Harold Nash talks to Simon Hogg
S.H. What first interested you in the trombone?
H.N. I’m not even sure I was interested in music, it was all probably a giant mistake. My earliest memory was when I was less than four and my mother would take me to the Salvation Army in Pentre, where we would listen for the band marching back to the Citadel. The first sound we heard was the G Trombone coming over the hill about a mile away. That really excited me. There was no musical activity then until I was about eleven when I became insanely jealous of a brilliant young cornet player who my father was teaching. His name was Bram Gay, and many years later we were to play together in the Royal Opera House Orchestra.
After a few months tuition from my father I took some lessons with Reg Little, conductor of the famous Cory Workmen’s Band. But this arrangement came to a swift end when Reg discovered that I had been accepting solo engagements in the local chapel, without paying him any commission. Fortunately a famous trombonist of the day, Harold Laycock, had recently moved to conduct a band near Caerphilly and he became my new teacher. Shortly after that I joined the Parc and Dare Band who were conducted at that time by Dr Denis Wright.
My father insisted that a good time to practice was first thing in the morning before school. Unfortunately as the school I attended was over two miles away, this resulted in me constantly being in trouble for being late. On one occasion, just as the headmaster was about to cane me, he said “So why are you always late for school, Nash?” I explained about the trombone and my early morning regime, to which he declared “Well, do you think you’ll make a living doing that?” Anyway, one thing he did, was to write to the Royal Academy of Music applying for a scholarship, which I gained. I was fifteen at the time.
Arriving in London in September 1947, my first impression walking through Regents Park was how prosperous everything looked after the austerity of the valleys, and how much more attractive the girls were. My teacher at the Academy was Sidney Langston. He looked distinguished, he behaved with great dignity, he was an enthusiast, not for the trombone or for music in a big way, but for getting on in the profession, which could be even more important in the long run. He taught me about contraception, how to avoid conscription and quite a lot about the trombone as well.
The great moment of any lesson was when Sid actually picked up the instrument and played. He had a unique sound, still playing on a pea shooter, but with a big, clear sound that had no edges to it. Technically he never offered much advice beyond saying perhaps “try that passage in fourth or fifth.” The main source of inspiration at the Academy were the many fine students, including Denis Wick, Harry Spain, Dai Trotman Doug Hinckley and Jim Lea.
By the time I had reached my third year at the RAM I was already working quite a lot with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. When the time came to sit my GRSM exams I went to the Principal to request whether I could move one of the written papers to another day as there was an important rehearsal at Glyndeborne. “Certainly not,” he said “you should make a decision which one you want to chose.” So I left the Academy and joined the RPO, I was nineteen.
Strangely enough, professors were employed to sit in with the Academy orchestra to help out at that time, so for the rest of the term Sid sent me along as his paid dep, even though I had been expelled.
The section in the RPO when I joined, was Sid on principal and Godfrey Kneller, a marvellous player and a terrific character on Bass Trombone. The trumpets were Bob Walton, Horace Barker and Harry Dilley, principal horn of course was Dennis Brain. It was a marvellous orchestra and a wonderful opportunity for me. The woodwind were also outstanding, Jack Brymer, Gwydion Brooke, Gerald Jackson and Terry MacDonagh.
Beecham was terrific. He was instinctive, he was natural, he was truly gifted, yet he gave the impression of being un-trained. There was an aura about him, and every time he got on the box was an occasion. I never heard him be rude to a player (although he was extremely rude to management) and he never told you how to play your instrument or that you were out of tune. If there was a problem with the intonation, he would simply say “Gentlemen, there appears to be some democracy, shall we take an A?” and that was that.
Although I was silly young at the time, Dennis Brain was probably the next youngest and we were really good friends. We often talked about cars, never about music strangely enough. He normally kept a copy of Motor Sport on the stand and he had such a fantastic memory that he played repertoire pieces from memory. There’s a famous story of him recording a concert at the Kingsway Hall, when Karajan, who always liked to get the first crack in, said “Ha, ha, Mr. Brain, you do not have the book to-day,” and Dennis just casually lifted his magazine from the back of the stand.
