed at the keyboard, which rather surprised me. He was studying a score of Menotti’s opera ‘The Consul’, which had made quite a furore around that time. I also saw that he had been looking at some Puccini scores as well. I was surprised that a man of his standing needed to learn anything from the works of others, especially somewhat superficial pieces such as the Menotti. Could it be that he was looking for the secrets of Menotti’s success? If Pizzetti did nothing else, he made me work. He wanted to see me three times a week, and each time expected something new. So I had to learn to compose extremely quickly, and even get work done on the train. I also had to keep ahead of schedule, so as to have something up my sleeve for when I had nothing prepared. The result was a tremendous mass of compositions, most of them too hastily thought out and inevitably lacking in substance. However, I did write worth-while things now and again. I did a Clarinet Concerto and a Concerto for String Orchestra, both of which I conducted at the Teatro Argentino with the permanent orchestra of the Accademia in its normal public concerts. Another big piece I did – ‘Cantata da Requiem’ for baritone, choir and orchestra, was taken up by the London ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts), played at the Festival Hall, and broadcast by the BBC. Unfortunately, I never heard it, nor did I hear the broadcast of my big choral piece on Psalm 137.
I also wrote music for a documentary film, ‘Il Serchio’, based on a poem by Giulietta’s uncle Giosué, describing the course of the river Serchio from the high Garfagnana down to the sea near Pisa. (These twenty-minute films were obligatory in the Italian cinema at that time, as they were regarded as educational.) I went up the Garfagnana to get two days inspiration on location, and then nothing happened for months. Then the music was wanted in a week. I almost killed myself. From then on everything was chaos. I recorded the music with players in Florence, and then re-recorded it in Rome. Then I was so impressed by the big talk of the technicians in Rome that I left them to do the dubbing onto film. A great error. In the end, the film came out with all the music in the wrong place, and a bad silence in the middle! I learned a lot from that experience – never leave a thing to others, do everything yourself. When I showed the film music to Pizzetti he was most interested, but said something strange – that he never realised I could write ‘like that’. As he never said what he meant by ‘that’, I was left rather puzzled, but too respectful to ask for a clearer statement. This was typical of much of our indecisive communication.
Unfortunately, in the first year, I was Pizzetti’s only pupil. This was because the Accademia was only just opening up again after being closed during the War, hindered no doubt by the obstacles of Italian officialdom. (The government ‘Articles’ laying down educational rules make such forbidding reading that they can hardly be read at all.) Instead, during the following year I was joined by Franco Donatoni of Verona (later Professor of Composition at Milan Conservatory) and Giorgio Sicilianos of Athens (who became Head of Music at Athens Radio). We became firm friends, and their companionship made an enormous difference to my rather lonely existence. Better still, as we went to Pizzetti’s lessons together if he was ill at home, we could see each other’s work, and learn a great deal from each other’s methods and ideas. Sicilianos had much to give through his sound aesthetic judgement, but I found Donatoni more valuable. I would hear something new and attractive in his music, ask him how it was done, and in two minutes everything was explained, and I possessed a new extension to my musical vocabulary. Now and then, I did the same for him, so that our help was mutual.
So I learned much more from Donatoni and Sicilianos than I did from Pizzetti. For they looked towards the future, while his mind dwelt in the past. He rejected any music which was more than mildly modern, and never attempted to introduce us to techniques used by advanced composers such as Stravinsky, Bartok and Schoenberg. In fact, if he ever said anything about them at all, it was never complimentary. The only time I ever saw Pizzetti emerge from his habitual emotionless state was when Donatoni mentioned the word ‘Stravinsky’. This caused the maestro to fly into a violent tirade, which brought a purple colour to his cheeks, and left him trembling. On another occasion, he had us listen to a broadcast of Bartok’s ‘Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta’ as an example of ‘bad’ music, though he omitted to say why this was so. I suppose that to him, it was self-evident, but I rather liked it. I once showed him a score of Walton’s ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’ as an example of our English choral music, but after a cursory glance, he recoiled from it with scorn. It was the work of an outright amateur!
I think I had to see Pizzetti far too often. With three lessons a week it was impossible to have enough time and thought to bring ideas to maturity. But we had to satisfy the regulations, which stipulated such a number of lessons a session that they became a steeplechase. However, the results were not completely negative. The need to satisfy Pizzetti’s demand for large quantities of work in itself urged on self-tuition and creativity, which is positive and productive. Though Pizzetti was never unkind, I was often disturbed by his apparent lack of emotive reactions, not realising that his normal facial expression was immobile. I never knew of his real affection for me until years later. When he conducted the premiã´re of his opera ‘Ifigenia’ at Florence towards 1960, I was there, but I felt some hesitation about seeing him after the performance. However, I went backstage, just to congratulate him briefly, but as soon as he saw me, he rushed forward and hugged me in his arms with so much joy that he burst into tears. For a minute, he was quite overcome, and then hastened to introduce me to the astonished onlookers as if I were his long-lost son. Perhaps, after all, he had a regard for me which I never suspected.
* * *
While I was in Rome, I came to know the city well and there wasn’t a Roman temple, theatre, or monument I didn’t visit. Indeed, where I lived with Townsend was just across the road from the Coliseum and the Arch of Constantine, while the Forum was not far away, so that I had to go alongside it every time I went to and from the Accademia.
My favourite morning stroll in search of inspiration was in the nearby Trajan’s Park, where I would struggle to formulate musical ideas suitable for presentation to Pizzetti. One morning as I walked along the boundary, I was astonished to see Janni Cristou on the other side. Apparently he lived in the Egyptian Embassy nearby, so we went there to talk about music, and hear some of his pieces. To me, they sounded brilliant and highly original, just what one would expect from such a polished and refined personality. Naturally, we discussed techniques till lunchtime, but before then I was in for a strange experience. He had one of the new wire recorders (before tape came in) and without me being aware, recorded my voice. Then he played it back, and I was astounded. It seemed impossible that the husky, north-country voice could be mine. It sounded awful. For a while, Cristou and I had some fruitful meetings, which I always looked forward to, but all-too-soon he had to go back to Greece. Sicilianos told me years later that Cristou had a short, brilliant career in Athens, and was then killed in a car crash.
* * *
It is impossible to leave my travels to Rome without recalling my train journeys. From Florence to Rome there were different trains, very slow, slow, fast, or very fast, according to what one could pay, so in choosing to travel by ‘diretto’ I combined economy with a relatively quick four-hour journey. I always travelled third class, in compartments crowded with eight passengers and their masses of luggage, which could even include stinking cages of hens or piglets up on the racks. However, as Italians are excellent and responsive talkers, these journeys were not without interest, for they were always enlivened with animated conversations, debates and disputes, which made the time pass quickly. When the corridors were too crowded, I sometimes went in a first class compartment (keeping one eye open for the ticket collector), but nobody ever spoke a word. It was miserable, like the UK. The third class conversations were almost always about politics, and as there were always a good proportion of Communists, the disputes between them and Christian Democrats, Liberals, Republicans and Socialists were often acrimonious. I liked to take part in these conversations, but had to hide the fact that I was English, if only to avoid the complications that would certainly arise. I was therefore always seeking to be perfect in my Italian, and to have a good pronunciation, so that my fellow passengers, mostly being dialect-speakers, would not be aware of my origins. Occasionally I was asked where I came from, so I would say ‘Iceland’ in order to stop any further questions except the obvious one – “Is it cold?”
One day, a young man from Bari got in at Rome. He had just come back from America, and soon bored us stiff with the usual tales of streets paved with gold. So as to strike us down with the greatness of American power, he had an American magazine with pictures of US atomic submarines. As I was next to him, he translated into Italian for me the captions in English below each picture, and I pretended astonished admiration. I didn’t like to disillusion him. However, after an hour, I got tired of his harangues and took a book from my bag to show I was no longer interested. This was Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. As soon as I began to read, he leaned over to have a look, and exclaimed in astonishment “Can you read English?” I said, “Of course. I AM English!” This was nasty of me, but it kept him quiet for a while.
* * *
Some months after I finished at the Accademia, I had a nice surprise. I received a letter to say I had been awarded the Don Luigi Sturzo Prize for ‘exceptional perfection in composition;. This was most welcome, as it involved a nice sum of money.
When I was still in Rome, I decided to try my hand again at the journalism I had begun in the desert. I wrote to Martin Cooper, editor of ‘The Musical Times’, asking if he would be interested in articles from Italy, beginning with the script I enclosed – about a thousand words on the result of the ‘Italy Prize’, a competition for a radio opera organized by RAI ( the Italian Radio). From then on, I wrote regularly from Florence, for the next eight or nine years, not only covering the Florence Festival, but the Festivals at Venice and Perugia, and events at La Scala in Milan and operas and concerts in Rome.
From this small beginning, I expanded my activity enormously. I soon realised that I had a monopoly of the market, for in all Italy there didn’t seem to be anybody else who could write about music in English. I soon had queries from other editors, all wanting my scripts from Italy, until I had to make a choice and eliminate those in which I had little interest. I even heard from Australia. In the end my main clients were ‘The musical Times’, ‘Opera’ and ‘The Observer’ in London, while in the USA I wrote for ‘Metropolitan Opera News’, ‘Musical America’, ‘The New York Herald Tribune’ and Schirmer’s ‘The Musical Quarterly’. Of course every editor had his preferred writing style, so that I not only had to vary my writing considerably, but in order to give satisfaction, I had to study the editor’s own stylistic ideals, and produce something similar which would not demand a lot of troublesome editing. An editor doesn’t care to spend his days altering scripts. Unfortunately, it was not possible to write about the same event for all my clients, so the subject-matter needed much variety. I learned this lesson when the editor of ‘Opera’ complained that I written for him more or less the same as I had written for ‘Musical America’. However, as these paid very little, I didn’t care particularly. Indeed, journalistic pay never keeps the wolf from the door, and the only worth-while money I got was from ‘Metropolitan Opera News’, which paid very well indeed.
With this journalistic activity came demands for my work as a translator of texts in music publications and books of all kinds, and even setting words of Italian Operas and choral pieces into English versions which suitably fitted the music. O found this kind of thing rather tiresome, even though it was better paid than journalism. It is not creative writing, so to me it was without interest.
I soon found that my writing had a knock-0n effect which I had not expected. People began to write to me, or would just turn up at the door, all of them wanting help, advice, asking for introductions, expecting solutions, etc. I even had the great Dr. Kalmus, creator of Universal Editions, call on me seeking help and advice. (He did pay me in a way, by looking through my music, and advising me hoe it could be better prepared for publication.
Inevitably, I began to be in demand for a more permanent form of writing than journalism. Indeed, I had gradually become dissatisfied with writing articles. They were too ephemeral, being read and forgotten within a few days. I longed for something more substantial, and I got the opportunity when Howard Hartog asked me write on Italian Contemporary Music for his symposium ‘European Music in the 20th Century’, published by Routledge & Kegan Paul and then by Penguin Editions. This started demands from other publishers, until I climbed to the heights of writing for Grove, and the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Of course, in the end, at some point in the future, I cared no more to write for others and decided to write only for myself. From then on, I gave up writing articles and concentrated on my own books, which have proved to be much more permanent. (My first book is still selling after 30 years). But in the meantime, journalism gave me the chance to become known, and to get to know many other musicians, editors and publishers. Without it, things would have been much more difficult.
While I was still in Rome, I got the chance to cover something really big. A very ambitious Congress of Contemporary Music was organised, lasting a fortnight with concerts everywhere, especially at the RAI and the opera house. There was a total of sixty-four pieces in the programmes, and composers such as Stravinsky, Milhaud and Copland came to take part. I found myself lodged in the Hotel Claudio with the English party, which included well-known composers and musicologists such as Edmund Rubbra, Humphrey Searle, Racine Fricker, Lockspeiser, etc., and we all ate together, so I was able to note that they did not all have good table manners. Perhaps they had been to public schools. However, I was gratified that everybody accepted me without question, and treated me not only as an equal, but as quite an authority. At least I could help them order the right food, get in the right bus, and not get lost in the back streets.
Of course, the chance to hear so much modern music was a great education to me, though there was so much of it, I had to go back to Florence for a while to have a rest. I a fortuitous way, I even got to know Stravinsky. The first morning of the Congress was a meeting in the Senate Palace on the Campidoglio behind the well-known ‘Wedding Cake’, a meeting in which nobody had any interest whatsoever. Nothing but talk. However, afterwards everybody rushed off for lunch, and as I went down the enormous staircase to descend to Piazza Venezia, I became aware that an old man next to me seemed a bit forlorn and abandoned. It was Stravinsky. As we got to the edge of the pavement, we both looked with disquiet at the charging mass of roaring traffic, which never stopped, and at last he turned to me and said in French, “How do we get across here?” I said it was best not to try, but though I knew several ways round the chaos, it was best to know in which direction he wished to go. It turned out that what he wanted most was something to eat, as he had had no breakfast, and he would be pleased if I could tell him where to go. After much discussion as to what kind of place he wanted, and what he wanted to eat, I offered to take him to my own favourite place nearby in Via Merulana, which though very simple and cheap, had excellent food. And so we ate saltimbocca alla romana together, and he enjoyed it enormously. At a certain point, I mentioned the first performance of his Septet, which was to tale place that evening. This work had already created much speculation, as it was Stravinsky’s first essay in using the serial technique originated by his arch-enemy Schoenberg. Stravinsky obviously didn’t want to say much about it, but I could see that he was anxious about the result, as if he were not confident in his own mind. So I let the matter drop. Then I put him in a taxi to go to his hotel for a nap. (In fact the Septet was not a resounding success, and has since been forgotten.)
After this encounter, every time he saw me, he was most kind, and had me be present at rehearsals when he conducted the RAI orchestra in the final evening’s concert. This was a bit of a shambles, due to his confusing habit of beating out a full bar before the first bar of any music. In the concert, there was a catastrophe. To begin his ‘Norwegian Moods’, which is in 6/4 time with the cor anglais solo beginning on the last beat of the first bar, Stravinsky’s method was to beat 6 before the first bar, and then 5 more beats before the cor anglais entry, a total of 11 beats. I doubted whether all the players could count up to eleven, and I was not mistaken. The soloist and the orchestra got it partly right and partly wrong in different ways, so the piece had to be stopped after some time, as it was evident that concord would never be reached, and a new start was needed. In the meantime, the broadcast was suspended and didn’t start again until far too late. I later saw him do just the same at the Venice Festival in ‘Canticum Sacrum’, where there is a very similar start to a movement. Apart from this eccentricity, I thought he was and excellent conductor.
