Shaping Forces

Musicians by and large start young. I didn’t, I was around eleven. Musicians normally learn from teachers. I didn’t, finding fault with most excepting my first, Angela Kent*. Walking out of lessons wasn't unknown. Living with the great masters, the great performers, usually comes gradually. Not with me, they were my nourishment from the beginning. By the time I was seventeen, having exchanged the bustle of London for the solitude of Southern English pastoral life, my mind was made up. The only way was to teach myself. Conservatory and university academics held neither mystique nor knowledge for me. They taught by formula, out of books. They deconstructed the classics, dismissed the romantics as sentimental, and promoted partisan views of what constituted 20th century genius. Unlike the music I felt instinctively happiest with, that caught my imagination ... the artists I chanced upon who stirred my heart with their nuances, their ways with audiences ... education in the conventional sense, when it came to the human spirit, seemed to me less a moving than an obstructive force. I wanted knowledge, of course, but freedom, too, to fly with my music, to let it take me on journeys of fancy and poetry through time – victoriously, sadly, lovingly.

In this I was fortunate to have had the support of remarkably enlightened parents - my father was the Turkish writer İrfan Orga, my Irish mother a publisher. I never went to school. Nurturing my interests, bringing the benefit of eclectic yet discerning tastes, they taught me themselves. Music was around if I wanted it. I have vague memories of being taken in the early ’50s to a London performance of Vaughan Williams’s new Sinfonia Antartica at the Royal Albert Hall**. Toscanini’s final NBC broadcast, an all-Wagner show from Carnegie Hall, April 1954, impressed less – notwithstanding the legend and incident of the occasion.

Albert Memorial, Kensington Gardens 

image: Angela Mobbs

Like love, music walks into your life. Unlike love, it never leaves, each meeting as spring-footed and volcanic as the first. Love and music came into my life one frosty afternoon shortly before Christmas 1955. Progressively more intense and charged, each indefinably poeticised, expressed and held the other. I lost my love to the Americas in the summer of 1957 - but music stayed. That summer I listened to anything I could. Living in London that meant seven weeks of nightly Henry Wood Promenade Concerts relayed by the BBC from the Royal Albert Hall, with their then traditional one-composer evenings and Beethoven Fridays. No more beautiful bride-to-be can be imagined than the music I adored and gave myself to in those months. Music, the Eternal, the Consoling Consort.

‘In an outsize issue,’ wondered the Dublin novelist Elizabeth Bowen, ‘what man ever decides? One is decided for.’ Venturing forth the following season, embraced by my muse, I surrendered to the magic and power of performance in the flesh, learning that dynamics and balance in the concert room, frequency responses, sound reflections, degrees of accuracy, were not the same as those heard on monoaural radio nor even from the grooves of studio-generated vinyl. One cold, smokey afternoon, scanning the hoardings outside the Albert Hall, I lit upon my 'own' first concert. A love-at-first-hearing, it was to prove auspicious and taste-defining, an all-Beethoven fest with the young Australian pianist Richard Farrell and George Weldon conducting the London Symphony. Sunday 9th February 1958, 7.30. Leonora No 3, Emperor Concerto, Egmont, Fifth Symphony. That winter night, blazingly fired-up, I was initiated into the Romanticism of darkness into light, of stormy minor keys, heroic E-flats and triumphant white C majors, offstage trumpet calls and trombone choirs echoing around domed 19th century spaces. Little I knew that one day I’d teach these works at university. That twenty years hence I’d publish a biography of Beethoven. That during the halcyon Abbado-Böhm-Bernstein-Celibidache era of the LSO I’d be the orchestra’s programme-note writer.

Royal Albert Hall in the late fifties, early sixties

image: Judith Edwards courtesy of Kirsten Morrison

Other outings charged differently. Tchaikovsky, the London Philharmonic. The war-horse B-flat minor - from Louis Kentner, later Cherkassky. The guns and bells of 1812 – handsomely cantered home under Alexander Gibson, the Scotsman whose last recordings of Tchaikovsky and Sibelius with the London and Royal Philharmonics, including (circles mystically closed) 1812, I would produce thirty years later. The Romanian Constantin Silvestri driving Beethoven Seven. The Emperor and Dvořák’s New World with Moiseiwitsch and Malcolm Sargent, from a vantage second tier box high above the action. Glenn Gould on his first visit to Britain (May 1959), trumped as ‘the greatest pianist since Busoni,’ challenging Beethoven at the Royal Festival Hall with Josef Krips and the LSO – boasting a galaxy of section principals including Neville Marriner, Gervase de Peyer and Barry Tuckwell. ‘The incomparable’ Sir Thomas Beecham, at eighty in the night-fall of life but still feared for his scolding temper with restless audiences, galvanising Haydn 104, Mozart 39 and Tchaikovsky 4.  

