In October 1895 we made the great experiment of taking him to a Richter concert. He enjoyed every moment with scarlet cheeks and sparkling eyes. Tchaikovsky’s Sixth was in the programme and he got a little intrigué at the five-time movement, but soon got it clear and (quite unobtrusively) beat the whole thing quite correctly.’
Katherine Boult was not writing boastfully for posterity, but if ever a child was born to be a conductor it was her six-year-old son Adrian Cedric. On his arrival at Christ Church, Oxford, 13 years later in 1908 he was asked what career he intended to make for himself. The clear-cut response, ‘I am going to be a conductor’, nearly knocked the Dean off his chair. His mother’s journal already attests to a remarkably accurate ear, aptitude at the piano, inquisitive ‘baby’ composition and an insatiable appetite for music itself. After the opening item at that Liverpool concert in October 1895, ‘he turned round to me and said, “Oh I do like it, Mummie”’. This was Siegfried’s Funeral March from Götterdämmerung, conducted by Hans Richter (who had given its premiere) in memory of his colleague Charles Hallé, who had died the previous day. That ‘hand of history’ on his shoulder followed Boult throughout his life, and even if destiny had dealt him an extraordinarily lucky hand, it was through determination, courage and mental grit that he became one of the 20th century’s greatest conductors.
The programme he chose for his first public concert on February 27, 1914, at home in West Kirby on the Wirral foreshadowed things to come: Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 2 rubs shoulders withWagner’s Siegfried Idyll, Wolf’s Italian Serenade, some of Schumann’s Piano Concerto and the first performance of George Butterworth’s evergreen orchestral idyll The Banks of Green Willow. The players were drawn from the Liverpool Phil and Hallé orchestras. Boult modestly noted: ‘I tried my hand for the first time with a professional orchestra,’ and a critic observed that ‘his manner is devoid of all ostentation’.
The outbreak of the Great War five months later was to direct the young conductor’s path in unpredictable ways, but then there was no predictable career path for a young conductor in England. Dan Godfrey, Henry Wood and Thomas Beecham were rare examples of the indigenous species struggling in a jungle dominated by exotic foreigners. Boult’s advantage was that he came, socially and intellectually, from the English top-drawer. During his formative years at Westminster School (1901-08) he had lived and dreamt in the Queen’s Hall and at Covent Garden and came to know the greatest performers in the fullest range of music then available. His diaries give a bird’s-eye view of concert life in Edwardian London; he comes to razor-sharp judgements of amazing maturity, and his social encounters are of dazzling relevance. Young Boult’s heroes were German: he compares the virtues of Richter, Steinbach, Weingartner, Nikisch (his idol) and Richard Strauss, and is thrilled when visiting European orchestras open his ears to superior sounds and standards.
After finishing at Oxford in 1912, there was no alternative in his mind to studying at the Leipzig Conservatory and, having lunched with Nikisch at the Savoy as early as 1909, his path was clear. Had the war (and a bout of ill-health) not intervened, Boult might have remained in Germany at a provincial opera-house, climbing the well-worn ladder to become a Karl Böhm or Furtwängler. (He must have been gratified when in 1934 Alban Berg wrote to him, having just heard on radio the British concert premiere of Wozzeck – ‘What emerged here under your sovereign direction was a performance as if from the regular repertoire of the greatest stage’.) But in England in 1913 Boult had to find that ladder for himself, and by the end of the war he was already a significant figure in the lives of the greatest English composers of the time.
Top of the tree was Hubert Parry. Some might find odd today Boult’s admission that he had ‘been brought up to think of English music as rather small beer’, yet as he sang in a concert of Parry’s music at Oxford, he found himself rubbing his eyes in wonder, ‘for I could hardly believe that it really was great music’. His first conducting task, oddly, was to control an off-stage chorus in the 1909 Greek play The Frogs, for which Parry provided the music: ‘I shall never forget Parry’s happy smile when I got my frogs to sing well ahead of the accompaniment they could dimly hear’. It was Boult’s earliest experience of satisfying a composer!
At his first Liverpool Philharmonic Society concert in January 1916 he conducted Parry’s Symphonic Variations (1897) and gave it again with the LSO at Queen’s Hall on March 4, 1918, with Parry present to advise. A fortnight earlier, Boult had revived A London Symphony by Ralph Vaughan Williams – ‘May I say how much I admired your conducting – it is real conducting – you get just what you want & know what you want & your players trust you because they know it also...’ Parry too congratulated him ‘on the good hold you have on the performers’.