After the concert, I walked home with my friend the Florentine, Carlo Prosperi, who had been in charge of the broadcast. At a certain point he said, “I think tonight, we have seen the greatest composer of the century”. At that time, I though he was wrong. But by now, I am certain he was right.
In the end, my script was inevitable too long. There was far too much to cover and I was disappointed to have big chunks blue-pencilled mercilessly. I learned that if I wanted to avoid cuts, I had to write only about the items of greatest interest, and forget everything else. Of course the other musts of journalism are that one must write with ZEST, CLARITY, BREVITY, and more ZEST.
When I came to write the chapter in Italian contemporary music for Howard Hartog, I had to start a considerable amount of research, and finding that there was very little printed information available, the only solution was to get in direct contact with the composers themselves. I thought at first this would be difficult, but there was no problem. I hadn’t realised that since the ‘thirties, Italian composers had been cut off from the outside world both by political hostilities and the War. Some of them had no recognition abroad at all: they were quite unknown outside Italy. So when I approached them, I was welcomed with open arms and given the greatest collaboration, even by such grand old men as Gianfrancesco Malipiero (famous not only as the main neo-classical writer, but for his rediscovery and editing of almost all Monteverdi’s work, and Vivaldi’s Concertos). I would visit them, or they would come to see me, whichever I preferred.
For me, there were great personal benefits in all these contacts. I was learning an awful lot at considerable speed. What interested me most was not so much the history of composers’ works, but heir methods of working, and the techniques which produced their particular forms of art. Inevitably, analysis and evaluation became my expert abilities. I mad lasting friendships with some composers, particularly Luciano Berio, Roman Vlad, Bruno Maderna, Camillo Togni and Luigi Nono. Their methods of working influenced my own work considerably, possibly excessively. But more of that later.
All this research was not in vain, for eventually I wrote many special studies of individual Italian composers in articles for the influential ‘The Musical Quarterly’, while I was commissioned to write parts of several books, one even by the great Sir Malcolm Sargent. Not that all this activity made piles of money. Strangely enough, I made most money when Penguin books published Hartog’s book without asking my permission to use my contribution. As I still held copyright of my own work, I threatened them with legal action and this single letter immediately brought me far better payment than I have ever seen, before or since.
* * * *
When I started research for my chapter in Hartog’s book, I found that there was a most polemic situation among composers. Some were violently against serialism (12-tone technique), others thought any music not using serialism was worth less than the paper it was written on. I found myself squeezed between warring factions, and obliged to make a choice. For better or worse, I chose to be pro-serialist, for reasons I will explain later. It was not that I could afford to sit on the fence, for it had been knocked down before I even noticed it. The truth was that after the War, composers felt the need to begin again, to reject the styles and techniques which had brought them to the War (mainly neo-classicalism), and to begin anew with a new music and new ethos.
Strangely enough, we were all dealing with something we didn’t know much about. The names ‘Schoenberg’ and ‘Webern’ were mythically heroic, but as their music was still only just being published, and was hardly ever played, we were ignorant to a very large degree. We had no idea how unattractive Schoenberg can be, nor how Webern’s music, so intellectually appealing on paper, is really facelessly enigmatic. It took a long time for this reality to be revealed. However, we were nevertheless fortunate in that serialism, if used with artistry and feeling, can still produce something beautiful and aesthetically supreme.
This was probably why Stravinsky was anxious about his Septet. I turning to serialism as a composing technique he may have been aware that some of his great individuality was being sacrificed, that the system had corroded his creative spirit. For a number of years after that, he had works commissioned by the Venice Festival, and I heard the first performances of them all. They were all serial works, but to me they were not to be compared with his music between ‘Firebird’ and ‘Symphonies for Wind Instruments’ that is, between 1910 and 1920. To me beyond any doubt, those were the greatest works of the century. If only he had kept on without change, as he was then. Why must we all ‘advance’ instead of staying at our best?
After I left Pizzetti, I was still not satisfied. Though I was really well enough prepared as a composer, I felt there was still some secret which eluded me. I later realised that put simply, what I was always searching for was the secret of inspiration and creativity, as if it could be passed on from one person to another. I think that I also felt the secret was partly bound up with techniques, so that I was always exploring every possible avenue which may lead me to the great discovery. Of course, all that was absurd. I would have done far better if at a certain point I had made the decision to adopt whatever idiom I most preferred, and then written a good corpus of works without any further searching. This has been what most sane composers have done for centuries. But unfortunately, it is exactly what I didn’t do, for I embarked on yet another long journey of exploration.
I was faced with a dilemma. I had heard Dallapiccola’s opera ‘Il Prigioniero’ (The Prisoner) when it was first performed in Florence, and while some parts were too dense and stressful for my liking, other passages seemed to be just the kind of sound I had long looked for – a mysterious, complex sound with an intangible, enigmatic harmony which I found intensely beautiful. Unfortunately, Dallapiccola’s technique was said to involve the use of Schoenberg’s serialism, so everyone in Florence regarded him as a kind of devil sprouting horns. Florence is not a progressive town from a musical point of view, and is particularly anti-germanic in its artistic attitudes, so that Dallapiccola was almost an outcast, especially at the Conservatory, where his only position was merely as a piano teacher for the 3rd grade. To cap it all, he was not a Florentine at all, but originated in some barbaric part of Yugoslavia (actually in Istria, when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). I think he was quite friendless at the Conservatory, and perhaps through this, his manner could be prickly and belligerent.
Of course, I already knew Dallapiccola because of the few orchestration lessons he had given me, and with which I had not been too satisfied. Nevertheless, I decided I must get to know something about serialism, and approached him once again, to arrange lessons. As it happened, he was just on the point of leaving Florence for the summer holidays, so he advised me to read a couple of books before we met again in the autumn. These were two books in French by Renã´ Leibowitz –‘Introduction a la Musique de Douze Sons’ and ‘Schoenberg et Son á´cole’. Both books were very recent (1949) and were truly excellent, though laborious, in fact the ‘Introduction’ is quite a tough nut to crack. The greater part of the book is dedicated to a note-by-note analysis of each of the twelve movements of ‘Variations for Orchestra, Op.31’ and spares the reader no effort in the dense and repetitive script which occupies over a hundred pages. Unfortunately, I read this first and got indigestion. The other book is much more readable, and more informative about Berg and Webern, as well as giving a less obscure picture of Schoenberg’s works. By the time I had finished these books I knew all I needed to know about serialism, except for the most vital fact – that no system or technique can in itself produce musicality, much less the work of genius. Unfortunately, Leibowitz forgot to mention this.
However, I soon had proof for myself. Having been seduced most by Webern’s intellectualisms, which have quite an appeal in that once a certain systematic pattern or plan is created, the rest of the music can follow almost automatically, I fell for such an ingenious concept, and wrote an extended piece for organ. When I tried it out on the organ in the Anglican Church, the result was brutal in the extreme. Horrific. This puzzled me enormously, so I rang my friend Alvaro Company, who I thought may have some ideas. He put his finger on my error immediately, pointing out that it is not the system which creates beauty, indeed on its own it may only produce ugliness. Instead, beauty can only come from within ourselves; indeed what I had long looked for – the fount of inspiration and creativity – can be discovered nowhere but in our own minds. There may be many stimulants – other works of art or other pieces of music – but the real source is only in ourselves. Later on, it seemed so obvious and simple, but at that time, to me it was still obscure.
That summer, I not only read the Leibowitz books, but bought the score of Dallapiccola’s ‘Il Prigioniero’, and examined the work in detail from end to end. I found a very different brand of serialism than that described by Leibowitz. The music had a more conventional look, with a smooth and refined harmony which appealed to me very much. Though it had the total-chromaticism of serialism, the harmony was without the brutism which was all-too-common with the Schoenberg School. The actual musical styles in the opera were quite varied, ranging over Italian music since medieval times. Some voice solos seemed to derive from Gregorian chant, choral pieces from renaissance polyphony, while most of the atmosphere was very much in the ‘verismo’ manner. In fact, the opening orchestral flourish was very similar to the first bars of ‘La Bohème’. Altogether, I was much more favourably impressed by Dallapiccola’s opera, than with anything I had found in the Leibowitz books, and I was looking forward to learning a lot from him.
Unfortunately, I was to be disappointed. Perhaps it was my fault. I should have done nothing but ask questions, delve into whatever I thought he could clarify, and demand precise answers. Instead I left him to lead the way, and we got lost. (Dallapiccola is said by some to be an excellent teacher, but even though eventually we became firm friends, I could seldom get a grasp of precise, decisive information, or guess at a well-defined method in his teaching. I doubt if he was an organised teacher at all.) However, it takes time to discover in which direction things are going. Dallapiccola disliked frequent lessons at fixed intervals. He preferred to see me only when I had prepared something substantial, so every few weeks I would see him once I had completed a fairly large work. The result was catastrophic. Instead of assessing the significance of the complete work before examining small details – as should be done in evaluating any work of art – his attention would fix on some minor point, and from that moment any hope of him giving a constructive criticism of my work as a whole was lost. He had an infuriating habit which used to annoy me no end. He would open my score, and after a brief period, fix his attention on a few notes, or a bar or two. Then he would go to his music cupboard and after much searching, find a score which he then put on the piano and played. He never explained why he played it at all. The exact relevance of this escaped me, until one day I was so dissatisfied that I asked what he wanted to illustrate. The answer was involved, but not at all clear. I can only assume that the music I had written was probably similar in some way to that which he played on the piano, but it is difficult to see how this could help me in any way, except to show how somebody else had already done the same thing, but much better. I found it all frustrating and discouraging. It would seem that, yet again, I was getting nowhere pretty fast.
The truth is, Dallapiccola became over-involved with unimportant details, tending to draw conclusions from small matters without assessing the nature or value of the whole composition. Also, his teaching lacked organization, for we always seemed to follow, almost at a hazard, a confused path without establishing any specific goals at which to aim. This was unfortunate, for Dallapiccola could have taught me a lot, but as the months went by, I increasingly felt a lack of accomplishment, and so gradually ceased my lessons altogether. Instead, Dallapiccola’s own scores taught me far more than he did himself. Which shows that self-tuition is better teaching than any other. However, I think there was a special personal reason why Dallapiccola could not help me at that time. He had reached a crisis point himself, which he must have been struggling to resolve. His early works in the serial technique had been conceived in what he thought to be the serial ‘method’ of Schoenberg, but in reality were far from being true to the ‘correct’ style. (Nevertheless, to me, these have been his most valid, original and inspired pieces.) It was only in the ‘fifties, when Webern’s scores at last became posthumously available, that Dallapiccola could see how far he was from what was then regarded as the paragon of serialism. He could at last see that compared with the intellectual perfection of Webern’s highly sculptured rationalizations; his own work had been conceived in a much less formal way – spontaneously, freely, and with loose, informal constructions. Probably this must have been quite a shock to Dallapiccola, who, if nothing else, regarded himself as an intellectual of no mean order.
From that point, (probably just when we were meeting), he abandoned his own original style, and searched to incorporate Webern’s constructivisms into his own idiom. This meant a radical change, giving up the free, lyrical flow of his previous music, and constructing with the rigid cell structures of the Webern manner. He must have suffered agonies of indecision before rejecting many composing methods which had stood him in good stead until then, and it is my belief that from then on, his music suffered accordingly.
However, it must have been that the new rationalization suited his highly intellectual attitudes and gave him satisfaction, though I sometimes wondered if these were only a facade to hide some sense of inferiority. He tended to talk in the high manner of a German philosopher, labouring obscure Teutonic concepts which were beyond the comprehension of my humble mentality. Or he would delve into the Classics, throwing out abundant quotations in classical Greek. I was stricken speechless. Was this meant as normal conversation, or was its real purpose only to astonish me with his erudition? If so, why did he feel the need to impress me? Whatever the reason, as a way of teaching, it was highly counterproductive, for good teaching should throw light on darkness, and make the most obscure ideas become lucidly clear. That is good teaching, not Germanic philosophising and Greek mystification. Perhaps after all, the best thing Dallapiccola gave me was a strong aversion for obscurity, and a compelling desire for illuminating clarity.
Looking back, what had my composition teachers taught me? In the end, they seemed to have been largely unprofitable, disorganised, even befuddling. Worse still – a grievous waste of time. Self-tuition, with an understanding, guiding hand, would have been far more efficient and profitable. Perhaps, in the end, my somewhat negative experiences did serve a good purpose. They must have helped me improve my own teaching when the time came for that.
* * *
In later years, my relationship with Dallapiccola improved enormously, though he was always a bit enigmatic to me. Perhaps it was his origins. His father was a school headmaster in an Austrian-ruled province. His family experienced the humiliation and suffering of deportation to Graz in Austria during the First World War. When he came to Florence, he married a Jewess, and in the German occupation of 1943-5, even though Italians were favourable to Jews, he must have lived in fear for his wife. All this is shown in his use of imprisonment and liberation as the main themes in his music. In summer, we both spent the August holidays at Vittoria Apuana, almost next door to each other. This meant I may have to stumble into a high-powered conversation at any moment. In Florence, I used to walk him home from the Conservatory, all the way up Via Bolognese, because I knew he liked to be able to talk. I said very little. Most of what he said was polemic, but I learned to say little and be a good listener. I was very careful not to set him on fire by using careless words like ‘Stravinsky’ and ‘John Cage’. I used to wonder if he thought me a bit dumb, so I was surprised to find that when the editor of ‘La Rassegna Musicale’, (the most important musical quarterly in Italy) wished to publish a special essay for Dallapiccola’s sixtieth birthday (1964) he asked me to write it, saying the composer himself had put forward my name. This happened again on other occasions, so I was content that he thought me not so dumb after all. Occasionally, he came out to supper when my friends and I went out to eat an evening meal in the country. He even brought Laura, his wife, but I was never comfortable with her, for she never seemed able to unbend and relax. I never heard the maestro tell a joke, or express a crudity, so I was most surprised to get a letter from him years later (1964) about a concert performance in Florence of a piece of Morton Feldman, in which he revealed that he did have a sense both of refined humour and Tuscan rough humour. It is worth translating word for word, though I should explain that the piece referred to, ‘Durations’ (for ‘cello and piano), has very few notes indeed, and a very abundant amount of silence: “Now during the piece of Feldman, that is, while poor Gomez scraped a string of his ‘cello with his bow, and while his wife, with her bottom in the air, searched inside the piano to pluck the strings, one of the audience had a violent fit of laughter. A fit he couldn’t control. For a while he tried to hold it in by stuffing a handkerchief in his mouth; but in the end the strain was excessive and relieved only by a yielding of the anal sphincter. The fact is, in public, he let go a resounding passage of wind (recorded with the music on the electromagnetic tape). So this is where we have got to: after a season of concerts, that which is most talked about is a fart.”. . . .
