The first Christmas I can remember must have been when I was three years old. The presents I was given (unless the ship laden chocolate was one of them) are long forgotten as are the carols we sang or any visitors we may have had. But one thing is quite clear in my mind and that was one of the ornaments on the Christmas tree. It was a small violin made in chocolate and there it hung day after day. Father loved the Christmas tree which he always decorated himself. It was large, usually towering up to the ceiling. It was laden with ornaments, sweets and about sixty candles. He could not bear it to be dismantled and kept it in all its glory as long as possible. It must have been obvious that the chocolate violin was my first choice when some of the sweets were given to us - and so it was. But I did not take the silver paper off and eat it. No, I took it to bed with me and just put it under my pillow. I suppose the psychologists would have an explanation if one asked why something well loved or some new treasure is taken to bed and put under the pillow on which one is going to sleep. I know of an elderly woman who on purchasing a new book put it under the pillow, as did Brahms who would sleep with the manuscript of the Alto Rhapsody under his.
Before going to bed Mother would sometimes look in on us to see all was well. Not wishing to disturb me, she did not put the gas on but came over to the bed in the dark, felt the blankets to see that they were tucked in properly and then touched my face and hair. She recoiled in horror! My hair was moist and sticky! Was it blood? What she felt and imagined during the few moments before she could get a light on the scene I don’t know but she never forgot it. It was of course the chocolate violin. Next day I was subjected to an early hot bath and I still remember the agony suffered under sponges and soap as the remains of my treasure was soaked out of my hair.
This incident was my first recollection of my interest in music. As I have already mentioned, Father used to play the piano to us at night and I used to strum and bang the keyboard frequently under the impression that I was producing music.
There was a dry stick of an old man called Bloomer whom Father visited occasionally to play the piano. He had a daughter who sang and she turned up one afternoon when we were all at home and suggested singing to us.
Father was an excellent accompanist and fell in with the idea. She had rather a loud voice and laugh, and her mouth was always open as though about to laugh. She sparkled and was livelier than anyone I had known. I retired some distance from the performer and she started to sing. She sang all the folk songs which I love today, and I can never hear The Frog He Would A-wooing Go without hearing her laughing voice with the 'whipsy-diddledy dandy dee' refrain in which we gradually joined. It was all most infectious and these songs were sung in our home ever afterwards.
Margaret was now learning the piano and I was given a few lessons of a terrifying kind, the fingers responsible for wrong notes being chastised with a pencil so that I gave it up. But the violin for some reason had a stronger hold over me. I cannot remember having heard one played except for the antics of Mr. Kapair at school. But during out explorations among the junk in our attic we had found a violin, which had evidently belonged to Uncle Otto, and tried playing it although only one string was intact. I converted a cricket bat into a stringed instrument. It was one of the small splice-less kind given to young boys. No insult to cricket was intended as I have always loved the game, but as it had served its purpose, I felt its life might be prolonged. It was soon evident that the solid bat was not very conducive to resonant sounds so next I constructed a one-string fiddle out of a cigar box and a carefully carved finger board and peg box. I cut the sound holes with some skill and patience and it sounded quite well. So at the age of nine I was inspected by a lady violin teacher who examined my hands and said I would do. A three-quarter-size violin was procured and a start was made.
I have always noticed hands. Father's were large and unusually flexible, the stretch between the thumb and first finger being prodigious. He could play octaves on the piano with them and as his wrists were also very flexible his playing was most interesting to watch. In forte passages his hands sprang back from the wrist so that no arm movement seemed necessary. His fingers were broad and strong and square tipped. When applauding at a concert the movement was entirely from the wrists contrasting strangely with the wooden gestures of those surrounding him. If I had a splinter or cut on my hand I noticed at once when he examined them how his hands were strong and gentle, giving that feeling of complete confidence. It was inconceivable that I would take my hand away suddenly or wince or utter a sound of complaint while he was extracting a thorn or splinter. He always told me what he was going to do and kept up a commentary while doing it so that it was possible to become detached and interested in the performance. His touch was so sure and quick that he could catch flies between the thumb and second finger, picking them off a cake without touching it. I was astonished, when not many weeks before he died and his sight was extremely bad, to see him perform this trick with the same assurance. I always hoped that my hands would become like his. Mother had rather square capable hands, good for manipulation. It was at boarding school later, feeling very homesick and miserable, that I looked at my hands on the desk and realised they were my Mother's. The shape of the fingernails was exactly the same and the skin marking identical.
When Father practised the piano he made a strange noise in his throat which I suppose was his nearest approach to singing. It was a groaning noise and used to irritate Mother profoundly. Not long after I began to learn the violin my two younger sisters also started, so we were rapidly becoming a musical family.
The strange thing is that I cannot remember the first concert I ever went to but we did have some musical evenings at home. It was very difficult to arrange them, as Father was just as likely to be called out suddenly to an urgent case as is any general practitioner.
