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- The Shadow of Cain (text: Edith Sitwell) for Speakers, male chorus & orchestra
- Piano Concerto No. 1
- Piano Concerto No. 2
- Les Noctambules Suite for Orchestra
- Variations & Finale for Chamber ensemble
- The Diary of a Madman; chamber opera in 1 act (text: Humphrey Searle after Nikolai Gogol) for 4 singers, chamber orchestra
- Movements for String quartet (1960)
- Symphony No. 1
- Symphony No. 2
- Symphony No. 3
- Symphony No. 4
- Symphony No. 5
- Concertante for Piano, strings & percussion 1954
- Night music
- Overture to a drama
- Thronos and Toccata
- Variations on an Elizabethan theme
- Owl and the Pussycat
- Two practical cats
- Piano sonata
- 3 ballets
- "Hamlet", opera (1964–68))
- "Gold Coast Customs" (1949), trilogy for speaker/s, chorus and orchestra from texts by Sitwell and Joyce
- "The Riverrun" (1951), for chorus
- "The Shadow of Cain" (1951), for chorus
- Film music
David C.F. Wright
Many composers suffer neglect and some are, or become, completely forgotten. Few composers, however, have been as badly treated as Humphrey Searle.
He was born in Oxford on 26th August, 1915, one of three sons born to Humphrey Frederic, a civil servant, and Charlotte Mathilde May who, although born in England, had no English blood. Her father was Sir William Schlich, who came from Darmstadt in Germany, and Lady Schlich was of French, Belgian and Italian descent. Humphrey’s paternal grandfather trained as an organist and was part of a musical family that lived in Devon.
At school, Humphrey had piano lessons but was never proficient as a pianist, although, in later life, he could be persuaded to play a Bach Prelude and Fugue at parties. What he did become, however, among many other things, was a competent conductor with an impeccable ear for meticulous sound that earned him respect as a record reviewer, writer and commentator. In all his critical writings he was always constructive; he was never harsh or scathing — which is some indication of the fundamental goodness of his character. In fact, some have said that this was one cause of the neglect of his music, particularly from the 1970s onwards. He championed many musicians and young composers to the extreme of his unfailing generosity, and his own career suffered. He was reticent and self-effacing often to the point of being embarrassing. If the present writer commented on one of the many touches of genius in his work he would invariably reply by demonstrating some passage in Bach, Beethoven or Liszt that he thought to be marvellous.
Searle’s real awakening to music came in 1928 when he went to Winchester School, where he met Robert Irving and James Robertson. Irving was to become musical director of the Sadler’s Wells Opera at the same time that Humphrey Searle was on its advisory panel in the 1950s. The availability of a gramophone at school enabled the three students to familiarize themselves with the classical repertoire and with such modern works as were recorded. Searle began to take harmony lessons with George Dyson, who was "profoundly impressed" by him. Having won a Classical scholarship to Oxford University, Searle went up in 1933 and, while he was absorbing the appropriate material for his degree, he pursued musical studies with Sydney Watson, the organist of New College.
If interest in music germinated in 1928, then it blossomed six years later when Searle heard the first English performance of Berg’s Wozzeck under Sir Adrian Boult, broadcast in March, 1934. "It knocked me sideways," admitted Searle, who, consequently, put his energies into finding out about the serial style of composition as advocated by Arnold Schönberg, the leader of the Second Viennese School, which included Webern and Berg, two of Schönberg’s distinguished pupils. Today, there is no doubt about the eminence of Berg’s incredible score but it says a very great deal for Searle that he recognized its greatness at once. Fifty years or so later, musical opinion has realized that twelve-note music is an original means of composition without the restrictions of traditionalism. In the hands of brilliant composers such as Schönberg, Webern and Berg and, indeed Searle, this musical language has proved itself to be wide-ranging and varied in expression and emotion yet embodying the strictest discipline, as is demonstrated, for example, in the language of Bach.
The history of music has produced many enigmas. One such is vacillating fashion. A composer’s work can be subjected to savage hostility and, later, with a change in musical trends, it is reassessed as acceptable and sometimes admired. Yet the composer, if he is still living, cannot claim recompense for the injustice he has suffered. There is some truth in Arthur Honegger’s remark that the only qualification for the possibility of being a great composer is being dead.
Searle was helped in his research by Theodor Adorno, who had studied with both Schönberg and Webern and had come to Oxford as a refugee from Nazi Germany. We may not be able fully to grasp what it meant in those days to espouse the cause of serial music. It was, to say the least, unfashionable. After the war, Searle was to make an equally courageous stand for the music of Liszt, serving as secretary of the Liszt Society for twenty-two years from 1950. Incidentally, Searle was also responsible for generating interest in the music of Alkan from 1937 onwards. At that time, Liszt was absurdly claimed to "compose music of empty grand gesture", which, it was alleged, stemmed from "the reckless extroversion of his oscillating character". Humphrey Searle’s heroic position has, subsequently, been vindicated but, at the time, he stood alone in this country and its moribund musical establishment, whose members thought him to be mad and, furthermore, to be shunned at all costs. It cannot be emphasized enough that he took the brunt of acrimonious criticism of serial composition in this country. Later, with the partial rebirth of the musical establishment, younger composers gained some success with their twelve-note works and it is to Humphrey Searle that they owe a considerable debt of gratitude. Their respective attainments, however, brought no recognition for Searle. He was still ignored and, while he did not complain, inwardly he was hurt. He used to say that the music business was a savage jungle and some music lovers are fickle, subscribing to the immature notion that what cannot be whistled or immediately understood is rubbish. This denotes a parochial dependence on the security of predictability and obviousness to the ennui that may accompany it.
Professor of Music at Oxford, while Searle was there, was Sir Hugh Allen, who saw the enormous potential in him and, consequently, promised a travelling scholarship when he had taken his Classics degree. It was not only Allen and Dyson who recognized the gifts latent in this young man. William Walton saw some of Searle’s compositions and urged him to pursue his musical studies without delay, recommending lessons with John Ireland at the Royal College of Music. On his entering the College Searle’s parents withdrew their financial support since they were opposed to a musical career, wanting their son to sit the Civil Service examination. Searle was undeterred and made the first of many stands showing the admirable courage and tenacity that never deserted him.
