“The Truth About the Vaughan Williams Tuba Concerto”

The Truth About the Vaughan Williams Tuba Concerto” by Philip Catelinet, ITEA Journal, Volume 14 Number 2 (November 1986).

A prophetic summing up paragraph taken from an article with the title “Tuba” which appeared in a London magazine called Music in August, 1952 headed “Composers, Please Note!”:

Maybe the future holds some faint hope for ambitious players. Some more satisfactory employment of their talents as expressed through the Bass and Tenor Tubas? Perhaps composers can be encouraged to make a serious study of the possibilities of these instruments and to compose music for them that will be an expression of their own genius? If this can come to pass then the day of the tuba player will dawn. Recitals at the Wigmore Hall! Appearances in the Royal Festival Hall!! The Royal Albert Hall!!! Carnegie Hall!!!! World tours!!!!! Who knows?????

There is nothing more boring to the reader than the production of statistical information of what has become, in the eyes of most tubists, an historical musical event of the 1950s. That the writer was involved is unavoidably factual, but incidents that led up to his involvement are necessary, he feels, as well as interesting in themselves.

The German Third Reich (1933-1945) had some influence in the matter, yet it was actually at the behest of the B.B.C. (British Broadcasting Corporation) that the author finally emerged as a professional tubist. After four years and five months with the Royal Army Medical Corps (interestingly enough, the same Corps in which Ralph Vaughan Williams served for some time during World War I) followed by 56 days release leave, plus an additional 9 days overseas leave, I completed my period of military service. The military inactive period preceding demobilization gave me much time for thought on the question of my instrumental future. Governmental law was that, on demobilization, former employers were responsible for a soldier’s re-employment. Well and good, but in what capacity? The B.B.C. military band, in which I had been the one and only euphonium player, had been disbanded during the war. At my initial interview with the B.B.C. Officials I requested a position as an accompanist, piano being my principal instrument. Their response was: “As such positions had been well-served by non-combatants during hostilities, these people would be kept on. We understand you can play any brass instrument, so we will arrange an audition for you on tuba at the conclusion of your release leave.”

Where was I to get a tuba? I telephoned Charles Brewer, the instrumentalist I had succeeded in the B.B.C. military band, who had been transferred, prior to my appointment in his place, to the B.B.C. Symphony Orchestra. Fortunately, he had just purchased a new F tuba from Boosey & Hawkes and kindly loaned me his older model. I later purchased this instrument.

No release leave for me! Some necessary dental treatment and then practice, practice, and more practice! I purchased some cello and bassoon studies and worked hard at all registers of my instrument. The promised audition duly transpired, with Sir Adrian Boult, Clarence Raybould, Stanford Robinson, and the orchestral manager of that time as my adjudicators. At the conclusion of my testing, Sir Adrian asked me if I had any preference as to localities of domicile. There were two tuba vacancies available, one in London, the other in Glasgow, Scotland. As my wife and I had tragic memories of the latter city (we lost our two boys in the first air raid over Glasgow) I chose London. Consequently, Sir Adrian’s closing statement to Stanford Robinson was, “Robbie, he’s yours.” I found myself tubist to the B.B.C. Theatre Orchestra.

Walter Goehr, one of the Orchestra’s popular conductors, made full use of my abilities, not only on the tuba, but also on the piano, celeste, and as an arranger. Following the dissolution of the B.B.C.’s Opera Orchestra it reverted to concert orchestra status with a reduced personnel, and I was made redundant in 1952. Fortunately for me, I was offered work with both the London Symphony and Philharmonia Orchestra. Neither of these were contractual appointments, but both provided engagements based on program requirements. Not too satisfactory a situation, but at least it provided “cash on the nail” and a fairly comfortable standard of living for myself and my family.

Such was the situation when the news about “The Concerto” came to hand. I was at home. Maybe I was practicing! I really cannot recall what I was doing, but undoubtedly waiting on a telephone call. A job, perhaps? The telephone did ring. It was the secretary of the London Symphony Orchestra in a somewhat excited mood. Without preliminaries he stated: “Ralph Vaughan Williams has written a tuba concerto and wants you to play it at our Jubilee Concert in June.” I’m not too sure whether the word “want” was really a personal pronoun or maybe an implied “we” representing the official orchestral management request. Whichever it was, I was quite terror stricken! As a musician, I really couldn’t appreciate the the idea of the tuba being the center attraction as soloist on a concerto at an orchestral concert. The tuba was too often connected by the public with what was humorous and ludicrous to be considered seriously a possibility on a concert platform. But, there was more to follow, making the premise a stern reality. The voice continued: “Vaughan Williams wants you to call on him with your tuba at 3 o’clock and our resident pianist will arrive at the same time to play through the number with you!”

