A Lifetime of Music

It is inevitable that as one gets older the deaths of people who have meant a great deal to you happen more and more often. I have written in the past years about the death of two key mentors of mine as well as my own mother. This week I heard of another death of someone who had a profound impact on me half a century ago, my music master from my secondary school. Obviously he was a lot further removed from my daily life, but nevertheless his death stirs up all kinds of memories of those formative years. And he himself played such a large part in my adolescence.

Peter Morgan came to my girls grammar school (Camden School for Girls, still going strong as a comprehensive and now with a mixed sixth form) I would guess in 1966. I am afraid to say my first comment on him in my childish script in my diary (which is still in my possession) says of the first class with him ‘he is very peculiar’. I did not elaborate further, but perhaps what I really meant was that he was a man, the only male teacher in the entire school. It must have been a shock to our young female minds – and quite possibly the school was a shock to his mind too. He gets no further explicit mention all the rest of the term, but he was certainly shaking things up. With my interest in women in STEM and the challenges they face from being a minority, I now wish I had asked him what it felt like to be that lone man amongst 700 teenage girls and the accompanying cohort of teachers. If it fazed him it never showed, although later on he did introduce a sprinkling of other male musicians to coach different aspects of the school music, including a very young and dashing Nicholas Kraemer to play the harpsichord in some of the early music that Peter loved.

I have no idea what induced him to join the school but it turned out that there were some amazing musicians – a number of whom went on to highly successful professional careers including the composer Sally Beamish – so that he had good material to work with. It wasn’t particularly obvious beforehand since most of them had been deliberately hiding their lights under a bushel to avoid having to deal with the previous and uninspiring music teacher. By the time he arrived, I had been learning the viola for one year and was certainly no great shakes as a musician myself. But, I was a viola player, essentially the only one kicking around in the school at that time. There is nothing like being a rare breed to get opportunities and as, many years later I discussed with Michael Berkeley on Radio 3’s Private Passions, I believe there are strange parallels between being a female physicist – sometimes in demand because ‘we’ve got to have a woman’ (be it on committee or the invited speaker list) – and being a viola player when there are many violins and cellos but few violists. Certainly I got some amazing opportunities, under Peter’s brave leadership, to take part in stunning pieces of music and to play with all the gifted people around me who had to put up with my poor efforts.

That first term he was in the school he immediately started to shake things up. I can still remember our stunned reaction the first time he played the majestic introduction to Jerusalem, drawing sounds from the piano that I doubt had ever been heard in the school hall before.  He not only revived the orchestra, a motley collection of ill-assorted instrumentalists but which was led to stunning effect by the late Mica Comberti, already by then (I think) a member of the National Youth Orchestra, but he also created a chamber orchestra. That very first term they – well we, because I was incorporated into this gifted bunch even if I often literally didn’t know where I was on the page – played Bach’s 5th Brandenburg Concerto with Mica and an exceptional flautist called Janet Sparrow. In the actual concert I was simply blown away by the harpsichord solo in the first movement (not heard during rehearsals as it is didn’t require the rest of us), played by a piano teacher and not a pupil. I had never heard such rapidity and elegance. But, enough was enough and I said at that point that I was going to leave the chamber orchestra until I got to at least Grade 5 (I had by then just scraped through Grade 3). I felt too embarrassed to stay.

Meanwhile the choir was also being stretched, with Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and, a year later we participated in a massed school choir’s performance of the Mozart Requiem with the late, great David Willcocks as conductor at Central Hall. We were so well drilled I could probably still sing large chunks of this without music (had I still got any singing voice left). It was an amazing experience to participate in; I was, astonishingly, only 13 when I had this fantastic opportunity and all down to Peter.

Meanwhile his ambitions for the school instrumentalists did not diminish; nor the opportunities for a jobbing viola player. There was professional coaching from Hugh Maguire’s (leader of the LSO) big, bearded, double-bass playing brother Francis as a group of us played Schubert’s String Quintet (I was by then in the sixth form, aka Y12), another stunning piece of music that knocked me for six. Two years after the Mozart Requiem the massed choirs sang Handel’s Samson. This for me was bittersweet. There was also a combined school’s orchestra and I lost my fight to be allowed to sing: no, Peter was determined I was needed as a viola player. It became a battle between us throughout the sixth form, sometimes going one way (I was allowed to sing the Mozart C Minor Mass) and sometimes, as with Samson, the other.

