Bringing Ilkla Mooer To North Bucks (1 June 1973)
A Cockney is born to the sound of Bow’s bells. I was born to the sound of Ilkla Moor baht ‘at. And if you ever try to sing that please sing Ilkla Mooer not Ilkley More. You will be less of an outsider.
How the tune of Ilkla Moor ever became invested with those verses I do not know. Probably the native sense of humour. Actually, it is one of the settings of While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night. Just sing it yourself with those words and tell me whether glory does not shine around better than in the conventional setting.
All this is just my way of chatting about something which has given me enormous pleasure all my life, except when I have also had to write about it – music. I love a good tune. I am an addict of the Ten Thousand Best and I find over 90 per cent of them in the “classics.”
My childhood days were bound up with music. I suppose that in an atmosphere largely compounded of t’mill and t’pit, people had to find beauty somewhere and they found it in music, like the people of South Wales and the Black Country.
My father had four brothers and five sisters. They and their spouses included a high proportion of good natural voices. At parties we could have had a Handel or Sullivan chorus of 20 voices any time we liked. Usually there were just three or four around the piano singing the popular balads(sic) and duets of the times.
My parents afforded a shilling a week on piano lessons for me and in due course I became one of the accompanists to that little lot at parties.
Lessons continued until I started work. By that time my tutor said he could do no more for me and that to get any further I would have to go to college. But college was out of the question. Worse still, I had also begun to realise that there was a vast amount of music I would never be able to play owing to the unusual narrowness of my hands.
At our village school, the headmaster was a music fanatic and on his teaching staff were a brother and sister both of who were fine amateur pianists. It amazed me in North Bucks to find part-time helpers being appointed to schools because nobody on the normal staff could play a piano.
We had a school choir which competed at festivals. I led the third part because I could read music and also Tonic Sol Fa. At one festival the judge, Dr. Coward, director of the then famous Sheffield choir, gave us first place and asked where we came from.
A nickname for our village was Tewitland (a tewit being a peewit). On being told this Dr. Coward exclaimed, “Tewits? These children are nightingales.” We became known as that. But when this particular nightingale’s voice broke he became a corncrake and has remained one.
The boss of my first working office played first violin in the Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra. He also had a string quartet and a piano quintet and led the orchestras of the local amateur operatic and choral societies. There were always musicians nattering around the place.
Eventually I went on to northern daily papers for a while. These had their permanent music critics, usually a doctor of music or someone like that who did the job as a sideline. By default, I occasionally deputised for them. By that I mean that whereas many reporters seem rather to fancy themselves as dramatic critics, hardly any fancy themselves on the musical side. Nor do I. I simply like music and know enough about it to get by. I hope.
So what do I look for in any kind of performance? I look for ease, for clarity, for absolute understanding of the work, for the same beauty of tone throughout the gamut. There must be no straining for effect, no playing to the gallery, no sloppy sentimentality, nor the slightest hint of reaching either high or low. All that is merely for the showbiz whiz kids and totally without nobility, beauty or art.
If applause breaks out while the last note is still being sung or played, you can bet your life it has been an indifferent performance by these standards. But if the audience is wrapped in silence before the applause begins to roll, then there is a chance that the performance has been great.
Comparatively few have been able to achieve this. One was Kathleen Ferrier and it took her seven years of hard training on top of her previous knowledge as a pianist to achieve it.
I do not expect this of amateurs, of course. For them I apply the standard of what in the given circumstances I think they ought to be able to achieve. My attitude, I hope, is one of encouragement.
At one time I did a few simple orchestrations for a particular combination and I have always had a fancy for playing in an orchestra, if only to tinkle the triangle.
While the players were filing to their places at a recent local orchestral concert I pointed out to an old friend of mine the youngsters who had been trained through the operations of the North Bucks Music Centre.
“Yes, and doesn’t it make you envious?” he asked. “Our parents had to sweat blood to send us to music lessons, but kids nowadays can be taught two instruments for nothing.”
Two true. But jolly good luck to them. If we are to have a true provincial city, something more than t’factory, t’office, t’bingo hall and trips to London, It is by such means that it will be achieved.