Retiring from Playing the Double bass

There used to be a popular song when I was a kid; “Where do all the Flies go in the Winter Time?” so what happens to bassists when they get old?
I have mentioned some bass players in my blogs. Many go on to a ripe old age and never retire.  Some leave (or are left out!) of the profession and very few seem to retire in comfort.
I can think of one bassist in the BBC Symphony Orchestra whom I met in 1947, his name was Dan Burton and he had reached the magic BBC retiring age of 60.
Although Dan was around the age of retirement he always arrived very early for rehearsal and warmed up with scales and arpeggios plus a look at the music on his stand.
He was a burly individual who had hands, to quote Eugene Cruft, “like sides of beef”and looked very healthy.
He found an ideal cottage (so he thought), in Somersetshire in the West of England  and had only been living there for three months when Winter came and so did the floods.  Dan’s cottage was inundated, he caught pneumonia and died.

I don’t know what to add,  there should be a moral somewhere in this.


How Musicians of a Previous Era Managed to Survive and Comments on the Present Day Situation. #2

It was WWII that put classical music on the map in England.  During the war an organization was formed, The Council For Encouragement of Music and the Arts, (C.E.M.A.), which sponsored concerts for the entertainment of the Troops and munitions workers. Later on it was taken over by a department of the British Council. The London Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra were funded together with many smaller classical ensembles.  The concerts were well attended and so began the big post war classical music revival which lasted for over twenty years.  Then the economy changed, and also peoples tastes, plus there was a huge development in recording technique and television.

Walter Legge founded the. Philharmonia Orchestra in the mid ‘forties and a little later Sir Thomas Beecham founded the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.  This meant five Symphony orchestras in London (if the BBC symphony Orchestra is included) fighting for a part of an ever diminishing pie.

Perhaps there was a surfeit of classical music or maybe the rise of rock bands contributed to the diminishing audience also the shortage of discretionary cash plus the proliferation of ipods has affected matters.

For the past few years much of the recording that was done in London has now given way to recording in some of the Eastern European countries where the fees are much less and as I mentioned in Blog #1 of this series technology  has developed so rapidly that virtual orchestras replace live musicians in the pit. Despite the doom and gloom that prevails I notice that many concerts still attract full audiences, the reason being, I think, is that these are superbly played and designed to give the classical music lovers not just a concert but a great experience. The old days of giving a Tchaikovsky Symphony, the Grieg piano concerto and the 1812 overture with military band and fireworks may be going out of the window.
The last surviving radio orchestra in North America, the CBC Vancouver Radio Orchestra was recently axed.  I read some comments in the newspapers where it was hinted that the idea behind it all was to recognize the huge ethnic community in Canada and play more ethnic music.  We may even see such instruments as pan-pipes, nakers, samisens etc. incorporated into our Western orchestras, who knows what the future will bring. There is certainly an increase in the number of Oriental, Middle Eastern and South Asian artists playing at concerts and on TV in Vancouver, B.C. and very good they are too.

I was in China recently, and interestingly enough I noticed that Western music was burgeoning there.  They had several symphony orchestras.

Perhaps in my next life I shall be known as Bob the samisen not Bob the bass!

Requiem for an Orchestra (4)

I don’t really want to get into the subject of funding of the CBC, but I do believe it is important that it receive adequate funding because it is one of the few links that holds Canada together. This is recognized, too, by other countries. With all the talk of Arctic Sovereignty I would remind my readers that the CBC Radio Orchestra was touring the Arctic well over thirty years ago besides showing the flag all round Canada and the neighbouring States in the USA

Relentlessly, over many years the CBC budget has been gradually eroded, suffering the death of a thousand cuts. Probably there have been studies done already to find out what the heads of the CBC and the Canada Council are really doing for all the money that is expended on them. Enough of studies, just give them some more cash and resuscitate the CBC Radio Orchestra. There have been past studies that say that for every dollar expended on the Arts the return is ninefold. As the Orchestra is based in Vancouver, with the coming Winter Games in 2010, has anyone approached the Provincial Government for help?
The Esterházy Princes were the patrons of so many great composers and musical events in the 17th and 18th centuries. Later came the 19th. century industrial barons who founded many orchestras throughout the world. When I was growing up in the Great Depression it wasn’t a good time for musicians. There were no subsidies, only donations from wealthy people and, on top of all that the talkies came in displacing hundreds of musicians from their livelihood.

The London Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1904 was only playing the occasional concert. The BBC Symphony, founded in 1930, was the only permanent full time orchestra that paid its members a pension, and the London Philharmonic was founded in 1932 by Sir Thomas Beecham with the help I am told, of Lady Cunard of the shipping line.

