David Tall : Life
I came under the spell of the music and philosophy of Frederick Delius when I was a teenager. At the age of thirteen I heard a performance of On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring on the radio. It was like no other music on earth. I had no record-player or tape-recorder at the time and so, apart from the odd concert and radio broadcast, my contact with music was through reading the score or taking part in a performance. Wellingborough Public Library had a surprisingly good selection of music and books on Delius. I found the marvellous book by Arthur Hutchings with its analysis of the music and of the life of the composer. Then there was a book of piano pieces, such as the Three Preludes, the Five Piano Pieces, with transcriptions of the Walk to the Paradise Garden and the Serenade from Hassan. Even more amazing was the vocal score of A Village Romeo and Juliet and the Mass of Life.
The music and life of Delius affected me deeply. It was not just the new harmonies that I picked out labouriously at the piano from the examples in Hutchings book, and from the other piano scores. There was the mental power of the man. Not only could he write the most ethereal and magical music that I found in the Walk to the Paradise Garden, but also the opening chorus “O Du Meine Wille!” in the Mass of Life. “O, thou my will!” The idea was intoxicating. By will alone, anything could be achieved. I was profoundly affected by this idea. It showed in Delius’s later life when he was blind and crippled and yet was able to write Songs of Farewell to the sonorous words of Walt Whitman. It helped me resolve to make my own decisions and concentrate on achieving whatever I felt was important.
From my early teenage years I preferred having the musical score of a composition rather than a recording. At the time you must realize that I did not have a record-player in the modern sense. At Overstone we had a wind-up player that could cope with a few 78s, such as the cowboy song ‘I'm waiting for the last round-up’, but I had no access to classical music. On the other hand, I taught myself to read musical scores and imagine the sound in my mind. A recording was a one-off conception. Far better was the score in its pristine purity that encouraged me to imagine the abstract music itself rather than a particular performance. Nevertheless, in the Beecham recordings of Delius, I found a sublime perfection.
The first LP I ever bought which I took with me to Oxford as a student consisted of Beecham’s 1958 recording of Delius. In those days we bought a single record and listened to it over and over again. This LP cost 38/6 (just less than £2 which is what I paid for a week’s rent for a room in digs out of an annual grant of £350). On one side was Brigg Fair, Song before Sunrise, Marche Caprice, and the other was On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, Summer Night on the River, Sleigh Ride and Intermezzo from Fennimore and Gerda. I listened to it nearly every day. I was mesmerised by the opening sounds of nature at the beginning of Brigg Fair, the stunning slow middle section in alternating quavers in the wind played under a singing melody in the first violins with a rising triplet phrase, later passed between woodwind soloists and a bewitching horn solo; the music rises in tempo and tension, falling away to silence at the end.
I was particularly overwhelmed by his recording of “Song of the High Hills”, recorded in 1946 and re-released in 1961 on LP when I was a student. This great single span of thought begins on the foothills of the mountains and rises to the heights where a wordless chorus transports the listener to another world before subsiding back down into nothingness. In the closing bars of Beecham’s recording, the horn soloist loses his place by a couple of beats, but this enhances the dying fall rather than spoiling it. The wordless chorus in the central climax is unbelievable. It never fails to inspire.
I loved the performance so much I felt I must restrict myself to a single hearing each year. My reason for this strange decision goes back to a performance of the Brahms clarinet quintet I heard at the Oxford Music Society, which intoxicated me with its emotional power. I bought an LP of the work and listened to it too often. It lost its magic. Hearing it too often reduced its impact. This is the sadness of recorded music. We can listen to part of a Mahler Symphony before breakfast and stop the recording when the milkman comes. What a dreadful way to treat the masterpieces of the greatest musical minds in history! When I heard the Ring Cycle for the first time, despite the fact that I had all the orchestral scores, I refused to study it at all until I had heard it fresh just the once. I could listen to it intellectually the second time and the third and fourth. But that first flush of excitement and wonder can come only once. Rarely comest thou, O spirit of delight!
