Childhood memories

Music has been part of my life from my earliest years. My mother was a very good pianist, and some of my first memories are of her singing and playing to my sisters and me.

She was brought up in Rugby, where her father had a grocerís shop. The only thing I know about her parentsí musical abilities was that her father could play simple hymn tunes on the piano, and her mother used to do hilarious impressions of some of the self-important ladies in their church choir. They encouraged her on the piano, and when she was 17 a review of a concert at Rugby High School for Girls described her as playing Chopin to a standard that belied her years. An aunt, Emily Roseblade, who was a practicing musician, supported her in continuing her music education, and she won a place at the Royal Academy of Music in London in 1934.

This was clearly a particularly enjoyable time in her life. It is difficult for us to appreciate in these days, when almost any music you wish for can be downloaded instantly, what it was like for her. The only music she would have heard was on the radio, on her fatherís wind-up gramophone when records lasted a few minutes per side, or with local performers whose repertoire was inevitably limited. In London she heard Stravinsky for the first time, and developed an interest in listening to unfamiliar music, which never left her (in later life she always made a point of listening to Record Review on Radio 3). She also had the opportunity to see the best musicians performing. She liked to tell the story about the day she went into the Academy on a Saturday morning and heard someone in the concert hall playing the Rachmaninov 2nd Piano Concerto. She looked in to see who it was, and it turned out to be Rachmaninov himself, preparing for a concert that evening.

On graduating she applied for a post as a music teacher at Londonderry High School for Girls. The interview (which took place in London) required her to play Tausigís arrangement for piano of the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor from memory. This was a nerve-wracking experience but she was accepted and spent three happy years in Northern Ireland. However in the summer of 1940, when there was uncertainty about the direction the war was to take, she was told she could only keep her job if she agreed not to return to England as she might not be able to get back. Since her mother had not been well, she reluctantly resigned.

Back in England she heard on the radio an appeal for teachers in Salford, and became a music teacher at Pendleton Girls School. There she met my father, and they were married within a year. He had been a curate and then became vicar of a parish in Birmingham, where my two sisters and I were born. She never went back to teaching in schools, but instead became a full-time vicarís wife. She found plenty of opportunities to use her musical skills in a variety of ways. For example, when we were at Earl Shilton, in Leicestershire, she taught hymns to the Sunday School for special occasions, and also directed the Mothers Union choir. I have particular memories of her teaching them the Lonnie Donegan classic Putting on the Style while I was trying to do my homework upstairs. She was also much in demand as an accompanist. After my father retired, they moved to South Kilworth, in Leicestershire, and she was for a number of years accompanist of the Welford Choral Society. She was also much appreciated as an organist in several local villages. On one Sunday not long after her 90th birthday she played at four services in different churches.

She was once asked whether it was from her that I had inherited my musical ability. She was rather taken aback and didnít know what to say, so I answered for her that it clearly was not from my father. Being a vicar was probably the only job where musical ability was not a requirement, but singing was still part of the job. These days, in my experience, unmusical clergy can get away with dispensing with the singing bits, or asking someone else to do it for them, but that was not an option in those days. At Earl Shilton there was a good young tenor who sang the responses for him, but even at Leicester Cathedral, if there was no succentor, he was expected to be cantor. My mother once said that the day she realised that marriage was not a perpetual bed of roses was when she tried to teach him to play the piano. She soon abandoned that idea.

However he did enjoy listening to certain types of music. His tastes were somewhat limited, but he found it particularly relaxing to listen to the Bach unaccompanied violin sonatas and partitas. He also enjoyed attending concerts, though he did have a tendency to fall asleep. I was once singing in the Verdi Requiem, and during the Libera Me, as we were approaching a really loud section section where the choir returns with the Dies Irae passage, I looked into the audience and could see that he had nodded off. After the concert he said that he now had a good idea what the day of judgement was going to be like.

In 1950, when I was 5, we moved to Leicester, where my father had been appointed Vicar of St Leonardís Church. There was an enthusiastic choir and I wanted to join it from an early age. I was very disappointed they wouldnít accept any boys younger than 8, and I certainly thought I was good enough.

When I was 6 I asked my mother if she could start teaching me the piano. She gave me a few lessons, but felt it was better for us both if she found another teacher, so I started going to Mrs Leeson. Before too long I had reached the stage where I could play hymn tunes, and I seem to remember spending hours sitting at the piano playing the tune with my right hand and one of the other parts with my left. The piano was next to a window that looked out onto the main road. When a bus went by I would take its number, and use it to select the next hymn. I developed the ability to sight-read at an early age simply so that I could play what I wanted, not necessarily what Mrs Leeson wanted me to play. I remember when I was 8 or 9 that I was surprised that there were children at school who couldnít read music!

Eventually to my great joy I was allowed to join the choir. The choirmaster was Mr Hill. He was a very tall man who sang bass, and I seem to remember he could get quite low notes with ease. We used to practice on Monday evenings, but we would also meet on Friday evening for games. I didnít get any special treatment from him being the vicarís son. We used to rehearse on old wooden benches, and one day I got a splinter from one of them. When I complained, his only response was that it would make me sing better.

I think we sang at two services every Sunday Ė Parish Communion in the morning and Evensong at 6.30. We only sang anthems at occasional Evensongs, and to be honest I cannot remember much of what we did sing, apart from Jesu, Joy of Manís Desiring. We must have sung some Purcell though, because we all thought it quite funny that a composer had the same name as a washing powder.

There were probably around 12 to15 boys in the choir, as well as 5 or so women and the same number of men.

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