On Conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra 

3 June 2022 tbs.pm/75205


Radio Times Annual 1954 cover

From the Radio Times Annual 1954

I HAVE been asked to set down some thoughts on conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and I am happy and willing to do so since it allows listeners to go behind the scenes, into the studios, as it were, and see how things are done.

Next year, in 1955, the BBC Symphony Orchestra will celebrate its twenty-fifth birth day. It is almost youthful when compared with some of the well-known orchestras abroad. Yet the BBC Symphony Orchestra is one of the best-known and most respected orchestras in the world, an orchestra deeply appreciated in Europe, where it is regarded as an organisation that represents the British musical view-point, and much loved at home by countless devotees of the Sunday-afternoon and Wednesday-night BBC Symphony Concerts, followers of the Third Programme, and by enthusiastic attenders at the Henry Wood Proms. The BBC Symphony Orchestra has had a reputation for maintaining the highest standards since its foundation in 1930, but not because it has concentrated on a narrow selection of classical works. It has indeed by far the greatest repertoire of any orchestra in the world. We do well to be proud of our Orchestra. It is a national asset of unique value; a servant, and yet a master, of music.

Nowadays the Orchestra is not subdivided into smaller sections as it used to be. In some respects broadcasting has changed. The Third Programme, for example, ministers to music-lovers in countless ways. The present strength of the Orchestra may be gauged by the numbers in its string section, which is built up in the proportion of sixteen first violins, fourteen seconds, twelve violas, ten cellos and eight basses, with wind and percussion instruments always available as required, making an orchestra of from ninety to one hundred and ten players.

Perhaps one of the reasons why the Orchestra is able to present so many new and complicated works is the superb assurance of its members’ sight-reading. British orchestral players are noted for their gifts in this direction, but I have never come across better sight-readers than those in the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Such ability helps enormously when it comes to rehearsing new works for the first time, for it cannot be emphasised too strongly that it is at rehearsal that the foundations of performance are laid. Here the hard work and the real music-making take place, to come to life finally — but only after careful preparation — at the time of the concert.


A man conducts an orchestra

Immaculate and with a white carnation in his buttonhole, Sir Malcolm conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra in its regular home at No, 1 Studio, Maida Vale


Strictly speaking there is no limit to the number of rehearsals one might ask for—and obtain—in the preparation of a given work or concert; but the minimum is usually three for a programme lasting about one and a half hours. Yet I recall that for the final concert of the Dvorak commemoration last summer we spent three hours rehearsing the well-known ‘New World’ Symphony, a work that takes some forty minutes to perform. Of course the sight-reading ability to which I have referred could be a disadvantage if the player regarded his music-making too easily or casually. This is where the work of the conductor really begins.

‘Like riding a horse’

In one sense conducting an orchestra is like riding a horse. There must be confidence, and a gentle holding of the reins, with the constant injunction ‘Steady, steady, steady…,’ Or the conductor’s art may be likened to that of the producer of a play. The aim will be to see the chosen work — a symphony let us say — in its entirety, as a whole. For the important melodic lines and solos the attitude will be ‘I suggest this way…’ coaxing the player to express his personality but under your direction, remembering that you, the conductor, must have a performance of the whole symphony, and not just of this or that phrase. In any work, long or short, only the conductor has no bars rest!

‘The flying moment’

If the conductor rightly attends to these matters, ideally there is little left for him to do at performance, but ‘humanity’ steps in. The best players may become too enthusiastic, the weaker ones too lethargic, and the conductor must influence them all at the flying moment of the performance. Each performance of a piece of music must be its re-creation, and no two will be exactly alike.

I am sometimes asked about the difference between conducting on the rostrum at a public concert and conducting before the microphone in the studio. Again, ideally, there should be no difference at all, but the excitement of a live performance in a full house undoubtedly stimulates the performers, and, if they know their job and therefore are not nervous, the task of the conductor is the easier. One goes to the rostrum mentally ‘living’ the music, knowing that the orchestra is on its toes. I can never experience this without a sense of exhilaration and excitement—nervous anticipation, if you like — that leaves one unconscious of the people sitting in the audience or of the unknown millions listening beyond the microphone.


