Drs Maimie and Ruth Waddell
Doyennes of Edinburgh Music Teachers
I went to proper ( as opposed to “messing around”) school in Edinburgh. “Auld Reekie” was probably not quite as unhealthy in my childhood as Robert Louis Stevenson recalled it a hundred years before,“smoking like a kiln”, but as I walked unwillingly to school, through the formal squares of the New Town or the solid affluence of Morningside, I do remember it, even then, as full of forbidding smoke-blackened neo-classical buildings.
In spite of this, the city is often referred to as “The Athens of the North”, which seemed to me (once I actually visited Greece) something of a misnomer, given that one might expect the description to refer not only to the appearance of the place, but also, even if only obliquely, to the culture as well as the climate. But given the blackness of the buildings, legacy of decades of coal dust and smog belched out from the city’s "lums", and the pervading dourness of some of its citizens, it was hardly a place of dazzling light or enlightenment. These days though, Athens is, sadly, catching up on the pollution of Edinburgh fifty years ago, and Edinburgh has moved on too.
“Lang may yer lum reek”, (just as well Greenpeace wasn’t around then) was the toast to continued success and wellbeing. And of course a good fire in the hearth was as much a necessity in Scottish winters as a symbol of prosperity. You could almost feel the quality of the people like tweed, - functional and practical if sometimes rather over-zealously worthy.
As gradually the soot was scrubbed or sand-blasted off those black buildings, so a new broom began to sweep through Scottish culture, and, just as I hit my teens in the 60’s, Edinburgh was becoming a melting pot for the arts. Perhaps one should say cauldron ( to acknowledge Will Shakespeare’s Scottish witches), as some people felt that the annual Festival was already more than enough culture for the city, and were suspicious about the hedonistic, if not pagan, backlash that this “new” wave might unleash. The general swelling of the city coffers that the Festival brought was never, apparently, quite enough recompense for the influx of louche "arty" types.
The famously reactionary Edinburgh City Fathers saw it as their duty to preserve, with all the gravitas of their elevated positions, the decency and upright character of their offspring, and thus appointed themselves “Guardians of Taste”, frequently coming into confrontation with the innovators. It was usually during Edinburgh Festivals that they had the greatest scope for opprobrium, invoking the Wrath of God and the Hounds of Hell in equal measure upon the heads of those they considered to be the agents of Satan, and the good Edinburgians were regularly entertained by moralistic outbursts from these arbiters of taste, which left one in no doubt that John Knox still had a vested interest up there in the City Chambers, if not actually a mortgage on Edinburgh Castle. And thus it was that one of the leading European Cultural Festivals had, for at least twenty years, a hole in the ground instead of an Opera House, while the city Fathers scratched their heads trying to decide whether or not it was a good thing for the city. It was another "Disgrace" to add to the one designed by William Playfair (as a memorial to Scottish soldiers who died in the Napoleonic Wars), that already stood on the top of the Calton Hill.
In the meantime here was Scottish Opera making its debut in 1962, assembling brilliant casts and production teams (and in 1965 bemoaning the expense of the enterprise, at a cost of £2,250 per unsubsidised performance !), the Scottish National Orchestra making an international reputation under Alexander Gibson (later Sir), the Festival Chorus making the rafters ring, and the notorious Traverse Theatre, invoking censor and censure, and sending a frisson round the theatre world both at home and further afield. And there was the Fringe Festival, to some people a shameful appendage to the official Festival, which started to attract notoriety of a sort that the aforementioned City Fathers would rather have done without.
It was all meat and drink to a small-village boy who was just discovering freedom, sex ( in theory at any rate) and the intoxication of the Arts. Having got the “bug”, I spent most of my waking hours in those heady years living, breathing, and getting drunk on the cocktail of music, art and theatre that Edinburgh had to offer to this new culture-hungry generation. I can hardly explain the palpable sense of exitement that accompanied the discoveries that were revealing themselves to me on my “own doorstep”, whether it was the operas of Strauss, Mozart, and Berlioz, or contemporary Scottish painters, the plays of Ibsen, Shaw, and Shakespeare, and, of course, many many concerts. Not to mention a social life.
