Guided By Jack

by Adrian Williams

My love of English music started in childhood Hertfordshire with the Tallis Fantasia and Enigma on an old record, aged about 13. Then a friend's records of VW's Oxford Elegy, Dives and Lazarus, Flos Campi, Five Tudor Portraits, VW teeny boppers we were in those early 70's. Big names soon led to a growing fascination with the 'lesser', forgotten ones. 'Why do you waste money on scores by Robin Milford and Havergal Brian?' some of my sneering Royal College of Music contemporaries asked, those who attended smokey, interminable composers' workshops in the basement. Even my teacher, Bernard Stevens, who I hugely respected, had a go at me for refusing to attend workshops. Hearing Adrian Jack scoffing at English music in his lectures on 20th C music caused me to provoke him by visibly reading the score of Delius's 'Mass of Life' throughout future sessions. But I did try and be open to all kinds of music; upon borrowing Stockhausen's Kontacte on disc from college, I secretly listened at home on headphones but screamed for several minutes afterwards to the alarm of my parents. I went almost as an ascetic to the Society for the Promotion of New Music composers' courses at York, but after just one day of hot air (once blowing up balloons with David Bedford) I usually escaped to the Yorkshire Wolds on my bike, damned but happy, ears ringing with 'songs of the high hills'.

 

Wolds
View of the Yorkshire Wolds, east of York

During this burgeoning of my love of English music I remember seeing the name 'Moeran' on big Metropolitan line billboards, performances of a 'Symphony in G minor' at the Festival Hall. The name didn't suggest my sort of little world, even less a G minor symphony, and so I stupidly ignored it.... I can't remember how I eventually discovered Moeran - it might have been the record of Bax's November Woods and Holst's Fugal overture on which Moeran's Sinfonietta took the B side.

Or was it that mysterious Cello Concerto and Overture to a Masque? (Ah, such thanks we owe to 'Lyrita Recorded Edition, Slough, England') Come to think it might have been a radio broadcast of that G minor Symphony, was it under Neville Dilkes?

I remember saying to my friend and mentor the late John Russell at the RCM that I was born about 50 years too late. I so wished I had known those greats who were around and working in the 20's or 30's. Russell often shared memories of his great friend Gerald Finzi. I was nostalgic, almost by nature it seemed, about a time I didn't know. It seems that Jack Moeran was the same in his day - also 50 years out of his time!

At school I was much influenced by the musical tastes of my friend Nick, who first introduced me to lesser-known Vaughan Williams, John Ireland, Herbert Howells and others. Not only that, but also by he and his parents' interest in lesser-known parts of Britain, their country exploration holidays instead of the holiday-camp-and-hotel type holidays I went on with my parents. Nick's father was a railwayman and not a mean engineer, and he built an 'O'-guage railway around their garden which we spent happy hours playing with. Additionally Nick introduced me to the pastime he'd indulged in for years already, walking old railways. In my teens, instead of doing school homework I listened to English music and pored over maps, drawing a gigantic railway map which covered my entire bedroom wall; whenever I walked along an old railway, I marked it off on the map. Maybe 1000 miles of old railway were covered over the years. I once heard a radio programme about Jack Moeran where parts of his symphony were likened to one of the fine Great Eastern steam locos pounding 'up Brentwood Bank'....indeed one of my greatest walks was the Midland and Great Northern Railway, from Yarmouth to Kings Lynn, in about six days, summer 1976....in my head as I lazed in poppy fields or on old bridge abutments in silent mid-Norfolk reverie, the slow movement from the Symphony in G minor, especially those glorious last few pages, gentle wind through East Anglian reeds, such special poignancy, such an unmistakable composer.

New Radnor
The landscape around New Radnor

One of the places Nick and his parents started visiting regularly from about 1970 was a holiday cottage at Bullock's Mill near Kington in Herefordshire, at one time a crossing-keeper's cottage on the railway from Leominster to New Radnor.

So influenced was I by their colour slides of these holidays, it became inevitable that I would visit there too. The first time was a cold, wet New Year, 1974-5. My two friends and I were 18.