When, in 1978, the Italian Embassy in London arranged a Memorial Exhibition: ‘Luigi Dallapiccola: The Man and his Music’, I was asked to send a letter for exhibition, so I could not resist sending the above, especially because it must be almost unique in his writings and reveals a human side to his character which we never suspected. However, it must have been too strong for the organizers. They exhibited only what he had written on the reverse, which was a largely incomprehensible reference to what Thibaudet reported about a remark of Mallarmé – nothing of personal or musical significance at all, and telling us nothing of Dallapiccola’s particular sense of humour.
In Florence, at first we lived in Via Faenza, within a hundred yards of the station, but by 1950, we had found a much more spacious and suitable ‘villa’ in Via Marconi – just on the edge of the town, on the way up to Fiesole. The house was really a reproduction of a renaissance country castle, quite unique in Florence, and was far superior to anything else in the district. Giulietta had found it, and as the owner was desperate to sell and had no other buyer (it was too big for family use), she struck a good bargain and we bought it for a song. With Gullino’s help, I converted it so that the offices were on the ground floor, Giulietta’s parents lived on the first, we on the second, and the maids slept in a couple of rooms in the attic. The villa had been built originally by the Berta family, well-known industrialists, and had been the home of Giovanni Berta, who was killed tragically by the communists on one of the bridges over the Arno in the early ‘twenties.’
We were very happy there for the next ten years, and when eventually the villa was sold fifteen years after that, we were able to get an excellent price. Giulietta’s mother Lilia’s embroidery business, called ‘Ditta Lilia Borsi’, dealt in hand-embroidered goods – mostly lingerie, table linen, and bed linen. The embroidery was done by country women who had been taught by Lilia and her sisters, and they would come to Via Marconi for designs and materials, do the work at home, and then bring back the finished articles. Sometimes I would help by taking work out to the country on my motor bike or in the car, trips I always enjoyed once I knew the way. ’The finished articles were sold in various ways, direct to customers, through several agents all over Italy, at the firm’s own shops, or by organized visits to Sicily, where the demand for large trousseaus was extensive. Gradually too, we created a big export trade in which I looked after the correspondence, invoicing and customs formalities (which were formidable). Altogether, I was in touch with 42 countries, but our main exports were to the Belgian Congo and a buyer in Switzerland, who re-exported to Germany and Eastern Europe.
Our trade with the UK was a disaster. We got a very big order from a Manchester firm, but just when it was ready for export, the Labour government devalued sterling by 32%, and the order was cancelled. It took years to sell off all those unwanted goods, because there were too many of the same items. At one point we got a request from China for a complete set of samples, which we sent off with great hopes, not realising that through this, our designs could be copied and our business doomed by the cheapness of Chinese exports. To me, all this export work was a nuisance, but I did it willingly though rather hastily, as it interrupted work on my music. Giulietta took it very seriously, and often kept busy till almost midnight, for it was a creative work she really loved. The designs that she did, and those of the simple country women, were beautiful creations, but most artistic of them all was Giulietta’s father, Gino, who would spend hours producing his designs of genius with great care and meticulousness.
* * *
While we still lived in Via Faenza, Laura, my sister-in-law, became engaged to a young man from Verona. They had met while she was on holiday at Riccione, on the Adriatic coast, so not long afterwards he was invited to meet the family in Florence. Dino Bortolaso arrived with his brother Enio, and he was approved of by Laura’s parents, Lilia and Gino. Dino had a degree in economics and Enio was an engineer, and both of them worked in a firm run by their father, Ernesto Bortolaso, who I was soon to meet. Naturally, Dino’s family had to be seen and approved of, and as Gino, being of a reserved disposition, preferred to avoid such formalities, I was appointed as the family representative.
So a few weeks later, Giulietta and I set off in the train for Verona, with the task of inspecting the family and reporting back. Old Ernesto surprised me somewhat. He was a bit of a backwoodsman, speaking a Venetian dialect I could hardly understand, and making no attempt to speak proper Italian (Venetian is so full of ‘z’, it sounds like a swarm of bees). As he had a lot to say, I was often left floundering by the wayside, bewildered, with no idea of what he was talking about. Nevertheless, we got on like a haystack on fire. He looked thoroughly weathered, and had a hole in his skull which looked as if he had hit himself with an axe. It turned out that his business started as tree-felling up in the Alps, but later on he had made a small fortune making prefabricated barrack huts for the Italian Army when Italy fought Austria in the First World War. Then he built a factory in Verona which turned out wooden wine crates by the hundred thousand. (Wine was always exported in light wooden crates, until cardboard boxes took over in the ‘sixties.) Later, when Ernesto retired, Dino and Enio enlarged the firm considerably, and concentrated on plastic buildings designed on a module principle, which were erected everywhere, from Saudi Arabia to California. The main event of our visit was the quite formidable supper which must have been prepared to make a favourable impression. Unfortunately, I was quite unready for such a massive feast. As I had always been taught to leave my plate clean, I tried gallantly to eat my way through a gargantuan mass of food, and failed miserably. I had still no experience of a good old-fashioned Italian meal, when, after several hors-d’oeuvres, there is a dish of soup and a plate of pasta. Then there may be fish, followed by meats, first boiled, then fried, and finally roasted. Then there are different dishes of sweets, cheeses, and so on. Later I discovered that it is perfectly correct and well-mannered just to taste each dish, say a few words of great appreciation, and then let it be carried away, still almost untouched. However, with Ernest’s constant and insistent encouragement, I was in great difficulty. I am no great eater, so a dozen different dishes and a lack of experience defeated me completely.
However, it was the wines which really brought me down to earth with a crashing thud. Ernesto would open one bottle, pour me a glass, and then soon leap up and rush off to bring back what he considered a better wine. Stupidly, I felt it my duty to drink whatever he gave me. In this way, we went through thirteen bottles and I was worse than plastered, I was under the table. How we got back to the hotel, I have no idea. I suppose we were driven there. Once in the bedroom, I collapsed, but becoming aware that the shutters and curtains were wide open, I got up to close them, but as my vision seemed to be spinning in circles, my balance was also in a state of revolution, so I had to grab the curtains in an effort to stay upright. The pelmets gave way. Everything came down in choking clouds of dust, and as I blindly grabbed the shutters for support, they too came crashing down on top of me. I crawled from under the wreckage and went to bed as I was, without considering for a moment that a shower was needed. Unfortunately, I was wakened up only two hours later by the blinding sun striking right into my eyes.
Back in Florence, I had to make my report. I could hardly say that old Ernesto drank an awful lot, so I just said what a fine man he was, reflecting that it was just as well Laura’s father never went. I doubt if he would have been very pleased! Eventually, the wedding took place in San Lorenzo, and I played the organ, which was not particularly good, and gave me little satisfaction. For their honeymoon, the newly-weds went to Amalfi. After the wedding I was to meet Ernesto often enough, and he was always a cordial companion, but I was always careful to control my drinking habits.
* * *
I got to know Verona very well, as our visits were frequent. In many ways it resembles Florence, because it is overlooked by hills, is situated on the river Adige, and has many buildings of architectural beauty, especially the Roman Arena, Theatre, and arches, as well as renaissance castles and palaces. As Franco Donatoni lived in Verona, I soon made contact with him again, and went to where his family lived on the edge of town. As his father was a railway worker (I think he was a track-layer), they had a railway house right by the tracks, so that every few minutes the house would be shaken like an earthquake, and the clatter of trains made speech impossible. As some freight trains were enormously long, the shaking and roaring could go on for several minutes on end.
One day, Franco came to see me on a Vespa, and we decided to go a ride on it to get some air, up in the hills. I pointed out to him that the front tyre looked a lot too flat, but he set off just the same, with me on the pillion, clinging to his waist. Going far too fast, he swung out on a corner to overtake a petrol tanker, and as we were just alongside the big bouncing wheels, our front tyre collapsed and we fell in a slithering heap almost under the tanker. Fortunately, the wheels missed us by a hair’s breadth, but as I was holding Franco by the waist, I fell right on him, very heavily. But it was his face that took all the impact. It was thoroughly ground into the grit and chippings, and bloodied beyond recognition. He was in quite a bad way, and had to be refreshed at a nearby house. I felt a bit guilty. Could I not have fallen somewhere else? Perhaps under the tanker, rather than on his face? Unfortunately, the speed of events gives no time to defy the force of gravity, nor to change direction in mid-flight. However, as time went by, Franco’s face almost returned to normal, except for the worst scars.
Of course, we talked ’about music ceaselessly. One day I told him of my discovery of serialism, and as he wanted to know all about it, I gave him a long lesson of at least three hours. A few months later, we met again, and discussed the results of his studies. It was only when he saw me off by train to Florence that he said something quite significant. He said (regarding serialism): “Of course, it’s the rhythms that matter”. I didn’t quite understand what he meant, and I had no time to ask. It was only later that I realised he had seen something which I had missed, that is, that with conventional rhythmic patterns, serialism still only produces conventional music, which we almost certainly wanted to avoid. Until then, I had never regarded Franco as a particularly intellectual musician, but I was wrong. Being a communist, he regarded the composer’s work as no more than that of an artisan, working with ‘sound material’ whose identity must not be smothered by the ego of the ‘composer-creator’. The artisan must let the material develop in a pure state, freely, and without imposing his own self. In 1970, he published his own extensive theories in the book ‘Questo’, written in a singularly competent but impenetrable language, which made very tough reading. As his ideas seemed to be completely opposed to my own, I always refrained from getting entangled with his arduous and abstruse theorising. Inevitably, his music has also become arduous and abstruse, but his reputation in Italy is nevertheless considerable. Eventually, he became chief Professor in Composition at Milan Conservatory. * * *
There was another wedding in the Bortolaso family soon after that of Dino. Enio married Umberta, daughter of a professional Veronese, and of course, again, I was asked to play the organ. This proved to be quite a memorable experience. The wedding was to be in San Giorgio, the very big church on the bank of the Adige, which figures in so many photos of Verona. I went to look over the organ, and the first thing I noticed was its awkward position, very high up on one wall of the nave, and miles away from the altar. Communication was going to be difficult. The way up to the organ was locked, so I asked to see the priest. He was a real old firebrand, full of objections. I could only see the organ if the organist was present, but in any case he was out of town, so I had to go away until the wedding morning. When I arrived for the ceremony, the organist took me up to the organ loft, and I was staggered to see what an enormous instrument it was. But it looked in terrible condition, with pipes and odd pieces lying everywhere. Unfortunately, the keyboard was in a very odd position, right in among the pipes, and as the whole instrument was surrounded by a high marble balustrade, it was quite impossible to see into the church below. But the organist promised to let me know when to play, and how loud. Once I started to pull the stops out, he was horrified. Almost unintelligibly (in Venetian) he said I was to use only the 8-foot diapason, as none of the other stops had been tuned since before the War. Nevertheless, because he didn’t strike me as much of a musician, I decided to ignore this instruction, and find out for myself what things were really like.
But first, I went down for a final briefing from Enio. Just when should I start? Did they want music in the Mass, etc? Coming back, I was buttonholed by the priest, who said in no uncertain terms that I must play no German music. As I had planned to play Wagner, Bach, Schumann and Mendelssohn, this presented a bit of a problem, because most of the wedding music I could think of was German in any case. However, I decided to ignore his demands, knowing full well that they came from exaggerated anti-German prejudices, and not from aesthetic ideals. In any case, from my knowledge of priests, he didn’t know one piece of music from another, so I just went ahead as planned. (As things turned out, I was dead right.)
The wedding ceremony in the Catholic Church is always followed by the Mass, so the organist has plenty of opportunity to play about half-a-dozen pieces. As I kept fairly quiet, I didn’t get in any trouble, even though I drew several stops which were well out of tune. However, the mechanical noises of the organ itself were most off-putting, with banging and scraping, grunts and sighs galore. It seemed as if I were riding an antiquated monster. But for the grand finale, I decided I must use the full reeds. This was a gross error. They really had never been tuned for decades, and the sound was truly cacophonous. But it was too late to stop, so I battled my way to the end. I need never have worried. Nobody noticed.
After the wedding, we had another enormous feast, but this time I was prepared. No over-eating, no over-drinking. Just pecking here and there. The number of guests was beyond counting. A whole street had been roofed over with a white awning, and apart from listening to a few speeches, all we had to do was wait. The meal lasted from one o’clock to about seven. About half-way through, Giulietta and I decided to go for a walk, strolling round the Arena, and then returning half-an-hour later, having avoided possibly a couple of heavy dishes, and starting again with renewed appetites. Altogether, a pleasant afternoon,
Not long after we came back to live in Florence, a young man came to see me one evening, sent by Giuseppe Gullino. He was not only a fine guitarist, but a composer of no mean ability, though he still had no diploma. This was Alvaro Company, only son of a rich Argentinian couple who had settled in Florence years before. I soon became aware that though still immature, he had admirable qualities as a musician, and we became firm friends from then on. He was at that time reading for the ten-year Composition Course at the Conservatory as an external student, and compressing all the exams into a short period. I was eventually to help him through his final exams in orchestration and organ (which involved the performance of any one of Bach’s Eight Short Preludes and Fugues – not an easy task for non-organists). Some time later, Alvaro invited me to his house one evening to hear the broadcast of a concert which would include Webern’s Symphony – a work previously never heard in Italy. Other musicians of the same interests were going to be there, as Alvaro’s father had an unusually good radio and one of the newly invented ‘Sound Mirror’ tape recorders, both recently imported from the USA. I arrived a bit late, and found the others sitting round the room, seemingly waiting for things to begin. I thought for some time the orchestra was tuning up, for I was waiting for something recognisably musical. Instead, I gradually became aware, from the intent listening attitudes of the others, that the music had already begun, though to me it still didn’t make more musical sense than an orchestra’s haphazard tuning-up process. I expected the others, afterwards, not to express any approval of what we had heard, but no, they seemed to think it marvellous, particularly because of its admirable construction (which I had failed to notice). This is where I should have learned a good lesson, but failed. It was in fact a major turning point in my career, though I didn’t know it. If I thought the Symphony had no great musical qualities, I should have kept my convictions. But instead, when I was later beguiled by the sheer ingenuity of its construction, I changed my ideas, and favoured it strongly. In fact, for years afterwards, I lectured about the almost unique beauty of construction and symmetry of the second movement, and expected my students to appreciate it too, forgetting that to me, at one time, it didn’t even sound like music. Unfortunately, I was bitten by the bug of constructivism, even though I struggled forever to bring out emotive and expressive qualities from what was essentially non-emotive and anti-expressive. However, at that time I was still too innocent to perceive deeply enough, though in the end, after some years, I think I did score a victory over excessive intellectualisms. In fact, Webernisms in my music came to be completely eradicated. After the Webern, Alvaro introduced me to the others – Bruno Bartolozzi, Sylvano Bussotti, and Carlo Prosperi (all Florentines), and Arrigo Benvenuti (an immigrant from Algeria). We differed considerably not only in character, but in many other ways: some of us were quite poor, others rich; the oldest (Bruno) was twice the age of the youngest (Alvaro), and among the six of us, only three were Italian born. But in spite of all our differences, we were strongly unified by our musical ideals.