Searle studied with Ireland only for a short while and liked him very much. As for Ireland, he always said of Humphrey Searle: "He is the cleverest musician I have ever met." That is some accolade, particularly when it is remembered that Ireland met and knew many world-famous musicians — for example, he used to recall encounters with Ravel.
His allowance from his parents having ceased, Searle had to earn his living, which partly came from teaching logic to a clergyman in Mornington Crescent. He took his B.A. degree in 1937 and, with the promised scholarship, went to Vienna that autumn to study with Webern, the lessons having been arranged by Adorno. With Webern, Searle developed his dependable ear, but his individuality meant that he did not fall into the trap of emulating so illustrious a teacher. "Imitation, I suppose, is a sincere form of flattery," he told me, adding:
I want to write what I want to write. Anyone can copy someone else and dress it up in the mendacious disguise of originality. Lesser composers have done this and some have made a name for themselves in this mercenary way but it says absolutely nothing for their integrity or the advancement of music.
That originality is an essential ingredient in music will be, it is hoped, readily admitted. This problem greatly troubled Walton in the late 1940s. He was undergoing a crisis of his own musical identity and deploring the suggestion that he was the successor to Elgar. Walton enjoyed "a few moments of Elgar" whereas, at the other end of the spectrum, he considered Shostakovich to he "the greatest composer of the twentieth century". Sir Adrian Boult used to say how very disappointing Elgar’s music was and that the better it was played the less he liked it — by which he meant that if Elgar’s music were badly played you could blame the orchestra but if it were played well the only person who could take the blame was Elgar himself.
Walton, being a discerning musician, went to Humphrey Searle for advice and lessons over a period of two years, which is the highest compliment a composer with many successes like Façade, Belshazzar’s Feast and a truly memorable Viola Concerto behind him could pay to another. Yet that is the compliment Walton paid to Searle and, as a consequence, Walton’s later works have a greater originality and an admirable texture, as is seen in the Johannesburg Festival Overture, the masterly Cello Concerto and the Symphony no.2, which continues to gain in appeal.
In Vienna during the years 1937–38 Searle attended the Conservatoire and, among other things, took extensive tuition in conducting. He visited the opera almost every night and these months were among the happiest in his life. Such contentment was further enhanced by the fact that Webern was a brilliant teacher. Searle once told the present writer:
It is still wrongly assumed in some quarters that Webern was only interested in contemporary music. Nothing could be further from the truth. It may surprise some to know that he did not give me one lesson in serialism although he did suggest that I analyse his Variations for piano in my private studies. His lessons with me were on the properties of the triad, traditional harmony and counterpoint. Webern was an outstanding conductor of the classics. The myth that modern composers are narrow-minded should he dispelled once and for all. It simply is not so. Yet it is very sad that musicians today who strongly object to the slightest hint of criticism of Bach, Beethoven or Mozart can, and do, censure music of the twentieth-century.
Searle returned to London just before Hitler’s troops took Vienna in March, 1938. Back at the Royal College of Music, he continued lessons in orchestration, conducting and counterpoint; among his teachers were R.O. Morris and Gordon Jacob. His money having run out, he had to find work and became chorus librarian with the B.B.C. It was "nothing more than being a pack-horse carting music around London," he would say. That was one of his typically over-modest remarks.
In 1939 he conducted the London String Orchestra in one of his now discarded pieces as well as in Liszt’s Malediction, his own arrangement of three pieces by Thomas Roseingrave and the first British performance of Webern’s Five Pieces, op. 5 — a very brave choice indeed. The concert also included Searle’s arrangement of the Adagio cantando from Bernard van Dieren’s String Quartet no.5. Searle had wanted to study with Van Dieren but the Dutch-born composer was far too ill and, in fact, died in 1936.
When war broke out Humphrey Searle, who had by now written a set of piano variations and a string quartet, moved with the B.B.C. to Bristol and spent time in the stimulating company of such people as William Glock, Lennox Berkeley, Arnold Cooke, the poets Dylan Thomas and William Empson and the critic Henry Boys. In March, 1940 Searle joined the Army and was with the Gloucestershire Regiment for a short while. He was then transferred to the Intelligence Corps and to a remote part of Scotland, which inspired his highly engaging Highland Reel. It was in Scotland that he composed the first work of his to bear an opus number — the Suite no. 1 for string orchestra, which he acknowledged to be the first work of his maturity. It was first performed in London in 1943 and conducted by Walter Goehr. The composer admitted that the work owes something to Bartók. This was followed by Night Music, op. 2, for chamber orchestra, written in honour of Webern’s 60th birthday, a work of great character and lucidity. The Vigil for piano, op. 3, deliberately recalls Satie’s Gymnopédies, for it was dedicated to the French Fighting Forces. More significantly the piece hints at the gloriously rich romanticism that was to develop in his later works. However, Searle’s first work to gain major attention was the Piano Concerto, op. 5, a scintillating piece brimming with vitality, power and, in the slow movement, moving tenderness. It was played for the first time by Colin Horsley and the B.B.C. Symphony Orchestra under Boult in 1946. The soloist has told the present writer how very much he not only enjoyed the piece but also working with the composer. It is one of many works that deserve revival provided that a pianist of the necessary fibre can be found who has not only a cool head but also steel fingers. There is no valid reason why this work should be kept from the public, as it would be accessible to lovers of traditional music.
Searle, having been in various Special Operations Executive establishments in southern England as an instructor and trainer of paratroops, found himself at the end of the war posted to the Rhine Army headquarters, assisting Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper in the investigation into the death of Hitler. But there was another death that greatly affected Searle — the senseless and tragic death of Webern, who was accidentally shot by an American sentry. This profound sense of loss is reflected in the Second Nocturne for chamber orchestra, op. 7, another carefully worked-out musical argument.
