Professor Humphrey Procter-Gregg C.B.E. 1895-1980
Memoirs by former Manchester students - Michael Almond, Peter Hope and Douglas Steele
Recollections of Michael Almond
I first met P-G (as he was universally known with gratitude and affection by several generations of students and colleagues) in the bitter winter of 1954-55 when attending interview at the old Dover St. Music Department as a result of my application for admission to the Joint Course at the University and R.M.C.M. Thus began a friendship and close working partnership that was to endure until his death 25 years later.
From the outset there was an obvious musical rapport and we got on well. I was a Yorkshire lad, from a mining-community background (sharing the same Barnsley Grammar School as Michael Parkinson!!) and I had a lot to learn. Under the driving energy of P-G and his staff there were many outstanding concerts in those ‘golden 50’s’ and one could often see John Ogdon, John McCabe, Peter Maxwell Davies, Elgar Howarth, Peter Hope, David Wilde, Harrison Birtwistle and many other rising stars on Oxford Road between Dover Street and the R.M.C.M. in Devas street.
The Mozart bi-centenary of 1956 gave me the enviable opportunity of performing the two-piano Concerto K.365 with lecturer and pianist Maurice Aitchison who was a towering presence, literally and figuratively, in the department. I stood in awe of Maurice and hung on to his every word. Those wonderful hands knew no fear before any virtuoso texture. He seemed to sight-read everything and I was often asked to turn the pages for him – this to me was a hair-raising delight though a big responsibility. (I never saw fingering marks pencilled into any of his piano copies!). Maurice’s pianism was immediate and instinctive. P-G conducted the major orchestral concerts at the celebrations, and the Manchester Guardian of March 24th carried a glowing notice by Colin Mason on the previous evening’s programme of Prague Symphony and two double concertos (flute and harp and K. 365) played by the University Orchestra.
He conducts with much intensity and nervous gesture, but with it, he persuaded from the players finely sustained phrasing of unflagging impetus and continuity in its outlines and often very expressive and beautifully polished in its detail. It was a most musical performance in which the sincerity and spontaneity of feeling that is the chief virtue of most amateur music-making was conveyed in playing of an accomplishment that approached the professional.
Other memorable performances under P-G’s baton were Maurice’s Emperor and Clifford Knowles’ Beethoven Violin Concerto, the Mozart and Brahms Requiems, Vaughan Williams’ ‘Toward the Unknown Region’, Kodaly’s Missa Brevis (those high Cs taken magnificently by the soprano solo in the Christe and Agnus) and many more. P-G’s conducting was of the inspirational kind, instantly communicating the rhythmic vitality of the music; and a lifetime in opera working with singers, and years with Beecham gave him that magical touch when shaping a tune.
P-G invariably conducted the weekly chamber choir rehearsals and I remember outstanding performances of the standard madrigal repertoire by Byrd, Wilbye, Weelkes, Morley, Tomkins, John Bennet, Gibbons and others, as well as motets such as Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus and Palestrina’s Stabat Mater which we recorded for BBC Radio 3.
The departmental solo and chamber music recitals continued apace, enhanced by the arrival of the brilliant Canadian pianist Peter Smith onto the staff. As a close personal friend of Glenn Gould his presence, musicianship and genial, kindly personality was inspirational to the students and a huge asset to the department. His memorised performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in the department lives in the memory.
My graduation year, 1958, coincided with P-G’s directorship of the Arts Council’s Touring Opera of ’58, but we kept in touch as I began a teaching career and married life. Over the years I attended many superb chamber concerts given by Maurice and the Ad Solem Ensemble, founded by P-G. More than one string quartet owed its success and indeed its very existence to his unstinting advice and encouragement.
Throughout the 60’s and 70’s we corresponded regularly and he often came to stay with us at our successive homes in Knaresborough, Bristol and Salford as a welcome and charming guest. We had countless musical evenings and recording sessions as I played through the ever-increasing numbers of Westmoreland Sketches, studies, suites, preludes and fugues and sonatas.
One April he invited my wife and I to Windermere for a few days. Joyce had long wished to see Wordsworth’s daffodils so off we drove into the hills with provisions in the car boot. It was a typical Lakeland April day with rapid alternation of sun, blue skies and sudden showers. (Did this day, I wonder now, give P-G the inspiration for Westmoreland Sketch No.23 ‘A Shower in Spring’?) We sat on fresh green grass in the lee of a dry stone wall which we had climbed, and gazed on marvellous views as we enjoyed our picnic. Such was the energy and zest of P-G.
