Sensibility and listening in England before and after the Great War

Fiona Richards

Fiona Richards is Senior Lecturer in Music at The Open University. Her research interests include music in England, music and literature, and Australian culture. Recent journal articles have focused on musical themes in the works of writers D. H. Lawrence, David Malouf and Randolph Stow. Significant publications include a monograph on the English composer John Ireland (Ashgate, 2000), two chapters for the John Ireland Companion (Boydell, 2011), and an edited volume, The Soundscapes of Australia: Music, Place and Spirituality (Ashgate, 2007). Fiona is currently working on a book on the Boyd Neel Orchestra.


This chapter draws on the diaries of two composers born in the latter part of the twentieth century – Frederick Kelly (1881–1916) and William Baines (1899–1922) – to examine a slice of listening history. Kelly was based in London and Sydney, while Baines lived in North Yorkshire, thus between them giving national, international and regional perspectives. Covering a fifteen-year period, the diaries offer very different insights. Kelly, who kept a daily journal, meticulously logs his and others’ musical activities, while Baines focuses on the feelings induced by listening. Kelly records very precise details, telling the reader what he played and to whom, and notes the reactions of his listeners. His is a very different approach to Baines’s descriptive and delicate poeticism, which is also revealed in his many rhapsodic descriptions of nature and weather. Baines tells us what he heard in concert halls and at the seaside, but, more importantly, gives profoundly personal reactions. Kelly’s writings are situated within the broad contemporary context of composers writing diaries and letters, with the main focus of the chapter on the unique perspective of Baines, whose sensibility, isolation and northern temperament profoundly affected his writing and his listening.


On 30 May 1918 a Yorkshire teenager wrote in his diary:

During the noon hour I cycled to Bishopthorpe – & sat underneath the trees, in the old churchyard at the bend of the river. What a divine spot it is. No noise, only the singing of the birds, the buzzing of the bees – and the murmur of the river. But what music!1

Four years earlier, on 17 June 1914, an Australian musician living in England had left this longer journal entry, recording a summer’s day by the river in Marlow:

We had decided to give a musical party and as I also wanted to hear my String Trio I decided to engage the English Quartet to come and incidentally play it. People were asked for 3.30pm but most of them didn’t put in an appearance till 4pm or after. We made a start, though at 3.50pm. The programme was:

1. String Trio in B Minor – F.S.K.

2. Pianoforte solos: a) ‘Barcarolle’ – Chopin, b) ‘The Sussex Mummers’ Xmas Carol’ – P. Grainger, c) ‘Song Without Words’ in F# Minor no.32 – Mendelssohn, d) Rhapsody in Eb Major op.119, no.4 – Brahms.

3. String Quartet in F Major – Ravel.
T.F. Morris, H. Kinze, Frank Bridge, Ivor James.

They played my String Trio very well and I was agreeably surprised to find it sounded better than I expected. The first movement, however, contains scratchy places and is too long. I felt quite satisfied with the pizzicato in the slow movement. They also played the Ravel Quartet extremely well. My solos went well – the ‘Barcarolle’ better than it ever has done before. About 46 people turned up, all neighbours, with the exception of Dr. C.H. Lloyd and Miss Lloyd who came over from Slough. We had tea after the pianoforte solos and when the guests had gone I took the Quartet on the river in the punt to show them the Abbey.2

The marked difference between these two entries: one poetic, ascribing musicality to nature, the other factual and critical, listing repertoire and naming players and audience members – is reflective of the very different lives, backgrounds and perhaps quite different natures of the listeners. The first is a solitary experience, the second taking place within a social gathering of wealthy British society. The first reveals a romantic personality, the second a much more methodical character. Yet there are also similarities between the two men, both pianists, both destroyed by the First World War.3 The personal responses of these two composers give regional and national perspectives on a fifteen-year slice of listening history from 1907 to 1922, encompassing the decade 1910–20.

The diaries present quite different viewpoints. Frederick Septimus Kelly (1881–1916), author of the second, longer entry above, meticulously charts the musical activity of the period in eight red leather-bound pocketbooks, continued into the First World War. Kelly lived variously in Germany, Oxfordshire, London and Australia. After serving in Gallipoli, in 1916 he was dispatched to France, becoming one of the 420,000 ‘British’ casualties of the Somme. His output includes an Elegy for String Orchestra in memory of Rupert Brooke, with whom he served on the SS Grantully Castle. William Baines (1899–1922), writing from his home in Yorkshire in five little diaries, focuses more on the feelings induced by listening. Baines spent his life exclusively in Yorkshire, leaving the county on only a handful of occasions, and ending his days in the family home at 91 Albemarle Road, York. In May 1918, having several times failed military conscription on the grounds of ill health, he was re-examined for service after the dropping of all war exemptions. He was called up on 3 October and sent to Blandford Camp two days later. In Dorset he contracted pneumonia, from which he never fully recovered, demobilised on 24 January 1919 after fifteen weeks in hospital. He died of tuberculosis at the age of only 23, leaving an output of over 200 pieces, including a symphony, though mainly focused on piano music.

Diaries and letters as sources of listening experiences

Many other British composers working at this time left personal, informative writings. The diaries of Thomas Dunhill (1877–1946) span many years, covering the period from 1893 to his death. They contain mainly short entries that log his activities, despite their brevity offering insight into musical life in the first half of the twentieth century. Britten, too, kept diaries, passages from which are reproduced in the Listening Experience Database (LED). Britten’s teacher, and close friend of Dunhill, John Ireland (1879–1962), while not a diarist, was a prolific letter writer. Much of his correspondence has survived, though mainly from a later period. Within these letters he often makes acerbic comments about other British composers, especially a younger generation. Likewise, Frank Bridge (1879–1941) left no journals, but many surviving letters contain observations about his contemporaries, including Ireland.

Diaries by novelists and poets of this period also contain important musical observations. Examples can be seen in the words of three writers of the twentieth century: Katherine Mansfield, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Virginia Woolf, all of whom left many entries referring to music. Mansfield’s journal covers only a small part of her short life, yet her use of musical analogy is core to this memoir, and a key expressive aspect that also pervades her fiction. Woolf, a good friend of the composer Ethel Smyth, was a learned and frequent attender of concerts. Warner’s diaries span a fifty-year period from 1927–77, and betray a depth of musical knowledge from her former life as one of the editors of the Oxford University Press (OUP) ten-volume Tudor Church Music.

Extracts from the diaries of these three women range from the simple chronicling of events to intimate disclosures of response to music. Mansfield, for example, mentions a visit to the Albert Hall to a: ‘bad, dull concert. But I thought all the while that I’d rather be with musical people than any others, and that they’re mine really’.4 Woolf similarly records what she heard and where she heard it, but often adds her personal thoughts:

Figaro at the Old Vic. It’s perfectly lovely; breaking from one beauty into another, and so romantic as well as witty – the perfection of music, and vindication of opera.5

Warner, a trained musicologist, can be quite rhapsodic in her offerings:

In the evening the Amadeus played opus 132; and I danced to the last movement, I rose up & danced, among the cats, & their saucers, and only when I was too far carried away to stop did I realise that I was behaving very oddly for my age – and that perhaps it was the last time I should dance for joy.6

Sometimes the observations made by these three women on contemporary performances overlap with those of the two principal composers discussed here, especially Kelly, who attended some of the same London concerts.

Frederick Kelly

Born in Sydney, Kelly was educated at Eton and Oxford. As a student he was much more interested in rowing for his college (Balliol), university and for Britain than in studying. After graduating with a degree in history in 1903, he spent five years studying piano and composition at the Hoch Conservatorium in Frankfurt, following in the footsteps of Percy Grainger. On returning to London, Kelly gave piano recitals and appeared as soloist in concertos with the London Symphony Orchestra, while continuing his rowing with the Leander Club at Henley, winning an Olympic gold medal in 1908. He quickly became a fixture of the capital’s arts scene, friendly with the poet laureate Robert Bridges. He lived next door to Leonard Borwick, the concert pianist, and sat for a portrait by John Singer Sargent, a photographic reproduction of which can be seen in the National Portrait Gallery.

Kelly kept a daily diary, starting from 1 October 1907, when he was studying in Germany, and ending on 29 April 1915. His accounts afford the reader a real sense of chronology and change, giving a glimpse of the different musical worlds he encountered. He records very precise details, telling the reader what he played and to whom, noting the reactions of his listeners. The editor of the diaries, Thérèse Radic, gives an excellent descriptive summary of their appearance and content:

The eight extant volumes, written in a large hand and in black ink, are easy enough to read. Sprinkled through them are fragments of musical notation. These are often sketches of new ideas, but there are also extracts from works by established composers used to illustrate critiques. The contents of the diaries are neither consciously literary nor aimed at posterity. They appear to have been written as a surface record of Kelly’s days, a personal reminder of how he used his time.7

Radic also picks out the recurring themes in Kelly’s diaries, among them the details of his piano practice, his daily meals and the many concerts he attended.

Kelly’s diaries range over different musical centres, especially London, betraying an eclecticism on his part. On 26 November 1909, for example, he went to the Coliseum to hear the Russian Balalaika players, where he was:

… much struck by the variety and the pleasant quality of tone which an orchestra of about 35 players produced. They finished up with a stirring performance of ‘Rule Britannia’ in which the sharp clicks of the strings gave a wonderfully inspiriting effect.8

Kelly’s diary entries

Kelly’s diaries contain long, detailed entries, and on nearly every day he hears something musical and says something interesting about it. One way of considering his listening activities is to take samples from across the eight diaries. The following discussion is written around a selection of a few entries that range across different years and locations, thus giving a sense of what he heard in Germany, Britain and France.

On 3 November 1907 Kelly was at a concert in Frankfurt, which included Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of his diary recollection is that it gives a hint of how well Bruckner was received at this time, with repeated performances of this symphony. Kelly, however, was not taken with the work, writing that:

… the lack of continuity drives one to distraction and the tremendous crescendos on the common chord consisting of an incessant repetition of the same figure are like thick walls to prevent the flimsy structure of the material from falling down. It has been done three times since I have been in Frankfurt, if not more, and why? Hausegger used to conduct it by heart and so did Raabe tonight. In the same period of time I don’t think Brahms’ Third Symphony has been done at all!9

At the end of the year Kelly was back in England, where, as an ex-pupil, he attended the Eton school concert on 18 December. The pièce de resistance of this event was Acis and Galatea, as well as:

… a very talented boy of about 14 named Franchetti (and nephew of the composer of Germania) played a piece called Troika by Tchaikovsky. As an encore he played ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’ and the ‘Cock of the North’ on a drone bass in imitation of a drum and fife band, which caused an uproar among the boys but angered most of the masters.10

On 15 June 1908 Kelly went to Queen’s Hall. Even in those days the London traffic could cause problems, with Kelly missing the first item of an all-Saint-Saëns’ orchestral concert. While Kelly professed not to find Saint-Saëns a great composer, he did relish his wonderful facility, and in this diary entry offers rare comments on Saint-Saëns as pianist, which add to the wider picture of this composer as performer:

The Danse Macabre I liked best of anything on the programme. His piano playing seemed to me excellent and I was surprised at such clearness and technique in a man of 73.11

Kelly knew and worked with many of his British contemporaries, and often attended and commented on their concerts. One entry of 15 November 1909, after a concert at London’s Aeolian Hall, offers the reader an exceptionally detailed record of the repertoire and performers, naming the members of the Schwiller Quartet, for example, and listing every individual song offered in the programme; this included such rareties as Balfour Gardiner’s ‘Roadways’, as well as two major works by Vaughan Williams, his song cycle, On Wenlock Edge, and his new String Quartet in G minor, which seemed to Kelly ‘a very amateurish work with torturing harmonies’.12 Kelly’s record of the concert also offers a salutary lesson in the fallibility of placing too much trust in old concert programmes, with an example where one singer is replaced at short notice with another. While the popular English singer Gervase Elwes is listed on the official programme, Kelly writes that he had laryngitis, with his place taken by William Higley, better known for singing Wagner at the Proms.

Kelly was in London for the funeral of the King on 20 May 1910, offering an interesting observation of the occasion, notably that the ceremonial bands marched past the crowds without playing any music:

I breakfasted at 7am and found my way in to my seat in ‘Boots’ shop in the Edgware Road at 9am. We had two hours to wait before the beginning of King Edward VII’s funeral procession reached us, but the seething crowd and its struggles to break through the line of police and soldier was an unflagging source of interest. I was very much interested in the pageantry of the whole procession, but the whole thing was not impressive from the almost total lack of music. There were massed bands but they didn’t play as they passed us. It was a hot day and numbers of people fainted.13

Kelly as music critic

In 1911 Kelly was back in Sydney, where he attended as many musical events as possible, recording and commenting on programmes, performers, venues and climate. The longer passage below is a classic example of Kelly’s systematic and critical approach to listening, in which he lists and judges. His writings from this period in Australia also serve as a very good, and rare, source of information on musical life in that country at the time:

Wednesday 14 June 1911, Wentworth Hotel, Sydney

I went to the Sheffield Choir concert at the Town Hall after dinner. It was a miscellaneous program of choruses, part-songs and solos. The Sheffield chorus opened with Bach’s eight-part Motet, ‘Singet dem Herrn’, which they sang magnificently, kept the pitch tune as far as I could judge. They also did Elgar’s ‘Go Song of Mine’ which I heard at its first performance in London a year or so ago in the Queen’s Hall. It is a beautiful work, I think. Parry’s ‘There Rolls the Sleep’ and ‘The Bells of St Michael’s Tower’ (Knyvett-Steward) were also sung – the latter being a clever imitation of chimes. The Sydney Madrigal Society (conducted by W. Arundel Orchard) contributed ‘Thine Am I, Dearest’ (Monteverde) [sic] and Parry’s ‘Prithee Why’, and made an excellent showing – in fact I could find no fault with their singing. Lady Norah Noel’s singing left an unpleasant taste in my mouth. She sang a rather commonplace song as an encore and made the most of her gallery top notes. The bass Mr Robert Chignell was also up to the same game. It was interesting to have practically the only two characteristic sides of English music represented side by side – the part-song which is its pride and the drawing-room song which unfortunately is equally characteristic.14

A similar mix of precise reporting and subjective judgment characterises these diaries. On 5 March 1913 Kelly was in Paris to hear an important recital in the Salle Érard. Prior to the event he bought scores from Durand’s music shop, hiring a room with a piano in order to sight-read the music ahead of the concert. His summary of the event adds a distinctive perspective to other existing writings on the composer-pianist:

Debussy’s playing was very straightforward and in a sense disappointed me. He played from the music and except in ‘La Puerta del Vino’ (which he repeated) and ‘General Lavine’, which he added as an encore, he didn’t show many signs of interpreting his music. There was too much of the soft pedal colour for my taste, but I don’t know whether this was owing to the Erard piano. He had a considerable reception from a crowded house…As a player he didn’t seem to me to have an easy technique and there were certain subtleties of expression in the music which didn’t come out in his playing.15

Kelly also tells us that Fanny Davies had made a special trip from England to hear Debussy, and that in the same concert Ravel conducted his Introduction and Allegro. Back in London a few days later Kelly was fortunate to be able to see the Ballets Russes. His attendance of a succession of concerts across a few days is typical of his everyday life, demonstrating his desire to learn and to immerse himself in new music. It is also evident that his healthy financial situation and ability to mix in affluent circles afforded him opportunities quite different to those of William Baines.

