Sir Malcolm Sargent: A revered hero or an arrogant bully?
Sir Malcolm Sargent breathed life into the BBC Proms. Yet for all his fame and fortune, says Andrew Green, the conductor’s personality and music-making heavily divided opinion
In his day, no conductor enjoyed a higher public profile among British conductors than Malcolm Sargent.
‘Flash Harry’, they called him. The exact provenance of the soubriquet is unclear, but it suited Sargent down to the ground. The snappy dressing, not least on the podium. The hair sleeked back. Carnation in buttonhole. The touch of showmanship about his conducting gestures. And the showman was a past master at orchestrating the applause he craved – not least from his beloved Albert Hall Promenaders.
There was flash and dash about Sargent’s jam-packed diary, too, with ceaseless flitting round the UK and global jet-setting; regular excursions to the recording studio which reflected the appeal of the Sargent brand to discophiles; and frequent appearances as a vivacious, razor-sharp contributor to BBC Radio’s panel show The Brains Trust which made Sargent a household name.
These days, though, the full breadth of Malcolm Sargent’s career tends to be disregarded in favour of the kind of labelling that’s akin to libelling. Yes, he was unquestionably an exceptional choral conductor. Yes, he was just the man to re-popularise the Proms (through his association with the BBC Symphony Orchestra) after Henry Wood’s death.
And yes, he was a lifelong Gilbert & Sullivan exponent of wit and sparkle.
What was Sargent like as a person?
But what of a full appreciation of Sargent the purely orchestral conductor, with an extensive, high-level international career? What of his talents as a sensitive accompanist in concertos, admired by no less than Schnabel and Heifetz?
There seems to have been a fault-line in perceptions of Sargent, reflected in the almost shocking disparity between the near idolatry afforded him by amateur singers and Albert Hall Promenaders – and the revulsion spat out by orchestral players. ‘We found Sargent arrogant,’ said the late trumpeter and composer Arthur Butterworth, who played under him as a member of the Hallé Orchestra. ‘He seemed to look down on orchestral players as socially inferior.’
Butterworth recalled with irony that Sargent was ‘not especially patient’, shuddering at the memory of an organist’s late entry during Holst’s Hymn of Jesus. ‘Sargent snarled and screamed at him… during the actual concert! His face contorted like an enraged tiger.’
The dislike of Sargent could amount to naked hatred, said Butterworth. Sargent’s pompous, schoolmasterly, nit-picking manner was known to ignite explosions in rehearsals which resulted either in him storming out or a player being invited to leave. According to one musician, Sargent had ‘no confidence in the ability of players to do anything on their own account.’ Music critic Michael Kennedy puts it succinctly: ‘I never met an orchestral musician who said they liked Sargent. He was a fearful snob.’
The distinguished civil servant Lord Armstrong, son of the eminent musical figure Sir Thomas Armstrong, met the conductor on numerous occasions and offers the balanced view. ‘My father knew Sargent well. He acknowledged that his manner was unfortunate and that he was a snob, but he’d never let anyone get away with questioning his musicianship… someone thoroughly professional, who worked extremely hard.
I found Sargent a man of great charm.’
The orchestral antipathy to Sargent had much to do with a sequence of events in the early 1930s, when he was struck down by serious illness. Orchestral musicians chipped in to help him through the crisis. Imagine their indignation when in an interview, Sargent – son of a Lincolnshire coal merchant’s clerk – blundered in on the then current debate about orchestral musicians’ pensions: ‘As soon as a man thinks he is in his orchestral job for life with a pension waiting for him at the end of it, he tends to lose something of his supreme fire.’
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This and other comments caused a furore, never mind that Sargent could claim his co-founding of the salaried London Philharmonic Orchestra demonstrated a sympathy with orchestral musicians. Arthur Butterworth remembers the resentment at Sargent’s words continuing ‘on and on.’
Knowledge of Sargent’s eager networking in society and royal circles added to the impression of someone too full of himself to identify with ‘mere’ orchestral musicians. Ditto his multiple extra-marital liaisons with the well-bred and blue-blooded, something over which his otherwise attentive biographer Charles Reid chose to draw a blackout curtain of a veil. ‘He was a terror to women,’ says Michael Kennedy. ‘They’d never travel with him in taxis.’
Talk to those amateurs who sang under Sargent the legendary choral conductor, however, and it’s as if they’re describing a different person. Jayne Preston, who sung with the Huddersfield Choral Society, which Sargent honed to almost mythical status. ‘Even before I joined the choir I thought of him as royalty!’ she says. ‘He was so flamboyant on the podium. You felt he was looking straight at you… the performance was about just you and him. I didn’t know anyone in the choir who didn’t like him. We once went to a festival in the USA where choirs from round the world were gathered, and he was worshipped.’
Sargent’s long-standing relationship with the Royal Choral Society induced similar devotion. RCS bass Peter York remembers that Sargent ‘gave us massive confidence, always having a profound understanding of what we needed. I always felt he was at ease in our company, perhaps because we were amateurs. OK, he didn’t really mix with us, but he never treated us in a pompous way.’
A fascinating paradox, then, all the more intriguing when no one was keener than Sargent to spread the gospel of music in a way that demonstrated he could be selfless as well as self-important. ‘Sir Malcolm was always concerned that music should be made available to the ordinary person in the street,’ says his personal assistant Sylvia Darley. ‘His many appearances on the BBC’s famous The Brains Trust meant non-concertgoers connected with him. They’d then give classical music a try.’
Sargent’s passionate involvement with music education embraced the Robert Mayer concerts for children and the Courtauld-Sargent orchestral series. During World War II he declined the offer of a well-paid appointment in Australia in favour of criss-crossing Britain conducting morale-boosting concerts, ignoring the vagaries of wartime travel and accommodation.
