The Friends of the Forster Country was founded in 1989 with the aim and objective ‘to preserve for all time the open green space in the north of Stevenage known as the Forster Country’. This open space is unusual in several respects: although fairly typical Hertfordshire farmland (and in the Green Belt) it lies within the Stevenage Borough boundary; it is of some historic interest in containing the likely site of the earliest Stevenage as well as including some of its oldest buildings; it is linked to the mediaeval High Street by the much loved and much used pedestrian footway, The Avenue.
Added to its historic character is a distinctive and important literary and cultural heritage. The Forster Country contains the house that the writer E. M. Forster made the chief ‘character’ of his famous novel Howards End. Here he lived for ten years as a boy (knowing the house as Rooks Nest) and in later years he became a good friend of Elizabeth Poston whose home it had become.
To celebrate the centenary of Elizabeth Poston’s birth the Friends of the Forster Country arranged a series of events – largely through the inspiration and plain hard work of Dr. John S. Alabaster, one of our members who had himself been acquainted with the composer. The culmination of these events, followed by a final concert, was the Conference the proceedings of which are recorded in this volume. In all these activities the assistance of the Heritage Lottery Fund was a very important ingredient.
The Conference achieved a balance between the affectionate recollections of those who had known Elizabeth Poston and those with an interest and admiration for her work, and indeed some contributors who were both. By bringing all these together, from this country and abroad, it has been possible to produce a rounded understanding of Elizabeth Poston the composer and musician, a remarkable, somewhat mysterious and inspirational person.
The richness of the material embodied in these Proceedings, thanks to the Editor’s initiative, arises from personal memories, from her abundant correspondence and from her diaries.
The Conference itself, held in Stevenage, has provided an opportunity to focus upon an aspect of our musical inheritance, which has, perhaps, been neglected. It also places firmly in the Town’s collective consciousness the importance of its musical as well as its literary heritage.
It may also remind us, in a town intent upon material development, that spiritual contentment can be nurtured by walking in the countryside and by listening to music – and that we need both countryside and composers to achieve this.
Co-Chairman of the Friends of the Forster Country
Dr. Caroline Bowes-Lyon, Governor of the North Herts. College, welcomed participants to the Conference, which was then opened by Dame Thea King, patron of the Friends of the Forster Country (FoFC). During the morning the chair was taken by Councillor Simon Speller, Mayor of Stevenage, and in the afternoon by Dr. Sylvia Watkins.
During the conference four papers were presented, opening with that from Margaret Ashby, co-chairman of the FoFC and well-known local historian, having written on the Forster Country and the Benslow Music Trust, Hitchin, as well as on Stevenage itself. She has already made a significant contribution to the centenary year’s programme of events with, inter alia, her video/DVD and book on Elizabeth Poston’s life at Rooks Nest and provision of access to Elizabeth’s Pocket diaries and other help and information relevant to the conference.
Christopher Lambton was well placed to discuss Elizabeth’s intelligence work in the BBC, having, worked there for about 15 years after graduating from Edinburgh University in 1983. After a period as a sound engineer and then as a radio producer, he concentrated on printed journalism, mainly musical. His stay at the BBC included some months at Bush House in London, where many of the wartime studios were still in use. With this experience the story of Elizabeth Poston’s war at the BBC struck an immediate chord.
Dr. Jamie Claire Bartlett, Associate Director of Choirs, Assistant Professor of Music at The College of William and Mary, Massachusetts, and also Director of Music at the Williamsburg Unitarian Universalists was able to share her unique knowledge and understanding of Elizabeth’s music, having already written numerous articles about her, including entries in standard references.
Both Jack Thomas, who gave the paper about Elizabeth as a friend, and his wife Imogen Thomas who read out some of the letters they had received from Elizabeth, were connected with Haileybury College, Hertfordshire, Jack as a Housemaster and Head of English and Drama, whilst Imogen was Librarian and looked after the boys in her husband’s House. Both have published several books and they now live in Devon where Jack has been a journalist, churchwarden and parish councillor.
The concluding item given at the conference and reprinted here (Item No. 10) is a remarkable poem that Elizabeth wrote in 1984 about her death several years before the event; this was discovered, by chance quite recently among some old Rooks Nest accounts, by her nephew, Jim Poston who read out the poem.
Included in this volume are several items additional to the formal conference presentations. The reasoning is that, since there is as yet no published full biography of Elizabeth, and her own autobiography was not completed and published, the more information about her that can be made available in a compact form for the future the better.
The paper by Ruth Brunner (Paper No. 6), now living in her native Switzerland and unable to attend the conference, describes her year spent with the Poston family, an episode that could be only touched upon briefly during the conference. And two further short notes by personal friends of Elizabeth – Eric Moore and Joan James – have also been kindly made available for inclusion in this volume (Item No. 7).
Elizabeth’s involvement in local music making, another subject again touched on only briefly during the conference, is now dealt with in more detail by the Editor (Paper No. 4).
The closing statement made by Margaret Ashby at St. Nicholas Church, Stevenage in 1997 at the Service of Thanksgiving for Elizabeth’s life and work is also felt worthy of inclusion (as Item No. 8). And, in addition, Elizabeth own words – her broadcast in 1981 on the Lord’s Prayer – are reprinted here (as Item No. 9) because, as Jim Poston remarked, ‘you can hear her voice shining through. And it’s the nearest I know of a profession of faith on her part’.
Finally, included as Appendices are: 1) a note on letters Elizabeth wrote to her friend, Canadian musician Jean Coulthard; 2) transcriptions of some 94 of Elizabeth’s unpublished letters to seven recipients that came to hand during the preparations for the conference and were mentioned only briefly during the proceedings; and 3) notes on five hitherto unpublished music compositions of hers that were kindly made available for performance at concerts arranged during the centenary year celebration by her musical executor and copyright holder, Simon Campion.
The letters reveal much of her character: her sense of humour; her warmth of feeling to family, friends and visitors and her appreciation of their kindnesses; her pithy comments on music and musicians; her fortitude in illness; and above all her strong empathy with the atmosphere of the house and its association with E. M. Forster which led her to fight for the protection of the Green Belt Forster Country from urban development and her never ending effort to maintain Rooks Nest in good repair for the nation. She was a prolific writer of letters that hopefully, one day will all be available to the public and perhaps published.
Elizabeth’s own Pocket Diaries have provided invaluable backing for much that is covered in this volume, but it is clear that their full potential in revealing other facets of her character has not been realised: her taste in literature and music (and recipes!), her love of flowers; her observation of rural life; her extensive travels; her finances; her interest in fashion, etc. There remains a need to have them fully transcribed.
Editorial comments, including cross-referencing, and the acknowledgement of sources, have been added throughout as footnotes or sometimes indicated in square brackets in the text. Authors’ references where provided appear as endnotes. Editing of the letters has been minimal – mainly italicising titles and foreign words.
As always with my writing, I am particularly grateful to my wife Beryl for her ever-willing help and advice. John S. Alabaster
Errors in this booklet, kindly pointed out by Diana Sparkes, have been corrected, together with others that have come to light, and the text and prelims added to a CD that includes the four other volumes I have produced on Elizabeth Poston, together with extracts of the Poston Papers: 1 Coulthard Letters; 2, Diaries; 3, Miscellaneous Letters, etc; and 4, Contents of Box Files. This CD is to be deposited with the Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies (HALS), County Hall, Herts.
Please note that the pagination in this version is different from the published volume.
John S. Alabaster
The CD and hard copy of the four extracts were deposited at HALS later in 2013 and arrangements were made in 2015 for her MS music to be deposited at the Music Department of the British Library.
John S. Alabaster
Opening Address to the Conference
Dame Thea King
This centenary celebration of Elizabeth Poston’s life has been made possible by the Friends of the Forster Country, inspired, as well as by the composer herself, by the memory of E. M. Forster, who lived at Rooks Nest, and later the composer Malcolm Williamson. They all enriched the cultural heritage of this Green Belt countryside, which we so ardently wish to see preserved. You will hear, and be able to meet, some of Elizabeth’s relatives, friends and professional colleagues from the musical and literary world, from both sides of the Atlantic, gathered together by the untiring and imaginative efforts of Dr. John Alabaster.
Being introduced to (and ‘swept away’ by) Elizabeth’s Tell me Gentle Shepherd and Sweet Suffolk Owl, 12 years later I actually met her. She had become involved with the BBC 3rd programme in its infancy, and I was beginning to broadcast as a clarinettist. Anthony Friese Greene was a producer with whom she worked happily on many programmes. In his spare time he was Secretary to the Hampton Music Club, and made sure that new music was programmed. He commissioned the Harp Trio from Elizabeth in 1958, engaging the famous harpist Maria Korchinska. Wilfred Smith was the flautist and harp maker – a new one for the occasion – and I was the lucky clarinettist. It is one of Elizabeth’s most beautiful and substantial works and of course was broadcast immediately. She dedicated it to Tony, as also her Blackberry Fold.
For a concert at the Stevenage Lytton Club she arranged Handel’s Sleep for clarinet and piano for us to play together. She related so well to musical colleagues, was full of fun, and an excellent pianist. Having spent time abroad as a young woman she had collected many folk songs and made arrangements of them. Her work in this field was tasteful, delicate and sensitive, never intruding on the composer’s message, but rather encouraging the listener to fall in love with it.
She will no doubt be remembered for this as much as for her original works. I am so privileged to have known and worked with her.
Wilcoxes and Postons: Fiction and Reality at Howards End
For those of us who are familiar with Rooks Nest, it is impossible to read the novel Howards End, or even to watch the film, without seeing in our mind’s eye the house of which Forster said, ‘I took it to my heart and hoped…that I should live and die there’. (1) This close association between fiction and reality concerns more than descriptions of buildings and landscape: it extends also to characters in the novel and the lives of their prototypes. Attempts to unravel the various threads, which make up the story within a story, tend only to emphasise the extent to which they are interwoven.
In 1882, the recently widowed Lily Forster was seeking a home in the country, where she could bring up her infant son, Edward Morgan Forster away from the smoke and fumes of London and from the irritating, though kindly meant, advice from her husband’s relatives. The search led her eventually to Stevenage, where ‘A small house at Rooksnest’ was advertised, ‘Beautifully situated with extensive views over some of the prettiest parts of Herts…’. (2) She decided to take it.
In 1886, more newcomers arrived in Stevenage, when Highfield House was bought by Charles Poston. His family came from Romford in Essex, where his father was a butcher. Charles himself had benefited from a good education and by the age of 25 he was a member of the Stock Exchange. He, his wife, Mary, son Charles and daughter Mary settled into Stevenage life very quickly.
From Highfield to Rooks Nest was a pleasant walk of about half a mile across wide arable fields, or a little further by road with a pony and trap. The Postons and the Forsters became friends and Morgan was fascinated by the family, so different from his own, who appeared confident and wealthy, bringing the previously unknown world of business to his attention. For a few years, the Forsters, Jowitts and Postons seemed to be living in a dream of garden parties and country houses – a vision of Englishness.
Morgan’s departure from the dream came in 1893. A quarrel with the Poyntz Stewarts having resulted in the termination of her lease on Rooks Nest, his mother decided to move to Tonbridge where Morgan could go as a dayboy to Tonbridge School. Relief at having avoided boarding school fought with sadness at leaving his beloved house and the surrounding countryside, which he thought ‘the loveliest in England’. (3) There was sorrow too at saying ‘Goodbye’ to his friends, Frank Franklin at Rooks Nest Farm, the Jowitts, the Postons, the garden boys and the maids who had enlivened his days as a lonely only child.
In a letter of sympathy and indignation at the news, Louisa
Whichelo, Morgan’s maternal grandmother wrote to her daughter,
‘It of course gave me a shock! But…it will be delightful to shake yourself free from all but Mrs. Poston and Mrs. Jowitt. Rooksnest I have always loved. Never shall we see such a sweet place…’ (4)
Although separated from them, Morgan did not forget his childhood friends, as he grew older. He spent some time in drawing a map of Rooks Nest House and garden and writing a Rooks Nest Memoir (5) about his life there. Over the years he kept in touch through letters and Christmas cards and after he went up to Kings College, Cambridge, in 1897, it was very easy to visit Stevenage by train.
In 1906, by which time Morgan had become the promising novelist, E. M. Forster, he made a visit to Stevenage, which had unexpected and far-reaching consequences. One summer’s day in that year, he walked across the fields to Highfield, intending to call on his old friends. Charles Poston’s first wife had died in 1900. In June 1904 at the age of 59 he had married a beautiful and remarkable young woman, Clementine Brockner Bewley, from a Wiltshire farming family. Their first child, Elizabeth, had been born on 24 October 1905. Morgan had not met Clementine before and he was overwhelmed, not just by her beauty but by a quality which he found hard to define and even harder to put into words but which he could not forget. The story of their meeting was later recounted to Elizabeth, who recorded it in the notes for the autobiography she intended one day to write:
‘A little before the guests’ arrival, Clementine had gone into the rose garden. She was wearing a sweeping blue gown. It was hay time and on that dazzling day of sun and scent and flowers, she paused to pick a handful of new-mown grass for my rabbits… [A young man appeared and introduced himself] “My name is Morgan Forster” ’ (6).
Morgan’s fourth novel began to take shape. In 1908 he sent three draft chapters to his publisher, Edward Arnold, with the comment, ‘It is more ambitious than the last book…Its title is Howards End’. (7) Morgan kept the vision of Clementine in his mind as he created the character of Ruth Wilcox. The Wilcox family, their surname not far from that of his mother’s former landlord, Colonel Wilkinson, their Christian names, Charles senior and junior, and their business background directly linked to the Postons, are the ‘prose’ half of the novel’s aspiration to connect ‘the poetry and the prose’. The character of Ruth Wilcox presents an extra, spiritual, dimension and a link with the past, the ‘life of tradition’. She says very little and she dies early on in the story, yet she pervades it, unforgettably: a reflection of Morgan’s brief but unforgettable meeting with Clementine, the inspiration for Ruth Wilcox.
Here the resemblance ends. Elizabeth always remembered her parents’ dinner parties, more reminiscent of the Schlegels’ than the Wilcox’s, when literature, music and art were discussed. Nor was Clementine a total role model for the reticent Ruth Wilcox. Clementine believed in travel, in the importance of languages and culture whereas Ruth ‘was not interested in the New English Art Club, nor in the dividing line between Journalism and Literature…’ She explained to Margaret Schlegel,
‘I hear a great deal of chatter at home, for we, like you, entertain a great deal. With us it is more sport and politics…’. (8)
When Howards End was published in 1910 it was widely acclaimed. Morgan himself later judged it ‘My best novel and approaching a very good novel’. (9) There is a question mark over the choice of title. Given the history of the Howard family at Rooks Nest, the local name ‘Howards’ and the evidence of Ordnance Survey maps, it would appear that Morgan made a conscious decision to call it ‘Howards End’. But he himself denied this, claiming to have been amazed when the old name of the house was pointed out to him. In his introduction to the 1975 Penguin Edition of Howards End, Oliver Stallybrass notes that the ‘intriguing fact’ that Rooks Nest was formerly called Howards, ‘apparently lay dormant in Forster’s subconscious memory and startled him considerably when brought to his attention’. (10) Then there is the matter of apostrophes – is it ‘Howard’s End’ or ‘Howards End’? A letter from Morgan to Edward Arnold explained,
‘I see that in some advertisements (e.g. in The Times) that the book is called Howard’s End. I should be grateful if this could be rectified as I want people to realise that it is about a place not a person’. (11)
In 1913, Charles Poston died and the next year in a very Forsterian turn of events, his widow, Clementine with her two children Elizabeth and Ralph, aged 9 and 6, moved into Rooks Nest House as tenants of Charles and Caroline Poyntz Stewart. After a happy childhood, during which her musical gifts were nurtured by her mother, Elizabeth became a student at the Royal Academy of Music and embarked on her life’s work as a composer and musicologist. During the Second World War she served with the BBC, becoming Director of Music for the European Service but also, unknown even to her closest family and friends, working as a secret agent. She was responsible for using gramophone records to send coded messages to Resistance workers in Nazi-occupied countries, a demanding task which had a major impact on her health.
The Second World War also brought Elizabeth and Morgan together. They met at the National Gallery, where Elizabeth was playing in one of Dame Myra Hess’s concerts. As a BBC employee, she was not supposed to perform anywhere without permission but she later described with relish how she enjoyed sneaking out and putting on her most glamorous clothes, to keep up the public spirits and her own. At the end of this particular concert Morgan rather diffidently introduced himself to Elizabeth and she invited him back to Rooks Nest. And so, after 40 years, he came face to face again with Clementine Poston, the original Ruth Wilcox. It would be interesting to know what transpired at their first meeting. Elizabeth always said that Morgan had put off returning to his old home for so long because he was uncertain of Clementine’s reaction to Howards End, but that in the event they immediately established a rapport and were friends for the rest of their lives. Morgan became a regular visitor to Rooks Nest, often pressing a bundle of notes into Elizabeth’s hand when he left, saying ‘This is for the house’. After Caroline Poyntz Stewart’s death in 1947, Elizabeth had, in 1950, been able to take out a mortgage to buy Rooks Nest but the financial commitment was a struggle for her and Morgan’s help was invaluable. In 1961 he paid off the mortgage completely.
Clementine became, in Elizabeth’s words, more beautiful as she grew older. Many people, family, friends and acquaintances have testified to her sweetness of character. Unlike Ruth Wilcox, who died young, she lived to be ninety-eight. There were other differences. Ruth ‘could hardly imagine’ her son Charles in Italy, because ‘he does see through foreigners so’. (12) Clementine, on the other hand, travelled extensively with Elizabeth in the 1930s and had arranged for a succession of young ladies from France, Germany and Russia to live at Rooks Nest when Elizabeth and Ralph were small, to help them to learn these European languages naturally, from native speakers. So the character Ruth Wilcox is not a carbon copy of Clementine Poston. But as a benign and wise presence, pervading the whole book she is an evocation of the spirit of Clementine.
Morgan had died in 1970 and Clementine’s death the following year left Elizabeth grief-stricken. Although she knew it was inevitable, she felt deeply the loss of her mother, her most constant, loving companion for so many years. Elizabeth now became absorbed in her house and in her battles to save both it and the surrounding countryside from development. Following the designation of Stevenage as Britain’s First Post-War New Town, in 1946, she had persuaded Morgan to join the protest movement, which he had done with great effect, including making the famous broadcast in which he spoke of his attachment to Rooks Nest and its countryside, ‘I have kept in touch with it, going back to it as to an abiding city and still visiting the house which was once my home…’. (13) His involvement led the Guardian newspaper to coin the name ‘Forster Country’ for the land around Rooks Nest House. (14) This was the public face of the campaign but behind the scenes Elizabeth was single-mindedly contacting everyone – from the local Stevenage Residents’ Protection Association to higher civil servants, MPs and even the Duke of Edinburgh – who might be persuaded to lend weight to the desperate fight to save the Forster Country. Her output of letters, reports and comments was phenomenal, especially as she typed most of them herself.
Cynics may think that Elizabeth fought so desperately to preserve the Forster Country for her own sake, because she had lived there and enjoyed the view. Of course there must be an element of truth in this. Few people living where she did would be pleased at the prospect of bulldozers and concrete appearing in front of them: but in her case it was far more than self-protection. She genuinely loved the house for what it represented and she believed it was her duty to protect and preserve it for future generations. She had deep sympathy for the people of Stevenage, where, in Forster’s words, ‘the life of tradition’ (15) was about to be destroyed for ever. And she realised that Rooks Nest or Howards End, with the Forster Country, were a unique part of England’s literary and cultural heritage. Those who may doubt her altruism should reflect on this: Elizabeth remained at Rooks Nest until the end of her days. Unlike many of her close friends who sold up and moved away when the New Town was built, she stayed put. Her life could have been much more comfortable if she had sold the house and moved somewhere congenial, with money to spare. Rather than do that, she chose to struggle at Rooks Nest, with barely enough to live on, coping with one repair after another. She would do nothing to compromise the integrity of the house and grounds. Rooks Nest became her whole life much as Howards End had been Ruth Wilcox’s;
‘It is monstrous, Miss Schlegel; it isn’t right. I had no idea that this was hanging over you. I do pity you from the bottom of my heart. To be parted from your house, your father’s house – it oughtn’t to be allowed. It is worse than dying…Howards End was nearly pulled down once. It would have killed me’. (16)
When Oliver Stallybrass, editor of the Abinger Edition of E. M. Forster’s novels, was working on Howards End, he came for the first time to Rooks Nest, with his wife Gunnvor. They were met by a tall graceful woman, wearing a long skirt and holding a bunch of grasses in her hand. Gunnvor was startled and said later ‘I thought she was Mrs Wilcox’.
No, Elizabeth Poston was not Ruth Wilcox. She was her daughter.
1. E.M. Forster, Marianne Thornton; A Domestic Biography, 1797-1887, London, Edward Arnold, 1956.
2. Hertfordshire Express newspaper, 17 June 1882.
3. E.M. Forster, The Challenge of Our Time in Two Cheers for Democracy, London, Edward Arnold, 1951.
4. Letter from Louisa Whichelo to Alice Clara Forster, 18 March 189, Kings College Cambridge, Forster archive.
5. E.M. Forster, Rooks Nest Memoir published as an appendix to Howards End, Penguin edition, 1941.
6. Elizabeth Poston, Unpublished autobiographical notes.
7. E.M. Forster, Letter to Edward Arnold, 1908, quoted in John Ezard, Rare letters show Forster’s shyness, Guardian newspaper, 13 March 2001.
8. E.M. Forster, Howards End, Chapter 8.
9. E.M. Forster, Commonplace Book, ed. Philip Gardner, Wildwood House, 1985.
10. Oliver Stallybrass, Introduction to Howards End, Penguin (reprinted from the Abinger Edition), 1975
11. E.M. Forster, Letter to Edward Arnold, 1908, quoted in John Ezard, Rare letters show Forster’s shyness, Guardian newspaper, 13 March 2001.
12. E.M. Forster, Howards End, Chapter 8.
13. E.M. Forster, The Challenge of Our Time. op. cit.
14. Forster Country, Guardian newspaper, 19 October 1960.
15. E.M. Forster, The Challenge of Our Time, op. cit.
16. E.M. Forster, Howards End, Chapter 10.
Elizabeth Poston, the BBC, and Secret Musical Codes
In the last ten years I have written two articles about Elizabeth Poston – the first, for the Daily Telegraph, was published in 1997, and the second, in August this year, appeared in the BBC Music Magazine. The articles tell the story of Poston’s secret wartime work with the BBC, but in both cases the truth remained elusive and the story told owes as much to my imagination as to hard evidence. Nonetheless the articles have been widely read and apparently enjoyed by colleagues and public alike. No one seems to have been troubled by the absence of evidence for my wild flights of fancy, let alone properly corroborated proof: maybe they do not expect anything better from modern journalism. The article in the Telegraph even sparked off a radio programme, broadcast earlier this year under the provocative title Tinker Tailor Composer Spy.
It is, of course, a rattling good story. If it is not true, then maybe it ought to be. During the Second World War, working under cover of the BBC’s music department, Elizabeth Poston was a secret agent responsible for sending vital messages to resistance groups across Europe. Under her aegis, the BBC’s overseas services broadcast precise pieces of music whose hidden message could only be deciphered by those in possession of a code. In the depths of Bush House, under Churchill’s direct orders, Poston worked alone. A single mistake would, at best, ruin a mission, at worst mean death to all its participants. She told no one what she did, either then or later.
Fact or fabrication? The Second World War was a time when ordinary people did extraordinary things. Most were forbidden to talk about their work – it was frowned on even to ask questions. Poston, naturally reticent, had no difficulty adhering to the terms of the Official Secrets Act. Throughout the rest of her life she said virtually nothing about her wartime career. It is only through one or two guarded comments of her own that we now realise that she was engaged in work of national importance.
There is precious little hard evidence. Poston’s personnel file at the BBC’s written archives in Caversham is no longer extant, but we know she joined the corporation on 5 November 1940 as assistant to Kenneth Wright, then Overseas Music Director. The department grew rapidly. Staff designations within it changed with bewildering rapidity. Working alongside colleagues that included Lennox Berkeley, Arthur Bliss, Edward Lockspeiser, and Hubert Clifford, Poston was promoted several times before being created European Music Supervisor (EMS) in 1943, based in Bush House.
Of secret work, there is no official mention whatsoever. I first heard of it in a 1991 interview given to the Musical Times by the late Dr. Malcolm Williamson, then Master of the Queen’s Music. Williamson succeeded Poston as the occupier of Rook’s Nest House in Stevenage, a house famous for being the childhood home of E. M. Forster and the model for Howards End. Here Dr. Williamson discovered a large pile of ancient gramophone records with handwritten labels. The recordings, he claimed, consisted of old English music that Poston had edited for sending coded messages during the war.
Another reference is found in Forster Country by fellow Stevenage resident Margaret Ashby. This fascinating local study contains several chapters devoted to Poston, among them a brief description of her wartime career: ‘she did secret service work, carrying out an idea thought to be originated by Churchill, whereby gramophone records were used to broadcast coded messages to resistance movements in Europe’. Later, Ashby told me that Poston had declared that ‘secret service work gave her a nervous breakdown’.