William Baines

Baines first started to keep a diary some ten years after Kelly, in 1918, his original one a Christmas present from his brother Teddy. This developed into a tradition, with subsequent diaries always being gifts from his family. Taken together, they chart a poignant few years in which the young man can be seen moving inexorably towards his early death. There are five volumes in the British Library. The first is a small green Letts diary in which Baines writes an entry every single day. Personal details log his height as 5ft 8, his weight an already fragile 7 stone. On the first page he says he hopes that ‘in the future this little book will contain my wanderings, experiences, – & (a pet theory) – little temperamental moods’ (1 January 1918). The following entry provides a taste of how Baines, still a teenager, lived, and with what anticipation. He describes this as an ‘uneventful day’, calls himself a ‘music student’, tells us he is working towards a piano recital in Horbury and that he is employed as relief pianist at the Electric Theatre in York. One line gives a sense of the passion with which he responds to music: ‘Oh! music – what a delight you are to me – it is one thread between man, – & spirit’ (2 January 1918).

The small black diary for 1919 starts on 24 January and is kept for much of the year. However, Baines is now tending to spread one entry across several dates rather than providing a daily update. There is also a noticeable change in hand between 1918 and 1919. The travails of war have taken their toll, and the handwriting in 1919 is markedly quavery. The diaries for 1920 and 1921 are often blank or with very short entries, particularly around increasingly long periods of illness. That for 1922 has very few entries and comes to an end on 27 May, when Baines notes that he has received copies of his newly-published piano work, Milestones.

Baines’s descriptive and delicate poeticism is applied to music, but also revealed in his many rhapsodic descriptions of nature and weather. These permeate his diaries, as shown in three apposite examples from 1918:

3 January 1918

‘Awoke up this morning, to find the earth a mass of white. What a beautiful, & typical winter scene – snow all round – the sparrows all about, – chirruping in all kinds of keys.’

19 May 1918

‘The sun was high in the heavens – & the blossom was magnificent – the air was glorious, & so pure. The buttercups are like one great carpet of yellow – & the various tints of green on the trees are exquisite.’

15 June 1918

‘Cycled 40 miles to Bridlington. Thought of 2 new names for pieces – ‘At Dawn on the Wolds’ and ‘From an Hedge Bottom One June Morn. This last idea, or title came from seeing roses, & beautiful creepers in a hedge bottom near Stamford Bridge.’

It might be said that Katherine Mansfield writes in a way comparable to Baines, making analogies between nature and music, although as a writer she approaches the subject in her distinctive poetic, painterly manner:

Oh, God! The sky is filled with the Sun, and the sun is like music. Music comes streaming down these great beams. The wind touches the harp-like trees, shakes little jets of music – little shakes, little trills from the flowers. The shape of every flower is like a sound.’
(31 May 1919)16

Provincial music-making

Baines’s diaries reveal the distinctive outlook of a provincial musician with little in the way of serious musical training. He grew up in a close family in the provincial town of Horbury before moving first to Cleckheaton, then to York. Horbury in the early part of the twentieth century was shaped by its non-conformist tradition. Music-making was inevitably dominated by the chapel, of which there were four in the High Street alone,17 but the town also had a world-famous troupe of handbell ringers. Baines’s father William earned his living as a musician, from 1913 as cinema pianist at the Picture Palace in Cleckheaton, then at the Electric Cinema in York’s Fossgate; therefore music played an important role in the home. The family owned a phonograph, playing Handel oratorios and such treasured recordings as the overture to Auber’s La Muette de Portici.

Figure 1: Yorkshire Training College of Music (Source unknown)

Baines was initially taught by his father, sitting at his side at the organ in the Ebenezer Primitive Methodist Chapel in Horbury, composing hymn tunes by the age of 11. From 1910 he travelled to Leeds every Saturday to study at the Yorkshire Training College of Music18 with Albert Jowett, a well-known teacher and composer in the city. Baines had season tickets for the Bradford Permanent Orchestral Society. He played piano duets with his father and gave solo piano recitals locally. He enjoyed the seaside orchestra at Bridlington and Parsifal in Leeds, eating shrimp sandwiches in the interval (31 March 1922). He heard the Hallé with Catterall playing Hamilton Harty’s Violin Concerto at St George’s Hall, Bradford, of which he wrote:

I wish he had not. I believe a lot of other people wished like me. It was boresome, & the work lacked ideas. Did it contain one good one? Catterall plays in a delightful manner. Very polished & correct. I like Harty’s conducting. I never before heard such a fine performance of the Tannhäuser Overture as was given tonight…the brass players in this orchestra are very good.

(17 March 1922)

All in all it was a parochial existence, and this young man had little contact with the wider musical world. Life was relaxed and cosseted. Baines worked, smoked, studied French, played chess, walked and cycled. Often he listed in his diaries what he was reading at the time, which ranged from lives of composers and Ernest Markham Lee’s recently-published On Listening to Music (1918) to Dickens, Poe and Rupert Brooke. He bought a second-hand copy of Grove and was passionate about Jerome K. Jerome.

One of the most valuable aspects of Baines’s diaries, particularly the first one, is what they reveal about life in a small town and its contained yet flourishing musical scene. On 7 January 1918 Baines describes a typical day, at a time when he acted as relief pianist for his father at the cinema:

Practice [sic] 10 am – to 12 noon. After dinner read until 1.30. Practice 1.30 until about 3.15. Then early Tea. Commence at the pictures 4.30, finish 7. (Usually I extemporise all the time, or if not, play a few light classical pieces – Chopin’s Mazurkas, Scriabin Preludes, etc). Arrive home about 7.30. Practice until about 9 or 9.30. Supper – then a good read, or a game of chess.

At the cinema Baines most often played alone, occasionally with others, such as the cellist Freda Kirmsé, who had trained at the RAM and in Leipzig. Baines had a habit, not popular with the film audience, of using the cinema to try out and learn new repertory:

Have started to go through Beethoven’s Sonatas at the pictures – & am doing the first 6 (about) – this first half week.

(23 April 1918)

Monday was washing day, Sunday the statutory day of rest, with Baines attending chapel and writing ‘I always have a feeling of “smallness” on Sundays – because of its sacredness’ (6 January 1918). There were informal local opportunities to perform his own music, and many instances when he mentions playing to people over luncheon. He only began to step outside this insular world when the critic and writer A. Eaglefield Hull (1876–1928) came across his music in 1920 and took it upon himself to champion his young Yorkshire compatriot.

Rather like the Derbyshire composer, Roger Sacheverell Coke (1912–72), Baines’s output is focused on piano music on account of his isolation and his almost enforced prowess on this instrument. His own, often luxuriantly chromatic, music is audibly influenced by his listening, with the impact of hearing Debussy, Delius and Scriabin, a composer whose Symphony no.2 made Baines’s back record ‘20 degrees below zero!’ (14 September 1921), clearly heard. His musical language is also coloured by his isolated circumstances, with an abundance of tone poems inspired by the local places he loved so well. The coast at Flamborough was a particular fascination, with several piano miniatures including the two works that constitute Tides, ‘The Lone Wreck’ and ‘Goodnight to Flamboro’’, linked to its rocky headland.

Figure 2: High Stacks, Flamborough Head (Source: Geograph website,, accessed 1 June 2017; Copyright © Scott Robinson and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence,

Local musicians

One of Baines’s close allies and supporters was the concert pianist and fellow Yorkshireman Frederick Dawson (1868–1940). When he first encountered Baines’s music, Dawson was at the height of his career (he had been the soloist at the inaugural concert of Queen’s Hall, worked closely with Grieg, toured Germany and Vienna, and gave first performances of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no.1 in Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester). In 1913, for example, an appearance in Manchester was described as ‘sparkling’, having ‘clarity’, ‘vitality’ and ‘dazzling execution’.19 He swiftly took into his repertoire an array of Baines’s works, notably Silverpoints and the Seven Preludes, taking the pieces across northern England. Baines became close to Dawson, not only as a fellow musician, but also as a friend, and wrote many letters to the pianist at his then home in Eyam, in the beautiful Derbyshire countryside, some of which describe listening experiences in a manner similar to that expressed in the diaries:

Letter to Frederick Dawson, 11 August 1920

Last night I went out to sea on a steamer, ‘The Frenchman’. Beneath a curling sky the water was a lovely dark greeny green. As the waves overlapped one another they appeared to be like running velvet…so soft and smooth. The light was a bluey grey but a slanting sun kissed a strip of sea into a golden pathway of light…

We had not been sailing very long before a ‘noise’ struck up…and made a crack in the picture. Music on the vessel…It was a most extraordinary Stravinsky-like combination was this ship’s orchestra – viz. harp and piccolo. O Lor! Imagine the skimmed-milk harmony. The people clapped of course. They would have clapped if the boat had gone down I suppose. Holidays are magical things, but it made me wonder if England would ever be a musical nation.20

Baines heard Dawson play on several occasions, notably at the Town Hall in Leeds, ‘as brilliant as ever – & he plays this magnificent concerto [Delius] as it should be played’ (15 February 1922). A week after this performance Baines went to a different Leeds venue, the Albert Hall, to see Dawson include five of his piano miniatures, a recital at which Dawson also played Chopin’s ‘butterfly’ study ‘more delightfully than ever I have heard it before…’ (22 February 1922).

Another important local connection was the violinist John Dunn (1866–1940), who occupied a position rather similar to that of Frederick Dawson. He too was from Yorkshire, studied in Leipzig 1878–81, travelled to America, was one of the first soloists to take Elgar’s Violin Concerto into his repertoire, gave many world tours, and retired to Harrogate. Baines first heard Dunn in March 1918 in a recital in York, an encounter that inspired ‘Dream Thought’ for violin and piano, offered to Dunn by the composer. He wrote in reply, as recorded in detail in Baines’s diary:

I am delighted with your ‘Dream Temple’. It’s just the thing. If you are well enough would you care to be the pianist at my recital? Am opening with some Bach & Paganini…2 or 3 smaller items & yours.

(7 December 1920)

Dunn’s ‘exquisite’ interpretation of this piece elicited intense emotions both from Baines and from his mother:

He drained the sponge of beauty to the last drop – & Mother sat & wept for joy – in the dark – in the back room.

(6 January 1921)

Baines’s favoured repertoire was his own music, alongside Arensky, Bridge, Chopin and above all Scriabin. On account of his ongoing ill health, his recitals were close to home, his main venues being St Mary’s Convent, St George’s Hall and the Tempest Anderson Hall in York, and the Assembly Hall, Horbury, as well as the familiar Primitive Methodist Chapel. The collection of programmes of his performances in the British Library demonstrates just how home-grown his musical career was and, once he had moved to York, Baines saw visits as locally as Horbury and Cleckheaton as a ‘vacation’ (21 January 1918). Yet from these recitals he developed close friends who helped to promote his limited career, among them the affluent Lady Dawson,21 with her husband Sir Benjamin the owner of the well-known country house, Nun Appleton. She was a talented amateur pianist, and in Baines found a sympathetic duet partner. She in turn supported his concerts, offered him the use of her fine Bechstein, took him for drives in her Rolls Royce and gave him the freedom of the grounds of the estate. To her, Baines wrote many poetic and appreciative letters.

Figure 3: Nun Appleton Hall (Source: Geograph website,, accessed 1 June 2017; Copyright © Ian S and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence,

Working methods

Baines spent many hours searching for an original style, writing in 1918:

In reason, I often think, why should music be governed by laws? I feel that I must use my own ideas and methods. I cannot see how it matters, if the result is good. Naturally anybody has to have a grounding, but after that, I say ‘get out of the common rut’! I long to burst my bonds and intend doing so, in careful but firm steps.

(3 April 1918)

He was a critical worker, striving to improve his word-setting, and to learn more about string phrasing, and writing out compositions numerous times in order to grasp them more clearly. Most of his pieces were at some stage reworked. Perhaps surprisingly, given that Baines revised and re-revised, in the initial stages of a new piece he wrote very quickly:

Tuesday I got into working order again; & started on a ‘Poem’ for orchestra & piano…Up to teatime yesterday I had done 45 pages of score…& have enjoyed myself amongst it all. Tootling piccolo parts & bellowing the trombonist bits …!22

The diaries reveal how Baines listened, usually to recordings, socially, with friends and family. Sunday was often a time for musical contemplation. On one occasion he writes of going to Cleckheaton to share his experiences:

…had a good evening listening to the gramophone – (mainly pianoforte records), with Willie Halmshaw – who is a grand fellow – & Bertram Ellis. Real good company they are.

(20 April 1918)

However, Baines was well aware of the limitations of recordings, finding that re-listening to the same performance captured on record had the problem that it said ‘the same thing that has been said many times before’ (8 December 1921).

The composer’s listening experiences came not only from the actual auditory experience, but also from his private practice and through his diligent discovery of new music. He bought scores as often as he could, learning them extraordinarily quickly. Taking an example from the diaries, on 24 January 1918 he acquired several new works, including selected pieces by Byrd and the Grieg Piano Concerto, but also Cyril Scott’s Russian Dance, Palmgren’s Rococo, and Harry Farjeon’s The Four Winds. On the following exquisite day, ‘all tranquil, & sublime’, he memorised two of them; the day after that Scott’s seven-page score and Byrd’s Pavan, ‘The Earl of Salisbury,’ writing of the latter: ‘This piece brings into mind the impression of a beautiful cathedral – solemn, & grand’ (26 January 1918).

Through Baines’s meticulous registering of works in his diary of 1918 we learn that he knew Liszt’s La Campanella, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no.4 and Bridge’s Capriccio in F sharp minor. And it would be interesting to probe further his assessment that Byrd’s ‘Carman’s Whistle’ was ‘rather a difficult piece to memorise’ (12 February 1918).

On 24 February he bought another three new pieces, by Balakirev, Palmgren and Scriabin. Many of these newly-memorised miniatures found their way into his recital programmes.

Whenever he could – and like Kelly – Baines purchased new music, mainly French and British, such as Benjamin Dale’s Piano Sonata, ‘a fine work but too long’ (16 April 1918), Ravel’s ‘irresistible’ Jeux d’Eaux (27 April 1918), Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque and Ireland’s Decorations. He played much of the latter’s music, including the Piano Sonata, his ‘somewhat vague Rhapsody – & his Ragamuffin which I like’ (30 April 1919). In 1922 he went so far as to write a paper on the ‘very fine’ Ireland violin sonatas, which was read at a British Music Society meeting on 11 February 1922. Baines’s comments on his own performances add to the idea of the composer listening to himself, for example a recital in Gainsborough on an appalling piano, where ‘dozens of notes were squinting horribly out of tune’ (29 March 1922).

Romantic appreciation

Baines’s descriptions of his listening experiences reflect his sensitive nature. There are numerous examples of this romantic aesthetic: ‘What a beautiful realm Chopin’s music takes one into. It is a balm at all times’ (5 March 1918), and ‘I love beautiful slow movements – they record one’s heart & mind so well’ (18 March 1918). Of Debussy he wrote: ‘He was a proper “dreamer”. I love his works’ (27 March 1918).