My love of Delius has survived the whole of my life. On my 21st birthday, my mother decorated my birthday cake with the final flourish of the flute in the closing bars of the violin concerto. I sought out performances of his music whenever I could ... A Village Romeo and Juliet at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, The Mass of Life conducted by Sargent in the Royal Albert Hall. But I could not play in Delius's music or conduct it. The huge demands on orchestra with its large instrumental resources made it impossible for an amateur to programme.
In 1962 The Delius Centenary occurred just as Beecham died and the Bradford Festival needed to find a new director to oversee the concerts. Eric Fenby, who had been Delius’s amanuensis from 1928 to 1934 was plucked out of obscurity as head of the music department at Scarborough Teacher Training College. I met him in London when he played the piano accompanying Delius violin sonatas. I asked him if he would be willing to set the Delius Five Piano Pieces for small orchestra and he agreed. I returned to Oxford where I was orchestral manager of the college orchestra and asked to share the conducting of a concert. This was met with derision by the then conductor of the college orchestra until I announced that we would be playing the world premiere of a piece by Delius orchestrated by Fenby. In the concert I also conducted Two Aquarelles arranged for Strings by Fenby, On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring and Warlock’s Capriol Suite.
Fenby travelled to Oxford for the concert and listened to tapes I had made of the previous rehearsal. He particularly loved the solo flute playing in the Five Pieces and I dare not tell him that the flautist playing in the rehearsal was to be replaced for the final rehearsal and concert. When he heard the unprepared flute solo in the final rehearsal, Fenby ran up to him and cried out telling him to play as he had played before. Thankfully the flautist said nothing and Fenby never knew that he was sightreading. Fenby was also very critical of my conducting in the First Cuckoo, saying that I should conduct the 6 /4 rhythm at 2 in a bar, not 6. The concert went very well and I had a wonderful review in the Oxford Journal. There were also members of the Delius Society Committee present, including Charles Barnard, the editor of the Society Newsletter, who named me (unofficially) the Delius Society ‘Member of the Year’ in 1964. Frankly I was not flattered. My standards were so high that I could never attain them and, though pleased that I had succeeded in conducting the pieces, I did not feel that the performance was on the same planet as the act of creation by the composer.
I also had the opportunity to take a long walk in Christchurch Meadows with Eric Fenby to discuss the possibility that I might turn from academic mathematics to becoming a practising musician. He advised me strongly against the possibility, saying that if I became a rank and file orchestral player I would have a difficult life, living out of a suitcase and fitting teaching jobs in to make sufficient money to live. So I chose to be an academic mathematician and continue to conduct music of my own choice.
I continued to stay in contact with Eric, including interviewing him about his work with Delius, getting him to mark my scores with indications of what was available written in draft, what was dictated by Delius and what he added himself. This became an article entitled ‘The Fenby Legacy’, whose title was re-used for a collection of recordings of the orchestral pieces he helped Delius finish as his amanuensis. One matter he was clear about. He asserted that no-one could tell Delius what to write. He was disappointed that Beecham would not conduct the final Song of Farewell 'Now Finale to the Shore' because it started with a seven beat phrase and Beecham claimed that Delius would have never written that. In recent years I have consulted Delius's original sketches in the British Library, which confirmed that Fenby was right. However, in other matters, Fenby's recollections differed from what was available, for example he told me how he took down the opening of the first Song of Farewell when there was already a fair copy of a full score of the whole piece in the Grainger museum. He also specified the bars he had available for the song Avant que tu non ailles when there was already a full version copied earlier by Jelka. My academic research in how we remember previous events shows us how we remember the bones of a story and embroider it with plausible detail. Eric has been asked so often to repeat stories of his work with Delius that his immediate recall in Delius as I Knew Him is likely to be more accurate than his later retelling of his memories.
Over the years I continued my advocacy of Delius, for example being granted the honour by the Delius Trust to conduct the first performance of the 1890 Suite with the Beauchamp Sinfonietta. I also mounted a campaign to get the Trust to pay for Fenby to conduct the works he took down with Delius. This was originally rebuffed on the grounds that Fenby was not a professional conductor, but years later the music was recorded as ‘The Fenby Legacy’. I also succeeded in proposing that Eric should be given an honorary doctorate at the University of Warwick, which pleased him enormously.