Rejoining the B.B.C. in 1946 as a producer of musical programmes, Searle arranged broadcasts of music of the Second Viennese School as well as works by such composers as Dallapiccola and Lutyens. He encountered much opposition from those in authority at the B.B.C. and it has too soon been forgotten that the establishment of Webern as a musical force to be reckoned with is attributable to Humphrey Searle’s pioneer work in the promotion of his output.
Another admirer of Searle’s work was René Leibowitz, who had studied with both Schönberg and Webern and was himself to teach Boulez and Henze, among others. For Leibowitz to perform in Paris in 1947 Searle composed the Intermezzo for eleven instruments, op. 8, a poetic and meditative piece. That year also saw his setting of W.R. Rodgers’ Put Away the Flutes, op. 11, written for the tenor Peter Pears. As in all his vocal works, which began with the Two Songs of A.F. Housman, op. 9, Searle displays his remarkable gift for rapid and apt musical illustration of the text. Like Webern, Searle wanted his music to be devoid of overstatement and “padding” (as it was called) — in other words, the “spinning-out” of music to increase its length. In later years this obvious talent for conciseness that Searle possessed, which conveyed atmosphere in the shortest possible time, meant that he was commissioned to write a great deal of incidental music. While a composer has to work, Humphrey Searle would sometimes ask me quietly, “Is it my music or is it me that is incidental?”. However, all such music was composed to his usual very high standard and the music he wrote for The Foundling won the Italia Prix of 1965 with its effective combination of the hymn “Ye watchers and ye holy ones” and the supposed music of gargoyles. His reworking of music by Telemann formed the basis of the score to accompany the B.B.C.‘s dramatization of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. His introduction to the film industry came when Constant Lambert was unable to complete the score for Anna Karenina. Of all Searle’s original film scores the one that made the greatest impression was that for The Haunting, directed by Robert Wise in 1963. His score for The Abominable Snowman of 1957, which was directed by Val Guest, was most appropriate. It proved Humphrey Searle could write tonal music. Very few composers can write highly disciplined serial music as well as tonal music of equal quality. Stravinsky may come nearest to this.
To return to 1947. Edith Sitwell sent Searle a copy of her long narrative poem Gold Coast Customs, which he set for speaker, male chorus and an unconventional orchestra. Sitwell was a world-famous poet and, as Walton had used some of her verses in Façade, Searle may have felt that he might achieve a similar success but in a more serious style. It has been suggested that he probably wooed Sitwell to secure permission to set the poem. Nonetheless, she was genuinely pleased with the result and insisted on taking part in performances, as did Dylan Thomas and Constant Lambert. It was Searle’s first large-scale serial work.
That year saw the retirement of Edward Dent as President of the International Society of Contemporary Music; Edward Clark, a pupil of Schönberg, was elected in his place. Clark wanted Searle to be the general secretary — a position he agreed to undertake for two years until it was realized that the position needed a full-time salaried person. For Clark, Searle composed the Quartet for clarinet, bassoon, violin and viola, op. 12, which is a musical palindrome. When music critics asked the composer if listeners should hear it as a palindrome he replied, “They should hear it as a piece of music.” It is not just a clever, cerebral work; it is, in the words of Colin Mason, “extraordinarily euphonious with its well-lubricated flow of effortless sound.”
In 1948 Searle had his first presentation at a Promenade Concert with his Fuga giocosa, op. 13, which is based on a Danish proverb, “One little feather can easily become five hens”. By now, Searle had left the B.B.C. to become a free-lance teacher, lecturer and author, but commissions were hard to come by as he was still to be feared as a composer. It surprises many today that he composed delightful settings of T.S. Eliot’s Practical Cats (he was a cat-lover himself), Cat Variations on a theme from Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and a setting of Lear’s The Owl and the Pussy-cat. “It is strange,” the composer would say, “People like my setting of The Owl and the Pussy-cat and find it amusing — then they tell me they don’t like any serial music. Should I tell them that this piece is, in fact, serial?”. This typical humour carried him through many hard times.
On his 34th birthday Humphrey Searle was married to Margaret Gillian Lesley Gray at Marylebone Registry Office, and they settled in St. John’s Wood in a house that was to be his home for the rest of his life. Lesley was a red-head with a penchant for wearing black. She had been an actress and, latterly, took up work with children. Her husband was troubled at the prospect of having children as he felt that he and the nature of his work were unequal to parenthood. The Searles lived a Bohemian existence. Searle was devoted to Lesley and, although she was naive about music and art, she certainly brought some social element into her husband’s life by arranging parties. This was a great help to him as he was not always articulate in company and his personality could be gloomy following his post-war depression.
Lesley was the inspiration behind the beautiful Poem for twenty-two strings. op.18, written as a wedding present and first performed in 1950 at Darmstadt under Hermann Scherchen. The work is a masterpiece; its expression and breadth glow with a warmth that some believe suggests Berg. However, it has a language its very own and provides a profoundly moving experience that music seldom gives. Its neglect is totally inexcusable.
It was Sir Malcolm Sargent who introduced the Overture to a Drama, op. 17, at the 1949 Promenade Concerts. The Daily Telegraph commented that the composer had “crammed into a few pages every trick known to modern musical science”. Scherchen’s reaction was both sensible and informed and he said that Searle was “brilliant-the most gifted and original composer Britain has produced since Purcell”. High praise indeed, which Scherchen repeated in the last year of his life.
It was Scherchen who gave the première of The Riverrun, op. 20, a setting for speaker (or, rather, an actress “who should be an Irishwoman, if possible from Dublin”, as specified by the score) and orchestra. In fact the success of this piece is enhanced by the Dublin accent but the music itself is highly evocative and often strangely beautiful. It employs a 12-note passacaglia throughout suggesting the relentless flow of the river Liffey. The Riverrun is a setting of part of the final passage of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. It is a monologue spoken in the early hours of the morning by Anna Livia, the female principal of the book, who is the Giver and Renewer of life in the eternal cycle of life, growth, death and resurrection that is the subject of Finnegans Wake. Anna Livia is the river Liffey. As a young girl she flows down the Wicklow hills, having fallen as dew and rain from her mother, the sky, and thence on to Dublin, where she has become a matronly river. The city represents one aspect of her husband, Mr. Humphrey Earwicker, a Dublin publican. The final monologue describes the death of Anna Livia, her coming resurrection and her sequence of thought as she flows to her grave, the sea.