Baines always responds emotively, with language of an exuberant nature. Of his own playing of the Waldstein sonata to his mother he writes that he ‘bathed in its depths’ (4 January 1920). Of being in York Minster, ‘a glorious, majestic building’ he often visited: ‘Oh! how the music thrills & makes one go cold’ (20 May 1918). While Baines most often focuses on how music moves him, sometimes he, like Kelly, records factual information: in March 1919, for example, he goes with his new friend, artist Karl Wood,23 to see the Carl Rosa company in Madame Butterfly, listing Aimee Kemball as Butterfly, Constance Willis as Suzuki and Edward Davies as Pinkerton, saying:

A memorable night. The music is great at times, the treatment of the orchestra is very interesting – conventions to the wind. Pure melody is not Puccini’s forte – to me – but all the same I have enjoyed it and should like to hear it again.

(21 March 1919)

A few days later, on Palm Sunday, Baines is in York Minster to listen to Bach, again listing those he has heard, including tenor Gervase Elwes (19 April 1919). In the following year he hears the Catterall quartet playing Mozart, Elgar and Borodin, ‘a great treat’, ‘a fine combination’, and the ‘first time I have heard a good string quartet’ (30 January 1920).

Baines’s assessments, with such charming statements as Debussy’s L’Après-Midi giving off ‘all kinds of soft lights’ (15 September 1921), might be interpreted as being naïve, but are wonderfully natural responses and reveal a highly receptive brain and ear. He much preferred hearing contemporary music. On sitting behind the double basses at a concerto given by the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), he writes ‘to my regret did not play anything modern…we were given the usual Mozart & Wagner’ (20 February 1920), and at a concert in York:

Went to hear Acis and Galatea with the York Choral Society, also Holst Hymn of Jesus. Excepting for about 2 arias the Handel piece was boring to a degree – & got tremendous applause! The Holst is a magnificent work – great – & a few more sensible people clapped like fury – otherwise the clapping wouldn’t have awakened a sleeping child.

(8 March 1921)

As a keyboard player, Baines’s observations on contemporary pianists are particularly noteworthy: critical while never truly unkind. He listened to pianist Mark Hambourg, with his ‘fine technique but no personality’ (13 October 1919), and in 1920 heard ‘typically British’ William Murdoch at the Wigmore Hall (21 February 1920).24 He liked the ‘crisp, happy playing’ of Arthur de Greef and the youthful Irene Scharrer’s ‘beautiful’ interpretation of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no.4. In 1922 Baines heard Busoni in Bradford:

a masterly player, a musician with great conceptive powers always. I didn’t like his own Fantasy on ‘Carmen’ which he played… I thought it often common; & in places even vulgar…But as a player…magnificent…

(24 February 1922)

Although visits to places outside Yorkshire were very much the exception for Baines, the highlight of his listening life came in May 1919 on a trip to London. Here, as had Kelly a few years earlier, he saw the Ballets Russes at the Alhambra (where they had been relocated following a series of successful performances at the Coliseum)25 in a performance of L’Oiseau de Feu, starring Lydia Lopokova as the firebird and conducted by Ansermet. The sensation of hearing Stravinsky’s ‘weird harmonies’ made Baines’s hair stand on end (12 May 1919). An interesting cross-reference comes from one of John Ireland’s pupils, Horace Randerson (1892–1992), who was at the same performance, and also recorded his response to Stravinsky at first hearing: ‘…most bizarre & fantastic but very fine’.26 In that same week Baines went to recitals by Evelyn Howard Jones and Sydney Rosenbloom. On 15 May he went to the Queen’s Hall to hear the LSO and Hamilton Harty play Paganini and Brahms (both with Louis Godowsky as soloist), Debussy and Tchaikovsky, of whom he said listening to Francesca da Rimini gave him ‘cold shivers of glory’. 1919 was also the year in which Baines’s fortunes began to improve, with some short pieces – Paradise Gardens and Seven Preludes – published by Elkin. The first of these is regarded by many as being Baines’s ‘signature’ work, and has elicited more in the way of textual and musical interpretations than many other pieces.

Figure 4: Paradise Gardens (Source: Drawing by Richard A. Bell, illustrating Baines’s diary entry 3 June 1918, designed for ‘The Yorkshire of William Baines’, Harrogate Festival Exhibition booklet, August 1972. With thanks to Richard A. Bell for permission to re-use in this chapter)


While these two pianist composers both worked in Britain, they had very different backgrounds. Kelly went to Eton, Baines to the Wesleyan Day School in Horbury. Kelly was a student at Oxford, Baines at a private music school in Leeds. Kelly was 35 when he died, Baines just 23. Very different perspectives on a musical decade can be uncovered through the diaries of these composers. Kelly’s listening is wide-ranging and extensive; therefore its impact on his own music is hard to define. His writings are very detailed, offer insights into his routines, and often record the smallest activities. Baines tells us what he heard in concert halls and at the seaside, but perhaps more importantly gives profoundly personal reactions. He was a very sensitive character, who wept on hearing the Scots Greys in the Knavesmire Barracks playing ‘Peace, Perfect Peace’.27 Baines’s listening experiences are very local, very personal, sometimes elegiac, sometimes droll:

I went to hear Dr Bairstow give an organ recital in the Minster. Afterward I wished I hadn’t gone. The seats were hard, & tryingly uncomfortable….& the recital monotonous. I came away with the impression that I have had for a long time…that the organ is very mechanical, & apart from bellowing & trembling, possesses no soul as an instrument.

(7 November 1921)

There are also similarities between the two authors. In his latter journals Kelly records the war in sound, sometimes writing notation into his journal, as in this example from 23 November 1914, where he notes the song of the soldiers training in Greenlaw in Scotland:

At 3.30pm we went for a route-march along the road leading west across and alongside the railway. The platoon surprised me by a burst of song when I made some remark about its unmusical character. Apparently the men were under the impression I wouldn’t allow singing on the march. One of their songs was ‘Here we are, Here we are, Here we are again!’ I could discover no continuation of the tune or the text!28 Baines likewise ‘listens’ to the war: ‘Now, at time of writing it is 1 o’clock a.m. We have been sitting up on account of an air-raid. Heard many thuds – like low A strings breaking – in the distance.

(12 March 1918)

Kelly’s musical world was very different to that of Baines. He was part of Speyer’s Classical Concert Society committee, and friends with many influential London musicians. He knew Parry and Stanford. Wealthy and well connected, he went to Bayreuth and travelled widely. He accompanied Pablo Casals and the famous d’Arányi sisters. In the case of Baines, it is perhaps surprising, given that he was 20 years younger, to realise that his piano music was produced at the same time as much of that of John Ireland. The latter’s Piano Sonata, for example, was premiered in 1920. But while Ireland was a national name with many contacts across the country, Baines languished in obscurity. Living an insular, protected life in Yorkshire, without the important contacts with the Royal College enjoyed by most of his contemporaries, Baines’s own music spread very slowly in a handful of publications.

In one respect the fact that Baines never left his home county to take up composition studies was a hindrance to him. He had almost no personal contact with contemporary composers and little formal tuition, compelled therefore to find a method of teaching himself. Conversely, his distance from the English composing community brought a distinctive flavour to his composition and to his writing. Although now remembered only for a collection of short piano pieces, at the time of his early death he was beginning to make an impact nationally, both as a concert pianist and a composer. Baines had an uncanny ability to read, listen and critique, and the wealth of detail available from his diaries provides a valuable alternative listening narrative. In his 1946 novel, Bright Day, J. B. Priestley, with great nostalgia, tried to evoke the Yorkshire past in fiction. Baines’s writings from his real, lived experiences, vividly conjure up a real lost world, a lost time.

Select bibliography

Carpenter, Roger. Goodnight to Flamboro’: The Life and Music of William Baines. Rickmansworth: Triad Press, 1977.

Cookey, Jon and McKechnie. Graham (eds). Kelly’s War: The Great War Diary of Frederick Kelly 1914–16. London: Blink, 2015

Pirie, Peter J. ‘William Baines’, Music & Musicians 21, November, 1972, pp. 36–40.

Radic, Thérèse. ‘Editing the diaries of F. S. Kelly: unique insights into an expatriate’s musical career’, Context 19, Spring, 2001, pp. 19–33.

Radic, Thérèse. Race Against Time: The Diaries of F.S. Kelly. Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2004.

Smith, J. Sutcliffe. A Musical Pilgrimage in Yorkshire. Leeds: Richard Jackson Ltd, 1928.

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Analysing listening experiences: a case study of the young Benjamin Britten

Simon Brown

Simon Brown is a Research Associate at the Royal College of Music working on the Listening Experience Database (LED) project, and an Associate Lecturer with The Open University.


Historical evidence of listening to music by practitioners can often provide us with an unusual level of detail about their experience. But in what form does this data usually exist? How could we set about studying the evidence and what insights might it provide? This chapter focuses on the type of methodology that might be used for the systematic study of the listening experiences of a single practitioner, with a view to how this could be applied to a larger dataset. It relies upon the facilities of the Listening Experience Database (LED) and attempts to illustrate what a tool like this has to offer.

The chapter will draw extensively on the listening experiences of Benjamin Britten between the years 1928 and 1938. This is the only period of his life during which Britten kept a daily journal. As such, his listening experiences are mentioned in almost every entry. John Evans noted in the preface to his 2009 published edition that:

the entries grow in length, complexity and private reflection; intimate thoughts were committed to a succession of pocket and desk diaries, [during] a period of self-reflection.29

After 1938 Britten’s only first-hand accounts of his listening experiences are available through his letters. His diaries therefore provide a unique and valuable insight into the unsolicited testimony of a practitioner.


The types of sources that contain historical evidence of listening practices include: personal correspondence such as letters, diaries and memoirs; published books and articles such as biographies and autobiographies (particularly examples of travel and life writing); journalism; oral evidence; official papers and works of reference, to name but a few. But what form does data about listening usually take? It is often the case that the type of evidence does not always reveal what we might have initially imagined or hoped (for example, precisely how the listener felt about, or reacted to, a particular piece of music). Instead, the individual pieces of evidence are often casual comments, which contain contextual information pertaining to the experience, such as the repertoire, performers, location, date and times, and so on. Given the often dispersed and varied nature of this evidence, its analysis can be difficult and cumbersome. This chapter sets out to demonstrate how disparate pieces of evidence relating to the listening experiences of Benjamin Britten (191376) can be analysed by means of their extraction from a database, providing a more coherent picture than might otherwise be the case. The claim here is not that this study would be impossible in the absence of such means. Rather, the study may act as a pilot, showing how this technique might be applicable to a much larger and more unwieldy body of evidence.

The peripheral data

In the listening experiences of practitioners it is perhaps not surprising that information about the music and performers is often described in detail. This is certainly true for Britten, who often names the performers and repertoire as a matter of course throughout his diaries. In addition, Britten recorded much contextual data, and for this study all of these details have been entered into LED.

The data entry form on LED has been designed not only to capture the written testimony of the listener and the bibliographical details of how the evidence can be traced, but also the ‘peripheral data’ of each experience. By peripheral I mean the contextual evidence that is often apparent either explicitly in the text (such as a specific piece of music or composer being mentioned), or implicitly (such as whether it was at a concert at a named venue, meaning that it is safe to assume that the experience occurred indoors, in a public space and in the company of others).30 The fields on the data entry form facilitate the capture of details about the names of specific pieces of music, the composer(s), the performer(s), the instrumentation, the listening and performance environments, the locations, and how the music was transmitted. Labeling these details as ‘peripheral’ is not to suggest that they are inferior to the descriptive testimony of the experience, but merely that their significance is not always immediately apparent. On the contrary, in addition to drawing conclusions from the written testimony, it is the extraction of this peripheral data that can provide further insights into the listening habits and behaviours of an individual, or broader patterns across a range of listeners, locations, time periods and different types of music.

In addition to the standard browse and search facilities that are available via the LED homepage, the data can also be queried using the SPARQL language. This allows for more complex searches of LED, but also the facility to extract the data via the SPARQL endpoint of The Open University into a CSV (Comma Separated Values) file. Once in this format, the data can be interrogated further using standard software, such as Microsoft Excel, in order to examine it more closely and extract more meaningful results. An example of the SPARQL query that was used to extract all of the entries in LED that have Britten as a listener can be seen in Figure 1.31

Figure 1: SPARQL query to retrieve all of the listening experiences that involve Britten as a listener

The listening experiences of Benjamin Britten

Britten affords a fascinating insight into the listening experiences of a single practitioner. He lived during a period that witnessed the emergence of changes in technology that would profoundly affect listening habits and behaviours. There is also an abundance of evidence, a vast amount of which is readily available through his published diaries and letters.32 Britten frequently comments on listening to his own music as a composer, but also the effects of listening to others. His responses include different listening environments, such as during rehearsals, live at concerts, via radio broadcasts and on the gramophone player. Britten often records valuable details of the performers and the repertoire, in addition to his reaction to the performance, along with that of the audience.

Much of the current literature on Britten has naturally focused on his work as a composer. While we have learned much from the published material, in terms of his musical and cultural perspectives, there has been limited discussion about the specific effects of what Britten listened to, the ways in which he listened, and how this might have had an impact on his work as a practitioner. This chapter draws on Britten’s listening experiences between the years 1928 and 1938, the only period of his life during which he kept a daily journal, which has now been edited by John Evans.

Beginning in the composer’s fourteenth year, Britten’s diaries trace his development from Gresham’s School in Holt, North Norfolk, to his time studying at the Royal College of Music, through to his early career working for the General Post Office Film Unit, the Group Theatre and the BBC. By the end of 1938 Britten was on the brink of establishing an international career. His personal accounts enable us to explore a period of his life that would have a profound influence on him.

It is important to provide a word of caution here. Evans admits in the editorial notes to the published collection that not every word or, indeed, every entry of Britten’s diaries was replicated in the published edition. Evans explains that in Britten’s early accounts of his activities, mainly governed by his family circumstances or life at school, the diary entries are ‘very matter-of-fact in content, but the roll call of his many church-going, musical, sporting or bathing companions is always extraordinarily detailed’.33 Therefore, the evidence this chapter draws upon is only indicative of Britten’s practices and habits and does not, by any means, present the complete picture.

