Leslie Heward began to study music at the age of five. With the support of Sir Sydney Nicholson, organist of Manchester Cathedral, he entered the cathedral Choir School, where he was a pupil for five years and was active as a chorister and as an assistant organist at the cathedral; in 1914 he was appointed organist of St Andrew’s Church in Ancoats, a suburb of Manchester. Heward moved to London in 1917, having won a composition scholarship to the Royal College of Music, where he studied composition with Stanford and Vaughan Williams and conducting with Sir Adrian Boult; among his fellow pupils was Constant Lambert, like Heward a gifted composer and conductor. After leaving the college in 1921 Heward earned his living from several different occupations: teaching at Eton, conducting the British National Opera Company, writing incidental music for the theatre, and as a cinema organist in Brighton.
This phase of his career, typical of a musician’s life during the period, ended in 1924 when he was appointed musical director of the South African Broadcasting Corporation and chief conductor of the Cape Town Municipal Orchestra. Heward greatly improved the performance standard of the orchestra, bringing it to the 1925 Empire Exhibition at Wembley, as well as conducting it at a command performance at Buckingham Palace. He returned to England in 1927 to the varied career of a jobbing musician, which included playing the keyboard continuo in Ernest Ansermet’s 1929 recordings for Decca of six Concerti Grossi from Handel’s Op. 6. However when Sir Adrian Boult left the City of Birmingham Orchestra for the BBC, Heward succeeded him as conductor of the Birmingham orchestra in 1930 and under his direction it flourished, developing a national reputation which was due in part to its frequent broadcasts. After his extensive experience in South Africa, broadcasting was a medium with which Heward was very much at ease and in 1934 he was engaged by the BBC to conduct its Midland Orchestra, many of whose members were also players with the City of Birmingham Orchestra. He was one of the four pianists who recorded Stravinsky’s Les Noces in 1934 for the Columbia label with the composer himself conducting and Joe Batten producing. During this period Heward developed a considerable career as a guest conductor, appearing with other regional orchestras, including the BBC Northern Symphony and Hallé in Manchester.
In 1938 Walter Legge engaged Heward to conduct the London Philharmonic Orchestra in recordings of Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and Fantasia on Beethoven’s Die Ruinen von Athen with Egon Petri as soloist. Legge was not the first to be impressed by Heward’s exceptional musicianship and the excellent rapport which he enjoyed with orchestral players: henceforth he was to produce all of Heward’s recordings. Initially these were relatively modest, consisting of miscellaneous string pieces with ‘The Leslie Heward String Orchestra’ and accompaniments to vocal items, but in 1941, with enemy action forcing Legge to record outside London, he engaged Heward to record with the Hallé Orchestra a more ambitious as well as more representative range of repertoire. This included the Symphony No. 103 ‘Drum Roll’ by Haydn, piano concertos by Grieg, John Ireland and Shostakovich with Benno Moiseiwitsch and Eileen Joyce, and the overtures to Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus and Borodin’s Prince Igor, as well as the accompaniment to vocal recordings by Joan Hammond and others.
The centrepiece of this programme proved to be Heward’s recording of the Symphony in G minor by E.J. Moeran, the first performance of which Heward had conducted in January 1938 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The British Council had decided to sponsor a series of records of British music as part of the war-time propaganda effort and Moeran’s Symphony in G minor was chosen as the first work to be recorded. Despite increasing frailty caused by his losing battle with tuberculosis, Heward recorded the symphony over three days at the end of 1942 with the Hallé Orchestra and in the presence of the composer, who subsequently declared, ‘The symphony has had such a performance as it never had before.’ Published in January 1943, this vital recording, which has never been superseded as an account of the symphony (even by the recorded performance conducted by Heward’s teacher Boult), made a fitting epitaph for the conductor. It has been described by Bill Holmes in Le Grand Baton as ‘one of the most brilliant achievements of the 78rpm era’ and the same work quotes American critic David Hall as saying that it was ‘one of the most thrilling listening experiences in the entire disc literature’. Heward gave up his unequal struggle with disease in May 1943; had he lived, he would have become the chief conductor of the Hallé Orchestra, and the post-war musical history of the north of England would have been very different from the way in which it did in fact unfold.
Walter Legge, an acute judge of musical talent, described Heward after his death as ‘…musically speaking, the most satisfying conductor this country has had since Beecham’, a verdict which gives an idea both of the esteem in which Heward was held by his peers and of his extraordinary musical gifts. E.J. Moeran, in a tribute to him, described his working methods: ‘His immediate grasp of the minutest details was thorough and unshakable. He was always ready beforehand with suggestions of adjustments and improvements of a practical nature which could enhance the effectiveness of the music. His care in this respect was superlative, and he would put himself to infinite trouble to ensure the best result…Occasionally he would even make considerable re-adjustments to the script on the spot, when actually directing a rehearsal; in this he possessed a knack of explaining what was aimed at to the players concerned, with such lucidity that there could be no mistake, even after trying out the passage several times in different ways. In the matter of interpretation, Leslie’s instinct was unfailingly right, even if at times it led him to adopt tempi or dynamics which were slightly at variance with the original intention when the work was composed.’ Heward himself was also a composer of note: Moeran described his Quodlibet as ‘…music with a message of its own, of striking originality, and carried out with consummate technical virtuosity’.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).