On another occasion P-G decided on an outing to Blea Tarn at the foot of Wrynose Fell: his idea was to circumnavigate the lake on foot. We parked as near as we could and set off. The going was rough, dense woodland and thicket, with an occasional bog on route. But we completed our mission with a feeling of achievement! It was on this hike that P-G told me about the accident to his right eye. Apparently as a young man he had been caught by a branch that had accidentally whip-lashed into his eye from a companion walking in front. The damage was so serious that nothing could be done and the sight was quickly lost. The amazing thing to me is that his remaining eye withstood the tremendous strain for half a century. One has only to close one eye for a few minutes to try to read, compose, write, conduct, paint and do all manner of daily routines to realise P-G’s rare achievement. Fortunately his remaining eye, though I saw it many times succumb to fatigue, did not fail him right to the very end. When out walking in woodland he was always watchful and solicitous to others for this reason.
I remember one afternoon initiating a discussion on Debussy, whose music was absorbing me at that time. On my enthusing over ‘L’après-midi d’un faun’ he played the score at the piano for me. Now, those who know the Jobert miniature score will gasp at this feat. Much smaller in print than the Eulenberg edition, the notes are no bigger than full stops. How he played from this complex score with one eye I shall never comprehend.
Before I knew him, Procter-Gregg had enjoyed the benefits of being a motorist despite his visual impairment! Luckily for himself, and no doubt others, a car in his control failed to ascend Hard Knott Pass and the attending inconvenience and distress resulted in his abandoning the vehicle and never driving again. (There’s a similar story about Beecham, who was stopped by a policeman in London traffic and accused of not being in proper control of the car. Tommy said he was in profound agreement, got out, left it where it was and walked away! No doubt someone will know the exact story!)
P-G had a delightful sense of humour and that common touch which gave him an ease of manner and friendliness with the man in the street. It was a joy to call into a remote country pub and see him take country people to his heart. In restaurants and all manner of eating places he could invariably charm the staff to at least tone down the background music if not erase it completely. I noticed also a remarkable gift with animals: even the most threatening of farm dogs would usually succumb to his voice and come to lick his hand. He also hand-fed the birds at the French-doors to his music room at Oakland overlooking Windermere Lake. Loving birds so much as I do, I envied the way blue, great and coal tits and robins quarrelled to come to the peanuts and crumbs in his outstretched palm.
We talked for hours, when not working through his manuscripts or recording, and I was enthralled by his reminiscences: he met Elgar, Schönberg, Delius, and Rachmaninov. As a senior composition student he was entrusted to look after Schönberg for the day: he found him distinctly disagreeable and bad-tempered, unlike his encounter with Rachmaninov which made a powerful impact on him. (P-G refers to this meeting in his book ‘Sir Thomas Beecham, Conductor and Impressario’, p.122). Rachmaninov was waiting in the wings of a London concert stage, a forbidding, gaunt figure, seated and wrapped in a huge Russian fur coat. He grasped P-G’s hand and held it in both of his a long time as he looked up intently into his eyes.
We were discussing Chopin one day and he told me that he had known an old Scotsman who was once a pupil of Chopin – this ties in with Chopin’s visit to Scotland in 1848-49. I wish I had questioned him further about this fascinating link to the greatest pianist-composer of all time. It might also throw light on a very old Fontana edition of Chopin’s ‘Etudes’ that P-G possessed. His love of Chopin dated from earlier years: when still only 14 P-G possessed the 3-volume Klindworth edition of Chopin’s complete works published by Bote and Bock of Berlin. This had been presented to him by Trinity College, London, for ‘Highest Honours’ in the piano examinations of March 1910.
The Professor’s kindness to me was invaluable in enriching my education. We went together to hear Cyril Smith play the Paganini Rhapsody at the Free Trade Hall. It was an electrifying performance (not without reason had Rachmaninov told Smith that he considered him the best British exponent of his music). Next morning (Saturday) Cyril Smith was in the department at the invitation of P-G catching up with news as good friends do, and I was privileged to meet him and play the piano – some Liszt, I seem to remember. But oh, I tremble to think of it now! Sadly only a few months later on the ill-fated good-will visit to Russia made by a delegation of English musicians (including Campoli, Leon Goossens, Gerald Moore, Jennifer Vyvyan, Smith and his wife Phyllis Sellick) led by Sir Arthur Bliss, Cyril Smith suffered a massive stroke which paralysed his left arm. How he courageously faced this trauma and came through it is detailed in his fascinating autobiography, ‘Duet for Three Hands’, published in 1958.
