Leslie Heward
by E J Moeran

Leslie Heward not only conducted the premiere performance of Moeran's Symphony in G Minor but was also responsible for the first recording of the work in 1942, a magnificent performance, and the first recording ever sponsored by the British Council. This was transferred to CD on Dutton CDAX 8001, a disc sadly out of print, though existing stocks may still be found - try here.


It was shortly after the 1918 armistice that I first heard the name of Leslie Heward. I was re-visiting the Royal College of Music after four years' absence and I asked a former fellow-student, who had lately joined the teaching staff, whom had they there among the students, if anyone at all, who showed outstanding promise. He replied: "There is a lad called Leslie Heward who is brilliant, but he never appears to do any work". I think that what was implied was that his natural ability was so phenomenal that he seemed to take anything in his stride without effort.

I am unlikely to forget my first meeting with him. This was at Bristol in the 1920s. An opera season was running there in which he was one of the conductors. Staying on a holiday in Somerset, I had gone over to Bristol to hear a performance of 'Parsifal'. In an hotel near the theatre, where I had repaired for an early dinner before the show. I ran into some friends of mine, members of the orchestra. With them was Heward, and they introduced me to him before hurrying off to take their places. He was not conducting that night. Neither did I go near the opera, but in his company I very soon forgot all about it. The Knights of the Grail must have grown old and Kundry turned a humble penitent before I suddenly realised the original object of my coming into Bristol that evening.

During the next few years I saw little of Leslie, but I remember encountering him after a performance of 'Petrushka', at which he had stopped in at a moment's notice to play the brilliant and difficult piano part. On another occasion he was dressed up to play the concertina on the stage in ''The Boatswain's Mate' . It was in 1929 that I began to know him as a composer. He was certainly versatile and seemed to bear out what had been said about him that day at the R.C.M. At that time I was living in Maida Vale, and there I had a room with two Bechstein pianos in it. I had recently executed a small commission by writing a song for the director of a leasing firm of wine merchants in the West End. An unexpected honorarium was provided for me by the arrival of two vans in Priory Road, and I found myself with a completely stocked cellar, including some of the choicest of French wines, with a liberal allowance thrown in of side-issues of various assortments. Accordingly, I set about giving a series of weekly mid-morning parties, and to these I invited composer friends to come and try out their works on the two Bechsteins. Leslie came along with some of his manuscripts, including the first sketches of his 'Nocturne' for small orchestra. It, was at these gatherings that he showed yet another side of his versatility, and that was his uncanny facility in not only reading at sight at the piano, but making to sound logical the most higgledy-piggledy manuscript full scores imaginable, and these often written out in faint pencil. His enthusiasm for unfamiliar music was matched by the quickness of his perception in getting to the root of it.

This enthusiasm was to bear fruit in later years when he became conductor of the B.B.C. Midland Orchestra. He inaugurated there the famous Friday programmes, in which he included a vast amount of out-of-the-way music, old and new, British and foreign.

Fortunate indeed was the inexperienced composer the initial performance of whose work was in Leslie's hand. His immediate grasp of the minutest details was thorough and unshakable. He was always ready beforehand with suggestions of adjustments and improvements of a practical nature which could enhance the effectiveness of the music. His care in this respect was superlative, and he would put himself to infinite trouble to ensure the best result. In my own case, he ones sat up half the night at Birmingham doctoring the score and parts we had taken home after a rehearsal at which the piece had not sounded entirely as I had hoped it would when I wrote it. Occasionally he would even make considerable re-adjustments to the script on the spot, when actually directing a rehearsal; in this he possessed a knack of explaining what was aimed at to the players concerned, with such lucidity that there could be no mistake, even after trying out the passage several times in different ways. In the matter of interpretation, Leslie's instinct was unfailingly right, even if at times it led him to adopt tempi or dynamics which were slightly at variance with the original intention when the work was composed. He had that rare gift of getting right inside a composition and re-creating it in performance in such a way that new aspects, which had only existed dimly in the composer's mind, would stand out and take their logical shape.

It is the fate of a conductor holding an appointment in this country that if he himself also happens to be a composer, he is expected to abnegate himself in the latter capacity. As regards executive artists in general, this would seem to be an admirable principle, at any rate in the case of singers, the majority of whom display in their programmes a paucity of erudition commensurate only with their musical intelligence. However, it may have been partly Leslie's habitual modesty which led him to keep himself in the background as a composer. If that were so, it is a pity that nothing further came of the sole performance which took place in London of any major work of his.

This was some ton years ago when he conducted his suite, 'Quodlibet' at a B.B.C. Sunday evening symphony concert. Those few of us who were present to hear it in the studio were unanimous in our opinion that this was music with a message of its own, of striking originality, anal carried out with consummate technical virtuosity. So far as I know, the suite has never been played in public before a London audience; an attempt to have it included in the scheme of the 1936 Norwich Festival failed. The mere fact that a man is known and accepted primarily as a conductor seems to militate against his eligibility as a composer.

Leslie Heward has left behind him among his friends the memory of the most lovable personality among English musicians of his generation. This memory will remain, and many will be this reminiscences of him that will be conjured up, so long as his old associates still find themselves meeting together. It is to be hoped that his music will not be allowed to lie permanently neglected, and that there too will be found something which will keep his memory alive for future generations.

From 'Leslie Heward A Memorial Tribute' (1897-1943). P. 37-40.


©2011 The Worldwide Moeran Database




"His enthusiasm for unfamiliar music was matched by the quickness of his perception in getting to the root of it"