From the music of Delius, it was a natural step to investigate the totally different output of his friend Percy Grainger. I first heard of Grainger as a boy playing in some of his light pieces such as Mock Morris, Londonderry Air, and Handel in the Strand, in the Northampton Senior String Orchestra conducted by my teacher Ronald Harding. Mr Harding told me Grainger was a sad fellow who felt he had failed to make a name for himself as a great composer, but had certainly written highly popular light music. Later I found that he had also written some of the most sublime pieces of music that I heard outside Delius - minature perfections like Shallow Brown and The Power of Love. When I was the conductor of the Beauchamp Sinfonietta, I started a tradition of single-composer concerts, such as Bach, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Mozart, Gershwin and Johann Strauss. I decided in the mid seventies to prepare a full Grainger concert and wrote accordingly to Schott‘s in London to ask what music of Grainger was available for hire. I had no reply. I tried a second time with the same effect. At that time, Percy featured in the Delius Society Journal and I found the address of Stewart Manville, who had married Percy Grainger’s widow, Ella, and took care of Percy’s music. I wrote to Stewart, who lived in Grainger's home in White Plains, New York, and explained how I was unable to get music from Percy's British publisher. I asked him for a letter of introduction to go to Schott’s to sort out music for performance and he kindly wrote one. I then walked into Schott’s in London and innocently asked if they could tell me how I could obtain copies of Grainger's music for performance. I was, essentially, given the brush off. I then drew out the letter and asked to see someone in authority. The response was more fortunate than I could ever have dreamed. Having got through the barrier that had been placed before me on previous occasions, I got through to Alan Woolgar who had worked in the company for years and had met Grainger personally on a number of occasions. He found that piles of Grainger scores were in a warehouse in Kent. I offered my services to produce a catalogue. At the same time, with Barry Ould, whose name had been given me by Stewart Manville, I set about organising a Percy Grainger Society.
To do this, I spent a few days in Edinburgh accompanied by my son Chris, staying at the home of the Scottish Pianist-Composer Ronald Stevenson. Ronald was a ball of energy. He got Christopher playing and writing music (something which he continued in his teens, writing songs for a pop-group) and he introduced me to whisky. I had told him that I did not even like the smell of whisky and I refused to drink it. In response we went to the little store in town and he bought half a bottle of single malt. To this day, I regret I do not remember which malt it was, but sipping it was a revelation. “Whisky is a liqueur,” explained Ronald, “and we don’t spend ten years allowing it to mature only to dilute it with soda and water.” For this, and other revelations, I thank heaven that I met Ronald.
The Percy Grainger Society was formed at a meeting in the British Music Information Centre in the summer of 1978. Attending the meeting were a number of prominent musicians and composers, including Bernard Stevens, Michael Finnissy and Alan Bush (whose opera Men of Blackmoor I had experienced from the orchestral pit as an Oxford student). We planned to have a biannual Journal, which I offered to edit and to prepare a Grainger archive in the hands of Barry Ould, to get Percy’s music together and available for his centenary year in 1982. I was elected Chairman, however, given my diffidence about accepting high office, or at obtaining reflected glory by being a flea on the back of a great man, I stated that I would serve for a maximum period of 5 years and that, if at any time anyone else wished to take over as chairman, I would willingly stand down. Barry and I wished to make Grainger's music freely available again, but I, for one, did not wish to interpose myself between Grainger and those who wished to have access to his music. Thus, even though I ordered and paid for many photocopies of Grainger scores around the world, I gave the best copies in every case to the Grainger Archive, which Barry has since built into an astounding collection which enabled him to provide the music for a a multi-CD collection of all Grainger’s works produced by Chandos.
My job was to prepare the journal, which I did by typing it out at home, getting it printed (but not collated as this cost more money) and collating it on the front room floor of my house, helped by Sue and our children. We sent it out to an increasing number of Grainger Society members around the world. The Society grew to over two hundred members, including several influential performers.
