Professor Humphrey Procter-Gregg C.B.E. 1895-1980
A memoir by a former Manchester student
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.
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)