In many thoughtful ways P-G widened my artistic horizons, and memories crowd in as I write. One summer we walked across Hampstead Heath to Kenwood Art Gallery and there we stood in front of Franz Hals’ “The Laughing Cavalier”. How vibrant it was as if ready to speak and emerge from the canvas, the Cavalier with his bewitching smile. A good grammar school education, ‘A’ levels in French, German and Music, a passion for the piano and books had in no way prepared me for this whole new world. He must also have perceived that mere facility at the piano needed much more amplification to be real musicianship and I spent hours sight-reading and score-reading at the piano. It is to this and to the inspiration that Maurice afforded me that I owe whatever ability in sight-reading I have: it has stood me in very good stead for half a century.
P-G was widely read and one Christmas many students received the same book as a present: “Life of the Spider” by John Crompton. P-G had read this fascinating account by the South African entomologist in 1955 and had become so fascinated that he immediately ordered a whole batch of them for distribution in the department. John Crompton went on to write many more absorbing accounts of the insect world, notably “The Hunting Wasp”, “Ways of an Ant”, and “The Hive”. It became an interesting hobby for me to scour second-hand bookshops looking for any of Crompton’s books.
P-G was also very interested in the writer Joseph McCabe whose “Golden Ages of History” (1940) quickly became a collectors’ item. I was extremely fortunate to find a copy for 2/6 pence (12 1/2 p) in a shop near Stockport railway station in 1958 and it is still a treasured possession. When John McCabe, the author’s grandson, was to come to the university, P-G was so looking forward to welcoming him to the department.
P-G also read widely on gardening and his display of gentians, on which he was an authority, was very beautiful on the west-facing terrace at Windermere.
On retiring from Manchester and leaving the house in Platt Lane, Rusholme – No.66, a scene of so much wonderful music-making over the years, – P-G became director of the newly-established London Opera Centre, and lived at 37 West Heath Drive, Golders Green, where his hobby of gardening bore so much splendour in the beautiful rose-garden.
After this, in 1964, came the Windermere period of so-called retirement at No. 3 Oakland, just up the tree-lined drive opposite the Mountain Ash Hotel. With characteristic energy, he immersed himself in composition anew, revision of his earlier works and the preparation of two dozen or so important opera translations for IMC of New York. His compositions span 60 years – some early études and sketches date from 1916-17. A newspaper report of a piano recital given by P-G in Douglas, Isle of Man, on 9th September 1916, mentions the inclusion of three, at least, of his own Sketches. This notice, in the Isle of Man Examiner, is worth quoting in full not only because it sheds an unaccustomed light on P-G as recitalist, but also by way of illuminating war-time awareness far from the battle zone.
The audience at Mr H. Procter-Gregg’s pianoforte recital in Villa Marina Hall, on Thursday afternoon, was fairly large but nothing like so large as the occasion merited. For the most part, those present were people of musical taste, but, unfortunately, the bulk of Manx folk are not yet educated up to the class of music which was interpreted by Mr Procter-Gregg. Lady Raglan was there, as were many people of social prominence in the Island. The financial proceeds were in aid of the Children’s War-time Club and the Y.M.C.A. Huts. There was a very fine programme, and every number of it was a great musical treat. Mr Procter-Gregg has a mastery of the pianoforte such as is achieved by few, and as he is young in years, and is still an ardent student, he should go far. To a perfect touch he unites marvellous technique, the artistic sense, and a complete appreciation of his subject. Indeed his chiaroscuro is delightful – his soul is in his playing, and he speaks, as it were, to his hearers in the strains he evolves. On Thursday, he played all his numbers from memory, which is in itself no mean feat. Altogether, his performance thrilled and enchanted an audience which included a goodly number of people of musicianly attainments. Mr Procter-Gregg rendered the following compositions: - “Fantasia in C minor” (Mozart); “Prelude and Fugue in C sharp” (Bach); “Grand Humoreske in B flat” (Schumann); “Two sketches” (H. Procter-Gregg); and a Chopin group consisting of “Three studies (in A flat, G flat, and C minor”), “Impromptu in F sharp,” and “Polonaise in A major.” Very acceptable in all these, he particularly excelled in the Humoreske, which was something to give thanks for. The audience would fain have had him do much more, but he wisely declined all encores with one exception – it was impossible for him to resist the rapturous recall which followed his interpretation of his own sketches, and, responding, he played “Dream Song” from “Pianoforte Sketch Book No 2.” This dainty composition by himself had but one fault – it was all too short. The sketches proclaim that Mr Procter-Gregg is as original and graceful in composition as he is brilliant in execution. In the course of the afternoon he rendered good service to those members of his audience who intend competing in the pianoforte solo (open) class at the next Musical festival, by prefacing the Chopin group with the playing of the “Berceuse in D flat” (Chopin), which is the subject selected for competition. The hints derivable from Mr Procter-Gregg’s treatment of the subject should prove of high value.