As this meeting was such a success, we all agreed to meet again frequently, to listen to music, and discuss our own problems freely. Gradually, we began to meet once a week, for we found such mutual support and exchange of views so stimulating that it was invaluable. Eventually, we gave ourselves the cumbersome group title of ‘Scuola Dodecafonica Fiorentina’ (Florentine Twelve-Tone School), and as such stuck firmly together over the next ten years. I must be forever thankful that I had such stimulating and sympathetic companions, for otherwise, I would almost certainly have had a lonely and frustrating existence. At one time we talked of making a ‘charter’ of our objectives, but we never did get round to it. It would have been a bit too pompous for our informal characters.
Though eventually, we were to acquire public influence as a group, at first, the most valuable thing to me was our meetings, when we would discuss our own works, play them over, tear them to pieces and put them together again. This was the most stimulating, and instructive musical experience I have ever had, so that the influence of the ‘School’ has always been present in my work. Though a lot of our studies and discussions centred on the works of the ‘Viennese School’ (comprising Schoenberg, Berg and Webern), it must be stressed that we were largely working in the dark. Very few works had been published, and recordings were almost non-existent except for what could be got from the USA. I myself was not in the least attracted by Schoenberg, much preferring Alban Berg, whose Violin Concerto and ‘Lyric Suite’ seemed to have such deeply poetic qualities. These were my ideals and my models in that period.
As time went by our School began to have some artistic influence in Florence. That was a time of artistic change in the musical world, when new revolutionary movements were coming into opposition with tradition. Experimentalism, new ideas, and abstruse methods were artistic essentials, though the results were not always highly artistic – just the opposite. But Post-War Florence was most conservative in its musical tastes, so our School, representing radical change and revolution, came up against a good deal of antagonism and polemics. But being a group, we could survive such animosity much better than as individuals, and our battles with the press gave us a notoriety which was invaluable. I couldn’t resist provoking the old-established critics to a kind of guerrilla warfare in the local papers, bombarding them with our radical views and opinions. I never really expected to win, because the press always comes out on top, but it was better to be written about with animosity than not to be written about at all. As a group we could also influence concert planners, so that our works could be heard at least occasionally, instead of not at all. Gradually, other musicians who thought as we did, sought us out for mutual support, and even Dallapiccola, who at first kept his distance, decided that we were allies not to be ignored, and came to an occasional meeting, or to one of our famous suppers.
* * *
Our suppers were well-organized affairs. We would search in the hills around Fiesole for those rustic farming trattorias that have their own country specialities which can never be found in town – wild boar, hare, pheasant, quail, porcini (large wild mushrooms), uccellini, even goat – all cooked on a spit above an enormous charcoal fire. Of course, from the moment we stepped over the threshold, the aroma of cooking was tantalizing, so as we waited anxiously for food, the flasks of wine were emptied and more had to be brought in from the cowshed. In those days, all wine was in flasks, and everything was called ‘chianti’. Whether it was rough or smooth, we didn’t care, as long as it helped with the conviviality.
Bruno Bartolozzi, from the poor quarter of San Frediano, had a great sense of humour. As he played violin in the Maggio Musicale Orchestra (so called because of the Florence May Festival, but actually a permanent orchestra), he had some amusing tales to tell about the players in the orchestra, the rehearsals, and the way they used to take the mickey out of even the great conductors. For the more a conductor may be adored by the public for his flamboyant performances, the more he may be despised by the orchestra. The players know just how much the histrionics are put on for the public benefit, and they would much prefer to be left to themselves. Bernstein was particularly detested by the Maggio Orchestra, and Bartolozzi would act out for us the way Bernstein had conducted the placid ‘adagietto’ of Mahler’s Third Symphony, as if he were a man writhing in an agony brought on by a combination of a heart attack, acute constipation, and ants in his pants – all this act being completely ignored by the orchestra, which, just to show its independence, held on the last chord for three seconds after Bernstein cut it off. When Dallapiccola came out with us, things were much more restrained, especially at first, when he tended to impose his highly intellectual ‘classicist’ tone, but gradually he unbent and could become highly companionable. Once, he brought Laura, his wife, which dampened down the evening considerably. She only came that once, possibly being put off because somebody had something good to say about Stravinsky. She was intensely jealous of her husband’s reputation.
* * *
As I have said, my friends in the Scuola differed considerably, so inevitably, one felt more affinity with some than with others. At first, the one I liked least was Bruno Bartolozzi. He was bald, fat, ill-dressed, flat-footed and ungainly. But he had such a charming, extrovert manner that he soon won me over, and we ended up by having a magnificent and firm friendship until he died. He had a great touch of humour, was sharply intelligent, had a profound musicianship, and was most sensitive as a human being. He came from a poor family. As his father died early, Bruno had to support the family even as a boy, playing the violin in cinema orchestras (in the old days of silent films). At last, he got a place in the orchestra of the Florence Festival, and could afford to study composition. In the end, through his intelligence, charm, and sincerity of character, he rose in Florentine society until he could mix with anyone as an equal. Later, he lectured at Yale University, and toured America as a composer with receptions in his honour at Italian Consulates. On one occasion, I took him to Lady Astor’s for tea, and he charmed her with his halting English, which he delivered with the utmost confidence. Unfortunately, after I had known Bruno almost ten years, he became obsessed with the idea that there were many ‘problems’ to be solved in modern music, particularly in instruments. For instance, having discovered that the bassoon could play chords of up to six notes, and also produce many other unusual effects, he dedicated several years to investigating such possibilities with all woodwind instruments. As he wished to publish the results, I got OUP interested in the project, and so he wrote and published ‘New Sounds for Woodwind’. Unfortunately, as his English was so bad, and his meaning most unclear, he drove me crazy with revisions, until in despair, I made a fresh start, and wrote the book myself. Unfortunately, I never had strong convictions as to the musical quality of the ‘New Sounds’, so when he started on the problems of the brass, and that of the voices, I gave up, and retired from the fray. In the end, Bruno had several brilliant players who became experts with his ‘new sounds’, but by now they are no more than a small detail of history.
While Bruno was so extrovert, Arrigo Benvenuti was the opposite – diffident and reserved. He was Algerian born, with French as his mother tongue. When the War began, his family came to Italy, and Arrigo, being of military age, was hustled into the Army, and sent to the Siena barracks. This gave him a nasty shock, but he found an original solution. He would sit in silence all day, composing, and never went on parade. He insisted he was Beethoven, composing his Tenth Symphony, and refused to be disturbed. He was so convincing that an Army Medical Board decided he was quite mad, and should be sent under escort by train to the asylum at Lucca. As the train stopped in Florence to change engines, he slipped away from his guards and made his way up into the mountains to join the partisans, with whom he spent the rest of the War.
Arrigo was a complex character, mistrusting himself so much that he ruined his own career. He was an able and sensitive composer, but quite unable to ‘sell’ his own music in any way, so it was hardly ever played. Like many diffident persons, he could be most aggressive and stubborn. This never made for pleasantness at rehearsals, so once performers experienced this, they were not inclined to play his music again.
Arrigo was also most impractical and eccentric. Some of his pieces could hardly be played at all, or were excessively wild flights of the imagination. For instance, he worked for years at the music and script of a film dealing with a surgical operation – a subject which could have no attractions for a normal public, but which to him, was most valid. As an Algerian, he had difficulty in finding work in Italy, so we were all glad when he became music editor for Aldo Bruzzichelli’s publishing house. We were happy too when he married the singer Liliana Poli. She made a wonderful career as a singer of contemporary music, but we knew that a lot of her artistry came from Arrigo. Why could he do so much for her, and so little for himself?
Carlo Prosperi, like Bruno, was fat, but there the similarity ended. He lacked Bruno’s extrovert good humour, and tended towards dark, sombre moods, and excessive seriousness. He was perhaps the most experienced of us all when we first met, being already mature as a composer. In fact, he was already so set in his own ways that he didn’t adhere so much to our enthusiasm for serialism. So he often tended to be in opposition to our more radical thoughts. Inevitably, he remained more on the periphery of our School, especially after he went to Rome as a studio producer for Radio Italiana. Nevertheless, he was always a close friend to us over many years.
Sylvano Bussotti was a small, neat figure, with a quick and sharp mind, He was probably the most gifted of us all, and emanated a highly sophisticated aura of artistry at every pore. And yet he did so little. He was a very gifted graphic artist, but all he did was so miniature. He would make pictures the size of a postage stamp. If he wrote music at all, it would be exquisitely neat, but so small that it was hardly readable. He once wrote a whole string quartet on a single sheet of paper. Yet though he talked vividly in a highly stimulating way, Sylvano wrote so little music. He was too obsessed with the theatre, but again, on a miniature scale. He would put on small-size theatre productions, full of Pierrots, Pantaloons and Harlequins, in which he was producer, actor, composer and script writer. We gave him our support in these ventures, but secretly thought his shows embarrassingly amateurish. And yet he would invite the most eminent theatrical people in Florence to these incredible productions. I couldn’t understand how someone so gifted could be so juvenile. But suddenly, Sylvano was transformed. He did his military service, and then went straight off to Paris to study with Max Deutsch. Then, after a visit to Germany, including the Darmstadt Summer School, he astonished us all on his return by producing a bulging portfolio of compositions; substantial works, no longer written on postage stamps. He had become a full-size musician. Was it the Army or Paris that had worked the miracle? From then on his reputation swelled apace. In international avant-garde circles, his status never stopped growing, until in the end, he became artistic director of La Fenice Theatre in Venice, artistic consultant of the Puccini Festival, and Director of the Fiesole School of Music. Yet to me, he is still an enigma. Is Pierrot still there? Behind his communist exterior, his air of a great man of the theatre, is there still the little immature youth I once knew? Is the vast harlequinade of his opera ‘Lorenzaccio’, produced so lavishly and grandiosely at Venice, no more than an enlarged evolution of his little Pierrot shows? I have the greatest admiration for Sylvano, but unfortunately, knowing his beginnings, I can hardly take his work as seriously as does his clique of supporters.
After Bruno, Alvaro was my most intimate friend. As a guitarist he was very gifted, for he was not only a talented player, but a very discriminating musician. As he was one of the only guitarists in Italy who had the musicianship to play such demanding pieces as Boulez’s ‘Le Marteau sans Maître’, he was always in demand whenever some modern music had to be played. Unfortunately, this was an arduous occupation, as the music was always difficult, and rarely of a satisfying musicality. He would compose his own pieces for guitar most laboriously, as they were always highly complex, and so full of novel effects that in the end, they were almost unplayable. At the height of his career, he had a catastrophic experience. In the middle of one of his solo concerts, his right thumb became paralysed, so that he could no longer pluck the lower strings. It was a traumatic blow, such a shock that he never dared to go on a concert platform again. We all tried to support him and encourage him to keep on playing, but instead he gave up concert activity altogether. However, he became a teacher at the Conservatory, and in the end became renowned for his teaching methods. For years, I knew him as a most agreeable companion, but especially after he got married, his character became more and more complex, full of unshakable inhibitions, most stubborn and self-opinionated. Both he and his father were obsessed with the need to have a male heir, so that, like Henry VIII, he had a succession of daughters by various ladies.
These then were the friends I was so fortunate to find in Florence around 1950. Through them I had an agreeable companionship which I have never found before or since, and through them, I never ceased to learn and develop. At that time I never questioned whether all this learning and developing was good for me. If I had not met them, would I have been able to settle down to a more conventional and less adventurous way of composing? Would this not have given me a better chance of success, appealing to a wider public? I think so. Yet would I have been content to be merely conventional? I doubt it very much.
Not long after I first met Alvaro, he rang me up in quite a flurry of excitement to say that Segovia was going to take a Summer Course at the Accademia Chigiana at Siena, that he would be going himself, and he wanted me to join him. As I had let the guitar drop out of my aspirations and had neglected it for some time, I hesitated. But the thought of being able to get to know the great maestro at last was too much, and I agreed to go, at the same time trying desperately to polish up my guitar technique as fast as possible – a vain endeavour.
When we arrived in Siena, we found there were only five others on the course, so I felt my shortcomings would soon be exposed. We were told that Segovia wanted to meet us that evening at a bar in the main square. I expected to meet a difficult, distant personality, but not a bit of it. It was a magical evening. Segovia was spontaneous, warm-hearted and responsive. We had drinks, sitting round a table in the warm summer air, joking and laughing as if we were life-long friends. He didn’t want to talk, he only wanted to hear what we had to say, and listened to us with all his attention. Obviously, he was no man for monologues and pontificating. He was absolutely charming, and our hearts warmed to him.
The next morning, he wanted to hear us play. I had taken Gullino’s nine-string half-lyre Mozzani guitar, thinking this would make a good impression, but Segovia pretended to be horrified, and I had to hide it away. My own shortcomings were soon exposed, especially because, playing without finger-nails, my tone was thin, and the volume miserably small. Segovia roared with laughter. To him it was a huge joke, especially when one of my gut strings unravelled and broke in two. At this point the maestro leapt up, grabbed his bag, and triumphantly distributed to each one of us a complete set of nylon strings – the first to be seen in Europe, and a special gift from Augustine in New York. Even now, I prize those strings so much; they are still on one of my instruments after forty years. They must be the oldest strings in Europe, but they are still better than anything we had before.
For the opening audition, I had prepared several of my own pieces, hoping they would greatly impress the maestro, but he showed no particular interest, in fact I learned later that Segovia did not care for modern music, especially anything which was a bit adventurous in technique. In fact, he didn’t seem interested in the playing of any of the students, and soon settled down to a method of teaching in which he said very little, but played a lot.