Anyone seeking further elucidation is apt to be disappointed. Poston mentioned her secret war work briefly in a radio interview in 1978. Her obituaries in the Daily Telegraph and The Times make reference to ‘intelligence work’ and ‘music-related coding’ while she worked for the BBC during the war, even if The Times suggested that ‘she only spoke of it in the most guarded manner’.
Simon Campion, as Poston’s musical and literary executor, came close to the answer on ‘a golden summer’s day, as she talked with rare candour about her life. We got onto the war, and she mentioned the codes, but I foolishly interrupted with a question: “How did it work?” “That’s secret”, she snapped back, the subject changed, and the moment was lost’. One of Poston’s friends from the 1950’s, Madeau Stewart, whose war-time work involved radar, maybe came closest to the truth: ‘we were all vowed to silence. We never spoke about our work, during the war, or after’.
In the radio programme Tinker Tailor Composer Spy, Ashby revealed that Poston had once demonstrated how the music code system required the gramophone needle to be placed at a precise point on the record, a skill once familiar to BBC engineers but now more commonly used by cutting-edge DJs. The records would be marked with china graph pencil, clearly indicating where the music was to begin. But of the underlying messages, Poston revealed nothing further.
Poston may prove elusive, but there is no doubt that the BBC was involved in a vast range of clandestine communications, much of it originated by the Special Operations Executive (SOE), an organisation set up by Churchill with the immortal instruction ‘And now set Europe ablaze’. In an age when wars are reported by satellite videophone, it is difficult to imagine the importance of radio during the Second World War. For ordinary people in occupied countries, listening in secret, programmes from London brought hope of a free Europe and the only reliable way of finding out what was going on. For those actively engaged in resistance, public broadcasts offered an ideal opportunity to insert a private message.
Most code systems relied on words, not music. For instance, scripts from the ‘Radio Padre’, Canon Selby Wright, always arrived late in the studio because they had to be both censored and encoded before broadcast. The BBC’s French Service evolved its own system; since writing my article for the BBC Music Magazine I happened to read a book about the SOE agent Nancy Wake, whose job was to coordinate arms drops to the Massif Central in France. Messages about forthcoming drops were sent by the BBC in frequently surreal sentences that would include key words such as ‘cow’ or ‘strawberry’. As for music, critics have frequently ridiculed the idea of music codes as too cumbersome and unreliable. But there is at least some evidence that the French, Belgians, Czechs, and Poles all used music to send messages from London.
The composer Francis Chagrin is thought to have composed a coded version of Babar the Elephant for the French language programme Les Français parlent aux Français. Chagrin, who was the programme’s musical adviser and composer from the outbreak of war, was decorated by the French government in 1948. Why? Not, I imagine, for his services to orchestration.
The Belgians had a programme called Radio des Beaux Arts, which on the surface was little more than a sequence of well-loved classical pieces. But an agent, now dead, once confided to an official at the Imperial War Museum that messages were conveyed by the choice of composer and broadcast order of the pieces. In both public and BBC archives this mysterious programme has vanished without trace.
The only wartime musical code system that we can clearly identify today was operated by the Poles, using a system invented by Czeslaw Halski, a musician in the Polish air force. ‘Jodoform’ was, in essence, very simple: the music at the end of the news bulletin carried a single message, according to a pre-arranged code, such as the time or location of an arms drop into Poland. The music was chosen to be instantly recognisable, and consisted of ‘reserved’ tunes, which carried messages, and ‘covering’ tunes, which were a decoy to confuse enemy monitoring services. Every day a different record was taken from Polish military headquarters in Buckingham Palace Road to the BBC. The courier was Lieutenant Zubrzycky, who now lives in Canberra, Australia. Interviewed for Tinker Tailor Composer Spy, he recounted how he delivered ‘marked up’ records daily to Room 6 in Bush House. He also recalled how he and the other two officers making regular deliveries were soon issued with a collective pass in the name of Peterkin – a name that may prove significant.
Jodoform worked well from 1941 onwards. The late Jan Nowak was an agent who flew into Poland as part of Operation Wildhorn on 25 July 1944, a mission to pick up a V2 rocket captured by the Polish resistance. He was delighted that the code music for his return to Poland was Chopin. Less felicitous was the music played during the Warsaw uprising in August 1944; Z Dymen Pozarow (With the Smoke of Fires) had to be broadcast repeatedly to convey the message that there would be no Allied arms drop that day. Given that this sombre anthem commemorates the failure of the Polish rising of 1831, the BBC was thought to be particularly insensitive.
The technical operation of Jodoform used gramophone records precisely as described by Poston. But where was she? The Poles have no record of her involvement. Maybe her job as European Music Supervisor (EMS) required her to ensure that Polish code music did not interfere with other broadcasts, or vice versa. The Jodoform codebook contains a list of music under the heading Nie moga bycgrane w audycjach biezacych – not be played during current broadcasts. If other countries operated a similar scheme to the Poles, then international liaison would have been crucial. We also know that the post of EMS was transferred to London to avoid political ‘gaffes’. For instance, the BBC was forbidden by the French to play anything less than the full two minutes of the Marseillaise, and there was a general policy to play music banned by the Nazis.
In a revealing comment Poston once said that she worked ‘more or less under the Foreign Office direct, because there had to be a musician there’. Here we enter the realm of courtroom fiction, where the case for the prosecution depends, somewhat improbably, on the precise words used by a witness. But Poston’s exact words (and they were spoken by her, appearing quite clearly on Margaret Ashby’s DVD) do suggest another possibility: that the job of EMS was merely a cover, which allowed Poston to provide intelligence to Whitehall from within Bush House. Why should the Foreign Office spy on the BBC? By setting up the SOE, Churchill had effectively sanctioned a huge range of clandestine activity. Much of this was undertaken with minimal British involvement (missions to Poland, for instance, were organised by the Polish Sixth Bureau). With the development of coding systems it would have been essential for Whitehall to have someone within Bush House to ensure that messages sent by foreign language services within the BBC were a bona fide part of the allied war effort. If the messages were musical (and it seems clear that there were numerous musical messages), it was obvious that a musician would be required.
Corroboration, of a sort, comes from Poston’s Pocket Diaries, which are crammed with scarcely legible pencil notes that include the names of composers, pieces, times of recording sessions, notes of European festivals and national days. Among these, during much of 1943 and 1944, is a regular entry, every other Friday, consisting simply of the word ‘Poles’, sometimes with added words. On 4 August 1944, at the climax of the Warsaw uprising, an entry reads: ‘Poles l. Pole. Radio Signal & Records’, or possibly ‘Radio Singer & Records’. If we were in a Hollywood thriller, this would be the dramatic denouement (it was certainly a key moment in the Radio 4 programme) but I will stop short of making any dramatic assertions. Suffice it to say that it is yet another piece of a jigsaw whose whole picture is unknown.
The diaries also include regular references to the Czechs, to Denmark, and a single entry for the week ending Saturday 4 November that suggests a meeting with Belgian Intelligence. She meets ‘Peterkin’ on a regular basis. She had a friend called Norman Peterkin, but if this refers to him, why is he not ‘Norman’, and why give such a particular name to the Polish couriers?
And then we have Poston’s frequent hair appointments. Surely only a conspiracy theorist could see anything suspicious in a composer paying a fortnightly visit to the hairdresser? But at least two of Poston’s friends think it very unlikely. She was good-looking, but not vain, and her hairstyle was plain. In wartime, moreover, visits to the hairdresser were something of a luxury.
Could these appointments be a cover for a regular debriefing from Whitehall? Stranger things have happened, even in wartime.
The Music of the Words Themselves
Jamie C. Bartlett
I am compelled to begin by thanking Dr. John S. Alabaster and the Friends of Forster Country for inviting me here today. I never imagined 15 years ago that by asking my husband to perform a little piece called Jesus Christ the Apple Tree, I could have got myself into so much trouble. By that I mean that I find myself in the unenviable position of attempting to give a talk to a room full of people who were personal acquaintances of Elizabeth Poston, someone I never had the privilege of meeting. But I consol myself with the notion that so much of who she was is revealed in her work, and, on that basis, I feel confident that the picture I paint can lay claim to being accurate and genuine.
In my remarks I must acknowledge that I am writing about Elizabeth Poston’s published music which I have had the good fortune to obtain and study, and as a choral conductor I have focused mainly on her choral/vocal works. This amounts to a little less than one third of her total output as catalogued by her copyright holder, Simon Campion. One might worry that by studying such a small amount of Poston’s music I simply couldn’t have enough of the whole picture, and I admit to feeling a little wary of making presumptions about her music at this point. However, because of the variety of ways in which Poston contributed to the musical scene as writer, critic, radio consultant, interviewer and composer, I feel confident in assessing certain elements of her work and style. What becomes evident above all is her passion for language and the need to present good texts with good music – my topic of discussion for this paper.
It seems best to begin by laying the groundwork with a brief overview of the music itself. Poston’s compositional style is tonal, melodic and often rhythmically driven by the text when a text is present. Unlike many of her colleagues who studied at the Royal Academy of Music (RAM) and the Royal College of Music (RCM), she did not share a predilection for 12-tone music. Although comfortable with twelve-tone techniques and atonal experiments she felt unfettered by tonality and believed there was ‘plenty of future for C major as the prerogative of him who can use it with genius’. (1)
For the sake of discourse, I have divided Poston’s published music into three groups beginning with her early works from the RAM, followed by the post-war BBC years from 1947 to 1960 and concluding with her numerous collections from 1960 to 1970.
Her early style is characterized by influences of Roger Quilter with simple beautiful melodies encased in quasi-virtuosic piano flourishes. As a capable pianist she composed out of what she knew and loved, and used the piano accompaniment as a focal point. From this period come the first seven solo songs including Sweet Suffolk Owl. While some may claim that Sweet Suffolk Owl is as overused a Poston ‘trademark’ as Jesus Christ the Apple Tree, it is still considered by many to be a quintessential example of English part song. Noted British musicologist Stephen Banfield writes in his book, Music of Britain: The Twentieth Century,
‘Most settings before Britten…must be recognized for what they are, Georgian encapsulation of nature and love idylls, often to be singled out for their ephemeral beauty…such as Elizabeth Poston’s Sweet Suffolk Owl ’. (2)
I also think it bears noting that she composed this piece when she was 17 years old and before she had any formal composition classes.
She entered the RAM in 1924 and after publishing the seven solo songs in 1925 (which includes A Little Candle to St. Anthony to be heard tonight), she composed a prize winning sonata for violin and pianoforte, then published a set of five songs in 1928 (including some others you will hear tonight – Be Still my Sweet Sweeting and In Youth is Pleasure).
Poston’s pen appears to have been silent for many years leading up to the War and beyond. John has tabulated Poston’s composition dates by decade, which shows that she composed only three pieces during the 30’s. This amounts to 1% of her total output of around 300 works. Extensive travels with her mother in the 30’s, and beginning in 1939, her significant work during the war at the BBC consumed much of her time. One can be sure, however, that her life experiences found their way into her music. Poston feelings, she told Joan Littlejohn during an interview, were so strongly involved in the Sei Canzoni, a set of six Italian Folks Songs for voice and piano springing directly from her Italian years of this time, that she had thus far declined to offer them for publication. (3)
In the late 40’s after her Wartime Service at the BBC, she began her years writing incidental music for radio productions. She was seen as eminently well qualified for the job because of her musical skills, social advantages and her literary tastes. It is worth mentioning that at this time she was not only working with some great literary texts of John Donne and Milton, but also collaborating with the likes of Dylan Thomas, C. S. Lewis and Terrence Tiller. In discussing Poston’s radio scores Littlejohn suggests that Poston used this medium rather than concerto, symphony or quartet, as her preferred vehicle for the orchestra. Poston said,
‘I love the opportunities and the techniques afforded by the medium of incidental music (calling it “my journalism”); the fact that it is word-orientated and that one is working alongside voices and can experiment continually, catching moods and setting them, getting one’s effects without longueurs’ . (4)
In short order she established herself as the most sought after composer of incidental music at the BBC and many, including Littlejohn and BBC producer Donald McWhinnie, agreed that some of her best orchestral writing is found in these forty plus scores currently held in the BBC archives.
During this time, the freedom of experimentation afforded to Poston certainly had an impact on her style. In 1995 Nicloa LeFanu (daughter of Poston contemporary Elizabeth Maconchy) wrote in a letter that while there was a surprising number of female students at both the RAM and RCM in the 20’s and 30’s, there was a backlash after the war as things were hard for women composers in the 50’s. Having chosen the BBC path, Poston had more composing than she knew what to do with at times, and she had the distinct advantage of guaranteed performances and wide dissemination. This second period of composition reflects an experienced composer focusing on text as the essential element of composition. While a good text was of basic importance, now the text itself drives the compositional process and seems to be the unifying focal point. Gone are most of the florid piano parts, and the intrinsic beauty of the text now plays an equal role with its musical setting.
After her work at the BBC, Poston turned her time between 1960 and 1970 toward producing six collections including: The Penguin Book of American Folk Song; The Penguin Book of Christmas Carols; The Mother Duck’s Book; A New Garland of English Folk Song; Songs of Times and Seasons; Songs of Places – London; and The Cambridge Hymnal. John Alabaster’s analysis indicates that 40% of Poston’s known output was composed during these fertile years in the 50’s. Particularly noteworthy are the exhaustive scholarly notes included in some of the volumes. In The Penguin Book of Christmas Carols, Poston meticulously lays out the history of the word carol and writes detailed notes about each carol included in this collection.
Much of her music, especially of this last period, is, like that of her mentor, Vaughan Williams – folk-song based or influenced. Her travels throughout England, Italy, Bohemia, the United States and Canada all had a significant impact on her compositional style. She seemed to have a chameleon like ability to absorb different styles of music or musical culture. She arranged French folk songs, Italian folk songs, America blues pieces and African American spirituals. In 1964, Alan Lomax, the premiere folk-song researcher in America at the time, invited Poston to assist him with the collection, The Penguin Book of American Folk Songs. This contains over 100 pieces including Yankee songs, Southern Mountain songs, Lullabies and Reels, Spirituals and Work Songs and Western Songs. Lomax writes of Poston’s accompaniments in his introductory words:
‘Elizabeth Poston’s piano settings seem to me models of their kind. They assist the songs without obtruding themselves. They reflect the authentic banjo, guitar, and Negro piano accompaniments she has studied; yet retain their own pianistic integrity. When the pianist has played through these accompaniments and absorbed the many ingenious devices Miss Poston has worked out, he will be prepared to go on and improvise his own settings of other songs of the same types’. (5)
And Paul Arma also writes in The Faber Book of French Folk Song of her great versatility,
‘The accompaniments (of pieces ranging from Medieval time to the 19th century) succeed in catching the regions and period flavor of the songs’. (6)
It will come as no surprise to many here that she also provided the English translations to the 57 French songs in the edition.
The collections of her last and most productive period draw upon her wealth of experience with folksongs and carols, as well as her dedication to folksong scholarship as a means for validating it and redefining it in its choral context. John Rutter said of her in an interview with Andrew Green:
‘In the 1960s, I think what people such as David Wilcox and myself were doing when we took folk material such as old Christmas Carols, was reinterpreting it in terms of our own day and of the styles that were popular. I think Elizabeth stood against that because she said, “No, this would be compromising the integrity of the original material” ’.
One of Poston’s greatest strengths with regard to folk song setting was her concern for the provenance of the text and the melody.
In Change but Not Decay, a paper given at the invitation of the Hymn Society of Great Britain, Poston explained her reasoning behind the need for the Cambridge Hymnal. She wrote,
‘Few hymns in the present collections bear study as poetry, and so the first task has been to choose hymns which a self-respecting English teacher could study with his class. The concern is to restore to the devotional song meaningfulness. The fact is that many hymns are second rate verse’. (8)
In 1974, when asked to give a talk about the Lord’s Prayer for the BBC she stated unequivocally that in the matter of versions she came down on the side of the Book of Common Prayer, 1662:
‘And this, from no purely religious predilection [but because] having spent most of my life trying to conserve a stretch of English countryside, I feel the same about our priceless heritage of language […] flexible, alive, subject to change where change is needful, language, one knows, must be. But what I cannot understand is why it should be thought necessary to seek to change language where it is basic, expressive, colourful, moving and vital […] Take away the balance, destroy the cadence and what are we left with? A ghost, a shadow, something that has lost its impact. We need, as a composer needs, the music of the words themselves.[…] Without the great word, we shouldn’t have the great settings of them’. (9)
She continues to put in a plea that the would-be-alterers (those who decide that ‘old’ language must be changed) should have, as well as immense scholarship, the perception of the poet, the sensibility of the artist, the rhythm of the musician, and the great genius for the ordering of expression of the great actor’ .
When asked of her greatest influences, Poston’s rather surprising answer was threefold: nursery rhymes (for their intensity of rhythm); plainsong; and the early contrapuntalists (with no one composer mentioned in particular). (10) Given Poston’s special relationship to folksong, I am inclined to add this to the list as well. Her published work alone corroborates and speaks to these various influences on her approach to composition. It is especially interesting to note the transformation of the importance of the written word from quiet foundation in her early writing, to equal partner in the middle years, to that-which-should-not-be-compromised in her later compositions. Poston most certainly had a love of language and whether as scholar, critic, interviewer or composer, she was committed to preserving that which was beautiful and right.
1. Joan Littlejohn, Elizabeth Poston – 2, Composer 57 (Spring 1976): 27.
2. Stephen Banfield, Music in Britain: The Twentieth Century London, 1995), 466.
3. Joan Littlejohn, Composer, 29.
4. Joan Littlejohn, Composer, 27.
5. Alan Lomax, The Penguin Book of American Folk Songs, (Baltimore, 1964).
6. Paul Arma, The Gambit Book of French Folk Song, Trans. and arr. by Elizabeth Poston, (Boston, 1972). The book was published in America by Gambit.
7. Harvest at Howards End on Radio 4, 29 Dec c.1987. Interview by Andrew Green.
8. Elizabeth Poston, Change but not decay. The Choir 55 (1964): 226-7.
9. The Great Prayer by Elizabeth Poston. BBC Radio Three, 4 April 1981.[Reproduced in full in Section 9 of this volume]
10. Joan Littlejohn, Composer, 31.
Elizabeth Poston’s Local Cultural Connections
John S. Alabaster
From the mid-1930’s Elizabeth Poston’s wide cultural interests had been largely focussed on music at the BBC – in London, Bristol and Bedford – although in 1942 she was also involved, briefly, nearer home in rehearsing, recording and broadcasting music by the Luton Girl’s Choir and later the Luton Band. That same year, significantly, the name, A. J. Boorman of Stevenage first appeared in her Pocket Diary for, later, in 1950 the Stevenage Musical Society was re-founded from the Stevenage Choral Society and the Stevenage Evening Institute class, he in the role of conductor and she as president. This probably marks her wider focus on local cultural affairs, particularly music making, including playing the organ at her local St. Nicholas Church where, incidentally, she is recalled (by Charles Vane) on one occasion as wearing gumboots and a red scarf with white spots!
By the 1950’s, as illustrated above (by the distributions of her easily dated known works), Elizabeth had become firmly established as a composer and musicologist, her creative output at its zenith.
During a relatively brief lull in productivity during the 1930’s, coinciding with her travels abroad with her mother, after the death of her friend, Peter Warlock, she was still busy collecting much of the folk music that later infused her own works.
Her local involvement in music was strongest in Stevenage but extended elsewhere, particularly to neighbouring Hitchin, Ashwell and Letchworth, as is abundantly clear from a breakdown (below) of the entries in her Pocket Diaries that cover the years 1950 to 1983 (excluding 1981).
All her life Elizabeth strongly supported the Stevenage Musical Society, contributing to meetings, supplying music, attending concerts and social events, encouraging young amateur players, making donations, lecturing on her friends Gerard Hoffnung and Peter Warlock (as she did for other local organisations and the BBC), and occasionally holding a party for members at her home at Rooks Nest. She helped arrange concerts for up and coming professionals at St. Nicholas Church and elsewhere, acted as accompanist and also performed as soloist, for example, for Walter Leigh’s Concertino for Piano & Strings .
One of the works she supplied, The Nativity, a sequence for Christmas for chorus and orchestra, that had been first broadcast on the BBC Third Programme in December 1950, was performed the following year at Barclay School, Stevenage, and again later at St. Martin’s Church, Knebworth as well as elsewhere, including the Church of St. Andrew and St. George, Stevenage, the venue for most of the recent centenary celebration concerts.
At this church in December 1980 there was also a memorable performance by the Society of her lovely work, Welcome Child of Mary, much helped by Elizabeth’s enthusiasm at rehearsals.
Elizabeth was, however, very much drawn to small-scale works, both for her own compositions and for the amateur repertoire, and gave strong support to the smaller groups like the String Orchestra, the Orchard Singers with their madrigals, and the Granby Players with their chamber music. She took some convincing that the inclusion of ‘Symphony’ in the title of the Society’s orchestra, as advocated in 1965 by the newly appointed Director of Music, Peter Wigfield, was the right development. In the event it was.
Elizabeth, though not a teacher herself, took a strong interest in local schools. Commissioned by Alleynes Grammar School on the occasion in 1958 of its 400th anniversary, she dedicated her hymn with descant and festal postlude, How Lovely are Thy Dwellings Fair to the school and to Francis Cammaerts the headmaster who became a lasting friend. She wrote Prelude on Tallis’ Ninth Tune in two versions for organ, and the anthem, Happy are Thy Men, that was first performed at the school’s Festival and was played again at St. Nicholas Church in March 1989 at the Thanksgiving Service for Dr. Arthur Splett; he was one of the school’s much loved masters who was devoted to school music. Over later years she took part in Open Evenings, Prize Givings and Speech Days (with part songs included). She also attended a number of the school’s Shakespeare productions, for literature was important to Elizabeth – her Pocket Diaries are replete with book lists and quotations of poetry. She also supported drama in other local schools e.g. Haileybury and Ward Freman School, and she believed strongly in the essential linkage between literature and music, hence her emphasis on choral, and particularly, vocal music. It is a shame, therefore, that her Hymn for St. Nicholas set to an original poem of hers remained an incomplete sketch.
During the 60’s and 70’s Elizabeth frequently attended local Listening Groups and the Stevenage Recorded Music Society, an interest shared by local amateur musician, Paul Petrocokino. He and his wife Madeleine met Elizabeth fairly frequently at his house in Astonbury, near Stevenage or at hers at Rooks Nest, and it is fitting that in September 1979 he should have composed and dedicated to Elizabeth a short Prelude in D flat for piano in a simple Baroque style.
Associations with Hitchin
Elizabeth’s Pocket Diary entry for 11 July 1953 marks the 24th Annual Founder’s Day of the Hertfordshire Rural School for Music and the beginning of her sustained interest, not only in the Founder’s Day concerts but in the school itself, soon becoming one of the governing council and joining the Friends of the Hertfordshire Rural Music School. She was also a member of the council of the Rural Music Schools Association (RMSA) that had been formed to cover similar county rural music schools all over the country. Their initial aim, to train music teachers in rural areas, later extended to towns and to experimental courses for teachers and amateurs and the investigation of new teaching ideas.
It was not until the latter years that ill health prevented her regular attendance at the various committees. In fact, an attack of meningitis probably contributed to her absence from the crucial RMSA meeting in 1978 after which Council members resigned when their proposal to sell the property (Little Benslow Hills, Hitchin) that had been left to the Association on trust by Esther Margaret Seebolm was vigorously attacked. There is little doubt that she was against the sale; she did not resign and she remained in close contact with the Seebolm family at nearby Chesfield and with those who had wanted to prevent it.
Amidst all this committee work, Elizabeth still found time from 1965 to at least 1971 to relax several time a year with the Hitchin Afternoon Tea Townswomen’s Guild – as Vice-President.
The Letchworth Attraction
What particularly engaged Elizabeth’s interest in Letchworth, apart from giving the occasional lecture (as to the Letchworth Women’s Luncheon Club) were the chamber music concerts of the Music Club at Howgills. One notices her attendances at a lecture on the harp and at harp recitals by Susan Drake on at least three occasions, a reflection of her love of an instrument that is included in about one third of her compositions, a number of which were made with the harpist, David Watkins in mind.
The Ashwell Festival
Several local commissions, first performances and dedications centre on Ashwell when John Catterick was the Rector at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin.
The Ashwell Festival had been established in the early 50’s with the object of encouraging young composers and musicians, and of performing their works, and Elizabeth soon became a Patron (as was her mentor Vaughan Williams). At the 4th Ashwell Festival on 25 August 1957 Elizabeth’s anthem Antiphon and Laudate that had been commissioned two years earlier for St. Cecilia’s Festival at the Church of the Sepulchre, London in 1955 and chosen for the opening service for the Edinburgh Festival, was included in the broadcast evensong from the church.
For later Festivals, she was actually commissioned by Ashwell. In 1959 she made an arrangement of Archidiaconal Blues, with a text from the Venerable Bede (she loved ancient texts); and in 1961, she composed Superest Plebs Pessima (A Chastened People Survives), a sequence for voice and music, with words by David Holbrook and dedicated to the memory of local benefactor, Phyllis Fordham of Ashwell Bury. The sequence articulates concern about the destructive effect of man on his environment and community life, taking Ashwell’s history as an example, a theme that was ever in Elizabeth’s mind since the urban spread of Stevenage New Town had destroyed her birthplace and still threatened the Forster Green Belt Country. The sequence was repeated in 1968.