The Isle of man Examiner, 9th September, 1916
His last major work was a heroic horn sonata, first performed by Robert Ashworth (then a student at the RNCM, now Principal Horn of Opera North) on 31st October 1975 at the 80th Birthday Concert in the Denmark Road Faculty of Music, a former cinema converted to P-G’s design to house the University’s music. The hall of this building is acoustically one of the best for chamber music in the North of England. This programme was repeated a few months later in March at the Theatre in the Forest, Grizedale, Hawkshead. Paul Cropper and Maurice played the viola sonata; Maurice accompanied Clifford Knowles in the C major violin Sonata (No.2); I played four études and some Westmoreland Sketches (P-G always insisted on this spelling of his beloved county) and partnered Robert in the Horn Sonata.
Like Ravel and Chopin, once P-G established his high standard of composition in his early 20’s, he rarely fell below it. Good music is an inspirational fusion of melody, harmony and rhythm in a balanced, satisfying framework. P-G’s tunes are memorable and beautifully crafted; his harmonies and progressions masterly and his rhythms vital, subtle and playful. There are sonatas for violin (four), viola, oboe, horn, clarinet (for the latter also a concerto); well over 100 piano pieces; 20 or 30 unaccompanied choral pieces (‘Tune thy Music to thy Heart’ to a poem of Thomas Campion is a gem for SATB); half a dozen large-scale pieces for chorus and orchestra; incidental music to ‘Le Malade Imaginaire’, and more than 70 solo songs with piano.
Recollections of Peter Hope
I first met P-G in 1949. I had had no response to my application to the Music Department of Manchester University, so one Saturday morning in early summer I summoned up the courage to go into the department, which was then in Dover Street, to enquire if my application had been received. The department seemed deserted, but ahead was a glass door, clearly an office. Nervously I knocked, and saw inside a tall, very thin man whom I took to be the secretary. I explained my predicament and, leading me along the corridor, he said, ‘Come in, and I’ll interview you now.’ To my horror I realized that this was Procter-Gregg, and that this was going to be a serious interview for which I felt totally unprepared. Somehow I survived, and later, after I’d sent him some compositions, I was accepted for the course.
It was a small department. There were six in my year, and only about twenty of us in all doing the Mus.B., plus a number of others taking music as part of a mixed BA. Most of the teaching was done by P-G (as we were instructed to call him) and by Maurice Aitchison, who had just joined the department from Cambridge and who was only three or four years older than I. Not only did the students all know each other well, but we spent a lot of time with both Maurice and P-G because, in addition to attending all the classes, we were expected to go to as many concerts in Manchester as possible. This was important, as opportunities to hear music in the late 1940s and early 50s were very limited.
P-G’s dark, greying hair was always cut short and he was blind in one eye, though this was not at all obvious. He told me it had been caused by looking up at the lighting when he was working at Covent Garden. He also had an occasional stutter which he had had from childhood. Though slightly disconcerting when you first met him, one soon got used to it and it never seemed a trouble to him. He mostly wore suit of a conventional, even drab sort, or else a cardigan instead of a jacket.
P-G’s musical tastes were notoriously conservative. There was little written after 1918 that he really enjoyed. His intolerance of modern music became a problem for some later students (famously in the case of Peter Maxwell Davies), but I found I could learn a lot from his extensive knowledge of the Classical and late Romantic repertoire and of opera in particular. In composition classes I found him very good at suggesting music I should study to overcome specific problems I might have. It also helped that Maurice Aitchison was prepared to introduce us to at least slightly more up-to-date music – Hindemith, Bartok, Shostakovich, and so on. I vividly remember Maurice’s impeccable sight-reading of Ludus tonalis for us, and he and Clifford Knowles playing through the Walton Violin Concerto.
Not surprisingly, P-G was an excellent judge of performers, both instrumentalists and singers, and was unstinting in his praise of those with talent. He was especially devoted to Sir Thomas Beecham, with whom he had worked closely in the British National Opera Company seasons at Covent Garden in the late 1920s. After Beecham died, P-G wrote two fine books about this great conductor and commissioned a magnificent bronze bust from Michael Rizzello to be placed in Covent Garden. I went to several Beecham concerts with P-G, and I remember with particular pleasure a performance of Delius’s Irmelin in Oxford that a number of us attended – Maurice and I travelling back to Manchester on a late-night, almost empty train.
