MALCOLM SARGENT (1895 - 1967)
Malcolm Sargent was born into a well-established working-class family in the Lincolnshire town of Stamford, where his father was a coal-merchant as well as a parish church organist and choirmaster. A day-boy at the town’s school, Malcolm was taught to play the piano by the same fine musician who taught the composer Michael Tippett, and was sufficiently precocious to be asked in 1909 to substitute for an absent conductor at a local rehearsal of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers (making a good impression) and to gain the Royal College of Organist’s diploma at the age of sixteen; after which he was an articled pupil to the organist of Peterborough Cathedral, the formidable Dr Haydn Keeton. In the year of the outbreak of World War I, 1914, Sargent was awarded a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Durham and became organist at the parish church in Melton Mowbray. After a brief spell in the army he settled in the Midlands, teaching and conducting amateur societies in Melton Mowbray and Stamford, as well as studying with Moiseiwitsch, and gaining a doctorate from Durham in 1919.
Anxious to leave the provinces, in 1921 he negotiated his first professional conducting appearance, with Sir Henry Wood’s Queen’s Hall Orchestra at Leicester, directing his own composition Impressions on a Windy Day; so successful was this that Wood invited Sargent to repeat the performance at the Queen’s Hall in London during October of the same year. His conducting career was now effectively launched and he soon developed the sleek persona for which he was to become famous. A local impresario created the Leicester Symphony Orchestra for him to conduct and with which to learn the repertoire; Sargent invited famous soloists of the day, such as Cortot, Backhaus, Schnabel, Solomon, Suggia and Moiseiwitsch, to play with this orchestra and they reported his skill to colleagues in London. Invited to teach at the Royal College of Music by its principal Sir Hugh Allen in 1923, Sargent settled in London during the following year, when he became chief conductor of the Robert Mayer Children’s Concerts, and having befriended Vaughan Williams, recorded his opera Hugh the Drover for HMV. He was asked by Rupert D’Oyly Carte to take charge of his 1926 and 1927 seasons of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, which he did with gusto, producing excellent results and earning for himself the nickname ‘the drill Sargent’ from the older members of the company, who objected to his adoption of Sullivan’s original marked tempi. During 1927 and 1928 he was also an assistant conductor for the London performances of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Acknowledging his roots as a choral conductor, Sargent became in 1929 chief conductor of the Royal Choral Society, leading to great effect its annual performances of Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast at the Royal Albert Hall; and in 1932 of the Huddersfield Choral Society, following his triumphal first performance of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast at the 1931 Leeds Triennial Festival.
In 1929, through his social and musical contacts, Sargent was recommended by Schnabel to Elizabeth, the wife of the industrialist Samuel Courtauld, to become the chief conductor of what became the Courtauld-Sargent concerts. These juxtaposed modern and traditional repertoires and employed brilliant young conductors from the continent such as Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, who were attracted by the extraordinarily generous rehearsal time allowed. Sargent was now an influential figure and he assisted Beecham in the formation of the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1932. Shortly afterwards he was diagnosed as suffering from tuberculosis and was unable to conduct for two years, during which he was financially supported by numerous fellow musicians; but having recovered, he unexpectedly forfeited the affection of English orchestral players by appearing to attack them in a press interview in 1936. Between 1939 and 1942 he was chief conductor of the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, and then of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra from 1942 to 1948. During World War II Sargent became a popular national figure through his participation in the radio programme The Brains Trust, and after the war he was knighted in 1947.
In the same year, Sargent was invited to take charge of the BBC Promenade Concerts, given annually at the Royal Albert Hall, holding this position from 1948 until his death and benefitting greatly from the media exposure generated by the televising of the ‘Last Night’ of the Proms, which began in the late 1940s. The connection with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the principal ‘work-horse’ of the Proms, was cemented by his appointment as its chief conductor in 1950; when this relationship ended in 1957 Sargent took Sir Henry Wood’s title of Conductor-in-Chief of the Proms and enjoyed a good relationship with William Glock, the innovative controller of music at the BBC during the early 1960s. Sargent conducted the first performances of Walton’s opera Troilus and Cressida at Covent Garden in 1954, toured internationally from the 1940s onwards as a guest conductor, and successfully led the London Philharmonic Orchestra on a tour of the Far East and Australasia in 1962 and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on a tour of America during 1963. However by now his health was deteriorating: in 1967 cancer was diagnosed and he died the same year, shortly after a dramatic appearance to speak to the audience at the Last Night of the Proms.
Sargent’s highly groomed appearance and excellent social connections have to a certain extent overshadowed his undoubted skills as a conductor. In general he could be depended upon to deliver effective performances of a wide repertoire, based firmly on the music of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. An always elegant figure on the rostrum, his gestures could at moments of climax be extraordinarily powerful. He was especially effective in the performance of large-scale choral works, when the admiration which he engendered from massed choirs paid exceptional dividends. His discography was very large indeed, as he recorded extensively for a wide variety of labels from 1924 until his death. His 1944 recording of Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius is particularly notable for its intensity, and the several recordings which he made for the Everest label with the London Symphony Orchestra present his art in exceptional sound. His numerous accompaniments were always courteous and considerate, and his direction of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas stylish and boisterous. Perhaps in the final analysis the assessment of Sir Thomas Beecham, who worked closely with Sargent throughout the latter’s career, in itself a tribute to his skills as a conductor, may be most apposite: ‘…the greatest choirmaster we have ever produced; he makes the buggers sing like the blazes.’
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).