We arrived at the scheduled time at the Vaughan Williams residence in Regent’s Park. I well remember the number: 10 Hanover Terrace. We were shown upstairs to the lounge from which we could see the park’s boating lake. While I took my instrument out of its case, and a portable music stand from its usual receptacle, the bell of the instrument, the pianist commenced trying out several of the difficult sections of the work. When we were ready, Mrs. Ursula Vaughan Williams and her husband seated themselves in comfortable range of the two of us. We tuned up and, after requesting of the composer some idea as to the tempi of the different movements, set out on a somewhat (so we both felt) shaky rendition of the whole work. We were rather surprised that such a performance was so well received by the listeners. Even Crispen, the kitten, was in no way disturbed.

I don’t know how many soloists have suffered similar misgivings at sight-reading renditions of new works. Both the pianist and myself were not a little perturbed at having to play a major work before such a world-renowned composer. After the run-through I laid my instrument on the floor. Mrs. Vaughan Williams departed to make us some tea while we talked about things, music in general and the Concerto in particular. On her return the conversation resumed but quickly turned to laughter. Crispen had become interested in the tuba and decided to enter the bell and, being but a tiny kitten, was soon lost sight of. Vaughan Williams was particularly amused at this (Mrs. Vaughan Williams quotes this story in her volume R.W.V., Oxford University Press, 1964.) The pianist had to depart on another engagement, but I stayed on to discover more of the composer’s requirements insofar as the solo performance was concerned. Before leaving it was arranged that I should call again following some very thorough rehearsal on my part.

During practice sessions I became even more concerned with the musical effect this performance might produce on both critics and public. The first and last movements were my main worry. Separated from the accompaniment I just couldn’t make the music flow in what I considered to be the correct style. So, I decided to record the piano part. This enabled me to become fully aware of the music’s content.

About this time the press had been informed as to the makeup of the L.S.O.’s four Jubilee programs. Particularly of the last, the one featuring the Vaughan Williams Tuba Concerto. There were some rather caustic comments about the piece. Here is one such preliminary review:

Vaughan Williams, now 81, has composed a concerto for bass tuba. It is the first on record and will be played during the Jubilee concerts of the L.S.O. at the Festival Hall next month.  His last concert was for mouth organ, and it ran Larry Adler to the last ounce of his technique. Philip Catelinet, first tuba player of the L.S.O. has manfully taken on the solo part. He will need all his breath. Normally the tuba provides foundation sound for trombone harmony. Twenty minutes solo work is a tough proposition.

Admittedly comments of this kind – and this was one of the less spiteful – were of the type expressed in the words of Shakespeare, “sharp-toothed unkindness.”

Needless to say, this did little to encourage feelings of confidence in my ability to face up to the task of this “first” performance to come. My further meeting with Vaughan Williams did reassure me to the extent that I felt he was confident of my capability to rise to the occasion, so I continued to working and in better spirit. The composer did stress that he did not wish me to make suggestions regarding the notation of the composition. He informed me that he had suffered too much in this respect at the hands of Mr. Adler and was not prepared to undergo such an affront on this occasion. Matters regarding phrasing and fitting slurs, etc., were mutually agreed upon. However, the composer did allow the deletion of the two short high range phrases in the first movement cadenza, consequently, they didn’t appear in the first published piano edition. It was conceded that they were not commercially viable nor, at this first performance, in the instrumentalist’s best interest. Yet, he too was worried about them! Today’s soloists are more confident in this respect, and the notes have been re-inserted in the new edition. In the matter of tempo; the steady, rugged rhythm of the first movement was in the music’s best interest. The tempo of the finale was, and still is, questionable. I certainly didn’t “spare the horses,” but the composer indicated, after the first performance, that it was a German waltz and at the recording session expressed a feeling for a more steady tempo. But, at this session, Sir John Barbirolli, as is often the way with conductors, appeared to ignore his plea and proceeded to push the tempo and the soloist to the limit. If one is to take Beethoven’s Sonata in G, No. 25, Op. 79, the first movement of which is marked “Presto alla Tedesca,” one can quickly see that the Vaughan Williams “Allegro” marking might have a bearing on the slightly slower tempo he probably preferred. In any case, from what I have heard of other performers’ playing, the indicated tempo sounds uncomfortably rushed, even when their technique is equal to its metronome mark.

The day for the preliminary rehearsal of the concerto was rapidly approaching. I was having trouble with the timing of the first few bars of the final movement. There is no significant pulse declared in the first bar, and one is entirely at the mercy of the conductor. It’s difficult to see any kind of a beat when playing this movement because one is standing or is seated in front of the conductor. A violinist has a direct sighting, and most other instrumentalists are similarly blessed, though cellists and vocalists have problems comparable to those of the tubist. In this instance it is mainly a case of guesswork in the hope that the conductor doesn’t overdo the tempo and that the triplet figures from the orchestra have a relation to the pulse beat so that your entries are “spot on.”