P-G composed throughout his adult life. He insisted that his students should write at least a few bars every day, sound advice which he himself followed. But he refused to promote his work or seek its publication. There is a significant body of work which merits an in-depth study, and indeed there is much that I have neither seen nmor heard. But a number of pieces I remember with pleasure. The first is a group of part-songs on words by Sir Walter Scott, written for our university madrigal group in 1951. His fine vocal writing and sensitivity for the words also informed his setting of the Jean Ingelow poem ‘High tide on the coast of Lincolnshire’ for choir and orchestra, which we performed in 1953. I also heard, while I was still a student, Clifford Knowles and Maurice Aitchison play at least two of the four violin sonatas, and, in the later 1950s, a very good performance of the Clarinet Sonata.
Although there was little in P-G’s music that could not have been written in the earliest years of the twentieth century, it has its own individual sound world. Late romantic harmonies are often tempered by intricate contrapuntal writing. Much of his music is infused with a sense of sadness and loss, exactly reflecting P-G’s own pessimistic view of his life, and regret for the passing of an older order. The music is always restrained and elegant; drama and ‘effects’ are avoided. Perhaps for these reasons, this music does not always yield up all its treasures at first hearing. P-G was always changing his mind about exactly how his music should be performed, which must have been frustrating for the performers! But I remember how Maurice, Clifford Knowles and Paul Cropper among others took great pains to create P-G’s ideal performance. And I also know from what he told me how much he appreciated their efforts.
P-G made a significant contribution to musical life in Manchester through the many fine concerts he organized in the university. He went to great trouble to form a chamber music group for the Music Department, a project that came to fruition with the establishment of the Ad Solem ensemble in the year after I left.
In 1953, during my final year, P-G introduced me to Ernest Tomlinson, who had graduated a few years before I arrived in Manchester. Ernest was now the arranger at Mills Music in London, and in the late summer of that year he wrote to me to offer me a job as his assistant and copyist. It was the first step, and a most valuable one, in my career as arranger and composer. P-G very kindly let me board at his London house in Golders Green until I could establish myself. Because P-G usually came to London once a fortnight, I saw him frequently in the six months or so that I stayed there. On those occasions he took me to innumerable concert, operas, plays and art exhibitions. Despite four years at university I was at that time still culturally naïve, and P-G broadened my horizons enormously in this period. We also talked for hours, about philosophy, art, politics, religion and so on. He told me a little of his earlier life. He was born in Kirkby Lonsdale of a reasonably well-to-do county family; his father he described as ‘all hunting, shooting and fishing’. He had obviously flourished at Cambridge, and then studied further at the Royal College of Music. Clearly very much part of the musical establishment of post First World War London, he told me of the glittering musical soirees of Lady Cunard, which were attended by all the well-known composers and performers of that time. He clearly regretted the passing of that era, and greatly disliked most of what had happened in England since 1945. Since I came from a very different background and another era, there were many things that we didn’t agree on at all. But somehow he survived my left-of-centre politics, and my – to him – eccentric view that things were getting better, and we remained good friends through the many years that followed. I think we shared a sense of humour, so we could laugh together about our significant differences. I certainly learned a great deal from him in these formative years.
After I moved into my own flat I went back to Manchester to see P-G and Maurice Aitchison a number of times, and P-G put on my Trumpet Concerto at a university concert with Elgar Howarth as the soloist. My mother and stepfather then moved to Westmorland, so I went less often. I left Mills Music after about eighteen months, to be a freelance arranger and composer, and soon after that I married for the first time. Though there were fewer opportunities to meet, P-G and I still kept in touch. All his many friends will remember those closely written postcards, often witty, always informative. P-G even cam to see my children; although he thought that children were a hinderance to a life in music; he accepted that this was right for me.
After leaving the university in 1962, he became the first director of the London Opera Centre, newly formed by Covent Garden and the Arts Council. This involved him in a great deal of travel, and I remember receiving cards from all over the world. I think he found the travelling quite arduous, but he withstood it all with his characteristic stoicism.
In 1964 P-G finally retired and chose to return to Westmorland, where he had been born. He bought a fine house in Windermere with splendid views over the lake to the Langdales. Now he could devote much more time to his composition, and it was in the years 1964-68 that most of the Westmoreland Sketches were written. He also pursued his hobbies of painting and gardening, both of which had been part of his life through all the years I knew him. He mostly painted in watercolours, his subjects landscapes and especially the mountains of the Lake District and Scotland.