Düsseldorf was the scene of the first performance (in 1951), and the first English performances, also conducted by Scherchen, were given in Liverpool and London in 1955. The revival of this incredible score won the Italia Prix for Radio Eire in 1974. It is music of rare quality and is deeply moving, particularly in such passages as “sad and weary I go back to you, my cold, mad father… I see you rising… save me!” and, later, with the words “So. Avelaval. My leaves have drifted from me. All. But one clings still. I’ll bear it on me. To remind me… Carry me along, taddy”. This is a great work that I have listened to often, and its impact remains undiminished. It is a work beyond praise.
The last in Searle’s great trilogy of works for speaker and orchestra was a setting of Edith Sitwell’s The Shadow of Cain, first performed by the poet herself with Dylan Thomas at London’s Palace Theatre. Later Dylan Thomas recited the complete speaking-part at the Winter “Proms”. The music is more subservient to the words than was the case in earlier works.
It should be readily admitted that no British composer has so successfully combined speaker and orchestra as Searle, who was puzzled that this combination was not more widely used. Schönberg had employed speech in his own impressive trilogy, Pierrot lunaire, A Survivor from Warsaw and the Ode to Napoleon. If the words of such a work were sung the impact would be lost. The most versatile and dramatic instrument is the voice, and it should not be restricted to singing alone. By this it is seen that Searle was clearly drawn to Schönberg and so little influenced by Webern’s economic style, epigrammatic quality and aphoristic form. Humphrey Searle used to say that “what Webern wrote was admirable and suited to what he wanted to say. I want to say something different.” And he did.
The British were probably unprepared for Searle’s work and may have found it a cultural shock. The major problem is almost certainly the extreme difficulty of the music from the technical point of view, which is a feature of this innovative and interesting composer. The other difficulty, if it is one, is that his music is sometimes tough and challenging to listeners but, as Peter Racine Fricker has rightly pointed out, this is one of its many strengths. It is music that has to be heard without preconceived ideas or prejudice and, consequently, requires the necessary time and will.
For the 140th anniversary of the birth of Liszt, Searle produced his Piano Sonata, Op. 21. The difficulty in finding a publisher was nothing as compared with its technical demands. As in the cases of Ballade, op. 10 and the Threnos and Toccata, op. 14, his piano-writing was criticized as “orchestral writing”. Indeed, the music does not always lie easily under the hands, but that was said of Tchaikovsky’s piano music, yet Tchaikovsky is not so dismissed with what appears to be contempt. It is inequitable to have a set of guide-lines that justifies Tchaikovsky and condemns Searle. Gordon Watson gave the first performance of the Sonata, and one notable pianist, who remains grateful to Humphrey Searle for introducing him to the music of Alkan, told me in 1988 that this Sonata was “a real cracker. If I could play it I could play anything”. It is, probably, both the finest and most original piano work ever produced by a British composer. Cast in one movement and very loosely modelled on Liszt’s own Sonata in B minor. as was demanded by the occasion, it is a coherent and convincing piece.
Scherchen now asked for an orchestral work, and the result was the Symphony no. 1, op. 23, a milestone in the history of music, as it was the first strictly serial symphony written by a British composer. The 12-note row consists really of only four notes, the musical notes for B-A-C-H, which four notes are transposed twice to constitute the twelve and, for a work that lasts about 25 minutes, that amounts to an amazing feat of concentration. A slow introduction leads into an Allegro of exhilarating power. The slow movement is beautiful and has a central section of concertante proportions with difficult passage work for the strings and reckless brass writing. In fact, one B.B.C. orchestra threatened to “go on strike” if plans to perform this Symphony went ahead, complaining that it was impossible to play. That fact of history and its subsequent inadequate recording have meant that this masterpiece has suffered neglect ever since. The Adagio is followed by an Intermezzo that leads into another Allegro of ferocity and rhythmic drive before a quiet epilogue in which B-A-C-H has the last word. This Symphony is both romantic and dramatic, perhaps even terrifying. It was first performed by Scherchen in Hamburg in 1954, and Sir Adrian Boult undertook the British première on 1st June that year. He later recorded it for Decca, but the recording misses the spirit of the music, the reading being too classical. Boult was a fine conductor and, although he admitted he was not in sympathy with the piece, he spoke of its worth and historical significance.
This Symphony, and other works by Searle, were subjected to hostility prompted by ignorance. Hugh Wood wrote of “a strain of gratuitous violence which is worrying… emotional violence is very severely subject to the law of diminishing returns”. Perhaps the music of Humphrey Searle is sometimes noisy but, if music is to communicate, it must have contrast — a feature lacking in so much modern music. Wood’s complaints can be disregarded, for his own Symphony, while having some merits, is often elephantine; his criticism of Searle’s “reliance on formulas such as ostinato work or tremolando passages” fails to take into account the fact that early composers constantly used formulas as well as other devices such as ornaments and predictable cadences to which no objections are made. Searle was, as usual, philosophical and would say to me, “Bach and Corelli can do it but I can’t.” What emerges yet again is that Humphrey Searle and his music were subject to unfounded prejudice and unscholarly appraisal.
The Piano Concerto no.2, op. 27, a work of extraordinary technical difficulties, was first performed by Gordon Watson and the B.B.C. Symphony Orchestra under John Hollingsworth at the Albert Hall on 14th August, 1956. It obviously made a tremendous impression, since it is the work most discussed by my many correspondents. The Aubade for horn and strings, op. 28, was written for the legendary Dennis Brain and the Aldeburgh Festival of 1955 and, as the composer said during a radio broadcast, “How marvellously he played it for it is not at all easy.” Despite its brevity it is not trite and it captures something of the glow of Poem and, in the middle section, generates some excitement.