The discovery of all these things, and more, was in sharp contrast to the rather dull life that I felt was my lot back home. The gradual sense of escape that my cultural involvement brought, the sense of something really vital as opposed to prosaic in my life, was a major driving factor in my pursuit of liberation from mundanity!
The sulpture of Epstein, (exhibited during the 1961 Festival), which gripped me when I was 14, also caused a furore, thanks to the explicit sexuality and genitalia of some of the statues. Up went the cries “Is this Art?” and “Offence against Public Decency”. Edinburgh may well have been several decades behind public taste in the South, and not much had really changed since the thirties when there was a similar outcry about the statue of Ariel by Eric Gill outside the front of the BBC in Portland Place. At that time a question was raised in Parliament and a Commission appointed to examine the offending organ. What would one have given to eavesdrop on the discussion that must have followed the Commission’s examination? ( Chaired, appropriately, by the headmaster of one of England's great Public Schools - so he should have known about these things ! ) In that case Gill actually succumbed to the opprobrium and chipped a bit off to placate the critics.
* * * * *
Without maligning my parents,( a downright upright middle-class Scottish family), they did everything in their power to provide a stable background, with all the attendant sacrifices that involved. But life in Longniddry, or Longmisery as my brother rather succinctly rechristened it, was a trifle dull.
The heavy hand of the Scottish Presbyterian work-ethic lay upon the shoulders of both my mother and father. And try as I did, that was hard to slough off! I always had the impression that if you were to laugh too much while you were alive you would go to hell. Judging from old family photographs, most of my ancestors would have had a first class ticket to heaven. Inevitably, the only one who had a mischevious twinkle in his eye was considered a wastrel, and his downfall was occasionally alluded to as a warning against the evils of a profligate life.
At the same time, our family seemed to have shut shop on an emotional world. There was little room for spontaneous warmth and the demonstration of affection, and certainly no discussion of three things that seemed to me rather important in the greater scheme of things - sex, religion, and money. But these inhibitions were, as I later came to understand, a legacy of deprivation of one sort or another.
Against this background, music in particular invited me into a world of sense and externalised emotion, a world in which one could explore the numinous without the danger of having to talk about these feelings. Escape, sublimation, call it what you will, but it swept me along on a tide of excitement that nearly blew my mind. It was Lucy in the Sky...........without the drugs.
In tandem with my growing appreciation of the arts, I had set my sights on becoming a ‘cellist.
Just where that started I dont remember, but my mother assured me that when I was eight I had heard one on the radio, and had announced that I wished to make “that noise”. There was music in the family, with both parents being professional musicians ( though my father’s “day” job was a pharmacist and optician ), and so the general atmosphere was conducive to the learning of an instrument.
However in my brother’s case, his “violin” was all co-ercion, and caused general agony for everybody else. When he was supposed to be “doing his violin” he was usually otherwise engaged, on one or other dubious projects, such as nicking wood from a local joiner’s yard, (in which I was occasionally co-opted as a somewhat unwilling accomplice). I seemed, on the other hand to take to the idea( of music rather than crime) as a duck to water, though the early stages provided their fair share of physical as well as aural agony - sore arms and bloodied fingers etc.
Not to mention the hours of grappling with the odd concept of scraping a bit of a horse’s tail over a piece of animal intestine (as it then was) trying to make a nice noise. The resulting cat-strangling noise that came out was, I should have thought, to be expected, given those materials, but could be somewhat exasperating to anyone such as my brother, forced to have to put up with it too much. No wonder he hated the cello too. Throughout the first nine years of my cello study, I was cajoled and coaxed by my lovely teacher Eleanor Gregorson, known to all as Kitty. Nine years is a long time to study with one teacher, but I can see that for someone with her kind of dedication, there must be a special satisfaction in seeing your “progeny” progressing from first scratch to fully fledged concerto, if you nurture them for long enough.
The quite remarkable thing about this lady was that, in all those years, I never remember not looking forward to a single lesson. She, on the other hand swears that I only caused her to lose her temper once, which I find very hard to imagine, given the usual tantrums and stubbornness that most small children go through.