The 1966 Festival included Sei Canzoni, the first six of seven vocal settings of Italian folk songs performed by Margaret Cable. They had been broadcast in Spanish in 1945, on the BBC Third Programme 1952 and repeated in 1978 with Elizabeth accompanying. Elizabeth said that they were embarked upon because she felt that the Italian folk songs were less well known than those of Spain, and she wanted to do for them what Maurice Ravel had done for the Greeks, and Manuel de Falla for the Spanish – ‘not to set the songs as they are sung unadorned, but to catch in the setting something of their atmosphere and background’. In this respect her work is reminiscent of Schubert’s songs.
Elizabeth had a warm friendship with the Catterick family and dedicated to John and the Ashwell Festival Choir her Jubilate Deo, a Festal Offertory Psalm for alto solo and choir. In 1965 she wrote The Ashwell Carol a setting of his lines to a Russian folk melody and Judith Catterick sang it at the conclusion of the Christmas broadcast from Ashwell in 1975.
Among her unpublished MSS is another small link with Ashwell – Ashwell Round, a pencilled score of just two pages, composed 31 June 1955 – a sketch perhaps.
Other local musical links
Elizabeth had great sympathy for the young and the less gifted amateur and wrote Hertfordshire Child’s Tune for piano duet. A more advanced piece, Trois Chansons Pour Suzanne was arranged for her close friend, the soprano, Suzanne Rose and was first performed at the Church of St. Paul’s Walden, Hertfordshire in December 1974.
Nor were the talented Hertfordshire Singers neglected by Elizabeth. In 1957 she dedicated a set of five Songs for Birds to them and to Evelyn Webb. They were: Little Trotty Wagtail; Spring, the Sweet Spring; the burlesqued Hens; Sweet Suffolk Owl, perhaps the most famous, subsequently published by Boosey & Hawkes; and The Doves, an incomplete sketch, the verse of which was probably of her own authorship. The doggerel of Hens is clearly Elizabeth’s because much of it occurs on a MS scrap, with various alterations.
The Hertfordshire County Youth Choir under the baton of John Railton also drew her attention and she dedicated to them and to Paul and Edmée Arma Three French Folk Songs that were first performed at Besancon, France, during a concert tour of Franche-Counté in August 1972.
A little further afield, the Harlow Youth Orchestra commissioned the Harlow Concertante for string quartet and string orchestra to mark the 21st anniversary of Harlow New Town. It was first performed under John Fitzpatrick, with the Alberni String Quartet on 11 October 1969 and, following the provision of performance copies from Simon Campion for the centenary celebration concerts, performed by the Stevenage Symphony Orchestra in October 2005. Much appreciated by audiences and particularly by string players, it received its London premier by the Hertfordshire Chamber Orchestra in April 2006 and will be performed by the English Sinfonia in Stevenage in November.
Elizabeth was, of course, deeply attached to Rooks Nest and anxious to preserve it for posterity and, being such a close friend of E. M. Forster, it is no surprise that in 1970 she wrote the film score of the BBC production of Forster’s Howards End.
Elizabeth ever remembered her roots in Stevenage and its environs and played a significant part in the cultural life of the community, not only as an accomplished musician, but also above all as a friend to so many. We have every reason to remember her and to be proud of the role she played in enriching our local cultural heritage.
Elizabeth Poston as a Friend
Let me start with the voice. It was that which I heard first in an exhibition at Stevenage. The moment my wife and I heard it, we knew we were in the presence of someone very special. How appropriate that a musician of such stature should possess such a musical instrument as her voice. Edwardian in quality, richly vibrant, exquisitely phrased and modulated, she spoke the English Language as though it were one of Beethoven’s late quartets.
But to begin at the beginning. I was a Housemaster and teacher of A-Level English at Haileybury, not so far from Stevenage. I had the pleasure of teaching two of Forster’s books – A Passage to India and Howards End. I remember taking one of my students to King’s [College Chapel] for Evensong and as we entered the College, there in the left-hand corner was a very elderly and frail Morgan Forster being helped into staircase A. Big thrill for the student.
When Forster died in 1970, an exhibition was mounted in Stevenage Library entitled Forster’s Stevenage. Imogen and I went across to it and found it fascinating. As we were looking at a photograph, we heard that voice expatiating on Forster and the exhibition. So we met and became instant friends. Later that year I wrote to her and asked if I might visit Rooks Nest and also borrow the exhibition to mount in the Library at Haileybury. She agreed to both requests. We went over to Rooks Nest and were given a Grand Tour – the full works – and tea. Everything was there (except the teeth in the wych-elm). The spirit of Forster was omnipresent. The whole house and garden, including the two delightful donkeys, personified and exemplified Edwardian England at its best. The donkeys incidentally had just been very successful at the Christmas Horse Show at Olympia.
So our friendship with Elizabeth flourished. According to young Morgan Forster the house was:
‘very old. Some said 500 years and some 200, and I should not be surprised if the former statement was right. Too big for the garden, it is a small house to contain all the events in Howards End.’
But one can still see today why Helen Schlegel calls it ‘altogether delightful.’ And the view remains, in no small way due to Elizabeth Poston’s crusade to preserve the Forster Country. It did not take us long to realise how passionate and protective Elizabeth was of everything to do with Rooks Nest and E. M. Forster. We exchanged letters after our first successful visit. Here is what she wrote in September 1979:
Dear Mr. Thomas, Mr Thomas,
How very good of you to write – I so much appreciated your letter.
Seeing you here was a happy day for me. The house knows its own, or so I am persuaded, for it has never made a mistake (the only exception I can think of is the Liberal lady candidate with a Holy Ghost hat, who called and said her ladies’ committee would like to hold their monthly meetings here as it would give atmosphere. But that was politics, and so doesn’t really count).
P.S. Type no sign of formality – it saves my right hand!
In December 1979 we invited Elizabeth to our end-of-term Christmas carol service in Haileybury Chapel. One of the carols was her Jesus Christ The Apple Tree which all agreed was the best carol and which the choir sang beautifully. Elizabeth sat in the chancel and went to sleep rather prominently throughout some of the service! But she accounted the visit a success; so did we.
In 1981 my sixth form were studying Howards End and I thought it would be appropriate and splendid if we could give a little performance of a dramatised version of the novel at Rooks Nest itself, somewhere in the garden.
Elizabeth was enthusiastic about the whole project. The deal was this: we would arrive in the morning (7 boys, 7 girls, Imogen and me) and do two hours’ heavy gardening under Elizabeth’s direction as a sort of thank you for having us. So we fell upon that garden, especially the kitchen garden, and weeded with ferocity and some expertise for two hours. Then we had a picnic lunch provided by Imogen to which of course we invited Elizabeth. All very jolly. After lunch, it started to rain and we simply could not possibly perform our play out of doors. We had given it the dedication:
This production of Howards End
Is presented at Rooks Nest on Sunday
3rd May, 1981
by kind permission of
To whom we affectionately dedicate
and undaunted we did it in the Hall of Rooks Nest, the very place where poor Leonard Bast says, ‘Mrs Wilcox, I have done wrong’, where Charles wields a sword and where the bookcase falls on poor Leonard, killing him. You remember the scene.
They laid Leonard, who was dead, on the gravel; Helen poured water over him.
‘That’s enough,’ said Charles.
‘Yes, murder’s enough,’ said Miss Avery, coming out of the house with sword.
We had brought with us costumes and changed in the study on the right hand side. We had an ‘audience’ of about 10 people who had come over from Haileybury for this World Première. We cut the book down to about one hour, retaining most of the dialogue and using two linking narrators. I played Mr. Wilcox in a world of ‘Telegrams and Anger.’ I think it was a success (Elizabeth, it goes without saying, went to sleep). At any rate we were tremendously thrilled to be performing in such an ambience.
Her bread-and-butter letter of thanks afterwards in that oh-so-elegant handwriting of hers (reproduced overleaf) was typically, unstintingly gracious and witty. Simon Watson, former Headmaster of Hurstpierpoint who was in the audience, wrote,
‘It was hard to reconcile the pylons lolloping the Hertfordshire countryside with ‘such a crop of hay as never’ but Howards End was well at home at Rooks Nest during that memorable Jack Thomas production in 1981.’
We had another splendid letter [overleaf] from Elizabeth in late May 1981. It must have been in reply to one I sent to her. You will note her propensity for alluding to a famous quotation without insulting the reader by actually quoting it.
I haven’t tried to write to you all the week since your letter and exquisite moonlight flower arrived on my doorstep – one of those weeks when everything is impossible but the concentration, as well as one may, upon getting through a jigsaw of barely-fitting components. I do feel it’s a little much when people fix Extraordinary General Meetings on Sunday afternoon and AGMs on Saturday evenings (particularly if/when one happens to be there in presidential capacity and has to sit up and be seen to be suitably alert, instead of getting away with dozing off in the less noticeable twilight of the back row!)
Now all is peace again, punctuated only by the cuckoo, and emotion not only recollected but experienced. For that day, your day, was a special one and has left something of itself behind. Yes – a sunset-touch. Perhaps that is part of the house’s mysterious secret, fragile and yet so strong, a spell that is a sense and seems also to impart one… too mysterious for description. Yet one can’t attribute it only to Forster, as he was conscious of it when he first trotted in at the age of four… to left, to right, straight on, and then up and down again. All those 300 years odd of Howards perhaps, living and dying and going on again? But no, more. It defies analysis. Feeling is enough.
You all left me with an uncannily vivid afterglow. For a few brief hours the place was filled with youth and impulse under the happy hosting of you both. And then suddenly, all went waving away and I was left with silence and splendidly-laid gravel and a bottle of wine to prove it had all really happened… above all, the moving memory of you and them, enacting such depths inside the walls. He – EMF – would be glad – glad his message had such torch-bearers, and that we were all, in those memorable moments, Connecting. I hope some of that joyful band will come back, some day, some time. I may not be here, but it will, and all that you and they have helped and all it means, will go on. It must.
Above all, there is the arch-memory of yourself as Henry W[ilcox], with whom there is a special Connection. I am afraid, to me, you will always have taken on something of his image. I hope you don’t dislike the thought?
To him, as Onlie Begetter, belong my thanks & the essence of something that has surely passed into these walls and will remain. Much love, Elizabeth
[…] The gravel was impeccably laid, all the right stones in the right places, & all ready to impress a visitation of county antiquarians, to which Polly [her dog] and I and the donkeys do our best to respond in character!
You will have gathered from that letter that during our visit we attacked a pile of gravel that had been delivered outside the front door and which we laid out neatly ready to receive Leonard Bast’s body or any other available corpse should it be needed!
Rooks Nest House (copyright Margaret Ashby)
Another person at this time who met Elizabeth was Gilly Cook, a Haileybury parent, who lives in Exeter. She remembers:
‘I was writing my M.A. thesis on E. M. Forster at Exeter University when Elizabeth Poston very kindly invited me to visit Rooks Nest. It was a delightful afternoon. Over tea, she pointed out the bookcase, which was imaginatively responsible for the death of poor Leonard Bast in Howards End. Far from seeming bored with yet another awe-struck visitor to Forster’s erstwhile home, she sat smiling patiently in her sweet unhurried manner. She clearly relished and shared my enthusiasm and told me how her mother was the model for Mrs Wilcox. When I wrote to thank her after my visit, I sent her some Devonshire cream, which in turn she duly acknowledged and in the same letter enclosed a copy of a beautiful carol she had composed. It was a wonderful encounter with an exceptionally charming person who gave unstintingly of her time.’
Our friendship blossomed with more visits and then in 1985 an astonishing thing happened to me. I had gone over to Rooks Nest and was having tea with Elizabeth in the drawing room. She suddenly said to me, ‘I want you to have Rooks Nest when I die.’ This was a bombshell and very difficult to assimilate in a short period. I myself was due to retire in 1988 and had no house to go to. I could live anywhere I chose and could afford. The idea of being given a free house was of course attractive and enormously generous. To be given Forster’s house was a tremendous and unexpected honour. But there were snags. It was clear that Elizabeth wanted the house kept exactly as it was and as Forster would have remembered it. Neither my wife nor I much fancied living in a museum. Where would we put our furniture and books? Then there were the Japanese. Despite the rural obscurity of Rooks Nest and the difficulty of finding it, that presented no problem to the Japanese literati and tourists who poured in regularly and expected a guided tour. We would not have enjoyed that.
However, I discussed the whole project with my Head-master, David Summerscale (later Headmaster of Westminster), and we went over to Rooks Nest, had tea with Elizabeth, and a guided tour of the house. David was very enthusiastic that I should retire and take over Rooks Nest as a sort of Sixth Form Centre where the sixth formers could come every weekend to recuperate from the rigours of academia and imbibe the rarefied and cultured air of the Forster countryside. The more we thought about it, the less keen Imogen and I were on the whole idea.
Then there was the concert in honour of Elizabeth’s 80th birthday in 1985.
It was a lovely evening, full of gorgeous music; Elizabeth was gracious and very beautiful. That was the last we saw of her. She went into hospital. She wrote me a letter saying it had all gone wrong and that relatives, quite reasonably, wanted the house. Secretly we were much relieved.
So that was it. I have the fondest memories of Elizabeth, of her music and her gracious old world manners. Of course she deserves to be remembered, not only for her music, but also for her ground-breaking work on the Third Programme.
Elizabeth Poston maintained throughout her long and distinguished life astonishing loyalty to Forster. In a very curious and spooky way, my relationship with Elizabeth was foreshadowed by E. M. Forster on the last page of Howards End. You remember that in the book all the guests have left and Margaret turns to her husband and asks:
Could you tell me, Henry, what was that about Mrs. Wilcox having left me Howards End’? Tranquilly Henry Wilcox replied: ‘Yes, she did. But that is a very old story. When she was ill and you were so kind to her she wanted to make you some return, and, not being herself at the time, scribbled “Howards End” on a piece of paper. I went into it thoroughly, and, as it was clearly fanciful, I set it aside, little knowing what my Margaret would be to me in the future.’ Margaret was silent. Something shook her life in its inmost recesses, and she shivered.
‘I didn’t do wrong, did I?’ he asked, bending down.
‘You didn’t, darling. Nothing has been done wrong.’
From the garden came laughter. ‘Here they are at last!’ exclaimed Henry, disengaging himself with a smile. Helen rushed into the gloom, holding Tom by one hand and carrying her baby on the other. There were shouts of infectious joy.
‘The field’s cut!’ Helen cried excitedly – ‘The big meadow! We’ve seen to the very end, and it’ll be such a crop of hay as never!’
How strange that life should imitate art in the way that it has. And I do hope that these golden memories of Elizabeth Poston will produce ‘such a crop of hay as never!’
A Memorable Stay at Rooks Nest House
In 1962 at the age of 23 I decided to go to England for a year to learn English. At that time colleges where foreign students could take language courses for some weeks or months were not as abundant as they are today, and it was normal for girls to go as an au-pair. Therefore I contacted an Agency called ‘Freundinnen Junger Mädchen’ (literally, female friends of young girls) which placed girls in selected families in England (or elsewhere), usually families with children. I soon had an answer from the agency asking if I would be interested to go to an old lady and her daughter, a distinguished musician. As a dedicated violin-player, I thought it might be more interesting with the two ladies than with a family with two or three small children. So I said I would, and then I got into direct contact with Miss Poston. She told me in a letter to bring the violin along as there would be an orchestra in Stevenage of which she was the President.
On May 15th 1962 she was waiting for me at London Airport, Heathrow, which then was a much smaller place than it is today. I remember that on the way to Stevenage we passed a place [Ayot St. Lawrence, Herts.], which, she told me was once the home of G. B. Shaw, but now I couldn’t tell where it was. I am Swiss from the German speaking part of Switzerland and I had only had English at school for a year, and that was some years back, so I could actually speak no English at all. Fortunately, Miss Poston used to have German nannies when she was a child from whom she had learnt German, which after all those years she still spoke quite nicely. She also had two or three German au-pair girls before me, with whom I suppose she was brushing it up. Even Mrs. Poston [Elizabeth’s mother] knew a bit of German so that I wasn’t quite lost at the beginning.
I had to do more or less all the housework, except for the washing, but it included cooking. Up until then I had lived at home with my mother, and she was a very good cook, and I had never bothered about cooking myself. So there I was. Mrs. Poston fixed up the menus and gave me some instructions, as far as she knew them herself. I was learning by doing, looking for recipes wherever I could, mainly asking my mother to send me some. After all, my cooking was improving more quickly than my English, and after a relatively short time I was managing the kitchen all by myself. Miss Poston was quite good at cooking, and sometimes when she could spare some time, and mainly when guests were expected, we did together what she used to call a ‘cordon-bleu’ menu.
My day started with doing breakfast and bringing it up to Mrs. Poston, and usually to Miss Poston as well, unless she had to get up early because she had to go to London. Then I did some cleaning, mainly moving the Hoover about, and dusting, not forgetting to fill the AGA and taking out Pinkie, the Scotch terrier for a walk. Miss Poston usually had Bovril for elevenses, and dinner was at one. After having done the kitchen I was free until teatime. Mrs. Poston had her afternoon nap while Miss Poston was working in her study. After tea I had to read to Mrs. P. in her room. As I said, my English at the beginning was more or less non-existent. Although I went to English classes at the Stevenage College of Further Education on Wednesday afternoons, at first the improvements were rather slow and my pronunciation awful. So I started with reading children’s books and Fairy Tales. Gradually as my English improved, the stories became more and more sophisticated, and I ended up with novels, e.g. by Jane Austin. Mrs. P. was always very patient and corrected my pronunciation and gave explanations when I didn’t understand words or even sentences. It must have been rather a strain for her; she was then about 92 (I can’t remember exactly) and she often got tired and fell asleep, but for me it was an excellent training. After reading to her, it was usually time for doing supper, and after that I was free.
After I had been at Rooks Nest for a fortnight, I joined the Stevenage Musical Society’s Orchestra. As far as I remember the rehearsals also took place at the College [of Further Education] in the New Town. This is rather a long way from Rooks Nest House and it would have taken half an hour or more to walk there. Fortunately there was an old bicycle from the 1920’s or 30’s that I suppose went from one au-pair girl to the next. The bike hadn’t any gears at all which otherwise would have been helpful for the way up from the town to Rooks Nest, but still it was OK. So far, the only persons I had been meeting, except the Postons, were an old gentleman from Walkern [near Stevenage], who brought eggs, and old Mr. Carter and a boy called Roger who used to come on Sunday mornings to do the kitchen garden and the lawn. Therefore, I was eager to meet more people, and the orchestra was an excellent opportunity; I soon felt at home with them and still stay in contact with Joan James, the only connection I have with Stevenage since Miss Poston’s death. I think it was in the autumn when E. P. had the idea to invite the orchestra to a fondue party. As this is a Swiss speciality, it was not easy to get the right cheese, and as far as I remember she found it in Hitchin. Anyhow, the party took place, and I think was quite a success. Sometime in the winter, Miss Poston gave a talk on Gerard Hoffnung on behalf of the Stevenage Musical Society. Some years earlier the Hoffnung Festival had taken place in London, which must have been great fun; she had been taking part in it as an organist.
During the summer and autumn we had lots of visitors, some staying for a few days, usually friends of Miss Poston’s; some were invited for lunch, just as a social meeting, and others came to work with her. A regular visitor, of course, was her brother, Ralph Poston, then a clergyman in Wiltshire. He had four children, and one of his sons was at a public school in Cambridge. He himself had been at King’s College where he studied French and German, I think, and his German was still excellent. Before he became a clergyman he used to be a diplomat at the Foreign Office, and he used to tell me stories of the time he spent in Palestine as secretary of the Governor, and what he did during and after the war. I always liked to listen to him. I think Mrs. Poston loved having him around her, and I always had to buy ‘China Tea’ when he was coming. The war was always a great theme with Mrs. and Miss Poston too, some of the stories quite funny, but others more serious. For me it was amazing that there could be funny stories at all connected with war.
Among other visitors I remember Sir Adrian Beecham and his wife. I remember him especially because he seemed to be a rather shy person getting almost confused when spoken to, unless it was about music. But his wife was a very sociable lady. With them there was also a poet, who had been working with Miss Poston on a Hymn Book (Cambridge University Press), and his wife. I think his name was David Holbrook.
Another visitor I remember well was E. M. Forster; he lived at King’s College, Cambridge and came for dinner one day towards autumn, Miss Poston collecting him at the station, which was then still in the old town. He was an old friend of the two ladies, and I think not much younger than old Mrs. Poston. After dinner she went up to her room, which she didn’t necessarily do when we were having guests, but he was tired as well, and therefore was having a nap on the drawing-room sofa, and after tea went back to Cambridge. I remember him as a kind old gentleman and quite amusing.
When the stream of visitors was at its height, sometime in the summer, Mrs. Poston said to me, ‘Don’t be afraid, it won’t be going on like that, we’ll shut the door in the winter.’ And so it was. Winter was a very peaceful time, and Christmas especially. Miss Poston and I went to a Holy Night Mass at Ashwell where they had a good choir and the parson was a friend of the Postons. After Christmas, in early 1963, the weather got very wintry. For some time it was snowing and I remember a snow-plough coming up Walkern Road that was looking like a steam-engine, probably from the time of Queen Victoria, putting away just enough snow to get a path of about a yard’s width. Being from Switzerland and used to snow and ploughs, it was a rather funny sight for me. Then it got very cold. The pipes in and outside the house got frozen and the water main in the old town was affected for several weeks. We had to get out whatever stoves there were about, running on oil or electricity, and often there was a fire in the big fireplace in the hall. Everybody was glad when it was all over and the daffodils were in bloom again.
Miss Poston was working really hard to get a living out of her work. Looking back, I realize that she must have been working on several songbooks at different stages. I often woke up late at night hearing her play the piano, trying out different harmonies. She was then working on The Penguin Book of Christmas Carols, first published in 1965 and also I believe on Baby’s Song Book (Two volumes: Bye Baby Bunting and Girls and Boys come out to Play, The Bodley Head, 1971). On the inside of the cover of these volumes are sketches of two pairs of hands on a piano keyboard, one a grown up’s and the other a child’s laid on top. Mrs. Poston told me that that was the way her daughter, at a very early age, wanted to play the piano.
A year or two before I came she had been working with Alan Lomax on The Penguin Book of American Folk Songs for which she made the piano arrangements (published, 1964). Most, or probably all, other work not concerned with books was done, I believe, for the BBC. I wonder if there exists a Werkverzeichnis. Often she was rushing home from wherever she was because she had a programme to do, which meant she had to listen to a broadcast of some singer on the BBC Third Programme to make a review.
Besides her work, she worked in the garden quite a lot, mainly looking after the flowers. And last, but not least, she was fighting for the countryside round about Rooks Nest and Stevenage. At that time, I think the Avenue from the old town up to St. Nicholas Church was in danger of being torn down, and she and her companions in the fight to protect it were successful. But when I was last in Stevenage, probably about ten years ago, the Avenue was still there, but with an ugly footbridge at its end near the church. The cottage opposite Rooks Nest House where farm-workers had lived, were gone as well, new houses in their place, the town having crept up as far as that and probably even further. I do hope Miss Poston hasn’t lived to see all that.
Looking back to the time I was staying there – it was just about a year – I realize again that I enjoyed it very much. Shortly after I left she was made a Member of the British Empire, and in 1976 told me in a letter that she has become a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music.
Other Friends’ Recollections
In addition to Ruth Brunner’s contribution (Paper No. 6), some of the recollections of two other friends of Elizabeth who were not able to attend the conference have been kindly made available for this volume. Eric T. Moore who had owned the bookshop of the same name in Hitchin met her in both a professional and private capacity. Joan James who was for many years violinist in the Stevenage Symphony Orchestra was, with her husband, Rob a longstanding friend of Elizabeth.
Eric T. Moore
Elizabeth Poston, composer and musicologist, was my most enigmatic and eccentric customer. She came in quietly and walked usually to the music dept. On numerous occasions I tried to draw her into conversation, but it seemed impossible to get her talking, and she would go out of the shop as secretly as she came in.
One day all that changed, when I had a telephone call from her asking if I wanted to buy some books. I was delighted about this, because she lived at Rooks Nest on the eastern outskirts of Stevenage. This cottage provided the inspiration for E. M. Forster’s novel Howards End – one of his best-loved works, which was later, a successful film.
I arrived on a bright, but cold winter’s day, and we had coffee by a blazing log fire; and that was the morning that a strange friendship was formed – so different from her visits to my shop. In the photo on the opposite page [of his notes – like the one on the cover of the present volume] she appears to look about the age I met her – 65 to 70.
She seemed to be more interested in talking about literature than selling books; although she might be slyly testing me out, to feel sure I could be trusted with a woman living on her own in a lonely position, although she loved the solitude of Rooks Nest and especially her garden. Some years later a television programme showed her working in the garden of Rooks Nest with the connection of Forster’s Howards End. Elizabeth Poston and her mother bought the cottage with the financial help of E. M. Forster who would come and stay with them for several weeks, until Mrs. Poston died.