In reproducing Britten’s diary entries I have retained his spelling mistakes, choice of punctuation and grammar as they were in the published edition.34 In any piece of text, these types of idiosyncrasies can affect the meaning entirely and, as Evans noted, ‘they demonstrate the efforts he made to express himself more clearly, and the struggle he had to overcome his dyslexia-like battle with spelling’.35

Revealing the peripheral data

An example of his diary entry from 22 October 1932, written after Britten had attended a live performance of Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G minor K.478, reveals his sharp criticism of the performers and is indicative of his strengthening opinions, not just about how he considered Mozart ought to be performed he was, of course, later to become a celebrated interpreter of Mozart himself but of the standard of musicianship that he was growing to expect:

Meet Barb at 8.15 at Broadcasting House for concert (tickets from R.C.M.) in concert Hall at 8.30. English Ensemble Kathleen Long (poor in spots). Marjorie Haywood (good) Rebecca Clark (musicianly but not inspired). May Mukle (poor tone).36

Aside from the criticisms directed at the performers, this type of experience reveals other aspects of the London concert scene during this time, such as the venues and performers. A review of several pieces of evidence like this provides us with a more accurate picture of where Britten most frequently listened to music during a specific period. Figure 2 shows Britten’s listening experiences by venue in London between late 1928 and early 1935. It reveals that most of his listening experiences occurred either at the Royal College of Music (RCM), where he was a student, or at the Queen’s Hall in Langham Place. The latter was London’s principal concert venue. It played host to The Proms between 1895 and 1941 before it was destroyed in the Blitz during the Second World War, but in the 1930s it had become the home for both the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra both of which raised the standards of orchestral playing in London and attracted eminent musicians from across Europe and America (see Figure 3: Sir Edward Elgar and the London Symphony Orchestra on the platform of the Queen’s Hall in 1911, a photograph first published in The Musical Times the same year). The other most prominent venues that Britten frequented included Broadcasting House, the Royal Albert Hall and the Wigmore Hall, but most of these listening experiences occurred after 1930.

Figure 2: Britten’s listening experiences by venue in London (1928–35).
Figure 3: Sir Edward Elgar and the London Symphony Orchestra on the platform of the Queen’s Hall (Source: Scanned from The Musical Times, vol. 52, No. 825, 1 November 1911, pp. 705–707)

Britten moved to London in September 1930 to study at the RCM. As we might expect, this radically changed his listening habits in terms of the repertoire to which he was exposed and the standard of performance that he would witness. Britten had an uneasy relationship with the RCM and the reasons behind his feelings are complex, but they were likely to have been influenced in part, at least, by his attitude towards his fellow-students and the teaching staff such as John Ireland and Ralph Vaughan Williams, the latter of whom Britten considered to be the ‘old guard’ of English music. But as a young composer, Britten’s dissatisfaction with his time at College was understandable, and had much to do with the lack of performances that his own works received. As Paul Kildea noted in his recent biography of Britten:

by the time he left the RCM in July 1933, Britten had heard only two of his works in college concerts his Phantasy in F minor (1932) and Sinfonietta (1932), which had already received its premiere elsewhere.37

Britten himself later remarked about this period that without being able to listen to his own works ‘it was difficult to link notes and sounds’.38

A comparison of Kildea’s account with Britten’s diary entries confirms that there were only two performances of his own works at the RCM. The first was on 22 July 1932 and is perhaps surprisingly thin in detail, particularly since this was still such a rare occasion. Britten wrote:

Go to R.C.M. at 10.30, after finishing packing etc. to hear result of [sic] competition Cobbett prize – performance of my 5tet—bad—but I expected worse.39

The second was on 16 March 1933 and is equally sparse:

After dinner R.C.M. Chamber Concert at 8.15. Mum & Beth go. Bridges & Brosas also there. Beethoven C# min quart competently but dully played; an atrocious perf. of Delius Vl. Sonata no. 1. F. May plays. bit of Phantasy of Schuman [sic], & I conduct a show of my Sinfonietta which goes quite well.40

If we consider the number of experiences of listening to his own compositions that Britten documented during this short period, we can see that there were significantly more than this (see Table 1). Of course, not all of these would have been public engagements; some were private performances or listening experiences with friends and colleagues, such as on Cromwell Road in Kensington, where he lived between 1931 and 1933. The third listening experience at the RCM was a rehearsal and he would almost certainly have heard his own works by other means or on other occasions. But the fact that these are not reported in his diaries is quite striking, and it confirms that most experiences of his own music were outside of college.

Table 1: Britten’s listening experiences of his own works between 1928 and 1935

Tite Street, London 1
Broadcasting House, London 2
Cromwell Road, London 1
London 17 (30 inclusively)
Lowestoft 2
Mercury Theatre, London 1
Royal Academy of Music, London 2
Royal College of Music, London 3
St. George’s Hall, London 1
St. Martin’s Rectory, London 1
Teatro Comunale, Florence 1
Wigmore Hall, London 1
Total 33

Limitations of the data

As with Figure 2, Table 1 reveals that there are a number of issues with certain aspects of the data. For instance, of the entries that have been submitted to LED at the time of writing this chapter, there are a significant number of listening experiences where the venue was either not listed or simply marked at city, borough or street level, such as ‘London’. This is not a fault at data entry level but merely reflects the level of detail in his diaries, highlighting the fact that we should be cautious when drawing conclusions from the data.

Indeed, a closer look at the data from his diary entries reveals the incompleteness of the picture. For instance, if we consider all the listening experiences that Britten documented in his diaries between 1928 and 1934, we see a dramatic increase in 1931 (see Figure 4).  Looking more closely, however, the lack of data between 1928 and 1930 tells us more about how infrequently Britten wrote in his diary than about his listening habits. His diary begins at the start of the school term in late September 1928 and entries remain fairly sporadic until he attends the RCM in September 1930.

Figure 4 highlights how, having moved from boarding school at Gresham’s in Holt, Norfolk, to London in late 1930, Britten’s diary-writing habits became more assiduous as he attended college, and also the fact that he began to explore the London concert scene.

Figure 4: Britten’s recorded listening experiences by year

Figure 5 provides evidence of the different ways in which he listened to music, suggesting that, while his listening experiences of the gramophone fluctuated (with a slight increase overall during this period), they still remained relatively few at this time. By 1931 Britten would document, on average, his attendance at a minimum of one concert a week, while the number of reported instances of listening to music broadcast over the radio was growing steadily.

Figure 5: Method of transmission of Britten’s recorded listening experiences

The limited number of experiences even by 1934 suggests a stark contrast to today’s listening habits; it appears that nearly all were either live or broadcast, compared to the very few that were heard over the gramophone. Or does it merely suggest that Britten rarely documented his experiences of listening to the gramophone as he deemed it less significant, compared to attending a live performance or listening to a radio broadcast? It is difficult to say with any certainty, but I would argue that the evidence suggests that Britten listened more frequently to the radio or to live performances than to the gramophone. His only access to a gramophone player during these early years was either the headmaster’s at Gresham’s School, or at family and friends’ houses that he would frequent, either in Lowestoft, Suffolk or London. Indeed, his father refused to have either a gramophone or, later, a radio in the house.41

Testing assumptions

If we compare some of the assumptions from the current literature, we can see how these fare against the evidence that has been entered into LED. It has been widely observed42 that Britten’s early influences included ‘the three B’s’: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms according to Carpenter’s biography, Britten’s mother hoped her son would become the fourth. In his diary of 13 November 1928, Britten wrote: ‘in my list of Composers …Beethoven is still first, and I think always will be, Bach or Brahms comes next, I don’t know which!’43

Figure 6: Britten’s recorded listening experiences of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms (1928–34)

This is interesting as Britten’s diaries reveal very few if any listening experiences of Beethoven during this time, and only a handful of Bach and Brahms (see Figure 6). Therefore, might we assume that in the quotation from 13 November, Britten was referring to his enjoyment of playing their music rather than listening to it? This is unclear and, as I have already stated, he recorded very few listening experiences in his diaries during these early years, but after his move to London, the number of recorded experiences of listening to Bach and Beethoven were among the highest of all composers, which lends further credence to the claim that Britten preferred these composers at this time.

For his fourteenth birthday on 22 November 1927, he received the full score of Beethoven’s Fidelio and Britten later recalled that ‘it was a red letter day … between the ages of thirteen and sixteen I knew every note of Beethoven and Brahms’.44 Evans also noted in his published edition of Britten’s diaries that:

As time went by Britten’s admiration for Beethoven and Brahms waned; in the case of Brahms this happened remarkably quickly, largely because of the particular quality of his orchestration, which Britten grew to detest. …His admiration for the music of Bach, however, was constant, and he became a noted interpreter of the Brandenburg Concertos, the St John Passion and the Christmas Oratorio.45

And by 1928:

Britten had already developed a deep affection for Schubert’s chamber music …but as the years went by he was hailed as one of the finest Lieder accompanists of his generation, particularly noted for his performances of Schubert’s songs through […his] recital partnership with the tenor Peter Pears.46

Britten’s appreciation of Brahms gave way to a passion for Wagner, Schoenberg, Berg and Mahler. This would have been in part through the influence of the progressive musical tastes of his composition teacher and mentor, Frank Bridge, but also his exposure to the London concert scene during the 1930s. We can certainly begin to see elements of this trend in the 1930s by his accounts of what he was listening to. Figure 7 reveals that aside from the three Bs the composers that Britten most frequently wrote about in his diaries were Bridge, Mahler, Mozart, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky and Wagner. Despite the anomaly in 1933, Britten’s growing interest in Wagner during these early years in London is quite striking. Figure 7, taken in conjunction with Figure 6, suggests that Britten’s exposure to new repertoire significantly altered his tastes.

Of Schoenberg’s works, Britten only reported nine listening experiences between 1928 and 1934, and only one of Berg’s in 1933, but it is fair to assume that he would have been familiarising himself with the works of these composers via published copies of their scores. By comparing this data with other supporting evidence, we could begin to build a more accurate picture of who might have influenced him or where his musical interests were at specific stages throughout this period of his life.

Figure 7: Britten’s most frequently recorded listening experiences by composer, including Bridge, Mahler, Mozart, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky and Wagner (1929–34)

By 1937, Britten’s diary entries were becoming more detailed and reflective than merely listing the performers or venues, as demonstrated in the following example from 30 October of that year:

Dinner at Isherwoods, & then I go to the Queen’s Hall with Basil Douglas to the Toscanini Brahms concert. Tragic Overture, & Requiem. Some how the efficientcy & skill [sic] inspiration of T. seems to make Brahms even thinner than ever. T. obviously sees what was at the back of B’s mind, & what he hadn’t the skill to put on paper.47

In addition to capturing the date and evidence of the listening experience, these slightly longer diary entries still contain details of the venue (the Queen’s Hall), with whom Britten attended the concert (Basil Douglas, who later became manager of the English Opera Group), who performed (Toscanini), and the repertoire that was performed (Brahms’ Tragic Overture Op. 81 and A German Requiem Op. 45). This particular entry is also a good example of Britten’s increasing criticism of Brahms, as well as his exposure to performers of international stature and his strengthening opinions as a composer.

Further details captured in LED are implicit within the evidence. For instance, in what type of listening environment the experience occurred; it is clear from the evidence that it was in the company of others, in a public space and indoors. The same can be captured about the performance environment, which might differ from where the music was being heard, particularly if the music was heard via a radio broadcast or over the gramophone. It appears from the Britten entries that have been captured in LED that the above example from October 1937 is typical of the type of listening environment that Britten usually experienced. The majority of his listening experiences were in the company of others (approximately 310) compared to being on his own (approximately 165); but the divide between whether they occurred in public (approximately 225) or private (approximately 260) is more evenly split; and virtually all of his experiences were indoors (approximately 475).48 Capturing this level of detail provides us with the opportunity to assess how listening habits might have evolved, either for a single listener or collectively across a group of listeners.

The opening sentence of the following example relates to Toscanini, and Britten’s continued admiration is clear. He had been working for the General Post Office Film Unit since 1935. It is thought that the BBC originally recommended him for the position, and by 1937 Britten was receiving commissions from the BBC to write incidental music for various features and radio dramas:

I go to Toscanini rehearsal in morning—Mozart Jupiter & Schubert C maj—suffice it to say that Toscanini is worthy of such music—the highest praise. The rest of day is spent in hysterical crises at BBC. the production people won’t see that the music sounds bad only because of no rehearsal—finally I threaten to withdraw it—which causes a little sobriety. Very, very disturbing.49

This particular entry from 3 June 1938 highlights another of the complexities of studying a practitioner’s listening experiences. Due to the very nature of Britten’s different roles (as composer, performer and listener), it is not always evident whether a listening experience even occurred, or whether he is merely describing a personal reflection or his account of a particular incident. In the example above it is not entirely clear from the evidence whether Britten actually heard his composition at the BBC or whether it was simply a meeting between himself and the production staff.

Later that same year, Britten received his first Prom commission. This was for a Piano Concerto that he was to premiere with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Henry Wood at the Queen’s Hall on 18 August 1938.50 Unfortunately, there is no report of it in Britten’s diary, which ends abruptly on 15 June of that year.

The period ending in June 1938 is the only one during which Britten kept a daily journal.51 As a source of listening experiences, his diaries provide fascinating insights and an abundance of testimony. They also have the benefit of having been written only for his own eyes; it is highly unlikely that at this age he would have written in his diary with any thought that it might one day be shared (never mind published). Furthermore, the fact that he discontinued the practice of keeping a diary altogether suggests that he had no intention for it to be published. We can therefore read his accounts without applying any sort of filter that might otherwise be needed in the case of the testimony of more established practitioners, who may have had one eye on a later musical public as they wrote. What we read in Britten’s diaries are the unvarnished accounts of his listening experiences.


Britten’s accounts of his own listening experiences provide us with private, unsolicited testimony, illustrating not just what, where and who he was listening to but also the effects that it had on him and how he struggled to express himself. Entering them into LED and extracting the data in an organised way facilitates the analysis of the data both thoroughly and systematically, helping us to understand, for example, which composers and performers he listened to most frequently, and how his tastes and listening habits evolved. With further examination, it might also be possible to see how these changes correlate to his development as a composer.

The reports of the musical events that Britten attended and subsequently recorded in his diaries are, in many ways, typical of a practitioner’s account of listening. In addition to providing an evaluation of their experience, they often include contextual data about the dates and times, the venues, the names of performers and the repertoire being performed. By examining this testimony systematically we learn not only of his tastes and of the performers to whom he listened, but also about the environment in which he listened, the frequency with which he listened to recorded or live music, and a number of other ‘peripheral’ details.

As I have suggested, there are certain limitations with the data. We cannot be certain that Britten reported every listening experience in his diaries. In fact, to assume that these entries were his only experiences would be rather naïve. In 1928, for instance, he only recorded three listening experiences in his diary, but he would undoubtedly have experienced more. This anomaly is principally down to the fact that he only began writing his diary in late September 1928 and the school term ended in mid-November. To begin with, at least, he rarely maintained his diary during the holidays. Furthermore, the date range itself is very limited and we cannot expect these short years to be fully representative of his changing musical allegiances, particularly as he began to engage on a professional career as both a composer and performer. What the data does allow us to observe are patterns, trends and relationships, to either confirm or challenge existing assumptions, which have never been tested in this way. For example, his admiration of Bach and Beethoven is clear, and the dramatic increase in the number of times he listened to Wagner is striking between 1931 and 1934. All of this confirms existing assumptions, but there are other observations that could be made: the different venues that he frequented throughout London (and the fact that so many of his listening experiences were at the Queen’s Hall and the RCM); the sudden change in his listening habits when he moved to London towards the end of 1930; how the increase in his listening experiences via radio broadcasts apparently grew in accordance with his attendance of live performances; and that most were in the company of others, but there was an even split between whether they occurred in public or privately in a domestic setting.

