Denis ApIvor


Article by Dr David C. F. Wright originally published in Music Review Magazine

Denis ApIvor was born in Collinstown, West Meath, Eire on 14th April, 1916 of Welsh parentage. His father, Elwy, was so totally Welsh as to have no part of him that did not stem from the hills of Merioneth. He had been born in the slate-mining village of Corris, gone to school at Machynlleth and then to University College, Aberystwyth before entering the Anglican ministry. When a curate at Llangefni in Anglesey he met his wife-to-be, Mona Nicholls Jones, who had trained in London as a Montessori school-teacher. Her father, Thomas Nicholls Jones was a church warden at Llangefni. Miss Jones’s maternal grandfather was a clergyman named Lewis and her uncle was James Sculthorpe Lewis, a canon of St. Asaph and a graduate of Christ Church, Oxford.

During the first world war Elwy ApIvor had a parish in Eire and all his children were born there. With the Irish Revolution the family moved to Caernarvon, where Mr. ApIvor was a classics master at the High School and took Sunday services in various churches. By this time Denis was learning the piano and singing in the choir. Later he was to sing in two cathedral choirs, thus in his youth becoming steeped in music that has, in fact, been the real training for many composers here and abroad. William Walton is a good case in point-although in the late 1940’s he did go to Humphrey Searle for several lessons.

In 1925 the ApIvors crossed the border to Herefordshire, where Mr. ApIvor was classics master and chaplain at the Cathedral school until his death in 1944. It was also in 1925 that Denis was awarded a scholarship as a chorister under Henry Ley at Christ Church, Oxford. As it happens, the organist who succeeded Ley was Noel Ponsonby, who died young. Denis sang at the christening service of Noel’s son Robert, who was to become the Controller of Music at the B.B.C. Denis had piano lessons with a Mr. Rushworth and began to compose, but he was far from happy at Oxford and, after contracting pneumonia, which put him into the Radcliffe Infirmary, he refused to go back to his college and was transferred to Hereford Cathedral, where the organist was Sir Percy Hull. Denis studied the organ at Hereford with Reginald West, sang in the choir and, having taught himself the clarinet, played in the Hereford Choral and Orchestral Society as well as in the pit orchestra at the Kemble Theatre. He sang in the Three Choirs Festivals under the likes of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Sir Ivor Atkins, a relation of the present writer.

His parents, being opposed to their son’s pursuing a musical career, saw to it that Denis took the Higher School Certificate in mathematics and science. He went to University College, Abetystwyth for a year and then, in 1934, to University College, London. However, he continued his musical studies by ‘devouring’ Berlioz’s treatise on orchestration. Today. ApIvor admires the music of Berlioz, particularly The Damnation of Faust.

ApIvor’s early compositions were mostly songs influenced by his great admiration for the work of Peter Warlock, whose suicide was such a senseless tragedy. The 1914-18 war seriously affected Warlock (as the 1939-45 war was to affect ApIvor). Warlock had unsympathetic and uncomprehending parents who opposed his musical life, and he was therefore unable to see his way forward in the musically backward England of those days. In 1916 Warlock fell under the influence of Bernard van Dieren, who was also to influence ApIvor’s life. In fact, ApIvor’s Chaucer Songs, op. 1 were written in memory of van Dieren, and in 1974, when van Dieren’s son died a bankrupt (he had been selling his father’s scores to relieve his financial embarrassment), ApIvor wanted to copy everything he could before it was lost and therefore made performing editions of much of van Dieren’s music. Yet for all this hard work ApIvor has been shamefully treated. He had, for example, the frustrating experience of seeing his edition of the Ballade of Villon and his arrangement of the de Quincey Rapsodia and The Cenci Song for voice and string quartet used as the mainspring of the de Doelen Concert in Rotterdam in 1982 without due credit in the programme. His published edition of the Chinese Symphony was given at the Holland Festival of 1983 without the briefest mention that it was his edition and production of the full score.

Like Humphrey Searle, ApIvor had wanted to study with van Dieren but van Dieren’s poor health was unequal to teaching. ApIvor, too, was profoundly influenced by the first broadcast of Berg’s Wozzeck and set about the study of the fascinating method of serial composition. About the same time Constant Lambert’s brilliant book Music Ho! was published, and a friend of ApIvor, knowing of his desire to meet Lambert and Cecil Gray (who, in 1934, published a book on Warlock), arranged meetings. Gray visited ApIvor in 1937 and, being a wealthy man, was instrumental in securing lessons for him with Patrick Hadley, who, frankly, taught him nothing. Paddy Hadley always required a bottle of sherry to be provided for him at lessons; this was strategically situated by the piano.

It was Gray who introduced ApIvor to Lambert at Pagani’s restaurant near Queen’s Hall, where Busoni used to “hold court” when he was in London. ApIvor found Lambert “unique” and “probably the best conversationalist since Oscar Wilde”. Lambert, like Warlock, was a flawed personality and asked ApIvor, then a medical student, for tablets to help him sleep.