After the coffee, Elizabeth Poston would get down, or I should say, up to the books, which were in the small loft. She would climb the small ladder and hand the books down one at a time. When the cartons were full we took them downstairs and would price them by the fire, followed by a second cup of coffee! She would only sell a limited number at each visit.
After a few visits I had to have an operation at Westminster Hospital, London. It took sometime to recover from that, but a week after I had arrived home a long parcel came for me in the post containing flowers from the Rook’s Nest garden, with a note from Elizabeth Poston wishing me a speedy recovery.
So I was trusted after all!
On one occasion, after a day’s work at the BBC in London, Elizabeth said, ‘The donkeys will put the world to rights’; she had two, I think.
Ruth Brunner came to live with Elizabeth, serving as an au pair, being taught English, and joined the orchestra as a violinist. She made a Swiss fondu at the house when all the orchestra came. Ken Melbourne [longstanding leader of the cello section in the orchestra] remembers the occasion and that the orchestra played something – must have been cramped!
Elizabeth came to our house one day and told Rob and me about a burglary; she came back from London one night and thought there was something odd when she turned into her drive – a light was upstairs. She went in and was confronted by a man on the stairs who hit her across the face, so she ran for the front door and managed to hide in the vestibule. She was able to read the number of the car standing in the drive and when the men departed she rang the police and they were intercepted. She said she had to identify these characters in court, but as she was well known and didn’t want to be recognised, she borrowed a blond wig from the theatrical players costume department.
When the symphony orchestra was founded, I remember her saying, ‘Make sure you are a symphony orchestra’. I don’t think she altogether agreed with the name.
The Rooks Nest Family
(Reprinted from the Service of Thanksgiving for the life and work of Elizabeth Poston, at St. Nicholas Church, Saturday 2 May, 1987)
We who were honoured to call ourselves friends of Elizabeth Poston – far too many to be named – were like one big family, our many different personalities united by love of the one at its heart.
We tried to help in all kinds of ways – in the garden; tending the donkeys; bee-keeping; dog-walking; reviving the car; hedge-cutting; cooking; shopping; repairing windows, the cellar, the outhouses; giving medical care; writing; publishing; bringing news of friends; sharing joys and sorrows. Whatever we did was solely for the pleasure of being with her, making her laugh, seeing her smile, hearing her caustic comments on the latest foolishness of bureaucracy and, most of all, knowing that she cared for us.
Music was her life and even the least musical among us could be transported by the pure magic of her uniquely linking the spiritual to the earthly. Interwoven with her creative genius was her passionate love of Rooks Nest and her determination to protect it for future generations. In latter years particularly, she hated leaving the place and, if she had to be away, always arranged for temporary guardians to watch over it, to see to the well being of the animals and to stoke the Aga.
We were slaves to the Aga. Elizabeth had a fear of its going out. It was, she said, ‘Absolute sheer bloody hell to light’, and all through her last long stay in hospital we kept it going between us until she was safely home again. Then, in spite of our best efforts during the bitter cold spell of early 1987, pipes burst and another Rooks Nest crisis had erupted. While we frantically mopped up, or crawled on our stomachs to reach leaking pipes and the electric lights bobbed ominously, Elizabeth, under Doctor’s orders, lay calmly on the bed in her workroom, replying tranquilly to our anxious enquiries, ‘I’m quite alright, not worried a bit. But what about you?’
A few weeks later, in the early morning of March 17th she suffered a stroke and was taken to the Lister Hospital unconscious, unlikely to recover. This time we let the Aga go out.
She died quietly just before 1 a.m. on March 18th, holding the hand of her nephew Jim, son of her much-loved brother. Those of us who had been with her shortly before were more than privileged. She retained her beauty and her charisma to the end and the last thing she did for us was to spare us the ugliness of death.
St. Paul talks of entertaining angels unawares. But we were aware – and we loved her.
The Great prayer
Produced for the BBC by the Rev. Hubert Hoskins and William Drummond for broadcasting on 24 April 1981
It was in my hand – the letter of invitation. Would I participate, it said: The Great Prayer. I was having breakfast. There are many great prayers, I reflected. Must be The Lord’s Prayer. ‘Free to use the version of your choice’ said the letter, and then, a reminder that it was for Radio 3. This was formidable. I watched outside the window a cheeky robin confronting one of my white pigeons. My thoughts simply refused to muster.
Suddenly, I jumped back thirty-five years, to another invitation from the BBC – one of the nicest invitations I have ever had – to return to them on a year’s special contract for the inception of the Third Programme, that splendidly idealistic phoenix that was to arise from the ashes of the jaws of hell. I had served the BBC, again at their suggestion, throughout the war – years of a more fantastic adventure than has yet been told, years of a more intensive experience of broadcasting than would fill a Guinness Book of Records twice over.
We came to it, I and my contemporaries, as artists, amateurs of the medium: writers, painters, poets, designers, actors, musicians, an enormously divergent motley, humorously individual, united in one cause. As strange a company as ever came together. And yet it worked. At the end we dispersed, to re-make our own creative lives and careers. And then, to crown all, into the midst came the great new venture, an act of faith if ever there was one.
It was heady, infectious, glorious in its vision and enthusiasm. Out of darkness a kingdom had come. Thy will be done. In the doing of it we felt as if transformed. From the evil that had been, we were delivered. We were alive and young in what seemed the first morning of a new world, moving in the sort of ecstasy I can only describe as akin to the opening pages of the Ravel score of Daphnis and Chloë. For a time we knew this kingdom, worked in it, felt ourselves a part of it. It seemed to be a vision realised. We had no fear about our daily bread: the most astonishing thing of all was, that at the end of a major war there was enough money to put forth the best of everything there was… Bach, Beethoven, Britten, Shakespeare, and Milton, Debussy, Dowland, Dylan Thomas. There was no end.
And if a norm of conscious intellectualism was not imposed – nor did we seek to impose one – it was because we were it, for it lay in the greatness of the material at our command and in the great standard of perception of those who wielded it, as we reached out on the air to all who loved and believed in it.
The dream, the reality that was, have not evaporated. But I was young then, who now am old. What, in the years since, has happened to our kingdom, overwhelmed as it may seem, by the changes of time? We may well ask, who had the privilege of carrying this tremendous torch.
Yet, time, I think, doesn’t hold the answer. For I believe that here and now, living in the temporary dimension of time, we are already part of eternity. And to me, this linking, this reconciliation between earth and its needs and the timeless heaven of our destiny, is one of the supreme concepts of Christ’s prayer.
For Christ, whose purpose was to reconcile, had in his divinity a perfectly practical mind. He gave us words. He knew words to be necessary. He meant us to be articulate. He gave us words understandable by a child and adequate to the most complex intelligence: a form common to all ages of man. An utterance of satisfying symmetry, an architecture reaching out to God in a few essential clauses: praise, belief, asking. It is surely significant that the western liturgy has traditionally followed the usage of St. Matthew and the initial address Our Father. This binds together the prayer’s total thought, strong and complete. Vater Unser. Notre Père. It has always held a special place of honour at the centre of the liturgy. And followed to its logical conclusion, a fact noted by St Augustine, this prayer comprehends all other prayers. All else springs from its basic tenets. And what other prayer has passed into the folklore? Its name and significance in the origin, charmingly named, of the White Paternoster, the traditional bedtime prayer-rhyme of many European children.
Indeed, the consciousness of the need to become as little children is nowhere more appropriate. As we contemplate the prayer, as we look at life from within or without, as we struggle on with the immense complexities of its problems, it still behoves us to go back to the beginning – stop talking, and simply stand still and love a sound or a sight or a thought, a bird, maybe, or a daisy or a dandelion in green grass.
Blake knew it, whose mind embraced so much so widely that people thought him mad. And Christopher Smart, who was mad and who still apprehended. And Abelard, and Francis, and Theresa of Avila. And Forster, with his ‘Only Connect’, as good a secular prayer as I can think of, a prayer to, as well as for, his fellow men.
In the prayer called after him, Jesus gave us a foundation – for it is our beginning and goes with us all the way. It is certainly the first religious thing that I remember. The ending of the day, the sum of it and its seal; its adventures and play and experiences; the last thing before bed; the winding down, the closing in. The sense of it, its sight; the feel of it, its touch – all intimate in their proximity, are as vivid to me now as they were at the time. For I was an Edwardian child, a nanny’s child in its nursery kingdom where routine was regular and accepted.
The bed-time prelude was the throwing of a cloth over Dickey’s cage so that his exuberant canary-song be blacked out for the night. Then our two red dressing-gowns kneeling side by side at our Mother’s knee, each child careful to kneel in his self-appointed blue blob of the huge red rug that covered most of the room. The smell of soap, the warmth of the guard that made flickering patterns on us. The furtive, mischievous twinkles between fingers that were gently guided together again… But deliver us from evil, evil then so far away, but always, I think, solemnly imagined. It must surely be a very special prayer that can hold one’s world together for the whole of life: a basic, unfussy prayer, so brief, so compelling.
And I do believe that to God no prayer sincerely prayed, is too trivial that he hears my heartfelt request from the carrot bed: ‘O please let this crop grow’, as much as he heeds one’s deepest and most anguished cry of grief and pain.
In matter of version it will have become obvious that I come down strongly on the side of the Book of Common Prayer 1662. And this from no purely religious predilection. Having spent most of my life trying to conserve a stretch of English countryside, I feel the same about our priceless heritage of language; and I deplore, as much as I should a high-rise in a cornfield the incursion of the Holy Incongruous – I mean, of course, the alterers, flexible, alive, subject to change where change is needful, language one knows must be. But what I cannot understand is why it should be thought necessary to seek to change language where it is basic, expressive, colourful, moving and vital?
And one thing we cannot afford to discount is, that in our own English tongue, the folk memory of words is deeply a part of it – it’s one of the things that make us English. Take away the balance, destroy the cadence, and what are we left with? A ghost, a shadow, something that has lost its impact. We need, the composer needs, the music of the words themselves.
The strength and beauty of the phrases of the Lord’s Prayer are part of our history. When they’re sung in liturgical use, we’ve got Merbecke. To the existing text, Merbecke’s setting works perfectly, having the virtues of both ancient and modern in his clever and subtle adaptation of the simple speech-rhythms of plainsong to the English language. And it’s easy and widely known.
Yet in spite of these strictures, we owe gratitude to the learned scholars in spite of their tone-deafness on occasion, who have worked hard to clarify, and accept their help where we can. These things will continue to vex thinking men, and it is well they should, for it gives us to ponder and to learn.
The Lord’s Prayer has escaped comparatively lightly. The difficult clause ‘And lead us not into temptation’ is clarified as meaning a prayer that we be spared the ultimate test, with the implication that it would be a test we could all endure (I often reflect that we don’t sufficiently realise the stupendous greatness of the Christian martyrs). I confess to a special affection for ‘thou’, with its significance of the ‘du‘ and ‘tu‘ particularising in other countries the distinctive usage of love and the family, a term we also had and sadly have lost. As for ‘trespass’, that daunting word remembered on drive gates, it sounds to me far more evocative here than ‘sin’ or ‘debt’, in its connotations of the Norman French ‘trespas‘, the over-step, (the step too far from which there is no return). ‘Forgive us our sins’ I find much less impressive.
We have been looking at the outward, spoken corporate form of the Lord’s Prayer. In its inner, unspoken, individual form the prayer is unknowable, sealed within the pray-er; the personal utterance from the silence of the soul. For who can know this inner prayer of Jesus (or for that matter of Joan at the stake, of a child, a point, a king, a criminal)?
The mystery of the innermost form of the Lord’s Prayer lies in silence. Silence is the obverse of music. Music comes from silence and into silence it returns. The silences within a musical work are part of the music in the sense that they are essential to it, continue through it – the Grosse Pause of the orchestra, the bars of rest. The musician lives in an inner world of sound; it is his natural element in which he moves and has his being, as water is to a fish. The sound of a symphony is heard inside the composer’s head long before it is transmuted into notes.
I was born an artist (I can’t help that) and the art I serve is wordless. And perhaps the crux is when, as in the intimate enclosure with a loved presence in which we are satisfied to communicate in silence, words can be left behind, and with Dame Julian of Norwich we can say: I look at him and he looks at me.
Here is the source, the mysterious source of the Lord’s Prayer. It is the one unique possession of Human Rights that can never be taken from anyone.
Celebration at my Death
The Honey Year
Howards End – the House, 1984
Open! Open! Open!
Open in the sunlight, garner the gold,
stay the sweetness,
husband the sum of nectar.
This is the year, the peerless year of the bees,
theirs in life and in house history, hived for all time:
fifty seasons of honey hummed all summer long,
tunnelled in rafters, hid in the chimney breast,
love distilled, still singing.
Here as a child I slept and listened –
Zzzz they said, zzzz as twilight softened to night
and birds stilled.
So they fell silent, wings folded for the morrow’s flight,
each to each other clinging.
Here, hatted and veiled, we took them,
suddenly hushed as they dropped, smoke-puffed,
bemused, falling deadened, their treasure spilled,
no more their trove.
So shall I drop, my singing done:
no music now but vaults’ hygienic stink,
ticket for one in the freezer,
waiting the long cold requiem,
austere angels with mask and scalpel
gathering, section, probe and pare
the white bone.
If they reject me, throw me out,
structure outworn, dry rot, subsidence,
Yet shall I return, hiving home,
not to the oven-curtains’ click
Erbide wiv me on a cracked groove through the grille
but to the live grubs’ hermitage,
sealed to the father who got me,
earth of his earth, ground of the ground we trod,
celled in our own.
Open then! Open! throw wide the windows,
now is the house live, a beacon splendour.
This is my hour. This is mine, for me.
Now I am outside looking in,
am each sill and hinge and latchet,
Forster’s ‘merry house’, the loving one
in rooms of wood-smoke, summer roof-rain:
Here all the seasons meet:
they suddenly burst out singing,
Here there is honey still for tea.
Appendix I – Elizabeth Poston’s Letters
Elizabeth was a prodigious correspondent, but few of her letters appear to have been published to date (e.g. two written in February 1931 after Peter Warlock’s death, one to his mother and the other to Elizabeth’s friend Robert Nichols, while some extracts have also appeared elsewhere), but there is also available a collection of 57 letters to her friend Madeau Stewart covering the years 1963 to 1987 and there must be many more in private hands.
Letters to Jean Coulthard
By far the largest collection of Elizabeth’s letters is held in the archives of the University of British Columbia (UBC), Canada, comprising nearly 700 written to Canadian composer, Jean Coulthard Adams. The friendship began in September 1948 when Elizabeth first met Jean in Vancouver, at a dinner party given by Bess and Lawren Harris (the artist), and then, two days later at a luncheon party with Jean and her husband Don at UBC.
Soon after returning to England in October, Elizabeth wrote to Jean and the friendship continued strongly thereafter for more than 30 years. They had shared interests – in Herrick, Shakespeare, Medieval literature and Folk songs, as well in having both studied at the Royal College of Music in London under Ralph Vaughan Williams – and they were of similar age and, strangely enough, looked remarkably alike.
Jean came to England the following July and saw Elizabeth at Rooks Nest at least twice during her 7-week stay. Thereafter, Elizabeth’s Pocket Diaries document at least a dozen long visits by Jean to England up to 1975, with excursions with Elizabeth all over the country and to mainland Europe, especially to France, Spain and Italy. A misunderstanding seems to have ended the correspondence.1
A couple of dozen letters made available to date are replete with insight into Elizabeth’s character. Her penchant for storytelling, for example, can be illustrated in one quotation:
I once arrived at Edinburgh (long ago in Wild Oat Days) in the Flying Scotsman in a luggage rack in the guard’s vans (that took some explaining), & travelled to the Arab Kingdom beyond the Jordon, at a time of a local war, in some Arab chicken crates. The chickens were there too. So were the fleas.
Photocopies of a number of her letters, written from Rooks Nest House, have now been kindly made available by some of her friends – seven from Mr. Jack Thomas for the period 1979 to 1986, (prefixed ‘JT’, although they are not all addressed to him), some of which have been referred to by him in Paper No. 5; a few from Dr. Ron Faulkner, 1967-1986 (‘RF’); a collection of 36 from Diana Sparkes, 1951-1986 (‘DS’); ten, including transcripts from Dr. Michael Willoughby, 1975-1986 (‘MW’); 15 from David Watkins, 1966-1968 (‘DW’); four from Dr. Sylvia Watkins, 1983-1987 (‘SW’) and 19 from Richard J. Lambert 1977-1985 (‘RL’). Three more are quoted in Appendix II relating to hitherto unpublished music made available for the centenary concerts.
Such letters are invaluable in helping us to understand and appreciate Elizabeth’s remarkable personality, and it has been decided to publish them now in full, to provide source material for a future biographer with sufficient time to take proper account of this and other relevant sources, including her Pocket Diaries.
Most are written in her beautiful manuscript (indicated with ‘M’), one of which (JT2) is reproduced in this volume as Fig. 1 in Paper No. 4; the remainder are typed (indicated, ‘T’), not, as she explains in JT1 (in Appendix I), out of formality, but to save her right hand. In the transcriptions, italics are used for titles of works and to indicate her manuscript within an otherwise typed letter. Let them speak for themselves.
Letters supplied by Jack Thomas (1979-1986)
Jack Thomas was a Housemaster and Head of English and Drama, while his wife, Imogen, was Librarian at Haileybury College, Hertfordshire, an institute with which Elizabeth had contact many years before she formed her entente with the Thomas’s.
JT1. (T) 12 September 1979
‘Dear Mr. Thomas,
How very good of you to write – I so much appreciated your letter. Seeing you here was as happy a day for me. The house knows its own, or so I am persuaded, for it has never yet made a mistake (the only exception I can think of is the liberal lady with a Holy Ghost hat, who called and said her ladies’ committee would like to hold their monthly meetings here as it would give atmosphere. But that was politics, and so doesn’t really count).
Thank you so much for your delightful invitation to the carols on December 9th. The day is providentially free and I shall love to come. It is most awfully sweet of your wife Imogen to transport me. When I saw her I thought: this lovely face illuminates this underground place.
Very many thanks to you both. I shall look forward enormously,
Type, no sign of formality – it saves my right hand.’
The following summer Jack and Imogen visited Elizabeth, bringing with them a group of 13 pupils, and on Sunday, 3 May 1981 the College, dedicated an adaptation of Howards End to Elizabeth Poston at Rooks Nest House, with Jack Thomas taking the part of Mr. Wilcox.
JT2. (M) 5 May 1981 (A photocopy of this letter is included in Jack Thomas’ Paper No. 5 in this volume).
‘Dear Jack and Imogen,
I have already much to thank you for & how your generosity & enterprise have made it yet more.
I did so mightily enjoy our unforgettable day that bode so badly from the weather & turned out such an inspiring occasion both inside & out – inside, a triumph of mind & matter over space!
I hope you weren’t worn out after the wonderful thought & work & organisation that made all you did so special. The picnic was truly gorgeous!
I love particularly that very sweet paragraph on p.2 of the programme. We – the house & I – were honoured & touched in Fosterian proportion. I so wish he [E. M. Forster] could have been with us to share in the indescribable legacy he left the place (’It always was a memory house’), something that will continue so long as there are you both & Haileyburians in the work.
Every drop of that most kindly bottle of wine to you. I am greatly blessed and so proud.
Bless you with my most loving thanks.
JT3. (T) 25 May 1981
I haven’t tried to write to you all the week since your letter and exquisite moonlight flowers arrived on my doorstep – one of’ those weeks when everything is impossible but the concentration, as well as one may, upon getting through a jigsaw of barely-fitting components. I do feel it’s a little much when people fix Extraordinary General Meetings on Sunday afternoon and AGM’s on Saturday evenings (particularly if/when one happens to be there in presidential capacity and has to sit up and be seen to be suitably alert instead of’ getting away with dosing off in the less noticeable twilight of the back row!)
Now all is peace again, punctuated only by the cuckoo, and emotion not only recollected but experienced. For that day, your day, was a special one and has left something of’ itself behind. Yes – a sunset-touch.
Perhaps that is part of the house’s mysterious secret, fragile and yet so strong, a spell that is a sense and seems also to impart one … too mysterious for description. Yet one can’t attribute it only to Forster, as he was conscious of it when he first trotted in at the age of’ four … to left, to right, straight on, and then up and down again. All those 300 years odd of Howards perhaps, living and dying and going on again? But no, more. It defies analysis. Feeling is enough.
You all left me with an uncannily vivid afterglow. For a brief few hours the place was filled with youth and impulse under the happy hosting of you both. And then suddenly, all went waving away and I was left with silence and splendidly-laid gravel and a bottle of wine to prove it had all really happened… above all, the moving memory of you and them, enacting such depths inside the walls. He – EMF – would be glad – his message had such torch-bearers, and that we were all, in those memorable moments, Connecting. I hope some of that joyful band will come back, some day, some time. I may not be here, but it will, and all that you and they have helped and all it means, will go on. It must.
Do you know Le Grand Meaulnes of Alain-Fournier? the strangely haunting and only book of the young writer who perished as an Inconnu in the first world war – the rather sur-realist search for the lost innocence of’ youth and the encounter with the Lost Domain, experienced in dream or in time transposed, with its vision of good happy children, thenceforth searched for in vain; elusive, glimpsed only in decay. (Andrée Howard made the episode into a ballet, but unsuccessfully). That day here contained something of what that young writer in his way immortalised, though in no way literally to the theme, but of a poet’s evocation in time for a moment captured.
Above all, there is the arch-memory of yourself as Henry W[ilcox], with whom there is a special Connection. I am afraid, to me, you will for always have taken on something of his image. I hope you don’t dislike the thought?
To him, as Onlie Begetter, belong my thanks & the essence of something that has surely passed into these walls and will remain.
Much love, Elizabeth
Please thank Liz Rutherford for her very nice letter. The gravel was impeccably laid, all the right stones in the right places, & all ready to impose a visitation of county antiquarians, to which Polly [her dog] & I & the donkeys do our best to respond in character.’
JT4. (M) 3 July 1981
It was a most kind and happy thought of yours to send me The Haileyburian – a delightfully distinguished production most ably carried through & with the lovable notice of our day. I must say I would have more courage in meeting you as Henry Wilcox than as the sinister-looking Erfingham!
The A-level questions on Hs E come a great deal. If I were in your class now, I think I would say that a) can’t be said to embrace 98% of the work’s problems whatever the emotive force behind – so typical of him to pronounce something that can be applied to almost any contingency, though in my teens I shouldn’t have made much of it. Of b), I have always been a bit worried on this score; & the general proscription ‘contriver’ – yet it doesn’t seem to have stood in the way of millions of readers! F[orster] will continue to plague’…[incomplete]
JT5. (T) 11 May 1985
My warmest thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Thomas for the wonderful idea of a Garden Picnic, and to all you gardeners for being such splendidly active and efficient ones – a true help to me.
Dear E. M. Forster would have been so pleased. He always seems very much around here.
I so enjoyed out happy day. And thank you too for a delicious picnic.
Love to you all and best wished in all your undertakings.
JT6. (M) 9 June 1985
‘Dear Mrs. Cook,
How very sweet of you to send me that most generous gift of bountiful cream, surely one of the best of England’s goodies! It came at a propitious moment, as I have been working against time on a commission, which is perhaps scarcely the way with music, yet it too often falls out that way.
With the cuckoo calling & the rain falling, I took a few moments to visit the chestnut blossom & the first roses, & when I came in, willing myself to resume, there was your letter & the magic parcel on the mat! I was so thrilled, & together we (I get used to the plural, these days, of me & the house) celebrated in time-honoured fashion, & in the Forsterian tradition, I had scones & home-made jam & cream for tea, & I felt completely renewed & able to achieve many more bars before bedtime. And there will be a Special Treat to look forward to tomorrow.
I have thought of you all since the happy event that brought you here. Out of a sea of Haileybury faces, the day the school came over, I found myself picking out your [son] Paul from them all, at once. He was the one who quite naturally stood out – I also realised he knew about gardening! & I had the feeling that any school or college that numbered him in their midst, boded well for us all & for England.
I was so very interested to know of your interest in & work on Forster. I quite understand about the matter of copies [of one of Forster’s novels] – you have already been very generous with them – & I am delighted Paul has spared his to Jack Thomas & that he has been using it in class – he is such a perceptive person & has made himself a wonderful friend to us here.
To me it was a special pleasure to see you here & know you fitted so truly into the rather odd & unique ambiance. It is still very much Forster’s – I so much want to keep it so – & has brought friends from all over the world, a special experience, as I always feel they wouldn’t bother to seek out this place in the same way if we were merely ‘stately’ & commercial, & this gives me courage in my efforts to try & safeguard its survival. Your visit & thought since have helped illumine my way.
I hope you will come again – there would be the warmest welcome at any season of the year, it has its own glow in all of them…any moment now there will be the cascades of the wild roses he so loved. Although the house, by natural causes, had passed into our (family) possession, it was his wish that I have it, & I do so hope I may be allowed long enough somehow to assure its continuance – an aim that has become my main one in life.
With my very appreciative thanks
JT7. (M) 9 May 1986
‘Dear Mrs. Cook,
How very sweet of you to think of sending me such a lovely gift of Cream – my favourite! – & in such a charmingly decorative pot – now full of cherry blossom and forget-me-nots, which I shall long use in your remembrance.
