London OjJlce lOA, Soho Square,
Edited by COMPTON MACKENZIE
TELEPHOIa' Regent 7977, 7978.
Parmaxto, Weetoent, London.
IT would not be fair, merely on the brief report of the presidential address at the annual conference of the Incorporated Society of Musicians at Chester, to assum.e that Sir Hugh Allen is quite the enemy of "mechanical music" that the report in The Times of January 4th appears to make him.
Speaking of the indiscriminate use of mechanical music, he said " that rivers, lakes, lanes, moors and woodlands were made hideous in the summer t ime by this cruel form of torture under which the very fish in the water were glad to be out of earshot, and the birds themselves refrained from their songs from sheer fright at the din. This was an age of short cuts and time-saving machines. To learn to play or Sing was a long and weary process, and many to-day wondered i f i t were worth whHe when, by a turn of a screw, they could have the whole range of music Within reach. Broadcasting had made music practically free for all, and, in company with the gramophone and pianola, was making serious inroads into practical music-making.' Gramophone music had created a new kind of record in the world of finance, and i t had killed largely the revenue which composers previously enjoyed from the sale of sheet music. The piano, an expensive instrument, was fighting for i ts life in the home against long odds."
I feel some diffidence about replying to Sir Hugh in print, because I ought to have replied to him in person on the platform at Chester. However, fortunately for my conscience, the London Editor, as on many other occasions, stepped nobly into the breach and taught the conference, we may feel sUl'e, something about the failUl'e of professional musicians as a body to contribute anything of value to the progress of the "mechanical music " they so much despise. .
To begin with, Sir Hugh attributed the silence of the birds in summer to the noises of "mechanical music" a.ll over the countryside. Now, he should, and probably does, know perfectly well that the silence of the birds in summer is not due to their having been bUllied out of Singing by the gramophone, but to their love-makings being over for the year. Ages before gramophones or portable wireless sets were dreamed of the silence of a summer woodland was unbroken by the note of a single bird. I stress this point, because i t is a common error of novelists to equip the air in July and .August with birdsong as a background for the emotional behaviour of their characters. No doubt nothing more than a rhetorical exaggeration was intended, but i t is a pity even in rhetorical exaggeration to give currency to a vulgar error.
To learn to play or sing is indeed, as Sir Hugh said, a long and weary process, and, let me add, as long and as wearisome for his fellow creatures as for the learner. I have suffered as much from the attempts of l i t t le girls and l i t t le boys, of deluded young women and conceited young men, to perform in public and to practice in private, as I have ever suffered from the indiscriminate use of gramophones. When I was a child myself i t was considered necessary to learn to "play" the piano. I recognise the value of a practical acquaintance with music; but most children are genuinely incapable of learning to play an instrument, and a grave risk is run of giving a child a disgust for music that may never be cured. Numbers of children are genuinely incapable of drawing, and yet the foolish legend existed in schools that all children could be taught to draw. The drawing-master was often a bully, because he was usually a failure as an original artist, and had been driven into the drudgery of teaching to gain a livelihood. I look back to my experience of the drawingschool at both my private school and my public school a,s a useless pUl'gatory. Yet we were not taught to paint, which being a messy occupation might have amused us. The teaching of. 'music, Qf cOUl'se, was a piece of home persecution. I t was not an indispensable part of the curriculum like drawing. Morning after morning I was dragged out of bed to practise five-finger exercises and scales, followed by wretched short pieces like Rosalie the Prairie Flower, the Camival de Venise, the Lorelei, and a ludicrous composition called The Retreat M arch, with the opening bars of which I can torment a. piano to this day. I look back through the mist of years to playing duets with cold-fingered governesses, whose right