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Cranking it Out

Mark Fitzgerald

John S Beckett: The Man and the Music, by Charles Gannon, Lilliput Press, 547 pp, €40, ISBN: 978-1843516651

I can still recall the first time I heard a recording of Musica Reservata. I was already familiar with many highly refined recordings of early music by polite Oxbridge performers, but the raucous earthy sound of the ensemble and its favoured singer, Jantina Noorman, came as quite a shock to the system. I had somehow acquired the knowledge that the conductor John Beckett was Irish but did not realise that the co-founder, Michael Morrow, was also Irish. I was completely unaware that Beckett had also packed into his life several other careers, as harpsichordist, as composer (most notably of incidental music for plays by his cousin Samuel Beckett), as radio producer for the BBC and as a conductor who introduced the cantatas of his favourite composer, JS Bach, to Irish audiences through a series of concerts spread over ten years in St Anne’s Church, Dawson Street.

For a generation that was introduced to early music by Beckett in one or other of his roles he remains an inspirational figure but for people too young to have encountered him he is probably a completely unknown figure. Performers’ reputations are ephemeral unless recordings survive to perpetuate their musical ideas and bring them to new audiences. In this respect Beckett has been unfortunate. Despite the fact that he made many recordings, particularly with Musica Reservata, very few have been reissued on CD and his approach to Bach is only preserved in a Claddagh recording of arias sung by Bernadette Greevy. This book by Charles Gannon, whose father’s career as harpsichord-maker was encouraged by Beckett, is therefore welcome in bringing attention to a figure who played a key role in the development of the international early music movement and who had an enormous impact on music-making in Dublin during the relatively short time he worked there.

Born in 1927, Beckett was the son of the county medical officer for Wicklow. Gannon depicts the Greystones in which Beckett grew up as a community of affluent Protestants who tried to remain aloof from the surrounding “Shinners”. However, it was not just Catholics who were not welcome: Beckett’s father resigned from the Croney Golf Club after the committee refused to allow a man to join on the grounds that he was Jewish. An early turning point came in 1940 when Beckett was sent to St Columba’s College, the school which formed the basis for his contemporary Michael Campbell’s novel Lord Dismiss Us. Composer Brian Boydell was the art master; in 1944, as conductor of the Dublin Orchestral Players, Boydell would perform Beckett’s Short Overture for Orchestra. More importantly, music was taught by Joseph Groocock, legendary music teacher and devotee of the music of Bach. Groocock taught Beckett piano but also introduced him to compositional techniques such as fugue. Reinforcing this strong introduction to Bach was his first encounter with the cantatas via a collection of the complete scores which a friend of his father looted from a private house in Germany at the end of the war. In 1943 Beckett won the Coulson Exhibition in Organ and Piano awarded by the Royal Irish Academy of Music and in 1944 came to the attention of the English composer EJ Moeran after he submitted some songs to the Feis Ceoil’s composition competition. With Moeran’s support he was able to successfully apply to the Royal College of Music in London. He also spent time studying harpsichord, an instrument he had never encountered in Ireland, at Morley College with Gertrud Wertheim.

Aidan Higgins described Beckett in a letter as the “morose Bach-Fauré-Klee-Yeats-Kafka-addicted son”. Yeats’s name soon disappears from the biography while Bach becomes increasingly important. To this list Beckett was to add Mahler, whose music was introduced to him by the composer Fredrick May who had spent time studying it in Vienna. The other literary giants added to the list were Joyce, and his cousin Samuel. A travelling scholarship from the Royal College of Music brought Beckett to Paris in 1948 and into closer contact with Samuel. It also led to some lessons with the formidable Nadia Boulanger; Beckett’s later reticence about this period may suggest that she was less than impressed by his ability as a composer.