I was able to visit him a number if times during his retirement, and in addition to playing for me what he had written, he also felt a need to discuss what should happen to his house and other belongings after his death, and also what should be done with his music. In 1972 he was appointed CBE for his contribution to music. When I offered my congratulations, he was characteristically modest about his achievements. Through to his mid-seventies he continued to visit London, his energy apparently undiminished. We saw less of each other in this period, largely because of the pressure of my work, but when we did, his conversation and intellect remained as sharp as ever. Inevitably, as he reached his eighties, physical ailments gradually took their toll, and he told me a number of times that he was quite ready to die. A staunch atheist, he faced death calmly, and the process with the same stoicism that he had manifested all his life. As he saw death approaching, he moved into a nursing home and died quietly in his eighty-fifth year.
At one of our meeting in his later years, P-G told me that he had lived for art, and that art, in all its forms, has sustained and nourished him throughout his life. He shared this enthusiasm with his friends, and I am sure that I am not the only one of many who benefitted from his well-informed. Intellectually sharp love of all things beautiful. There were many things over which we disagreed, but our thirty=year friendship both changed and enhanced my life, and I know now that fortune smiled on me that Saturday morning fifty-three years ago, when I timidly opened the door to the Music Department of the university in Dover Street.
Peter Hope was born in Stockport in 1930. He studied at Manchester University and the Royal Manchester College of Music before moving to London to work as a freelance composer and arranger. His works include the Momentum Suite for string orchestra (1959), the orchestra suite The Ring of Kerry (1968), and the Concertino for bassoon and orchestra (2000).
Recollections of Humphrey Procter-Gregg during 1932-1937 by Douglas Steele
I just wondered if I could convey something of what it was like to be at the University when I worked with Humphrey Procter-Gregg, at Wright Street. Wright Street was always spelt by us music students as R-I-G-H-T, because it was the most wonderful place. It was a large, ramshackle tall building next to a kind of drill hall and in that drill hall there were the performances by the University Chorus. You climbed up stairs, twisting stairs, and you came down a corridor into Humphrey Procter-Gregg’s room.
‘Well, my boy, how are you this morning?’ That was the greeting. And he would sprawl with his long legs in a chair and he would say, ‘How’s little Douglas this morning?’ Well, those were great mornings. On pouring wet days there was always something exciting to hear about. Humphrey would take out Aldous Huxley’s book Do What You Will and read a section of it, just to be listened to. Then he would say, ‘But we’ll go over to the hall, my boy, and you will be able to hear the Taylor Quartet rehearsing the Ravel Quartet. I must take my little miniature score with me. Where is it? Where is it, my boy? Oh, here it is, yes. Now we must go.’ We all gathered round him and trooped across to the hall and there was the Charlie Taylor Quartet, a splendid team that Procter-Gregg had adopted and was training. He had trained many quartets in his time and was an expert. They were expecting a visit from the Lener Quartet. Well, we were absorbed in this because he was such an extraordinarily good coach. He would patiently tell them what to do and make them go over it again. He was a perfectionist. We listened enthralled. There would be, I should think, about eight of us then.
Humphrey Procter-Gregg used to keep his contacts with London and opera and the BBC so that you never knew quite where you were or where he would be. He’d be taking taxis here there and everywhere. Going to London to do a rehearsal for the BBC broadcast which Beecham was doing of Tristan and he would vanish, leaving me to take control of the University Madrigal Society, which had at its head a wonderful person, Jo Watterson (see footnotes), who had the gift of gathering people together. I would be left to look after the Madrigal Society at about 5 o’clock on a Friday afternoon. I would let myself out somewhere at about half past six or something like that, lock the place up, and go back home. Sometimes I wouldn’t go home on the days when Humphrey was there. He would say:
"Come, my boy, to Lancaster Road and sit and have a lesson with me in the evening. Bring your work with you and I’ve got something for you to do. I want you to write in a translation of Falstaff which I’m making. I want you to write it in my score. We’re going to do it together. We’re going to do the last chorus when they all appear in front of the curtain and they all line up and we’re going to put ‘Life’s but a jest, we’re in it.’ So come and we’ll do that".
Well, they were wonderful evenings. We went on and on, talking and talking and he would go and strum on the piano and play, talk and get me to paste little pieces of paper over things he’d written – piano preludes. They would have bulging bits of paper in which various things had been tried and so they all mounted up into a great pile on top of the manuscript. And one would have to paste over ideas which quite often returned to the very first thing that he had put down. Most extraordinary.
Humphrey made me secretary of the University Music Club. We had Professor Hartree, who was Dean of the Faculty of Music, and he was a most musical man. He was Professor of Applied Mathematics and had invented the differential analyser. His wife Elaine Hartree was an absolutely superb person, who would gather up, like Jo Watterson, a crowd of people together and inspire them all to gather round Humphrey and form the University Chorus. Humphrey said I was certainly the worst secretary they’d ever had because I would not and could not stand the business of writing up the minutes. So I got behind with that and he used to say, ‘My boy, you’re the worst, you know. You really are the worst.’ However, I struggled on and I took down the minutes as best I could.