Now, when Father was asked to play there was always the difficulty of finding the music. A lot of it was very old and tattered and, whenever possible, we would suggest something which we knew was in a bound volume, easily found in the pile. But if a visitor asked for something more obscure, a frenzied search would ensue and Father's temper would begin to get the better of him. We would all try to be of assistance and Mother would come forward and try to quieten him down and remind him that guests were present. But he would cast blame in all directions and spread a general feeling of discomfort all round so that the visitor was inclined to withdraw the suggested item in favour of anything more handy. This would only have the effect of driving him to a more frenzied search, which would at last end in a moment of triumph with warnings to everyone to leave his music alone in future. Father could not play anything from memory and if he tried to identify some request by playing it on the piano, the result was quite unrecognisable as it was not in correct harmony and he accompanied the playing with that strange groaning noise. Mother would try to ease the situation by helpful suggestions and eventually things would settle down and he would become engrossed in the music. Since those days I have heard so much of the Chopin and Brahms that he used to play performed by famous pianists and I am astonished how sound were his interpretations and how devoid of all the sentimental tricks so prevalent among amateurs. One of the pieces that I asked him to play most frequently was the Lesson, Air and Variations by Handel, the air of which was used by Brahms for a set of variations. Father played this with a real sense of style, which I have never quite experienced in other performances. He was very good at sight-reading and a sympathetic accompanist, which made our singsongs round the piano great fun. As I improved with the violin I would sometimes look over his shoulder and play with the singing. As the evening went on we would become more and more boisterous in our renderings until Father considered we had done enough. This was the moment when Mother was prevailed upon to sing.
Now Mother had a powerful voice which at times made the ornaments rattle on the mantelpiece but unfortunately, her intonation was inclined to be faulty and her phrasing was guided more by breathing than by the words or the music. But in spite of these deficiencies, we loved to encourage her in her versions of Annie Laurie, Killarney and I Stood on the Bridge at Midnight.
On the evenings when we had really musical people in both to listen or play, such as Mr. Tuke Priestman, who was a fine cellist, Father must have dreaded that Mother would suggest a song from some member of the family. But, oddly enough, it was Mrs. Tuke Priestman herself who once brought the proceedings down from the moderately sublime to the downright ridiculous. Freddie, the youngest son, had evidently decided that he was going to sing Which Switch is the Switch, Miss, for Ipswich? and that no one should have any peace until he had regaled us with this concoction. There was one friend whose musical performances were perhaps not up to the standard of these more select gatherings. He was an oculist whom we called 'Doctor' Oliver. His Christian name was revealed to us by his parrot who would suddenly scream (in the voice of Miss Oliver) 'George! The telephone! Quick!' The pronunciation of the last word was rather like someone being sick. How it happened that this old bachelor came in and performed to us the children privately, I don't know. But he was rather a pet, almost bald, tubby and had a round moonstruck kind of countenance. He was the embodiment of what one thinks of when the word 'Uncle' is mentioned. He kept spiders as a hobby; one of them was seven years old, he said. But he had a talent for singing to his own accompaniment at the piano. The songs were mostly 'darkie' ditties like Poor Old Joe. This manner of singing vanished with the crooner. I suppose it was very near to crooning; he vamped away with his head cocked on one side, gazing at us through his large spectacles, bland but serious, and there was a feeling of great intimacy about it all. Once he sang a cockney song, which amused us so much that we always pleaded with him to give us a repeat performance. He would try to excuse himself by saying he only sang it once a year, but eventually he would oblige. It was called The Four Horsed Charabanc. It was all about a cheerful outing in which the members indulged in mildly vulgar activities, such as sucking peppermint drops. Every verse ended with 'What I liked about that party was they were all of them SO refined'. His sister was very kind and read The Swiss Family Robinson to us in instalments. Some years later she gave me my first portrait commission, that of a little girl who only sat for an hour with difficulty, with Miss Oliver reading Alice Through the Looking Glass to her.
The first concerts we went to were a strange mixed grill called 'International Celebrity Concerts'. The artists were mostly outworn operatic singers. Their voices may have been past their prime but their figures were formidable in the extreme. The ladies looked like wedding cakes and the men, corpulent and sweating in their shirtfronts, led the ladies, simpering like young girls.
What they sang was nobody's business and certainly had nothing to do with music. The programme, which was not published beforehand, would be enlivened a little by the introduction of a young and comparatively unknown instrumentalist whom the celebrities were condescendingly introducing to the public. But their musical ability could not be judged as they played only 'arrangements' or mostly dis-arrangements of works not intended for the instrument.
I remember one such concert in which Clara Butt and her husband, Kennedy Rumford, sang The Keys of Heaven back to back with grimaces and gestures between each verse. She of course sang Liddle's Abide With Me with organ and piano accompaniment. But something went wrong with the organ. She apologised for the delay and sat down on the piano stool with her pianist, Harold Crouton. Whether her contract forbade her to sing anything during this interlude I cannot say. She also trotted out some ditties such as A Fairy Went a-Marketing and then waited for the encores. The items were punctuated by the handing up of the most expensive-looking floral tributes, which the recipients received with feigned surprise and pleasure.