Since the data used in this chapter is on a fairly small scale, much of this analysis could be done manually, but having the data in LED makes the extraction of trends and patterns much easier. Capturing a mass of similar evidence would allow us, for example, to evaluate Britten’s listening habits and practices in the context of others in the same period, social group and/or geographical location. It would also allow us to examine Britten in the context of his contemporaries in other countries and, by extension, listening habits and practices more generally across different cultures and eras.

Select bibliography

Carpenter, H. Benjamin Britten: A Biography. Faber and Faber: London, 1993.

Evans, J. Journeying Boy: The Diaries of the Young Benjamin Britten 19281938, Faber and Faber: London, 2009.

Kildea, P. Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century. Penguin Books Ltd: London, 2013.

Mitchell, D. and Reed, P. (eds). Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten 19131976, Volume 1: 19231939. Faber and Faber: London, 1991 .

Mitchell, D. and Reed, P. (eds). Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten 19131976, Volume 2: 19391945. Faber and Faber: London, 1998.

Mitchell, D. and Reed, P. (eds). Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten 19131976, Volume 3: 19461951. Faber and Faber: London, 2002.

Mitchell, D., Reed, P. and Cooke, M. (eds). Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten 1913-1976, Volume 4: 19521957. Boydell & Brewer: Woodbridge, 2008

Powell, N. Benjamin Britten: A Life For Music. London, Windmill Books: London, 2014.

Reed, P. and Cooke, M. (eds). Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten 19131976, Volume 5: 19581965. Boydell & Brewer, Woodbridge, 2010.

Reed, P. and Cooke, M. (eds). Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten 19131976, Volume 6: 19661976. Boydell & Brewer: Woodbridge, 2012.

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Listening and performing: experiences of twentieth-century British wind players

Ingrid E. Pearson

Ingrid Pearson performs with major UK period ensembles, while also maintaining a profile as a modern clarinettist. An interest in performance practice brought her to the UK from Australia to undertake doctoral studies. In 2005 Ingrid joined the professoriate at London’s Royal College of Music (RCM) and is currently the RCM’s Research Fellow in Performance Practice. This role allows her a broad remit of activities across theory and practice. Ingrid’s research has been supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Galpin Society. Her publications appear in English, Chinese, German and Spanish.


Accounts of life in the music profession by orchestral woodwind players have often been neglected in favour of didactic and aural sources. While scholars have interrogated recorded performances, evidence from the players themselves is vital in understanding the profession as a whole and thus the bigger picture. Reflecting on material gathered for The Listening Experience Database (LED), particularly by the clarinettist Jack Brymer (19152003), we appreciate the importance of a player’s listening in shaping their performing practices. Brymer was primarily a listener, and a clarinettist only second. His listening to the playing of the oboist Léon Goossens (18971988) with its prominent use of vibrato became profoundly important to Brymer and to subsequent generations.

In examining contemporary attitudes towards vibrato, we realise that Brymer’s use of the effect was quite controversial for its time. Indeed, the importance of the listening experience is reflected in many accounts by woodwind players whose experiences are included in LED. These musicians, among the first for whom the aural and sonic experience of listening to a recording or broadcast began to resemble the sound itself, enjoyed careers before the era of globalisation. While technological advances have made music more easily accessible, they have also already eroded, and sometimes even eradicated, individual or regional or national characteristics and performing practices.


Scholarly attention to the area of musical listening has blossomed since the late 1990s, when at least four international journals independently devoted an issue to the subject.52 In recognising the value of musicians’ own accounts of listening and of performing, LED has facilitated access to these materials, helping us to fill in some of the gaps left by recordings, themselves the object of much fruitful research.53 For many musicians, recordings provided access to repertoire and to musicians and also therefore to performing practices that they would not otherwise have been able to experience. This complemented the listening they did in the act of live performance, to themselves and to their fellow musicians. Furthermore, in making recordings these performers were also able to interrogate their own practices in a way that had been unthinkable a generation before.

This chapter discusses evidence from prominent British wind players of the twentieth century, including clarinettists Jack Brymer (19152003) and Reginald Kell (19061981) and the oboist Léon Goossens (18971988), focusing particularly on their pioneering and often controversial use of vibrato.54 In detailing approaches to performance and to listening, these fascinating, surprising and often entertaining reports allow us to understand the changing nature of the music profession during the formative years of major UK musical institutions such as the then Covent Garden Opera Company, the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO), the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. These testimonies also confirm Leon Botstein’s assertion that ‘the historical significance of music, or, rather, the significance of music in history, rests not so much with its creators and performers but with amateurs and those who heard and listened’.55 Indeed, as Rob C. Wegman argues:

the question of listening does seem to offer a constructive way out of the current debate between work- and author-centred approaches and their critiques, a debate that is in danger of becoming increasingly stale.56While musicological attention focused on listening often differentiates between ‘hearing’ and ‘listening’, most players whose experiences have been documented use these terms interchangeably. Both these activities are in fact reflexive and dialectic acts, and elsewhere Ian Cross has argued that ‘musical listening can be interpreted as containing residues of action and interaction’.57 The experiences of twentieth-century British woodwind players certainly confirms these observations and their value lies in their location within ‘the broader category of musical experience’.58 The listening undertaken by Brymer and his colleagues was very much a part of a more holistic musical experience, indeed one with the overtly practical outcome of either a performance or a recorded performance. There is not space here to interrogate what Georgina Born describes as:

the considerable methodological and conceptual challenges posed by the focus on listening as a changing relation or mediation between subjects and objects.59

Nonetheless, it is appropriate to consider three anthropological and sociological perspectives she offers.60 The first of these unsettles received notions of the delineated roles of composer, performer and listener.61 The second positions listeners as cultural consumers, shaped by their gender, age, social class and ethnicity, and it is these factors which shape their listening.62 A third perspective considers the impact of recording and of electronic and digital technologies in mediating the musical experience provided by listening.63 The woodwind players whose experiences are included in LED functioned as both performer and listener, their performances shaping their listening and vice versa. Many were middle-class males of Caucasian ethnicity, but increasing numbers of women were able to enjoy careers as professional orchestral wind players. And, finally, while not in the region of the fidelity we enjoy in the twenty-first century, these players were among the first for whom the aural and sonic experience of listening to a recording or broadcast began to resemble the sound itself. They were playing and listening before the era of globalisation, which, through technological advances, has certainly made music more easily accessible, but has also already eroded, and sometimes even eradicated, individual, regional and national characteristics and performing practices.

Jack Brymer, Léon Goossens and Reginald Kell

Born in 1915, Brymer was largely a self-taught player. His musical ability and instincts were fundamentally shaped by the amateur bands and orchestras of Tyneside and County Durham during the 1920s, as both performer and listener, as well as by other musicians Brymer heard via radio broadcasts and gramophone records. Recalling listening experiences from his formative years as a clarinettist, Brymer mentions:

… the great clarinettists of the day – Charles Draper, his nephew Haydn Draper and Frederick Thurston and well as Reginald Kell would have been astounded at the things they taught me, without a penny piece changing hands. I had no desire to be a carbon copy of any of them, fortunately.64

In July 1947 when Brymer was 32 years old he received an invitation via telephone from Sir Thomas Beecham, founder and conductor of the RPO, to play to him. Beecham enjoyed that particular listening experience to the extent that he immediately appointed Brymer the RPO’s principal clarinet, to replace Reginald Kell. Following the RPO, Brymer was co-principal of the BBC SO from 1963 to 1972 and then principal of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) from 1972 to 1986.

During his life he recorded and broadcast orchestral, solo and chamber music.65 Brymer’s obituary in The Times following his death in 2003 reported that:

in the 30 or so years during which Brymer was at the height of his powers, few could rival him for solid technique, golden tone and superior, undogmatic musicianship.66

Brymer’s 1962 recording of Mozart’s Adagio K411 for two clarinets and three basset horns demonstrates his delicate use of vibrato, an important but not the only audible characteristic of his finely-nuanced playing.67 Brymer is joined by Thomas Kelly, Stephen Trier, Walter Lear and Wilfred Hambleton. As one situated outside any pedagogical lineage, real or perceived, Brymer’s playing was truly a synthesis of the sounds he heard or, to put it another way, of his listening. Despite the rapid advances in recording technology he witnessed during his lifetime, Brymer’s music-making was characterised by spontaneity and finesse.

Brymer became a colleague and friend of the oboist Léon Goossens in the years following World War Two. However, Brymer had long been acquainted with, and influenced by, Goossens, as he recalled in an interview in 1991:

My affection for him started at the age of thirteen when I heard him play Ravel’s Habañéra…68 In that special moment I became aware of the sounds of the Spanish night, of warmth and mystery and a hint of the distant flamenco singing. It was an equal revelation every time thereafter when I heard him perform either on radio or on record. He became my idol and … I went to hear him as often as I could. The first time was in an LPO concert in 1933.69 Benvenuto Cellini overture and the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante for Oboe, Clarinet, Horn and Bassoon showed off the virtuosity of the woodwind and the majesty of the orchestral balance that Beecham was able to achieve.70 There was a tremendous crystallisation with Léon right in the middle, the central figure in the orchestra despite other great players…71

Eighteen years Brymer’s senior, Goossens had been born in 1897, into a musical family.72 He studied at the Royal College of Music, as did his brother Eugene (18931962) a conductor and composer, his harpist sisters Marie (18941991) and Sidonie (18992004) and his brother Adolphe (18961916), who played the French horn.73 Léon Goossens’s RCM professor, William Malsch (18551924), taught at all four London conservatoires at the same time, from the late nineteenth into the turn of the twentieth century, and through this pedagogical lineage was able to exert a significant influence on the next generation of oboists.74

To experience something of the Goossens sound we may refer to his 1931 recording with the pianist Clarence Raybould (18861972) in an arrangement of The Swan from Camille Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals.75 The sound for which Goossens is still remembered today uses a prominent but varying vibrato and is characterised by a warmth unlike that of his predecessors, assisted by a control of breathing which allowed him to weave long melodic lines with ease.76 These characteristics were admired by Goossens’s pupils Helen Gaskell (19062002), Evelyn Rothwell (19112008), Natalie James (19092008) and Joy Boughton (19131963), who sought actively to emulate their teacher’s sound.77

Brymer and Goossens first performed together in 1951, in a work by Darius Milhaud for a BBC Thursday concert. The clarinettist recalled that Goossens ‘played with absolute majesty and complete dedication’.78 Brymer treasured the recordings of Russian music they both made with the RPO in 1954 and of the visiting conductor Artur Rodziński (18921958), when Goossens was deputising for an indisposed Terence McDonagh (19081986).79 As a person, Brymer remembered that Goossens was:

… incredibly adaptable; it’s difficult for some players to readjust to orchestral playing after a solo career but he had no problems. He was never a pompous individual; he never threw his weight about as a colleague. He was always willing to discuss rather than override anyone’s opinion. He was very well tempered and humorous.80

Goossens co-authored a monograph on the oboe with Edwin Roxburgh (b. 1937), which was published in 1977. Describing his first orchestral position, as principal oboe in the Queen’s Hall Orchestra,81 Goossens recalls:

Those first days… represented for me a period of isolation from the prevalent style of sound reproduction. I suffered a great deal of abuse and jibing from other players at this time for persisting with my own concept of a beautiful oboe sound incorporating vibrato as an essential aspect of its singing quality. However, critics were favourably disposed and conductors liked it; so my confidence in the approach was ultimately justified.82

Goossens later explains that:

If all the physical conditions of good playing along with freedom from tensions are achieved, vibrato becomes an expressive inflection of musical personality and sensibility.83

And finally:

There are an infinite number of possibilities which affect the interpretation of a piece. The freshness of each performance can only be maintained if the artist is continually exploring alternative avenues of nuance and expression. Discriminating use of vibrato can be the most valuable of assets in these discoveries.84

The clarinettist Reginald Kell had experienced Goossens’s distinctive and effective sound, with its prominent and varied use of vibrato, first-hand when, in 1932, both became principals in Beecham’s LPO in 1932. They were colleagues until Kell left in 1936/7 to join the LSO. By the time of his emigration to the USA in 1948, Kell had held principal positions in most of the British orchestras. We recall that Brymer had in fact succeeded Kell in the RPO so the two had never been colleagues. Kell’s 1953 recording of the first of Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces op. 73, with the pianist Joel Rosen, typifies his idiosyncratic approach, particularly in terms of tempo rubato and timbre.85 By moving to the USA at the height of his career, ostensibly to concentrate on solo and chamber repertoire, Kell was able to establish and consolidate his reputation on both sides of the Atlantic, a fact which may also account for his position as the most well-documented British clarinettist to play with vibrato in the early twentieth century.

Listening to wind playing

Jack Brymer lived at a time when the recording industry was enjoying a golden age, an era before globalisation began to homogenise national performance practices and erode idiosyncrasies. The ease with which we are now able to access so much music, and the fidelity of digital recordings, can both easily be taken for granted.86 Robert Philip suggests that matters of competence and those of style account for changes in orchestral woodwind playing, as heard in recordings made during the course of the twentieth century.87 And, specifically as regards wind playing in London orchestras between 1909 and 1939, Emily Worthington observes how:

the advent of recording and broadcasting helped to facilitate the expression of changing musical aesthetics in the realm of orchestral wind playing.88

Accounts of British wind sections up to the immediate post-war years have often commented on the instability of the intonation in the section as a whole, but as Philip rightly comments ‘the development of woodwind-playing involves more than just rising standards’.89 He continues:

The styles of individual instruments, and the concept of how they should blend together, changed throughout the twentieth century.90

Philip explains that:

Over the twentieth century British woodwind-playing underwent great change. It began with the appointment of a Belgian oboist, Henri de Busscher,91 to succeed Malsch in the Queen’s Hall Orchestra. De Busscher played with greater delicacy and flexibility than Malsch, and with a French-style vibrato. It was he who inspired Léon Goossens… Goossens in turn influenced other woodwind players to play more flexibly and with vibrato.92

A growing awareness of the role of individual critical listening during Brymer’s formative years appears in 1923 in Gustave Langenus’s advice to ‘the ambitious young player’, to whom he suggests imagining an audience listening to their practice.93 The following comment published fifteen years later, in The Radio Times in 1938, serves to remind us how times have changed:

Apart from the foxy-looking little men who patiently play the instrument at street corners and from the inimitable Mr. Benny Goodman (“Swing low, sweet clarinet”), who broadcast a few weeks ago, one seldom get a chance of hearing the clarinet as a solo instrument.94

This opinion was confirmed by Rendall some fourteen years later:

It is only within the last thirty-five years or so that the clarinet has really come into its own. This is in the writer’s opinion due largely to broadcasting. No instrument lends itself better to recording or is more frequently heard upon the air; there is little doubt that many of its present devotees first heard its voice upon the ether and succumbed to its charm… Every school of playing has its own particular character, its own peculiar excellence… Each makes its own contribution. Fortunately the wireless and the gramophone have made it possible to hear them all… They should do much to mould our taste.95

In his Clarinet Technique, first published in 1956 shortly after his death, Frederick Thurston (1901–53) acknowledges the importance of the listening experience:

All the books, all the articles and technical advice in the world are of little note unless you have in your ‘mind’s ear’ the particular sound you wish to make. Presumably you will have decided this by listening to various fine players, if possible at public performances, because even nowadays the radio and the gramophone cannot reproduce tone quality completely faithfully.96

Clarinettist Gervase de Peyer (1926–2017) also advocated this type of inner listening, remarking in 1957 that if the student cultivates:

a clear ideal of good tone and always keeps this in his “mental ear’, he will… almost subconsciously develop the means to produce it.97

In 1987 Brymer recounted that, as an orchestral clarinettist becomes more experienced, he has also:

developed the ability to listen while playing, which is his greatest achievement… this may sound simple, but it has its difficulties. You may not always be able to hear everything you need. … In spite of all this, everything finally sorts itself out, and that all-important skill, the ability to hear the whole score from the inside, with a sense of balance which makes it intelligible from outside, is achieved.98

And finally:

A generation ago this was a question of instinct…. young people are not only better taught than their fathers and mothers, and play on better instruments; they have also heard more, and absorbed more of the message of music…. These are old heads on their young shoulders because they have learnt to listen.99

Rather curiously, at the current time, many players of historical clarinets have commissioned copies of Richard Mühlfeld’s rather old-fashioned Ottensteiner instruments, on which they not only play all of Brahms’s music for the clarinet but much Teutonic repertoire written between c. 1850 and 1910. The same players, however, fail to consider the evidence that Mühlfeld himself played with vibrato.100 As Brymer remarks:

Is seems scarcely likely that, for over two hundred years, clarinettists should have failed to respond to, and at least to attempt to answer the shapes of phrases and the style of playing which they must have heard around them, both instrumentally and vocally.101

Reconciling documentary accounts of vibrato and wind playing

It is surprising to note that the majority of English-language publications for and about the clarinet provide no information on vibrato. Furthermore, scant documentary evidence exists in support of its use among players of art music.102 Nonetheless, we can discern something of the changing attitude towards clarinet vibrato during the lifetimes of Jack Brymer and Léon Goossens from the various editions of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians and its successor The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.103 It is also helpful to reconcile these with commentaries by players themselves, many of which emphasise the role of a player’s critical listening in the judicious, intelligent and musical use of vibrato.

