Victor Watson, double bass
I first saw Victor Watson in 1937. The London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham were coming to Coventry to play at the Coventry Hippodrome. It was a great event; a special train was bringing them from London, and all tickets were snappped up in a day. I had saved up and bought my ticket and was eagerly looking forward to the event.
Came the day and I was amazed to see all the great names playing in the orchestra which had been founded in 1932. The basses were situated where the cellos often sit, in the front of the stage to the conductor’s right. It might have been that Beecham wanted to show off his bass section which was really great.
I shall never forget the concert, Don Giovanni overture, Cézar Franck’s Symphony and a rousing encore, what else but Berlioz’s Hungarian March. The audience went wild. I had not long been studying the bass seriously and one of the main things that struck me was the clarity of the basses in the overture. There is a fugal entrance with six notes played staccato followed by four notes played legato. It often sounds just a jumble but at that concert all the notes came out sparkling and clear.
Later on, in 1945 after I had graduated as a solo performer on the double bass I gave an audition at the Royal Albert Hall and then had to play next to Mr. Watson, who had also graduated as a soloist, for him to see what I was like in the orchestra. I had had two of the best teachers in England, Arthur Cockerill, principal bass of the City of Birmingham Orchestra and Eugene Cruft, principal bass of the BBC Symphony. I thought I knew it all but when I started with the London Philharmonic I realised what a lot I still had to learn, and I was so fortunate to have Victor Watson as my mentor in orchestral playing.
Victor, (or Mr. Watson as I called him then) must have been about 62 years of age at that time, and well steeped in the orchestral repertoire. Concerts mainly consisted of all the old favourites plus an occasional modern piece. They couldn’t afford to be too venturesome. He knew all the standard repertoire by heart, never counted bars rest and brought the bass section in on every important entrance.
I learned such a lot from the way he bowed the parts. Many editions have printed bowings put in by some eunuch and quite impossible to play. Victor had a masterly approach and changed many of them, all for the better. In parts that were notorious for “dominos”, i.e. coming in at the wrong place, he would change the bowing in order to avoid such problems. He would change slurs and sometimes get the section to play ” off the string” for clarity. The general effect of all this was to make the bass section sound terrific. If he had to play a solo, he would just brace himself and then produce a gorgeous, mellifluous sound. One famous principal bass I knew was a fine player, but if he had to play a difficult solo would fortify himself with gin and aspirins, not so with Victor. This taught me something, for although I have had to play some difficult solos in my career, I braced myself, like Victor and they came off.
Talking of solos, I was very glad to gain from his great experience in how to play them. For instance Koussevitsky, with whom he had played the Bottesini Duets and from de Sabata to whom he discussed and played various solos. I once heard him play Simandl’s arrangement of a Handel oboe sonata. He played on a very fine Italian small, three stringed bass with gut strings. I still think that a fine instrument fitted with gut strings can sound better than one with metal strings, although I use metal strings myself.
In appearance Victor was thin with a bald pate. His index finger, right hand, was missing due to catching it in a clothes mangle when he was a kid but in no way did it affect his tone. He was far from being an intellectual. In his spare time he liked to back horses and drink the occasional pint of beer.
Many great conductors came to the LPO in those days and it was remarked throughout the orchestra that they all went up to Victor and shook his hand or embraced him. He well deserved his nickname of “The Master”.