In the Spring of 1979 I was a visiting professor at Concordia University, Montréal. Whilst there I made three significant Grainger contacts. The first was Burnett Cross, who worked with Percy on his Free Music instruments in the 1940s. He came from New York to stay in Montreal to make a connection, telling me of the problem of Grainger’s will. Percy had instructed that his music be transferred to the Grainger Museum in Melbourne but how Ella was concerned that the music would not be cared for there and had distributed the music elsewhere around the world. Burnett was named in the will to carry out Grainger's instruction should Ella fail. He would not do anything while Ella was alive, but she was now ninety years old and very frail. He would soon carry out Grainger’s last wishes. The second contact was Eldon Rathbone, a composer and arranger who had a particular interest in music celebrating trains, and had rescored Grainger's Train Music, written in 1901 for two full symphony orchestras, as a piece for a single symphony orchestra.The third was Stewart Manville, the curator of the Grainger collection at White Plains and the second husband of Ella Grainger.
The journey to New York to meet Stewart Manville was an eventful one. I set out with my son Christopher to travel by train to New York. I asked my colleagues if I needed a visa but none thought it was necessary as I had a visa to work in Canada. However, when the train stopped at the border, we were questioned by an immigration official. The lady next to me looked up and gruffly said “I’m Canadian.” I handed over my passport with the Canadian work visa. He looked through the whole passport and said, “I cannot admit you to the U S of A because you are an alien ... sir.” We established I had every piece of paper required to get a visa, but he insisted that I had to travel back to Montreal to get the visa at the American consulate. I suggested that I would like to speak to his supervisor and he went away and returned saying that I had already worked in the States and had a visa at that time, so there was no excuse for me not knowing about a visa. Hoping that this was a possible opening, I suggested that surely this was not a good enough reason to send me back to Montreal, after all, he had let the lady next to me through without looking at any documents. “What would have happened,” I asked, “if I had said I was Canadian.” “I’d arrest yuh,” he responded without a hint of humour. I did manage to speak to his supervisor over the phone myself, but the die waas cast and I was refused admission. They took me by taxi to the road border and gave me a ticket to travel back by bus. However, the Canadian border guards laughed and said that the buses wouldn’t take me because they never got paid by the American government. I phoned my friend Hal Proppe back in Montreal and he very kindly drove an long round trip to the border and got us back just in time to get our visas from the consulate. I only needed the documents I had in my hand, plus a photograph of myself and of Christopher. I took the photo in a booth and in my anxiety to get back before the Consulate closed for the weekend, I pressed the wrong button and got one large picture instead of four small ones. Now I had no change and it took a few minutes more to get some Canadian dollars changed to complete the process. Luckily for me, the Consulate officials were more obliging and waited until I had been processed. Chris and I caught the evening train and arrived in New York the following morning.
In White Plains we stayed in Percy’s house and slept together in Percy's bed. At night, Ella, who was now 90 years old and very frail came walking into the bedroom and got into bed with us. Stewart came and took her back to her own room. It was an amazing time, handling Percy's original scores, checking on items that had been miscatalogued in other lists of his music.
As Burnett Cross had explained to me, Grainger had declared that his musical scores should all go to his Museum that he had built in Melbourne in the 1930s. But his wife Ella felt that it was badly kept and the weevils might eat up the music, so she elected to send it to a variety of collections around the world. Many scores went to the Library of Congress, the English Folk Song material to the British Museum, the Scots music to the Nation Library of Scotland in Edinburgh, the Irish Music to the National Library in Dublin, and so on. Frankly, it was a mess! In some instances, parts from a single piece of music went to different places, so it looked as if there were two different arrangements which turned out, on inspection, to be a single larger arrangement. The books listing Percy’s music had relied on second-hand sources and so were hopelessly in error. We worked at the archive and I built a practical listing of Percy's music based only on copies I had seen for myself, or at worst, in carefully catalogued photocopies of the originals. This was published by Schott's, as a major source of information in the centenary year. When the BBC decided to honour the 1982 centenary at the Last Night of the Proms, it was done from copies we had assembled in our archive.