The orchestra and audience

The BBC Symphony Orchestra plays in public. This remarkable photograph was taken by a ‘Radio Times’ cameraman in London’s Royal Festival Hall during one of the orchestra’s 1953-54 concerts. These concerts are a feature of Wednesday-night broadcasting in the Home Service


Many famous instrumentalists have been associated with the BBC Symphony Orchestra since its foundation. A few ‘originals’ remain with us and are still doing excellent work. The harpist Sidonie Goossens, for example, has been with the Orchestra since the beginning. During the war years the choice of suitable instrumentalists was naturally limited, and mainly for this reason there were changes in the personnel of the Orchestra when I became conductor in 1950. It is part of the conductor’s task, in his constant care for the highest standards, to be continually watching the personnel of his orchestra, whose members must themselves be enthusiastic and determined to uphold those standards. It may often be better to have young keen players instead of more experienced but possibly dried-up players who seem to have lost their enthusiasm.

‘Hackneyed’ Music

We often hear today that certain music is ‘hackneyed.’ But that is really a compliment to the composer! ‘Hackneyed’ music that has stood the test of time is the best music: that is why it is hackneyed. But if you listen to — or play — music firmly convinced that you are likely to be bored, then bored you certainly and deservedly will be.

Enthusiasm and the capacity for hard work may be said to be the required qualification for the members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, always assuming, of course, the necessary technical proficiency. It is not always easy for London orchestras to keep the best players unless they are given opportunities to play also as ‘freelances,’ in film sessions, for example, where the ‘big money’ is to be found. This the BBC cannot allow; there is too much ‘home-work’ for the player to do.

Yet tradition, stability, and pride in work count for a lot, and these things in part explain why the BBC, itself a bureaucratic organisation, can yet hold together under one banner a great number of first-class individual artists of diverse temperament, and this in spite of ‘free-lance’ or other outside attractions. Their working life may be rather different from that of their colleagues in other orchestras. They may, on the whole, travel less, and sometimes miss that extra stimulation caused by the proximity of a live audience in a crowded concert hall. But they also have the challenge of that frighteningly magic microphone. Their work may not be seen, but they can never be sure who hears it. A solo passage becomes exposed to thousands of unseen listeners, not just occasionally, but all the time. The good player, in control of his art, may not of course be conscious of this during the actual concentration on performance. But the shadow of this challenge is there during all his working moments, which means that a member of the Orchestra requires, in addition to the normal technical and musical equipment, coolness of temperament and clarity of judgment of a high order. My players are proud of the orchestra to which they belong, and are zealous to maintain its distinction.


A violinist

Paul Beard has been leader of the BBC Symphony Orchestra since 1936. He comes from Birmingham. After succeeding his father as principal viola of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, he became leader of that orchestra; and in 1932 Sir Thomas Beecham engaged him to lead the London Philharmonic Orchestra


I feel I must say a special word about one member of the Orchestra whose name is known to every listener — Paul Beard, who has been its leader since 1936. The BBC is lucky to have in Paul Beard a man of great experience of orchestral music — and of all sorts of orchestral conductors. He is a musician of great vitality and verve. Beard himself might well have become a professional conductor, for he can conduct anything; or a solo violinist, for he has an outstanding technique. But he prefers leading the BBC Symphony Orchestra to being either of these. His early training was by no means entirely academic; he served an apprenticeship leading the Spa Orchestra at Scarborough, in a severely practical school learning to play all kinds of things, just as in my own experience at Llandudno, with forty-five members of the old Hallé Orchestra one had to learn to ‘make music.’ I have enjoyed ‘making music’ with Paul Beard at my side since he first came to London to lead the Courtauld-Sargent Concerts more than twenty years ago, during which time his enthusiasm has never diminished.