Back in Dublin, Beckett had became a part of the small artistic bohemian circle, mixing with figures such as Frederick May, Brendan Behan, Desmond MacNamara, musician John O’Sullivan and White Stag artist Ralph Cusack. Perhaps the most significant encounter took place in the National Library of Ireland in 1950, where he bumped into Michael Morrow. Morrow was then a student at the National College of Art and Design and suffered from a form of haemophilia called Christmas Disease. He drifted between various jobs, at one point designing scenery for the Pike Theatre, for which his sister provided costumes. By 1948 Beckett was viewed as important enough to be invited to the preliminary meeting of what was to become the Music Association of Ireland. He seems to have seriously considered composition as a career and began angling for work as a composer from Radio Éireann. What his music was actually like is hard to judge, the comments of Irish newspaper critics and RÉ officials being little guide. Terms such as modern or dissonant were randomly applied to anything written after 1900 and generally they seemed incapable of judging the merit of anything heard. When Beckett submitted two of his songs to the BBC some years later they were rejected as being “somewhat less than competent”. An insight into the Dublin musical scene of the time is given by some of Beckett’s other ventures. Writing scripts for RÉ in the 1950s one was rejected as being “too ‘third programme’, too ‘austere’, too ‘forgetful of the needs of Irish audiences’” which shows that patronising views regarding the limited intelligence of Irish audiences by Irish institutes is nothing new. For a performance in the St Francis Xavier Hall of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in 1958, as no was harpsichord available, a piano was “harpsichordised” by sticking drawing pins in the hammers.

Beckett’s compositional career was given a major boost with Samuel Beckett’s decision to ask him to provide music for the first performance of Acte sans paroles (Act without Words). This was soon followed by music for readings of extracts from MolloyMalone Dies and The Unnameable, and the original BBC production of Words and Music. This work for his cousin seems to have persuaded the BBC to drop any reservations they previously had about Beckett as composer and there followed a large number of commissions for incidental music for various radio plays. Later in Ireland Beckett was to collaborate successfully with George Morrison and James Plunkett on a variety of films. One can’t help wondering if at least some of the music relied for its primary effect on the bizarre scoring he favoured rather than the content. Malone Dies was scored for harmonica, two mandolins, tuba, cello and double bass while another play was scored for flute, piccolo, two vibraphones, violin, viola, double bass and percussion. Beckett seems at some point to have lost any confidence he had in his ability to compose and he destroyed all his manuscripts. He also withdrew permission for use of his music for Words and Music.

In London in the 1950s Beckett began to come into contact with other musicians with an interest in early music. Due to the relative scarcity of instruments he would practise at Fenton House, where use of a historic harpsichord could be obtained for a small sum of money. Gannon refers to the visitors’ book as a “virtual who’s who of budding early music revivalists resident in England at the time” and it was here that Beckett met the recorder player John Sothcott. By this time Morrow had also relocated to London and for a time had the unlikely occupation of musical fountain operator in Forte’s Monaco restaurant, Piccadilly Circus. Operating the fountain for fifteen minutes each hour in time to records of Delibes, Morrow found that with practice it was possible to spray the restaurant’s customers. More importantly he had spent a lot of time transcribing old music from manuscripts in various libraries and museums in Dublin and London, gradually teaching himself tablature and medieval forms of music notation. Morrow felt that performers had the wrong approach to this music, producing too polished a sound. He believed that something of the performance style of the past had been preserved in folk singing in the Balkans and the music of the Middle East. It is not entirely clear when he began to play this music with Beckett and others such as Sothcott, but in January 1960 at Fenton House Musica Reservata gave its first public performance. It probably took some time for them to perfect their distinctive sound ‑ at this first concert the percussion instruments included jazz tom-toms ‑ and Morrow was determined not to appear on BBC radio until he felt they were ready.

With the arrival of Jantina Noorman, a singer from the Netherlands, in 1961 Morrow had found a singer willing to reconstruct her voice to meet his demand that a voice should sound like the medieval instruments accompanying it. Anyone who has never heard the results should Google Jantina Noorman and Nigel Rogers singing Daphne on the Rainbow, from Musica Reservata’s 1972 album An Elizabethan Evening. Beckett became the conductor of the ensemble and Tom Sutcliffe took on the management of the group despite never being paid for the work, a detail which makes it seem even more remote in time from the present, with its arts management degrees and structures. Anthony Rooley’s description of working with Musica Reservata sounds like the stuff of musicians’ nervous breakdowns: “Erratic, irascible, rude, wrong-headed, contrasting with devotion, passion, endearing, delightful ‑ and you never knew which side of the coin would be up. Rehearsals were a nightmare. I’ve seen grown men come out of a session almost in tears and certainly voiceless, but coming back for more. I’ve seen hardened brass players waiting meekly for hours till it was their turn to play a sackbut drone. I’ve seen the utter state of chaos of parts and scores only moments before a rehearsal was to begin.”