When there was an orchestral concert Mother went with Father alone. I was sometimes awake when they returned and I eagerly enquired of Mother what it had been like. She nearly always gave the same answer 'Very heavy!' The programmes must have been very unenterprising, as I found later that Father had never heard any of the Brahms Symphonies or any Beethoven except the Fifth. He described to me how he had attended the Halle concert on the night Sir Charles died, the rostrum being draped in black and the orchestra performing without a conductor. He also told me of a recital given by the great Anton Rubinstein and how a string in the piano began vibrating strangely. As a passage for the left hand only came along, he stretched over and with his right hand pulled the offending string right out of the case.
My interest must have been such that at last I was taken to a few orchestral concerts and heard Busoni play a Beethoven concerto. I remember that during the various lulls in the solo part he kept glaring at a luckless cellist in the orchestra whose performance did not meet with his approval.
There were some chamber concerts at the Mechanics' Institute. Father never went to them but I was fortunate to be taken to a few of these by my friends and I shall never forget hearing my first Haydn String Quartet there. Just the first few bars made me almost laugh or cry with joy, I don't know which.
Sir Hamilton Harty once came with solo members of the Halle Orchestra to play chamber music. The first item in the programme was one of the two sonatas for clarinet and piano by Brahms, but without any announcement being made, this item did not open the programme. The other quintets and trios were played and it was then that the audience realised why the Sonata had been postponed. A curtain covered the entrance and exit for the performers and it was from behind this that the audience observed Sir Hamilton propel the unfortunate clarinet player on to the platform. Directly this was achieved, four grinning heads appeared round the curtain one above the other, watching the progress of the clarinettist to his chair where he sat down heavily and proceeded to take his instrument to pieces. He smiled to himself, looked down the bell, wiped it with his handkerchief, put the parts back together again squinting along the keys to see if they were in line. During this performance Harty was seated at the piano watching his partner carefully, stroking the keys patiently. The clarinet appearing to be whole, its owner belched, and Harty, seizing the psychological moment, waded straight away into the first movement. His partner, a new man, played the work through like an angel. After that, Sir Hamilton, the sweat pouring down his face, put his arm through that of his fellow performer and escorted him to his exuberant mates behind the exit curtain to the enthusiastic cheers and applause of the delighted audience.
I always preferred music of a slow and dignified nature. My mind worked so slowly that I could not comprehend a rapid movement even by so lucid a composer as Mendelssohn. It was the same with speech; a rapidly spoken dialogue was utter confusion to me and became just a blur of sound. So the subsequent piano recitals which I went to with Father were almost meaningless to me, as so much was display of manual dexterity and the sharp hammering and cascades of notes could not be sorted out at a single hearing with anything that made sense. This led me to prefer an instrument like the organ, which really sustained a given note that on the piano was a sharp impact immediately dying away. Unaccompanied choral works, which were so rare a thing in those days, were a great revelation to me and I realised that here at last was a language I could really understand.
As I began to talk in my limited way about this discovery I found that Mother’s side of the family had a flourishing musical tradition. Great Uncle Jasper Snowdon was a bell ringer of repute and a treatise he wrote on the subject is still in use. His brothers were all musical and sang glees and madrigals. Mother's elder sister, Aunt Agnes, told me that she remembered them singing Orlando Gibbons' famous The Silver Swan. They played the organ and one of them used to take out his clarinet on the train on his way to business and practise, if there was no objection from his fellow passengers. So I was encouraged by finding that there was another very important branch of musical activity which was so closed to my Father with his Chopin playing, as Liszt and his followers were to me. The fireworks of violin playing meant nothing to me and I could hardly be persuaded to practise this instrument until I discovered Corelli and Handel. Their works justified acquiring only a limited technique.
I began to play the piano, not with a view to performing works for that instrument, but to get to know how such masterpieces as Handel's Messiah were put together.
Father disliked opera so, apart from Gilbert and Sullivan, we experienced very little music of this kind. So it came as a surprise to me when he booked seats for Carmen and Tannhauser for the week when the O'Mara Opera Company were visiting Bradford. I found it confusing. I watched the action and took great pleasure in seeing so many costumes on the stage but I forgot to listen to the music. But when I was a student at the School of Art a number of us booked seats when the Beecham Opera Company came, to see The Magic Flute and The Marriage of Figaro. Here at once everything was all of a piece; the overtures setting the pace and excitement from the start. The staging was simple and as delightful as the costumes. I was no judge of performance but I shall never forget it. When listening to either of these operas on the radio I always visualise them as I saw on-stage over thirty years ago.
The concert which crowned all concerts before I left Bradford I went to alone. Father would not or could not go and I tried in vain to find a companion. To have shared this with some kindred soul would have been bliss. The Sistine Choir sang Palestrina and Orlando Lassus to an almost empty hall but I had at least the evidence before me of the great music of which I had only felt the shadow.
Perhaps the culmination after the Second World War came with the radio performance under Michael Tippet's direction, of Tallis' magnificent forty part motet Spem in Alium. My wife was bathing our small daughter at the time and as choir upon choir built up this edifice of sound she was told to stop splashing and listen; and so the music filled the house and at length died way. 'Yes' she whispered 'That's what it's like in Heaven'.