It was a most happy surprise when Imogen [Thomas] brought it over, full of enjoyment of her spring drive to see you & your beautiful house.
Above all, I do so rejoice in Paul’s progress, which I have followed anxiously from Haileybury, together with the course of the wonderful skill & help of the treatment he had received. I was shattered to hear of his illness & full of thought of its impact upon you.
One draws hope he will triumph. A very special person, he shone out to me the first time he came out of a sea of young Haileybury faces – the one instantly foremost: something indescribable and immediate, quite unforgettable – EMF would have understood. May all good be with him, & I hope to you all. I hope you will each & all come back here.
With so many thanks
Letters supplied by Dr. Ron Faulkner (1967-1986)
RF1. (T) undated – probably autumn 1967
Please may I have another quantity of:-
150 ALDOMET 125 mg
(I copy what it says on the container) – the stuff I am on till further notice
My appointment at the Lister Clinic has been put back into late November because of Willoughby’s absence.
All well, and I trust with you.
I have been reviewing the year’s output of Christmas Music (which I have headed, from the heartfelt cry I happened to hear, of a labour politician: ‘Clitch after Clitch’ – true enough, though some is good) and am otherwise trying to cope with leaf season!’
RF2. (T) 24 September 1986
I am just running out of METHLDOPA – please may I have more. I think I deserve the George medal for taking the beastly stuff. Among its other odious qualities is constipation, which I resent. Would welcome a refill of Isogel, if allowable.
I’d swop the lot for Hollyhocks, which you said you wanted – tho’ I haven’t tried swallowing them, one might come out lovely colours. I have collected various strains and colours from other gardens but the bees see to it they never come out the same twice – altho’ its exciting to see what does come. I get red/white/pink/ yellow/apricot. If no good I shall have plenty more.
Could you kindly post the prescription in the enclosed envelope, it will probably be quickest.
Love to all,
Polly and I are on London Weekend Television on Friday at 10.30 pm.’
RF3. (M) undated – but probably late 1986, from C/o Rev & Mrs Robert Poston, Clements House, Great Horkesly, Colchester, CO6 4HA, Essex.
It was angelic of you to spare time & trouble to come and cheer me up in hospital: for all the essential care, a pretty gruelling time under Maggie’s [Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher’s] cuts, & pretty comprehensive chaos reigning in the wards!
Cousin Robin Poston (Dr. of Guy’s) got me out & down to him in Kent, where I had a very nice time & from thence to his parents here, sweet people I love, where I have been getting 2nd wind, tho’ it is scarcely blowing a gale yet! – but am slowly mending and legs progressed from frame to stick.
I expect to be home within a week, with impeding checks at Lister [Hospital]. I think Social Worker Dept have asked the Stevenage Physiotherapy people to call – I am trying to raise a commode for nights, my bed moved downstairs to workroom. Still hope to be seeing you before long.
Love to you both,
Letters supplied by Diana Sparkes (1951-1986)
DS1. (M) 1951 – Card of needlework miniature of Charles I to Mr. & Mrs. Hubert Foss, 60 Corringham Road, London, NW11.
‘I haven’t enjoyed the 1920’s so much since the 1920’s & it was certainly the nicest lunch!
DS2. (M) 16 September 1953– Letter of condolence to Mrs. Foss on the death in May of her husband Hubert Foss aged 54, who was Founder Manager in 1923 of the Music Department of Oxford University Press (OUP).
Dear Mrs. Foss,
I saw Norman Peterkin recently and had from him news of you. Rightly or wrongly I put off writing sooner, thinking you would be inundated with letters & sad affairs to deal with. But I do want to send you my thoughts & deep sympathy in your great loss, which is shared by so many others as well.
I was too young to know your husband in the great pioneering days of OUP Music Dept., but I enjoyed every contact I had in later years with his kind & lively mind, & look back happily on the day I came to lunch with you & we talked [Peter] Warlock & Songs & many other mutual interests. No one will ever have a more stimulating influence, & I am one of the many who recognise with full appreciation the debt we owe him, one of which you must be proud.
It was tragic indeed that he had to go when there seemed fresh hope for his health, & he stood on the brink of a new appointment.
I am so glad you have the comfort of your family – and, I am sure, of many friends.
With all kind regards,
There is a gap in the available correspondence, but contact between Elizabeth and the family was maintained with visits, as is clear from entries in her pocket diary from 1958 to 1964, noting amongst other things Diana’s wedding to Brian Sparkes on 22 August 1959.
DS3. (M) 16 December 1966
‘My dear Diana,
I love your card, & am much touched that Christopher [Foss, Diana’s brother] is giving Cathy [Sparkes, Diana’s daughter] the Children’s Song Book record. I do hope she’ll like it. It’s splendid she so loves singing!
The Bodley Head Children’s Book Dept. have sent me this fascinating cut-out, & tho’ I could happily spend Christmas playing with it, it seems a pity not to pass it on, in case Philip [Sparkes, Diana’s son] & Cathy might like to!
I’ve been meaning to send Cathy something I thought I had, but can’t find – must have a turn-out!
Lots of love & the happiest of Christmases to you all.
DS4. (M) 17 March 1967
‘My dear Diana,
I am so awfully sorry to hear about your multiple afflictions – those horrid school bugs, & poor you with chicken pox (I had it not long ago & thought it was a horrid plague) & poor Brian [Sparkes, Diana’s husband] with gastric flu! You must be exhausted coping with everything & the cooking & all. Can’t you take a breather somewhere & shed the load for a bit?
Mum had gastric flu, otherwise, beyond colds & snuffles, we struggle onward, & it is so nice to see the daffs & feel the spring.
It seems rather comical to be sending you a consolation present of a hymnbook! but as it is at last published (yesterday) & I shall obviously never be in a position to do such a thing again, please accept it with my love. It will, of course, be shot at. People hate reforms and innovations (particularly in hymns) & its main point is a hymnbook with things left out (thank heaven no one will find Erbide wiv me). It does contain some great treasures – notably such things as [John] Donne the wonderful Hilton Hymn to God the Father, which was sung to Donne when he was near to death, by the ‘Children of Pawles’ [i.e. St. Paul’s Cathedral, London] & has never seen the light of day since, & there are treasures in a variety on many levels, which is quite intentional. At the end of Seven Long Years, as the folk songs say, in the making, in a situation too like the boy on burning deck, with a literary editor who didn’t edit, periodically goes off his head, & retired to USA leaving me the entire baby to hold, text, words proofs & all, I am thankful to shed a millstone, & shall join a Pop Group any minute now! But I love & venerate some of the tunes, & as tunes are important, & for the oncoming generation, I hope you will get some fun out of browsing when there is mood & moment.
It is so sweet of you to be so encouraging about The Children’s Song Book record – I feel much cheered. We took immense pains over it, & to let it be just what it is, not all sophisticated–up – so it is particularly lovely to know it is approved & in use by you & yours.
Lots of love to you all, & I do so hope everyone is feeling better.
DS5. (T) 5 April 1967
‘My dear Diana,
forgive the machine – as usual, I’m in the midst of a typing spree and break off to tell you how much I loved your letter and the nicest colour photograph ever, wonderful of you all three, utterly adorable of Cathy, a thing to treasure. I really think you have the two most good-looking children ever!
My best thanks to Brian [Sparkes] for POTS AND PANS [he had written & published Agora Picture Book I on ancient Greek pottery] and very nice inscroption, I mean inscription. I draw cheer. If he and ‘Lucy’ [Talcott – American co-author] bring off this tremendous work for publication in 11 years, that is still a feat in itself. He is right, of course… one can’t measure in terms of time when there is more to know and to do than a life will hold. One only wishes for at least 9 lives!
I am thrilled with this Picture Book No. 1 – not only for the matter, but for the production, which is superb, and the photographs splendid. Such a very good idea to excerpt thus. It ought to sell like anything. The writing is so interesting and clear and alive that it surely couldn’t fail to interest everyone. Would that every learnèd treatise were as beguiling. Of course you can’t think in terms of $35 complete to give away – ‘too buch‘ as the Elephant’s Child would say, for any author! though I hope not too buch for thousands of potential buyers.
I have another exciting angle: the quotes have set me off on an idea. I have been bombarded with requests to write a work for girls which would give them the same chances and enlarge the repertory in the same direction as the [Benjamin] Britten Ceremony of Carols does for boys – i.e. to get right away from the conventional clichés meted out to girls, with a subject that clicks and an old/new outlook. They go on singing Ceremony of Carols, which ties them to Christmas, and there is nothing to go with it. The situation crystallised itself a year ago, when I accepted a commission to write just such a work for first performance in May this year at the Farnham Festival. For it I have worked an idea that had for some time been in my mind, with harp – the pieces and/or sections detachable, if need be, or as a whole to stand on its own. It was an experiment that has turned out well and I’m rather thrilled. I enclose the words for you to see – you will discern the shape of the thing – please return, as my only copy.
NOW, here’s an idea. I am looking around for a companion piece, i.e. a text on which to write one. Why not POTS AND PANS? in itself a splendid title and an ideal subject for females! Could enough bits be found that would string together to make a musical ‘shape’ for setting? Any little fragments, couplets or so could find a place perhaps treated as ripieno bits, rounds, canons…? Do you think it would work? Do have a think. I turn it over and commit the idea to the combined BrianDiana brain.
In the meantime, I’m so glad you approve the hymnbook as far as you have had time to explore. How splendid of you to christen it at Family Service right away. I have little use for critics and reviews, but the notices so far have been wonderful (in spite of the people who deplore the jettisoning of Erbide wiv me) and I thought you might like to have the latest record. The first one, of Carols and lutenists etc from the book (King‘s College Choir, Cambridge) sold out at Christmas, but has now come back again. This one explores deliberate contrasts as strongly as possible. W. A. Chislett in a splendid article on it in the March Gramophone says, ‘the very happy marriages between material and performers’ are one of the joys of the record from ‘the most widely ranging of all hymnals’ – so fortunately, someone has seen the point!
The Americana are gorgeous, quite unexploited in USA, and I can’t think why! In that great, stark opening of WONDROUS LOVE, and then the melting tune, one can almost hear a great concourse of early pilgrim settlers in vast places. Why do people underrate hymns? That Nigerian one is marvellous (an Alleluia in each section, my ecumenical effort – no one need bother about words!). I thought that as Cathy likes the rhyme record, she might like the boys singing (Stravinsky) Alleluia and the delightful Britten Rhyme from Walter de la Mare – very applicable to Cathy: ‘Sing reign of Fair Maid, with gold upon her chin’, so I send it as a family present, via her, with lots of love,
The youngest singer in the Edinburgh Festival Choir is the conductor’s son Tim, aged 4, in front on this side!’
DS6. (M) 18 April 1967 – Card of Audley End, Saffron Walden to Mrs Brian Sparkes, 13 Pewsey Place, Southampton:
‘So many thanks for your letter. Am glad you think the Pots & Pans idea might work. Any suggestions w[ou]ld be welcome nothing barred! I had thought of ‘Greasy Joan’ – previous settings not necessarily a draw back. The only necessity is to avoid words in copyright, so writers of pre-contemporary vintage are the safest.
So glad about the splendid Times notice of Brian’s lecture. I do hope that both penicillin & the change to Sheffield have helped drive all evils away. Much love, & from mum, Elizabeth.
Do you know this lovely house [Audley End], now Nat[ional] Trust? It had connections with John Dowland & has a lovely doll’s house.’
DS7. (M) 15 January 1971 – After the death of Elizabeth’s mother:
‘My dear Diana,
Your perfectly sweet letter, & the dear thought of your family, in such lovely letters from both your mother & Christopher [Foss] are an irresistible buttress – a most wonderful warmth to keep out the indescribable cold. Bless you. Your prayers are what matter now. I need them.
Darling Mum went as she would have wished, in complete faith & peace & happiness – she was tired out & laid it all down like a trusting child. I had not left her bed since before Christmas. We have been two together since she was widowed when I was seven, & the hardest thing has been to learn to let her go.
We laid her in the midst, covered in daffodils, by the altar of our ancient church of St. Nicholas, where she worshipped & I was christened, for a simple early Communion Service, by her wish, before cremation later in the day, for eventual interment with my father in the churchyard, so that the two may lie together as she wanted. This is what it means, to have come from such a supremely happy marriage, & to have known what is rooted in it, & what must be carried on.
She was as you remember her, sweet & happy & outgoing – & so beautiful to the last. She knew it was Christmas & knew of your card. She had a special affection for you all – she so admired you & Brian & believed in you as parents, & as you know, loved the children. She always followed their progress with such interest. I shall not forget her with Philip when he was so new & she already 89! I found it so touching, the way she handled a tiny baby as if she were a young mother – she was so maternal (youngest of eleven, & said she would have liked 12!) & lost the husband she adored so young.
In a world full of death & violence, in the daily consciousness of tragic events, death isn’t really an experience till it comes into one’s home (here, silently at 3 a.m. in the snow) – or so I have found. And I know it will be hard to realise now that this parting, this demarcation line, means in a sense a freedom I have almost forgotten how to use. This is all part of the devastating strangeness of loss. But in the midst of all is life. You & yours are a major part of the lifeline – please don’t forget it.
I’m sitting tight here for the present at any rate, till I see how I get on – if only because it is cheaper to stay than to try & move out! My mother, in making alterations, then quite cheap, in opening up the west side of the Forsterian farmhouse when she moved in, had to bring in the piano & beds & most of the furniture through the holes in the wall where she put in new windows, as nothing would go round the porches! And as I can’t see myself knocking the house down in order to get out, it seems simpler to stay in, at any rate for the time being, & if with extreme economy, live in one corner!
Do come, any time you can. I would simply love to see you. You know the welcome that awaits, as always.
With all love & thanks,
DS8. (T) 25 January 1973
‘My dear Diana,
Thank you very much and very much for your exciting parcel with the splendid photos of Philip among its treasures – it was so good of’ you and I am delighted to have your news. Will you forgive me for cutting every extraneous consideration here and now, as I know you want an answer!
Let me say first of all how honoured I am to be asked to do this thing for King Edward VI’s School. The work of the school and its great traditions have always had a very high place in my esteem, with particular interest in its music, and now of course, the fact that Philip is there and singing, makes it personal as well!
Eric Merriman has done and is doing great things – those boys are lucky – and how wonderful that there are to be such lovely and enterprising musical celebrations for the tercentenary in 1974 of the birth of Isaac Watts, a great favourite of mine and a figure, it seems to me, of a unique place in English annals, and perhaps one too much taken for granted, so I am awfully glad he is coming in for such welcome and deserved limelight. May I keep for the time being, the very nice and useful little edition of Hymns for Children, which I have not by me in any other edition.
To the request I would love to say, Yes: artistically, with the proviso that I could find the right thing for the boys within the terms of the suggestion; practically Yes, if it would be possible for me to do it in time to get into print by the required deadline. Perhaps Mr. Merriman would very kindly tell me when that would be. My working programme is absolutely crammed – enough for another lifetime! more immediately, another Forster film in succession to Howards End; scores for the BBC; several books; and – did I tell you? the Notebooks of’ RVW [Ralph Vaughan Williams] (some 4,000 entries!).
I sometimes long for some leisure and feel I don’t want to keep on at this furioso tempo! I have reached a state when I want to do what I want to do, rather than the things I have to; though whatever I do, all my undertakings, I have to continue to do without respite, strictly and to rule, while I live on cups of’ tea so that I may give Rooks Nest to the nation – and to do this, it is necessary to endow it. To this end I work day and night to earn every penny I can for this gift I would like to leave for after I am no longer there, and in which I am only the Trustee in a nice but heavy responsibility that has fallen to my lot.
Now that you know the state of play, may I ask you to ask Mr. Merriman to let me know any further details? I should be delighted to see him here any time he could get away, though whi1e I am filming I shall not be here much at present, but time and the daffodils are ahead. May I leave it in your very kind hands to pass the word to him?
With especial love to you and an outsize loving all round,
I am so very glad your dear mother is well – please give her much love. Wouldn’t it be possible, in summer perhaps, for you to converge and bring her down here again? Fairy and Nonny [her donkeys] would share in the general pleasure (I shall perhaps try a firstborn from Nonny next year. Fairy prefers perfect peace!) It’s a mystery about that film, I can’t quite think what happened – I hope it will be elucidated, it was a never-to-be-forgotten day! My latest and wonderful visitor was a young kestrel, one of’ the most beautiful birds I have ever had the luck to handle (and one needs very stout gloves for that) – but alas, he had had some injury and died. I was very sad, and that very day the BBC played Sea Drift.’
DS9. 18 (M) February 1973
‘My dear Diana,
Thank you so much for your sweet note – it did me much good. I have suggested dates to Mr. Merriman for lunch here, & sent instructions as to how to find Rooks Nest, & you will be getting a report back!
I am so glad you get the feeling you do from my work, it encourages me no end. One can only go on according to ones lights, & the puzzling thing is, that people’s lights are so different! There is so much art in the world that reflects only loss & disturbance. Like you, thank God, I am persuaded, that whatever the ripples on the surface, all is well as to the basic Essential. I get this more & more strongly the more ripples there are & the longer one has to go on negotiating them, like rapids!
DS10. (M) 6 January 1974 – Diana’s brother Christopher Foss and his wife, Norah, had hosted an 80th birthday party for their mother, Dora Foss in January 1974.
‘Dear Norah, dear Christopher,
What a lovely and memorable occasion it was – so many friends, and you did it all so beautifully. I so enjoyed seeing your house – I thought you had done wonders. Flowers, food & drink were an absolute treat, the busy housewife/musician was floating happily on a stratosphere cloud all of her own!
A great big Thank You again, with my love,
DS11. (M) 1975 – Regarding E.P.’s 70th birthday.
‘My dear Diana,
Thank you very much for your family newsletter – as ever, an impressive account. There’s so much to thank you for, & especially for coming to the party. I was nervous about playing – the long months of drip & needles, arm bandaged to board, resulted in the virtual muscular paralysis of my right hand & I wondered how the self-imposed therapy since of 5-finger-exercises would pay off. Though I could have done better, the support of dear friends all around me did miracles in restoring confidence, & I have since been able to meet BBC recordings &c with comparative assurance.
I was very touched to find your names among the very kind contributors to that wonderfully generous birthday present, something that helped to make that particular birthday one of the nicest things of a lifetime – a total surprise to me, I didn’t know a thing about it till the concert!
I so much appreciated also very nice birthday greetings from Mr. Merriman & the School.
I do hope to see you in the New Year, & that it will be a very happy one, spite of the state of the world. Although it is of ‘the other place’, I thought you might like to see the enclosed [shown below], topmost angel of the King’s organ, as it is much the prettiest ‘card’ I have, a cover proof of the new paperback edition due 1976. The book is consolidating hearteningly & in use now at Westminster Abbey &c.
Much love to you all, ever gratefully & affec[tionate]ly
DS12. (M) 22 April 1976 – Card of pierced quilt from New Jersey c. 1880 in a pineapple or Maltese cross pattern to Dr. & Mrs. Brian Sparkes, 16 Leigh Road, Highfield, Southampton SO2 1EF
‘Thank you so much for the Three Musical Ladies – I was so glad to hear you got back safely & in such good time.
And thank you again for the delicious chocolates. And particularly, for coming. It was a joy to see you & I hope the next milestone won’t be too far off.
Lots of love,
Do make my peace with Mr. Merriman, he was so kind in sending Birthday Greetings… & I was very tired by Christmas & just never caught up!’
DS13. (T) 21 May 1976
‘My dear Diana,
Thank you so much of the delightful colour picture of us all, so vivid of that happy day, and for all the nice news. I’m so glad Philip & Cathy had such successful visits away. I am honoured to have been sung by King Edward’s School in NY Cathedral!
How splendid that Cathy
passed her Grade V piano and is on the way to Grade V clarinet – also that she is playing a Walton duet tomorrow in the Festival. I’ll be sending out wishes. Those Walton pieces are the best of their kind in this country & such fun to play.
You have doubtless seen about the govt. landgrab, I expect, and all the letters about Rooks Nest in The Times, articles in Sunday Telegraph &c – a marvellous appeal for it from 30 signatories from 8 countries in 4 continents. The case is just over, we shall not know the result for some months. It has been a ghastly & exhausting 6 weeks, sword through heart all the time. We all concerned have been fighting it tooth & nail, with the able help of Lord Colville QC, the NFU [National Farmers Union], the County, the Parishes and everyone one can think of, including the arts and letters. We deserve to win. Pray that we do. Or farewell for ever to Rooks Nest with the countryside obliterated into a New Chicago by miles of concrete as far as the eye can see. The only nice thing that has happened is that I have been elected F.R.A.M.
I now have to be treated with Respeck & the donkeys must learn to bray on pitch. The little one that you stroked is going on Sunday to a farm in Devon as another foal is due next month.
Much love ever,
DS14. (M) 24 October 1976 – Note of Holy Trinity, Weston,
to:‘My dear, dear people,
Thank you so much for your lovely card & for remembering. So sweet of you. It made a happy day the happier.
I do hope all is very well, as it is here – with the exception of a wretchedly time-consuming fight to prevent a wholesale govt landgrab.
This is the little church in ‘my’ village up the road, a benign place with ducks & a pond & a splendid W[omen’s] I[institute] Pantomime!
With lots of love & so many thanks
Can’t find an envelope the right size!’
DS15. (M) 31 October 1976 – Card of Gauguin’s Les Alyscamps to Dr. & Mrs Brian Sparkes 16 Leigh Road, Highfield, Southampton SO2 1EF
‘Thank you so much, all you dear Sparkes, for your beautiful Birthday card & its lovely wishes, I loved it (& don’t feel any older!)
I shall be celebrating, this year, as the Sugar Plum Fairy (!) again in my Sugar Plums in Festival of Hoffnung at the Albert Hall on Dec 14, in conjunction with the Christmas Exhibition of his drawings at the V[ictoria]&Albert Museum].
Lots of love, Elizabeth.
DS16. (M) 31 October 1977 – Card of a photograph of the Mill, Flatford, Suffolk, to Mrs. Brian Sparkes 16 Leigh Road, Highfield, Southampton SO2 1EF.
‘Thank you so very much for all the lovely Sparkes wishes for my birthday via that entrancing composer so blissfully composing onto a piano typewriter – oh that one could!
Lots of love to you all,
DS17. (M) 2 March 1978 – Notelet of a bluetit. Dora Foss died aged 84 in February 1978; Elizabeth Poston’s Jesus Christ the Apple Tree was sung at the service. Norman Peterkin (Diana’s godfather) of the OUP Music Department is mentioned; he was 95 when he died.
‘My dear Diana,
Thank you so much for the sweet message & the Service. The service couldn’t have been nicer or more fitting, just what she would have loved – & Philip reading the Lesson too. I’m so pleased [Jesus Christ] The Apple Tree was in. How splendid that Norman was there. There must have been a crowd of friends.
I fear all this will have given you a lot to see to. When someone dies, the paperwork & legal ramifications to the living seem interminable. It took about 2 years before I got quit out of my lot when Mum died. In any case, I’ve made sure I don’t have a funeral: I’ve given myself to Cambridge University Medical School.
Much love & many thoughts,
DS18. (T) 25 March 1978
‘My dear Diana,
I am returning for your records with many thanks, the SMA [Southampton Music Association?] programme you have so kindly spared – despite its deficiencies in print (distinctly un-Foss-worthy!) a very good programme and I was delighted to see King Edward VI School playing such a major part and including me! I would guess that whoever compiled copy for the printer hadn’t access to standard reference books, as they guess at both John Gardner’s date and mine – presumably birth? (can one be born ‘circa‘?!) in which case they’ve given me two years to the good! I’m so glad Philip will be going with the Choir to Switzerland in summer, though he is no longer at the school. The Nigel Osborne concoction looks on paper confusing and rather boring – too much to take in. I’m interested in your reaction to the Suzuki group. Most of the pioneering work on the movement has been done by Hertfordshire Education, including a large-scale report. I haven’t been able to follow throughout, but from my own experience of the movement, I find myself a sitter-on-the-fence, allowing potential good (and some actual) while unable to applaud wholeheartedly – most of the playing by younger members I have heard has seemed to me unmusical automation and the early training I sat in on, savoured too much of gimmickry. However, time will show and the proof of the pudding…
I’m so glad [Jesus Christ] The Apple Tree sounded so well and helped cheer you after the very sad weeks you have been through. May Easter, which is also my mother’s time, as her birthday season as well as her marriage time – and birthdays to me are more special than deathdays – bring you its own cheer and some warmer weather to help.
In answer to your kind inquiry, I’ve been getting on well in general, thank you very much for your kind thought, but developed an outsize duodenal ulcer which behaved very shabbily and landed me in hospital since Christmas, though as it was in the freeze-up I at least kept warm! Am now out on parole, with limited activities.
With warmest love & to you all
A long letter from Norman speaks glowingly of the Service & seeing you all. What a marvel he is, an inspiration to old age.’
DS19. (T) 17 December 1978
‘My dear Diana,
I have never yet thanked you for your lovely Birthday card – but that’s because I have been in hospital (beginning of August) and am only just home. Please forgive. It was so sweet of you to think of me.