Professor Hartree had gathered together in the University Orchestra all kinds of people. There was Arnold Cooke, a pupil of Hindemith; he played the cello. There was Professor Hartree himself, who played the timps. There was Dr Brunner; he played the flute. There was Mary Fleur, the daughter of Professor Fleur, the great French Professor. They were wonderful people. George, who was Procter-Gregg’s manservant, used to put out all the stands and the music desks for the orchestra. And I would help him do that. When the rehearsal was over Humphrey would vanish quickly like a vampire bat – gone! – leaving George and myself to clear up all the stands and all the music. We did a performance of the Christmas Oratorio at Holy Innocents’ Church, where I was organist. This is in Fallowfield and it is a beautiful church. It then had no carpets, so it had wonderful resonance. I had three choirs to look after – a ladies’ choir, a men’s choir and a boys’ choir, very big – and it was a top-hatted sort of congregation. Great people like C.P. Scott (Editor of the Manchester Guardian) would go to it and Miss Heertz who had heard Brahms conduct the Fourth Symphony in Hamburg. They were all in the congregation. Wonderful people.
Well, Humphrey had decided he would do the Christmas Oratorio with the University Chorus and Orchestra and he had a policeman who sang the bass. He was known as the ‘Policeman bass’. Humphrey discovered him. But the extraordinary thing was that Humphrey disliked the recits. He wouldn’t do them. He simply wouldn’t do them. ‘My boy, I can’t stand it.’ And he said, ‘So many of these choruses with Bach, they trundle so. They trundle. Oh, my boy, they trundle so much we can’t do these terrible recits. So I’m going to ask somebody to read the recits while we sing the music.’
Next morning we got an absolute slanging report by Cardus (music critic of the Manchestrer Guardian) saying, ‘This is truly a case of something which the University Chorus can do better.’ And the next morning Humphrey was lying in bed saying, ‘Look at this , my boy, look at this. Look at what they’ve said.’ Well, of course, it was a rather deplorable performance really because it was so awful that those superb recits were left out and then the speaking voice coming in and then the chorus making interjections. It was all quite wrong but he would have it that way and, of course, that’s what happened. And he was particularly upset because Cardus had given him a brilliant review of his Second Violin Sonata, which Forbes (see footnotes) played with Henry Holst. Then Humphrey said to me the next morning, ‘People will think I’ve been taking him out to dinner, you know, my boy. They will think I’ve been taking him out to dinner.’
He was no conductor. He had a flimsy, dancing sort of beat that you could hardly follow and he used to kind of dance when he conducted. It was most extraordinary. There was no sense of control at all. We sang as best we could because we all liked him and he had this highly infectious and attractive stammer, which was not at all disturbing and really after a time one got used to it and it became very attractive.
I was also involved in playing for the Convocations. Humphrey had been, in his earlier days, an organist but he declined to play any more and left it to me. ‘You play, my boy. You play for the Convocations, and Mr Walton (see footnotes) will give you the signal when to start.’ And I used to go up, and Humphrey used to come and sit on the organ stool with me, with his long legs, and look down, and peer down, and Mr Walton would give me the signal, and I would play the great grave section of the Fantasia in G major (by J.S. Bach, BWV 572). Humphrey was paralysed with interest over this grave section and decided that he would write a playing-out processional piece of music. He set to, and he made the most prefabricated imitation of it, of the great Bach piece. It was badly laid out for the instrument; it really was a thing that certainly did not sound inevitable at all. It was very unpleasant to play, but of course I had to play it and, I remember, he did it in pencil, and then play from the manuscript. This went on and on and on, every time I played – that was the exit piece – and I got to detest it very much.
On one of the occasions when I was playing there for the Convocation, Beecham came up to Manchester and he agreed to have a Doctorate of Music given to him. He’d refused it before and simply turned it down very briefly without answering the university’s letter; and he had been approached by Humphrey, who knew him very well because Humphrey had produced operas for him, and he decided to come and take his degree. And I had to play. Now this was an extraordinary experience because Humphrey said to the Vice-Chancellor, ‘I think what we’ll do is we’ll secrete some of the University Chorus behind bowers of flowers in the Whitworth Hall, and they will then, when Beecham comes up, spring out and give the great acclamation to Hans Sachs from the Mastersingers last act.’ Well, the Vice-Chancellor simply smiled and said, ‘I don’t really think, Mr Procter-Gregg, we can do that, you know.’ So he came back to me and said, ‘That’s a wonderful idea gone by the board, my boy, gone by the board.’ Well, Beecham came, and as I played the great introduction to Act III of the Mastersingers, in an arrangement of my own, Humphrey said, ‘He’s smiling. He’s smiling. He’s pleased. He’s coming up. He’s looking pleased.’