My first and only rehearsal came the day prior to the concert. It was a busy one for the orchestra. Two soloists, Handel-Harty prologue and the Colour Symphony by Bliss. Dr. Vaughan Williams was present, and he and Sir John Barbirolli duly had a discussion – from which I was excluded! Eventually we had a run-through. Some further discussion was followed by touching up of a few orchestral problems. This ended my session, and my departure was a signal for a tapping of stands on the part of my fellow orchestra members.

I had played with the orchestra in the three previous Jubilee concerts of that week, and the secretary had asked if I wanted to participate as a member of the orchestra in the final concert in addition to soloing. Feeling that I would have enough on my plate, I requested that he arrange for a substitute tubist.

The day of the concert dawned, and at the morning rehearsal I had a straight run-through of the concerto. In the evening I arrived early at the Royal Festival Hall and was shown into one of the artist’s rooms. Here was everything necessary for the comfort of the performer. Mr. T.H. Bean, the Festival Hall’s general manager, came in to inform me that the order of the program had been changed, and that I would not be playing until after the intermission. I accepted the news with the aplomb that is the reaction of orchestral players in general to bad news. Even I had thought a tuba concerto following a violin concerto (Elgar) a little incongruous. But one rarely, if ever, questions the actions of musical administrators. So I waited, waited and waited!

During the intermission, Mr. Bean once more came in with bad news. Sir John was having “a bit of a party” in his room and the break would be considerably longer than usual. It was stated that a lot of toasting regarding the Jubilee would be taking place, and there was plenty of the “necessary” available. So I sat, checked the instrument, tried a few “toots,” walked around a bit, then sat down and mentally and physically simmered. Eventually, Mr. Bean arrived to take me into the conductor’s room from whence I was escorted to the stage in company with Sir John. We must have looked a disparate pair, Sir John short and slight, myself a heavily built six-footer carrying a well-polished tuba. However, nobody laughed, though there was a murmur of conversation which I prayerfully hoped did not signify anything approximating a hint of ridicule.

Tuning was a problem. It appeared to me, in that hall, that I gave out a sound similar to that of a sick cow. It seemed to meet the approval of the conductor, and we were off. The first movement was not too comfortable. A lack of togetherness on my part, hopefully, was not noticeable to the audience. The cadenza came off, though I wasn’t too satisfied with my intonation. There is little, if any, resonance in that hall, so your solo sound seems to stop at the end of the bell. The beautiful second movement was, to me, one of my best efforts. I didn’t care if the audience, critics or anyone else, for that matter, disliked the tuba sound or not. I really enjoyed myself. The last movement rollicked along, musically sketchy, but somehow held together with the confidence coming from under-rehearsed orchestral players determined not to admit musical defeat under any circumstances. The applause seemed sincere enough; probably happy, along with me, that I had finally made a tuba concerto sufficiently plausible musically to be acceptable. Vaughan Williams came to the front of the stage and linked hands with Sir John Barbirolli and myself, and we took our bows of the audience.

Though the Colour Symphony by Sir Arthur Bliss (on this occasion conducted by the composer) is not by any means a work lacking in depth or length, it didn’t seem long before relatives and friends were in my dressing room. Included in their number was the L.S.O.’s secretary, John Cruft, who, together with a representative of His Master’s Voice Recording Company, informed me that a recording session was to be held the next morning, Monday, June 14. John informed me right away, “Don’t accept an outright fee, but request a percentage on sales.” This was, and certainly proved, advantageous to me and was eventually agreed to by all parties.

It is felt a personal incident that occurred and which resulted in a headline in our local paper, The Middlesex Gazette, should be recorded in this account. Like the national dailies, it too had run an explanatory column about the coming first performance, though here emphasizing and approving the fact that I was a citizen of the area. But following on the actual performance, the caption over my picture on that issue read, “Wife Was ‘Banned’ From His Night of Triumph.” In a reporter’s presence I was called on to give the reason for this, what he considered, inconsiderate treatment on my part to deny my wife’s presence on such an occasion. I found it difficult to explain my reasons to her before the concert, let alone now to the reporter. My explanation must sound irrational to you today, but was a stern reality at the time. There was the belittling image invariably linked to both the tuba and tubists. For example, the cavalier assessment given by so-called experts: “Everyone puts us down (musically) because we play the tuba.” Supposedly humorous asides: “It’s handy to throw things into.” Even a press announcement of the concert referred to it as being: “…the novelty of the evening…” Consequently, my reply to the reporter was to this effect: “In the past, the tuba has been treated as a rather comic instrument, and I did not know how the public would react. If I had to suffer, I would rather suffer alone.” After all, musicians are sensitive to the feelings of others, particularly those of their wives. If she had been present and the reception other than it was, I would have been that much more embarrassed for her sake.