Misfortune was never far away from Humphrey Searle, and the cruellest blow was now to befall him. His wife, who had been an exceptional support to him, went into hospital for a minor operation in 1957. It was diagnosed that she had terminal cancer and, in fact, she died that year on Christmas Day. The widower was devastated and, in his grief, people saw that “the composer to be feared” was a man of great warmth and tenderness quite at variance with the erroneous myths spread about him. At Lesley’s death the Symphony no.2, op. 33 was in progress and the work was completed as a tribute, not as a threnody. This Symphony has been described as Searle’s most “popular” work. The outer movements have an urgent resplendence while the slow movement’s great beauty is interrupted by violent outbursts of grief. The re-emergence of the principal theme of the slow movement (Lesley’s theme?) just before the end of the exhilarating finale is cleverly judged. There is no reason why this splendid work should not be played; it is easier to play than the First Symphony and employs a developed serial technique throughout. It should “go down well at any concert”. One recalls the distinguished bassoonist Gwydion Brooke referring to Searle as “our most exciting composer,” contrasting him with Messiaen who, at the time, seemed to do nothing wrong.
Probably Searle’s most successful chamber work is the Variations and Finale, op. 34, for ten instruments, in which the movement for horn was written in memory of Dennis Brain. The piece was recast orchestrally as his second ballet, The Great Peacock, which was first performed at the Edinburgh Festival in September, 1958 with décor by Yolanda Sonnabend, to whom he was to dedicate his Symphony no.3, op. 36. His first ballet Noctambules, op. 30, contains some very fine and “approachable” music even though the story-line is absurd, but Searle did not write that! A third ballet, Dualities, op. 39 appeared in 1963.
A further commission was received from Scherchen for the Berlin Festival. Humphrey Searle adapted Gogol’s The Diary of a Madman, which formed the basis of a short opera and became his opus 35. The score included electronic effects to suit bizarre events in the plot. Receiving its première on 3rd October, 1958 in Berlin, it deservedly won the coveted U.N.E.S.C.O. Radio Critics’ Prize.
A stay with friends in Venice later that year led to the beginnings of the Symphony no.3, which was suggested to the composer by Italian and Greek scenes. Strong and sparkling orchestration dominates this colourful work. The central movement is festive and a breathtaking tour de force, and the finale may be the most romantic and passionate music the composer ever wrote. It has all the ingredients for the total satisfaction of unbiased music audiences. Its first performance was given at the Edinburgh Festival in 1960. As it happens, this third Symphony was one of the composer’s own favourite pieces. A particular broadcast in July, 1971 by the B.B.C. Symphony Orchestra under John Pritchard gave Searle tremendous pleasure. He was an appreciative man and particularly valued the conducting of Pritchard and Norman Del Mar. The latter remembers Searle with “great affection” and “retains a considerable regard for his work”.
The Symphony no.4. op. 38 was commissioned by the Feeney Trust for the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. It marks a new departure for Searle, albeit a temporary one, for in this work a more fragmentary style appears and for the only time in his output there is a brief aleatory section. The music is uncompromisingly tough and a “graveyard” for all but the genuinely competent conductor. This may explain why only the composer has conducted it.
Ionesco’s play The Killer was the basis of Searle’s opera The Photo of the Colonel, op. 41, commissioned by the B.B.C. and first broadcast in March, 1964. It was staged later that year in Frankfurt. It makes compelling listening, having great atmosphere, humour and a driving continuity that is a prime feature of Searle’s best work. The Times called the score “a powerful projection of splendid, horrendous sounds”; The Daily Telegraph said, “Mr. Searle’s score is remarkable”. The Listener wrote that it was “first-class entertainment” and “a well-devised piece of music drama”. In Frankfurt the work was warmly received. Die Welt wrote: “There is no music that could do justice to Ionesco more than Searle”. Frankfurter Neue Hesse reported: “The composer’s great gift for form, with his distinctive sense of proportion, made the play into a perfect opera. Searle, who has been well known for two decades as a composer of very sensitive scores, proves himself here to be a very able man of the theatre”. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung commented: “All in all, the most exciting production…”. Richard Gorer wrote that “the music and the drama is so gripping”. The main singing-role is extremely difficult and Leslie Fyson managed it wonderfully well. Musically, the work is akin to the First Symphony in that the basic row is a concentration of four notes and their transpositions. The final scene has an unmistakable suspense in which the killer is met face to face. This opera is completely absorbing, hugely entertaining and warrants a commercial recording. The discerning public would love it.
A fine choral work, Song of the Sun, op. 42 was written in South Africa for the Cheltenham Festival of 1964. The Symphony no.5, op. 43, was also conceived in South Africa and is dedicated to the memory of Webern. It was completed in three months in order to meet a deadline. The work recaptures something of the reflective pieces Searle wrote in the 1940s. Among its finer moments are the nostalgic reminiscences of pre-war Vienna, with their echoes of waltzes and a dream-like atmosphere. Many admired this work for its translucent quality. The Hallé Orchestra under Lawrence Leolard gave the first performance, in October, 1964 in Manchester, at which time Humphrey Searle was composer-in-residence at Stanford University, California.
This eventful year brought another commission from Scherchen: a short work for a Beethovenian orchestra, since Scherchen was to conduct all the Beethoven symphonies for Lugano Radio in January, 1965. Searle was pleased to compose his Scherzi, op. 44, for he not only admired Beethoven’s genius but recognized Scherchen as a notable interpreter of the great composer and a fine all-round conductor.
In 1965 Searle presented his final piece for solo piano. The Prelude on a theme of Alan Rawsthorne, op. 45 was a 60th-birthday present for his friend, the theme being taken from the Elegiac Rhapsody. Incidentally, Humphrey Searle had an amazing capacity for friendship and he was always ready to abandon his own plans and support those of his ever-increasing circle of friends.