“E.B.K. Gregorson” as her bright brass doorbell said ( and it really was a wonderful old brass knob that rang a bell five floors up, at the end of a wire attached to a spring ) lived in a magnificent flat on the corner of Cromwell Street and Castle Terrace looking from its own turrets straight at Edinburgh Castle from the West side. If you look closely, Edinburgh is, everywhere, full of buildings with mad turrets, towers, cupolas, or “things” stuck improbably on their roofs. From the jagged crown on top of St Giles, to the graceful cupolas ( with their oval fanlights) of the Georgian New Town, there is every possible variation, which suggests that at least its architects, if not its theologians, had a sense of whimsy.
Having trained at the Royal College of Music in the twenties with Ivor James ( whose Gofriller cello Janos Starker subsequently used during his career ), Kitty sacrificed her own career to come back to Edinburgh to look after her elderly father after her mother died. But having had experience of musical life in London at a time when players of the calibre of Casals were very much in evidence, she brought back to Edinburgh a cosmopolitan view that informed her own teaching and musical taste.
This she had also experienced from her own Edinburgh teacher, Dr Ruth Waddell, who was a pupil of the Portuguese Guilhermina Suggia ( some-time mistress of Casals), and had been a chamber music partner of Sir Donald Francis Tovey, Professor of Music at Edinburgh University. Ruth was still “at the helm” of the cello teaching at the “Waddell School of Music” when I came along, and I remember her as being rather fierce in heather-mixture green tweed suits. Ruth had suffered as a pupil of Suggia much the same way as Amaryllis Fleming had (described in her nephew Fergus Fleming’s book.) Suggia had very short arms ( though you wouldn’t guess it from Augustus John’s magnificent painting of her) and had invented some contraption to hold the bow, designed to extend the arm reach. It seems that she tried to foist this device or her way of holding the bow onto her unfortunate pupils with disastrous results.
Together with her somewhat irascible violinist sister Maimie ( described by an ex-pupil of the school, June Brebner, as a tyrant) and the diminutive Miss Winifred Gavine, they ran the school for strings that their father had established in the 1870’s, “Mr Waddell's School of Music”. In his violin lessons my brother used to mischeviously put up the music stand too high for "Winnie", which meant she couldn't reach up to write things on his music.This rather remarkable establishment had existed for well over a century prior ro my time there.The sisters were, in their day, part of that generation of women who were blazing a trail for independance.And alongside their involvement with the Suffragette movement, they had strong traditional Scottish cultural links ( their maternal grandfather was the distinguished Scottish painter Sir Daniel McNee, and they were friendly with Marjory Kennedy Fraser, Scots folk-song collector).
They also had wider reference points, and their house was a meeting place for women of like mind, such as the similarly tweedy Dame Ethel Smythe, who visited on at least one occasion. But they wouldn’t have a man sleeping in their house, and if they had couples as guests they were asked to find accommodation outside. A fine portrait of the sisters exists, painted in their cottage in Barra by Kate Oliver, but inexplicably it hangs in the Guildhall in Hull, “unavailable to be viewed by the public”. I made an approach to Hull City Council several years ago suggesting that the picture would be more appropriately on view in Edinburgh. But the response was a Soviet-style “nyet”. Bureaucracy has its wooden-headedness everywhere.
For many years, the “school” (providing individual lessons and two cacophonous orchestras - one called the ‘”Baby” orchestra, many members of which were barely out of diapers - on a Saturday morning) occupied rooms in the Poole’s Synod Hall, also on Castle Terrace. Ironically the building also housed one of Edinburgh’s more seedy cinemas of the time.
Mothers taking their children to lessons had to run the gauntlet of the posters outside - huge billboards six feet high, painted with lurid images, and below them half a dozen photos from the films. There was always a horror film, with bloody corpses featuring prominently, and other films that seemed to involve people who couldn’t afford clothes. So at the tender age of eight or so it was a weekly ritual being dragged quickly past these hoardings while sneaking furtive glances at these fascinatingly ghoulish scenes. The rooms in which the lessons took place surrounded the auditorium, separated only by a curtain, so that on the way to your lesson, you might hear all sorts of moaning and groaning coming from behind the curtain.
Once safely inside, countless generations of children passed through the hands of these redoubtable ladies and their assistants, (of whom Kitty was the principal), some, like myself, to go on to careers as professional musicians. As the school was run entirely by spinster ladies, I imagine that it was very similar to the “Dame” schools of the nineteenth century, and the atmosphere in the teaching rooms was, to my eyes, like something out of Dickens - faded dusty interiors hung with dingy drapes. Looking back on it, it would have been the perfect setting for one of the grizzly murders that were so graphically advertised outside. Fortunately, most of my lessons took place in Kitty’s flat, rather than the sepulchral Synod Hall.
