Alumni Memories: ‘Reminiscences of the Department of Music’ by Dr James Dack

Posted on: 7 August 2022 by Dr James Dack in 2022

Bedford Street South

Our university days are full of some of the most treasured memories of our lifetimes. In the next of our 'Alumni Memories' series, music alumnus Dr James Dack (BA Hons Music 1965, BMus Hons 1968, PhD Music 1976) shares his memories as a music student in the 1960s at the very beginning of the Department of Music.

“When I arrived in Liverpool in October 1965 as one of the first five undergraduates in the newly-formed Department of Music, I found it exciting to be at the beginning of something new: there were no overbearing precedents; this was our Department. The beginnings were modest: in that first year the Department comprised the professor (Professor F. B. R. Smallman, usually known as Basil Smallman and to generations of music students simply as ‘Prof’), a lecturer (Trevor Hold, also a composer), the department secretary, a postgraduate (Anthony ‘Tony’ Cross, engaged in a 2-year M.A.) and ourselves. Yet they were grafted on to a long-established presence of music within the University, evident in 1965 in the University Music Society Choir and Singers, and the professorship itself, the James and Constance Alsop Professorship, established in 1946 to replace the James W. Alsop Lectureship in Music, founded by Constance Alsop in 1924. The professorship had been held (1947-1962) by the distinguished scholar Gerald Abraham and the lectureship (appointed annually 1925-1938) by a succession of prominent figures in music.

“We were housed in no. 82, Bedford Street South, part of an early nineteenth-century terrace: on the ground floor, to the right of the front door, Prof's room and beyond, accessed from under the stairs, the department office; to the left, and extending to the back of the house, the music library, with literature and works of reference in the front portion, music in the rear. On the first floor, two staff offices and, above the library, the lecture-room, with black writing-screen, two Bechstein upright pianos and record-player; behind, a room housing the record collection and a rank of four or five turntables and headsets (this doubled as our student common room); and upstairs in the attic the one-and-only practice-room, with piano. Somewhere in the nether regions of the house was the den of our two formidable Liverpudlian cleaning-ladies, Jean and Maggie, much given to the spreading of liberal amounts of an acrid wax polish on the linoleum (‘Mind my floors!’), buffed up to a slippery shine. During that first year, at least, we regularly cleaned the piano keyboards, put the library shelves in order each Friday afternoon and maintained a rota of evening supervision of the record collection and listening booths. All in all, it seemed quite a family affair, presided over by Prof with an air of paternal benevolence.

“Our section of Bedford Street South was at the very edge of University territory: to step south and turn the corner into Myrtle Street was to cross a distinct boundary into the city itself, that part of it with the surviving grandeur of the 18th-century terraces in the vicinity of the Anglican Cathedral but otherwise run down, if not actually seedy. In the other direction across the Regency elegance of Abercromby Square, taken over as University academic and administrative premises, lay Bedford Street North: on one side the new Student Union (and behind it, forming a unique backdrop to the University, the scarcely completed and eye-catching Roman Catholic Cathedral), on the other, the modern Oceanography and Mathematics buildings and, in 1965, still a remaining fragment of the original terrace of houses, in one of which was the University Bookshop. The impression everywhere was of the new arising from the old: Liverpool, ‘the city of change and challenge’, as outgoing letters were franked at the time. To my youthful eyes unused to a large city, where the old had become derelict and ripe for demolition, it was somewhat unnerving: I was glad of the University bus or the nos. 80 and 86 back to the leafy security of the halls of residence in Mossley Hill - but, as the freshers' Vade mecum issued by the Students' Union warned, ‘Beware of the no. 87: this is a cunning bus’: for it appeared to be going the right way but (it was reputed) deposited one somewhere in the region of Speke (now John Lennon) Airport. At the same time, I found it stimulating and liberating to leave the University precinct for the city centre, to find its very edge at the Pier Head and floating landing-stage, from where Canadian Pacific's last transatlantic liner the Empress of Canada sailed for Montreal during the 1960s. The underlying geography of the city - river-front, rising up the hill to the University - seemed evident, unlike the amorphous spread of an inland city.

“We returned for our second year to find that the Department had acquired next door, no. 80, which afforded much-needed room for expansion: two further lecture-rooms, practice-rooms tucked away in various holes and corners and, in the yard behind, bordered by a wall beyond which ran Back Bedford Street South, a free-standing single-storey ‘studio’ for the rehearsal of chamber music and playing of percussion instruments. Dr (now Professor) Denis McCaldin had joined the staff, together with the much-loved secretary Mollie Burns, who was to be the linchpin of the institution over many years; and some ten or twelve new students: the Department was truly launched.