His normal lesson usually began with him going through his scale practise, which to me was a bit of a bore (I don’t like scales. They are not musical). But then he would begin on an impromptu recital, which would last the best part of an hour without a stop. It was through this that I really learned something critical for, almost subconsciously, I began to be aware of the subtleties of expression he produced, the tone colours, and shades of volume, but above all, the way he interpreted the composer’s script. I realised the manuscript is no more than a bare idea of what should be the final result, and the way Segovia could mould it into perfection was a revelation. It was some time before I became fully aware of this, but the truth is probably that my mind was gradually aligning itself to Segovia’s interpretations, so that from then on, it worked in the same way, and my imagined musical thoughts ran in his manner.
I sometimes wish Segovia had talked to us more, explaining why he played things in one way and not in another, but he never did. This lack of explanation demanded a very perceptive ability from students, who could either learn a lot, or very little indeed, depending on the strength of their own faculties, and the quality of their listening. Indeed, only the act of concentrated listening, day after day, to such vast quantities of music, was very demanding. Segovia had terribly fat, short, podgy fingers. His hands didn’t look like those of a musician at all, so I thought there must be something very special about the way he plucked the strings, to get such robust volume and beautiful tone. He seemed to curl his fingers with very little movement, and pluck upwards, which seemed all wrong. I tried the same for years, with worse results than before, so was I mistaken? In the end, I did something quite different, with much more success. As Segovia stayed at the same small hotel as Alvaro and myself, we always walked with him to the Accademia and back, stopping every five paces as is the Spanish habit, in the interests of better conversation, so that our walks and talks seemed interminable. This always became much worse at a certain street corner where the ’cellist Gaspar Casadó would be waiting for us, and there we would come to a full stop for an eternity while the conversation reached a crescendo of animation. Of course, we were always highly unpunctual, but who cared?
During one walk I felt I should confess to Segovia that I had copied the Weiss Suite from his gramophone records, and that through this it had been published with a possible breach of copyright. At first, he was very adamant that it was quite impossible to copy from his record; indeed he seemed more annoyed about this than any question of ‘stealing’ the music. I felt quite put out. But all of a sudden he changed; he was quite genial and laughed it off as a huge joke, saying the ‘Suite’ was not by Weiss at all, but by Ponce. (I learned years later that this was one of a number of imitation baroque pieces he asked Ponce to write.) So Segovia regarded it all as a great leg-pull, and to my great relief ignored any question of infringement of copyright.
One Sunday, Alvaro’s father Enrico arrived in his magnificent enormous American Studebaker to take us for a ride into the country – Segovia, Casadó, Alvaro, and myself. It was a glorious day. We went first to San Gimignano, and ate lunch at the Cisterna Hotel, with its terrace looking right over the plain to the hills round Siena, Of course, the universal language was Spanish, and we had an uproarious time, accompanied by the San Gimignano white of great renown. Then we set off for a leisurely tour of the Tuscan countryside, with its raw umbers, burnt siennas, and cypress-crowned hillsides wherever one looked. We ended up driving into the hill-top fortress town of Monteriggioni, where the Studebaker hardly scraped through the only entrance arch. We stopped in the main square for a coffee, and all the inhabitants of the town gathered round the car, as if they had never seen one before. As for our Spanish, they listened open-mouthed, as if we were visitors from another planet.
In one of our conversations, Segovia expressed his distaste for modern music (by which he must have meant music written after Ponce and Turina), particularly for the fact that so much of it was ‘too thin’. I searched to justify the tenuous, rarefied atmospheres of writers like Webern, by pointing out that Vivaldi’s genius also lay often in slender expressions, and that some of the Impressionists were by no means robust. But he would have none of it; he preferred a much more corpulent art. So after this exchange of views, I saw it would be useless to send him any of my music. Perhaps I was wrong, but regretfully I have never seen Segovia again.
* * *
After the masterclass with Segovia, I gradually lost interest in the guitar altogether, and wrote for it no more. Becoming musically more and more of an extremist, I was getting ever further from what normal guitarists could approach. Indeed, apart from Alvaro, I was quite disillusioned by the obvious limitations of most players, and their inferior musicianship. When we made the film music for ‘Il Serchio’, I had included a guitar part which caused more trouble and delay than anything else. The guitarist I got was De Ponio, reputed to be the best player in Rome, but when we came to record, I found he could barely read music. In particular, he had no idea how to count silent bars, or to keep in time with the rest of the orchestra. I, as conductor, struggled desperately to keep things going, but the rest of the players became irritated and furious at such incompetence. Worse still, he was wasting time, and time is money in the film studios. Fortunately, I had David Ellenberg with me, a student on the Accademia Conducting Course, and he volunteered to conduct De Ponio personally, see that he kept in time, and played at the right moment. David saved the situation. But after that, my opinion of the musicianship of guitarists was so low that I ignored the instrument for some years.
However, at Alvaro’s insistence a few years later, I tried the results of using serialism in a couple of small guitar pieces, but I was not convinced. The instrument was seemingly digitally ill-suited for such highly chromatic music, and the music itself tended to be too highly compressed and dense. However, in 1956, some poems of my favourite poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, inspired me to try yet again. Lorca’s poetic style is so concentrated, so starkly colourful, and yet so simple, that I was inspired towards the same qualities in my music. Using four of Lorca’s poems, I wrote ‘El Polifemo de Oro’ in almost no time at all, with the utmost facility, and I was greatly encouraged by the results. I wasted no time in sending a copy to Schott & Co, who had published my previous guitar music, but it was rejected. With this rejection, my disillusionment with the guitar was complete, and I wrote no more solo pieces for the instrument until 1970.
As ‘El Polifemo’ eventually became my most successful piece, it is worth a brief description of its chequered history. I had hardly finished writing the piece when Julian Bream turned up at the door. He was now a lusty young man of 23, staying in Florence for a romantic interlude with Amaryllis Fleming, a promising young ‘cello player. He stayed to lunch, and then gave me a bit of a recital. I judged him to be technically very competent, but still musically immature and obviously not very well informed as to contemporary music. So I was a bit hesitant to show him ‘El Polifemo’, because he may not have liked it at all. However, I need not have feared. He was most enthusiastic, even though he found the musical language unfamiliar, and wanted to know the technique I had used in the piece’s composition. So in the end, I gave him a copy of the music to study if he wanted to. At the same time, he asked if he could have two other similar pieces, one for ‘cello and guitar (to play with Amaryllis), and another for violin and guitar. (This is how ‘Ten String Music’ and ‘Five Sketches’ came to be written.) After Schott’s rejection, ‘El Polifemo’ lay fallow for years. Julian gave it a BBC broadcast, and played it at the Aldeburgh Festival, but nothing else happened until in 1962, the Florentine publisher Aldo Bruzzichelli asked me for a piece, and I gave him ‘El Polifemo’. Soon after this, Julian recorded it for RCA, and from then on, other players made recordings in several other countries, and the piece sold well world-wide. Things then went well until Bruzzichelli died suddenly on a journey to the USA. His publishing business was inherited by his brothers, who neglected it to such an extent that it became moribund. Naturally, I was most preoccupied, as players could no longer get my music. Fortunately, I decided to copy what Stravinsky did in the same situation – publish a ‘revised version’ with another publisher. Schott & Co were now quite anxious to do this (after having rejected the piece about fifteen years before) so that ‘El Polifemo’ has been rescued from oblivion. Unfortunately, some parts of the revised version are not as good as the original. The best version of all is one written by Jan Erik Pettersen in Norway. (When Julian asked for a piece for ‘cello and guitar, I thought the result – ‘Ten String Music’ – would, like so many ‘commissions’ for unusual combinations, disappear like smoke in the wind after a brief airing, but instead it still sells modestly all over the world, and gets performances in unexpected places like Finland and Japan. In reality, this piece, and the ‘Five Sketches’ for violin and guitar, represent the very best of my guitar serialism, after which I abandoned that technique for any guitar music.)
* * *
Aldo Bruzzichelli was a particular friend of mine, and always most interested in the affairs of the ‘Scuola Fiorentina’. Though he came from a very rich background, the family wealth originated in artisan businesses such as the making and exportation of leather goods, straw hats, and such Florentine specialities of Gucci fame. The family also had the biggest bar in Florence, opposite the Cathedral. However, Aldo’s brothers were the real driving forces, leaving him out of their affairs to pursue his own artistic instincts. Aldo’s aspirations were not so much to make money, but to spend it in a worthy cause. So following the old Florentine tradition, he became a ‘mecenate’ of the arts, that is, a patron of the arts, with no desire for profit.
Aldo’s creation of a music publishing house was therefore the work of a mecenate, who aimed specifically at supporting contemporary music. He got every possible advice and information before he began, established agencies in London and New York, and after about ten years, had a very broad catalogue of modern works, including some by much respected composers. All the editing and copying was under the direction of Arrigo Benvenuti, as well as the daily administration, so he was kept extremely busy. But he was not always happy, mostly because Aldo’s enthusiasm seemed to wax and wane in a disconcerting way, so that there was too much stop-go in the business affairs.
At some time in the late ‘sixties, when I was already a Reader in Music at Bangor University, Aldo invited me out to lunch, as he wanted my advice. He wanted to expand his business, so that instead of concentrating only on contemporary music, he could publish editions of old music. I suggested doing something like Malipiero had done for Monteverdi and Vivaldi – there were composers such as Frescobaldi, Gesualdo, Corelli, Geminiani, etc, whose works could be published in complete editions. But the research needed, even before beginning, was enormous. In the end, any financial rewards would only be meagre. In short, I pointed out to him all the risks and uncertainties of such a venture, but he obviously didn’t take much heed of what I said. He was a mecenate, only caring for the arts. The finances didn’t interest him.
Suddenly, he offered me whatever I wanted to do the work for him. I was astonished. I protested that it was work for a musicologist, not a composer, that I would have to research for a year before I could even decide where to start. But he insisted. I was struck by the fascinating possibility of being able to live again in the city I most loved. The idea was tantalizing, but the pitfalls were far too many. I would be doing work for which I had no great love and no real ability, and where was the security? I asked Aldo what would happen if he died (he was already about seventy). He said he didn’t intend to die for twenty years, so I said I wanted time to think about it. I was greatly tempted, but fortunately, I resisted. He was dead within eighteen months, his brothers had no interest in what didn’t make easy money, and Arrigo never got paid again. That would have been my fate too. Bruzzichelli Editions then became virtually dead for ten years, until Berben of Ancona bought the firm for a song. I was fortunate, having only one piece locked away in a defunct situation, but some composers had their entire output in solitary confinement for a decade.
Our villa and farmhouse at Corbignano was in a beautiful position, for we could look over Florence as far as Piazzale Michelangelo and Forte del Belvedere in one direction and to Fiesole and Settignano in the other. Just away to the right, was ‘I Tatti’ where the famous art critic Berenson lived, and nearby, just below us, was ‘Villa Boccaccio’, where Boccaccio wrote ‘Il Decamerone’ in the 14th Century. Our villa dated from the beginning of the 17th Century, and had its own chapel with Mass said every Sunday by the priest from San Martino a Mensola. We even had our own chalices and vestments, and a large altar piece carved by Desiderio da Settignano which today would be worth millions. Of course the villa itself was full of antiques, but in those days we had little regard for them.
Giulietta’s family had moved to Corbignano during the war, believing it to be safer than Via Faenza, which was so near the railway; but in the end they were worse off. When the Allies arrived at Florence, the Germans established a defence line along the hill just north of the Arno, so that Corbignano was right in the line of fire, with shells from both sides hurtling low over the roof. In the end, the villa suffered such destruction that they had to flee back into town with no more than what they could carry. After we returned to Florence, we spent some idyllic summer months there, but unfortunately, the adjoining village suffered from lack of water. This was only pumped up to the village at three in the morning, to the only standpipe just below our bedroom window, so the hullabaloo and clattering of buckets in the early hours was a bit too much for me. The only consolation was that we had our own well.
In theory, we had a farm run on the old ‘mezzadria’ principle, that is, the owner has to provide everything of a material nature – house, land, machinery, seeds, fertilizers, and plants, while the farmer does the work. The produce and profits are then shared equally between the owner and the farmer. But as long as we had something from the vegetable plot, and some of the olive oil, we were content to let the farmer have the rest. This system worked well as long as the old farmer was alive, but after he died, his son and daughter, both rascals, became such a nuisance in many ways, and did no work on the land. After they began stealing furniture from the villa, we had to get rid of them. We got a new farmer who at first seemed quite ambitious. He got me to have the vineyard re-excavated and replanted with the best grafted vines, but before we ever saw any wine, he had a heart attack and died, again leaving a family which let the farm run down because everybody had their own work elsewhere. So again, we got little satisfaction from our farming efforts.
We decided early on that we must try to earn an income by letting the villa. At that time Americans were supposed to be the most desirable tenants, so we got an agency to look for them. We soon got a woman, who took the villa for several years, but within months, the Korean War started, and she disappeared overnight without notice, leaving quite a debt behind. We then tried an American writer with a flourishing career. Unfortunately, he went for a holiday at the seaside, died of a heart attack, and left us not only without rent, but without a good deal of the furnishings and effects, which had mysteriously disappeared. This decided me to concentrate on Italians only, in the hope of more continuity. I divided the villa into three separate apartments, and let it to different tenants, and from then on, income, though irregular, was more or less reliable. Unfortunately, I was always kept busy with repairs, for not only was everything old, it had been badly knocked about in the war. The villa developed some ominous cracks which had to be reinforced. Our fields ran at some height above the road to Settignano, and walls collapsed every winter, filling the highway with masonry and soil. This needed urgent attention, and rebuilding the walls was a costly affair. Fortunately, I found an old man who loved to work rather than do nothing at home, so very willingly, he did a fine bit of walling without too much expense. It was he who later dug the entire vineyard – one metre deep and one metre wide – before the farmer planted the vines. I felt a bit guilty about giving him so much hard work, when soon after, he had a stroke and died.
The greatest trouble I had was with the drains. As I had overloaded the villa with tenants (who then brought in their relations and had more babies), we had a sewage crisis which meant the building of cesspits and sewers galore. Of course, the cost of this was equal to what we got in rents for the next two years, so I learned that letting property is not all profit by any means.
Looking after Corbignano was not my only building maintenance chore. I had to help Giulietta’s mother, Lilia, who had a constant eye open for property bargains. With any profit from Ditta Lilia Borsi, she would buy what seemed to be a bargain. She always wanted something cheap, but with a respectable income. In those days, this was extremely difficult, because the government had frozen all rents in 1940, and forbidden rent increases for the next thirty years. So rents tended to be very low, except where private agreements had been made, which got round the restrictions of the law. Unfortunately, she put far too much trust in an unscrupulous agent, who would brook no interference from others, but led her into unwise situations. So every bargain had a flaw in it. We would find too late that one tenant was a jailbird who never paid his rent; another property would turn out to be a brothel, and so on. Of course the final catastrophe was the Great Flood of the Arno in 1967, when some properties were swept away; others collapsed afterwards, or if we were fortunate, only filled with mud up to the first floor level.