Dating from 1893 Harry Deacon’s article on vibrato, published in the first edition of Grove, mentions that:

It is sometimes heard on the flute or cornet. When the vibrato is really an emotional thrill it can be highly effective… but when, as is too often the case, it degenerates into a mannerism, its effect is either painful, ridiculous, or nauseous, entirely opposed to good taste and common sense, and to be severely reprehended in all students whether of vocal or instrumental music.104

Remembered as a singing teacher and piano accompanist who worked mostly in London, Deacon died suddenly in 1890 at the age of 68 and did not therefore live to see the publication of Grove’s Dictionary.105 While capturing something of the sound world into which Léon Goossens was born, we must consider the possibility that vibrato was more commonly used than Deacon’s listening experiences had led him to believe. Despite the addition of new material on vibrato in practice by Olga Racster, Grove’s second edition from 1910 is largely a repetition of information from the first.106 That this information is written almost exclusively from a string player’s point of view is not surprising given that Racster had been a pupil of Eugène Ysaÿe.107 By this time the 13 year old Léon Goossens had already made his debut as a professional oboist, and was to commence lessons with Malsch the following year.

One of the earliest didactic works to mention clarinet vibrato is Gustave Langenus’s 1917 translation of Carl Baermann’s 1861 Vollständige Clarinett-Schule.108 While no mention of vibrato appears in Baermann’s original, Langenus describes the effect as ‘a wavering tone-effect, which should be sparingly used’.109 By 1923, with the publication of his own clarinet tutor Langenus advises the player studiously to avoid vibrato, which he considered ‘extremely obnoxious on any wind instrument’ and a hindrance to maintaining the clarinet’s ‘pure, clear and steady’ tone.110 However, it could be tolerated to enhance the tone ‘when playing very loudly’ or for notes in the altissimo register.111 Robert Philip notes a similar restraint among string players until the 1920s.112

In the third edition of Grove from 1928 Racster’s contribution is shorter, although instrumental and vocal vibrato are discussed separately.113 The gradual adoption of string vibrato is echoed by remarks from the editor Henry Colles, no doubt aware that Deacon’s original commentary on vibrato had certainly begun to age.114 Colles reports that the effect ‘belongs essentially to the art of the string–player’ and is ‘obtainable to a limited extent on wind instruments, notably the flute and cornet…’. 115 By this time Goossens had gained valuable orchestral experience as principal oboe in the Queen’s Hall Orchestra, and life experience as a soldier in World War One. He was teaching at both the RCM and the Royal Academy of Music, and had joined the orchestra at Covent Garden. The teenage Brymer had been teaching himself the clarinet for at least eight years and, as a member of the cadets, had performed with the band of the 1st Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry. At the age of 13 Brymer joined a local amateur orchestra in the town of Tynemouth, journeying each week across the river Tyne by ferry. He later recalled the value of this encounter for bringing him into contact with ‘the glories of Beethoven and Mozart’.116

The fourth edition of Grove’s Dictionary from 1940 reprints the vibrato entry from the third edition verbatim, no doubt due to the exigencies of wartime. By this time Goossens had been a member of the LPO since its foundation in 1932 and was establishing an international reputation, through live performances, broadcasts and recordings. In contrast, 24 year old Brymer, having spent some time in his intended profession as a school teacher, was now Corporal Brymer in the RAF. Based in Morecambe, on the north-west coast of England, Brymer’s work as a physical training instructor also allowed him to maintain his performing activities with local dance bands and in chamber music. For string players and singers, vibrato was no longer a timbral ornament but an integral part of technique.117

Motivated by his desire to impart his practical knowledge towards the end of his performing career, the American clarinettist Robert Willaman (1893–1980) published two monographs on the clarinet, in 1949 and 1954. Willaman enjoyed a substantial freelance career with many of the leading New York-based ensembles across popular and art musics.118 His first book, one of the earliest English-language monographs on the clarinet, considers vibrato exclusively a jazz technique, and a ‘radical departure from ordinary methods of playing’.119 Willaman views the device as ‘a matter of taste’, which can be varied in width and speed, ultimately to obtain a homogenous reed timbre within the ensemble.120 Nonetheless, by the early 1950s practices and attitudes concerning clarinet vibrato had changed to the extent that Willaman’s 1954 revision of his book devotes a whole chapter to the subject. He defines vibrato as:

… the rhythmic interruption of the mechanical uniformity of a musical tone. The need for or desirability of it is in direct ratio to this uniformity, which can result in monotony.121

This confirms that both performers and listeners had outgrown a straight clarinet tone. Since the 1920s jazz saxophonists and their audiences had been accustomed to the presence of vibrato, which was used to mitigate against the sax’s smaller range as well as to add timbral contrast. When these players ‘migrated en masse to the clarinet’ they continued to use vibrato.122 Willaman’s performing career had embraced a wide range of musical styles. He esteemed players who were similarly versatile in employing ‘a straight pure “concert” tone’ in art music, although he believed that ‘the need for vibrato in the clarinet tone is not very great’.123 He continues:

At best, a reed tone needs only the slightest pulsation, either of continuity or of quality to relieve any sense of monotony.124

Willaman’s closing remarks on vibrato leave the reader in no doubt where his preference lies, despite the prevalence of the effect in performances on most other wind instruments by the mid-twentieth century:

It may be that vibrato is a real improvement. Some people put sugar on ice cream. A great many do not and never will.125

A contemporary account from the Belgian émigré, the 72 year old Langenus, distinguishes between saxophone and clarinet vibrato. While Langenus remains unconvinced by the latter he acknowledges that:

… when the composer tells you to play molto espressivo, then the tone must glow with warmth. To obtain this effect most singers and players obtain the vibrato from the diaphragm. Others get it through motion of the glottis, throat, or jaw.126

Across the pond, in the UK attitudes to clarinet vibrato remained ‘controversial’, although the technique was a preoccupation particularly among players of art music.127

Like earlier commentators, Rendall concedes that:

It is of course firstly and lastly a matter of taste in both player and listener. If vibrato is used at all, it is hardly necessary to say that it must be used sparingly and with great discretion. Excessive, even regular use of it cannot but offend in calling to mind the worst excesses of jazz technique and of the theatre organ. Other obvious dangers are damage to purity of tone and particularly to accuracy of intonation and to the musical line in classical music … It may be observed not infrequently in military music when many clarinets are playing together in unison. It is not to be encouraged, however, in the concert hall.128

A more balanced and realistic account of the popularity of vibrato and the role of a practitioner’s own listening appears in a contemporary account by oboist Evelyn Rothwell, a former pupil of Goossens’s. Rothwell writes:

…the use of vibrato has become widely accepted during recent years. Its detractors claim that it destroys the truly characteristic sound of the oboe and prevents it blending well with other instruments in the orchestra. Its advocates feel, I think quite rightly, that a vibrato, wisely used, only enhances the natural tone of the instrument.129

She continues:

A good vibrato should liven the tone as the music demands, but using too much vibrato (or too wide a vibrato) may make the oboe player sound like a second-rate violinist playing cheap café music… it can easily be overdone, particularly in the orchestra when you are playing (and should be blending) with other instruments. Vibrato must be used and varied intelligently and musically… Listen most critically to yourself…130

Robert Donington’s vibrato article for the fifth and final edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians is newly-written, prioritising historical primary source materials, reflecting the author’s expertise in this area. Published in 1954, it is divided into three parts, discussing string, wind and vocal vibrato. Apart from the organ, the flute is the only non-string instrument mentioned, and only in an historical context.131 At this time Goossens was pursuing a solo career and Brymer was firmly established as principal clarinet of the RPO, including regular appearances at the Edinburgh Festival, the Glyndebourne Festival and in concerts of the Royal Philharmonic Society.

In the mid-1950s Alphonse Leduc reissued Hyacinthe Klosé’s 1843 Méthode Complète de Clarinette, with text in French and English.132 Remarkably, this publication is the first of Klosé’s tutors to mention clarinet vibrato.133 This is even more surprising, given the prominence of a fast vibrato in recordings by French clarinettists from about 1920.134 This mid-twentieth-century edition of Klosé also likens clarinet vibrato to that produced by strings, describing it as:

a kind of undulating sound, which, added to its constituent vibrations, gives it a particular intensity and expressiveness… It is used in expressive phrases which demand a sonority touched with emotion. Vibrato, the subject of special practice, should never go as far as bleating.135

Perhaps we should read these remarks as an attempt to dissuade French clarinettists of the time against the fast vibrato of some of their predecessors.136 This apparent disjunction between printed sources and listening experiences, however, reminds us of the need to reconcile the widest possible range of sources in understanding performing practices of the past.

Jack Brymer’s own monograph on the clarinet was published in 1976.137 In this work and two further publications Brymer reflects on his life in music, providing a particularly fulsome commentary on his career with the RPO, the BBC SO and the LSO.138 Brymer’s remarks on vibrato were informed by a lifetime’s practical music-making and a belief in the effect as an expressive device, recognising its use by flautists and violinists, and to a lesser extent by oboists and bassoonists. For Brymer, vibrato was a means by which he transmitted his ‘enjoyment as a performer’.139 He identifies two reasons for its neglect among clarinettists, citing a belief in the clarinet’s ability to:

… depict the sort of cool, flawless beauty of a marble statue or a piece of perfectly polished wood. The pure sound has a fascination which makes one think at times that the slightest dimple on its surface would be a blemish….140

The second reason concerns his dissatisfaction with the manner in which jazz players have used vibrato.141 Brymer continues:

Whichever method is used, one thing seems certain – it should not be used all the time, nor should it be switched on and off like the vox humana stop of an organ. In fact, although it must be very much under the control of the player, in the end it should be so much a part of his technique that he is not aware… The choice should in fact… be … dictated by the music, out of which it must grow naturally, or not at all.142

In acknowledging the role of a player’s listening, Brymer’s comments remind us of the impact of the advent of recorded sound for players of his generation, remarking:

The player himself, in these days of electronic marvels, may be surprised at the absence or presence of vibrato in the recording he has just made, because he was thinking only of the music as he played. He would be wise to ponder before making a decision to alter his first impulse, because such studied decisions can sound what they are – the result of cogitation rather than instinct.143

Obviously a musician who placed a high value on intuition, the practically-minded Brymer acknowledges the role of vibrato in correcting intonation. His connection between a lack of clarinet vibrato among clarinettists in art-music repertories and its prevalence among jazz players is confirmed by listening to recordings made in the first half of the twentieth century.

In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, published in 1980, Donington expands on his previous article on vibrato while still prioritising an historical approach.144 Given the overwhelming evidence of the frequent use of vibrato by wind players in performances, recordings and broadcasts since the middle of the twentieth century, Donington’s account does not accurately represent musical practices. Furthermore, its bias against non-art music is surprising for the time. While Goossens, aged 83, had retired from teaching at this time, he was still performing. The 65 year old Brymer was half-way through his tenure as principal clarinet of the LSO. He was about to take up a teaching post at the then Guildhall School of Music, following similar positions at the RAM and the Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall.

In 2001, with the second edition of the New Grove Dictionary, a more balanced and comprehensive article on vibrato by Greta Moens-Haenen observes that vibrato was ‘accepted as an ornament until the first quarter of the twentieth century when its continuous use gradually became the norm.’145 Nonetheless, she reminds us that vibrato is still eschewed by many clarinettists, as well as horn players and exponents of the Viennese oboe.146 In the light of these remarks, we could argue that Jack Brymer managed to combine the predominant British woodwind sounds of his era, that is, the somewhat self-effacing, straight-toned playing of Frederick Thurston,147 the more rhythmically-liberal and timbrally-colourful playing of Léon Goossens and a similar approach to the clarinet manifest in performances by Reginald Kell with a prominent use of vibrato.


It could be claimed that by 1890, with the existence of three music institutions in London alone, an identifiably English if not British clarinet school had emerged.148 And, by 1947 when Brymer joined the RPO, the majority of orchestral clarinettists, based in or emanating from the UK, were performing on Boehm-system instruments. Brymer himself used the Symphony 10-10 model, made in London by the Boosey & Hawkes firm for about 50 years from the early 1930s.149 Nonetheless, claims for a national clarinet school have yet sufficiently to reconcile the differing approaches of Brymer and his contemporaries Thurston and Kell. It seems more likely that any such tradition has been invented, in order to mitigate against an increasing homogenisation of style, a result of the effects of globalisation.150 It seems more likely that Brymer was able to synthesise the sounds around him to create an engaging and sensitive style, because he was firstly and foremostly a listener, and a clarinettist only second.

The importance of his listening experiences in shaping Brymer’s musical practices also allows us to appreciate his use of vibrato, a controversial performance practice which still divides clarinettists today. Vibrato, as with most performance practices, in particular western art repertories, continues to be employed according to each player’s taste and intuition, reflecting the priorities of each era. As an expressive device it relies on the player exercising a judgement about its suitability for the particular music concerned. While there is little doubt that the advent and impact of recording technology on the musicians themselves is partly responsible for the emergence of a homogenised international style of vibrato, most of the wind players discussed here were not exponents of continuous vibrato. By ensuring its judicious use, players such as Goossens and Brymer were helping to maintain the expressive potential of vibrato. Furthermore, in enhancing a player’s own musical personality and sensitivity vibrato enabled some to make their mark as an individual and a non-conformist.