Lady Dorothy Mayer commissioned The Canticle of the Rose, op. 46 for the Cork International Choral Festival of 1966. This setting for unaccompanied mixed chorus of words by the late Edith Sitwell is dedicated to her memory. Searle’s choral music, being always impressive, prompted Grayston Burgess to commission I have a new garden, op. 51 for the Purcell Consort of Voices to perform at the British Music Week in Vienna. Seven years later he was to set part of the Song of Solomon for chorus and organ under the title My Beloved Spake, op. 67. Humphrey Searle did not have any religious views but, politically, he was an old-fashioned Socialist.
One of Searle’s greatest ambitions was to cast Shakespeare’s King Lear as an opera. Benjamin Britten told him not to since he was going to do it himself. He never did. What he did compose was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which appeared in 1960. Searle was annoyed that he had been so misled but, sadly, this was in keeping with Britten’s quarrelsome and arrogant character. Britten had never forgiven Searle for writing the most original variation in a composite work based on Sellinger’s Round which Britten had commissioned for the Aldeburgh Festival in 1953 and for which Britten had written a variation himself. When Rolf Liebermann of the Hamburg State Opera asked Searle to produce an opera, Hamlet, op. 48, was the outcome, and it was to be his largest work and occupied him during the years 1965–68. After its first performance in Hamburg on 5th March, 1968, with Tom Krause in the title-role. the subsequent performances at Covent Garden were delayed by the illness of the leading singer. It is another work in which the music is somewhat subservient to the words — another practical reflection of Searle’s modesty. There is no melisma; there is one note per syllable all the way. Yet what the opera has is atmosphere, which has to be appreciated visually. There are aural highlights, particularly the vocal part for the First Player towards the end of the first act.
Writing for the voice was always a challenge for Searle, since he felt the voice to be the most expressive and flexible instrument. However, he treated it as any other instrument and, therefore, his music requires versatile singers who must be “technically assured”. In 1963 he set Robert Graves’s Counting the Beats, and, in 1969, the distinguished Romanian mezzo-soprano, Viorica Cortez, who was singing Carmen in London at the time, asked Searle to write a song for her. He chose Ophelée, which became his opus 50, an early poem of Rimbaud, not only because he liked it but also because he had recently completed Hamlet. In 1971 the popular baritone Owen Brannigan, impressed with “this composer of highest rank”, commissioned a setting of G.K. Chesterton’s The Donkey, but he died before its first performance could be arranged. At the suggestion of a friend, the actor Hugh Burden, Searle set an optimistic passage from Donne’s Nocturnall upon St. Lucies Day, which was first given by the tenor Gerald English, to whom were entrusted many such first performances. English had asked for something especially for himself and this Donne setting is dedicated to him. It was the admirable Gerald English who was the soloist in the first performance of Oxus, op. 47, a scena for high voice and orchestra written for the 1967 Promenade Concerts and dedicated to William Glock. Oxus is a setting of the final passage of Matthew Arnold’s long narrative poem Sohrab and Rustum, which tells of the legendary battle between the Persians and the Tartars, the outcome of which was to be decided by single combat between two champions. This ends with Rustum killing Sohrab, not knowing it is his own son, whom he has never seen. The music, which is concerned with the futility and waste of war, begins with a vivid portrayal of the battle; the soloist enters with the 12-note theme that is the note-row for the work. The vocal line is very telling; many phrases, including the final one, are memorable. Here Searle again conjures up his remarkable gift for a clear and rapid illustration of the text.
The Sinfonietta, op. 49 for nine instruments was introduced by the B.B.C. and prefaced by a short talk from the composer, who was particularly good at such elucidations, heightening listeners’ expectations and clearly explaining the musical thoughts and process.
For the Royal Concert of 1971, Searle produced a substantial orchestral work, Labyrinth, op 56. It is a fine essay and. like much music of quality, cannot be assessed on one hearing. A recent broadcast under Sir John Pritchard was a revelation, discrediting the savage criticism that followed its first performance. As a consequence, this work and its composer suffered; misfortune again was the prescription for Searle’s singular and abiding talent. Labyrinth has some stunning moments and in its many subdued passages there is a rich variety of colour.
The Cheltenham Festival, pleased with their successful commissioning of the intellectually stimulating Zodiac Variations, op. 53, for small orchestra, requested a chamber work for the 1972 Festival. The result was a setting of four poems of Baudelaire for tenor, horn and piano: Les fleurs du mal, op. 58, which not only demonstrated Searle’s striking affinity with the texts but was given a fine performance by Gerald English, Barry Tuckwell and Margaret Kitchin. The present writer vividly remembers the composer’s profound satisfaction with the performance. He was equally delighted with Brian Rayner Cook’s performance of Searle’s last songs, the Two Sitwell Songs, op. 73, which date from 1980. Searle telephoned the singer in obvious appreciation. Cook admires the songs, saying that “they are full of musical interest, invention and humour”.
In his final years Humphrey Searle and his music plummeted into neglect. Of course, he was resentful and disillusioned. He is not the only one to suffer, since musical fashion plays a large part in this. In the 1980s there were given innumerable performances of music that appeared to consist of nothing but disjointed sounds, distortions and long-winded expanses of slow, uneventful meandering — yet Searle’s music is of painstaking craftsmanship. He used to say: “Years ago I was regarded as an abstruse avant-garde fellow; now I am called an old-fashioned romantic.” He continued to compose in these years of cruel and undeserved rejection. There is an outstanding setting of Kubla Khan for solo voice, chorus and orchestra, which was performed with great dedication by amateurs at Santa Barbara, California, in 1977. At the Queen Elizabeth Hall in January, 1975 Julian Bream gave the première of Five, op. 61, for guitar, which suggested this instrumentalist’s possible change of heart about serial music. An American commission, Contemplations, op. 66, in honour of the bi-centennial celebrations of 1976, was requested by the Clarion Society of New York. Searle chose to set a poem by Anne Bradstreet, who was born in Nottingham in 1612 and emigrated to America in 1630. The poem is in the seventeenth-century pastoral style and is concerned with the immanence of Deity in various aspects of nature. There is a central dramatic section, which provides the necessary contrast essential to music and which tells the story of Cain and Abel. Musically the work is a set of variations, the theme being the opening flute solo. The first performance, attended by the composer, was given in the Alice Tully Hall, New York by the splendid and sadly lamented Jan de Gaetini with the Clarion Orchestra under Newell Jenkins; the British première was given by Margaret Cable, another fine singer, with Richard Hickox conducting. The flowing vocal line and the music’s effortless progression are remarkable.