* * *
The Borsi family had a notable inheritance – Giulietta’s uncle Giosué´ was a hero of the Italian campaign against Austria in World War I, dying in action on the Carso in 1916. He was also a poet and writer of some renown. There is a street in almost every town in Italy called ‘Via Giosué´ Borsi’, and many Schools are named after him. Apart from his poems, most of his writings are religious, and as he belonged to the Lay Order of the Franciscans, it was arranged, after his mother’s death, to take all his memorabilia (books, manuscripts, uniform, etc) to a memorial room, specially prepared at Assisi.
The transport of Giosué’s effects to Assisi developed into a Grand Occasion. The procession included not only major and minor politicians and public figures, but church and army personnel in quantity, including a regimental band. As the cars and lorries arrived at each town on the way, we had to halt in the main squares for special sessions of speeches, bugle calls, national and regimental anthems, and blessings by the priests. In this way, the two-hour journey lasted until the evening. On our arrival, a vast throng was ready for us, and a priest gave a vivid and moving oration from the back of a lorry. Then he gave us all the Blessing and we went to our beds. It had been a most exhausting day. After a few years at Assisi, the memorabilia were brought back to a Franciscan Convent at Florence, and finally were taken to Livorno (I detest ‘Leghorn’), where Giosué´ was born. All these affairs were somewhat exhausting, and it was Giulietta’s lot to represent the family, especially after Lilia and Gino died. Indeed, looking after the memory of a hero can be a daunting task, for everyone expects immediate attention, to have their letters answered, to have all the information they want, and to be treated as if they were of the greatest importance. Her last act was to unveil a plaque at the monastery of Montenero at Livorno, in memory of her uncle, in a chapel dedicated to illustrious men of the town – the only three others being Mascagni, Modigliani, and Fattori.
* * *
I don’t know why I never became a Catholic for such a long time – not till 1970. Nobody ever pressurised me, and though I would often go to Mass with Giulietta, I stayed a stubborn Anglican until long after I believed that the only true Church was the Catholic one. Perhaps it was my obstinacy. However, as an organist, I would have done far better to be a Catholic. In those years, organists in Florence were almost non-existent, and if I had been a Catholic, I could have had plenty of work, if only at weddings and funerals. One day, I went to Santa Croce to see Father Rossini, who was the official organist, but would have preferred to leave it to me if I so wished. He showed me the magnificent instrument, which comprised four separate organs in different parts of the church, all playable from the one console, so that the effects of distance and direction were quite captivating. I played an improvisation which absolutely stunned me, and I was bowled over at the possibility of playing there in future. But when Father Rossini realised I was not a Catholic, it was only natural that I could not be asked to play. So as it was, I kept to the Anglican church (without pay) until we left Florence.
However, I had quite a succession of organ pupils, usually Americans (as I played for weddings at the American Church). One German pupil was strikingly brilliant, and eventually won a scholarship to study with Germani. I learned an unusual lesson myself when I was teaching Rinaldi, an Italian organist of the Valdesian Church in Florence. He was already over forty, and worked as a librarian at the Laurentian Library. His hands were so stiff, and his seeming inability to absorb any information whatsoever was so pronounced, that I almost gave up. After a month I decided it was not fair to take his money and achieve nothing, and I was about to tell him so, but I changed my mind. I would wait another week. That week made all the difference. From then on his progress, though not spectacular, was quite certain, and eventually, after a couple of years, he was quite an able organist. Towards the end of our lessons, I lent him some volumes of baroque chorale preludes, and when he gave them back to me, I found he must have played them all, for there were pencilled annotations and formal analyses everywhere. This revealed the intelligence of his approach and the tenacity which had made him win through, despite his physical difficulties.
* * *
After being received with such cordiality by so many Italian composers, I felt I could safely approach the only other English composer in Florence – Francis Toye, who was the British Council representative. I had known Keith Faulkner, the Council representative in Rome, and found him most friendly and helpful. He even wrote about me to Toye, as an introduction. But unfortunately, for me, Toye was a complete enigma, almost beyond personal contact. (In actual fact, he was only a very minor composer, known for one work composed with his brother and for his journalistic writing as a music critic well before the War. What he could have to do in Florence is a mystery, apart from directing the Director of the British Institute.) Our first meeting was utterly baffling. We ran into each other one evening at the top of the stairs leading to the upper cortile of Palazzo Antinori, the location of the British Institute and the Consulate, and where Toye himself lived. We had almost knocked each other down, and as he was elderly and possibly a bit infirm, I said a few words of apology, without getting much in reply. He then walked off a few steps in a shuffling way, and then stopped. I waited, not knowing what to expect. At last he turned and came back, and very awkwardly, we began a conversation. I tried to explain who and what I was, but in no time, he had walked off again and stopped a few paces away, just too far to continue a conversation. Then he came back, and the same pantomime started again. I was getting very frustrated, and would have walked off myself, if it had not been discourteous.
However, this form of non-communication was as far as we ever got, not only then, but always afterwards. We saw each other often enough, but I never again attempted to speak to him. Unfortunately, his manner intimidated me enormously. He exuded upper class with an affectedly posh manner. He talked in that kind of plummy, mellifluous voice (it must have come straight from Winchester, Eton or Harrow) which makes one feel like a clod-hopping serf, grovelling for alms in the dung. Nevertheless, we did somehow establish a strange, distant relationship. When I played the organ on Sundays, he always sat so that he could see clearly every move I made. This was off-putting, especially as he would sit with a scowl of concentration, as if in penetrating criticism. But it could have been in appreciation for all I know, or even complete abstraction. He never said a word in all those years. However, in a roundabout way, he made me improve my organ playing considerably, for I took his presence as a challenge to play increasingly more difficult pieces, without ever repeating my repertoire. In this way, I went through a vast amount of Bach, Karg-Elert, Max Reger, Buxtehude, Frescobaldi and anything else which was impressive. Not having much practise time, I had to become an even more skilled sight-reader, while the dexterity of my fingers improved markedly. So in the end, Toye did have a strong influence on my ability. Whether he took any notice at all, I have no idea.
I did have one most humiliating experience for him to witness. One Christmas, Mr. Sleigh, the Director of Studies at the British Institute, asked me to play the piano for the Italian students to sing English carols at their concert. This was easy enough, and would have been enjoyable if Toye had not been sitting in the next room, watching me through the partly-closed door. Unfortunately, one of the students played the violin, and without any preparation, I had to accompany him in Bach-Gounod’s ‘Ave Maria’. This has a continuous running arpeggio part for the piano, which must fit in with the melody, but the violin player had no idea whatsoever of tempo, or the real value of notes, or of his obligation to fit in with the accompaniment. He just played a wildly haphazard version of his own, and I was left floundering from bar to bar, trying in vain to turn the shambles into something orderly. It was the most unmusical experience of my life, and I felt humiliated and mortified. , And there was Toye, taking it all in. But was he amused, or did he feel agonies for me? Nobody ever knew, but I thought that he could at least have said just two words of thanks or of kind understanding. Perhaps he felt that any human contact was beneath his dignity.
I used to look forward enormously to the Venice Festival every September. It used to be not only a musical feast, but a visual one as well. The city, of course is glorious, but the Biennale Exhibition of Modern Art gave me a great thrill as well. I used to cover the Festival of Contemporary Music for the ‘Musical Times ’and ‘The Observer’ , but as the financial rewards were meagre, I could only afford to stay there for the most important few days.
I was fortunate in being able to stay always with Signora Mirabello, a widow who lived almost next door to the Teatro La Fenice (the opera house), where the main events took place. My room was right at the top of the house, with a terrace looking out as far as the Lido, so that nearby I had San Marco and Santa Maria della Salute almost within reach. If I wanted to, I could even hear rehearsals in the theatre from my terrace. The great thing about Venice was that going there over a period of about ten years, my circle of acquaintances grew and grew, until I was on friendly terms with musicians of all kinds, and of different nationalities. I was widely accepted as an equal, which at least quietened my personal doubts as to my own value. It was not unusual, for example, for me to have lunch with such a mixed bag of personalities as old Malipiero, Goffredo Petrassi, Donatoni, the singer Cathy Berberian, and David Tudor (the interpreter of John Cage’s piano pieces).
Some of my earliest experiences were, as a critic, the most challenging – Stravinsky’s opera ‘The Rakes Progress’ and Britten’s ‘The Turn of the Screw’. I would have been quite right in dismissing them both as not being real operas at all, because a lot of action and an excess of words do not make an opera; it needs bel canto, that is, melody in abundance, and of a memorable kind. But of course neither work is memorable, and both have since sunk into oblivion. However, at that time, it would have been a bit extreme to make such fundamental criticisms, so I had to mute my opinions. I was surprised at the poor voice of the tenor in the Britten, Peter Pears – reputed to be the best tenor in the UK, especially because of his qualities in interpretation. But I found his voice, with its slow, meagre vibrato, to be persistently funereal, and without a vivid timbre.
In that period (the ‘fifties), Stravinsky had a work commissioned by the Biennale every year, and as this was his ‘serial’ period, I looked forward to works of increasing value and originality. Unfortunately, apart from ‘Canticum Sacrum’, he seemed to become less and less inspired or, as one can well understand, too tired to produce anything of substance. In fact, for one commission, he did no more than an orchestration of two Gesualdo madrigals, with a rather odd result. His only other big works, ‘Agon’ and ‘Threni’ were almost tedious.
‘Canticum Sacrum’ was conducted by Stravinsky in San Marco – a wonderful setting, with its massive Byzantine arches and gold mosaics fading into the gloom. There was a tremendous atmosphere of religious mysticism, completely ruined by a photographer who climbed into the pulpit to take a flash photo. In a critical silence in the music, he took a photo and the flash bulb exploded with a terrific bang. The ladies in the audience screamed and panicked, and it was some time before the hubbub died down. It must have upset Stravinsky no end, though he seemed to ignore it completely.
One morning Signora Mirabello called up to me saying that I had a visitor, who to my surprise turned out to be Dr. Ruziska, the music editor of the Milan publishers, Suvini Zerboni ( SZ). We sat out on the terrace, and after some general talk about the music of the Festival, he said he wanted to publish my own compositions, and asked me to tell him what I proposed. Of course, I was delighted to offer him my pieces, especially as at that time SZ were the only Italian publishers who specialized in publishing modern music. In the following years, our relationship was always fruitful, and eventually I collaborated with SZ in various ways, translating editions and commentaries, and even making English versions of the occasional opera. This was a marked step forward in my fortunes.
* * *
The first year I went to the Venice Festival was also the beginning of the Biennale Art Exhibition, an astounding show which covered acres of ground, with not only special pavilions for each nation, but separate shows for the major artists. I was completely bowled over by such vast quantities of Picasso, Klee, Braque, Miró, Mondrian and Pollock. I felt as if I had been given an aesthetic hammer-blow, which convinced me in an instant of the beauty and complete validity of modern art. It was joyful and wonderful. Unfortunately, as the years passed, I became more and more disillusioned. The vitality of modern art seemed to be leaking away; there was a kind of blood-letting which, at least for me, sapped out all interest and artistic quality. I began to go to the Exhibition as a cynic, already prepared to condemn before I even saw. This was particularly so one year when the International Prize of several million lire went to an ‘artist’ who had done no more than paint a canvas white, and then slash it with a razor in a single stroke. He had done this not only to this one canvas but to several, so that by comparison, one could see that the prize-winner really was the best. But to me there was no art there, it was just damn silliness. As for the American pavilion – it was full of enormous canvases, each in a single, even colour. Of course, what I was witnessing, without realising it, was the beginning of the minimalist movement, born in the USA as a revolution against European artistic traditions. By now, this American cancer has eaten its way into European art, but at that time, it was the moving force behind much American music and non-music, such as John Cage, Feldman, & Co, and later, Reich and Glass. However, not knowing the artistic ideals behind these canvases, I was really looking without any prejudices, and my condemnation of this art was therefore quite spontaneous and genuine. When, later I saw pop-art, or sculptures made with iron girders, sacks, or piles of bricks, I gave up, and preferring not to have my sensibilities insulted, stayed away from the Biennale altogether. This invasion of American influences began to appear in the music festival, in the form of small unofficial fringe activities of a protest nature, against the European conventionalism of the main festival. This was where I first heard a piece of Cage. I have no idea as to its title, but it was obviously designed to create a scandal. The pianist had an enormously long score like a toilet roll which he dragged over the music desk as he went along, while playing inside the piano, underneath it, and outside the lid. A woman singer suddenly rushed up onto the stage, shrieked a few bars, and then ran off again, slamming a door so hard it almost fell off its hinges. There was a horn player who never played a note, but hit his instrument with a tin can. Several other instrumentalists came and went without really playing anything. It wasn’t music, but it was an enormous success, ‘clearing the air of traditional conventions, etc’. David Tudor played Sylvano Bussotti’s ‘Five Pieces for David Tudor’, which I had often admired as exceptional examples of his early graphic art, and which he had only turned into music ten years later. These are pieces without any actual notation, and I knew they were only intended as a stimulus for improvisation, so after the concert I went to ask Tudor to tell me exactly what he played, and why. Of course, he was evasive in quite a nice way, because he didn’t want to say that in reality he had played what he thought fit.
This ‘mini festival’ was brought to a boring conclusion by a long-winded unintelligible lecture from a German music critic, during which we all gradually beat a muted retreat. Altogether, this concert was a manifestation of what was to recur more and more in the future – nonsense, under the guise of novelty and gimmickry, taken too seriously. Unfortunately, we were all taken in to a considerable extent at that time.
* * *
While I am convinced that America has contaminated our art (and indeed our lives), and that the music of Cage & Co does not call for the use of the composer’s intellect, apart from thinking up some general idea on which a work is based, Venice had its moments when there was an excess of European intellectualism. I went to a concert of the songs of Webern where we heard twenty-three gems of construction, each one perfect. But there were so many that seemed almost identical, that afterwards one remembered absolutely nothing. Only a vague impression. In my opinion, this is not good enough.
Another instance of an excess of intellectualism was Stockhausen’s ‘Kontakte’ for electronic tape, piano and percussion. This work was so crammed with ‘content’ that after the first quarter of an hour, I was overcome, and had to get out at all costs. I was astonished that only one or two others followed my example. Perhaps the rest were made of sterner stuff, or were perhaps less sensitive to noise.