Musica Reservata soon garnered an important international reputation, making a number of recordings for Philips, Argo and others; the most successful of these, Music from the time of Christopher Columbus, won an Edison award in 1969. The group always divided opinions but the excitement they imparted to an audience is best conveyed by Michael Nyman’s comments that they were “so different from other early musicians at the time […] It was a sheer bloody-minded shock to the system to find that early music could have the same kind of vitality and heavy-duty effect on your musical senses as Stravinsky, Stockhausen or Steve Reich.” However the tensions between the two founders which brought the group so far also proved its undoing. Beckett did not want to be involved in the preparatory work of transcribing music and writing out parts. Morrow was happy to undertake this work but he was chronically disorganised and frequently would not have the music ready on time. Each man could then blame the other for the resultant chaos. When Morrow pushed for a new agent-manager to be appointed in 1973 Beckett decided to leave. The group continued to exist for several more years but gradually became less prominent in the early music movement, with only one further recording made in 1976. By this time fashions had changed and young performers who had started with Musica Reservata had drifted off to form other groups, most notably David Munrow whose Early Music Consort of London performed exactly the same repertoire. Munrow had a communicative brilliance and flair that Beckett lacked and was also able to assimilate newer ideas about how music should be performed; today it is Munrow’s recordings that are still commercially available.

On returning to Dublin John developed his conducting career further, most notably with his legendary series of Bach cantatas but also in various concerts with the RTÉ orchestra, the New Irish Chamber Orchestra and various amateur groups. His success in this field was achieved despite the fact that he seems to have had no real conducting technique. Instead he chopped mechanically through the air with his right hand to indicate an unvarying beat while only occasionally using his left hand. Yet audiences responded with huge enthusiasm to his performances. Charles Acton mentioned in a review in 1981 that half an hour before one of the cantata concerts began, the centre of the church was already completely full. Noting that Beckett seemed to “loathe audiences”, Nicholas Anderson of the BBC remembers that “with John you had this feeling that you were hearing this sort of music for the first time, and that John was the first person to conduct it. And that John also had a kind of hotline somewhere, in a direction where nobody else seemed to have it.” For Colm Tóibín, listening to Beckett’s performances of the Bach Cantatas “was magic. On one of those Sundays when I was 18 or 19, I realised that I would never be able to go back to my small town. I had found displacement. I was at home.” Gerald Barry states “That time in Dublin was special. John and a few others like him had an insight into this music which was really inspiring.”

Musica Reservata’s recordings had inspired a group of Dublin-based musicians to set up the Consort of Saint Sepulchre and while in Dublin Beckett joined with some of these to form the Dublin Consort of Viols. Gannon played with this group and at this point the story becomes illustrated with entries from the diaries he kept at the time. Various pupils also passed through Beckett’s hands in these years, privately and in classes at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, including Malcolm Proud, Emer Buckley, David Adams and Gerald Barry. Time and again people refer to his own style of playing harpsichord as “relentless” and while he was happy to listen to new recordings by various performers from the latest generation of early music performers, his own performance style seems to have remained impervious to the changes and shifts happening around him.

Beckett comes across as a difficult and egotistical character. Stories abound of his rudeness to restaurant staff and his difficult behaviour when he had been drinking. His musical tastes seem to have been coloured by romantic notions regarding the nature of the artist; Handel was dismissed for being too commercial and for striving for success with an audience, an accusation he also levelled at Sibelius’s violin concerto and Mozart’s later operas. Beethoven was dismissed as “souped-up Haydn”. When a friend mentioned having enjoyed a Donizetti opera Beckett replied “I think you’ve misunderstood the whole basis of our friendship.” One begins to see why Gerald Barry describes Beckett as “a classic crank”. At rehearsals Beckett insisted on imposing his own ideas about interpretation and his choice of repertoire on the other musicians. By times he comes across like a character out of ETA Hoffmann. A viol consort is enjoying a pleasant evening socially working their way though some lively dances. Suddenly a grumpy man in clogs stalks in, gleefully produces a set of Jenkins pavanes and insists that they play one of these repeatedly, until finally the musicians collapse with exhaustion at one o’clock in the morning.