ApIvor was with Hadley for six months, after which, at the joint behest of Gray and Hadley, he went to Alan Rawsthorne, with whom he studied for two years until the outbreak of war in 1939. From Rawsthorne he was to learn a love for the concerto form and a neatness and economy of style but, sadly, not much else. They went through ApIvor’s scores together but Rawsthorne, being lazy, was an inadequate teacher, as the present writer can testify. He was a man of studied but limited culture, self-absorbed and already damaged before the age of 35 by that alcoholic obsession that ultimately destroyed not only himself but also his friend Constant Lambert.

Rawsthorne wanted to write one brilliant best-seller and, with his Piano Concerto No.1, did that. What is not generally known is that the Chaconne that forms the central movement of that Concerto Rawsthorne derived from ApIvor’s Ostinato for orchestra, which ApIvor showed him when he was rehearsing it with the Tookey Kerridge chamber group.

ApIvor had moved to Belsize Park early in 1939 to be nearer Rawsthorne for lessons. After Lambert’s divorce Rawsthorne and Lambert shared the same house. After Lambert’s death Rawsthorne married his widow Isabel.

In the 1930’s ApIvor had a great enthusiasm for Busoni and in 1940 he arranged for orchestra the latter’s mammoth Fantasia contrappuntistica, which was played by the B.B.C. Symphony Orchestra under Clarence Raybould in 1952 at Maida Vale.

Denis ApIvor says that he first became aware of himself as a composer when he wrote the song As the holly groweth green (Henry VIII) in London in 1936. This now forms part of his opus 2,.AIas Parting for voice and string quartet.

Constant Lambert greatly admired the poetry of T. S. Eliot and encouraged ApIvor to write The Hollow Men, op. 5, for baritone, male chorus and orchestra. The poem deeply inspired the composer at the outbreak of war; but the work lay fallow until 1949, when he reorchestrated it. It was performed in 1950, with Redvers Liewellyn as a magnificent soloist and Lambert conducting – and what singing he drew from the choir! There is no doubt that Lambert was a conductor of rare ability. The Hollow Men was very well received and should have been the “break-through” the composer deserved; but it has, as yet, had no subsequent performance. It is a work that communicates at once and makes a lasting impression. It covers a wide range of emotion and is a “human” work with which we could all identify. It would not be too much to acclaim it as a masterpiece, and it is refreshing in these days to recommend a work that is totally enjoyable in the true meaning of that word. Its neglect is a mark of the oblivion into which ApIvor’s music has at present fallen. ApIvor is in effect forgotten, with four operas unperformed, as well as three symphonies, a violin concerto and other pieces. Had he the fame and “clout” that comes from a ruthlessly ambitious drive, or had he the professional background of the Royal College of Music or his own ensemble, things might have been different. Some, who ought to know better, have said “ApIvor is a doctor, not a composer”. Borodin was a chemist. Do we conclude he was not a composer? Or does the public deny the great theatrical and executive musical talents of Jonathan Miller or Jeffrey Tate because they were educated as doctors?

ApIvor was very grateful to Edward Clark for the B.B.C.’s performance of The Hollow Men. Clark was a man of profound insight and judgment in modern music. It was Clark of whom Stravinsky wrote “when I read of his death, I wept”. Clark’s wife, Elisabeth Lutyens, though a long-time friend of Denis ApIvor, was in some ways hostile to his music, but in attracting her attacks from time to time ApIvor was by no means unique; she was well known for generating controversy. He had first met her at a party at Hereford for her son’s christening. Another interesting composer with whom ApIvor was on close terms over many years was Christian Darnton, who was physically a blond giant. He was also noisy, extrovert and wealthy and drove a Bugatti. His father was a German aristocrat while his mother was a British one. It was Darnton who tried to recruit fellow musicians for the Communist Party. However, ApIvor voted Labour until the “winter of discontent” of 1978/90 when he experienced the horrors of what the trade unions were doing to the health service. He would probably say the only logical government was the “communism” born from the conviction that all people are equal. Denis ApIvor was brought up as the son of a parson and is a very human person, deploring Russian involvement in Afghanistan, the American action in Vietnam and the slaughter of the ecology of the South American continent, He once told me, “One is, in a way, almost ashamed to be alive.”

At the outbreak of war in 1939 Dr. ApIvor was immediately taken into the emergency service in London hospitals and, as he had little experience, was sent to training-posts in military hospitals in Alton and Swindon and then, as a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps, into surgical hospitals. Captain ApIvor came home ahead of time as his wife, Grace O’Brien, a Fleet Street journalist with The Sunday Pictortal, was suffering from a kidney disease which, in those days, was a sentence of death. After a while in the Worcestershire Regiment ApIvor was a penniless, homeless widower. His wife’s relations provided a home for him while he was studying at the Middlesex Hospital and writing his first opera. This was She Stoops to Conquer, op. 12, which occupied the years 1943-1947. The libretto by the composer is based on the play and other lyrics by Oliver Goldsmith. It is an opera buffa in three acts, since the composer’s obsession at this time was bel canto and the framework of the comic operas of Mozart and Rossini. We still await its first performance.