* * *
I had a welcome relief from this surfeit of sound when old Gianfrancesco Malipiero invited me to go and stay a couple of days with him at Asolo. His invitation surprised me, for how could I possibly be of any interest to him, a man who was getting on for eighty? He was the major composer and initiator of the Italian ‘neo-classical’ movement, and as such, the main enemy of our Florentine ‘Scuola Dodecafonica’. I know he knew of my background, so perhaps his intention was to beard me in his own den.
Asolo is a small village on the foothills of the Alps, about an hour’s journey by train and bus northward from Venice. On the bus, everybody knew who I was going to see in Asolo, and I had full information about the Malipiero family long before we got there. Even the bus driver offered to make a detour for my convenience.
Malipiero lived on a hill just above the village, in the middle of a vineyard. The house was so full of old women that I was puzzled as to their relationships, especially as they were as silent as the grave, and always kept in the background in our presence. However, we kept out of the house as much as possible, walking in the vineyard, or sitting under the pergola.
Malipiero was the most charming host one could wish for, and his conversation was always fascinating. Of course, there was a lot we could have argued about, he as a neo-classicist and myself as a serialist, but we avoided any argument by tacit consent. In fact, as usual in these situations, I said very little and let him do all the talking. I had already discovered years before that Italians have a passion for talking, and by saying very little, one can learn an awful lot. Of course, my big interest in Malipiero was to learn about his discovery of so much Monteverdi and Vivaldi. This must have been a tremendous labour, of which he was justifiably proud, and I only needed to mention the subject, and he was off for two hours. I could not help reflecting that he must have made a great sacrifice of his own time and energies, searching in the archives for more and more jewels. But who will remember his labour, and thank him in the future? I was most grateful to Malipiero for his hospitality. I felt I had passed the time with a man of great qualities, and could not help but reflect that to have studied with him rather than with Pizzetti would have been a much more rewarding experience, and certainly not as dull.
* * *
While I was in Venice, I formed a firm friendship with Luigi Nono, at that time reputed to be the most advanced of the avant-garde in Italy. But though he had a strong reputation, his works were never played except in Germany, so he was a bit of an unknown quantity. He lived on the island of La Giudecca, opposite San Marco, with his wife who was Schoenberg’s daughter.
I went there mostly while he was composing ‘Il Canto Sospeso’, a politically-orientated work of choral-orchestral character, which involved the most abstruse constructivism I have ever come across. Mathematics governed every detail of the composition – the pitch of notes, their duration, volume and sound character. In his study, there was a wall entirely covered with successions of numbers, notes, and performance details, and from this he extracted all the details of the composition. It seemed to me that all this intense constructivism was a certain formula for the creation of non-music, yet from recordings of his music, I got the impression of a highly sensitive artistry. I was so taken up with his intellectual principles that for some years afterwards I would use his methods here and there in my music.
Nono had strong political views, which came out in the texts he used. He was a communist, but also a rabid anti-fascist and I think this partly accounted for the lack of performances in Italy. Only towards the ‘sixties did he have works performed at Venice – his home town. At the Festival performance of ‘Il Canto Sospeso’, there was a fracas at the back of the theatre between communists and neo-fascists which caused no small disturbance. I was at the front – a critic’s privileged position – so I was not much bothered. However, William Glock (Head of BBC Music at that time), was in the middle of it, and was visibly quite shaken.
However, Nono was obviously most pleased at the political row his music had provoked. He invited me to a ‘little’ celebration after the concert, but when I got there, I found myself in a jostling crowd of at least two hundred guests, and then pushed into a place opposite Glock and his wife, who both looked quite stunned. After trying to quiet their obvious unease with much tedium and little result, I had had enough, and went off, leaving the party still not yet started. I could see it was going to be a long and tiresome evening.
Nono’s opera ‘Intolleranza 1960’ was performed at La Fenice in ‘61, but this time the neo-fascists used a different and more subtle strategy of opposition. The performance was well under way when a shower of stink bombs rained down on the orchestra. There was a mad scramble to get out, including we critics on the front seats, and there was mayhem for the next ten minutes. The stink was incredible. Eventually, the performance was resumed, but in a rather subdued fashion. This time, I don’t think Nono was too pleased.
I don’t think he was really a convinced communist at all, though he was certainly anti-fascist. Like many other Italian composers, he found support in the Communist Party which was not available anywhere else. There were many Regions and Cities in Italy under Communist rule, and these promoted music of party members. For example, in Tuscany, thirty-four performances of Nono’s ‘La Fabbrica Illuminata’ were given at various factories for the edification of the workers, but just what the workers thought of this arduous and enigmatic piece does not seem to have been recorded.
1961 was my last visit to the Venice Festival, and I have often wondered since whether, like the Venice Exhibition of Modern Art, the music has declined in interest and become mediocre. Perhaps behind this thought is an element of personal prejudice against the increasing amount of music and players which began to come from Eastern Europe. But this influx is only natural. Venice always did look to the East in all its affairs – commercial, cultural, or religious – so why should we expect her to change? Nevertheless to me, in the ‘fifties, the musical scene was one of vivid interest, the like of which could be found nowhere else. By comparison, the Perugia Sagra Musicale Umbra and the Florence Musical May were of less interest, because though they contained much of a novel nature, it was only of a more conventional character. Venice was fascinating because of its contrasts, challenges, polemics, and contrasting factions.
1953 was a very bad year. I never slept at all, and was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I tended to fly into rages for very little reason, and would sweep the crockery off the table so often that Giulietta had to buy a set of plastic ware to economise. Possibly, this nervous tension was a delayed reaction to the continuous stress of the War. I had had a similar period after the invasion of Sicily in 1943, and when I spoke about it to Major Bridgewater, he sent me off for two days ‘rest’, after which I felt no better, but just got on with the war again. I think the truth is that nobody can expect to live seven years in a state of continuous stress, and not feel the effects in the end.
But perhaps the real root of the trouble was something quite different, which I tended to ignore. Soon after the Sicilian landings, our men began to go down like flies with sand-fly fever. (This had also decimated the Athenians when they attacked Syracuse about three- or four-hundred BC. When they had no army left, they had to give up and go home.) I got a nasty dose myself, and felt so ill I had to go into hospital. But after three days, in which I had no medical treatment whatsoever, I could stick it no longer, discharged myself unofficially, and went back to my unit. Unfortunately, sand-fly fever leaves one in a weak and dithery state for months; in fact it gave me periods of acute tension for at least ten years. So 1953 was a miserable year. I could do no work, and that distressed me no end. Giulietta was busy all day with her work in Ditta Borsi, so my only relief was to go off into the countryside on the motor bike, hoping for a healing miracle from the tranquility of the Tuscan hills. But also Alvaro was a great help, as he would come and take me off for walks into the woodlands round Florence, and of course we would talk about music endlessly. This was a very friendly act on his part, as he already had quite enough work to do, without wasting time on me.
I think part of the cause of my inability to sleep was a musical one. My mind was eternally busy ‘note-spinning’, subconsciously producing note- patterns of no significant value, but which I found quite impossible to stop. Unfortunately, the situation was probably made much worse by my studies of serialism, for my note-spinning was always a juggling with a set pattern of chromatic notes, which forever compelled a fair degree of mental attention. In short, my mind was working unstoppably, dealing with note-successions which demanded too much conscious thought and attention. By now, having experienced this useless chromatic mental activity for another forty years, I have no doubt that my venture into serialism was the main cause of my sleepless year, assisted by war stress and sand-fly fever.
However, with the help of colossal injections of vitamins, depressants and anti-depressants, I finally returned to a more normal condition and was able to get back to work. But I have since resigned myself to a total addiction to sleeping pills, of which by now I must have consumed a ton. But it has been worth it, and I feel no ill effects whatsoever.
* * *
It was during this sleepless year that I had a brainstorm and decided I would go to Siena again for the Summer School Conducting Course, run by Rudolf Von Kempen, who at that time was quite a celebrated conductor. I already had some conducting experience, for when I was in Rome at the Accademia, I was often allowed to rehearse the professional orchestra there, and later I became conductor of the Gruppo Strumentale Geminiani in Lucca, a highly competent string orchestra. In any case I had a wide instrumental experience both as a woodwind player and on strings, even though I was far from being a virtuoso. Not that I had any intention of giving up composition. That was a creative activity which was a necessity of life, but I felt some conducting experience would not only be valuable, but would be a good break from sleepless nights. In reality, conducting is a nerve-racking feat, more so than any other musical activity, so unwittingly, I was taking on something which would do me much more harm than good.
For the Course, one was supposed to have studied about twenty classical scores listed as essential to begin the studies. As the list comprised works by composers such as Brahms, Schumann and Mendelsson in which I had never had any interest, I decided to be prepared with only the few works I really cared for. So when I took the bus to Siena for the beginning of the course, I was busy making a last-minute study of Beethoven’s Second Symphony. After a while, I noticed that the man sitting next to me was also studying a score. His was Weber’s Overture to ‘Euryanthe’. I thought it best not to disturb him, but he soon leaned over to have a good look at what I was doing, and started up a conversation which never ended till we arrived. Of course, he too was going to the conducting course, and as the bus trundled over the Tuscan hills, we had plenty to discuss. He was Olinto Barbetti, a Florentine violinist of some renown, and we later became firm friends for many years.
At the theatre where the course was to be run, there was a milling crowd of aspirants. There were at least twenty nervous-looking ‘students’ and thirty ‘listeners’ (who could be present to hear what happened, but otherwise had to be quiet). It is worth recording that out of the twenty students, five have become well-known figures, especially in the USA, while another of them, a musicologist, was the first to publish a modern edition of Vivaldi’s ‘The Four Seasons’. So among the students, there was some excellent potential. The orchestra was made up of players from the Florentine Maggio Musicale Orchestra, many of whom I already knew as a bolshy lot who would give the students a rough ride. In fact, later, they would play like angels for Von Kempen, and then ignore the students’ efforts completely. If this produced any bad temper, they could be quite disruptive, while putting on an appearance of keen collaboration. Of course, Von Kempen knew all about this, and probably encouraged it. It was all part of the course, which was very much about how to get the best out of an orchestra, without making anyone upset, which is most counter-productive. When Von Kempen arrived, he looked a crusty old devil, but appearances were deceptive, for he turned out to be quite amiable. Almost from the first, he picked on me as the chief student, the one to question and use in demonstrations. Perhaps this was because the others were as nervous as sitting hens, and not relaxed enough to show their real ability. The first thing we had to do was to conduct the start of the Adagio of Beethoven’s B flat Symphony, something which needs to flow gently, but with nobility. But most students were stiff and anxious, putting the music in a straight-jacket. Recognizing that Von K was looking for interpretation and not just time-beating, I gave it plenty of ‘soul’, the orchestra woke up, and the result was so good, Von K beamed with delight.
After everybody had had a pretty catastrophic go at Beethoven’s Adagio, Rudolf asked for a volunteer to take the orchestra through parts of Beethoven’s Second Symphony. As this was one of the few works I had really prepared, I had to make a quick decision. If I didn’t do it myself, I may soon be asked to do one of the many works I had still not looked at. So I didn’t hesitate one moment. I went up to the orchestra, and began without even opening the score. Fortunately, all I had to do was the beginning of each movement, which was easy enough. Before the Scherzo, Rudolf asked me what the second violins did in the fourth bar. I said they played D on the open third string, and the same note stopped on the fourth. This impressive feat of knowledge made it seem as if I knew the score backwards, but in reality it was only an unusual detail I had chanced to notice at a first glance. Altogether, I gave a good show. At least it looked like I knew the music, how to conduct it, and how to talk to an orchestra. I had survived the first trial of fire better than I expected.
In the days that followed, things were easier. I managed to learn each new score before it came up. In fact I realized that Von K had no plan for the Course, so it was quite easy to suggest to him the one piece I had just finished reading. I suppose one could call this cheating, but was it not intelligent anticipation and economy of effort? I hadn’t been in the Army for nothing. As the days passed, I became more and more friendly with Von K. He would invite me to his hotel for drinks after supper, and then expand at great length on his conducting experiences. He must have been well past sixty at that time, but he still had a dynamic energy which animated his somewhat rounded contours. He had that kind of Germanic complexion which runs to an old marbled amber colour suffused with broad red patches and freckled spots. His red, curly hair, though thinning, must once have been quite attractive. At first he gave an impression of severity, for his bushy red brows eagled down over his eyes in a fierce expression. But as soon as he smiled, his whole face heaved up into a quite genial pattern. He also tended to sweat a lot. His handkerchief was always in his hand ready to mop his face, so he seemed human enough at close quarters.
We were getting along fine, but sooner or later, I had to tell him I wouldn’t be staying for the full course. In fact, I had only gone to Siena on the promise to Giulietta that I would take her and our daughter Diana to the seaside on holiday. (Florentines always leave the bad air of the city in August and head for the beaches.) This meant my leaving Siena after only three weeks, and missing the final fortnight of the Course. When I told Von K he was most upset. He said I was his star pupil and was relying on me to conduct in one of the public concerts at the end of the Course. I explained that I was really a composer, had no aspirations to be a conductor, and had only joined the Course for experience, not to take part in concerts. But he was most disconsolate. My excuses only made him more unwilling to understand my reasoning. In fact, I began to feel a bit of a cad.
So I left the Course at its most interesting point, just when we began to study the music in depth. I felt disappointed at leaving Siena just then, but I wouldn’t dream of letting Giulietta go alone. I had not only promised, I had an absolute obligation. So we went to Forte dei Marmi near Viareggio with Diana. This was about the middle of August, and soon enough, I forgot all about Von K . His problems already seemed a long way off, and I no longer felt regrets. I even managed to relax and enjoy a nervous placidity I hadn’t felt for years.
But then a coincidence happened which almost changed my whole future yet again. The last Sunday in August, just before we returned to Florence, we went into Viareggio for an ice cream one afternoon, and I ran right into Von Remourtel, one of the most able boys at Siena. He had taken the weekend off in Viareggio with a girlfriend. So we began chatting about the Siena Course, and he told me all the latest news. I felt the old sense of companionship coming back, and for a moment, longed to be back there with my friends. So when he suggested I go back to Siena for the final concerts as soon as we left Forte dei Marmi the next Tuesday, I found the idea irresistible. In fact, since Giulietta wanted to go there as well, there could be no logical objection, and all was decided.