“It was our good fortune, not recognized by us at the time, to receive next to one-to-one teaching: this, in fact, is the only way to deal with an aspect considered then and for years to come as beyond question in a university curriculum in music, that is, the study of music ‘from within’ by way of, as it was systematized, the daunting duo of ‘harmony and counterpoint’. These (and their close cousin ‘fugue’), together with a broad historical outline of Western ‘art’ music (in the first year ‘Classical’ and ‘Romantic’, in the second ‘Renaissance’ and ‘Baroque’), twentieth-century music, ‘free’ composition, orchestration, aural training and keyboard skills made up a traditional curriculum but there was also new thinking: an emphasis on performance (the requirement to study the piano and a second orchestral instrument, for which teachers were often drawn from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra - in those generous days, fees were paid by the Department - and the presumption that one would participate in musical performance fostered by the Department, with the minimum requirement to be a member of the University Choir or Orchestra); and, in the second year, a course in acoustics for musicians, for which we attended the Department of Building Science, as it was known then. (It should be said that our lecturer in acoustics, Dr Morris Davies, was himself a musician and had at one time directed the University Choir and Singers, until these were taken over by Basil Smallman and Trevor Hold respectively, with the advent of the Department. Morris Davies then founded his Renaissance Music Group, which continues to this day.) With maturity, I have come to regret that I did not make more of my piano lessons with the remarkable Liverpool pianist Douglas Miller (1888-1983), who had studied in Berlin before the First World War with that ‘pianists' pianist’ Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938) and was thereby a link with nineteenth-century pianism, a faint trace of which resides in his entering of Godowsky's peculiar fingerings here and there in some of my piano music. We had the benefit of the free run of a remarkably well-stocked music library, administered remotely and trustingly from the New Arts Library across the road: one filled out a slip for an item to be borrowed, stuck it on a spike on the table by the door, whence slips were periodically collected by a member of library staff; returns (if I remember correctly) were to the table for eventual checking off. Examination throughout was by traditional 3-hour written paper, topped off in the final year by a practical test in the keyboard skills that might be expected of an all-round musician and a viva voce examination. My fourth (B.Mus.) year brought a taste of what can be the lonely path of postgraduate study. One memory of that year is the tutorial tour de force performed by the newly-arrived Dr (now Professor) Michael Talbot as he led me through the intricacies of medieval musical notation and its transcription: I still have his weekly hand-written summaries.

“Many memories are of performances in which I took part. Participation, of course, had its educational purpose, never more so than for a pianist-student such as I was, brought up on the typical teaching diet of Bach's Preludes and Fugues, sonatas by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Brahms and so on. As a mere beginner on my ‘second instrument’, the 'cello (my teacher was Mr Amos Moore, of the Liverpool Phil), I could not join the orchestra, so the choir it was, where I had scarcely more capability but got by somehow, to discover what it was to sing in some of the staple works of the choral repertory: Bach's cantatas and Mass in B minor, Mozart's Requiem, Bruckner's Mass in E minor (in the amazing acoustic of the Anglican Cathedral), Tippett's A Child of Our Time and more, under the direction of Basil Smallman. One discovery stands out in particular: Haydn's Harmoniemesse. In my undergraduate ignorance, I might have offered, if pressed, some received platitude about Haydn ‘the father of the string quartet’, the composer of symphonies and keyboard sonatas, a forerunner of Mozart and Beethoven; now I was astounded to find that Haydn composed sacred choral music and had written this piece in 1802; moreover, to experience its harmonic and contrapuntal power, and, when it came to final rehearsal and performance, its orchestral richness (‘Harmonie’ is the German term for a wind band or wind section of an orchestra; it refers to the full complement of woodwind, horns and brass in this work). It was a revelation that influenced the course of my academic career. Likewise, it is to this educational broadening of musical experience that I owe memories of participation in Bach's St John Passion and concert performances of Beethoven's Fidelio with the Liverpool Phil conducted by Charles Groves; and in semi-professional staged performances of Mozart's Die Entfüehrung aus dem Serail and Così fan tutte in the theatre of the ‘old’ Student Union conducted by Basil Smallman.

“Other memories are of music I heard as a member of an audience: orchestral concerts, of course, in the Philharmonic Hall, and performances in the University, as in the annual series of Alsop Subscription Concerts, a re-birth of the original Alsop Lectures. To appear smartly dressed was to run the risk of appointment as page-turner, a nerve-wracking role with the potential to cause a disaster. One performance experienced from this perspective comes to mind: the recital given by Basil Smallman (a pianist of professional ability) and the German 'cellist Ludwig Hoelscher, at one point of which I was required, having turned a page at the piano, discreetly to negotiate a floor littered with cables (the recital was being recorded) to turn for the 'cellist and then return to my usual station for the next turn there, all the while holding the musical score in mind in order to keep my place. High points in the calendar were the visits of our ‘quartet-in-residence’, the Allegri String Quartet (Hugh Maguire and David Roth, violins, Patrick Ireland, viola, and Bruno Schreker, 'cello). It was enthralling to observe at close quarters these supremely professional musicians in rehearsal and performance, to have the experience, as the famous description of listening to a string quartet has it, ‘of eavesdropping on the conversation of four intelligent people’. In what sometimes seemed the slow normality of the weeks of term, their visit brought a breath of air from another world.