Edinburgh seemed awash with ladies who taught musical instruments. Most of them had selflessly devoted their lives to their profession, but one had the feeling that there was a fierce rivalry between them, which often manifested itself in a superficially genteel way at the time of the Competitive Festival, a thinly disguised annual sharpening of claws amongst the different teachers and their respective retinue of hopefuls. If Edinburgh was the Athens of the North, then the annual Competitive Festival was the arena for an Olympian battle of the brave amongst Edinburgh's fledgling scrapers and bashers of everything from trompones to triangles!
Another of these ladies was my piano teacher. Miss Edna Lovell was the prima donna amongst the piano teachers( but of course not without her rivals, including the intense and beady-eyed Miss Mary Moore ). Miss Lovell taught, when I first had lessons with her, in a bleak studio above Methuen (pronounced Methven) Simpson’s Music Shop in Princes Street, housed in a monolithic building, which no longer exists, just opposite the Mound. Could there really be somebody called Methuen, I wondered? The name was forever associated in my mind with gloomy dark rooms, large cast iron radiators and long oval shaped windows that were too high to see out of. My mother had at one time worked as a “demonstration” pianist in Methuen Simpson’s. If someone wanted to buy some music they didn’t know, they could ask for it to be played so that they could go home knowing how it “went” before they had to buy it! Once someone brought the music back, saying that it didn’t sound the same once they got it back home.
Miss Lovell was a pupil of Tobias Matthay, who had lent his name to a “school” or particular way of piano playing, and to this day I remember some of her advice to be be very soundly based on the principal of FREE ARM WEIGHT. I can still hear that phrase, delivered in booming stentorian tones. Miss Lovell, a large lady, used to resort to a demonstration of this which involved leaning her own very considerable weight on me, which did cause me some alarm. I also remember that once, with a loud crack, a chair gave way beneath her, which seemed to me (though not to her) hilarious, and helped to diffuse a tense moment in the lesson. To see the usually dignified Miss Lovell spread-eagled on the floor with a crumpled chair underneath her was a Pythonesque moment to be savoured. She also had a penchant for puting words to the pieces we had to play ( for a very good reason, as I later realised, to show where the agogic accents fell) but this habit, while it was fine for the very young, became quite comical once you graduated to Beethoven Sonatas!
I was not one of her star pupils and a veil should be drawn over my efforts in that dept. But having started with the piano prior to the cello, it gave me a good basic knowledge of notation and harmony. Many of her pupils, however, did go on to distinction, including Christopher Elton, who became Professor of Piano at the Royal Academy of Music.
Miss Lovell could be terrifying, in fewer words than anyone I know. She could shut the book on an excercise which had been unpractised, in such a way as to make you cringe with shame. She would never say that you were wasting her time, but the woefullness of her voice conveyed volumes. She was actually a very kind and wise person, as I later discovered when I went to her beautiful Morningside house for lessons. She adored her unfortunate-looking mongrel Lisel, who regularly polished off whole boxes of chocolates, (and hid those she couldn’t eat at one sitting around the house), astonishing Miss Lovell with her wiliness in so doing. " Oh Lizel, such a clever dog!"( as Lizel licked her lips smugly). But the most fascinating thing about her was that in all the time I knew her, I never recall seeing her wearing anything other than a coat (usually fur) and hat, indoors, and at all times of year. I often used to wonder if she went to bed like that too.
I vividly remember one of the annual “Pupils of Miss Edna Lovell” concerts, when I had a disastrous memory lapse in a Bach Prelude, just as I thought things were going rather well. Pride before the proberbial fall. Miss Lovell, with the wisdom of knowing precisely how the mind works in such instances, sensibly boomed out from her seat in the front row “Go on to the the next page !” Other than the nasty silence in the middle, I somehow garnered myself to complete the ordeal without too much egg on my face. But that may have been wishful thinking.