Opera was the same. The short seasons at Covent Garden were mainly élitist. Sadlers Wells opera hung on by a thread , but Lilian Bayliss,who was an indefatigable promoter of opera and theatre was on stage practically every night telling the audience that the whole endeavour was going to hell in a handcart if there were no more donations forthcoming, but somehow it survived. I remember going there as a kid and seeing and hearing much of the opera repertoire. Joan Cross was the prima donna whom I got to know later when I worked with Benjamin Britten in the English Opera Group. Another opera company that survived was the Carl Rosa with whom I played later on but because of some skullduggery going on between it and the British Council it was re-named Opera 1951 and went into oblivion. The British National Opera Company which did some good things was founded in 1922 but folded in 1929. The British Council was formed in 1935.
When WWII broke out CEMA, The Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts was formed in Britain to entertain the masses, and another group, ENSA was devoted to more light entertainment,: Since that time music and the Arts flourished, so much so that every little hamlet seems to have had its own school of music and yearly festival, but now there is a decline in music; some orchestras are folding, people have less discretionary income and governments are spending money on other things deemed to be more pressing than music.

Some might say there has been a surfeit of music. I heard one owner of a large record company say that in ten years there won’t be any more shops left selling CD’s. A big Canadian chain has cut down on its stores and no longer sells many classical CD’s; you have to order them specially.

Maybe we musicians should take a look at where modern technology is taking us, with its ipods, blackberries, virtual orchestras and recorded music played for shows and ballets with no orchestra in the pit. It is not nearly the same, or as good, as live.

I feel I have done more than my share in the past, putting on festivals, fund raising, building theatres and arts centres and forming a company to help young musicians, etc. etc. but perhaps some musicians and music lovers out there could and should make their voice heard and not let this fine Orchestra go into oblivion. It seems to me that it should be a part of a conductor’s mandate to use her/his power on the podium to encourage people to help the cause. Maybe also people behind the scenes in Radio and TV together with the paid mandarins in public arts organizations could get together and be a little bit more active in promotion of the Arts too. Save this Orchestra, it’s not yet too late, there could be a change of heart if sufficient people demand it. It wouldn’t be the first time it has happened.

Musicians and their Hobbies

When I was a kid there was a music hall song called  “Where do all the Flies go in the Wintertime?” One might just as well ask that of professional classical musicians.  What do they do in their spare time?  Well, it varies depending on the musician, if she/he is very busy , then it’s a humdrum life of just work and sleep. I can remember times when I would go for over three months without a day off.

Eugene Cruft, my teacher and mentor once told me that I should do all my practice before entering the musical profession because once I started I would be too busy to do anything but play, eat and sleep. And so it turned out.  All these oft quoted scenes of a Bohemian life are very rare.

To earn sufficient money to live, many musicians have to teach.  When I was freelancing in London there was no time to do that.  I was fortunate to be very successful, but it came with a price.  I bought a bigger house (with a bigger mortgage!), I sent my kids to good schools but it all had to be paid for, so I had to keep my nose to the grindstone , (or my bow on the strings).

But there were one or two who seemed to lead a more balanced life.  Two bassists were good photographers, a ‘cellist in the BBC Symphony  collected and repaired old clocks,. Two bassists in the London Philharmonic were skilled instrument repairers.  Bob Norris, sub-principal bassist with the BBC Symphony made tolerably good basses, and Cyril McArthur, a freelance bassist who sometimes played in the Philharmonia Orchestra was fed up with the rat race so he went to a little village in Italy and made bass bows.  I was told they were very good.

Looking back,  two profound statements were made to me that I didn’t realize at the time were so significant.  One, Jack Upchurch was a tolerably good bassist, but his hobby was making model steam trains from scratch .  One day I went to his house to see his model railway.  I asked him why he didn’t do more playing, and he answered “You can either live to work, or work to live”.  The second, which I mentioned in a previous blog came  from Francis Baines, a bassist in the London Philharmonic who also was a good composer.  He took leave from the LPO and went to live in a little cottage in the country for two years so that he could get down to serious composing.  When he returned to the LPO I asked him if he had learnt anything in his absence, and he said “Yes, I have. You don’t need as much money to live on as you are led to believe”.

The upshot of all this is that later on I studied painting, Tai Chi and cooking and it certainly has given me a more balanced life.  I now go to concerts to listen from the other side of the footlights and occasionally scrape the bass, but, dear friends and colleagues, try not to be as insular as I was, take time to smell the flowers, it’s wonderful!