You mention in your newsletter your Mother’s papers left with you. Please would you give me first access if there is anything among them of Peter Warlock (Philip Heseltine). He had dealt, of course, with your father at OUP. Your Mother spoke to me of it and suggested I look through anything on the subject there might be, but that was ages ago and somehow or other was never followed up. As I am commissioned to write a book on him, I’d be awfully grateful if I might have a look at any surviving papers/references there may be.
A very Happy Christmas & New Year
With much love,
DS20. (M) 17 January 1980 – Card of the Palazzo Muncipale, Udine (Cartolina Postale Italiana*) to Mrs. Brian Sparkes 16 Leigh Road, Highfield, Southampton SO2 1EF.
‘Rooks Nest: Wed
*A real museum piece! Just to say: over a week & your flowers still in their prime & a daily joy, not one yet in the slightest degree faded. It was lovely to see you – make it a habit! Much love, E’
DS21. (T) 15 April 1980
Your letter with the delightful snapshot was delivered today and the mystery of your sweet note on my doorstep and lovely gift of those delicious mints (just my thing) is solved.
Postmarked 5 April, your letter has taken ten days (2nd class), which I find is the average for l0p [five New Pence] stamp. At 12p, I consider myself lucky to get a 1st class letter within a week. A senior postal officia1 tells me that l0p postings are held back deliberately, and that when first class goes up to 20p, there will be no 2nd class. So the public is blackmailed into posting first class in the meanwhile, in order that the mail be delivered eventually, at all.
I find this excessively difficult and problem–making in work. e.g. with MSS &c I am exchanging with a colleague in Devonshire, first class post of an exchange of papers between the two of us allows of only one exchange per month: a fortnight (by either class) each way. How can a country hope to carry on like this!
Do take the next chance and give me longer warning in [sic] possible. I was out all day and am so sorry to have missed you.
I am so pleased to have the photograph, which is excellent of you all. It was lovely to meet Philip when he came with Brian. I thought him a smasher, and do congratulate you on such a splendid son. He seemed to me to have interestingly changed completely in looks from the small boy I knew, then with such a strong likeness to grandfather Hubert, and now, so it seemed to me, out on an original and most attractive line of his own. How clever you are (plus, of course, some slight assistance from Brian!!)
Lots of love,
DS22. (M) 24 August 1981 – Note
‘Thank you so much for both letters. I will write properly as soon as less pressed.
THE FIRST MERCY: Warlock, words by Bruce Blunt is pub[lishe]d by Boosey & Hawkes in leaflet. Unis[on] and Piano the original & best.
V[ery] m[uch] love,
DS23. (M) Between September and December 1981 or 82 – An undated notelet of a painting of a windmill by the Flemish painter, Brueghel.
‘So sorry these were delayed – it was sweet of you to spare them. It was wonderful to see you on your flying visit. Do fly this way again!
And thank you so much for the sweetie donkey & lovely wishes. How can a Birthday not be happy with such thoughts around one!
Very much love, & to you all,
I had a marvellous letter from Norman [Peterkin who died aged 95 in December 1982]. He was full of your visit to him & splendid lunch out. He really is a wonder.
I know his birthday is at Christmas time – I usually send him wine or something, to cover both events, but I’ve forgotten his exact Birthday date. Could you be an angel and put it on a pc – not expecting letter! So many thanks. X’
DS24. (M) 25 October 1982
‘My dear, very dear Diana,
How very sweet & splendid of you to mark my Birthday with your delightful card & news. I felt enormously rich. The warmth around one of the friends accompanying one’s way, who remember & rejoice, is like nothing else. Bless you. I had a lovely day, & an extra one thrown in at a Wigmore Hall celebration a few days previously (1st perf[orman]ce of a harp piece) & a great gathering at the party after, of friends & contemporaries in the profession, all saying how old they were getting, but remarkably unchanged & putting down the booze as well as ever!
I am above all relieved to know that Brian is still where he was, I felt so worried about the overhanging risk & do hope nothing will now disturb his position.
I am so glad Cathy & Philip go on well. I hope Philip will find the sort of job he is looking for. How lovely that you went to Arles – I know it & that marvellous Van Gogh countryside.
I seem to have spent the summer working madly to very little purpose, the latest Penguin still uncompleted. It has been an awful year of repairs & liability to Rooks Nest after the disasters of last winter. A chunk of the old farm buildings, with their lovely old roof, took off vertically in a blizzard & was deposited in the drive, taking the coal shed with it & the ancient farm loo – unbroken. I laughed & laughed. Then started to build up & onto the house, with matching Jacobean handmade bricks I had collected & stored in case of just such an eventuality. (I’m quite a good bricklayer, though, unlike [Winston] Churchill, not yet a Union member). With a new arch onto the view, it is now enchanting with a lovely place to sit. But it was expensive & took time, & I am as far in arrears as ever. But nil desp[erandum; never give up]. I am cheered by your lovely remembrance.
I do sympathise with your age experience. But have no fears it heralds a wonderful new phase with certain troubles gone & a real rebirth replacing them. You & Dora are made of the same stuff!
Ever, with much love,
DS25. (M) 3 June 1983 – Card of photograph of the top of a decorated armoire:
So sweet of you to send me the wood pigeon. It was so lovely to see you both – thanks all on my side to you for making the opportunity & the detour for a most happy & inspiring occasion.
NB: it is so nice to find one’s friends looking just the same & no older! Keep it up.
So glad you had such a good visit & feel reinforced for roofing rigours ahead!
All love, as ever,
DS26. (T) 19 October 1983
‘My dear Diana,
Will you, as an old and most dear friend with long links with other beloved friends, forgive me for being so base as shamelessly to scrounge on your telephone bill at the expense of mine, and ask you if you would ring me at your convenience one of the next several evenings except Saturday, from 7 pm?
I need your advice and opinion. I am also in the midst of Rooks Nest crises over the long-accrued subsidence on the south front. This, I think, I have dealt with – but at a pretty desperate builders’ cost and I have to save every penny and shall probably shortly be busking!
In the meantime, please accept a new copy of Jesus Christ the Apple Tree. Though by now it is fairly venerable, I have released it in leaflet now that its original venue, Penguin, Cambridge Hymnal &c. can stand on their own feet. I think that Banks have made a neat job, don’t you? Apparently it has continued selling, and this, I hope, will stop some of the copying rot. Lindsay Silver, who founded Banks [Musical Publications, York], served in OUP under Norman and is a loyal inheritor of the old days.
I hope very much all is well with you all and no more awful doubts about Brian’s job.
Very much love ever,
DS27. (T) 15 June 1984
‘Dear Brian & Diana,
Congratulations on your great Silver Milestone approaching! and thank you so much for inviting me. If I were nearer, I would be with you – and particularly with vivid memories of your wedding! Alas, it cannot be, but be assured, I shall be with you in spirit, and wishing you joyful progress onwards to gold!
You may have seen in The Times of the death of my dear and only brother Ralph, the very last of us. After Charterhouse, King‘s and Heidelberg (a double language degree) and his brilliant Foreign Office career as diplomat and broadcaster, head of govt Broadcasting Middle East and service there and Cyprus, British Embassy Moscow &c he forsook pay and prosperity to put himself back to college for ordination into Anglican orders, and was appointed Chaplain to the Vere [Verne] Prison on Portland.
He had an irresistible power of personality. His old lags loved him. So did his friends. And so did I. Ten days before he died, he insisted on being brought the many miles from his nursing home (sclerosis) in the West, to be here at home once again. His joy in doing so was infinitely touching – yet another instance of the extraordinary power of love in this strange old place – and in that joy he died. I am in pieces: he was the other half of a split pea with myself. But for him, all is happy.
With much love,
DS28. (T) 23 October 1984
‘My dear Diana,
Thank you so very much for your lovely card and remembering wishes – marvellous of you – and your letter, all precious. And for your characteristic generosity and practicality in sending me the most welcome photostat of your father’s article in British Music of our Time – a reference I confess had completely slipped my mind (I think I have the book somewhere!). It is most valuable to reread. I rather think I first saw it, or bits of it, shown me by himself at the time it was in preparation. It is altogether a good and helpful thing to have: he did P[eter] W[arlock] proud – and so much under-standing is still needed. The regrettable ‘PW Society’ have got him so wrong and have really little or no idea who or what they are dealing with, that it may be impossible to put it right: his kind of genius is not in the present world and seems altogether beyond the young hopefuls who seek to commemorate him by shatteringly awful performances and gatherings in cellars to drink the beer songs!
I am intrigued that you think Hubert did not have a hand in correcting the errors (and there are a good many) in the Cecil Gray book, to which I refused to contribute, mistrusting Gray and his outlook then as I still do. Your father, fortunately at the hub, was a knowledgeable and valuable assessor. He certainly helped a lot with the 2nd edition of Warlock‘s book on Delius – blue-pencilling much needed! though I certainly thought he had also been in on the Gray concoction. My thanks, please, also to Peter Evans [Professor of Music at the University of Southampton]. Like many musicians, unable to afford New Grove, it takes me distance and petrol to consult it – and if Maggie [Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher] clamps on payment in libraries, the Dark Ages will include me!
I shall be with you in thought tomorrow in especial thanksgiving for you dear friends who so immeasurably enrich life.
So much love,
DS29. (M) 2 June 1985 – Greek Card of sheep being milked, to Mrs Brian Sparkes, 16 Leigh Road, Highfield, Southampton, SO2 1EF
‘Thank you so much for First Cuckoo.
Sun[day] 28 July splendid – shall look forward very much.
You will have to take as you find! R[ook]s Nest in the midst of drastic upheavals – scaffolding, roof, walls, interior. Awful and exorbitant mess – not much helped by M[argaret] Thatcher, who has axed the [Charity?] Commission grant that was going to pay for it. Merde. En avant
DS30. (M) 23 September 1985
Thank you so much for your sweet letter & for the nicest photographs I have had for a long time. I’m so delighted to have them. Both sitting on view here & looking as though they belong, as indeed they do. Another wonderfully happy meeting to remember.
I send you the enclosed knowing, alas, that distance will forbid, & sad I am [that you will not join the party*]. But you will be in my thought. I need my friends in theirs.
The music will be good, & it has been lovely being allowed to choose the songs! Brian Rayner Cook is, to me, the finest of all in English Song, which is my special love – he has got right to the top & has not let it spoil him – he is fascinating to watch as well, which is more than can be said for many singers! And he is a darling, with a very funny sense of humour.
Christopher Robinson is the Queen’s man at the Chapel Royal, Windsor, & a super musician. I am abundantly blest.
I gather the BBC have planned something on 24 October, my actual [birth]day, but as it is meant to be a surprise, I don’t officially ‘know’ much about it!
Dear love to both & all Sparkes,
[*Elizabeth thought that Diana & Brian would not be able to attend her 80th Birthday concert in Berkhamsted – but they were!]
DS31. (M) 2 October 1985
I am absolutely devastated, thrilled, delighted to get your wonderful news just now via Sea Pictures! I can’t tell you what a joy and inspiration. I enclose local directions.
My only regret: that I can’t make the occasion a party as well & stay my dear people with flagons – but as it is County, Arts Council &c. & not on my own ground, myself a guest, I must hope to make up at Rooks Nest in our own way later on.ø
The BBC are following up later & during the year, Autobiog[raphy] already recorded, to be given, I believe, a preview on Radio 3 on the morning of Oct 24. But this, now, will be its first appearance ever. I do SO HOPE you will find your journey worth it! It is so sweet of you even to consider coming. I am so honoured. Dear Norman will be v[ery] much in mind – he helped & encouraged me all along the way.
All thanks, love –
ø I can’t even offer to put anybody up, as I shall be staying overnight, gallant friends rushing back after concert to sleep here & look after Polly & the Aga [cooker].’
DS32. (M) 22 December 1985
You will think me awful. With apologies, only a trifle overwhelmed. Don’t be 80 if you can help it, just skip to 90 & go on enjoying life! I had over 500 letters (& I’m not the kind to send out communal thanks or printed acknowledgement!)
I am sustained, literally night & day, in my present unremitting efforts, by that gorgeous blanket of real lovely Scots wool which I carried home from Berkhamsted in its rosy musical wrappings, & is just the top-layer to go on my bed & of perfect size & lightness to wrap also over me/feet when I feel the need of a little daytime rest. It was so very sweet of you. It will always be a very speshal [sic] birthday present.
The songs are now in the press, which is always a very taxing proofing process, & are likely, I believe, to be recorded. There is also a new Penguin commission. (NO, DON’T be 80. It’s quite impossible).
In the midst of all else, I press on with Rooks Nest, which I have to get ready to leave when I do. I celebrate Christmas in the Inner City (live, eat, work in one room) having now added electric re-wiring to the rest of the upheaval) – but still merry, withal, & the weather is a lovely spring-like Christmas.
I do hope yours will be a very happy one, and the year to follow.
I love your DHL card, truly original & decorative – but it doesn’t say who designed it & drew those delightful pussies [D. H. Lawrence’s words about cats were on the front of the home-designed Christmas card; artist, Michael Ayrton]. (Polly w[oul]d be jealous if her sweet nature knew how). Please let them be thanked. And you.
Ever with much love,
[Added along the left margin:]
Brian Rayner Cook, The Quavers 53 Friars Avenue Friern Barnet
London N20 OX6. What fun that he is singing down your way in March.’
DS33. (M) 9 April 1986 – Card with a cut-out collage of a bunch of red tomatoes with ‘Cornucopia of Hope!’ inscribed alongside.
‘Thank you so much for your card & splendid news. Fri[day] 4 April will be fine. Always a special day, to me, the start of it all, my parents’ wedding day – they were such marvellous ones, glorious people both.
I’m so glad to hear you have survived the horrid cold. Here it has been the worst I have ever experienced, total discomfort, chaotic & icy: cellar up, only plank-access above, all beams/floors/rooms torn up for re-wiring, & a beautiful climax this week with kitchen plastering! But I could see no possible reason for prolonging the misery, so we bashed on & my liege-workmen were super – we all lived on s[wiss?] rolls & baked potatoes!
Now, DV [Deo volenti; God willing], in sight of more hopeful things & the snowdrops are out in carpets, tho’ there is still a barricade at the front door saying NO ADMITTANCE, to persuade postmen & others to go round to the back – so don’t be surprised at anything!!
Your notice in advance is always greatly appreciated.
I cut these tomatoes out of a garden catalogue to help keep hope it wouldn’t always be like it was!
Lots of love
DS34. (M) 2 June 1986
‘My very dear Diana,
Thank you for everything: the joy of seeing you, your letters & the photographs to add to the record of our toll of happy days – I think my odd explosive appearance was caused by a laugh that turned into a cough! You & Brian always come out marvellously, including the enclosed, plus Polly who loves being made a fuss of. And I love Brian’s shot of the Polyanthus, my protest against cold grey winter!
It was more than sweet of you to take so much interest & trouble over the projected record & so very kind to get the Robert White [a distinguished American tenor] cassette tape. He looks a jolly chap & I am glad to have him on my list. Though mind you, I shall probably not get things all my own way. I have been up against this with previous recordings – recording companies invariably have their own candidates, & I have found one is often obliged to settle for a swap your tenor for my baritone, etc – and of course, the last person I can consult is Brian Rayner Cook, as he would so love to do the whole thing, but as his contribution will take up one side, the recording co., perhaps wisely for the sake of my writing, prefer another type of voice on the other side, or people might think that I only write for baritone!
Do thank Peter Evans de ma part for his kindly interest & suggestions. Ian Partridge, tho’ still very competent, has a much-aged voice – the freshness has gone. Rob[er]t Tear I have worked with, also Simon Elwes, whom I thought highly of, but that was some time ago – I must try & get on his track. Robert T[ear] is too operatic for present casting & the other baritone with the double-barrelled name, which for the moment escapes meø I have heard on the air but wasn’t very impressed – I was intrigued to hear he was a farmer. One of the best, whose work I loved, John Barrow, also a great friend, is unfortunately a baritone & deciding to retire at his peak, is happily building boats in Cornwall. If they had asked me for female voice, I would have had Janet Baker [a famous English Contralto] – but too late. The limited life of a singer, as with a dancer, is a sad drawback. However, keep your fingers crossed. I wish all these lovely things had happened when I was not 80… when ideas & maturity can be at their best, but not the physical powers to carry them out.
I am so sorry to have been delayed in thanking you. I have more on my shoulders now than any woman of 30 could well be expected to cope with. With the best will in the world in my daily programme 5 am – midnight, too often the utter exhaustion that attacks willy nilly, persuades unhappily towards bed, knowing that it is at cost of the ten or dozen letters awaiting reply, & this through a pattern of days impossible to curtail, with all the constant & intricate legal business/valuation/surveying &c. &c. about the house & property. Will is strong. One just gets too tired to carry on. You will know when you get there – Put it off.
I’m so glad Cathy is safely back & had such a marvellous time.
Interesting to hear your mother’s records of Walton are being such a help to Susanna now. It will help her, but she must be terribly hard hit by his loss [Sir William Walton died in 1984]. How quickly, how quickly it all goes.
Dearest love, & again thanks,
ø Anthony Rolfe-Johnson’
DS35. (M) 1986
‘My dear Diana,
What was the date/year of your memorable wedding? [Diana Foss married Brain Sparkes on August 22 1959 at St Peter’s Vere St, London W1] I recall it so vividly. I came across a ref[erence] to it in old letters I was perusing & w[oul]d like to be accurate. St. Peter’s Vere Street, wasn’t it? What a splendid lot you have both got into life since! – wedding thoughts uppermost at the moment after the recent joyful events, a welcome respite from the world’s drearies[t] obsessions.
And what do you know? Brian (Rayner Cook), Christopher [Robinson] & I received gold-plated missives from the Lord Chamberlain & spent a wonderful afternoon at the Royal Garden Party. There must, we felt, have been an Intelligent Listener to last year’s broadcasts. On one of the hottest days ever we gorged on strawberries with four bands (not all playing at once) & enjoyed an afternoon of meetings, gossip, & exploration of the flamingos & the gardens – the rooms were gorgeous, all the greatest possible fun. The royal family were all present except for children & the new Yorks, (she is not yet royal!). Polly [Elizabeth’s dog] was disappointed to learn that the corgis were not of the party. The whole thing is much more informal & relaxed than it used to be, the Family strolling about & chatting with everyone within reach, your namesake talking volubly – Not nearly so impressive as her photographs, the husband mopping brow: ‘Can you keep cool? I can’t!’ He was our chosen one: both the brains & the sensitivity. I feel we are very lucky in him – & he is not the caricaturist’s piece he is too often made out to be.
Perhaps this will come when you are away in some glorious spot – I very much hope all is well with you all. Have turned my attention from tenors to flute at the moment, with a commission to write for James Galway.
Lots of love
DS36. (M) 1986 – Notelet of a Brockenhurst Arts Guild Cottage.
‘My dears – this a kindly gift, slightly too good to be true. ‘Not in the pink’, I can’t persuade my garden to look so tidy or my door-knocker so polished!
Thank you so much – in all senses – for Aug 22 1959. I’m so glad I was there. I wish could be one of Brian’s lecturees on the Swan Hellenic cruise, a form of holiday I have always longed to take.
I hope he doesn’t have E. M. Forster’s experience, one of his most hilarious yarns, when he was doing a similar thing & was lecturing in Etruria [in Italy] on the Etruscans, and a keen lady kept on plying him with questions he couldn’t answer. It turned out she had read up the wrong subject & was under the impression the course was about the Hittites.
So glad Cathy had such a wonderful visit to Japan & is now back and launched. My love & congratulations to her.
Come back safe & brown!
With much love,
DS37. (M) 21 January 1987 (three months before she died)
Your sweet letter came today – so very dear of you to think of me!
Your thoughts do a lot of good & shelter me round. I
do thank you.
And also for thinking via Michael Willoughby.
He has been up here since the brief time I have been home, as it is difficult for me to get to him at Lister. Maggie T’s [Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher’s] cuts have resulted in chaos for hospitals & have made life terribly problematic for people like him. I have to depend on ambulance, & I am told there is only one for the five big towns in this district & that this is all there is to depend on for road accidents & the killed & dying, so cases like mine can’t be helped.
However, I’m so lucky & am greatly thankful to be here at all – it was a very long imprisonment, & skied up on the 13th floor, I could only see a patch of sky & occasional skein of sparrows.
I was allowed home on suff[e]rance & am determined to make it work – tho’ it’s tremendously problematic – e.g. last week at height of the freeze, alone at night (bed in workroom) & hearing waterfall of pipe–burst down the walls. Bones are proverbially slow to mend & mine are no exception, the excruciating nerve pain their most difficult & exhausting. It is the pelvic fracture that gives the worst trouble, & one can only hold on & try & see it through for the duration. I can stagger to the loo with difficulty, & a kind workman keeps the Aga [cooker] alight, so I have much to be thankful for – & Polly is happy lying by my bed.
If you have difficulty getting through & can’t get news, you need never scruple about ringing the family. (Dr) Robin Poston (of Guy’s) is a darling & so is his wife Sophie, amusingly cosmopolitan, daughter of a Polish Fighter Pilot & Belgian mother (who has a senior post at the Middlesex Hospital), & educated in England! Their home no: Sevenoaks: 0732 454575 will mostly get them in the evening, & he wouldn’t mind a bit. Nor would his parents, which your description fits of ‘elderly clergy couple’, the sweetest people: Revd Robert & Mrs Poston Great Horkesley, nr. Colchester: 026: 271344 – adopted parents to me!
It is so inspiring to get such good news of you all: Brian’s 2-m[on]th trip to Greece, with your lovely prospect of joining him towards the end; Philip & Jane’s visit & plans; & dear Cathy’s marvellous, very vital work in Speech Therapy. Please give her my love.
With all mine to you & thanks for all (lifelong!) sweetness to me,
Your very loving (if ricketty!)
Letters supplied by Dr. Michael Willoughby (1975-1986)
The initiation of this sample of Elizabeth’s correspondence seems to be the entry in her Pocket Diary for Monday, 21 April 1975, ‘Lister [Hospital]: Dr. Willoughby 3 pm’ and the letter that immediately followed accompanying a gift to his children of her Children’s Song Book.
MW1. 21 April 1975
‘Dear Dr Willoughby
I find I have a copy of the American edition – it’s just the same. Please accept it.
A Grateful Patient’
MW2. (M) Undated, but late 1975 (post 24 October)
‘Dear Dr Willoughby,
I have been meaning to write to say how touched I was to find your name among the very kind contributors to that wonderfully generous Birthday gift – a complete surprise to me, one that helped to make this particular birthday one of the nicest things of a lifetime.
I was nervous about playing: it was very necessary to me to prove to myself that I could – the drips & needles caused virtual paralysis of my right hand & I wondered how my long self-imposed therapy since by 5-finger exercises & scales would pay off! I could have done better, but that splendid buttressing of friends helped to restore confidence & I sailed through a BBC recital (recorded) since with comparative calm! So here’s to more lovely songs in the New Year (neither the Chancellor nor Mrs B[arbara] C[astle] can take those away!) & a very Happy Christmas to you & your family, with so many thanks,
I have heard from Diana (Foss) Sparkes that she was tickled to death at meeting you again!
The enclosed, not a card & NOT advertising (God forbid!) is so much the prettiest thing I have this year – the angel on top of the organ at King’s – that I thought you might like to see it, cover proof of the new paperback edition. A project originally discussed as a modern unorthodox supplement, with V[aughn] W[illiams], who died before it got under way, it is full of gorgeous things, carols, spirituals, folk etc.’
MW3. (M) 27 September 1976
‘Dear Mike & Ruth,
It was so sweet of you to give up time to sharing with me the children & the house & garden, not to mention the delightful entertainment to follow! all so appreciated. I enjoyed every minute – meeting the children on their own ground, all at such interesting stages & each so distinctive, & the lovely place you have made of your house, inside & out.
The village does deserve congratulations on producing something so traditionally true to itself, such fun, in a mass-produced age.
With love & thanks,
MW4. (M) 16 February 1977
It was so sweet of you to send me the delicious chocolate cake, every morsel enjoyed & appreciated, as also, very much, Mike’s kindness in coming. It all, with his lovely and most generous gift of Special Willoughby Marmalade, was a cheer and encouragement in a bizarre situation confined to newspaper stories till it happens to oneself!
As soon as it clears up, I shall burst out like cork from bottle, and we must have another get-together here.
With love and so many thanks, Elizabeth.’
MW5. (M) Undated, but presumably in 1977, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee year
Dear Mike and Ruth,
I do think it was very sweet of you to give us all such a very happy evening. I did so enjoy it – seeing you both and meeting the others, & the thrill of the gorgeous things you gave us to eat & drink! Also the specially lovely flowers in the house. I’m hoping the Queen will provide a couple of days for getting down to the garden, which sorely needs it. The donkeys & the dog will be loyally sporting red white & blue, though I’m not sure how best to add red and blue to the pigeons!
With love & so many thanks,
MW6. (T) 7 November 1978
I’m back, so glad to be so, feeling about 100% better, and at your service if and as required.
The Musician’s Home is a. marvellous place and my stay there by the sea did me a lot of good. I searched in vain for something to bring the children, so thought these might meet the case.
A letter from Diana Sparkes says please to give you her greetings. Her Cathy, a splendid apple-cheeked girl (clarinet and O-level’s music) wants to be a nurse. Philip is at Cambridge reading Eng Lit. They’re a bright lot.