For mid-twentieth-century commentators, including Willaman and Rothwell, the subject of vibrato allows them deliberately to distance art music from jazz. Perhaps this reflects an underlying bias towards the type of training and education needed to become a leading orchestral musician at this time, against a tradition of auto-didacts and more relaxed approaches to musical literacy and the realisation of the score.

In conclusion, we should let the music speak for itself by listening to Jack Brymer in the opening of the third movement, Andante, of Mily Balakirev’s Symphony No. 1 in C. This recording, with the RPO under Sir Thomas Beecham, was made in Studio One at Abbey Road in November and December 1955, and was produced by Lawrance Collingwood.

Select bibliography

Born, Georgina. ‘Listening, mediation, event: anthropological and sociological perspectives’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association 135/Supp1, 2010, pp. 79–89.

Brymer, Jack. Clarinet. London: Macdonald and Jane’s, 1976/R1979.

Brymer, Jack. From Where I Sit. London: Cassell, 1979.

Brymer, Jack. In the Orchestra. London: Hutchinson, 1987.

Deacon, Harry Collins [sic]. ‘Vibrato’, Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. George Grove. London: Macmillan, 1893, vol. IV, p. 260.

Goossens, Léon and Roxburgh, Edwin. Oboe. London: Macdonald and Jane’s, 1977.

Philip, Robert. Performing Music in the Age of Recording. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

Rendall, Francis Geoffrey. The Clarinet. London: Ernest Benn, 1954/R/3/1971.

Rosen, Carole. The Goossens: A Musical Century. London: André Deustch, 1993.

Willaman, Robert. The Clarinet and Clarinet Playing. New York: Carl Fischer, R/1954.

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‘Pulse music’: listening to Steve Reich listening to Africa

Robert Fraser

Robert Fraser is Professor Emeritus of English in The Open University, having previously taught at the Universities of London, Cambridge and Leeds, and at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana. He is a performed playwright, and has published over twenty books, several of them on the literature of Africa. In his youth he was a chorister at Winchester Cathedral, and he subsequently studied Harmony, Counterpoint and Composition at Morley College in London. He has had several of his compositions performed, and for three years was a Co-investigator of The Listening Experience Database (LED).


One of the salient factors in the musical history of the late twentieth century was a radical relocation of the multiple distinction between listening, performing and composing. A personal encounter with Steve Reich in Ghana in the summer of 1970 acquainted the author with one aspect of this shift. Reich was in Africa to study the drumming traditions of the Ewe people, whose music had been the subject of an influential monograph by the ethnomusicologist A. M. Jones (1889–1980). The following year saw the first performance in New York of Reich’s work Drumming for nine percussionists and two sopranos. Through a comparison of Jones’ field recordings with his and Reich’s transcriptions, and an analysis of the score and successive recordings of Drumming, I examine the processes of Reich’s listening, and the ways in which he absorbed and transformed certain elements in African music. After a brief look at works by Georgio Ligeti influenced by Africa and Reich, I conclude with some remarks about the ramifications of this revolution for recent musical history.


The tripartite, yet complementary, relationship in Western art music between composer, performer and listener depends upon a comparatively stable understanding of these terms and agencies. Of course, the distinctions have never been absolute. All composers listen, to their own work as well as that of others, and so do all performers: to themselves and, in an orchestra or other ensemble, to those around them. When running through a piece of music in my mind – the activity sometimes known as ‘chant intérieure’ or ‘haunting’151 – I could be said in some sense to be performing it; if I alter it in the least (say, by misremembering it) I could also be said to be acting as a part-composer.

There are, however, limitations to these elisions. In a classical concert hall the audience occupies the stalls, boxes and galleries and, in so doing, identifies itself as a body of passive listeners. Interventions by them are for the most part unwelcome, except by means of the ritualistic response of applause and, even then, the etiquette surrounding such expressions of approval – its timing, length and disposal within an individual piece (should we clap between movements?) – has shifted over time, and has been the subject of sometimes heated debate. Expressions of disapproval are not encouraged, nor are bouts of coughing and the accidental sounding of mobile phones, against which dire strictures are habitually announced before each concert. The temporary lifting of some of these restrictions, for example at the Last Night of the Proms, is remarkable for its rarity; indeed, the euphoria greeting that annual exception in the British music calendar may well be the expression of relief at the relaxation of otherwise sacrosanct rules.

Correspondingly, the term ‘orchestra’ derives from the ancient Greek word for the space in which the action of the drama took place; its occupation by a group of musicians identifies them as an active body of performers. If, at the end of the performance, the composer steps forward and takes a bow, he or she is thereby identified as the intellectual progenitor of the music just heard.

In his chapter on listening practice in the English provinces during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, David Rowland has called our attention to important exceptions to this rule. Drawing on the word of James Johnson and others, he has noted the gradual emergence at the time of what Johnson has termed ‘absorbed’, as distinct from ‘inattentive’ listening. That said, it remains a fact that, by the beginning of the twentieth century, audience members were by and large assumed to be passive recipients of a pre-composed piece. Yet medieval music had not operated in this way, and neither does most folk music. Most significantly for our purposes here, a thoroughgoing revolution in the dynamic between our three classic capacities since the late 1960s has transformed our expectations of certain kinds of musical event. In the closing decades of the twentieth century the boundaries between composing, performance and listening moved dramatically, invading one another as seldom before. As a result, in musicological parlance, the traditional verbs ‘to compose’, ‘to perform’ and ‘to listen’ have lost ground before the comprehensive gerund ‘musicking’.152 Within this fundamental re-orientation are ranged a set of subservient changes. The making and reception of music have over the last half century opened out in several directions at once. Improvised music, which learned much technically from jazz, and musical minimalism are just two of these trajectories. As we shall soon see, they are not entirely consistent with one another.

In the chapter that follows, I identify one of these seminal shifts at a certain moment in time, of which I was an accidental witness: not as composer, performer or primarily as listener (though I have been all three), but as discussant. I begin with an anecdote or moment of recall – a testimony involving Steve Reich, Africa and drumming, then pass on to consider the implications of that instant in time before turning to certain facets of Reich’s influence. I end by returning to the aesthetic and musicological considerations with which I began.

1970: Ex Africa Semper Aliquid Novi

It was a solitary August for me: the dead vast and middle of the long vocation at the end of the first year of my first job, lecturing at a small, recently-founded university college by the seaside in Ghana. So one afternoon I climbed into my second-hand Volkswagen Beetle and drove the 100 odd miles down the coast to the swankier national university, situated at Legon, about seven miles to the North of the capital, Accra. That evening I entered its staff club, empty save for a lone figure, an American in his late 30s wearing a baseball cap, and hunched over his beer by the bar. I approached and asked how he was. Rather queasy, he told me. I asked him what he did, and he told me he was a musician. Then he asked me how I was spending the hols. I told him that I had formed a drama group of young people in the housing estate where I lived near Cape Coast to perform Vulture, Vulture, a ‘Rhythm Play’ by the local playwright Efua Sutherland,153 for which purpose I had acquired a goat skin from the village butcher, and had it shaved and stretched on a wooden rectangle by the neighbourhood carpenter to create a frame drum that, 47 years later, I still possess. That’s interesting, he said, because he was in Africa to study drumming, so for two hours we drank and ranged in conversation over his specialism, music, and mine, poetry. He seemed very interested in the rhythms of both. After six or seven beers, I rose to my feet and said ‘It has been a great pleasure, but I must go now. My name is Robert Fraser.’ ‘Mine’, he replied, extending his hand, ‘is Steve Reich.’

I had no idea that I was talking to a world-famous composer, for the perfectly good reason that he wasn’t. In 1970 few music lovers had heard of Reich beyond a tiny Manhattan avant-garde. This situation didn’t last for long. His queaziness was malaria; after a further couple of weeks he returned to New York, where the following year he created Drumming, first performed at the Museum of Modern Art on 3 December 1971. It is a work that, by Reich’s own admission, draws on his listening and studying in Ghana. It is the connection between the listening and the studying, and the subsequent composition and performance, that I am concerned with here, and the first step is to recognise that all of these relate to a very particular local tradition.

A. M. Jones, as ethnomusicologist and influence

The Ewe people, about six million strong, straddle the border between eastern Ghana and the neighbouring territory of Togo. It was at the feet of an Ewe master drummer, Gideon Alorwoyie, Master Drummer of the Ghana National Dance Ensemble, that Reich had come to study. No wonder he seemed interested in affinities between poetry and music, since the Ewe scarcely distinguish between them: one single word ‘heno’ serving for both their singers and their poets. The most distinguished cantor of the period was Vinoko Akpalu (1878–1974), then 92, of whom several of my own students were keen admirers, and who always performed with a drumming ensemble. Two decades previously, his art and those of his fellow recitalists had been studied by the British missionary and ethnomusicologist Arthur Morris Jones (1889–1980), who had brought out a two-volume account of his researches, entitled Studies in African Music in 1959, ‘addressed in the first place to musicians’.154 Eleven years later, ethnomusicology was yet to enter the American conservatoire to any significant extent. There were important exceptions since, as Philip Glass remarks in his 2015 memoir Words Without Music, Jones’ book had been in the library of the Julliard School in the mid-1960s, when both he and Reich had studied there.155

Jones is obviously a pivotal figure in the story, so it is as well to spend a while thinking about his ideas. A seminal figure in the history of African musicology, his conceptions – his ways of thinking about the rhythmic dimension in music in particular – have spread way beyond that regional field. Born in 1889, he was an Oxford theology graduate who, after ordination, had taken a teaching diploma and then spent 29 years as a teacher and missionary in what is now Zambia, 21 of them (1929–50) as Principal of St Mark’s College, Mapanza.156 On resigning from this post he had taken up a lectureship in African music at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in the University of London, from which he had retired in 1966. It was in London that Jones seriously applied himself to the study of Ghanaian percussive music, with the assistance of the Ewe drummer Desmond K. Tay.

In 1959, the same year as the publication of his book, Jones had recorded a series of programmes for the BBC Transcription Service, in which he had set out, perhaps for the first time, an all-embracing African musicology.157 In melody he had noted the prevalence of fourths, and in harmony the habit of organum. Rhythm, though, was the core of the tradition. To account for it, he had already coined the term ‘cross-rhythm’, now a stock in trade of musical analysis but then quite new: a phenomenon which he had carefully distinguished from mere syncopation.158 African music, he asserted, possessed an ‘intoxicating rhythmic harmony’, demanding to hear and very hard to transcribe. Its salient quality was that, in African rhythmic polyphony, the down-beats of the various parts did not coincide. Instead, they played against one another, obliging the listener’s mind to work on several levels simultaneously. Such effects were the rule; percussive coincidence, when and where it occurred, was an incidental effect of no structural significance. ‘With Western music’, he had generalised in his book, ‘deliberate synchrony is the norm from which our music develops…If our suggestion has any truth, then the African also uses synchrony of pattern, but in a much more subtle way. His norm is the cross-rhythm, and the synchrony is derivative.’159 The result, he concluded, ‘is a principle which our Western musicians are yet to exploit.’ Was this an invitation?

Making sense of cross-rhythms

Jones’ book abounds in transcriptions of Ewe music set out in full score. In 1971 he was 82, and had long retired from teaching at SOAS where, in the year of the composition of Drumming, Reich visited him. It seems fairly likely that, on this occasion, Jones played some of his recordings back to him; they are now kept in the National Sound Archive in the British Library. If we want to understand the way Reich heard African music, we have to bear in mind the transcriptions in Jones’ book, his original recordings and Reich’s own exposure during those brief weeks when I met him.

Here is a transcription of the Ewe Nyayito funeral dance from Jones’ Studies in African Music, as reproduced from my own book West African Poetry of 1986.160

Figure 1: Transcription of Ewe drumming music (Source: A. M. Jones, Studies in African Music (1959), as reproduced in Robert Fraser, West African Poetry: A Critical History (1986))

And here for comparison is Reich’s own transcription of the Ewe Agbaza dance, first published in 1972.161

Figure 2: Transcription of Ewe Agbadza dance (Source: Steve Reich, Writings on Music 1965–2000 (2002))

It is quite evident, even at a glance, that the line-up of percussion is very similar, and that neither have uniform bar-lines because, as Reich himself remarks, Ewe music has no unitary down-beats, consisting as it does of the superimposition of self-generated, individual drum patterns.

The challenge of transcription

At first hearing, both Jones and Reich manifestly experienced some difficulty making sense of these elaborate superimpositions. Instead of recording the whole ensemble in the first place, Jones had started by asking each of the drummers to perform their motifs as a single line, working from simple repetitive to more complex patterns, and gradually combining several strands together so as to recreate an integrated composition. The way in which he did this was to get each performer to record the individual pattern allotted to his part onto a moving roll of paper that was electronically marked each time the musician tapped one of his metal pencils onto a sensitised plate. In an essay of 1972, Reich is very clear about the method involved:

As Dr Jones tapped out the bell pattern, an Ewe master drummer would tap out one of the drum parts, and both patterns would be recorded in accurate graph form on the moving paper. This was then transferred to conventional notation.162

The superimposition of the notated parts produced the full score, as reproduced in Figure 1 above. Jones’ method had been additive and analytic, building up the total sound picture from its barest elements. Here, from one of his recordings, is a snippet from one line of the Agbaza dance, later transcribed by Reich.163 The opening, for gong gong then sogo drum, may remind those of you who know of Reich’s Drumming; the rest is vividly reminiscent of his work Clapping Music of the following year.

In the ensemble that results from the combination of several such lines, all of the sonorities – drumming, clapping and singing – are superimposed. The first difference to note between Reich’s work and this African paradigm is that in the first three movements of Reich’s Drumming, the sonorities are separated out. The instruments featured in the first movement are tuned bongos; in the second movement these give way to marimbas, whose repeated patterns and tuning are imitated by monosyllables intoned by two sopranos; in the third these give way to glockenspiels, which, in turn, are imitated by the players whistling. In the fourth and final movement, all of these resources come together. In each movement, simple reiterated patterns are rendered more complex as additional players join in at short intervals from the basic pulse.

Reich’s Drumming and Africa

If you listen to the excerpts from Reich with Jones’ field recordings in mind, it is clear that, in one respect, Reich is adopting an equivalent approach. Drumming is a dramatic work, but it is also a cleanly analytical one, which derives at least some of its bearings from Jones’ research methods, or something very much like them. A player enters and sets up a basic pulse consisting of a twelve-quaver phrase, eleven of the twelve beats being rests. After repeating the phrase between three and six times, he fills in one of the rests, thus amplifying the pattern. After repeating the new pattern, he fills in a third quaver and then a fourth, before being joined by a second percussionist, who in turn is joined by a third. There is an intellectual fascination in the way in which the complexity of sound gradually builds up from these basic cells to form a whole rhythmic soundscape. Like Jones, Reich clearly wants us to experience each component element in isolation before we tackle the combined effect, to attend to the rhythms before we confront their combination. He is studying the rhythms as well as listening to them, with the result that parts of the work have the air of being a sort of demonstration of how sophisticated effects derive from simpler ones.