In a voice that was reminiscent of Dame Clara Butt’s deep contralto, Miss Lovell acknowledged that it was such a good idea that I had taken to the cello, and that I seemed to be getting on much better with it than with the piano. Once I had decided that the cello was the priority I began to really enjoy the piano as a “recreational” pursuit, and Miss Lovell was happy to let me murder things that were far too difficult, such as Brahms rhapsodies. This gave me a sense of living dangerously whilst making me aware that I was totally untalented as a pianist.
* * * * *
But to go back to the cello. As time went by, under the guidance of Kitty Gregorson, I began to feel that I could express myself with the cello, which also gave me an identity, and the confidence to start playing with other people, including girls. One of my earliest “chamber music” partners, (though I imagine I also thought I was in love with her), at the age of nine, was Mary Rae - later Mary Miller, music critic of the Scotsman, but at that time also a Waddell “baby”. We used to make clandestine visits after our Saturday morning orchestra to an automatic photograph booth in Woolworth’s to have our photo taken together, cheek to cheek. Had I known what was to be her chosen profession later on, (though happily I never fell foul of it ),I might have been a little less familiar! But all that was far in the future.
Perhaps the ability to give one space to develop in one’s own way was the major gift that Kitty bestowed upon her myriad pupils. Always prepared to take new ideas on board herself, she was able to be both solicitous and liberating at the same time. The mark of a great teacher! She never stood in the way of one’s ambition, but guided with consumate advice, gained from her own considerable experience and knowledge of music.
Lessons with Kitty were always fun. She had that rare ability (without seemingly trying ) to impart her enthusiasm for learning, so that it was like a shared venture and adventure to learn with her. Even going to her house was an adventure! Her flat seemed ( to a small boy ) like a treasure-trove of wonderful old things, piano piled high with cellos and bows, family portraits on the walls ( a particularly lovely one of her mother ) and antique furniture. The gas fire hissed in the sitting room, and there were for many years different ( and probably unrelated ) generations of Tiger ( to rhyme with nigger ! ) nestling in the deep armchair by the fire. On top of that there were the breathtaking views of the castle and the West end of town down to the Forth. After climbing the seemingly endless stairs, grappling with cello, music case and school satchel, the door to her flat, (still another flight !) already stood ajar, opened from above by a piece of string attached to the Yale lock, and as you panted up the last flight, strains of the preceeding pupil wafted down to meet you.
The rooms in the flat, arranged around the bannistered stairwell, were large, and draughty in winter, and periodically there were major roofing problems - telltale buckets strategically placed to catch the deluge. But it was always an incredibly inviting place, and I came to know it like my own home. It was also home to various lodgers who became part of the family over the years. Going for a lesson once a week, it was easy to forget that Kitty did battle with those stairs several times a day, humping everything but the kitchen sink up and down for the best part of fifty years, and notwithstanding hip replacements or the normal aches and pains of the passing years. And cello cases in those days( particularly the wooden ones ) were incredibly heavy and cumbersome things; known as coffins, it was no joke to have to carry one of those up and down at 17 Cornwall Street . Not to mention all her shopping, and the Saturday forays to The Waddell School Orchestras, which involved transporting piles of music, spare instruments and stands etc etc. Kitty must have done it literally thousands of times during her residence there.
But I dont remember her ever complaining.
I think that Kitty delighted in children, and maybe because she had none of her own, ( nor a partner) perhaps she was able to especially enjoy the relationships she had with children without the restraining aspect of parental responsibilities. Sometimes I felt that she almost encouraged an element of anarchy in her pupils, in the sense that, even if some goal was unrealistic, she would never stand in the way of one trying, even though she might have known it was impossible. She encouraged you to believe that anything was possible. This may have also been something to do with the fact that of necessity she had had to be an independent woman herself, and I am sure there were times when financially things were tough going. Most of the children she taught came from comfortable middle-class marriages, and though that was not something she enjoyed herself, she never expressed, to me at any rate, any sense of envy, or of having missed out on anything in her personal life. In fact her life was full of wonderfully rich relationships with her family, and her many friends. What seems to me now so special was that she also gave constant and unstinting support to her pupils, whatever it was one was doing, both on and off the cello. She seemed always to have time to talk, offer advice, help out with instruments in a crisis and just be there when she was needed.