“Then there are the memories that come to mind as if snapshots from a disordered photograph album: of the first time of approach to Liverpool by train through the succession of dark tunnels, the dripping walls blackened or moss-covered, to arrive in Lime Street Station the immediate feeling ‘I like this place’; the walk from Rathbone Hall down Ibbotson's Lane to the Sefton Park Palm House, where in the first months of the year spring seemed to come early; the launderama in Penny Lane; the peculiar nature of Liverpool graffiti - let two examples suffice: on the wall of a building under demolition in the area of Myrtle Street, white-painted vertical dashes and the words ‘Tear down dotted line’; and on the raised base of the Roman Catholic Cathedral, ‘God bless the Pope and free Bernadette’ (a sentiment of its time and place, if ever there was one); of the sunny morning in June, when we waited with nervous jocularity to be admitted to the examination hall (a redundant church) in Grove Street; of the carefree weeks - long looked forward to - after the exams, when we lay in the sun, drank in the Greenbank bar and enjoyed all kinds of escapades; the Otterspool promenade along the murky brown Mersey; trips to the remote Fiddler's Ferry Inn further upstream; to the Wirral (as the Liverpool expression poetically has it, ‘over the water’) either by the underground from Central Station or ferry from Pier Head (4d - old pence - to cross the Mersey); of the slow advance westward (liturgically), bay by bay, of the neo-Gothic Anglican Cathedral (surely the last time one might see such a gradual construction in the way previous centuries had witnessed the building of the great medieval cathedrals); the ‘time-capsule’ of Speke Hall, on the very edge of the airport; and, from later years in Liverpool, of my local high street of Lark Lane, then with the family bakery ‘Sugar and Spice’ run by mother, father (who always had a floury look) and daughter; Mr Duffy the butcher; the ironmonger's, greengrocer's, florist's and other day-to-day businesses. And memories of much more...

“After nearly nine years in Liverpool (B.A., B.Mus. and Ph.D. on the way to completion) and the growing feeling of having being left behind through the departure of friends and contemporaries, it was time to move on: I was fortunate to secure a place in university music, where, as it turned out, I was to remain for very much longer: the roles of lecturer, senior lecturer and eventually head of department came my way, and the experience of the change in universities and university music over nearly forty years. Curricula in music have altered out of all recognition for university musicians of an older generation, some might argue, to the detriment of traditional knowledge and skills. Given the growth in the number of entrants each year, the advent of the ‘undergraduate market’ (students - and their families - as ‘customers’, paying tuition fees) and, let us face it, a change in what is taught and understood at the pre-university stage, questions had to be asked of even the apparently inviolable parts of the curriculum. In particular, the studies best served by the traditional master-apprentice model of the individual tutorial system came under strain. As a colleague once remarked: ‘How do you teach harmony and counterpoint to forty people? Answer: With a rugby pitch and a megaphone.’ But however loudly one shouted, it proved impossible to deal with the multiple responses. And so some fundamental thinking had to take place on the rationale and efficacy - and, in the new ‘market', the attractiveness and perceived relevance - of the components of a curriculum.

“One lesson learnt: fortunate, indeed, is the university department of music - as distinct from its parallel institution of tertiary education in music, the music college - that has access to a dedicated and purpose-built venue for musical performance. The usual story is of competing and equally valid interests for whatever large space there may be or, if a new building is achieved, of some kind of unhappy compromise. Oddly enough, during my student years at Liverpool, the lack of a concert hall did not disturb me (although it may well have disturbed those seeking to mount performances): the Students' Union Mountford Hall for the large-scale choral and orchestral concerts and various local venues for the chamber orchestral concerts directed by Denis McCaldin seemed satisfactory. But no more than that: how we would have delighted in the facility of the Tung Auditorium!

“The abiding memory, I think, of my time at Liverpool is of a kind of university music now past, having been replaced - I cannot speak of Liverpool now, of course - with something more specialized, fragmented, in some ways more professional (as, for example, in the area of performance: formerly, members of academic staff were expected as a matter of course to take their turn in the direction of choirs and orchestras; now professional expertise is brought in or appointed, with, it must be admitted, more often than not, a rise in standards). Yet I would contend that as a department of music becomes a department of musicology - with external sources of funding high among the factors driving that - so the ethos changes: music is social, scholarship (in the arts, at least) is individual. It lies within the power of musical performance within a university to counteract that fragmentation: that may prove to be one of the most important benefits of the new Auditorium.

“Memories, of course, are subjective: they run the risk of idealizing, even inventing the past. Was it really like that? Just as two historians, working from the same historical data, might produce quite different histories, so do memories depend on the rememberer; everyone's photograph album is different. Yet I would stand by my memories of the early years of the Department of Music as a time of discovery, of making the most of small beginnings, and, from the present perspective over half a century later, of a fortunate undergraduate experience characterized by a certain kind of innocence. When Basil Smallman wrote to me in September 1965 to offer me a place on ‘an entirely new Honours B.A. (Music) course’ (thereby rescuing me from a low point in my academic career, for which I will ever be grateful) he opened the way not only to ‘a really fruitful period of study at this University’ - but also to an eventual store of memories of a lifetime.”

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