While the Dublin years provided a number of successes, most notably an invitation to bring his Bach cantata group to London to perform at the Proms and a tour of China with the New Irish Chamber Orchestra, Dublin proved unable to hold on to Beckett. Teaching the less than passionate did not appeal to him and the major institutions did not seem keen to offer him anything of any permanence. Several commentators remark that he was never really given recognition for what he had achieved in Dublin. When an offer came from the BBC of a job as a producer (despite the fact that he was fifty-six and the official retirement age was sixty) he grasped the opportunity and relocated to London once more. He gave up conducting and ill health gradually brought an end to his performing. Pleasure in the last years was provided by pilgrimages to places haunted by the spirits of his heroes Bach, Mahler and Kafka and by the support of a small group of close friends.

Ultimately this is a book about the man rather than the music and we do not get a clear sense of Beckett’s position among his contemporaries in the early music movement. Gannon’s comments on the various recordings and radio broadcasts he has heard tend to be tentative and while Barra Boydell is acknowledged for correcting passages relating to music a few errors have crept into the final book: early music pioneer Thomas Binkley is rendered as Brinkley while Irish composer Frederick May is depicted as “frustrated at not being British” and “tormented by his nationality”, a bizarre characterisation that is at odds with all of the surviving evidence. At another point May’s ScherzoLyric Movement and Spring Nocturne all get attributed to EJ Moeran. Beckett’s use of his scholarship from the Royal College of Music is not as unusual as Gannon suggests. Such travelling scholarships were not intended to fund enrolment at conservatories abroad but could be used to facilitate private study with a distinguished composer in another country or just to experience the higher standard of music-making in the concert halls and opera houses of major European cities.

Gannon acknowledges early on the difficulties in writing about a man who was rather private and who also tended to compartmentalise his life. If history can be seen by some as one damned thing after another a book like this risks seeming like one damned concert after another. He therefore uses a lot of anecdotes to try and bring his central character to life. Many of these are quite illuminating while some may only have interest for those who knew Beckett. Some of the more trivial ones are perhaps more a symptom of a lack of editing, which could also have removed some of the repetitions that recur throughout.

Despite these reservations, by the time one reaches the end of the book a fascinating picture has emerged of this complex and important figure and I certainly felt the urge to go and search out some of his recordings. Gannon’s book fills in a further important corner of the picture of Dublin’s small artistic life in the second half of the twentieth century and brings Beckett to a wider audience than scholars of Samuel Beckett’s plays. The book also contains appendices listing Beckett’s compositions, recordings and his broadcasts on RTÉ and BBC as well as listings of all Musica Reservata’s concerts and all of the Bach cantata concerts in Dublin.


Mark Fitzgerald is a lecturer at DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama. Recent publications include Music and Identity in Ireland and Beyond (co-edited with John O’Flynn, Ashgate, 2014) and a monograph about the composer James Wilson (Cork University Press, 2015)

Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, will be published this month. Selling in the shops at €25, it is available now for pre-order at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.

One piece featured in Space to Think is “Much the Same”, Benjamin Keatinge’s review-essay from 2012 on the second volume of Samuel Beckett’s letters. Here is an extract:

From the outset of Godot’s popularity … Beckett discouraged actors and directors from asking the inevitable questions: Who is Godot? Who are Pozzo and Lucky? What are these four characters doing on stage? Beckett’s consistent response was to deny all privileged insight and to claim that if he knew the answers to these questions, he would have answered them in the play. Towards the end of Volume 2, we see the beginnings of his revealing correspondence with his American director Alan Schneider, already accessible from Maurice Harmon’s edition No Author Better Served, published in 1998.

Beckett’s famous reticence and his reluctance to grant interviews was not always consistent, so that, on occasion, he would drop hints or provide skeletal background information about himself to curious individuals. Hence, amid many uninspiring letters concerning contracts, proofs, translations and productions, we find a few unexpected gems. Among these one could include some notes on Godot written in January 1952 to one Michel Polac of Radiodiffusion Française for broadcast with a radio excerpt of that play in which Beckett claims, somewhat disingenuously: “I have no ideas about the theatre. I know nothing about it. I do not go to it.”



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