Professionally, after she came back to Edinburgh when her studies in London were cut short, amongst other things she had played in the Reid Orchestra, but teaching had to provide the bread and butter, and it was to this profession that she devoted the rest of her life. The gentle ( but sometimes firm) guidance that she offered her pupils always had in the background the criteria of a real standard of playing to aim for, which was based on her own experience. And with this in mind she also encouraged her pupils to go to concerts as much as they could to hear the best players. I think from Kitty I learnt the importance of always being aware of the beauty of sound, and I shall never forget her delight when she heard something that really gave her pleasure.
Throughout her life she retained an incredibly lively mind, following all her ex students’ activities and developing families with an encyclopaedic memory for names. The passing years she wore lightly, and really seemed, beyond a certain age, not to age. For her, reaching her century was a great excuse for a party, to which many of her ex students came.
One story from many years later was typical of her. Rostropovich came to an Edinburgh Festival in the early seventies. I was in touch with him and discovered that he was looking for somewhere with a piano to rehearse. As Kitty's flat was so close to the Usher Hall, I ventured (without consulting her) that he might be able to use her music room. Without the slightest hesitation Kitty agreed, regardless of any prior call on the room, and, in addition, suggested that I used her car ( uninsured for me to drive, and only recently having passed my test ! ) to ferry him and Vishnevskaya around. Her generosity knew no bounds, and she always gave the most unstinting support if she thought something was important, and needed to be done, whatever received opinion might be. Needless to say, she was thrilled that Slava used her music room.
And with her lively mind still very much on the ball, she was in attendance at every one of Boulez’s concerts with the LSO at the 2000 Edinburgh Festival, offering succinct comments on several pieces which I would have happily burned. Not so Kitty: she offered a typically balanced criticism of these pieces, weighing up the pros and cons, and telling me how, in one nasty new piece, she felt particularly sorry for the new Usher Hall Steinway, just recently acquired at great expense!
I have many reasons to be grateful to this wonderful lady for her incredible energy and devotion over the years. My musical diet beyond the cello was also nourished on a regular basis by attendance at rehearsals and concerts by the Scottish National Orchestra, whose Friday night concerts in the Usher Hall were a fixture in my diary. My cello lessons were strategically timed to fit in between the SNO’s rehearsal and concert, and as Kitty lived right next door to the hall this was a perfect arrangement. Her generosity knew no bounds, and for years she regularly fed me after my lesson to fortify me before the concerts. She also provided me with a home-from-home during the Edinburgh Festivals, once I started to get summer jobs in the Festival. Those three weeks were the most intoxicating weeks of my life every year, and I lived and breathed music and drama for twenty-four hours a day, working as assistant stage manager for one company, and front of house manager for another. In between I was often going to several concerts daily, and was also in demand as a page-turner for chamber music concerts in Leith Town Hall and the Usher Hall. The list of great performers whom I was priviledged to hear is huge, and indelibly etched on my memory.
In spite of my studies taking me to much further climes, I have always felt that Kitty was the person whose advice I treasured above all.
* * * * * *
During the Winter seasons it was through hearing the SNO and many marvellous soloists that I began to discover music. I was completely gripped by the spectacle of live performances, and before too long had heard (and collected autographs of) cellists like Pierre Fournier and Paul Tortelier, as well as many other soloists.
Long before that, the first concert that I really remember hearing was in 1956, when Ernst Von Dohnányi was the soloist in his own Variations on a Nursery Song. I vividly remember the excitement (due to the precipitous raking of the seats) of sitting up in the “gods” of the Usher Hall, listening to the orchestra crashing its way through the introduction, a “Symphony in Woe minor” as Tovey wittily called it. With an inspired touch of programme planning, which would be rare nowadays, the concert, advertised as “A Concert for Young People”, featured an octogenarian pianist, and the fact that I remember it so well must have meant that it hit the mark.
Later on, my attendance at SNO rehearsals had been encouraged and unofficially sanctioned by one of my music masters at school, Richard Telfer, a personal friend of Alexander Gibson, and a director of Scottish Opera. Dicky Telfer, as he was known to all and sundry, was in many ways an unlikely character to be a school music teacher. A small rotund man with a permanently shiny face and an imperturbable smile, he managed to fulfil his job without ever seeming to put any effort into it.
