Interview by Jason Heath

Thank you to Jason Heath for sending me this interview with me which I am very pleased to put on my blog site.

I really enjoy Jason’s blog, and as I tend to write about the past it’s nice to be brought up to date with present day bass happenings. He is doing a real service to the bass community.

Listen to the podcast of the interview here, at his Contrabass Conversations podcast site.


BBC Music Magazine article on Herbert von Karajan #4

The Philharmonia and the Berlin Philharmonic’s Sound

The Philharmonia and the Berlin Philharmonic’s sound, and also the “Karajan Sound” is discussed.  I venture to say that at that time, the fifties, although some could say I am biased, having been a member of the Philharmonia at that time, its sound was better than the Berlin Philharmonic.  This was because Legge scoured the world for the best players he could find, and also musicians were clamouring to get into the Philharmonia because of the take home pay. The Berlin Philharmonic’s strings did sound a little more robust than the Philharmonia’s strings, but Legge wanted, and got, a Philharmonia .string section with a wonderful shimmering , mellifluous sound.

I believe that the sound on the re-mastered CD’s one can buy today is only an approximation of the live sound each orchestra made. The live sound can be different in each venue and in each recording there are other factors to consider;  the recording studio, the tonmeister, the technicians and the conductor.

The conductor can set a good tempo and obtain the sound he wants but this can be altered drastically in the mastering, so that the final result can be a witches brew of the ideas of several people, and at the final listening session the conductor may have to accept a compromise of what he really wanted and what is presented to him.

I suppose the only way to judge would be to listen to each orchestra play live in the same concert hall, but alas, that is no longer possible, we have to rely on the approximation given by the CD’ s,  and everyone’s opinions are subjective.

Published in: Uncategorized on April 15, 2008 at 9:49 am  Leave a Comment  
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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.

Famous Orchestral Personalities of Yesteryear: John Solomons, trumpeter

John Solomons, Trumpeter
It was in the late 1940’s.  The London Symphony Orchestra asked me to play with them at the Royal Albert Hall, London,  in a performance of “Israel in Egypt”.  Sir Malcolm Sargent was conducting and the Royal Choral Society was singing.

Sargent was at his best when conducting choral music and I was looking forward to playing the engagement.  At the morning rehearsal we had arrived at the Plague Choruses and Sargent noticed that we were all anxious to have the intermission and a cup of coffee so we all trooped off stage and as I was exiting I noticed a well dressed old gentleman surrounded by a large group of the older players in the orchestra. I enquired of his name and was told Jack Solomons, and that he was over ninety years of age, although he did not look it. In his day  he was reckoned to be the best trumpeter in the country.  He could play all the exacting Bach stuff well, but his tour de force was the trumpet obbligato in “The Trumpet Shall Sound” from Handel’s “Messiah”.

He would arrive at the concert dressed immaculately, sporting a large diamond ring on his right hand, clutching a long ‘D’ trumpet.  He always brought the house down. In his day there were many choral societies scattered round Great Britain and Jack was always sent for to play the “Trumpet Shall Sound ” whenever it was on the programme so he must have made a killing with all those fees.  The long ‘D’ trumpet seems to have gone out of fashion now, but I have to admit I liked the sound and also it looked so dramatic

There is a moral to be drawn from this, especially by some of our younger players.  My teacher and mentor, Eugene Cruft, always drummed it into me that it was not only necessary to build up a good playing technique but also to present oneself on stage with a good air and presence, looking confident and well groomed. He was right!

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.

Musical Families: The Fawcetts

Round about the beginning of the 20th century it became a fashion in some musical families to name their children after famous musicians.  The Fawcett family excelled in this as well as in its fertility. They were an English North Country family of musicians and were well represented in the Hallé Orchestra of Manchester

There was an oboist who also played the cor anglais at Covent Garden Opera; he had to put up with Mendelssohn as his first name. Then there was Harold Fawcett, the sub-principal bassist of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.  His middle name was Rossini, but we never dared to mention it to him.  There were several Haydns and Mozarts and other famous composers too many to enumerate.

It seems to have dropped out of fashion although I’ve met quite a few Haydns who weren’t Fawcetts in my time.

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: Leon Goossens, oboist

In my day, Leon Goossens stood head and shoulders by reputation above all the other principal oboists in London and elsewhere.  His sound, which I find difficult to describe, was round, almost trumpet-like and not very “reedy“, as so many oboists sound,  but I thought it was exquisite.  He was sought after by many orchestras and conductors and began a solo playing career, appearing as an orchestra principal less and less as his fame developed.  His recordings are now legendary.He was of Flemish descent.  I was once introduced to his father, the conductor Eugene Goossens who was still living in  Antwerp. Leon, despite his Flemish background spoke perfect English with an upper class accent.  He was handsome, tallish, slim, fair haired and slightly balding.He was a good raconteur, and had the air of a lordly squire which many found attractive, especially the young girls.  He taught at one of the leading schools of music and had many young ladies as pupils, one of whom said to me, “I do like that dear Mr. Goossens, he’s so wonderful, don’t you think?”  His bon mot to his fellow oboe instructor was “You teach ‘em and I’ll screw ‘em”, a saying that is now famous.I often used to see him at free lance dates and we sometimes chatted, and although we were not friends in the true sense I always enjoyed his company. Alas, tragedy was to strike him one night late when he was driving home from a concert.  A drunk driver ran a red light and crashed into his car.  I never saw him playing the oboe again, but he did continue playing  the English horn until he was a good age.

Published in: on November 29, 2007 at 2:58 pm  Comments (2)  
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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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