We had heard about 'the Fred Jones' - a small pub also known as the Tavern or even The Railway Tavern in the years when the railway was open. On New Year's Eve we ended up there, it's tiny bar crammed with red-faced locals, unaccompanied singing of wartime ballads, folksongs.

It was a revelation, here was the living past, a place untouched by the juke-boxes and space-invaders machines which were inescapable from anywhere else at the time. Copious scotch on the house, hunks of bread, cheese and pickled onions, a sense of reverence for the two elderly ladies who owned the pub, one of whom made a speech. Someone drinks a toast. The big old yellow-faced clock reaches midnight, all of us in a confusion of crossed hands, Alde Lang Syne going on and on, laughter, kissing and hugging, then the first footing....

Ever since, the borderland of Wales has been my spiritual home, even if for long periods I was to live elsewhere. Almost without exception, groups of friends from the RCM and school - and even one I met,
surprisingly, at the SPNM in York, Peter Thompson, a composer who I discovered also to be a Jack
Moeran fan - we all went to the Tavern every New Year, and on many other occasions too. Several of these 'Fred Jones' evenings I caught on cassette tape for posterity. Though I've not been back for some years now, I gather a similar atmosphere exists today. One of the elderly ladies, Miss May E Jones (ALCM....'I wanted to take my LRAM but the first world war broke out') gave me her piano when I moved to the area in 1982. She died about 10 years ago, aged 93 I believe.

Gravel Hil
Gravel Hill, August 2000
Moeran's study is on the far left with pink shutters (in shadow)

What we Moeran devotees didn't realise until long after we had started to go there was that this very pub had been Jack's local! Here we were, sharing this timeless atmosphere, not knowing that he himself had lived at Gravel Hill, barely half a mile from where we were drinking. We discovered this just by chatting to locals one day, one of whom even remembered what he regularly drank.! Miss Jones remembered him too. We were amazed. We went excitedly round to the house - but the current owners seemed to know nothing of their great predecessor, which seemed to us to be fairly typical.

 

Suddenly there seemed to be an eerie connection with that Eynsford house party with Moeran and his friends - maybe not the same level of drunken debauchery, but an alcoholic connection certainly. On a New Year's Eve or other social night at the Tavern, we friends would stagger the two miles back to the cottage at Bullock's Mill, over the old railway bridge by the station where Jack loved to chat to the station master. Sometimes we'd end up sprawled in a hedge or a ditch.....cue tune from the Cello Concerto, last movement.

In 1977 I came to know the Violin Concerto and have adored it ever since. Its opening chords transport me straight to Ireland, where that year I spent my first holiday, staying with friends on their farm on the Sligo coast, inlaws of college friend, composer Adrian Vernon Fish. I took the exquisite BBC performance by the late Ralph Holmes on cassette, and played it over and over whilst there. It was truly one of the most special holidays. I went back again for the next three years, one time with my old friend Nick, walking some disused railways in County Cork. Unfortunately we never got to Kenmare. Always whilst in Ireland Moeran's music was never far from my first thoughts.

Kington
Kington High Street, August 2000
The Oxford Arms, right, is where Lionel Hill stayed in 1945

Then later the same year it was back to Kington again, autumn holiday and New Year of course.

 

Many years later I discovered and bought the Lionel Hill biography of Moeran, and found therein wuzzy (our word for nostalgic) photographs of Jack, one in the hills above the Radnor Valley. Probably (certainly) he'd puffed his way there on the so-called 'withered arm' branch line, the extension to New Radnor from Kington. How I wish I had known that time, been born when my father was born (1905), to have trundled along that railway with Jack, felt musical kinship, shared ideas, talked of places and people. And of course ended up at the Tavern.

I sometimes wonder if some of us are guided by the spirits of those who have gone before, to foster their memory and keep the old ways alive in this world. The internet has hidden blessings. Hopefully Jack's music and memory will benefit from this great website.

Adrian Williams
August 2000

Adrian Williams - Composer - website

©2011 The Worldwide Moeran Database

 

 

...in my head as I lazed in poppy fields or on old bridge abutments in silent mid-Norfolk reverie, the slow movement from the Symphony in G minor, especially those glorious last few pages, gentle wind through East Anglian reeds, such special poignancy, such an unmistakable composer...