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A Musical Journey

Vic Howard

Music has always been important to me. I have no idea where this interest came from because nobody in my immediate family was at all musical. My ten year older sister used to enjoy listening to popular music on Radio Luxemburg (208m on the medium waveband). It was known colloquially as “208” and was the only radio programme that played that kind of music back in the forties and early fifties. I don’t think the term ‘Pop Music’ had been thought of then and the BBC was very stiff-necked about what was permissible and what was not. There were a few request programmes for the armed forces, the main one being “Two Way Family Favourites” with Cliff Michelmore in Hamburg and Jean Metcalfe in London, but that was only broadcast on Sundays. 208 seemed to play all day and every day, or as we are now supposed to say, 24/7.

Pop music of all kinds always left me cold. The sickly sweet, rumpety-pumpety songs of the early fifties were perhaps the worst ever. Big Bands and Swing of the forties were always worth listening too and still are today, but when Rock-n- Roll came on the scene and everybody raved, I was left wondering what all the fuss was about. I was jogged out of my seat at the end of the dramatic film Blackboard Jungle, which ended with a black screen and a moment’s silence, followed by Bill Hailey’s voice shouting “One Two Three O’clock, Four O’clock Rock, but that was more the dramatic effect than anything else. Elvis Pressley did have a profound effect on me. On hearing his voice I usually had a strong desire to throw up, but there was one occasion when even he made an impression.

One day during National Service I walked into the NAAFI canteen when it was empty. It was a large and quite long room with chairs and tables  and, like most canteens, it had a terrible acoustic. There was a jukebox  at the opposite end to where I entered, and as I came in the jukebox started playing Heartbreak Hotel. Once again, it was the dramatic effect of that first line echoing in the empty room that struck me.

Heartbreak Hotel

I do remember a discussion about pop groups between the young lads at the office one day. I can’t remember who they were discussing or which band was most liked, but one very young and new member of the team suddenly said, “They are all rubbish. The Beatles are better than all of them”. The rest of the group looked at him and almost in unison said “Who?”

Even The Beatles didn’t have a great effect on me at first, but they were a great improvement on most of their forerunners. Then one day my wife and I were allowed to borrow a friend’s flat in Stockholm for a  weekend. They had left a new LP that we were told we had to listen to. It was Sgt Pepper.

I still can’t put names to the music, but I do enjoy a lot of what might loosely be called Rock, that in some ways was perhaps influenced by Sgt Pepper. I’m thinking of Pink Floyd and other groups who played music that developed rather like a good symphony does. But four or more ageing teenagers thumping guitars and screaming into microphones (you know who I mean) are not my idea of fun musically.

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In our house, when I was quite small, there was a sort of music that was known as ‘Victor’s Music’. This was because it was the kind of thing I liked and nobody else seemed to care about. It was what we would now call light classical and included piano music such as The Dream of Olwynn, The Rustle of Spring or The Warsaw Concerto. This was about as classical as it got on the programmes our family listened to. There was something about this music that spoke to me the way Rock-n-Roll probably spoke to teenagers a few years later.
My sister used to play the piano with two right hands; that is to say she played the right hand melody line with both her left and right hand, each hand playing the same notes but an octave apart. Sales of sheet music were the way in which the popularity of a song was judged in the forties and early fifties. We had a book of Christmas Carols at home, which my sister sometimes played, and whenever she played Silent Night, I would start to cry. I was around five at the time. So music has always had a strong affect on me, even long before I knew what music was.

It wasn’t until I arrived at Eastbury Secondary School that I began to realise that there was something called Classical Music. Of course, I had heard the names Beethoven and Mozart but they meant nothing to me. Then one day our music teacher brought a gramophone to school and played us some records. I should explain here that music lessons at school usually meant the class singing songs like Jerusalem or Summa is a cumin-in or some other very English traditional song. We were never taught anything about musical appreciation.. So having a teacher actually play a 12” 78 rpm record of Tchaikovsky’s Overture to Romeo & Juliet and then explain the various themes and how they interact and tell the story, was quite a revolution in teaching for us Secondary Modern kids. I decided that when I left school and had money to spend, I would buy the set of 12” 78 rpm records of the Romeo & Juliet Overture.

Let’s jump forward a few years to the day I came home with those four 78” records. They were a matched set designed for use on a record changer, i.e. the overture was recorded in such an order that you could place all four records on the machine and they would play in sequence until they needed turning over. I found that the melodies or themes that I recognised from school were separated by passages I didn’t recognise. I could simply have played the discs one at a time and selected the bits I recognised, but I felt that would be wrong. I decided that whenever I listened, I would always listen to the whole work from beginning to the end. Before very long, I could not remember which parts I used to like best. I had learned to appreciate the piece as a whole. I had started my record collection and from then on always applied that same principle when listening.