I believe I was the first person to do his new syllabus, which contained performance and conducting. He said, ‘My boy, I think you ought to do that. And you must give up your reading of medieval history. You must give that up.’ I was reading Burying History for Fun on the side because I had got into the university by one of those extraordinary back entries of the mature matric. And the time came, of course, when final exams were being approached and all this exciting time became more serious when I realized that I was going to have to do conducting in the RMCM hall with an orchestra and that I should have to do accompanying for the examination. They insisted, Humphrey and the others who were examining, that I should play four organ pieces on the Whitworth hall organ; and, of course, there was the written paper to be done as well. It was an all-round kind of thing. And I was the first, as I say. So I had to work very hard, and Forbes said, ‘You’re going to do the Fourth Symphony of Beethoven. It’s going to be a small section of the Halle and a small section of the Chorus of the Halle, and we’re going to do the Brahms Song of Destiny again for your finals, and you’ll have to sight-conduct the piece which we will give you.’
The time came in for my examination for the conducting test. Forbes played the harp, on the piano, on the platform, and Humphrey Procter-Gregg played the timps, and a section of the Halle Chorus sang, and I started off by doing the Beethoven Fourth, and they were all wonderfully helpful, wonderfully helpful. And I got through it, and then the big test came, the sight-playing piece. They had concealed from me what they were going to do, and they opened their parts, and Forbes marched to the desk and put in front of me Debussy’s Prelude a L’Apres-midi d’un faune. I was terrified. I didn’t know what to do. I knew L’Apres-midi from hearing it many times, but it changes time in the most extraordinary way. I felt I was making an awful mess of it, but they were all so good, and the solo flute player was so wonderful: he gave me absolute latitude and allowed me to wander gently through it. And at the section changes everybody was so helpful. Well, the result of it all was that I went to Humphrey Procter-Gregg that night and I almost broke down in tears. I said, ‘I’ve made an awful mess of L’Apres-midi.’ He said:
No, my boy, you didn’t. No, no, no, no you didn’t. Now don’t say that, you didn’t, no. You did it very well, you managed it very well. It’s a difficult piece, my boy, it’s a difficult text. Now, let me make some coffee now, and I’ll show you what I want you to do.
And so it went on. He was astonishingly good. He helped me in so many ways.
One weekend, Humphrey suggested that five of us should go with him by car, and he would drive, and we would go to Alderley Edge for the afternoon. Now, I don’t know how long it had been since he’d driven, but he’d got this old car and we all piled into it. And it was the most hair-raising expedition because the car was swerving and this was really unnerving. It was the most terrible driving, the most erratic driving. And it was a marvellous afternoon, a sunny summer afternoon. We climbed from Alderley Edge village up to the Edge, and there we all sat looking out over the great plain, right over. And there he sat. And then he started. He worshipped Delius, and he gave the most wonderful talk to us about the music of Delius. This was a wonderful excursion, and a wonderful exposition of the music of Delius. Then we had a splendid tea and came home in the same hair-raising way we had gone. A very memorable occasion, but that wonderful talk was something that made history for me.
Jo Watterson was a Levenshulme-resident soprano, a stalwart of the Manchester Cathedral Voluntary Choir.
R.J. Forbes, Principal of the Royal Manchester College of Music
Frank Walton, who retired in 1963, was the Deputy Registrar of the university and instigated the transition of the Music Department to a full Faculty. His son Robin Walton was a pupil of Steele at Stockport Grammar \school and took private composition lessons with Procter-Gregg. He later became senior lecturer in music at the University of Witwatersrand.
Taken from 'Manchester Sounds' Volume 4 - 2003-4
by kind permission of Manchester Musical Heritage Trust
Several of Humphrey Procter-Gregg's compositions have recently been recorded on the Dutton Epoch label.
Sonata No.3 for violin and piano on Dutton CDLX 7165 - Richard Howarth (violin) and Ian Buckle (piano)
Sonata for clarinet and piano on Dutton CDLX 7165 - Nicholas Cox (clarinet) and Ian Buckle (piano)
Sonata for horn and piano on Dutton CDLX 7165 - Bob Ashworth (horn) and Ian Buckle (piano)
Westmoreland Sketches (Nos.23-26) on Dutton CDLX 7165 - Ian Buckle (piano)