Love to you all and looking forward to showing you I’ve really done you credit (I hope!)
MW7. (T) 5 December 1978
If I should not in the meantime have caught you by telephone, I do thank you again for .the lovely evening in which you were both so operative – Schubert and trifle (how he would have approved!) and the special enjoyment to me of going with you all and your most kind transport in, your impressive car.
Please could you be very kind and sign the enclosures and request your Secretary to get them sent of as soon as possible. I believe there is a time limit for one to draw .the sum insured for – I put in the claim while I was still at the ‘Musicians’, and I want to get some shrubs for the garden while time and weather are right!
The clause in the Claim Form: ‘Name and address of registered medical practitioner who recommended treatment’ is a trifle ambiguous. John Warner Smith saw me in bed on the Monday, 28 August, when I was already feeling very ill. On the Monday, 28 August, he came again when I was considerably worse. He diagnosed inflamed sinus and left me some aspirin. I told him I have never had any recurrence of sinu[sic] trouble since I had the EN&T [Ear, Nose & Throat] operation for clearing it ages ago.
On the Wednesday morning, 30 August, I had spent most of the night on the floor, as by then I wasn’t able to get back into bed. As the doctor had recommended nothing, the Canadian tenants [Jean and Don Coulthard], newly arrived, became worried and asked me who I could ring. I thought, of course, immediately of you, but in case the attack wasn’t anything and to save bothering you unnecessarily, I named Sylvia [Watkins], as she has often said ‘be sure and ring me in need’. They rang her. She came almost at once and said: ‘Elizabeth, I am taking matters into my own hands and sending you down to the hospital in an ambuland’, and packed me into the carrycot and so down to you. Thank God! I really do.
Love and so many thanks to you both,
PS It was so nice to get a glimpse of the children, and also to meet your mother. What a wonderfully vivid person she is!
MW8. (M) 23 September 1983
So sweet of you to write with those lovely invitations. I should love to take part in the Harvest celebrations on Saturday 8 October, & on Saturday 22 October go to another of those delightful music-makings at Dennis Wood’s. It is so good of you to suggest transport. I’m sure I can manage under my own steam on Sat 8. But I‘d be very grateful for a lift on the 22nd, if it can be managed without too much bother, as I’m uncertain of the way. (My main object in avoiding hazards these days is my wish to avoid anything that might cause the authorities to rule me too old to drive, which would be a disaster, as I should have to stop living here!)
The kidney X-ray episode took me by surprise, my constitution somehow failed to stand up to it, the pain and shock were prolonged into something rather nightmarish. It was quite difficult to get home & I spent some days in bed on cups of tea & then subsided into a garden chair – all now wearing off. I adored the lovely hot summer & haven’t done much work!
I was greatly cheered by being given an appointment to see you at the Clinic at Lister on Thurs 18 Oct (3.05 pm), the earliest they could offer – meanwhile, I had a brief kindly session with a nice new ‘house person’ during your absence. I gather from Sylvia [Watkins] you had a marvellous holiday (when you weren’t fishing Tom out!!)
So looking forward to seeing the family, with love to you all,
MW9. (M) Undated but probably November 1986
Just to let you know all is going on well & to bring you all my thanks & appreciation for your kindness & skill & understanding – all helping me on indescribably – I shall hope to spread some practical thanks around the wards when I get back. That should be by early Dec. when I have to see Dr Dorrell again on 3rd.
The shoulder & arm progress slowly but I think surely – Robin‘s wife’s mother, very nice, is a senior physiotherapist at the Middlesex & she has been helping me with some very good tips & movements, & testing mine out.
Legs are being far more obstinate & I am not yet beyond very tottering steps with Lister [Hospital] walking-frame. I know that confidence continues a main problem. But the food is very good! (Sophie’s father was a Polish fighter pilot) and lovely air. The new house is v. nice & roomy & I have a big extension convertible divan bed in the living cum writing room with all mod cons downstairs, & separate playroom for the boys, 5 & 3, who keep me with it on computers, underwater missiles etc.
My love, & [?] please to Ruth, & most grateful thanks again. Inside doing fine, laxatives & all.
MW10. (M) 1 December 1986
c/o Revd & Mrs Robert Poston, Clement House
Great Horkesley, Colchester
Essex CO6 4HA; Tel 026. 271344
It was so good of you to spare me such time and personal thought over that odd adventure – I don’t know to this day how it happened. It had been a reasonably tough year, trying to make arrangements about the house, & more work than I could well manage, & perhaps I had been overdoing it, tho’ trying not to – but it is difficult when on one’s own.
Your get-together with Robin [Poston] was wonderfully timely – I was in such a shaky stage at that point that I don’t know otherwise what would have happened. As it was, I was whisked off down to him & had a marvellous week there. He is so kind & unfussy, at the same time so precautionary & commonsense – his wife as good, a splendid person – her father a Polish fighter pilot in the War, mother Belgian & the Senior Physiotherapist at the Middlesex Hospital, Sophie herself also trained & pleasantly continental in the arts of cookery & clothing etc. I found their tips & help enormously practical; & the children, 6 & 4, kept one briefed as to Starwars, underwater missiles etc.
From there I was handed on to Robin’s parents, a senior branch of the family I am very fond of, dear saintly people, he retired, helping out among the villagers & writing learned books. Since I have been here the weather has been mild & I have progressed from walking frame to stick, & can practise steps, interspersed with peaceful drives in this lovely Constable country.
Am hoping to be brought home within a week or so, in good time before your Clinic on 16th. It may perhaps be possible to be allowed a Home Help for awhile until I can get on a bit further. The arm mending slowly & I suppose more or less routinely, legs very slow & the main problem, and I shall of course be cut off without car for a time.
In the meanwhile, so much to be thankful for, and I am. My love to you all & very affectionate thanks to you,
With the hospital chit, I managed to get a refill of Methyldopa & the others, from the GP & dispensary there.’
Letters supplied by David Watkins (1966-1968)
It is clear from Elizabeth’s Pocket Diaries that, in 1959 she sent David her Trio for flute, viola and harp and from then on their friendship and collaboration flourished with mutual visits. Subsequently his cousin, Dr. Sylvia Watkins and her mother too became her friends (see Letters SW 1- SW4).
DW1. (T) 31 August 1966
I have designs on you for:-
(1) Third Programme Battle of Hastings celebrations, incidental music in verse drama HAROLD by Lord Tennyson, edited by his grandson Sir Charles Tennyson, whose son Hallam Tennyson, BBC’s Asst. head of Drama, is producing (Tennyson beano!) Scheduled for recording, Sunday 25th September, a.m. and p.m. sessions. Do hope you can.
(2) Big documentary for Westminster Abbey, in connection with the Abbey’s 900th anniversary, being made by BBC Television in conjunction with USA. Score still nebulous, but I do hope to work some harp in.
Sooner or later I shall doubtless need your advice, and that would be very nice.
I do hope you’ve had a lovely holiday and a real rest.
Looking forward to seeing you soon.
Have I got your London Address & phone no😕 I have Flat 7, 59 Hyde Pk Gate (KNI 8983) but am not sure if this is up to date?
DW2. (M) 5 September 1966 – Card of Audley End, Saffron Walden, Essex, addressed to David Watkins Esq., 20 Endell St., Covent Garden, London WC2.
‘Thank you so much. I’m so glad you can do the Tennyson celebrations on Sept 25. There’s not a great deal of harp & it’s easy, but what there is is important & quite nice!
I’ll ask BBC copying dept. to let you have your part. Splendid you are now so near the Garden – I should love to come. There’s another interesting job brewing, of which more when I see you.
DW3. (T) 15 November 1966
Thank you so much. Wednesday November 23rd will be lovely. This place is hundreds of years old (a national house) and I hope your harp will be able to get round the porches (my grand piano and other things were moved in through taken-out windows, so I am walled up!).
Come via Finchley Road, Brent Flyover, straight ahead on A1 – (about 34 miles).
Neglect Stevenage New Town, Industrial areas &c. Keep straight on through Old Stevenage, via High Street (Dickens pubs etc). At the Bowling Green by War memorial, fork R as for ‘The North’. About ½ mile on, turn R by MARQUIS OF GRANBY pub into Rectory Lane. About a quarter of a mile on, at newly-constructed roundabout by old church, bear L as for WESTON. About ½ mile on up the lane you come to Rooks Nest. This consists of Rooks Nest Reservoir R (Betjeman Dissenting Chapel model); a little further on L, Rooks Nest Farm; about 50 yards on L. opposite farm cottages, ROOK’S [sic] NEST HOUSE, tall gates.
Expect you any time from mid-day. Will hope to have red carpet down for le Roi Davide.
Lots of love, so looking forward to seeing you.
DW4. (M) Thursday December 1st 1966
‘Mon cher roi,
It was absolutely & characteristically sweet of you to write such a sweet letter, enormously appreciated by all, not least by Auntie Ethel, who thinks you are ‘a very nice young gentleman’ – I don’t think [struck through] know quite what she made of the harp, but takes all in stride. I shall keep the delicious recollection of spaghetti cheese being gently inserted (between the strings?) while in action.
It transforms my musical thought to have you & harp (you both, I should say, tho’ I think of you as one & indivisible… even if this possibly gets a bit too like the Athanasian Creed – it leaves so much behind me & I’m working on it. Pray like mad, & play invocations & mutter runes & expect cri d’au secours [call for help] at any moment. I think, as so pressed for time, that what I had better do is, make a working score for them to start learning the work with, simply a rehearsal piano part, & work out the notating-down & details of the harp part separately under your wing, so I can give the necessary time to that, the most important. I’m so glad you like the idea, I do hope, with your help, it will turn out worthily. I’ll certainly try & make harp preludes/interludes detachable – in either case, as important too for the carols.
Don’t you think the harp concerto ought to be ‘just good friends’ till a stage further, if you can bear it, if only for my horrible superstitious fear of counting unhatched eggs!! – Tho’ to continue the farmyard metaphor, I don’t see why you shouldn’t say mysteriously that you have a tame composer out to grass somewhere, with project in mind!
I’m consumed with amusement at Maria K’s forte comment on your performance at the Harpist’s Association – an occasion that must have required courage, though obviously just the thing for you to do. I can’t imagine anything more unnerving than all those harpists sitting around at close quarters like lynxes, studying. every movement
Remember remember not the 5th of November but Wed. 21st December Lunch-time Carol Concert with Robbie, important also for as rehearsal for the recording, & EMI are coming to reconnoitre & time-check etc. at that morning’s rehearsal, so don’t let all of your pupils have pride of place if you can possibly get free (put something in Morris S’s tea)!
Lots & lots of love from me & all.
Elizabeth and David
DW5. (T) January 23 1967
‘Cher David (roi),
1 I had a ring from Farnham over theo weekend saying they had written to you about Thursday May 11th, the Festival First Performance (day: rehearsal morning; performance evening) and have had no reply.
Artists’ bookings have to be clinched now. If yours isn’t clinched… Or… will get the job, and oh dear, quelle tragedie. Please do what you can.
2 Please could you let me have check of publicity wording for Festival brochure, programme etc: ‘D[avid] W[atkins] studied in Paris with…’ (whom? so sorry, her name eludes me). ‘And is at present Principal Harpist at the Royal Opera House’ – or should it be ‘Principal Harp’?
3 Photographing of scores all satisfactorily done – harp part follows to you for finalizing, any moment now.
DW6 (M) Thursday evening Dec 15th – probably early 1966.
‘Mon cher roi,
– in Brit. Railways, very shaky, forgive biro, en route for B. Cellini!
Do help me about a Bumble Bee. A daytime-poem in the harp festival work is: A CHARM AGAINST A BUMBLE BEE (that it shall not sting) 5. 1560. The rhythm is of ‘Twinkle, twinkle little star’, a rather leisurely two-in-a-bar:-
Pitty çpitty çpitty çpat ç
And the harp is playing rather precisely. But whenever there is a reference to the bee’s hum, or where suitable, I would like to have a bumble bee sound on the harp – could be playing off-rhythm, or in gaps, as best goes. How does a harp best convey it? Is there a way of scrubbing round the strings with both hands, or either hand, with a circular motion, to make a kind of burr-burr??
Advice vastly appreciated. I suppose it wouldn’t be feasible to get your beautiful harp near enough to the telephone, to illustrate? (I’d willingly pay the 6d! [2.5 pence]) (The other thing I could suggest is, that you fit it permanently with walkie-talkie, so I could always communicate when the spirit is moving me!!)
I feel that each piece in the sequence should have its own harp sound & mood, & I do hope it will work out. I think it is – but at this point say no more, you know how superstitious (perchestitiono?) I am when a work is in process, & I’m working feverishly at this one. – Want of course you to see it & to go through it with you soon as ever poss.[ible] – but just not quite ready yet. Where are you going to be over Christmas, & can I get hold of you – if necessary, to talk to… see and/or phone? Do hope you can assist bee buzzing in bonnet – he won’t buzz without you! Meno [no] excuses.
Lots & lots of love
DW7. (T) 28 February 1967
MAKE WE MERRY – E.M.I. Carol recording
revised harp part incorporating your edited emendations Harp Prelude at the beginning, to preface the work
The Prelude is a shape and an atmosphere which I do hope you will find work out all right, written for harp solo, the optional flute part in no way essential, though it will probably be included for the recording. Please edit anything you think in the harp part, I am always grateful. And could you see that it times at the duration as pencilled, as we have to be exact! The beginning and end of the piece are very spacious and leisurely and contemplative.
This leaves one linking carol piece to follow soon as possible. The [AN ENGLISH] DAY-BOOK (Bumble Bee & co) harp part for your suggestions will be coming also, but I am concentrating on the carols first.
Lots of love.
I do hope all is well? Mum’s poor eyes can scarcely see to put a stamp on, but she wrote you a post card herself with tender enquiries, she was so concerned about your health! Did you get it?’
DW8. (T) March 15 1967
‘My dear David,
Here is MY DANCING DAY, little Interlude to come before the Finale section IV (‘The Dance’) of MAKE WE MERRY carols – a bridge between the Crêche and dance pulse. I should have a worse conscience than I have about not sending it before (done but not copied!) if’ it were not so easy! But that, as you will have gathered, is part of the idea (i.e. to sound all right while not making too many demands) – with one eye on school performances! The piece has to conform to timing requirements on disc, so I’d be grateful if you could make it work out approximately to the duration as given. The elastic bit comes between bars 21-25. The two harp pieces tie the work together. I was much cheered that you said on your card that the Prelude comes off all right on simple lines. We simply loved your cards – those sublimely decorative cats gaze serenely at us from Mum’s dressing table. I do hope all is well now with you and the household, and flu quite gone. I’ll either bring to the studio or send the Aldershot harp part for your final editing. They have let me know that you can come down there for a harp rehearsa1 with the girls’ choir on April 25 afternoon, and I’m so glad, as I think essential for their sake – and I‘m longing to hear what the whole sounds like! Apart from that, about 100 girls are all agog for the most pin-up harpist in creation – you have been warned! Lots of’ love,
Card enc[losed] to say this has shocked you’
DW9. (T) Monday May 1 1967
‘My dear David,
Have your false eyelashes ready: Farnham Festival rang to say we are being filmedø in action at Wednesday’s rehearsal, and asked if we could get there well before 11, so as to get the harp set up and everything ready to go by 11, when they want to start shooting. The makers of the film are the COI (Central Office of Information) – sort of govt dept – which exists to centra1ise in making film for current television and supplies BBC and radio all over the world with week-by-week activities in this country under the title of This Week in Britain.
Of those with Festival commissions, they have chosen me in serious, Johnny Dankworth in light – our only instructions, to be ourselves and workaday (easy!!) So I will start from here early or stay overnight in London, so as to be with you by 9 o’clock instead of 9.30 as we said, so we can be down there by 10.30. I hope this will be all right for you.
I posted you the Interlude yesterday (Sunday) and will owe you the excess if it was under stamped, as being Sunday and the PO [Post Office] closed, I couldn’t check weight. What I was trying to say in it, with a gathering-up of threads and all now at the peak, was summer noon, hot sun, gentle relaxed thoughts… the little references to Lemady and bird-calls etc all directed towards a halfway caesura, a lie-back leading into The Noonday Heat. Does it manage to convey that? and without too much trouble? I will bring a copy for Pamela Verrall, so that she knows the cue.
Much love, Elizabeth
ø Slides may come in useful for your publicity.’
DW10. (M) Thursday Aug. 24th 
I was specially thinking of you & was so glad to get your beautiful post card of Tewkesbury Abbey, a place I love, this morning (must have been a wave-exchange!) & hear you have been away in anywhere so satisfying as the Lake District, however indifferent the weather,
I am constantly idle, most unusual; seized with lethargy not altogether pure laziness, as I have spent July-August in hospital over an operation which has been hanging over me for some time & I was relieved it didn’t sabotage Farnham. Recently home by ambulance & thankful to be here. V[ery] homesick. Getting on well, but tempo adagio & I’ve had to give up all thought of USA for this year.
[I] Have a nice commission, Third Progr: & 7 songs (probably baritone) with harp & flute – sort of Italiante classical aspects & love (Machiavelli – Swedish translation) via latin & delicate & not always too stringo [compressed]. For recording probably end Sept-early Oct. Don’t want to do it sans toi [without you] – Would you be interested? If I c[oul]d complete my rough (but readable) draft soon c[oul]d you make it an excuse to come? – tho’ no need of excuse, just come!
Pamela Verrall had kindly sent the record, tho’ as no player, haven’t heard it yet – am longing to, as she says the harp has come out particularly well.
About 300 letters are piled up waiting – & they’ll just wait!
Lots of love & have a Rook’s Nest X & See you soon – Elizabeth.’
DW11. (M) Thursday Sept 28 1967
The BBC should have sent you by now the music for the Machiavelli Songs (‘MANDRAGOLA’ – pre/recording Friday evening Oct 6th) – full score plus harp part.
The singer will be Robert Tear (tenor – extremely good); the flautist Harold Clarke; the lute, Robert Spenser.
We are not having any conductor but are recording as a chamber ensemble of which the backbone is you, & they will need your authoritative lead in knowing your part.
Would be relieved if you could communicate – am not up to much yet. I hope all is well.
DW12. (M) Saturday Oct 7 1967
‘My dear David,
I’ve got the plug changed – & the player plays! I’m so grateful, & very appreciative of your sweet thought in the gift. The player will answer my needs very well for the present. I have so much on my hands in keeping the ship going here (and an interrupted year this year has made a difference) that I have to pull in on other things, & it was becoming a real menace not to be able to time bands, check order etc, if nothing else. Now I can, it will be bliss.
I hope you both got back fed & that you weren’t too tired. It was such a nice session & you were a splendid mainstay, with lovely results (in which also, I felt we had the right person in Bob Tear, he was so good). Even if you hadn’t told me you were having a refresher course with Maria K[orchinska], I think I would have sensed a new sureness in your playing – which is one of the things you are probably getting from her. Anyhow, more power to it – & en avant.
I’m so very sorry about the horrid interruption next week, and do so hope it won’t be more than a brief one & that you’ll soon be over it & back. We’ll all be lined up to make a fuss of you – the household add their twelve condolences & much love, & of course from me, with so many thanks,
Comfort [the dog] says Come back & see me – rather jealous about that Bel Canto. ELIZABETH POSTON’
DW13. (M) July 20 1968
‘Your lovely post card caught up with me after some delay, as I was away. I was very glad I got it, but most awfully sorry to hear you have a patch on a lung. I’m afraid it means you have been feeling rotten – & having to slow down is such a bore. The only consolation is that this trouble does seem to be among those in which great strides in treatment have been made, & I only hope the medicos will apply them to you & get it better quickly & without too much tiresome & restraints on you. I do trust these don’t include a holiday from playing the harp, as I can’t imagine you & it separate for long!
Be good & do what they say – if only because it’s usually the shortest way!
We do hope to see you. Mum has been poorly but seems a bit better. I hope there is good news of your mother.
The other night I picked up a baby tawny owl, rather rare, a beautiful marmalade-russet ball, bewildered in the course of trying his first flight, while his mum called anxiously, from a tree. But I’ve never come across another specimen of the Greater or Harp-Key Owl. Please look well after this unique bird, & get string soon.
Lots of love, & from Mum
[AN ENGLISH] DAY BOOK is being performed in the New South Wales Festival of the… about the people there… then heard about the work, but they write me nice letters – it may perhaps be a snowball from Farnham,’
DW14. (M) Card. 21.viii.68 – to David Watkins, Esq., 11 Lingwood Gardens, Osterley, Middlesex.
‘So very glad & relieved you are Out, & at better news. Do so hope all will now go on well.
Do keep on taking care.
Am terribly intrigued, if rather disturbed by double harp – number of notes bad eno’[ough] for single one… double one w[oul]d I think kill the composer!
Lot of love, & from us each & all, E
DW15. (M) Undated [prior to 1971 when Night Curse was published]
No. 3: NIGHT CURSE. Can you keep it, grave beat, relentlessly up to speed (it goes at a terrific lick) cross-rhythms & all, from beginning to end without hitch – remembering that the singers, non-professional, will be looking to you as their support Britten–ish set-up, & we’re on our metal!
Letters supplied by Dr. Sylvia Watkins (1983-1987)
Elizabeth, with her characteristic style and generosity, came into Sylvia’s life in 1973. She was a friend of her cousin David Watkins (harpist) – whose letters from Elizabeth are transcribed in the preceding part of this section – who suggested that she should phone Elizabeth when she was house-hunting in Hertfordshire. She was immediately invited to tea. In Sylvia’s words,
‘When she learned that I had not yet found a house, she insisted that I should live with her until I did. Within weeks I was installed at Rooks Nest, enjoying the unconventional household, the splendid dogs and donkeys, the lovely gardens, and above all her stimulating company, delicious sense of humour and incomparable hospitality. I stayed for only three months, but we remained great friends until the day she died.’
When Elizabeth contracted meningitis, Sylvia got Elizabeth to hospital on 30 August 1978 (see Letter MW7).
SW1. (M) April 1983 (notelet with picture of The Tithe Barn, Northcourt, Abingdon by W.T.B. Fletcher)
Nobody I know creates a more truly festive & cosy atmosphere than you, it is a particular kind of magic. And to be invited to Siesta first was memorable, not to say gorgeous! As for the feast that followed, it was a super experience with which to start the New Year. All love, blessings, thanks for this cheer & happiness on the way.
I loved seeing those inimitable slides – the unforgettable reared up with rare nostalgia.’
SW2. (M) Sunday 14 Sept [1985?]
Thank you so much for so sweetly rescuing me – things were urgent. Mr (dental) Giles has been v[ery] kind, so has everybody,
I do hope you can come on 12th (Grouse Shooting Begins). Toothless & tottering, I need my friends around me.
If you could give me an idea of probability/possibility of you coming, it w[oul]d be a great help – the nice Berkhamsted people need to assess numbers.
Brian Rayner Cook is one most distinguished in English Song, which is my especial love. He’s at the top now & flies about the world, as fascinating to watch as to listen to. Thank God he has avoided the snare of opera, tho’ he has been to Gylnebourne. There is a radiance about him & his work which is quite exceptional. Christopher Robinson is the Queen’s man, Master of the Chapel Royal at Windsor & is very good.
I am taking a small part. The Autobiog[raphy] is dedicated to Brian. I hear the BBC are doing something on Oct 24th.
I trust the veg will bear up & not go limp, they need fudge[?] if waiting.
Having struggled for them all season against weather & rabbits, I just had a feeling I must crown you with beans!
Lots & lots of love
Sorry about the writing, I’m nearly in the dark!’
SW3. (T) 7 January 1985
It was such a lovely party – so warm and so gemütlich [genial], just the family, and the beautiful Weihnachtsbaum [Christmas tree] and all, with real Kerzen [candles]. And such a perfectly gorgeous meal. I was entzuckt [enchanted], back in childhood again.
I admired so much your magnificent surmounting of work, and to bother to transport me as well. It was so kind. It altogether lit up the greyness of the outer season.
Thank you so very much for all – and the lovely gifts you so very sweetly brought, all a thrill and enjoyment. (I played fair and didn’t open them till Christmas!).
Ever much love,
I have a mind to ring and bother you, pen in hand, so I can quickly write down exactly what you do to make that delectable chestnut purée, I have some tinned chestnut in my store cupboard, and some publishers are coming for a business parley which I am anxious should go my way (!) and that chestnut concoction strikes me as the very nicest and most glamorous sweet one can possibly prepare quickly & trouble free!’
SW4. (M) 7 January 1987, just three months before Elizabeth died.
‘Dear sweet Sylvia,
I do thank you so much for your most generous & lovely gifts – the sight of that princely bottle of Gin really did something for me! And your sweet concern over me & my old bones has been a true beacon on my way, shining onward into help & encouragement.
I do hope Wales has taken the edge off fatigue & will restore you refreshed until you can escape to further sanctuary.
I have been greatly blest in so much loving care & help that gave an extra radiance to Christmas. Tante’s [Sylvia’s aunt’s] pillow has been a special contribution – please tell her – and I experienced today the first easing of pain. Dunque…avanti [So… onward!].