Sargent’s close identification with the Proms in the 1950s and ’60s provided a striking personality with whom fringe concertgoers could identify. OK, one Promenading acquaintance of mine says he found Sargent ‘smarmy and supercilious’, but overwhelmingly his star quality, enhanced by that sartorial elegance and the ever-present carnation, was a major factor in pulling the Proms into the world of televisual commercialism. That brief Last Night of the Proms walk-on as death approached in 1967 sent a myriad eyes misty as the Promenaders bestowed the kind of adulation only they can. The atmosphere surrounding today’s Proms owes at least something to his legacy.
So how can we explain The Sargent Paradox? Sargent may have been blessed with precocious talent, says his biographer Richard Aldous, ‘but he was aware he didn’t have the advantages of wealth and birth. People often look for evidence of an insecure childhood in cases likes this, but Sargent had a happy upbringing. No, the important thing to consider is that he’s a working class boy made good.
‘Everything makes sense when you see the family home on Wharf Road in Stamford: small, mean-looking, beside the gasworks. Sargent really had to struggle for what he achieved, beginning with his time as an un-monied scholarship boy at Stamford School, feeling the need to push himself forward. One way he then got on was by social climbing. He moved from being just a church organist partly by interacting with society people who give him a leg-up. He then constructed this image of himself – the accent and manner – which many found off-putting.’
Perhaps Sargent’s affected superiority on the podium also stemmed from the ‘social embarrassment’ of his unhappy long marriage to an unprepossessing Stamford girl. ‘He may have had a secure upbringing,’ says Lord Armstrong, ‘but his married life, including his relationship with his children, was anything but secure.’
One piece of evidence may remain more intriguing than enlightening. According to Charles Reid, Sargent himself dated the beginnings of the tensions with orchestras to some of them giving him ‘a bad time’ (Reid’s words) on unspecified occasions as a young conductor. Why isn’t clear. According to Reid, Sargent’s ‘uneasiness on orchestral rostrums’ stemmed from this, and could be mirrored in private tears as a result of his treatment.
No tears when it came to working with amateur musicians, though. But then Sargent knew all about them from his early years of galvanising local singers and orchestras on his home patch with flair. Perhaps working with amateurs later in life subconsciously linked him back to severed Stamford roots.
Revealingly, if the evidence of several musicians in Australia I spoke to is anything to go by, Sargent’s standing with orchestral players abroad wasn’t burdened by historical/social baggage. Former Sydney Symphony Orchestra violinist Jenny Mattocks says it was ‘such an honour to play under Sargent. A wonderful experience, phenomenal. We never found him aloof or supercilious.’
Donald Hazelwood, concertmaster of the same orchestra from the mid-1960s, recalls ‘very fine musical performances, very exact. There wasn’t a bit of bad feeling about him personally. He was totally organised and
what he did on the podium was very much respected.’
When all’s said and done, Sargent’s orchestral legacy needs assessing purely on musical grounds. Modern transfers of his recordings may not be that plentiful, but online searches for streamed audio and video help fill in the picture. Perhaps his approach would have gone down well today: the precise, clear gestures prompting crisp, rhythmic, disciplined interpretations make, for example, his Beethoven Third and Shostakovich Ninth symphonies infectious. There’s an insistence on keeping the pulse moving in slower music that eschews sentimentality without descending into straightforwardness: his Vaughan Williams Lark Ascending with violinist David Wise, for instance.
There’s plenty of Elgar. The composer’s eminent biographer, Jerrold Northrop Moore, takes a line that may surprise. ‘In many ways Sargent got closer to Elgar’s music than Boult or Barbirolli. He brought a kind of swagger to it. Maybe he didn’t always find its inner spirit, but like Elgar he didn’t hang about, which gives the music animation and sparkle, allowing it to speak for itself.’
Behind Sargent’s public image was an intensely private man, possibly even a lonely one. ‘His family life disintegrated,’ observes Sylvia Darley, ‘and he could only confide in his closest friends. His life was his music – he was a workaholic.’
Sargent’s last days at his home alongside the Albert Hall were a reversal of this. Says Sylvia Darley: ‘Once he recovered from the shock of knowing he was dying, he said “Thank God I won’t need to study scores any more.” He organised visitors and there was a party every day. So many people came round. They often had long chats with Sir Malcolm. When they left they were often visibly moved.’
When was Sir Malcolm Sargent born?
Sir Malcolm Sargent was born on 29 April, 1895, in Ashford, Kent. Family moves to Stamford, Lincolnshire.
1911 Studies with Dr Haydn Keeton at Peterborough Cathedral where he gets his first proper musical grounding. He subsequently becomes a parish church organist at Melton Mowbray.
When was Sir Malcolm Sargent's first big break?
In 1921 he had his first big break, conducting his own An Impression on a Windy Day at Queen’s Hall, London at the invitation of Proms founder Sir Henry Wood.
In 1928 he was appointed permanent conductor of the Royal Choral Society, a post he would hold on to for 39 years.
In 1932 Sargent is made director of the Huddersfield Choral Society – in the same year, he suffers a near-fatal bout of tuberculosis.
Also in 1932 he co-founds the London Philharmonic Orchestra with Sir Thomas Beecham. He was also closely associated with the Royal Liverpool, Hallé, BBC Symphony and Royal Philharmonic orchestras - some of the best orchestras in the world.
When did Sir Malcolm Sargent become conductor of the Proms?
In 1948 Malcolm Sargent became chief conductor of the BBC Promenade Concerts up until his death in 1967.
When did Sir Malcolm Sargent die?
Sir Malcolm’s death from pancreatic cancer in 1967. A year later the charity Sargent Cancer Care for Children was set up, later to become CLIC Sargent.