This historic series of early spring concerts in 1918 gave Boult the chance to repeat the Vaughan Williams symphony immediately, and in so doing allowed the composer to start revising the score, with the conductor there to encourage and advise. Elgar, too, enjoyed Boult’s conducting of In the South, popping into the rehearsal and writing admiringly in the conductor’s score. Younger composers featuring in those early concerts included Holst, Bax, Harty, Ireland and Butterworth, Boult’s old Oxford friend, who was killed on the Somme in August 1916. The crowning triumph of this annus mirabilis, however, was the premiere at Queen’s Hall on September 29 of a striking orchestral suite – ‘This score is the property of Adrian Boult who first caused The Planets to shine in public and so earned the gratitude of Gustav Holst,’ inscribed the composer on Boult’s well-worn score. In many ways, 1918 provided a blueprint for Boult’s future development, and by 1920 he was contracted to HMV. His first disc was of Butterworth’s rhapsody A Shropshire Lad – a work that had premiered at Leeds in 1913 under Nikisch, with Boult sitting at Butterworth’s side. A little later, Arthur Bliss was rather too present for the recording of Rout, to which he added a premature cry of ‘By Jove, you fellows, that was grand!’
Boult went on to develop close friendships with most of these varied composers. But Parry’s death before the 1918 Armistice cast a shadow over English musical life and his music suffered an immediate and seemingly permanent eclipse. It is poignant now to read Boult writing prophetically in 1973 that ‘I can’t help feeling that there will some day be a revival of Parry’s music…there is such great power and strength there’. His pioneering 1971 Lyrita disc of Parry was capped in 1979 by his last recording of all, Parry’s Fifth Symphony. He wrote in the summer of 1980, ‘I’m so pleased my swansong…has been dubbed best seller by the Sunday Times or some other paper – Parry as a best seller!!’
For Elgar in 1920, Boult brought the Second Symphony (poorly received in 1911) in from the cold and prompted the composer to write, ‘I feel that my reputation in the future is safe in your hands. It was a wonderful series of sounds. Bless you!’ Lady Elgar’s death a month later effectively silenced Elgar and so Boult’s role was to keep performances going in the face of dwindling public interest. Although Boult had met Elgar for the first time as a privileged Westminster schoolboy in 1904, the early acclaimed triumphs – Enigma (1899) and Gerontius (1900) – left Boult feeling quite cool, as if no English work could stand alongside his foreign heroes. He was then present at the premieres of the First Symphony under Richter (1908) and Violin Concerto played by Kreisler (1911)and so witnessed at first hand the high watermark of the so-called pre-war English Musical Renaissance.
His great posthumous favour to Elgar was to make the first complete recordings of The Apostles, The Kingdom and The Music Makers for EMI in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when these noble works were dismissed outside the Three Choirs Festivals. Without Boult’s passionate understanding in the studio, these scores would have lost their only living link to Elgar himself, and their concert-hall rehabilitation under Sir Mark Elder proves how right Boult was to champion them. Boult’s friendship with Vaughan Williams was very different. He had met him in his first year at Oxford during a private piano run-through of the CambridgeWasps music – ‘…I sang far better than Vaughan Williams played.’ From the same social and educational background (unlike Elgar’s), they were on an equal footing, with Vaughan Williams often deferring to Boult’s interpretative authority. When Boult opened a newly published score of Job he found, unexpectedly, that it was dedicated to him. The culmination of their partnership was the first recording of the complete symphonies in 1952 – a task finished on the morning of Vaughan Williams’s death, August 26, 1958, when Boult and the LPO were ready to put down the Ninth in Walthamstow Town Hall. Boult had been Vaughan Williams’s Richter, and his support continued through the years to come when – as with Parry and Elgar – the composer’s reputation foundered. Most striking here was the glowing interpretation captured by EMI in 1972 of The Pilgrim’s Progress, whose theatrical flop in 1951 had hurt Vaughan Williams deeply. It has taken 60 years to bring it back to the stage, but, thanks to Boult, its musical glories were never in question.
Boult never had such close friendships with the younger group of British composers. Walton and Britten could conduct for themselves, and the relationship with Michael Tippett was that of pupil and teacher. Boult had allowed the would-be composer into his rostrum at weekly orchestra sessions but possibly didn’t realise that this led to the players referring to him as ‘Boult’s darling’. Tippett wrote to his mentor on Boult’s 85th birthday in 1974, ‘You won’t remember (though I do, as yesterday) my standing beside you at the rostrum at the RCM…But what I learnt, as a composer, through those four years of Fridays at your side is nobody’s business. A belated thank you – & for much beyond’. Boult never recorded any Tippett, but for both Lyrita and EMI between 1964 and 1977 he performed comprehensive rehabilitations for arguably lesser figures such as Ireland, Moeran, Bax, Butterworth, Coates, Finzi, Howells and Bliss – a remarkable living legacy to stand beside his treasury of Parry, Elgar, Holst and Vaughan Williams. Even though Boult hankered in old age to be back with Wagner in the opera house, the British composers of his time had every cause to thank Fate for making Sir Adrian Boult their best possible musical friend.