Walford Davies

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

The death of Elgar had led to the appointment of Sir Walford Davies - by then something of a national figure through his popular radio talks on music - as Master of the King’s Musick. Brian acknowledged his worthiness for the job.

Radio transmission of music, supported by the ‘showmanship’ of the BBC, creates a definite ‘public opinion’ that even Ministers cannot lightly ignore. Those who appear regularly before the microphone are at once ‘seconded’ by the paragraphists for any job that is going. Elgar had no sooner passed away than a Fleet Street acquaintance told me that Walford Davies would be the new Master of the King’s Musick. ‘The very man for the job’, said he, quoting the Duke of Wellington’s apocryphal exclamation when he gave William Adams1 an important command at Waterloo! I do not remember exactly the duties attaching to the ancient office, but as the holding of it is regarded as an honour, it is again an honour where honour is due. All the same, I doubt whether public appreciation of Sir Walford Davies has the same foundation as has the musician’s appreciation.

An affable personality in presenting his subject has brought Sir Walford many vocative and paragraphic admirers; but one or two pronouncements make me think that he does not quite like his present popularity. He certainly has charm of manner at the microphone, which adds to the value of his educational talks, and this, I think, is a natural development of his early work as an adjudicator at Morecambe. But all who are successful at the microphone have not qualities comparable to those of Walford Davies as a musician. He was one of the few men Elgar cared for intimately: he publicly acclaimed him as a composer, which Elgar would never do lightly. I have seen them working together as adjudicators under the aegis of the late Canon Gorton2, who did so much for music in the North of England. It was in the house of the canon that I was introduced to Walford Davies. They were great pioneering days and in the van always were Elgar, Walford Davies, Ivor Atkins, Henry Coward3, Frederick Corder, WG McNaught, John Coates, and Ernest Newman.

Walford Davies’s pleasant manner at the microphone reminds me vividly of how he and McNaught alone among the adjudicators at Morecambe had the happy knack of getting on intimate terms with the audience: it is an amiable quality which while it rises tends to obscure one’s greater worth as a composer. No one has yet recalled the excitement that was ours when at the Leeds Festival of 1904 Everyman was produced4. Here was an oratorio for the general acceptance of which Gerontius had undoubtedly prepared the way. Everyman sprang to sudden popularity, being performed by choral societies of repute in the Provinces and by the London Choral Society and the Bach Choir in London. The work revealed Walford Davies as a composer of genius and a mystic, one whose mind was clearly in tune with that of Elgar. Other big choral works followed, all written with skill equal to that shown in Everyman, but the public did not respond.

Jaeger thought highly of Walford Davies, placing him a peer with Elgar, and was frankly enthusiastic about his Choral Symphony.5 Davies was at the time away in Switzerland working on this symphony; and I recall Jaeger turning to me and saying, ‘Can’t you see, my boy, what sort of symphony it will be? Davies in the Alps: thousands of feet up in the air: writing away at his score.’ But neither the critics nor the public took to the work, and it now lies forgotten, of course. Davies would have been a fortunate man to write a second work to be received as gladly as was Everyman; but even that work seems now to be in danger of relegation. Judging by what is now taking place in the English field of composition, one must continue writing, in addition to securing performances, if first successful works are not to be forgotten.

What I believe to be the cause of Walford Davies’s abandonment of large-scale composition, and also of his continued work for the BBC, is en earnest desire for useful service to the greater number. Twenty odd years ago he told me that he looked upon music as an aid to higher social and religious work. I see this spirit still active within him in his fellowship and community-singing music, and also in the compilation of hymns with which his name is associated and which have enjoyed great popularity.

  1. Brian was a much more knowledgeable scholar of the Napoleonic wars than your annotator - but I cannot identify any William Adams and wonder whether this is a garbled reference to General Sir Frederick Adam, who certainly was at Waterloo. The ‘Fleet Street acquaintance’ could have been Norman V Dagg - if it wasn’t Ernest Newman. ↩︎

  2. Canon Corton was chairman of the Morecambe Festival Committee: Brian dedicated his Come o’er the sea to him. ↩︎

  3. Henry Coward (1849-?) was a famous English choral conductor and choir-trainer. Mainly based in Sheffield, he was credited by Arthur Eaglefield Hull, in his Dictionary of Modern Music & Musicians, with having ‘opened a new epoch of choral singing’. ↩︎

  4. In October of that year. As Brian goes on to say, Everyman met with remarkable success: it would probably be worth a modern revival. ↩︎

  5. Lift up Your Hearts (1905-6). According to HC Colles, Jaeger had previously done everything he could to discourage Davies from setting Everyman↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, May 1934, p. 693