This was a period of change between the old style playing and the new wave. In the other orchestras were players like the incredible George Maxsted, in the London Philharmonic, Jock Ashby, in the LSO, Stan Brown had recently joined the Phlharmonia. But perhaps the player who had the greatest influence on the young trombonists of our generation, such as Denis Wick, Evan Watkin, Derek James, Arthur Wilson and so on was Gordon Pullis, who visited Edinburgh in 1951 with the New York Philharmonic and that wonderful section, Louis Van Haney and Allen Ostrander. We would go along to the Usher Hall to hear them rehearse, and if the trombones had a tacet they would play trios to us. This was the first time we had heard large bore American instruments, but I realised years later, it was the players that were extraordinary; not the instruments.
Sid was a totally natural player, he never practised, he said that if he wasn’t being paid, he wouldn’t take the trombone out of the boot of the car. Whether that’s entirely the right philosophy, I don’t know, but he was a very fine player. It was wanting to play like Sid, with that confidence and leadership quality that made me leave the RPO and join Sadlers Wells, because that style simply wouldn’t work on second.
I joined Sadlers Wells Opera in 1953 on first trombone, with Ernie Benton on second and Frank Mills on bass, the trumpets were Roland Dyson, Ted Spratt and Norman Burgess. Ernie, was a very experienced old hand, who loved opera and really helped and guided me through the parts. For a young player, playing in an opera orchestra is no joke. I could show you pages of Puccini where the most accomplished players in the world have failed to make a single correct entry.
In 1956 I was delighted when Raphael Kubelik invited me to join the Royal Opera House. I was convinced that I loved opera by this stage, not always the playing , but certainly the music. The section was Derek James, Frank Stead and Dai Trotman, who had just taken over from Johnny Howells. On tuba was Jock Gordon. My very dear friend Harry Dilley was principal trumpet, and I had the great pleasure of working with him for over thirty years.
S.H. Why have you stayed at the Royal Opera House for forty years?
H.N. I’ve thought about this a lot. It’s lack of ambition on the instrument partly. I don’t really want to be the best trombone player in the world. I’m content to do a job and then go home and forget all about it, I don’t want to do hours of practice. I will if I need to, but I don’t enjoy it. What I enjoy is taking part in the opera.
You’re part of a tremendous show. It’s real life drama going on up there, with wonderful singers, scenery, costumes. Virtual reality. At the end of Othello, for instance when all sorts of mayhem has happened on stage, there’s this deafening silence and the trombones enter playing those growling chords. That’s not a musical thing to me, it’s an emotional experience. I’ve played Boheme, I don’t know how many times, and I still enjoy it. If I’d played Tchaikovsky 5 that many times I’d be dreading it, rather like two Sleeping Beauty’s in one day!
S.H. You’re not a Tchaikovsky fan are you?
H.N. No, is there any reason why I should be? It’s neurotic music. Either very grand or very sad; you work hard doing a lot of blowing and none of it means very much. I’d rather do a shift down the mines quite honestly. But seriously, you live for the operas, the good singers and the good conductors.
I was told by Frank Stead many years ago that La Boheme is the perfect opera, its got all the drama, all the tunes, three intervals and still doesn’t finish very late. I love the Magic Flute, of course, it’s difficult especially doing two in a day. All the Mozart operas are hard, because they are so delicate, you often have important passages independent of the trumpets and horns, usually preceded by periods of inactivity. The easiest thing in the world suddenly becomes difficult after a silence, when the whole world stops. Mozart is just difficult, period.
The Ring is terribly tedious, it’s hard mental and physical work. You start on a Monday with Rhinegold, which isn’t too bad, about two hours forty minutes. Tuesday, Valkyrie, which is a very tough night. Thursday you have Siegfried which is longer still, and then Saturday, Gotterdamerung, six hours of it. You feel absolutely drained, then the thought occurs that you start all over again on Monday.
In 1960, Hamburg Opera were in London, at Sadlers Wells playing Lohengrin, when they found themselves without a first trombone, so they asked me to help them out, thinking I’d know it backwards. Strangely enough I’d never played it at that time. Anyway, to perform Wagner, with that very fine, German orchestra, under a good conductor, Horst Stein, was a memorable experience. The brass section were superb players and extremely friendly, in fact they wanted me to go back to Hamburg with them. I sometimes wish I had.