On leaving school I found myself working in central London. I was employed as a junior in an advertising agency at a time when advertising meant nothing to most people. It was a stimulating eenvironment and I met many interesting people. One of these was a young man who discovered my interest in orchestral music. He came from a much different world to the one I had grown up in and was very familiar with a wide range of composers, their music and also orchestras and conductors. Our office was at that time situated just round the corner from HMVs main record store in Oxford Street and after lunch each day we would quite often spent half an hour in the listening booth of HMV listening to music. Each day was like that music lesson at Eastbury, when I heard Romeo & Juliet for the first time. He taught me how to listen, to compare recordings of the same music played by different orchestras and conductors, and not to be afraid of listening to something I initially found difficult.

I had strong likes and dislikes at the time. Tchaikovsky was high on the list of likes and any orchestral works that fell into a similarly romantic category. Harpsichords were definitely banned; opera as well. Violins weren’t all that popular with me either. Stravinsky was unbearable as was any other “modern” sound, and I remember being annoyed with Ravel for messing up the tune every now and then when I listened to La Valse for the first time. Developing an ear for music takes time, but it is a great adventure that I have been on all my life.

We take for granted today, being able to listen to any music from any period at any time of day or night. In the mid fifties the new LP records were just becoming available. The catalogue was extremely limited to the most popular composers and their works. It took a long time for this to widen. Early Music, for instance, did not make an appearance for another ten years. There were, quite simply, no instruments on which to play it; they had to be reinvented in many instances. Julian Bream was the first to play early lute music on his guitar. He used the guitar because there were no lutes in existence that were playable. Luthiers had to study museum examples and old paintings to gain inspiration. Julian Bream was also a pioneer in playing the classical guitar. Segovia had shown the way in Spain, but when Bream wanted to study the guitar at the Royal College of Music he was told never to bring that infernal instrument near the place. He was forced to study piano and cello instead. As we all know, he later became professor of guitar at the RC. It is thanks to pioneers such as Julian Bream and the incredibly talented David Munrow that we are now so familiar with much of early music. It is no longer an esoteric oddity, but something we might enjoy at any time on the radio.

I never went to a live concert until quite late on. I can’t remember exactly when it was. It must have been before I did my National Service, i.e. mid fifties. I know I was at home one evening eating my dinner when I mentioned a concert I had seen advertised at the Festival Hall and how I wished I could go, and my parents saying: “Why don’t you then?” They knew I liked classical music and were, surprisingly,  very encouraging; so I plucked up the courage to go. It sounds silly to say I plucked up the courage, but going to a classical music concert at the Royal Festival Hall was not something boys down our street did. Even those who worked in a London advertising agency every day - and I was the only one I knew in Barking who did that.

So, I ran back to the station, took the train up to the Embankment and managed to get across the river in time to buy a ticket. I got a seat in the front row, in the very cheapest seats, for seven shillings, and was just a few feet from the orchestra and slightly right of centre. I must have sat there with an awed look on my face because I remember some of the orchestra members looking at me in a friendly, ‘knowing’ sort of way, but certainly not a patronising way. It must have been obvious that I felt out of my depth. I was perhaps about 17. It must also have been obvious that I was in awe of the occasion.  The orchestra started with the National Anthem, as all concerts did in those days, and I couldn’t believe that sound could be so perfect. Our single speaker gramophone at home was nothing like this!! If they had not played another note after the anthem, I would have felt that I had had value for my money. Halfway through one of the following pieces, the leading cellist broke a string and quickly handed his instrument to the poor girl sitting behind him. He then took her cello and carried on playing, while she had to re-string his in the middle of the concert. Most distracting for me, naturally, which is why I am now not all that keen on live concerts, unless it is some special occasion. Music, I think, should be listened to, not watched. Televised concerts where one is made to look at the conductor face-on while he pulls faces and waves his arms around are not the way to listen to music. A New Year Concert from Vienna can be entertaining, but that is another matter.

Music and musical taste is very personal to all of us. One man or woman’s music is another’s nightmare experience. I have never been able to watch or read fantasy fiction or films, but when Mahler’s 2nd Symphony starts, that first phrase is like the beginning of the most wonderful, fantastic saga that continues for the next hour and a half. I am paralysed and have to stop whatever I am doing when I hear Janet Baker sing Mahler or Elgar.  When I hear Elivis … … …

Isn’t it odd.

May 2015

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