He had been a cinema organist in Edinburgh, and his great passion was opera, of which he had an encyclopaedic knowledge. He enjoyed nothing more than playing great chunks of opera to us and regailing us with the absurd plots of so many of them. His enthusiasm was infectious, but at the same time I suspect that he was extremely bored by school music teaching. He used to play the organ at the morning assembly and always began the proceedings with a quiet improvisation of an Introit for the headmaster.
One day his improvisation seemed to have the effect of deep self-hypnosis, and he didnt seem to notice that the headmaster had arrived, playing on regardless. Teachers and pupils started gesticulating to Dickie to stop, but he was so far away ( perhaps dreaming himself into Valhalla or some other operatic fantasy ) that he was totally oblivious, all the while continuing to weave the harmony into more and more distant keys. Eventually, accompanied by mass guffawing, the headmaster walked to the front of the stage and bellowed at Dicky “STOP PLAYING MR TELFER!” Poor Dicky nearly jumped out of his skin.
But the great thing about him was that he did have a vision of music which related to the professional musical world rather than the rather inward-looking school orientated musical activities, and he encouraged those who were interested to go to listen to “outside” events even if it might clash with our loyalty to school events.
On one occasion when I was, as usual, sitting quietly near the back of the stalls in a rehearsal of the Scottish National Orchestra, the then Managing Director of the orchestra, the towering Robert Ponsonby, approached me with the question “Did I have official permission to attend the rehearsal?” I blurted out something about permission from Mr Telfer, but as this was a loosely informal arrangement, I was asked politely to leave, and to follow up our conversation with a letter of request. Quite some years later, when I appeared as a soloist in the London Proms, when Robert was the Director, I took malicious pleasure in reminding him of the occasion when he had evicted me from one of his rehearsals. Happily it did nothing to curb my enthusiasm.
But I knew that it wasn’t simply enough to listen - I desperately wanted to play the music too. My own efforts were gradually bearing fruit and having negotiated the usual hurdles, I won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music.
* * * * *
About the same time, however, I had some adolescent pangs about my future involvement with music, wondering if I shouldn’t be trying to pursue a career that would be of more use to other people, such as medicine. Quite how I thought I could do that I dont know, as I had no “subjects” for a medical degree, and in any case never in a million years could I have stuck a needle into anyone. But I suppose that it all fitted in with a certain existential “angst” of those years, combined with the idealistic altruism of youth. When I was younger I also used to enjoy pottering around in my father’s chemist shop, and liked the interesting smells of the medicines and various potions that he mixed up in his mortar and pestel.
I decided, anyway, to try for a university place, rather than take up the Scholarship to the RCM, in order to have more options, and to look at courses in English as well as music. I was also keen to go to an English University, as, somewhere at the back of my mind I felt the need to get away from the environment in which I had already spent not far off two decades. I was not prepared for the hostility that came from certain quarters over this decision. Several masters at my school expressed disbelief. What was wrong with Edinburgh University, or Glasgow or Aberdeen? Traitor!
It all fitted into the picture. My school, one of the most solid Edinburgh establishments of its kind, prepared most people for the professions - legal, medical, and educational, and “fed” the Scottish universities. And in time the next generation came along and were sent to the same school. Worthy and necessary as these professions are, it was not a scenario into which I wanted to write myself. It wasn't the first time I had come across opposition from School about breaking rank. The head music-master had expressed indignation when I chose to go on a National Youth Orchestra course, in preference to a School Orchestra trip. The war of attrition that ensued did not endear me to those entrusted with my education.
There were one or two exceptions amongst the masters, mostly themselves English. There was a charming gentle man known as Jungle Jo, who was said to have fought in Burma, and who seemed to have a probem with his jaw, which dropped open unless he supported it - the result of his injuries, we concluded, or perhaps some parasitic tropical disease. Another was my last English master, Dr Baston, who had the plumbiest English accent (and most perfect pronounciation ) you could imagine, and the most tightly knotted tie, which made it look as though his shirt buttons were about to fly off at any moment. I had my eye on York University by that stage, and Dr Baston thought that was a “jolly good idea”. He was probably just relieved that someone ( apart from the few Oxbridge highfliers, of whom I was not one) should have their sights set on somewhere South of the border for a change.
And so it was that I went to York, where my meeting with Benjamin Britten launched me on a trajectory that would take me to the Moscow Conservatoire, and completely change the course of my life.