Sir Henry Wood, Conductor and Founder of the London Promenade Concerts

Sir Henry Wood’s main claim to fame is as the founder of the Promenade Concerts in London. I saw him conduct in 1936 at the Queen’s Hall, London, the programme included “Scheherazade”.  Unfortunately the Queen’s Hall  was to be destroyed in a German air raid.  Later I saw him conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Bedford at the end of WW ll to where the BBC Symphony had been evacuated.

He was known affectionately to the orchestra as “Old Timber”, but not recognized by them as being in the front rank of conductors.

Perhaps the reason for this was that Sir Henry was always strapped for cash and could only afford one rehearsal for a Prom concert.  Rehearsals were for three hours but the length of the concerts was upwards of two and a half hours leaving very little time for actual rehearsing. In order to obtain the best results, Sir Henry spent many hours preparing the orchestral parts and scores.  I played from some of his parts on occasion and was surprised to see the markings on them in thick pencil, and also had the privilege of looking at his orchestral scores where he marked in thick pencil the areas where he expected things to go wrong, and, according to some of the old players he was right!

Woe betide a budding composer if he arrived at rehearsal with mistakes in the orchestral parts or not having prepared the orchestral score properly.  Sir Henry was unforgiving.

Perhaps if he had had the luxury of time at his rehearsals he would be viewed differently, but he will forever be recognized as being the founder of the Proms and should always receive the respect that is his due.

Musical Families: The Cockerills

The Cockerills were a famous musical family who came from Birmingham, England.

Arthur Cockerill who was my first double bass teacher, held the position of principal bass in the City of Birmingham Orchestra as it was then called, and also principal bass in the BBC Midland Orchestra. He gave me a thorough grounding.  Later on I had to join the Army and off to France, but I did see him often later on in the ‘fifties.  He was a polite and courteous man, a true gentleman in the old fashioned  sense that you don’t see around much today.

His brother, Bert, was in the BBC Symphony Orchestra.  He was killed in an air raid on Bristol to where the BBC Symphony Orchestra had been evacuated from London for “safety”!

There were two harpists, Winifred and John Cockerill, cousins of Arthur, who were principal harpists with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra respectively.

Winnie was a good harpist, the only woman in the orchestra.  She was a very compassionate lady and  took some of the men under her wing when they needed help.  Keeping up the tradition of bassists and harpists she was married to a very fine bassist, Jimmy Hunt.

John was always immaculate as was his playing.  He was reckoned to be among the best harpists in London at the time. Once, when I was sitting near him at a rehearsal I heard him singing a naughty little ditty to the ballet tunes.  At that time, callow youth that I was, I didn’t expect to hear a pillar of the profession such as John to be so earthy, but it showed me that some great men are only human at times.

Famous Orchestral Players of Yesteryear: Marie Wilson

Probably not many people have heard of Marie Wilson, violinist, who was a leader in all senses of the word.

She was an original member of the BBC Symphony orchestra that was founded in 1930 and which had a large proportion of women in it. A formidable player she often led when the BBC Symphony was divided into sections A,B,C, or D. and on occasion led the whole orchestra.

To realize what a remarkable thing this was for a woman to get that job in those days, you have to set your mind way back, even to the end of WW 1. At that time there was a woman, Dame Ethel Smythe, who championed the women’s movement. She was a composer and among her works was “The Wreckers” an opera, which I saw and also a piece written for the Suffragettes. She championed women composers and musicians and there was even a Women’s Symphony Orchestra but it was a hard struggle because of the prejudice against women at that time. There were other women whom I knew, Doris Greenish, a bassist, Nadia Boulanger and Kathleen Riddick both conductors whom I played for and who also advanced the cause.

Chief amongst the opponents to women musicians, in England at any rate, was Sir Thomas Beecham who vowed never to employ women “because if they were pretty they would distract him and if they were ugly that would distract him too”. Some of the remarks he made to women were particularly offensive. He was once engaged to conduct an orchestra that employed a young woman ‘cellist, and he said to her “My dear, you have that beautiful thing between your legs and all you can do is to scratch it”.

George Szell said after an auditioning a woman I know, a fine violinist, “Go home my dear and have babies”. That must have been fifty years ago.