In 1977 there was the first performance of the immediately entertaining Fantasia on British Airs, op. 68 for five military bands, a tonal work of tremendous wit tailor-made for the last night of the “Proms”. There is an attractive cantata, The Devil’s Jig, op. 69, consisting of ten “imaginary” compositions by Adrian Leverkühn, a character in Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus. Whereas the second piece, Ocean Lights, successfully evokes the sea, the apocalyptic movements are alive with atmosphere. There are moments of diverting parody: Offenbach’s most famous cancan has never sounded quite as it does here. The penultimate movement is the devil’s jig of the title, and the finale is an orchestral Adagio recalling Beethoven’s Choral Symphony. It has a ravishing sound.
B.B.C. Television performed Oresteria: The Serpent’s Son, Op. 70, which, like Jerusalem, op. 51, a radio play dating from 1969, offers more for the actors’ skills than for the musicians — the composer’s painful modesty again. Oresteria was savaged fiercely by the critics and even prompted a letter to the Editor of Radio Times. The musical history of the river Thames was the subject of Tamesis, Op. 71, performed in Southwark Cathedral in February, 1983 by the Morley College Orchestra under Lawrence Leonard, who has always shown a good understanding of Searle’s work. Opus 72 is an accomplished Prelude, Nocturne and Chase for four horns, which the composer introduced at the Guildhall School of Music in April, 1980; there are also the Apollonian Whale, op. 74, for voice, cello and piano, published by Whalesound in Canada; the Winchester Overture, op. 75, to mark the 600th anniversary of the composer’s old school; the highly agreeable Cyprus Dances, op. 76, and the symphonic suite Three Ages, op. 77, performed by the Royal College of Music’s orchestra under Christopher Aedy seven weeks after the composer’s death. The suite recalls music of this century with Searle’s usual impeccable craftsmanship, evident humour and skill. It includes jazz and a “pop” song with a jaunty saxophone solo. It is great fun to play and marvellous to experience. Again, Promenaders would love it, but will they ever hear it? It would certainly dispel the misconceived idea that Humphrey Searle and his music are unapproachable. He once told me that he was disappointed that he had not been invited to be a castaway on the B.B.C.‘s legendary desert island. “They were afraid I would choose all modern pieces,” he said. How wrong they were. He would, for example, almost certainly have chosen something by Duke Ellington. People have been so wrong about Searle and for so long; his musical outlook was never narrow.
His final work is written for two pianists, the Paraphrase on themes of Liszt, op. 78. Searle had championed the music of Liszt for most of his life, becoming a world authority and writing an informative book on him.
Humphrey Searle died in a London hospital on 12th May, 1982. Whilst he was awarded the C.B.E. in 1968 for his distinction as a composer, this justified recognition could not compensate for the neglect into which his work had fallen. He had been a producer at the B.B.C., and many owe him a great deal for the introduction to music once scorned but now admired. The B.B.C. admits in private correspondence that they are convinced that less than justice has been done to his works, particularly in latter years. Humphrey Searle taught at the Royal College of Music from 1965 and became a Fellow of that College a year later; he was a musical adviser to the Sadler’s Wells Ballet from 1951 to 1957; composer-in-residence at Stanford University, California, during 1964 and 1965; guest professor at the Staatliche Musikhochschule, Karlsruhe from 1968 to 1972; guest composer at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado in 1967; an author of several books still in demand, composer of film scores and of music for radio and television productions.
If Humphrey Searle’s music was neglected in his lifetime there is a prospect that he and his compositions will be completely forgotten now that he has died. His neglect, in the past, may have been attributable to his not being understood as a man, for he could, at times, present a shy, almost inhibited exterior giving the impression of austerity. He often appeared to be nervous, particularly on account of his breathless speech, suggesting doubts that afflicted him when pernicious neglect had undermined his natural sense of purpose. There were other outward expressions of his deep, inward pain. Yet, paradoxically, his modesty did not help him. His care for others was at the dire expense of himself. It was only when the subject of his own music was left behind that he would show any enthusiasm for music and display his warm and generous personality.
Another possible reason for Searle’s neglect is probably his being musically Schönbergian and, therefore, belonging to what has been called the “psychologically grim Second Viennese School” that produced death-haunted works such as Schönberg’s Erwartung and Dallapiccola’s Prigioniero. His essentially German seriousness was clearly foreign to British audiences and would explain why many of his works were first given in Germany and with genuine acclaim. Had Searle followed in the homespun line of Parry, Elgar and Vaughan Williams he might have fared better. Thankfully, he did not do that. He was a trail-blazer, not a disciple!
Of course, his music is difficult to perform, and some pieces call for Herculean efforts by musicians. His music will also be difficult for listeners if they are prejudiced and have an undeveloped sense of music appreciation. Serial music is the subject of criticism born of ignorance rather than knowledge. Masterpieces, like the Berg Violin Concerto, have been written in this technique and, as Reginald Smith Brindle once told me, “It is a very valid system with potential for complex harmony, originality and creativity demanding aesthetic judgment.” Aaron Copland has said that in serial music he found chords and sounds that provided greater and exciting possibilities for musical expression and which released him from the consequences of being typecast as the composer of Americana.
Searle was often the subject of jealousy-something which, for so humble a man, is bewildering. He was always discussed, and even secretly admired, by those who savaged his music. However, there was a hatred, born of ignorance and jealousy, to the point of preventing the presentation of his work. Human nature is “short on gratitude”. Searle’s tireless efforts on behalf of countless others has not been reciprocated, and some have wrongly assumed his crusading spirit to have been an implicit personal depreciation of his own music-and there are also those in authority, who set themselves up as arbiters of musical taste and exercise their assumed rights to promote music of their choice and to condemn music that does not appeal to them. The ordinary man in the street (if he did but know it) owes a debt of gratitude to Humphrey Searle for the recognition of many modern works now admired but once dismissed.
