John Connell’s Johannesburg Festival

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

I had an agreeable surprise the other day when I was handed a bunch of programmes for a music festival held recently at Johannesburg. We all know that many excellent musicians reside in the colonies, seeking better health or perhaps a more wide open field for their talents: and there they practise as conductors of orchestras, choral societies, and opera companies. Owing to comparative isolation, many of these musicians have to resort to expedients that would be frowned on at home: but the fact emerges that their work is self-supporting.

Frankly, I had heard of John Connell as organist at the City Hall, Johannesburg: and I had read that there were two complete orchestras in South Africa — one at Cape Town and another at Durban, but I was quite unprepared for the information that for the Johannesburg Festival Mr Connell not only trained an orchestra of seventy English and Dutch players in five admirable modern orchestral programmes, but then among other things prepared and conducted a fortnight’s season of opera, which included Gounod’s Faust, Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor, and Mozart’s Don Giovanni, with complete ballets, etc. Paragraphists and columnists at home would laud to the skies the musician of their choice who attempted a tenth of a task so heavy.

My interest grew when I read the explanatory programme notes, also the work of John Connell, who is nothing if not downright. Certainly, these notes, devoid of music-type, are amongst the most intriguing I have ever read. However, fair’s fair: and Mr. Connell should not tell the South Africans that the Traité de l’instrumentation of Hector Berlioz ‘had its foundation in his study of the Wagner scores’. The Frenchman, in fact, learned nothing from the German, who in his own letters, admits indebtedness. Also, there appears to be some lack of full understanding when it is said that Elgar is not, like Delius, a 6/8 composer. Included in the programme-book is a little fiction entitled ‘Conversation Piece’, which is an ironical commentary on performers and listeners, though there is, more seriously, generous acknowledgement of the self-sacrificing services of many enthusiastic colleagues.

There is, apparently, an admirable spirit about these annual Johannesburg festivals, which are what Sir Hugh Allen would place among the finest examples of ‘home-made music’. Still, one cannot suppress a yearning for the time when music created in the homeland will have at least a ‘fifty-fifty’ presentation in the programmes. The only English orchestral items in the programmes were an evening with Elgar and Arnold Bax’s Symphony No 5. These works appear to have been splendidly played and to have made a great impression.

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, June 1938, p. 777