Now what of the policy of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and its future? I said earlier that it represents to Europe the British musical viewpoint. But it also tries to give a comprehensive musical view-point to all its listeners. This naturally includes the preparation and performance of much new music, and I think it would be true to say that more new works are performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra than by any other. Our policy of inviting distinguished guest conductors to take temporary charge of music in which they specialise is a good one. No conductor pretends to be expert in all branches of music, and also, if one is not wholly in sympathy with a given work it is obviously sensible to offer it to some other conductor with that sympathy, rather than that the public should be deprived of hearing it. In this respect the BBC has a duty to give its listeners a comprehensive view of music past and present, without fear or favour. And of course there is the added stimulation for the Orchestra in being confronted from time to time with a new face and a fresh personality.

But the special character and identity of the Orchestra remain. On our visit to Germany and the Netherlands this summer it was again obvious that music-lovers abroad appreciate the fact that the BBC Symphony Orchestra is doing a fine job for music, and doing it well. For my part I have no ambition to make the Orchestra the ‘best in the world.’ I want the world to have as many fine orchestras as possible, and Britain to have several of them—with the BBC among them.

I revel in my position as Chief Conductor for the BBC, and it is my constant aim to build up and maintain a body of musicians who perform as much of the best music as possible, in the very best way.

Sir Malcolm Sargent



The Vivacious Sir Malcolm

Music Critic of ‘The Yorkshire Post’

A CRITIC lately suggested that Sir Malcolm Sargent was ‘still too young in spirit’ to be the ideal interpreter of a certain musical work. It was a criticism courteously intended, not unflattering to a conductor born in 1895, and one which Sir Malcolm was quick to appreciate. For ‘young in spirit’ Sir Malcolm certainly is, whatever his maturity in musical matters technical and intellectual. Those who would give an account of this conductor must deal first with his amazing vitality. It is a characteristic which no writer ever ignores. ‘Energy will do anything that can be done in this world,’ said the wise Goethe; and it sometimes seems that Sir Malcolm Sargent has built his career on this maxim. He is the most vivacious, in one sense the most spectacular, British conductor before the public today. He blends the virtuosity of conducting with the art of choreography. The mind, the arms, and the body work as one. Directing some great choral society, surrounded by a big orchestra, Sir Malcolm is in his element. His actions seem jet-propelled, giving all but visible shape to abstract sound. His control is impeccable; his enthusiasm compelling; and the response he obtains is invariably brilliant, exciting, and never less than superbly efficient.


Sir Malcolm signing autographs

Sir Malcolm is never more happy than when talking about music. Here he is seen with young enthusiasts who had come early to join the Prom queue at the Royal Albert Hall … and he signed their autograph books


‘We can count on ‘im’

It is this sense of unsparing labour, coupled with the professional instinct for holding a work together, that endears Sir Malcolm to those gifted but non-professional artists in our midst, the choral singers. ‘Aye, lad,’ said an old Yorkshire choralist to me on one occasion, ‘if Sargent at rehearsal says he’ll beat three in a bar, or ’undred and three, he’ll beat ’em: we can count on ’im.’ Which is perhaps one reason why Sargent has been a regular conductor at Leeds Festivals since 1931, and permanent conductor of the Huddersfield Choral Society since 1932. Merely to see him move briskly to the rostrum is to observe something of his secret. The inevitable white carnation in the button-hole of his immaculate evening coat is a striking contrast to the sleek, glossy-black hair that no baton-weaving gymnastics can ever put out of place. In a high-powered orchestral work such as a tone-poem by Strauss, the conductor himself seems intoxicated by the sounds, but all is finely arranged, down to the last semi-quaver.


Sir Malcolm wipes his brow

Sir Malcolm Sargent — caught by the camera during the concert interval

He may put a new and expert sheen on, say, such a quiet movement as Handel’s Pastoral Symphony in Messiah, but the music invariably trembles with a pulse and warmth of its own. Certainly a musician who will effectively transcribe for string orchestra so lovely a melody as the Nocturne from Borodin’s Second String Quartet is not insensitive to music’s quieter tones. Versatility is part and parcel of his nature. He was an organist of an English cathedral. He is a pianist of distinction. He delights in the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan and loves to conduct them. And honours have come to him not only in this country but from capitals abroad. He has been an ambassador for British music round the world. Yet he revels in that British home-made institution, the Proms. His technical equipment is such that he can take a new score to rehearsal and sight-read it. But he will find as much pleasure in his thousandth performance of Messiah as he no doubt found in his first.