The recording session planned for the 14th of June was soon over. The composer and Sir John seemed happy, though I was not particularly pleased. I had to play the cadenzas after everyone else (yes, composer and conductor) left. A kind of musical “Amen” that would be attached to the recording by an engineer seemingly as an afterthought.

What followed? Well, I can imagine most of you have read some of the write-ups and criticisms both of the concert and the recording. As the record included Vaughan Williams’ Oboe Concerto played by Evelyn Rothwell (Lady Barbirolli) (HMV BLP1078), I have no idea as to how many made up the first batch or, for that matter, any further issues. However, the EMI company made a tape to meet the requirements of some later interested enthusiasts.

In 1979 The Barbirolli Society, by permission of EMI Records, Limited, issued further recordings of Vaughan Williams’ works conducted by Sir John. One in particular, bearing the lettering and numbers SJB 102, has the Tuba Concerto on side two. I am not sure whether or not all of these recordings are available to the general public, but it possibly is the case, as the one sent to me bears the price tag of four pounds, fifty (about seven dollars). The address to write to is Chairman: R. Pauline Pickering, 8 Tunnel Road, Retford, Notts, DN22 7TA, United Kingdom. The date on mine shows 26th February, 1980. Presumably such an L.P. record is still available.At least the recording is of some historical interest, and might be worth possessing, if for nothing else. All the recordings are made with the London Symphony Orchestra, vintage 1953-1955. The remarks on the record sleeve by Michael Kennedy are worth noting.

Of the four works on this record, only the Tuba Concerto was conducted by Barbirolli at its first performance. This was 13th June, 1954 at a concert by the London Symphony Orchestra to mark its Golden Jubilee, when the soloist was the orchestra’s then principal tuba player, Philip Catelinet, who plays it on this record, made the next day. There is nothing patronising or parodistic about this concerto. Vaughan Williams wanted to give the tuba a rare chance to take the centre of the stage and went to considerable effort to study its capabilities. True, its elephantine humour is exploited in the first movement, but its unsuspected agility is given rein too; the slow movement, “Romanza,” has a principal theme of lyrical beauty such as Vaughan Williams might have awarded to the viola; and in the Finale, the tuba romps amid the dancing strings, like Falstaff among the fairies in Windsor Forest. Not a major work, but a major minor work.

To end this narrative, I would add words that reflect on the humanity of this great man and composer. The manner in which he talked with me – not at me – was pleasant; not in that egotistical manner with which many so-called “great men” often react to people whom they meet or to whom they are introduced. He had a gracious yet natural manner about him as you would with your relatives and friends. When meeting at his home (this in regard to the concerto) he spoke with me about the music itself, stating that he had little difficulty in the actual composition of the work. Fullness of inspiration had resulted in the early, satisfying completion of the whole concerto. He confided in me one other matter in that he hoped to add yet another instrument to his concerto series; a concerto for a four-octave marimba!

There was one other episode that followed on the first performance. The then editor of Time Magazine telephoned me to state that an article on Vaughan Williams and the performance was to appear in the coming issue. He urgently required, if possible, a picture of the composer together with me and the tuba. He also informed me that Vaughan Williams was a very difficult person for press photographers to approach and requested me to ask this favor of the composer. The outcome was the photograph which originally accompanied this article. Again, after each radio performance, including that of the Promenade Concert at the Royal Albert Hall, I always had a note of appreciation from the old gentleman. A thoughtful, friendly, great composer, indeed.

A letter I received from Vaughan Williams dated January 18, 1955 bears out his consideration of others on the professional side of one’s career. In connection with his Prelude on Three Welsh Hymns, for which I had scored a brass band arrangement, he had received an invitation from the Salvation Army to hear the work played through the International Staff Band of that organization. The letter states: “I think you ought to be there… and as you probably have less free time than me, will you suggest some dates and times which I will then forward to Colonel Jakeway.” He further adds: “We (also Mrs. V.W.) saw you at Maida Vale (B.B.C. Broadcasting studio) the other day, but as we had to leave before the end of the rehearsal could not have the pleasure of speaking to you. We listened to the Tuba Concerto and thought it a fine performance. (The first broadcast of the concerto, B.B.C. Northern Orchestra, conductor, John Hopkinds, 5th January 1955) Thank you very much.”

Ralph Vaughan Williams: a thorough gentleman, as well as a master composer of our time.