When I joined the London Philharmonic Orchestra over sixty years ago, the only woman in the orchestra was the harpist. Likewise the London Symphony Orchestra, but when Marie Goossens, the harpist retired she was replaced by a man, Ossian Ellis, but gradually women were being engaged more and more. One event occurred when Leon Goossens made (or was alleged to have made) what was deemed to be an offensive remark. (see my blog, Leon Goossens) and this led to a minor protest and afterwards windows were installed on all the studios of that institution.. It wasn’t the catalyst but it was one small step towards women entering into the profession. They were finally being listened to.

WWll was the event which led to women coming into their own. It wasn’t done by burning bras but the simple fact that many of the men were away fighting in the front line. I came through Dunkirk and was discharged back into civilian life, so I was able to play occasionally with the City of Birmingham Orchestra. I was surprised to see the number of women. Sir Adrian Boult, a previous conductor of the CBO also helped this trend. Some of the women were fine players. I remember particularly well Lucy Vincent, a magnificent oboist who also trained many orchestra principals.

Later on when I was playing in the Legge Philharmonia Orchestra there were several women playing in it, including Marie Wilson who had left the BBC.

One bone of contention that the Philharmonia men had was that although the women received equal pay, some of them also expected to be treated with preference. I remember crossing the English Channel on the ferry to France. There weren’t enough sleeping berths for everyone in the orchestra but some women said “But of course the berths should be for the women”. I think things have changed since fifty years, but what does all this have to do with Marie Wilson? This: She was the only woman at that time who was allowed to demonstrate for all to hear that she was as capable or better than many men to lead a famous orchestra, and that was some feat.

I often used to chat with her, she was a charming lady and a good conversationalist. She retired when she was quite a good age and went to spend the rest of her days on the South Coast of England. Salut to Marie!

Great Orchestral players of yesteryear. Victor Watson, double bass

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”.

Great Instrumentalists of Yesteryear: Aubrey Brain, French Horn

Aubrey Brain, French Horn

In 1936 when I was sixteen I saved up my money and went down to London to listen to the BBC Symphony Orchestra play at the old Queen’s Hall which, unfortunately, was completely destroyed in the London Blitzkrieg in WWll.  It was a lovely hall, with a  pool filled with goldfish and a fountain surrounded by flowers in the promenade area.The conductor was Sir Henry Wood who conducted very ably, I thought, and the orchestra was superb; it had all the most famous players of the day. Amongst them was French Horn player Aubrey Brain,  father of Dennis Brain.Although many so called experts  laud Dennis, quite rightly,as being one of the greatest of horn players, nobody seems to extol the virtues of Aubrey, but in fact, some of the old sweats in the orchestras who had heard them both play when they were in their prime vowed to me that Aubrey was the better of the two.That night the orchestra played Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade“, and when Aubrey played the solos in it I was enthralled, and even if I was only the tender age of sixteen I knew enough to know that here was a great artist.I didn’t see Aubrey again for some years. I was playing principal bass at Sadlers Wells Opera in 1960 and Aubrey was playing fourth horn. He told me that during the war when the blackout was enforced he was driving his car on the south coast of England and his car plunged over a sea wall and on to the beach.  He seriously injured both of his legs and, too, I think it affected his playing.  What a pity for someone of his calibre to end up in such a way.

Published in: on November 29, 2007 at 2:47 pm  Comments (1)  
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Orchestral Personalities: Alec Whittaker, oboist

I doubt whether anyone remembers Alec Whittaker, oboist. Alec was the original first oboe for the BBC Symphony Orchestra when it was founded in 1930.

A controversial figure, he was a member of what was dubbed the Royal Family: the first flute, first clarinet, first oboe and first bassoon, so called because of their haughty attitude to orchestral managers and conductors in particular. Alec was noted for this. Any young conductor was in for a bad time if he as much as demanded a certain way of playing a particular oboe solo. He always addressed Sir Adrian Boult as “Mr. Boult” even after he had been knighted. Sir Adrian, a Quaker, never sought honours or publicity. It was only at the insistence of the BBC’s top management that he accepted it.

When Toscanini came to conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra just before WW. I I he requested Alec to play some passage in a certain way, to which Alec replied, “Bloody old organ-grinder”. I know this for a fact because Eugene Cruft and others who were there verified it. Apparently Toscanini made no reply, perhaps not quite understanding what Alec had said.

I used to see Alec around London where he was prominent as a free-lance musician, then one day I noticed that he wasn’t around anymore. Imagine my surprise when years later I was playing at the Stratford-on-Avon Shakespeare Memorial Theatre; I crossed the road after rehearsal for a pub lunch. I was astounded to see Alec playing Mine Host, and thoroughly enjoying it too. He was a Dionysian and fond of his tipple, the only thing that worried me was that he was consuming all the profits!