I also edited various works that had been partly lost. For instance, there was an arrangement of Debussy's Bruyères for wind ensemble which had a missing flute part and no full score. It was a simple matter to compare the parts with the original piano piece and reconstruct the flute part. Sometime later I heard some beautiful and weird music on the radio. I was sure I recognised it and, as I listened, it suddenly dawned that this was my edition of Debussy's Bruyeres arranged for wind ensemble by Percy Grainger!
An even stranger event happened when I went to Australia in 1982 for the Grainger Centenary Celebrations. On this occasion I was appointed a Visiting Fellow in Music at the University of Perth and spent a few days in Melbourne beforehand. Travelling half-way round the world means two short days and nights in an aeroplane, arriving dog-tired at 7 o'clock in the morning. I decided to get accustomed the new time by staying up all day and going to bed at 10 in the evening. It was a nightmare. I was nearly asleep on my feet as I visited friends and walked around the Melbourne Sunday Market. At 9 pm, nearly dead on my feet, I went to my room to sleep and in this half twilight world, I switched on the radio. There was a moment’s silence and then a choral work began. It was surreal. The music was a Grainger arrangement of My Loves in Germanie for mixed chorus. I had found this in the National Library of Scotland, transcribed it from a short score which had many parts per line into a more standard choral layout and put it into the Grainger Archive. Here it was picked up by John Eliot Gardner, performed by his Monteverdi Singers in London and in Toronto, and this was the Toronto performance recorded and played in Australia! How could I arrive in a strange country where I had never been before, turned on the radio only to hear an arrangement I had written out but never heard?
The following morning I went to Percy Grainger's Museum. In my pocket was an illegal tape of a concert conducted by Simon Rattle in London of the first performance of Grainger's Train Music edited by Eldon Rathbone whom I had met in Montreal. As I walked through the door, I played the tape, confident that Grainger’s spirit would be cheered by this act. A voice, who turned out to be the curator, Kay Dreyfus, shouted from inside, “Turn that bloody row off!”
I had several beautiful days in the museum, holding Grainger's original scores in my hands, playing on his piano. Kay Dreyfus had published an extended list of all the music of Grainger in the Museum. It was a model of scholarship and proved totally reliable. However, there were several ‘unidentified’ scores in the collection. I asked to see them. I was given one and took it over to the piano and played it. The music of one of Grainger’s arrangements of a Danish Folk Song rang round the corridors of the museum. “Don’t you know it?”, I exclaimed excitedly, declaring its name and origins. Kay looked at me bemused. It later transpired that her strength lay not in reading music, but in scholarly organization, a task which she did magnificently in her book of Grainger letters The Farthest North of Humanness. In this case, even though the music itself was easily recognisable, the manuscript had no written information, so it lay unrecognised.
In Perth I had a multiple role lecturing in the Music Department on Grainger, the Mathematics Department on non-standard analysis and various Mathematics Education lectures on visualizing the calculus. I was treated with great respect as a multiply talented visitor. For the three week Grainger Festival, my job was to lecture on music and act as a Grainger expert, introducing various activities. When I arrived, I was set various tasks by Professor Frank Callaway (later Sir Frank) who had planned the Festival. The opening ceremony consisted of a recorded message from Eileen Joyce, the pianist, who was unwell and unable to attend, an opening lecture on the Music of Grainger, which I gave in my capacity as Chairman of the Grainger Society, and a piano recital by Ronald Stevenson. By chance the local press reporters were on strike, so Frank asked me to help him by writing the publicity releases for the festival which I did with great pleasure. He also played me the tape of Eileen Joyce's message. It was too long. He asked me to edit it, which I did with the help of the media technician. Then came the lecture I was to give. I had a week or more walking in the King George's Park with Ronald, a pleasure beyond any of the wildest of my desires. He was an animated and enthusiastic talker but he also had the gift of listening, so we shared many ideas. I told him about my interest in the recordings Grainger made of folksingers back in 1908 and sang to him a rendition of Rufford Park Poachers, with its irregular speech rhythms as notated by Grainger from an Edison cylinder recording. He was enormously positive,“You must sing it in your talk.” I told him that I was not a trained singer. He said, “and that is why you sing it so well!” for the original folksingers were untrained and often could not even read nor