The drummer-boy’s luck

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

The boy of fourteen who secured an engagement as a drummer in a London dance band at £600 a year4 deserved all the publicity he got. I should probably never have heard of it had not a press cutting been sent to me with the words ‘What about it?’ written across it. Well, of course, I am quite befogged by such luck, and don’t understand it. The world of music appears to be split in two halves: one where there is no money to he had; and the other half where everyone appears to breathe five pound notes. In this modern world where most things pertaining to prestige of any or every type are reckoned in terms of pounds, shillings and pence, the drummer-boy the saxophonist, the trumpeter, and all the big boss men in the swing music line have a right to wear superior airs for being able to get away with it, to an extent that would have baffled Elgar, and would make Vaughan Williams blink.

There may be no virtue in being poor. I once heard a man say in all seriousness that it was a crime to be poor5: but snobbery or no snobbery, we are compelled to realise that the world of big money in music is separated by an unbridgeable gulf from the world of music where there is no money. Such extremes never were reconciled, and never can be. The man who attempts to live by serious work is as likely to be as unfortunate as the thousands who have attempted it without succeeding. It is of no use pointing to exceptions, and the poverty of men who ‘lived’ in earlier eras, or who existed on patronage. Had Mozart, Beethoven, or Schubert lived today, they could not have helped being enormously wealthy under the modern conditions of better terms from their publishers, and performance and broadcast fees. Think of the colossal fortune Richard Wagner would have derived from his operas had he lived a century later.

The enormous fees formerly paid to famous prima donnas, tenors, or famous instrumentalists became a tradition to which all later virtuosos aspired. The polar axis of musical life has altered considerably during the past fifty years, and we hear no longer of the enormous fees paid to prima donnas and instrumentalists or of the magic castles in which they lived. Whilst fees paid to vendors of popular music have gradually soared, there has been a more equal distribution of money value amongst those who perform serious music. There are more musicians making a living out of performing popular or serious music than in any previous era. A glance at the activities of the BBC in London and the provinces suggests the permanent employment of hundreds of regular salaried musicians.

Since Paderewski has retired there is but one famous musician, Toscanini, who retains all the glamour formerly given to prima donnas, and obtains the same high fees. When the Philharmonic Society engaged Richard Wagner to conduct their eight concerts (in 1855) for the sum of £200, it was probably a higher figure than the rival New Philharmonic Society were paying Hector Berlioz for their series. Think to what height conductors’ fees have risen recently, though the most famous conductors since the days of Wagner, Berlioz, Richter, Nikisch or Mahler, never dreamt of anything higher than what they got, which was but a fraction of the enormous sums paid to Toscanini, and for playing the same music.

Since musicians commenced to earn money by their public performances, the natural tendency has been, in commerce as elsewhere, for the exceptionally talented people to obtain exceptional fees. So long as public performances continue, so also will the traditional conditions persist — that is why the drummer-boy of fourteen must be considered lucky to get £600 a year. He is obviously an exceptional drummer-boy; but it is of no use cathedral organists or composers grieving because they cannot obtain such a sum for their services or their work. I used to hear, many years ago, a popular song called ‘There’s a good time coming’, and when all things out of gear, out of line or proportion have been adjusted, the good time will have arrived, and we shall all be as well off as the drummer-boy.

  1. Nearly £10,000 in today’s money. ↩︎

  2. This was reputedly a favourite saying of Brian's erstwhile patron, Herbert Minion Robinson. ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, March 1937, pp. 490–491