When I got back to Siena I hardly dared go to see Rudolf. I just intended to go to the final rehearsals. But when I arrived, Von K was there waiting for me at the bus station. Von Remourtel had told him when I was coming. Von K flung his arms around me and hugged me so tightly, I almost collapsed for want of breath. He was highly delighted, but also very urgent to tell me how he needed help. The first of the final concerts was in only two days time. One of the student conductors had just fallen ill, and would I please conduct in his place? I said surely there was somebody else better than I, but Von K said that was just not so. In any case, nobody else could learn the scores in time. What scores were they? Two pieces – only part of a concert. The Borodin B Minor Symphony and Grieg’s Piano Concerto. I didn’t care to do the Grieg, because it would be merely accompanying, almost like following somebody else. But neither work presented any real difficulty. I had played the Borodin with the Durban Symphony Orchestra, and had rehearsed the Grieg for ten weeks in the university orchestra. So I knew every bar.
It was settled then. I was to conduct the two pieces in the first public concert. I felt a bit of a usurper, having been away for a fortnight and possibly robbing somebody else of an opportunity. But it was Von K’s decision, and nobody minded. In fact the other students were all as glad to see me as I was to see them.
So I conducted at the concert, and things went fine, with no problems. Rudolf was greatly pleased. We all went out for a drink afterwards, and he got so drunk and happy he fell on my shoulders in tears. “My dear boy,” he said, “you have saved us from a disastrous defeat”. And I got drunk too, and kept shouting “Von K is the greatest”.
The morning after such events, one tends to feel deflated. It is almost a shock to find the world is still a dull place after all. In a sombre mood, I went off to the morning rehearsal where Garry Samuel was preparing for the next concert. When I arrived, Von K leapt up, grabbed me by the arm, and walked me outside, with a deep frown on his face. We went to a cafe and he ordered coffee.
“Reginaldo,” he said, “in the sober light of day, I want to ask you an important question. I have never slept through thinking of this, and I want a serious answer. Will you please be a conductor? If not, why not?”
I said I hadn’t really thought about it. Firstly, because my ambitions were to be a composer, not a conductor. Secondly, because though I could make little money writing music, I would make still less conducting if I had no orchestra to conduct. And in any case, it was far too late. I was already over thirty and couldn’t afford to change careers yet again at such a hoary old age
But Von K hardly listened. “You are quite wrong,”, he said. “I will make you a conductor. You will come with me, and I will show you. You will also have plenty of time to write music. In any case, writing music is a luxury few of us can afford. Instead, you have a great talent for the orchestra. It would be criminal if you don’t exploit it. Now I have a scheme which I will tell you tonight, if you have agreed. So I want you to go away and think all day, and then tonight we will talk again.”
So in the end, I agreed to think it over. But I was already half persuaded. The excitement of the evening before came back again, and the memory of that feeling of strength and vitality one gets, wielding orchestral power. Just the thought of it made me suddenly feel confident about the future – I would no longer be just an obscure composer, I would be a great conductor. However, there was one gross obstacle I had so far ignored, (quite apart from the havoc an itinerant conducting career would wreck on my domestic life). I was not only still sleepless, but my nerves were in tatters. The nervous exhilaration of the concert had left me in a condition of acute agitation, and I realised that if I had had to conduct the whole concert instead of just two pieces, I would have collapsed. Was I in a fit state to keep up such a nerve-shattering existence? I remembered an experience the previous spring, when I had done a concert with the Geminiani orchestra at Lucca. The programme was child’s play, but the nervous agitation it brought on made it so that I had to be driven back to Florence because I could never have done it myself.
I had to face the real truth. I was in such a poor condition that to have taken on conducting as a daily occupation would either have killed me or driven me into lunacy.
That evening, I met Rudolf as planned, and he was full of a projected tour to the USA, taking me as his assistant. He was so boiling over with anticipation of the venture that I could hardly get a word in edgeways. So I waited for him to finish, and at last, with some trepidation, gave him the disappointing news. I expected him to be angry, but instead he was most solicitous for my well-being. He understood the problem completely, and recommended me to have nothing to do with conducting till I was completely better. There was no alternative. Instead, after that, he was ready to take me with him whenever I wished. And so we parted on the most friendly terms, and I felt relieved and more tranquil at the outcome.
Since then, I have often regretted missing a career I would have enjoyed. But would it have been a success? I have noticed over the years how so many conductors rise with meteoric splendour, and then disappear like smoke in the wind, never to be heard of again. They never come back. The whole music profession is full of such new stars which shine out and then rapidly fade, but by far the greatest fatality rate is amongst conductors. Their careers, as often as not, are calamitous, and must be harrowing experiences. I can see now that in all probability, I would have become tired of conducting only a repertoire of classics, for which I had no vital interest. I would have wanted to perform adventurous modern music, which is by no means popular with concert promoters and audiences, and that would have led me to a crashing downfall. So I should be glad that fate kept me from such a destiny.
* * *
Given that we have touched on the subject of the brevity of musicians’ careers, I think I should point out that we are deceived by the long careers of some virtuosos into thinking that all musicians similarly keep on forever. Instead, if a musician’s career lasts twenty years, he is most fortunate. I have been astonished to see how so many of the great players of one decade have disappeared in the next. I used to conduct the Melos Ensemble in the ‘sixties, and it was regarded as the greatest chamber music group in the country, every player a virtuoso. But I have never heard the name of one of them again during the last twenty years. What is the explanation? The only reason I can think of is that the supply of cheap new musicians needing work is so abundant, that older players are pushed out of the market. And once out, they can never get back in. The house is full. This is a tragic situation. In what other career is a man condemned to silence just when he has reached complete maturity? So many great players must end their working lives in deprivation, never playing again, or if they are lucky, teaching schoolchildren. This is the musician’s last refuge and a poor recompense for so much effort and hard-won experience.
My everlasting search for knowledge of the most esoteric and futuristic trends in modern music led me into the highly mistaken belief that electronic music would become the music of the future. My first meeting with this new medium was when Luciano Berio came to Florence to give a demonstration and lecture at the Michelangelo salon on the Lungarno, in the early ‘fifties. In a way, this was the most catastrophic lecture I have ever heard, for one could see only the thick lenses of Berio’s glasses, peeping round a curtain, and very little else. (In reality, he must have been sitting off stage, controlling a tape recorder.) His spoken commentary was totally incomprehensible, as he spoke in a murmur, ‘sotto voce’, as if to someone sitting next to him, so that from an informative point of view, the lecture was a dead loss.
However, the music illustrations were quite a novelty. They were mostly extracts of both electronic music and concrete music, which Berio had prepared with Bruno Maderna at the new Studio di Fonologia of the Italian Radio at Milan. I discovered later that the samples we heard were very crude affairs whose only interest was in their novelty, and not in their artistry, but I was thoroughly deceived, and remained so for some considerable time to come. I went for a chat with Berio afterwards, and invited him to lunch next day. He was quite charming, and gave me all the information which had been inaudible the previous evening. We were to meet often later, especially when I passed through Milan, for I wrote about his conventional music to a large extent. Of course, since then he has become quite famous, and I was commissioned to write a book about him. However, this request came at the wrong time. I was already too overloaded with other work of more interest. I am not a biographer.
At Berio’s lecture I met another electronic music enthusiast, Pietro Grossi, a Florentine. In fact, he was so enthusiastic, he threw up his flourishing career as a ‘cello concert player, so as to dedicate his energies entirely to electronic music. In fact, he not only threw up his career, he almost threw up his wife as well, for he filled his drawing room with such a mass of tone generators, filters, and recorders, that she left him until he moved everything somewhere else. (He subsequently moved to the Conservatory, then to an American University at Fiesole, and finally, Pisa University.)
For some time, I worked on various projects with Grossi, and I was amazed at his complete dedication and enormous patience with the often tiring and repetitious tasks. One of the most elementary ways of building up a piece of electronic music was by splicing together short pieces of tape of different pitch, each varying in length according to its duration. In one metre of tape, there could be twenty or more splices for music which lasted no more than two seconds. Grossi loved this work, which he seemed to find soothing and satisfying. Instead, it drove me up the wall, not only because the work was irritating and uninteresting, but because I was impatient to hear results as soon as possible. I found it much more satisfying to build up long swathes of sound comprising a variety of tones, which could be varied without any splicing at all. In our first attempt at this method, Grossi was anxious to build up the sounds with at least eight layers of tones chosen by mathematical formulas. The theory was good, but after labouring all day, the result was nothing more than an excessively distorted noise which to me was atrocious. But to Grossi it was perfectly valid because it was a creation which obeyed the rules.
I was surprised to find how much Grossi ignored the questionable artistic value of our work, and only had regard for the constructive principles involved. Inevitably, this made me draw away from involvement with Grossi’s work, though we continued always with our cordial relationship. Grossi’s blindness to the importance of artistic values was only too well confirmed a few years later at the Venice Festival, when his String Quartet was played. The piece comprised nothing but tremendously long notes, with each player joining in or remaining silent according to some pre-conceived scheme. The result was incredibly negative and quite without interest. Worse still, the concert being in the Doges Palace, the music was periodically drowned out by the heavy panting and floundering of the ferry boats at the nearby jetty. It made me quite distressed, but the rest of the audience seemed to take it all in without reservations.
However, there is no doubt that Grossi’s dedication and persistence were rewarded in the end, for he became Director of Computer Music Studies at Pisa University, and organized such prominent affairs as international conventions and publications. I was glad for him that his persistence had borne fruit.
For a time my interest in electronic music languished, until a few pieces of the Milan Studio di Fonologia reconverted me, especially a very poetic ‘Notturno’ of Bruno Maderna. At this point, in 1957, I proposed a talk on electronic music to the BBC Third Programme, using the Milan pieces, and the project was carried through in no time. As far as I know, this was the only programme on electronic music which has ever been broadcast in the UK.
* * *
Bruno Maderna, whose ‘Notturno’ I liked so much, was not only regarded as the leader of avant-garde composition in Italy, but also as a superb conductor of contemporary music. He had been a child prodigy, conducting his first concert at the age of ten, and perhaps this led to his rather eccentric behaviour. I found it extremely difficult to get in contact with him, but fortunately, as he lived in Verona, I could search him out when Giulietta and I went to see her sister there. I found the only way to contact him was through his mother, who kept a delicatessen shop in a poor quarter of the town. Through her it was arranged that Bruno and I should meet for lunch the next day in the town centre. I found him to be a very warm-hearted man, easy-going, and seemingly uncomplicated. He was short, fat and very dark, so that he looked more Southern than a Venetian. We got on famously, and as usual, I said very little and was content to let him talk, so I learned a lot as the meal progressed. At a certain point I mentioned the name Dallapiccola, and was quite astonished when Bruno burst into a tirade, condemning Dallapiccola as a traitor to Italian music. I couldn’t understand the logic of this at all, but refrained from any argument. Later on, knowing Maderna’s work better, I realised that what he meant was that Dallapiccola betrayed Italian music because his use of serialism was restricted only to a modification of conventional music. He was therefore not of the avant-garde, and so was an arch-enemy. Of course, this was a most extreme and prejudiced view, but quite typical of the strongly controversial attitudes in Italy at that time.
After lunch, we went to Bruno’s study to look through his scores. I was always curious to know how composers worked, but Bruno was obviously unwilling to say much beyond banal generalities. At a certain point, he had to go downstairs for a caller, so I seized on the opportunity to look at a piece on a side desk, on which he was obviously working. I could see immediately much of his method. He was making a final score of a string quartet, using pre-prepared successions of notes and durations, written in such a way that the only decisions he had to make were matters of instrumentation. I was familiar enough with this method, and the only thing I wanted to know was how the durations were determined. So when he returned, I steered the conversation round to this piece, and eventually got to the matter of durations. But it was obvious that I had touched a delicate point, so I avoided the issue. However, later on he inadvertently spoke of ‘I-Ching’, and I knew this was the clue. He was using a Chinese game of chance to determine the durations of sounds, and hence the rhythmic shapes. The whole principle was stolen from the work of the American John Cage, who sought to stamp out European influences in music, and make it ‘free of individual taste and memory and also of the literature and traditions of the art’. The use of chance methods (e.g. tossing coins, dice, etc.) eliminated the possibility of personal choice and ‘liberated’ the composer from the use of a conventional language. At the same time, the principle of eliminating value judgements meant that anything was valid. Good and bad no longer existed. Whether all this is bunk or not is not to be discussed here, but what was obvious to me at that time was that Maderna was using Cage’s methods, but did not wish to say so. I thought this odd, especially if he had a genuine enthusiasm for Cage’s methods and philosophies. Perhaps the String Quartet was just an experiment, because other works of Bruno did not show such a strong Cage influence.
* * *
Soon after this meeting, the directors of the AIDEM Orchestra in Florence, which played in the Pitti Palace gardens on summer evenings, offered to play one of my pieces, and asked if I could suggest a suitable conductor. (This was because at that time, modern music was regarded as so difficult that only specialist conductors could be used.) I was foolish enough to suggest Maderna, though I did also mention that getting in touch with him may be difficult, and it would be best to write to his mother. Some kind of contact was made, and the day was fixed, though nothing could be got from Maderna in writing. As the concert day approached, the administrators of AIDEM repeatedly wrote to Maderna, but there was never an answer. (At that time, the telephone was not considered a means of communication in Italy, as it seldom worked over any distance.) At last, I got Giulietta’s sister in Verona to speak to “’Bruno’s mother“’, but her only reply was “not to worry”. And so the concert day came, and the orchestra prepared for rehearsal in the old Pergola Theatre. But at the appointed time, there was no Maderna. We waited in anxious despondency. After half an hour we almost gave up, but ten minutes later, the maestro strolled in with no concern as to whether he was late or not.
To me, the rehearsal was an agony. My piece was ‘An Epitaph for Alban Berg’ for string orchestra – a short piece which is easy enough, but the players seemed to struggle from bar to bar with excruciating difficulty. The rehearsal had to stop before the end of my piece was reached. Schubert’s big C Major Symphony had to be run through, but Maderna told me not to worry. Everything would be fine that evening.
He was quite right. My piece went beautifully. Even the part that had never been rehearsed, but it could equally well have been a catastrophe. One thing was certain – I would never recommend Maderna again. A few years later, when William Glock was modernising the BBC Orchestra, Maderna was appointed conductor. I warned Glock what to expect, and true enough, Maderna’s reign was short and chaotic. I could never understand how a man could be so gifted in one way, and so grossly impractical in another. He died early, almost before he was middle-aged, and Italian music lost a potentially great figure; in fact his influence still lives on in many ways. I liked him a lot, but found his ways too infuriating.