write. They therefore sang in a rhythm that they could not imagine written down. For them the song was a continous outpouring in time. There were no bar-lines to constrain their performance, so that their singing could not be written down in traditional notation with all its nuances. Percy had seen that and was the first to make recordings of folksingers in Britain. I suggested I would say a few words about this in my talk and then burst into song. “No, no, no,” Ronald responded urgently, “you must sing it straight away.” So it was. After the tape of Eileen Joyce’s message, I was introduced and stepped forward. I had a reading lectern in front of me with my talk ready to give. I took hold of it with both hands and looked at the packed audience of 800 or so. They began to quieten down expectantly and there came that magical silence just before the start. I stood and held it as long as I dare, then I sang in as close to a Lincolnshire-accent as was possible from a native of nearby Northamptonshire. “The---y say that for--ty gallant poacherers they was in-a mess...” After two verses, I stopped. There was enormous applause. I then explained how Grainger’s English contemporaries had poured scorn over his complex notation, when, to them, it was clearly a case of a song with two beats in a bar. I sang the same song in a “straightened out” regular two beat version. The difference was obvious. The original was a powerful human statement set down by Grainger, the sanitized version was a shadow of the performance of the original folksingers. I emphasized how it took the raw insight of an Australian to pierce the complacent superiority of the early English folk-song movement. It was a great feeling for me. I had the audience in the palm of my hand and was able to give the performance of my life. After this opening lecture, Ronald's recital was riveting. The Grainger Centenary Festival was well and truly on its way.
My job in the Festival was to introduce a few of the concerts and to give a lecture on the music of Grainger. I illustrated this by singing more folk-song, playing simple items at the piano and playing recordings of my English choir singing Grainger folk-song settings. This included a particularly moving performance of the Scotch Folksong Monighan Dhu which had a profound effect on the audience. At the end of this it seemed as if I could do anything. I lectured on music, on mathematics, on education, I could sing, play the piano and conduct beautiful performances. I could walk on water.
Pride comes before a fall. I was approached by the conductor of the Western Australia Choral Society to participate in the final concert of the festival as a singer. I explained to him that he should not be misled by my apparent performances and that I presented myself well by limiting myself to those things I was good at. He would not listen to my protestations, insisting that he wanted me to sing a few bars of tenor solo in the concert. I managed to persuade him that I was willing to come to the rehearsals and help train the choir, perhaps even singing along in the chorus with the tenors, but in no way could I sing a solo. I just was not up to it. Furthermore, I had been three weeks in Perth with regular parties and gallons of Australian wine. I had no voice left to speak of.
On my final day in Australia, I turned up to the dress rehearsal of the concert and sat with the tenors. The conductor introduced me, and we began to sing the choral work with the short tenor solo that was currently being sung by the chorus tenors in unison. When we reached the solo, I realised the problem. Some of the bars were regular crotchet beats, but there were also isolated bars in 5-8 time, meaning 5 equal quavers in the bar. He conducted these as two equal beats, a beat with two quavers and a beat with a quaver triplet. Had he done this consistently, it would have been fine, but he realised his error and, from time to time, tried to conduct five equal quavers. It was a disaster. He took to stopping the tenors every time they reached the offending bar, saying “no, no, no, let’s do it again...” There was an impasse. In the interval of the rehearsal, he came to me and asked if I would sing the passage solo. I realised that this was a difficult position for him. Conducting such irregular rhythms would not occur often and he would need to maintain his authority in his choir. I, on the other hand, was leaving for England on the following morning. So I reasoned that he had a lot to lose but I had little. I agreed to attempt the solo in the second half of the rehearsal, but on the strict condition that at the concert I would not be announced as a soloist and would sing anonymously from the heart of the tenor section. The accompaniment was being provided by two pianists at two pianos. I spoke to them and suggested that I would sing the music as written and all they needed to do was to play it as written. In the second half of the rehearsal it worked fine.However, I had a problem with my voice which was by now badly strained. I spent the afternoon resting my throat but it was still sore in the evening.
