Sir Andrew Davis’s journey from

Watford Palace to Buckingham Palace

Since this ‘By the By’ series began, we have brought you several tales that fall into the ‘truth really can be much stranger than fiction’ category.

Here is another to add to that list. Sir Andrew Davis, one of Britain’s most distinguished conductors, made his professional debut playing “Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside” in Watford Palace Theatre.

The theatre’s regular pianist had jaundice so young Davis, then a pupil at Watford Boys’ Grammar School, was asked to stand in for him for six weeks.

Ten years later, aged 26, the by-then-graduate of King’s College, Cambridge, was invited to act as a stand-in again. But this time his challenge was rather more taxing - to conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra, at the Festival Hall, in Janáček’s famously difficult Glagolitic Mass.

He rose to the challenge brilliantly and a stellar career was under way.

The first Briton to conduct all top five American orchestras, Sir Andrew became associate conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in 1970. Later he was appointed music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Glyndebourne Festival Opera. Then in 1989 he took over as conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

During his 11 years with the BSO he conducted many Last Nights of the Proms and became famous for his witty speeches, two of which parodied the Major-General’s patter song in The Pirates of Penzance.

However, there was nothing pre-ordained about his rise to fame. Sir Andrew was born in a Nissen hut (it was 1944) in the grounds of Ashridge House near Berkhamsted. His father was a printer’s compositor and his mother was a ‘parlour pianist’. His first years were spent in Chesham before the family moved to a house backing on to Cassiobury Park.

Although he has worked abroad for many years -- he is currently principal conductor of Lyric Opera of Chicago and chief conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra – Sir Andrew has maintained some connection with the local area. Improbably, he found time to open the Croxley Green Parish Council craft fair in 1998.

The following year he was knighted and four years later he was invited to conduct a Proms concert marking the 50th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation.

Sir Andrew appears to have a healthy taste for self-deprecation, however, and admits that his closest encounter with the Queen was at a lunch for 12 people in Buckingham Palace. “I sat with Prince Edward in order to plan the programme for the anniversary concert,” he later recalled. “We knew lunch was over when the corgis arrived.”

Sir Andrew Davis will be conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus
in a performance of Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Bliss’s cantata, The Beatitudes, at the Barbican on May 12.

for further details...

Contribution by - David Budge

to start

The strange link between

Delius and Fanny Cradock

Frederick Delius will forever be associated with Grez-sur-Loing, the sleepy riverside village south of Paris that inspired some of his finest music.

It was Grez that was the setting for Song of Summer, Ken Russell’s 1968 film about the by then blind and paralysed composer’s unique partnership with his amanuensis, Eric Fenby.

But did you know that Delius, improbable though it may seem, had earlier found himself composing by the slightly less idyllic banks of the Gade in Watford?

When the German artillery rumbled too close to Grez in September 1914, Delius and his wife, Jelka, buried their silver and 1,000 bottles of wine (yes, 1,000) and sought a safer sanctuary.

By November they were in London, enjoying the hospitality of Delius’s long-time champion, Thomas Beecham. And it was Beecham who arranged the couple’s lease of Grove Mill House (now known as The Dower House) in Grove Mill Lane between December 1914 and July 1915.

Although the Deliuses were less than complimentary about Watford after returning to France, something about the Grove Mill Lane area, then a noted beauty spot, must have stimulated the composer’s imagination.

Delius’s health was already failing but he is said to have worked consistently during his time in The Dower House (later the home of the TV cook, Fanny Cradock). The Bradford-born composer produced not only three of the Four Old English Lyrics while staying there but his Double Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra.

The latter must be the most significant piece of music ever composed in the Watford area but, sadly, there is no plaque on The Dower House commemorating Delius’s stay. Perhaps one day that oversight will be addressed.

Principal Source:

Foreman, Lewis. Watford sur Gade: Delius in Watford during the First World War, The Delius Society Journal, Autumn 2001, No. 130.

Contribution by - David Budge

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Arnold Bax’s brief exile

in Rickmansworth

Last month’s ‘By the By’ column pointed out that Arnold Bax was one of several leading composers who dined at the Rickmansworth home of the music publisher Hubert Foss.

Bax was, however, familiar with Rickmansworth long before Foss and his wife moved there in 1929. Eleven years earlier, Bax had sought refuge in the Victoria Hotel – later known as Long Island Exchange – after leaving his wife and two children because of his affair with the pianist Harriet Cohen.

Bax, who had been living in Beaconsfield, initially booked into the Crown in Amersham, where he had earlier shared some passionate afternoons with Harriet, who was his muse as well as his lover (18 of his compositions are dedicated to her).

However, Bax soon moved on to Rickmansworth and checked into the Victoria, which was demolished about a year ago to make way for a new housing development. His letters to his brother and Harriet, who was dubbed the ‘beloved piano witch’ by no less a person than Albert Einstein, confirm that he stayed at the hotel for several weeks in the March and April of 1918.

It cannot be proved that Bax wrote any music while staying in Rickmansworth but the musicologist Lewis Foreman has speculated that a cello and piano piece entitled Folk-Tale, completed on April 3, may have been written in the Victoria, along with at least part of his String Quartet No. 1 in G, which was premiered in June 1918.

The latter suggestion is particularly intriguing as it is this quartet that the Magginis will be playing at their latest concert for Three Rivers Music Society in Rickmansworth Baptist Church on Friday, March 31.

While they are performing this work it will be hard not to think of Bax sitting in his lonely hotel room in the final year of the First World War.

Could he have guessed that his music, which for many years was under-appreciated, would still be played in the town almost a century later? Again, one can only speculate, but it seems unlikely.


London: A Musical Gazetteer, by Lewis and Susan Foreman, Yale University Press, paperback, £18.99
Music and Men: The Life and Loves of Harriet Cohen, by Helen Fry, paperback, £12.99.

Contribution by - David Budge

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