In Private Life …

Sir Malcolm is at all points the professional conductor. He loves music for its own sake: but he finds time for other things. His powers of discussion are remembered by countless listeners to the old-time Brains Trust. In private life he enjoys vivacious conversation and quick-fire argument; but he can be an attentive and courteous listener. He will talk on any topic. You might meet him and never discover that music is his main interest in life. He loves parties, is an excellent raconteur, and tells many a good joke against himself. He dresses quietly, but always in perfect taste; and he likes pleasant things around him— good books, good food and wine, good talk. His life, like his infectious personality, is busy, but orderly.

I was with him on Derby Day, when a radio commentator described a horse as ‘a fine commanding chestnut.’ Sir Malcolm relished the words, and rolled them round his tongue. ‘A fine commanding chestnut!’ he said. ‘Just like one of my best stories!’



The Strings


OUR picture of the second violins (top left) shows Bernard Andrews, principal, with Belle Davidson sub-principal, who is the wife of Norman Hester, a member of the double-bass section. Behind them are Constance Ellingford and Dennis Heath, husband of Sylvia Putterill, who also belongs to the second violins. Harry Danks, principal viola (top right) is well known as a soloist in his own right; he is also leader of the London Consort of Viols. He is seen in the picture with Zingra Bunbury, sub-principal of the viola section. (Bottom left) Peter Muscant, principal cello (seen on the right), has been a member of the orchestra since it was founded in 1930. With him is Frank Ford, sub-principal. The picture of the double-basses shows, on the left, the principal, Stuart Knussen, who comes from Manchester. He was formerly a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and subsequently of the Scottish National Orchestra.


The Woodwind


THE flute section of the BBC Symphony Orchestra is the youngest in the country. Douglas Whittaker, principal (on the right of the picture) and Russell King (on the left) both come from Australia. King and Andrew Solomon (seen in the centre) also play the piccolo, and Solomon plays the alto flute. The two oboists are John Wolfe and J. C. Pantling (a foundation member of the orchestra), with Helen Gaskell playing the cor anglais (she has been a member since 1932). The principal clarinet, Ralph Clarke, is on the right of the picture; with him are Herbert New, who takes over the E flat clarinet when needed, and Walter Lear, who is also an expert on the saxophone and basset horn. Of the bassoons, Richard Newton, principal, is on the left of the picture; he is a foundation member of the orchestra. On the extreme right is Alfred Butler, with his contra bassoon.


The Brass


THE trumpeters, from right to left, are William Overton, principal, Wesley Woodage and Ian Mackintosh, who also plays the comet. All three were pupils of Ernest Hall, formerly principal trumpet. Ian Mackintosh is the son of Jack Mackintosh, a former member of the orchestra. The principal trombonist is William Teskey; behind him can be seen Jack Pinches, William Colman (‘father’ of the section), and Charles Brewer, who is professor of the tuba at Kneller Hall. The leading horn-player is Douglas Moore, a versatile musician who was a piano-teacher at the age of fifteen.


Percussion & Harps


ERIC PRITCHARD, the timpanist, was formerly a trumpet-player. Behind him, in the percussion section, are J. Lees, a foundation member of the orchestra, his son J. B. Lees, and Gilbert Webster, an expert on many instruments, including the cimbalom (in evidence in Kodály’s ‘Háry Janos’ Suite); his services in this capacity are much in demand by other orchestras. The harpist, Sidonie Goossens, is a charming and gifted member of a distinguished family of musicians.


You Say

1 response to this article

Michael Hall 27 July 2022 at 1:26 pm

You list a Dennis Heath in the second violin section.
This is incorrect.
His name was Desmond Heath.

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