For all this, what remains is that Searle’s best work was, in effect, written for posterity and is worthy of international recognition. Many of his works would make countless friends and become enduring favourites, such as the First Piano Concerto, Three Ages, Fantasia on British Airs, The Photo of the Colonel and the Second Symphony. There are other works, such as The Riverrun, Poem for twenty-two strings, the first and third Symphonies, which, given a little perseverance on the part of some listeners, would reveal themselves as having reached the heights of inspirational, emotional and compositional achievement. Here is a prize-winning composer who bore the brunt of acrimonious criticism, who was vilified for adopting “a European system of composition” and who is still disparaged.
In 2001 I discovered two early unpublished songs written by Humphrey in 1935. They are settings of two poems from james Joyce’s Chamber Music. I have deciphered and realised them from a manuscritp yellow in age and hope to have them recorded in late 2008.
Edgard Varèse was being very perceptive when he said: “Contrary to general opinion, composers are not ahead of their time; it is the musical public that are fifty years behind.” Humphrey Searle’s music must not wait that long! It is far too good for that!
© David Wright Ph.D
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English twelve-tone and serialist composer active from the Second World War onwards... contemporary of Benjamin Britten and Bernard Stevens; younger than Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Havergal Brian, Rubbra, Walton and Tippett; older than Arnold, Simpson, Maxwell Davies, Birtwistle, etc. A distinguished writer and teacher, Searle also cataloged the music of Franz Liszt.
A largely autodidact composer who studied briefly with Anton von Webern (Vienna, 1937... Searle - who also studied with Jacobs, Morris and Ireland - used this Austro-German experience while working with the British intelligence service during the Second World War) while spending much of his life cataloging the music of Liszt was bound to have an intriguing take on contemporary music. The formalism of twelve-tone and serialist musical construction (more of the Schönberg school than his teacher’s, admittedly) was Searle’s dominant musical aesthetic; but an obsession with the purity of the tone-row was never his musical style... like Liszt, Searle was a great compromiser, always willing - and able - to fuse techniques to achieve the desired musical effect.
(The Piano Sonata (1951) is a good case in point; and ties together the two main threads in Searle’s musical life with a surprising neatness... written for (and premiered on) the 140th anniversary of Liszt’s birth - the work is closely modelled on Liszt’s B minor sonata; but is written using twelve-tone techniques.)
In essence, a romantic serialist (which isn’t a contradiction in terms, although some people seem to assume that it is), Searle delighted in cats and unusual instrumental ensembles. The composer worked in all of the major musical forms (five symphonies; two piano concerti; three ballets; and a large number of chamber and instrumental works); but his works list is dominated by vocal pieces: three operas (one a setting of "Hamlet" (1964-68)), a large number of songs and some mighty choruses... the best-known, a trilogy for speaker/s, chorus and orchestra from texts by Sitwell and Joyce: "Gold Coast Customs" (1949), "The Riverrun" and "The Shadow of Cain" (both 1951).
As one might have already noticed, works with a spoken text formed a unusually large part of Searle’s musical oeuvre. In some respects, this use of spoken word reflected the challenges involved in Searle’s preference for advanced musical techniques... often, the text forms an anchor around which Searle’s musical experimentation could develop, in much the same way that the images on the screen could visualise the emotional qualities in Searle’s film music (extracts from his scores for "The Abominable Snowman" (1957) and "The Haunting" (1963) are available on "Horror!", a Silver Screen Records disc; again, see below).
Writing a traditionally structured (and abstract) instrumental or orchestral work such as a symphony using these techniques posed a very different kind of challenge... both to Searle and to the audience. As the composer himself put it: "... (the classical symphony) depends to a great extent on contrasts of key which cannot be realised easily in twelve-note music". It was a challenge easy to avoid had Searle wanted to; but the composer was carved from tougher intellectual stuff... in his mature abstract works, Searle offered a series of dramatic and developmental solutions to the problem of the modern advanced musical composition.
Often, Searle found these solutions in the traditions of the past: the Piano Sonata mentioned above uses a Lisztian thematic transformation structure within a twelve-tone context; while the Second Symphony (1956-58) is a twelve-tone symphony cast in a perfectly traditional three movements... it even comes complete with a decent, god-fearing sonata format opening movement. These solutions may not necessarily have been correct (whatever that means, in this - or any - artistic context); but they’re inevitably interesting... which makes the somewhat painfully slow rediscovery of Humphrey Searle’s music a valuable (and - to my ears, at least - enjoyable) addition to the history of 20th century music.
In addition to his own musical composition, Searle’s research into - and advocacy of - the music of Franz Liszt should also be noted. Although the Abbe’s music had never totally dropped from view; when Searle became honorary secretary (and co-founder) of the Liszt Society in 1950, the average listener’s familiarity with Liszt’s music is likely to have been restricted to a handful of piano showpieces and the pride of the cliffhanger serial, "Les Préludes". Searle’s writings on the composer, including "The Music of Liszt" (1954; rev. 1966), and his cataloging of the composer’s works (to this day, Liszt’s music is identified by S (Searle) numbers; although the actual catalog has been revised by others since Searle’s death) played a significant role in the musical rehabilitation of Franz Liszt.
Of course, any review of the music of Humphrey Searle would be incomplete without reference to his comic alter ego, the distinguished Teutonic musicologist, Bruno Heinz Jaja. Like Malcolm Arnold and Franz Reizenstein, Searle was a stalwart of the "Hoffnung Festivals", those nights of musical mayhem inspired and perpetuated by the cartoonist Gerard Hoffnung (1925-1959); and in works like "Punkt Kontrapunkt" (1958) and the duet from the comic opera "The Barber of Darmstadt" (1961), the insider Searle skewered the excesses of academic modernism more brilliantly than any tonal traditionalist ever could.