There is a strong Spanish influence in ApIvor’s life that began before the war, when a girl friend brought him a copy of the first British publication of the work of Frederico Garcia Lorca. He composed the Lorca Songs, op. 8 while he was in the uniform of the Worcestershire Regiment. However, it was through his friendship with the lutanist Diana Poulton, who accompanied her husband Tom in vihuela songs, that ApIvor encountered Spanish classical music and records of the gypsy cante jondo.

ApIvor had met the fine baritone Frederick Fuller through Alec Hyatt King of the British Museum’s music department. It was Fuller who gave the first performance of the Lorca songs for a Society for the Promotion of New Music concert at Salle Erard in 1946. Cecil Gray, Edward Clark, Diana Poulton, Alan Rawsthorne and Bernard van Dieren’s widow, Frida, attended this auspicious event and, as a result, Clark included these songs in a London Contemporary Music concert at the Wigmore Hall in 1947. Later that same year, and at the same venue, Clark put on ApIvor’s Violin Sonata, op. 9 played by Antonio Brosa and Kyla Greenbaum.

It was the perspicacity of Humphrey Searle that brought about the first broadcast of any of ApIvor’s works. This was the Concertante for clarinet, piano and percussion, op. 7, which was given by Frederick Thurston, Kyla Greenbaum and the Blades brothers, with the composer conducting. That was in 1948.

In 1947 ApIvor had married Irene Russell, a neuro-surgical theatre sister, and in 1950 he gave up medicine after the success of The Hollow Men. He had produced his first two concertos. The scintillating Piano Concerto, op. 13, which dates from 1948, was first performed by Eiluned Davies with the B.B.C. Welsh Orchestra under Mansel Thomas. This was his last work to receive a Promenade Concert performance; that was in 1958, with Patrick Piggott as soloist and Basil Cameron conducting. The other was the Concerto for violin and fifteen instruments, op. 16, of 1950, the first performance of which was given by Alan Loveday and a chamber orchestra under Trevor Harvey.

This was followed by the first of ApIvor’s ballets, The Goodman of Paris, op. 18. The Royal Ballet commissioned the ballet A Mirror for Witches, op. 19, which dates from 1951 and which was first performed at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 1952. Things were looking reasonably good for ApIvor.

After his Symphony no.1, op. 22 of 1952 there was another Royal Ballet commission, which was the hugely successful Blood Wedding, op. 23, produced at the Sadlers Wells theatre in 1953. It was subsequently restaged in Germany, Vienna, Copenhagen, New York, Cape Town, Ankara and Santiago. It is no hyperbole to say that these ballets were triumphs and, while the music of all deserves revival, Blood Wedding is the most marvellous and impressive score.

However, making an adequate living out of music was impossible and the ApIvor’s marriage suffered and broke up during 1953-4.

ApIvor can probably be credited with the distinction of having composed the first British Guitar Concerto. This is his opus 26 and dates from 1954. It had to wait four years for its first performance in Glasgow, with Julian Bream as soloist.

Having gained a prestigious post-graduate qualification in anaesthetics, ApIvor elected to return to medicine, accepting a consultancy in the West Indies, to enable him to live while he completed the operatic commission offered by Norman Tucker and the Sadlers Wells Trust to compose the three-act opera, Yerma, op. 28, based on Garcia Lorca’s play. Tucker wanted Day Lewis to be the librettist, but the composer chose Montagu Slater, whom Britten had used. This was an unpopular choice, for Slater was a communist and refused to recant, as many did in 1956, at the time of the Hungarian uprising.

The opera took five years of hard work and, although ApIvor had a growing interest in serialism, he deliberately oriented his approach in such a way as not to lose sight of the classical, melodic and reiterative structures.

Tucker’s promise to stage Yerma was not fulfilled and the work has had only one concert performance – a broadcast by the B.B.C. in 1961 with Sir Eugene Goossens conducting, although it had a repeat broadcast about a year later. The title-role was taken by Joan Hammond, who gave a performance of great brilliance, though she was evidently out of sympathy with the style of the music, as was Adrian Boult with Berg’s Wozzeck in his great performance for the B.B.C. in the 1930s. Sir Arthur Bliss wrote to Denis ApIvor in March, 1959 saying:, “I have been through Yerma bar by bar and I can assure you that you can be proud of your achievement. I have written to Tucker expressing my conviction that it will be a noteworthy night when this opera is produced…. I do intend to speak to Schotts (the publishers) about it and this is occasioned entirely by my respect for its value.”

© Dr David C. F. Wright