Post of the Week – Discovering music in the 1950s

Instead of a ‘Piece of the Week’, today I thought I’d just write a few memories of my musical education in the 1950s: a significant birthday this week seemed a good time to indulge myself…

I grew up in Blackheath, South East London, and my first musical memories are playing the recorder at school – as soon as I got one of my own, and realised that you could buy blank books of manuscript paper too, my composing career was born! Aged about 9, it wasn’t long before I started pestering my parents for a piano (including by drawing a piano keyboard on sheets of paper, sellotaping them together and putting them on the kitchen table and ‘playing’ them) and I cannot say how thankful I am that they obliged and bought me one – I will never forget the day that it arrived and I started experimenting with different triads and combinations of notes – it was heaven! Then I started piano lessons at the Blackheath Conservatoire with Geoffrey Flowers, who wasn’t only a great piano teacher but also inducted me into the exciting mysteries of harmony and counterpoint.

Although some aspects of musical learning in the 1950s were very similar to today, some were very different, although the ultimate goal was of course the same.  No photocopying, no computers, no youtube meant, perhaps, rather more time discovering and working out things for oneself in public libraries etc, as well as developing an ability to quickly copy music out by hand when necessary! It was a year or two before we had a record player, too, so the lack of easy access to recorded music certainly developed my score-reading skills.

In 1958 I moved to secondary school – a state grammar school with a good musical reputation, and the music teacher here was Desmond Swinburn. I sung in the choir, played the oboe for a couple of years, and continued piano lessons with Geoffrey Flowers.

Anyway, here are some of the things that inspired me:

While at primary school (age 9-10) – (years 5-6)

  • Unison songs, particularly The Wizard by Peter Jenkyns (what exciting harmony) and Handel’s ‘Did you not see my lady’ (what a shapely melodic line)
  • The Oxford School Music Books (classical songs, folksongs from everywhere, and musical rudiments explained using threepenny bits!)
  • Britten’s ‘Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra’ (I learnt a great deal from studying the score, and following a recording – the first one we had) and his ‘The Little Sweep’
  • Stewart Macpherson’s ‘Melody and Harmony’ – everything you would ever want to know – and more!
  • Percy Scholes ‘Oxford Companion to Music’ (I used to love poring over this)
  • Walter Carroll ‘Scenes at a Farm’ and the other easy piano books (though oddly, I never realised, until recently, that you could sing the poem printed for each one to the tune of the piece – and nobody told me!!)
  • And I was taken around to perform in a number of music competitive festivals: Lewisham, Bromley, Bexley, South East London Festival (SELMA). I’m sure this was good for me, though at the time it all just went by in a sea of nervousness. And of course I took ABRSM exams, which I thought were more fun than performing to an audience, and were a very good way of widening ones repertoire and stylistic awareness.
  • And I wrote music prolifically, including several short ‘operas’ (which of course were never performed….)

First two to three years at secondary school – years 7-9

  • Discovered the delights of singing in parts:
  • J.S.Bach ‘St. John Passion’
  • George Dyson ‘In Honour of the City’
  • Vaughan Williams ‘In Windsor Forest’
  • Brahms ‘Requiem’
  • Delius ‘On Craig Dhu’ (what a beautiful piece)
  • Morley ‘Now is the month of maying’ (and other madrigals)
  • Class music lessons, were, for me, less interesting than actually making music. But I made up for that in my local libraries – Lewisham, and St. John’s Park in Blackheath, both of whom had great collections of piano music and miniature scores. Lots of stuff to explore! And I continued piano lessons, of course, and I won a prize for something – the complete Beethoven piano sonatas!! Plenty to learn from there.
  • And of course I continued to write music – some of it is lost or thrown out, but what I’ve still got sees me experimenting with a range of styles, the models often too clear!

Looking back on these early years now, I think I worked out a lot for myself – always the best way to learn – though this was somewhat at the expense of exploring things with teachers, fellow musicians and learning together, even though I was lucky in the music making that went on in school.  Piano lessons, and composing, can be quite a solitary experience, and there seemed to be less opportunity for young people to get together to make music outside school than there is now. I was the only ‘composer’ that I knew – and of course composition wasn’t part of the music curriculum as it is today. I never remember, at that stage, discussing my compositions with any school friends, still less getting the chance to write for instruments that I didn’t play – that had to wait till later. But I was lucky in that my piano teacher, while sticking to piano during the term-times, gave me composition lessons in the holidays, and this continued until he moved away when I was about 15 and I changed teachers.

I don’t recall going to concerts in London, even though it was only a 20 minute train ride away. But I do remember the concerts at the ‘Blackheath Music Society’ where we heard some excellent performers, including Jacqueline du Pre before she made the headlines, and also enjoyed the opportunity for massed singing in large festivals where schools came together and listened to each other sing and joined together in ‘set pieces’: these were at Goldsmith’s College in New Cross and were presumably organised by the LCC. I also recall a ‘private recital’ at a house in Blackheath Park, where I remember swooning over some Delius!

I did once enter for a composition competition – I suppose I was about 12 and I wrote a piano piece about a train journey at night, loosely based, perhaps, on Honegger’s 2-3-1. It was quite a dramatic piece, full of parallel chords, dissonances, repetitive rhythms, and really explored the pitch and dynamic range of the piano. I was quite pleased with it. It received a very low mark and the comment that I would do better to study harmony rather than experiment with ‘these modern ideas’.

I suppose, if one could sum up music education in the 1950s as compared with today, one might say that there was a clear seriousness of purpose and intent, more ‘instruction’, but less opportunity to put it all into practice. Not surprisingly, given the austerity of the age, it was quite dry, and focussed on the past, with less opportunity for experimentation. Improvisation on the piano was something to be done in secret! And I don’t remember encountering as many ‘contemporary’ composers as I perhaps should have done. But, overall, I am truly grateful for the secure musical background that was instilled into me during those early years.

I’ve attached photographs of some of the music and books that I learnt from in those years, and also the first page of an ‘opera’ which I wrote at the age of eleven – unlike the others that I wrote, this one is complete, but I’d be embarrassed to show you any more!

Next week I’ll say something about what I learnt in the 1960s – an exciting time to be a teenager…



4 thoughts on “Post of the Week – Discovering music in the 1950s”

    1. thank you Fiona – it’s odd the things one remembers and the things one forgets… x

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