Ever lovingly & so appreciatively,
Letters supplied by Richard Lambert (1977-1985)
Richard was Director of Music at the Ward Freman School (now Freman College), Buntingford, Hertfordshire from 1975 to 1985, during which time he met Elizabeth, shared her various musical interests, became a good friend and inter alia invited her to concerts at the school and give her name to a new Poston Room there that was opened in 1980.
RL1. (T) 2 July 1977
‘Dear Mr Lambert,
Thank you very much for your kind letter. I so much enjoyed meeting my visitors from your school and hope I and the house may look forward to an opportunity of welcoming you here in the future.
I should be honoured to accept the position of honorary President of your Music Club, ‘Music at Ward Freeman’. It is a splendid enterprise on the part of yourself and the school, and I am sure, one that should justify itself in many directions.
I much appreciate your invitation to me to act as adjudicator for the annual House Music Competition between your four Houses, provisionally planned for the week of 17 October. This sounds a most interesting and worthwhile entertainment. While I should love, in principle, to accept, I must regretfully decline for the present, at any rate, because I cannot be certain of myself. A slow pull-up after a long illness following a major operation, means that I cannot be sure of always accepting an engagement when it comes to the time, and so I do not feel justified in undertaking any that might cause a last-moment liability. If you would be so kind as to amend the invitation to me as a member of the audience, I should with luck hope to drive over. Thursday 20 October would be a possible evening for me.
In case you are looking about for a possible adjudicator who is also ‘local’: do you know Simon Marlow? both good and able; ex-Cambridge, teacher and conductor and an extremely nice persona1ity. He acts as accompanist also to a good vocal trio who sing in many styles and languages. I enjoyed a recent recital of theirs, which ranged wide from Mozart and folk song to Porgy and Bess and was well introduced by the artists. Simon Marlow, Hill Cottage, Hinxworth near Royston, Herts., Ashwell 2271.
With best wishes,
RL2. (T) 20 September 1977
‘Dear Mr Lambert,
Many thanks for your letter and for letting me know your fixtures for the 1977-78 season of ‘Music at Ward Freman‘. The concerts are an interesting list and most pleasantly varied. I hope I may have the opportunity to hear some of them – I would ring the school in advance, as you kindly suggest.
It is splendid that you have arranged your House Music Competition for the evening of Thursday 20 October, when I shall be free to come. Please thank Mr [Roger] Harcourt [the Headmaster] for his kind invitation to me to meet him over sherry beforehand. If I do not hear from you to the contrary, I will aim to be with you at 7.0 pm (for 7.30). I very much look forward to the occasion.
With best wishes
RL3. (T) 29 August 1979
‘Dear Mr. Lambert,
Thank you indeed for your letter. I am delighted to hear your great news. I do congratulate you on carrying through such a magnificent scheme, one – I think it could be, predicted – that could be capable of almost infinite influence, not only on Ward Freeman School, but in the music for youth in this country.
The specification of the plans for your English and Music Suite sounds splendid. And it seems to me particularly well conceived that the two subjects should be housed under one roof – they are so interlocked anyhow, and the Arden Room will be an ideal component.
I should be honoured to give my name to the Poston Room and shall look forward eagerly to the occasion of’ your official opening sometime early in the New Year. It is all most exciting. It is good to know that from the coming term you will have the help of’ a colleague in music Department. I expect you will need it!
As to your message, and via Suzanne Rose, whose particular work as ambassador for our nation’s Youth Music on the continent one salutes wholeheartedly: I should emphasis that I am not a teacher and have always kept clear of teaching as I don’t feel I am one for the job. I would willingly help you if it lies in my power: on a single occasion. At my present rate of trying to cope with far more work than I can carry out, plus the responsibilities of a house and property I am in process of handing over to the nation, I must limit my offer to one occasion and am sorry I cannot go beyond that.
May I suggest that if you feel it would be of use to you, that you send me sometime, when you can spare time, some of your work, and that we have a talk about it subsequently. This would help me perhaps to suggest what next, so that you might more readily be in touch with a regular adviser whom you could call on for longer-term help.
With best thanks and wishes,
RL4. (T) 24 April 1980
Dear Mr. Lambert,
Thank you very much for your letter.
I am so pleased to hear that all has gone so well – as indeed, 1 felt sure that it would – with your extensive plans for the new ‘West End’ Music and Drama block.
I should be delighted to accept your kind invitation to be present on the occasion of its opening, which will include your Words and Music programme, on Wednesday, 9 July at 7.30 pm.
I am thrilled at your description of the Poston Room – a true honour indeed. Lucky School! And lucky all those who will work there in their generations, whether teaching or taught. To have brought off such a magnificent enterprise at this special time seems to me one of the most encouraging feats conceivable, a splendid affirmation to each one of us who honour the arts.
Much looking forward to my visit to the school on this very special occasion,
RL5. (T) 27 May 1980
‘Dear Mr Lambert,
Thank you very much for your letter.
How very nice and appropriate that The Poston Room will be housing such an interesting collection of photographs. I should be honoured to be among them.
Please forgive my delay. I should explain that the matter of photographic copyright is complicated in my case by the fact that I preferred to keep control of photographs of myself; I try and prevent copies from being released without my authorisation – so I try and safeguard the position by: retaining control of those I approve.
The two I send are by Angus McBean, one of the most distinguished photographic portraitists of’ our time. These were taken a few years ago but are still, I think, good likenesses and I am still using them. He holds the copyright in the pictures; the copyright of use of them rests with me. These are my only prints; one is a personally signed copy and so additionally precious; and I cannot, at present easily get duplicates. When the photographer became too ill to carry on, he sold his collection to Harvard University, from which it would be necessary in due course, to buy myself back! So I can now only offer to let you have one on loan – whichever one of the two you prefer – until such time as I can get others. And I might have to ask for it back in the meanwhile, if need arose.
I hope you won’t mind this. I am happy for you to have it provisionally, here and now, for the school, and trust you will find it worthy to hang beside the rest.
With best wishes
RL6. (T) 17 July 1980
‘Dear Mr. Lambert,
A big share of the School’s magnificent achievement summarised in The West End [of the school] must be yours, I am sure. Its full impact really came over to us that splendid evening you gave us, whose recollection, if possible, even surpasses one’s considerable anticipation!
It was so good of you to make time, as well as your own vital participation in the proceedings, to show me round – so much to see, and all of such distinction in conception and result. I am sure the Poston Room will foster and help to produce the human material worthy of all that has gone into its making. Its name-giver couldn’t possibly be more proud. The fascinatingly varied programme certainly gave one a good idea of the fine stuff you have to work on. I was personally delighted with the policy of Words and Music, a combination I have always had at heart, as it seems to me the two are an essential pairing, and I can’t think of any country in the world that has a greater heritage of either. I so enjoyed all the words and all the music. (It is invidious to single out, but I noted Penny Poole as an obviously musical girl – she gave such a good lead too in the Madrigals).
I hope you were pleased and that you are not too tired. I shall look forward to the opportunity of seeing you over here and hope to be in touch.
With my warmest thanks and congratulations,
RL7. (T) 21 February 1981
Dear Mr. Lambert – I think it is time I called you Richard and please reciprocate.
Thank you so much for your letter. I am so sorry for delay but I am only just staggering about again after being down with some bug.
A concert is a lovely idea! I do think you are enterprising to run ‘Chanticleer’ (nice name) as well as all else you have to do. I could probably find the sort of material you are looking for out of my rather motley collection of writings – a sort after my own heart, music to enjoy (I’m not a symphony woman!).
The trouble is that because of building operations on this ancient structure, most of the stuff is in pretty fair chaos, stacked in my attic library under builders’ sheets and a careful checking of parts &c. would be necessary. But I’ll certainly try.
Wouldn’t the nicest thing be if your wife came over for a pot- luck supper here, then we could discuss and you could see and hear? I have been hoping to see you both over here for some time and this seems a splendid opportunity. My life lately has been a trifle disrupted by being flung downstairs by a thug I disturbed in the dark. By great good fortune I think I have escaped lasting damage, but I have been rather stuck between hospital and CID.
How about Sunday evening about 7-ish March 1, or Tuesday 3rd or Sat 7th? Do you know how to get here? From Royston, across country by the lanes to Weston,[inserted] from thence as for Stevenage, by the turning off the main road opposite the Ashwell turning; o. main road to GRAVELEY village where turn off sharp L by garage and follow the lane till you reach a T- junction where you turn R as for Stevenage by a tiny green in the middle off 3 roads, mostly mud at this time of year. About 1/4 mile on, I am on the R bordered by evergreens, driveway with no gate between Georgian brick piers; grass strip outside; farm cottages opposite.
I do hope you will be able to manage it. So much looking forward to seeing you both, with best greetings,
I meant to write and tell you but got submerged in Christmas, how very much impressed I was with your music in Twelfth Night. I didn’t find you after the performance and had to hasten back. I so enjoyed it. It seemed to me you succeeded in hitting lots of nails on the head in all sorts of different ways. Above all, I liked the music itself, and there was one piece at least that could surely be usefully expanded into something more extended? Why not make a Suite out of it and include the songs? I thought your young school musicians served you admirably.
RL8. (M) 6 March 1981
‘Dear Richard & Pam,
How very good of you to write – so much appreciated. It was lovely to have you here & I hope you’ll try it again at a Kinder season.
I was horrified to hear of your awful misadventure on the road. If you had been near enough, I could easily have fixed you up overnight. But the children, of course, make it doubly worrying. I am thankful you managed to fix the wheel & get home in the end. This is a dreaded contingency always in my mind when I set out after dark in winter. I’d love to come over and see you all, but wonder if, for this reason, we could arrange it when the season is a bit lighter & better. (The directest way across country is lovely, & since this lethal surgery I had, I can no more change a tyre!).
Anyhow, here’s hoping, and looking forward, greatly inspired by prospects of Chanticleer.
Warmest wishes – your flowers are still lovely, so many thanks –
RL9. (T) 17 September 1981
Thank you so much for your charming letter and invitations. I am so sorry not to have been able to respond sooner – I have been in London, and on getting back have found to my horror that the telephone is out of’ order. As I can’t ring you, I am putting this into the post.
It is a lovely programme for the ‘Chanticleer’ Concert on St Cecelia’s Day, Sunday 22 November in Royston Parish Church at 7.30 pm. I should be thrilled to come to the party afterwards. What fun.
And I should love to come over to have a meal with you and Pam [Lambert] 7.30-8 pm on Sunday October 11th. Please don’t lay on extras – too much with children too to see to! I shall enjoy being with you. Very many thanks for the map.
I can supply the following material for An English Day-Book:
1 Full Score, piano version, i.e. with piano acc. and no harp
15 copies Vocal Score SSA
A separate copy of’ the poem sequence of’ the text, which you may like to have for programme use, ref’ &c., particularly as some of’ the words are unusual!
It seems unduly hard on you to come and pick them up – unless, of’ course, you get help with petrol! Couldn’t I help by bringing them over to Ward Freman? Or: if’ you can make it here: do allow time for a quick lunch if’ you do come in a lunch-break. Perhaps you could ring me and say which day, as I’m so maddeningly held up about ringing you. Pretty well any day in the near future should be OK. I have the school broadcast record at hand and will try and find the Cheltenham one, which has eluded me so far – but the other is quite reliable for tempi &c.
Best greetings. I do look f’orward.
RL10. (T) Wednesday 23 September 1981
I hope you got my letter. My line is now, thank heaven, restored.
I shall try and get the material for DAY-BOOK over to you at Ward Freman today, if I can, before I go to London this evening.
If it’s not possible, will try for tomorrow.
I send: Full Score with Piano
15 Vocal Scores numbered from 21-36
Typescript of the text
The recording of the broadcast
Could you please very kindly make sure that nobody marks the copies in any way at all. Any defacement is a serious blow to the composer, as it renders copies unusable and replacement is costly.
These copies have been stacked under my library window and so are a bit sun-tanned at the edges, but what’s inside is all right!
In haste, with all best greetings,
RL11. (T) 3 October 1981
About our nice date for Sunday evening 11 October: I find I ought to be in London that afternoon – I didn’t know about it before and really ought to be there.
It would allow me to get away only by 6.30 or later, and then to get a train and pick up car and straight over to you in Royston would, I fear, make it impractically late.
The last thing I want is to make things awkward, but if it really wouldn’t make any difference to you, it would help me greatly if it would be possible to transfer – any following Sunday evening: Oct 18, 25, Nov 1?
I should be grateful if you could let me know by return.
RL12. (M) December 1981? A Card
‘Love & all best wishes
Christmas & New Year
I much fear I may not make
J Macabens – roads round here are awful.
If I can’t, please make my apologies.’
RL13. (M) 8 May 1982
Thank you so much for sparing time to let me know and for your very nice invitation. It is thrilling – I do think it is marvellous of you – what fun! I’, asking Manor Books for a Weekend Ticket & will hope to infil[?] trale[?] as I can.
Very much looking forward & with love to you both.
RL14. (T) 25 July 1982
This is absolutely awful – I mean my delay in writing. Please forgive.
I have had you and Royston in mind these many weeks, while being hustled and carried on at breakneck speed, the while having to make constant trips to dentist/hospital because of loose chips of tooth having to be excavated under the gum, with the result that the very strong anaesthetic they give you these days leaves me feeling drunk next day, and that has been frustrating. No matter. That work of yours stays with me and I do feel that in it you have found not only a happy style for this particular subject, but because musically it is yours and individual without subscribing to the exaggeration and obscurity of so much contemporary writing. This comes as both joy and stimulus and gives one hope in the midst of an over-dose of the bogus and adventurous. Anyhow, very rea1 congratulations. On the Festival, too – a splendid venture and I do hope, after its auspicious start, one that will establish. How you managed to accomplish all in the face of school work and all else, is an astounding feat. The holidays must come almost as an anti-climax! I fervently hope that, children notwithstanding, you will manage to get a real break and refreshment.
It was so sweet of you and Pam [Lambert] to be so hospitable, and I do owe you more thanks than I can express for yourself being the means of getting me there – to have composed, managed, directed and supervised all and then fetch me yourself is something really super of you, and I do say Thank You. Please also do pass on my appreciation to Mrs Sparrow for the happy evening she gave us after the performance.
Love & best wishes to you both & again thanks. I hope it won’t be long before we meet.
RL15. (T) 4 May 1983
It is most generous and kind of you to spare me a weekend ticket for the Royston Festival. I’ll put something in the bag. How splendid that it is again upon us – a great tribute to you. It looks a lovely and most enterprising bill, particularly in the expansion into visual arts.
I shall be there for all that I can get to and this will include, I hope, the13th with paintings and Gordon Jacob concert – what a very happy thought that is. It is a year or two since I have been able to get over to see him.
You very sweetly wrote me a most welcome letter outlining plans, and I have been meaning to thank you for it as day succeeded day – and month succeeded month…
In winter here, I seem to achieve little except try and keep warm and keep the animals fed. When one is only one, everything takes more time, and pressure of work has been awful! Please forgive. Am now thawing out a bit and so look forward to being in your midst.
Love & many (very admiring) thoughts of you both.
RL16. (M) 15 May 1985
Your lovely parcel came today. How very sweet of you. The dedication of your Prayer and Supplication is a great honour. I do appreciate it. The words[?] look fascinating. I write before a chance to peruse them in detail. I look forward to tonight.
I shall certainly hope to be with you on Sat (18) & shall be thrilled to be at the first performance. I do hope Royston Arts IV will be a great success & do you justice – its continuance a splendid tribute to you.
I’m glad to hear your thesis is going well, tho’ I don’t think I could have been of much help. My reactions personal, the frustration of a musician (the only real one in those days!) at missed opportunities & the wonderful blind patches, e.g. no singing, now, of course, put right! The ladyships & co. dead or dying, & healthier winds blowing & I expect the movement can be said to have done good work – if not, as a famous pop singer would have it, ‘My Way’. Nor, I dare hazard, in yours!
RL17. (Printed) 1985
Elizabeth would love it if you
would be with her at the recital
planned to mark her Eightieth Birthday
to be given in her native Hertfordshire
at the kind invitation of
The Berkhamsted Music Society
Brian Rayner Cook (Baritone)
Christopher Robinson (Piano)
who will give the First Performance of her
The Thomas Bourne School, Durrants Road, Berkhamsted
on Saturday 12th October 1985 at 7.30 pm’
RL18. (M) 22 October 1985 Post Card of Kelmscott Manor, Oxfordshire (at one time occupied by Dante Gabriel Rossetti whose poems Elizabeth used for her Sei Canzoni; see Appendix II).
‘Thank you so much for your letter – I was hoping nothing had gone wrong on 12th [October] and am devastated at the extent of your good work that kept you away, a truly noble one.
We were of course sad not to have you in our midst. It was a lovely gathering of friends I found very happy & inspiring. & the music went well!
I am enormously looking forward to Friday 25th & am thrilled at your Surprise Bill & Party after at John Barber’s.
What a very nice Birthday!
RL19. (M) 11 November 1985
This, tho’ delayed, is not so in thought: I have over 500 thanks to deal with, & the more special they are, the more I need time & peace – the time since I saw you, conspicuous for neither.
Harston [near Cambridge] was very special because it was the nicest surprise imaginable, & all with the Richard Hallmark. No one else could have thought of that enchanting mixture, all so perfectly in place & in the very nicest Village Hall of my experience. And after it the charming hospitality of the Barbers en famille. A joy throughout. I was so proud & honoured to have a place in it.
A lovely opportunity, too, to hear your songs which I particularly admired your playing – not easy piano part – while one was rather taken up trying to get the words, tho’ the main thing was a hearing of the whole, & that was very rewarding.
I was thrilled to hear the trio movement & some time since I heard it live – I enjoyed it greatly & thought it came off splendidly – I still can’t think how the clarinettist [Pam Lambert] manages to do so much so well, and look as young as her own daughter!
I do congratulate you yet once again, on the Chantecleer Singers whom you have trained to tackle such varied fare & to bring it all off. They were so good in everything & your own original creation, & I do hope that in all your various undertakings, you will still manage to find time for them. I was delighted with their Poston performances – they make the final carol real & moving. Do please tell Frank Wright. In another edition I would change the title, which I took from the Americans at a time when ‘Negro’ was less of a non-with-it term than it is now & call it Carol of the Coloured Children, from whom it was picked up in the streets of New York, hence the refrain ‘Was’n dat a pity an’ a shame’, tacked on regardless to the final Resurrection verse in the characteristic way, changed only in response to the record company when I was recording it & some others, indifferent to more logical English ears!
Please pass on the enclosed to the Singers with my thanks for the lovely flower arrangement, which is still decoratively alive & part of my very happy memory.
A very BIG THANK YOU. I look forward to seeing you both here as soon as I have got the 500 a bit more under control!
Best love to you both, Elizabeth.’
Appendix II – Unpublished Elizabeth Poston Music produced for the Centenary
During the centenary year several of Elizabeth Poston’s hitherto unpublished works were kindly made available by her literary and music executor and copyright holder, Simon Campion, for performance at the celebratory concerts. This was made possible by grants from the Lottery Heritage Fund, the Stevenage Symphony Orchestra, the Arts Guild of Stevenage and the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust.
Fanfare for Hallé, for brass quintet was originally commissioned for the Hallé players in connection with Sir John Barbirolli’s 70th birthday celebrations and, as Elizabeth explained later, ‘is formulated on the notes of the initials of himself, his wife and the orchestra’.
It was composed on 5 September 1969 and rushed off to the orchestra, quickly followed by a letter:
‘I have managed by skin of teeth to get back and get this MS copied after all, in time to send off by Sunday Post. The (birthday) fanfare will explain itself – I have played upon the B flat/B(H) of Bach’s musical alphabet. The mighty G is also Jerry [Temple] (Y T foxed me!); and can be related to Godlee. John = Giovani, of the handsome young Byronic figure I first remember at the RAM. (Note the ray of sweetness and light appearing in bar 5 for softening female influence!). The piece isn’t difficult: requires on toes playing… I should be tickled to death to hear it.’
In fact, she was invited up to Manchester and probably heard it rehearsed by the Hallé under Barbirolli later that month; he was in the States on his birthday on 2 December, but returned to conduct it on the 18th. The Stevenage Symphony Orchestra, under Peter Britton, opened with this piece at its concert at the church of St. Andrew and St. George, Stevenage on 29 October 2005.
At the same concert, the orchestra, together with the Cambridge Quartet performed Harlow Concertante for string orchestra and string quartet. This had been commissioned by the Harlow Youth Orchestra in 1969 and had received its first performance under John Fitzpatrick, with the Alberni String Quartet at Nettlewell School, Harlow (now Harlow College) on 11 October, to mark the 21st anniversary of Harlow New Town. As a result of the centenary concert performance, the work was given its London premier on 8 April 2006 at St. Mary’s Church, South Woodford, by the Hertfordshire Chamber Orchestra, with a second performance on the following day at Paul’s Church, Covent Garden. There will be a further performance by the English Sinfonia at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 1 November 2006, as part of the New Town’s 60th Birthday celebrations.
Hosanna for full choir and organ had been commissioned by and dedicated to Eric Merriman and the Choir of King Edward Grammar School, Southampton for the three hundredth anniversary of the birth of a former pupil, Issac Watts (1674-1748); it has now been made available to the school for performance again in 2007. Elizabeth felt honoured to be asked to compose it and replied,
‘Isaac Watts is a great favourite of mine and a figure, it seems to me, of a unique place in English annals, and perhaps one too much taken for granted, and I am awfully glad he is coming in for such welcome and deserved limelight.’
Among Elizabeth’s unpublished compositions are Three Pieces for Flute & Harp – Ricordanza, Barcarolle and Calypso – which were composed in 1953 and first broadcast on the BBC on 26 Jan 1954. Later she noted, in her Pocket Diary, a lecture on the harp as well as several harp recitals by Susan Drake at Letchworth, Hertfordshire, and she worked closely with, and relied heavily upon David Watkins in writing specifically for him, as is evident in her letters (Appendix I) addressing him sometimes as Le Roi Davide! It was, therefore, most appropriate that he performed the work with Sarah Newbold (flute) with Michael Bochmann (viola) in the concert given at the Church of St. George and St. Andrew, Stevenage on 30 September 2006.
When Elizabeth Poston left Stevenage in the 1930’s after the death of her close friend and fellow composer Peter Warlock, she lived in Italy and collected local folk songs with the idea of making them as popular in England as were Spanish and French folk songs. A set of seven for voice and piano included one, Barcarolla, a boat-song from Venice, which was broadcast several times between 1945 and 1978 and also performed at the Ashwell Festival in 1966. It was resurrected on 15 March 2006 during a course on Perceptions of Venice by the Stevenage & Knebworth Arts Group, being performed by Ruth Conelly (soprano) and Oonagj Bernon (piano).
It is not certain when exactly the Barcarolla was arranged, since her Pocket Diaries for the years 1930 to 1935 are missing, but it might well have been after a visit to Venice in June 1938, because one of her entries refers to ‘band in square before Doge’s Palace’.
Among other settings of Italian poems are her Sei Canzoni. These were performed by Alison Wells (soprano), David Campbell (clarinet) and Ellen Schinnerer Deffner (piano) at a concert given at the Stevenage Centre of the North Hertfordshire College on 14 October 2006. All but one of the poems are by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882) who was absorbed all his life by the subject of lovers separated by difficult circumstances, and one can find in those selected by Elizabeth a sequence about love – expressing its hopes, its tribulations, its maternal feeling and, finally, its loss.
In Elizabeth’s own 1908 Pocket Edition of Rossetti’s writings she indicated, with paper markers, the location of two other poems, A Little While and Love Enthroned. The first of these was written in about 1860, after Rossetti’s passion for Lizzie Siddal had waned; he mourns the passing of that love, as in two other poems (Even So and A New Year’s Burden) written at about the same time. The second, Love Enthroned, is the opening sonnet of Part 1, Youth and Change in The House of Life, written about ten years later when he was temporarily separated from Jane, the wife of William Morris, with whom Rossetti was deeply in love; in this case, despite his frustration and anguish, Love is seen as an abstraction, ‘far above | All passionate wind of welcome and farewell’.
Elizabeth was not averse to making an instrumental version of a song if she felt it desirable, and in the case of Semele set to music by Handel, she rearranged it as Sleep for clarinet and piano. In a letter of November 1966 to Christopher Morris, Music Editor, Oxford University Press, she wrote:
‘I made this arrangement for Léon Gossens, who has recorded it, and is very anxious for it to be published so that he can have copies to teach. Would you like it?
The piece is from Semele – I took it from the Handelgesellschaft, Breitkopf & Härtel, Vol. 7 (1960). The aria is not so successful as a song as it is instrumentally, as the beautiful and moving tune is broken up, instead of which, by a slight rearrangement of parts, I have made it continuous.
It is headed: ‘The Cave of Sleep. The God of Sleep lying upon his bed wakes… and sleeps again.’ As this gives the key to the mood and atmosphere of the piece, it would seem a good idea to add it, top left, above the music?’
Dame Thea King played the first performance, accompanied by Elizabeth. David Campbell and Ellen Schinnerer Deffner played the work again at the Centenary Concert given on 14 October 2006.
Musically, Elizabeth was close to Peter Warlock and in one of her works she arranged for cello and piano three movements of his Capriol; this, is currently in process of publication for the centenary by Simon Campion.