At the concert everything went as planned. But then, as we began the fateful choral work, the conductor turned to the audience beaming all over his face, announcing the privilege they had of the presence of the Chairman of the Percy Grainger Society, a tenor from England, who would sing the solo. Came the time and we got through it somehow, but the top notes were strained and my halo slipped. Perhaps it wasn't as bad as I thought. However, after three weeks of showing a huge versatility I was exposed as having feet of clay,
After five years as Chairman of the Grainger Society, I retired leaving a sound organisation which has since been sustained largely through the individual efforts of Barry Ould, who built his own publishing company, Bardic Press.
In 1991 I was awarded the Bronze Medallion of the International Percy Grainger Society, (New York), for scholarship and service to the music of Percy Grainger.
My love of the music of Gershwin also goes back to my early teens. Again I felt that I wanted to play the music for myself and took out Gershwin scores from Wellingborough Library. These included a volume of Gershwin’s piano transcriptions of his songs that I decided to learn to play. I failed, but I found the enormous subtlety of Gershwin. Also there was a vocal score of Porgy and Bess. I was intoxicated by this music which I never heard live, but which filled my mind from my attempts to play it on the piano and read its harmonies in my mind. Again I had chosen the most difficult of popular music, just as, innocently, I had attempted to play Chopin, the most difficult of classical piano. The result was that I never learnt to play the piano with any fluency, but I had a living desire to hear the music of George Gershwin.
As a student at Oxford, I remember the day that the film Porgy and Bess made its screen debut in London. My friend John Pound drove us both down and we saw the first British performance. It was OK but it wasn’t real Gershwin.
I built up my own collection of Gershwin songs which I played to myself on the piano. In 1979, I visited Jerusalem as a maths educator and my friend Shlomo Vinner showed me the library. On the spur of the moment I asked to see if there was any music by Percy Grainger. There was very little, but in the list of music Gershwin comes near Grainger and there seemed to be a vast collection of Gershwin songs. I put in a request to consult copies of this material but had no success. In a fit of pique, I filled in dozens of requests for Gershwin songs in the catalogue. The exasperated Librarian called me to speak to him and explained that there were many Gershwin songs in the library but they had never been fully catalogued. If I wished to consult them, then I could do so in the Library, but he regretted that, owing to copyright, he could not give me copies. However, he could allow me a few hours private study, and there was a photocopying machine not far away ....
The photocopier was manned by a serious little man who spoke no English. The rule was that anyone could make up to twenty copies, but must then allow the next person in the queue to take his turn. There were several hundred pages of Gershwin songs which I slowly made headway at twenty copies a time. This was all done in sign language as I did not speak Hebrew. After two days, I realised the man working the photocopier spoke Yiddish and I had a smattering of German, and suddenly our communication improved. I returned from Israel with over 800 pages, totalling some 230 Gershwin songs. These were all copies of first editions, presumably collected by a New York Jew who followed Gershwin from his early days and bought the first editions of all his songs as they appeared in print. Most of them were 'off-Broadway' editions, printed when the songs were on tour in out-of-town tryouts.
For many years I reckoned I had the best collection of Gershwin songs in the UK. Today, of course, almost all of them had been reissued, but in the early 80s they were very rare.
As conductor of the Leamington Spa Opera, I began making arrangements of Gershwin songs for mixed voice unaccompanied choir. His harmonies are strangely complex to arrange for four-parts, nevertheless, several of my arrangements were particularly pleasing. One was an arrangement of Our love is here to stay in which I added harmonies reminiscent of Delius to a beautiful four-part interpretation of the original song. I also made an arrangement of Summertime for choir, tenor solo, string bass and rhythm drums. It was a knockout. We performed it at a charity concert in which the Leamington Spa Opera sang three items: two by Bach (Air on the G string and a Gavotte arrangement after the style of the Swingle singers), the other my arrangement of Summertime. Our rival organisation, the Leamington and Warwick Operatic Society turned up with their offering in full dress with a full band accompaniment. However, we blew them out of the water with the quality of our performance. Afterwards I overheard one of them say, “That bugger Tall has done it again!” I truly believe it was the greatest compliment I ever had.
