- Online Store
- Musical Works
- YouTube Videos
- The Snowman
Christine Pembridge entered me for The Hastings Competitive Festival Scholarship as a pianist. It was the only festival in the South of England at that time that offerred a fully-paid-up scholarship, and much sought-after. I played the Chopin F major Ballade, the Prelude and Fugue in B flat minor by Bach from the first book of the '48' and the A flat sonata op.26 of Beethoven. The chief adjudicator was Sidney Harrison, piano professor at The Guildhall and he announced me as winner in all three categories and the new holder of the John Lockey Scholarship, entitling me to three years free tuition at a music college of my choice. I played the ballade again at the end-of-festival concert in Hastings' White Rock Pavilion and was suddenly surrounded by press and festival staff and musicians and autograph-hunters all screaming excitedly at me. I was unable to deal with it or know what to say, and in a slight lull I backed off and ran down to the beach in total panic.
I was utterly unprepared for success. I did not come from an affluent background or from a family of musicians and my father had incessantly said:
'I will not have the word 'clever' spoken in this house. I will not have anybody showing off.'
Yet here I was receiving huge adulation for being 'clever', for 'showing off'. Up till this point I had thought there must be some mistake. Surely I couldn't possibly be good enough to consider a musical career.
Or could I? All the authority figures around said I couldn't and I thought that if I told the headmaster that I had won a piano scholarship he might be less than pleased.
The next morning after prayers, amidst announcements of house standards for the hop, step and jump and half-mile standards there was pointedly no announcement of the fact that I had won a scholarship to The Royal Academy of Music, nor as far as I know is there any record of it to this day.
The headmaster button-holed me after prayers.
'What team-sports are you doing Blake?'
'That is not a team-sport Blake. What about football and cricket?'
'Well yes I have done quite a lot sir'.
'But not for some time Blake'
'Well no perhaps not'.
'I didn't make you a prefect last year because I was observing this obsession of yours with music Blake. After your excellent academic record and the Newton Cup in the fifth you should rightfully have become a prefect and remained as part of your peer-group'.
'I am still not going to elevate you in this way unless I have an undertaking from you that you will give up this musical obsession and buckle down to work. We are certain you could gain a place at Oxford for History if you put your back into it. So can I have your assurance Blake?'
'Well it's a bit difficult now because my teacher Miss Pembridge entered me for the Hastings Festival and for The Royal Academy and Harold Craxton had said he would take me on as a pupil if I won a scholarship, and now I've won it, so I really think I should take it and see what happens'.
'You stand in danger of ruining your entire school career Blake - if not indeed your whole life. Do you realise that Blake?'.
I'm not sure that I did realise it. To be fair to him he wrote in his next report: 'combines most succesfully a practical intelligence and exceptional musical ability. He will go far and deserves to do so.'
But all was not well. I was being split apart by conflicting demands. I felt I had missed out on years and years of study that I could have devoted to music and that the fellow-students I would join at the RAM would be way beyond me. Not for the first or the last time in my life, I ran away.
I wrote a letter saying that I wished to devote the coming months solely to music and would not be attending the school for the summer term. This was not well-received. Harry Brogden's final report says acidly:
'I regret his ability to make his contribution to school life this term, and trust that our sacrifice, as well as his, will have been worth-while.'
But curiously the abdication was accepted. Perhaps Harry Brogden thought he could still persuade me to change my mind. He enlisted two of the masters to help him in this, but both Stephen Pratt and Jolly Jack Smithies thought I should and would be a musician.
I became 'persona non grata', an outsider. It didn't feel so much different from normal since I had been more or less relegated to that category because of music since the start of the sixth form eighteen months earlier. In fact I felt suddenly free and well after several years of feeling hemmed-in.
Spurred on by Christine, I sat for the entrance exam to the RAM, for The Associated Board Piano Scholarship and for a Sussex County University Award. I went up to London for an interview at the RAM where I was interviewed by the Wardens, Myers Foggin and Terence Lovett. I needed to have a second study and had put down Organ, but when asked to show some written work I produced the Andante for piano trio which they asked me to play.
'You seem to want to express yourself in music. We think you should take composition as a second study'
A step in the direction of being a composer was taken. A step I had never even considered.
Going back to the school to sit A and S levels was very uncomfortable since I was more or less 'cold-shouldered'. I got very good results however and overall felt that I had been most fortunate to receive an absolutely free first-class education, courtesy of the Welfare State.
I had high hopes of the Royal Academy - too high. I believed it would be a heaven on earth where music was God. No more critical fathers or headmasters or brothers or small-minded neighbours and relatives. Just glorious music - but it wasn't quite like that.
My friendship with Christine continued on but I missed her teaching terribly. She had introduced me to Harold Craxton, her hero and father-figure, and now I was studying with him, but how could I possibly explain that I was 'Christine's hands' and left to myself wasn't all that interested in becoming a concert pianist. The lessons weren't at all like Christine's. He took a very non-romantic view of music and would say whilst I was attempting Liszt or Chopin:
'Don't get so excited.'
And I would say:
'But surely that's the whole point of it.'
Looking back I believe I would have been happier at The Guildhall with Sidney Harrison who had awarded me the prizes at Hastings and asked if he could take me on as a student. I had to turn this offer down due to the prior arrangement that Christine had made with Craxton. He was the authority on Beethoven and the classics and at that time I so much wanted to play more modern material, which was not much part of his outlook. Though witty and affable he was also far from young and tended to fall asleep as I was playing. I didn't really get on with him.
In the first week I was invited to an informal reception by the principal, Sir Thomas Armstrong. There were several string players there to whom he said: 'I sincerely hope that none of you will sink to the level of playing orchestral music. Chamber music is of course the only real music of quality.' I thought this absurd.
There was a wonderful student chorus under the tough and excellent choir trainer Frederick Jackson, from whom I learned a great deal, attempting to sing tenor in my first term in an all-Vaughan-Williams concert with the great man sitting in the front row. In the next term we gave an energetic performance of Walton's 'Belshazzar's Feast' but after that the choir was taken over by the unsmiling Sir Thomas, who presided over Bach's B minor Mass, constantly stopping to explain its importance and gravity.
Mozart was once ticked off for not being serious enough about music to which he responded: 'The verb used to qualify music is play'. Schiller invented a word to define this: 'the urge to play', in German 'Spieltrieb', the name I was to give to my first commissioned string quartet, many years later.