In assessing this effect, it is useful to bear in mind the principles that Reich had already set out two years before visiting Ghana in a personal manifesto written in San Francisco in 1968, Music as a Gradual Process, in which his preference for explicit musical procedures is very clear. ‘I am interested,’ he had written, ‘in perceptible processes. I want to be able to hear the process happening through the sounding music.’ And again, ‘To facilitate closely detailed listening as musical process should happen extremely gradually.’

The listener as performer

What is especially remarkable in both of these statements is the extent to which Reich places the listeners themselves in pole position. For Reich, the music happens in order to enable the listening, or rather a special sort of concentrated, analytical listening. For Reich, it seems, the music or musicking in which he is interested properly occurs only when it is listened to.

Theoretically, perhaps, a CD or record player playing a movement from Beethoven’s Eroica symphony in an empty room might be said to be delivering the music. Even with nobody around to attend to it, the symphonic movement might conceivable be said to have happened. The same could never be said of a CD player enunciating Drumming to an empty space.

Reich had always been quite happy with automatic and impersonal elements in a performance. He is even prepared to subordinate the contribution of live performers to the presence of tapes, just so long as the listener is conscious, animate and alert. As he himself put the matter in 1968:

As to whether a musical process is realised through live human performance or some electro-magnetic means is not finally the main issue. One of the most beautiful concerts I even heard consisted of four composers playing their tapes in a dark hall. (The tape is interesting when it’s an interesting tape.)

The operative verb in this declaration is ‘heard’: only a listener can find a tape interesting. (Is Beethoven interesting in himself?) Thus what advertises itself as a charter for an objective musical aesthetic comes to depend in the last resort on a kind of induced and structured subjectivity. If a listener happens to find Beethoven boring so, one might claim, the music itself is untouched. The same could never be claimed for Reich. A process can never be interesting in itself, but only if a listener finds it to be so. Listening, therefore, is a creative act and so, it might be said, is musical analysis.

Yet this analytical approach, in line with ethnomusicological theory and pedagogic practice, sets up a very different set of expectations from those underlying actual African performance. As Ali Momeni has observed in a study of Reich’s use of polyrhythms, ‘There is a disparity between the complexity of the rhythmic material in traditional African music and the single rhythmic cell present in Reich’.164 Just as other forms of minimalist music endeavour to build and recreate traditional harmonic and melodic effects from the ground up, educating the human ear to hear again and more appreciatively what over the centuries it has learned to take for granted, whether in melody or harmony, so Drumming strips down and rearticulates the basic materials out of which the tapestry of rhythmic polyphony is woven, in order to show us what goes into the mix. It is a sort of defamiliarisation technique which places strict demands on the audience, precisely by depriving them of the props and clichés that support lazy listening.

Listening, in our turn, we may be reminded of the fact that, prior to concentrating on music, Reich had been a philosophy student at Columbia, where he wrote a dissertation on Wittgenstein. Just as Wittgenstein had been interested in the procedures involved in various language games, so Reich had become fascinated by the workings of what you might call percussive sound games. Remember the second paragraph of Philosophical Investigations: ‘That philosophical notion of meaning is at home in a primitive idea of the way language functions. But one might instead say that it is the idea of a language more primitive than ours.’165 Just as Wittgenstein had endeavoured to dig down to the deepest roots of meaning, so Reich is attempting to uncover the most essential roots of rhythm. The problem is that, in Africa, the roots are far from being simple.

Reich’s debt to Africa

So what did Reich learn from Africa and what, just as importantly, did he resist? To appreciate both questions, it might be helpful to note that Reich seems to have arrived in Africa with a strong and individual sense of the sort of input that he did, or did not, require. So much was clear from our absorbing conversation, and it had already been spelled out for all to see in Music as a Gradual Process. First, he had already set certain conditions for composition as a determining process. He had also driven a gulf between his own approach and, on the one hand, the sort of improvisational music associated in America with the name of John Cage and, on the other hand, the serial technique cultivated in Europe by the Second Viennese School. His objections to both were founded on the fact that, while both deployed processes in their own sense of the term, in both instances the procedures involved were invisible or inaudible or, as he himself put it, ‘compositional ones that could not be heard when the music was played.’ Implicit in his critique is the further reservation that improvisation à la Cage is dependent on a sort of arbitrariness in which Reich was and is simply not interested. ‘One can’t improvise in a musical process,’ he had declared emphatically in 1968. ‘The concepts are mutually exclusive.’ Reich is interested in the inexorable working out of structured and audible ideas: the aleatoric has never been his thing.

More can be elicited about Reich’s predisposition immediately prior to his listening experiences in Accra from an interview with Michael Nyman, recorded in London in July 1970 while in transit to Ghana. Here Reich studiously avoids any reference to the now cliché term ‘minimalism’ (originally borrowed from art criticism), preferring his own term ‘pulse music’. Describing his earlier experiments with tape recorders, he explained how he had let tapes drift out of synchrony with one another to produce a kind of syncopation through delay. The resulting repetitions as the tapes disjointedly echoed one another had given rise to a technique of ‘phasing’ or what, in a beautifully modulated phrase, he called ‘a surrealist rondo with all kind of elements recurring’. The resulting work seemed to him to require, not simply new ways of composing and performing, but a fresh take on listening as well:

You listen to developmental music, and you can’t just stay with it, or you can’t stay with it once you’ve seen the way you can say with something else. I’m interested in a process where you can get on right at the beginning and literally rest on, uninterrupted, from beginning to end. Focusing on the musical process makes possible a shift in attention away from he and she and you and me, outward towards it.166

The required listening attitude has something in common with what nowadays is sometimes known as ‘trancing’.167 Eventually, though, Reich told Nyman he had come to feel ‘like a mad scientist trapped in a lab’. What he felt to be missing was the element of live performance: ‘I was aching to do some instrumental music.’ It was at this stage that he had decided to go to Ghana.

The very last intention Reich had in his mind, however, was to replicate the style and set-up of African music:

What I don’t want to do is to go and buy a bunch of exotic-looking drums and set up an Afrikanische Musik in New York City. In fact what I think is going to happen more and more is that composers will study non-western music seriously so that it will have a natural and organic influence on their music.168

Reich’s approach to African music was thus what, in a different context, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins once described as a compulsion to ‘admire and do otherwise’.169 Through the activity of listening, Reich would convert this music into something completely his own.

Those pre-conditions granted, and given that a certain amount of controlled improvisation is essential to Ewe drum music, Reich’s debt to Africa is clear in at least two respects. Firstly, he convinced himself that a large-scale work made up of mostly percussive means could be built from quite elementary structures. Secondly, he seems to have copied the idea of a cuing technique, according to which one performer starts a new set of riffs, and invites the others to follow. According to Jones, this is an important element in Ewe ensembles, where the Master Drummer initiates each new stage of the proceedings. Reich was soon to rediscover a similar approach in Balinese Gamelan music, on which he was soon to write, and which Jones had been convinced had infiltrated African music at some point in the past.170

Africa, Reich and phasing

Apart from this, Reich seems to have assimilated lessons that he was already primed to learn. Much can be gleaned about the sound world of Drumming by examining the score. When he first prepared the work between the fall of 1970 and the following autumn, Reich jotted down his ideas in a series of notebooks, before teaching the piece to his fellow performers. Only after the premiere did he reduce the music to a pen and ink score, which circulated in manuscript for 40 years before Reich requested the Chicago-based composer Marc Mellits to rationalise the transcription.171 The result is a 79-page score set out in two-stave systems, with a uniform time signature of 3/2 or 6/4, and a key signature of five sharps. The apparent regularity serves as a guide or clue to what, in other respects, is quite a flexible mode of delivery. Since each pattern may be repeated between two and eight times (with permissible parameters being indicated in each case above the upper stave), the piece lasts between 55 and 75 minutes. Despite this, by Reich’s own admission, ‘there is one basic rhythmic pattern for all of Drumming which governs pitch, phase position and timbre’. The audible variations are caused by a scripted instruction that successive performers should delay slightly the beginning of each phrase. The phasing that results is quite in line with Reich’s practice in earlier works such as It’s Gonna Rain, in which two tapes are allowed to drift out of sync with one another and then to merge again, the difference being that in the new work these conditions are met by instructing the percussionists gradually to fall out of step. Listen to this snippet from the first movement of Drumming,172 where the phasing technique is easy to detect.

In the score there is a footnoted instruction to the effect that, in the first movement for example, the second drummer to enter should gradually accelerate his strokes so that, by the end of bar 20, he is a full crotchet ahead. Yet, after gradually parting company, in all movements the parts are designed eventually to realign and coincide. In Jones’ terminology, therefore, ‘synchrony’ is still ‘the norm’, since the rhythmic interest of the whole piece consists in listening to the parts as they sever company, and then join up again. Reich was to adopt an exaggerated form of the same procedure in Clapping Music where, as he explains, one performer remains fixed:

repeating the same basic pattern throughout, while the second moves abruptly, after a number of repeats, from unison to one beat ahead, and so on, until he is back in unison with the first performer. The basic difference between these sudden changes and the gradual changes of phase in other pieces is that, when phasing, one can hear the same pattern moving away from itself with the downbeats of both parts separating further and further apart, while the sudden changes create the sensation of a series of variations of two different patterns with their downbeats coinciding.173

Thus expounded, it is clear that what Reich achieves in all of these early works is a compromise between the synchronicity Jones had thought characteristic of the western tradition and the rhythmic polyphony and density he had discovered among the Ewe and other sub-Saharan African peoples. There is, however, in Africa no precise equivalent for the processes of addition, elimination and substitution (beats for rests, and vice versa) that Reich employs.

Ligeti and Reich

The very year in which Clapping Music was first performed, the Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti (1923–2006) was in residence in Stanford, where he discovered an early recording of the work and an LP of Its gonna rain in the college library. The following year, he returned to Berlin, where he met Reich and heard a performance of Drumming. At the time he was writing Clocks and Clouds, featuring a wispy ostinato pattern akin to the humming of bees passed on from high cellos to flutes and thence to clarinets, Holst-like female voices and bells. It was a work avowedly ‘heavily influenced by Reich’. Soon he had embarked on an African adventure of his own as the echoing, hollaing polyphonic choral music of the Aka pygmies furnished him with a slightly schizophrenic listening experience caused by the repetition of its rhythmic cells and the asymmetry of the cells themselves.

At the time, Ligeti was in revolt against a two-fold tyranny: the Soviet totalitarianism still reigning supreme in his native Hungary and the artistic dictatorship of the Second Viennese School, more especially Anton Webern by whose work he had once been entranced. He was drastically in need of alternative modes of liberty. What seems to have attracted him to African music, just it had attracted Reich, was a combination of discipline with freedom. In the music of the Aka pygmies, for example, he had discovered a set of procedures that operated on two levels: the macro-level of its overall structure; and the micro-level occupied by individual performers free to devise their own rhythms, the separate patterns being reconciled at the level of the ensemble-performed piece.

In Ligeti’s own words:

Gradually through repeated listening I became aware of this music’s paradoxical nature: the patterns performed by the individual musicians are quite different from those that result from their combination. In fact the ensemble’s super-pattern is itself not played and exists only as an illusory outline, I also began to sense a strong inner tension between the relentlessness of the constant, never-changing pulse with the absolute symmetry of the formal architecture on the one hand and the asymmetrical internal divisions of the patterns on the other. What we can witness in this music in a wonderful combination of order and disorder which in turn merges together to form a sense of order at a higher level.174

Ligeti also suspected that these tendencies reflected some of the guiding principles of the Balkan folk music he had grown up listening to during his youth in Romania.

The legacy

There had thus been a sort of procession of influence: Ligeti listening to Reich listening to Africa, then listening to a different region of the continent with ears, in turn, trained by Reich. The response of both composers was partly dictated by their respective backgrounds: Reich by his earlier experiments with recorded tape, Ligeti by modernist practice overlying his own regional folkloric inheritance. If we pan out, I would suggest what we are observing is a kind of partition within modernism, stemming in Ligeti’s case from the two schools to which he had previously been exposed: the experimental Darmstadt School taking its cue from Shoenberg and the folkloric, regionally-based approach of his countrymen Bartok and Kodaly. It is no coincidence that by the 1980s western music gave the strong impression of looking forwards and backwards at the same time, so that by the century’s end the contemporary scene was dominated by this Janus-like stylistic face.

Nevertheless, it is clear that, just as Reich had taken what he wished from African music and then integrated it into his own practice, so Ligeti had taken what he wanted both from Reich and from Africa. Personally, he seems to have baulked at the idea of music as process. Wary as he seems to have been of all manner of imposed or necessary order, Ligeti was far more open to the idea of improvisation than was Reich. In a sense, both men were fleeing different varieties of orthodoxy associated with the mainstream avant-garde: Reich fleeing implicit invisible or inaudible structures, and Ligeti the inexorability of explicit form. Supposedly akin, both in their revolt against Darmstadt and all its works and in their shared attraction to the African paradigm, they ended as complementary opposites.

For both of them, however, the formal requirements of their art came to be fulfilled at the level of perception and reception as much as composition and performance. Structure is what is heard as much as – if not more than – what is intended.


What is undeniable is that in 1970 I had accidentally witnessed the stirring of a development that was to pay rich dividends in the musical history of the following half century, a period during which ‘world music’ came to be accepted as a field of inquiry and endeavour, and barriers between national musical traditions gradually broke down. The consequences of this mutually informed mode of listening, and the opening up of perspectives that ensued, has proved rewarding for all of us.

A further question arises as to how far the regional African musical traditions on which Reich and Ligeti drew were generically characteristic of the continent as a whole, though the thinking of both composers does seems to have been in step with Jones’ ideas as to a holistic African musical aesthetic, with rhythm as its bedrock. Finally, however, this question is far less important than might appear. In 1970 the Reich whom I met was in search, not of a local musical tradition as such, but of a formal indigeneity common to all cultures. The meeting between African and American that then occurred (with its side-occurrences in the music of Eastern Europe and Indonesia) has been but one facet of a far broader entente, with implications for listeners everywhere. As Reich himself emphatically stated in 1968, ‘All music is ethnic music.’

What the comparisons drawn together in this chapter further suggest is that, beginning in the late twentieth century, listening became an activity taking place at more than one level. Rules and departures from rules, pulse and the departure from pulse, perfection and incidental imperfection came to coincide in the listener’s ear. Impression superseded expression as the criterion of gainliness and value. The post-Romantic ideal of personal originality gave way before an aesthetic of communal appreciation. The listener assumed an active role, emancipated from passivity into collaboration.

Select bibliography

Fraser, Robert. West African Poetry: A Critical History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Glass, Philip. Words Without Music: A Memoir. London: Faber and Faber, 2015.

Jones, A. M. Studies in African Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959.

Jones, A. M. Africa and Indonesia: The Evidence of the Xylophone and Other Musical and Cultural Factors. Leiden: Brill, 1964.

Reich, Steve. Writings on Music 1965–2000, edited with an introduction by Paul Hillier. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Reich, Steve. Drumming: For Percussion Ensemble. New York: Hendon Music; London: Boosey and Hawkes, 2011.

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