After the concert I was in conversation with Keith Higgins, an actor-producer in local amateur dramatics, and John Heritage, one of my chorus. Keith was so enamoured of the performance of the Gershwin that he suggested we did a musical together based on Gershwin's life and Music. John added that we should call it “By George!”. I didn’t hear any more of it until I read in the paper that “By George”, written by Keith Higgins and David Tall was to be a major item in the next year’s Talisman Theatre programme. So it happened. I planned the overall emotional sequence of songs, beginning with early stuff and climaxing with the music of Rhapsody in Blue and the late twenties. The second half moved into Porgy and Bess and went on to the finale with Our Love is Here to Stay. We considered that Gershwin’s life lacked drama, so we planned that George would never appear, instead Ira was the mainstay, talking to others about George, with the parents Rose and Morris Gershwin as the running joke with Morris's spoonerisms of Gershwin's music as a theme running throughout. He used to say “Fashion on the river” instead of “Fascinatin Rhythm” and talked about the line “come to poppa, come to poppa, do” as referring directly to him. In successive scenes they played cards together with friends such as Irving Caesar (lyricist of “Swanee”) and talked incessantly about George. The sad point in the story arose when Rose Gershwin (played by Estelle Morris, a true “Yiddishe Momma”) dealt cards alone, then swept up the hands and dealt a hand of patience. She then sang Embraceable You with full verse-chorus, verse-chorus. Estelle complained she couldn’t sing it slow the way I wanted it. But I pressed her to stick to my interpretation. When she reached the line “come to poppa,” it was changed to “Come to momma, come to momma, do.” In performance it was a sensation. There was absolute silence as she sang, and at the end there was not a dry eye in the house. “By George!” was a huge artistic success. We were invited to sell the rights to perform off-broadway in New York, in South Africa, and even at the Mermaid Theatre in London with Sir Bernard Miles. But I was concerned about copyright and wrote to ask permission of Ira Gershwin at his home address in Hollywood. I received a reply from his lawyer in Avenue of the Stars, Los Angeles, saying that Mr Gershwin requested that we did not perform the work again as he would fight any representation of himself on stage. I acceded to his request and the show was never produced professionally.
However, several years later, still a Gershwin buff, I was working as conductor of the Beauchamp Sinfonietta and decided to do an all-Gershwin Concert. We planned to do Rhapsody in Blue, Walking the Dog (from the film Shall we Dance), the medley Gershwin in Hollywood arranged by Robert Russell Bennett and I wanted to add Gershwin's own suite from Porgy and Bess, which Ira had published after George’s death as Catfish Row. I wrote to the publishers Chappell in London, who had the piece in their list of works for hire. However, they responded saying that the entry was an error and no such work existed. Again I wrote to Ira. This time there was success. I was telephoned at home by a contrite director of Chappell's New York who told me that Ira had been on to him and they would trace the music for me to perform. It duly arrived, stamped as being sent from London to New York by air and then from New York back to Leamington Spa in England for performance. The postage was £58 and the hire fee was only £50, so Chappell lost on the deal. The orchestral parts were a revelation. They were clearly the same parts that Gershwin himself had used when he toured with the piece in 1935. The score was a photocopy of Gershwin's original autograph score. The parts had been found in London in a filing cabinet in the London Chappell Office where they had lain since a single London performance several years before. I guessed that our performance was probably only the second in the UK of this Gershwin original. Particularly memorable for me was the performance of the song I got plenty o’ nuttin, with my friend Keith Higgins on banjo!
Since those times, my health has caused me to retire from musical performance. At least, that is my excuse. It probably relates also to the short shelf-life of a conductor who is talented but no more. Nevertheless, my love of Delius, Grainger and Gershwin remains, supplemented by many others including Mozart, Mahler, Janacek, Bartok, Holst, Bantock, the Beatles and the singing of Eva Cassidy. But that is another story. ...
The story continues here ...