Barking Assembly Hall

19 November 1988

Balance Engineer John Timperley

Editor Janet Middlebrook

My appetite was insatiable. Coming across an old typescript the other day, listing ‘favourite’ works heard between the summers of ’58 and ’59, the spectrum testifies as much to my curiosity and passion for learning as to the wealth of material broadcast by the then BBC Third Programme – 32 operas, nearly 300 symphonies and concertos, 35 string quartets, around 50 piano sonatas (not yet though the complete Beethoven canon nor Liszt B minor), Bach’s Forty-Eight. All took residence in the concert halls of my mind. On recall whenever I desired. Likewise repertory from the Orient and Far East, and the Ottoman classical tanbur repertory - from Hafiz Post and Dede Efendi to Abdülaziz. Learning to read and play music went apace, spurred by the grateful gift of an aged Welmar piano from one of father’s publishers. I called it ‘Ludwig’. Teaching himself the notes and a basic grammar, father it was who gave me my first instruction.

Concert-going took on new meaning in 1960. 

Sunday afternoon 21st February, 3 o'clock. Royal Festival Hall. First piano recital. Malcuzynski. Superstitiously, the third movement haunted father, memories flooding back of pre-war fighter-pilot days escorting the coffins of crashed comrades: when eventually I came to play it, he would involuntarily demonstrate the leg-gliding valedictory ceremony of the music - slower and more rhythmically tranced than commonly experienced. Arthur Rubinstein, he said, felt it correctly.

Friday 23rd September. First encounter with 20th century greatness. That history-making Cold War night the 106-strong Leningrad Philharmonic under their aristocratically-borne supremo, Evgeni Mravinsky, came to the Festival Hall, the first Soviet orchestra ever to appear in England. Why did we go? Certainly not for the politics, the KGB security, the national anthems (a customary courtesy those days). Nor the warm-up, Mozart’s Symphony No 33. No, we, like everyone, were there for the first public performance in Britain of Shostakovich’s wartime Eighth Symphony, given in the presence of the composer (sitting reticently in the Royal Box, gaunt, bespectacled, edgy, torment-laden) by the grand conductor, the virtuoso orchestra, the friends for whom he’d written it. The occasion was monumental, inspiring, nerve shattering. The C minor tale of Beethoven Five I knew. That of Shostakovich’s Eighth was painfully something else. I was unprepared for such a ‘tombstone’, such a requiem aeternam-dies irae-lacrimosa-libera me for companions lost, for the forgotten dead of the forests and killing fields of the war into which I was born. ‘The mystery of music,’ Shostakovich’s champion (if occasional critic) Danil Zhitomirsky believed, ‘is the mystery of life, of human passions and multifaceted motives’. I couldn’t put it into words then, but, somewhere indefinably within, that’s pretty much how I felt. I listened, unprejudiced. Open ears, open mind. As later with the Fifth and Fifteenth Symphonies witnessed in London under the composer’s son, Maxim, certain things marked the evening, retrospectively the ingredients that elevate a Shostakovich performance beyond ordinary telling into ‘authentic’ narrative. When the music whispered, the world stood dark and frozen as the steppe. When it climaxed you felt assaulted by the physical ferocity, the tortured, dissonant screaming of the sound. It was like being impaled through your seat: you felt emotionally affronted, you wanted to escape but couldn’t. When the going got fast you risked burning by the naked, high-voltage electricity of it all. Proving too much for my father, it left me in awe.

In 1999 BBC Legends released their tapes of the concert. I bought a copy. But it was a long time before I had courage to listen to it. Would it be as titanic, as intense as I remembered? It was. And more. In the applause my clapping, my parents’, mixed into history. Re-living it, hearing again the coughs and silences, the cheers, was strangely like unlocking some long-forgotten sonic diary, passing through a door back to an hour that was once our youth.

Nivollet, département de l'Ain, January 2004

rev 8 August 2023

Turkish version Andante, İstanbul 2004

© Ateş Orga 2004, 2023

* Angela was an inspiring young woman with a practice at 20 Abingdon Villas, between the Holland Park end of Kensington High Street and Earl's Court. Our lessons, invariably placed last of the day, would over-run by an hour or more. She taught me score-reading, Beethoven's First on the turntable, Toscanini conducting. She initiated me into the art of rubato. She toned and climaxed the middle section of Chopin's Raindrop Prelude like no one I've ever heard since.

** Untraceable in Boosey & Hawkes' archives.