All the musical opportunities given to me meant my viola playing came on by leaps and bounds; there was just so much to do and so much to learn. By the end of 1968 a whole bunch of us auditioned for the London Schools Symphony Orchestra with his encouragement and, much to my surprise, I was accepted. Looking back I realise perhaps this was the first time I learnt the lesson of not allowing fear to lead to paralysis or a refusal to take a risk. My first reaction when Peter went round asking instrumentalists if they wanted to audition was to say no, absolutely not. I had been learning only just over 3 years by then and was surrounded by the Mica’s of this world (who of course did not audition, but stayed near the top of the NYO) so I knew my limitations.

Nevertheless, with encouragement I went ahead and, as a consequence, had an absolute ball in the LSSO. Back-achingly hard work (a viola is a heavy instrument) of days of rehearsals of full-on music: the first concert after a holiday course of a few days included Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphoses and Kodaly’s Peacock Variations, pieces of music requiring a large orchestra which we certainly were. I’m not sure if the concert at the end of that course was in the Royal Festival Hall, but we certainly played there a few times during my couple of years in the orchestra.  We also went on tour to Germany and played in the Berlin Philarmonie Hall. I felt, still feel, so privileged to have been given all this. I wish current school children had as many opportunities (it is perhaps worth pointing out much of my musical tuition – in viola, piano and theory – was paid for by the local authority back then, once I’d reached a certain standard). Having that resource as my relaxation was brilliant at the time; the love it gave me for classical music has lasted the rest of my life.

However, it wasn’t just the actual music-making that I feel this inspirational teacher gave me. He gave me something at least as important in that I finally found a community under his leadership. When choices about O Levels were made, it never even crossed my mind to do music; there were those who already showed their talents and I had not yet got sucked in. At 13 or 14 I was an oddball who loved physics (probably the only girl in my year who could have said that, although we had an excellent teacher) and was treated accordingly as an oddity to be left well alone. I was also a year younger than the rest of my year at a time in adolescence when that age gap was massively important and, by implication, damaging to my social being.

By the time I was a leading light in the choir and orchestra in the sixth form I had a new community of friends, for whom age was irrelevant. We were going to make the best music we could. It consumed me and I spent far more time on music than on any one of my A level subjects. Furthermore, it gave me confidence – particularly socially – which I otherwise sadly lacked. I learnt that I could put my bow on the strings and make a decent noise (to begin with in concerts it seemed safer not to make such contact in case anyone heard me). And, perhaps as important as anything, Peter treated all of us as adults who were in this with him. He was the magician who coaxed the music out of us, but he never patronised us, he simply held us together. I am sure we were all a little in love with this man who could dream up such amazing things for us to do.

When I did Private Passions, or indeed when earlier I had recorded Desert Island Discs, the music I chose came largely from this period. When asked for my playlist for the latter the Mozart Requiem was the first piece that I settled on and when the programme was recorded I talked a lot about those teenage years and just what a difference the arrival of Peter in the school meant. At that point we re-established contact for a few years, exchanging Christmas letters. I never went to see him. Now I never will.

RIP Peter Morgan – whose dates I cannot list because, as with children and teachers, I have absolutely no idea how old he was when he joined the school. He had grey hair, a giant mop of it. To a teenager he must have been old already!


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2 Responses to A Lifetime of Music

  1. Laxmi Bickley says:

    Dear Athene,
    Thank you for your tribute to Peter Morgan. He was my Uncle and I also attended Camden, leaving in 1976.
    Did we know each other? In those days I was a violinist and I also played in the LSSO and the school orchestra.
    It is very interesting to read about all your wonderful achievements !
    I am a professional viola player, living in Holland, specialising in authentic performance.
    Best wishes, Laxmi (Elizabeth, Liz ) Bickley

    • Laxmi
      I’m glad you felt that was a fitting tribute to your uncle. I left Camden at Christmas 1970 (although I stayed on for the January 1971 Centenary Founder’s Day in Westminster Abbey), so I suspect we would not have overlapped. The only younger viola player I remember was Debbie Aldermann; although Sally Beamish was there a few years behind me I think she, like you, would have played violin at the time.

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