S.H. Apart from Beecham, which other conductors have you enjoyed working with?
H.N. Well, it’s easy to talk about the good ones, because there are so few of them. I would struggle to think of a handful who really had something special to offer. Ninety-nine percent of the conductors we see are totally boring, they don’t know as much about the job as we do, and we just want to get it out the way as quickly as possible. They probably feel insecure, and that’s why they say things which are such complete nonsense. Although to be fair, when they are good, they are very extraordinary indeed, they have some sort of gift that I don’t understand. Conducting must be difficult, because so few people can do it.
I was always impressed by Joseph Krips, who was a terrible man, he was difficult and could be very rude, but he produced some wonderful shows. Towards the end of his life Klemperer could hardly move his arms, yet he had an amazing gift. They all have their strengths I suppose, Giulini, was wonderful with the Italian repertoire, Kempe had the finest technique and the clearest beat I’ve ever seen, very good at Wagner and Strauss but when he attempted anything else, Puccini for instance, it was terrible. Solti was a wonderful musical director at our place, but I would hesitate to call him a truly great conductor. I enjoy Solti’s shows, he has terrific vitality, terrific rhythm, he creates an atmosphere where everybody plays well. They used to say that if he entered a revolving door behind you, he’d come out the other side in front. He has so much charisma that he often steals the show from the singers.
One of the finest conductors we’ve ever had is Carlos Kleiber. He has the emotional range, he takes tremendous chances, the intellect is marvellous, the shows are just a joy to play in. I had a huge run in with him a few years ago and he behaved extremely well, probably better than I did, but he was such a big man that we became quite good friends afterwards. He’s one of the best around, unfortunately we don’t see him often enough.
S.H. As a natural player, did you like teaching?
H.N. I enjoyed it enormously, but to start with it had an adverse effect on me. Ideally, you shouldn’t have to be told too much about playing. The best players do it naturally, they’re never taught the theory of how to blow. The breathing and the embouchure thing often happens instinctively, and it can be fatal to interfere with that process. I found myself thinking a lot about the mechanics of playing, and teaching students how to do it correctly, whilst in practice I was doing it wrong myself. This was quite unsettling, until I realised how many great players play in a non copy book way, because of mouth formation, physical idiosyncrasies or whatever. There are very few perfect players. I found that a very difficult period, until I decided that I’d teach the right way, but continue to play in my usual ‘imperfect’ method.
S.H. So how far do you go as a teacher, insisting that the rules are obeyed?
H.N. You try to be flexible, because youngsters arriving at music college have been broken by teachers insisting on a certain way of playing At that stage it is often too late to correct established embouchures; and at the end of the day, who’s to say who’s right?
S.H. For all the improvements in teaching, and instrument manufacture, are players any better these days?
H.N. Well, I’m bound to see it from the jaundiced perspective of time. Of course, there are more, marvellous players around these days, but what I don’t hear are players of great character. They all sound the same. I liked the uniqueness of certain players in the past. There are one or two trumpet players around today who have character, and often that comes from playing the cornet.
Of course, nowadays, we all use roughly the same equipment, and because the bore is bigger the sound is blanketed, it’s certainly less incisive. We recently played Gounod’s, Romeo and Juliette, and the conductor, Charles Mackerras, insisted on pea shooters. We were amazed at the difference. Everyone enjoyed playing in it and the critical response was fantastic. I’m sure this flexible use of instruments is the way forward. I’d go further. Players don’t always change their sound when playing different composers – you hear Brahms that sounds like Shostakovitch and worse, Verdi that sounds like Wagner! With all the improvements in technique, something has been lost. The trombone is there to serve the music, not vice versa.
S.H. Do you still think it’s all been a giant mistake?
H.N. No, not really. I have been very fortunate to have worked in so many different and interesting areas of the profession, while the Royal Opera House has paid the mortgage and provided me with a first class interactive free seat for several hundred thrilling performances listening to the world’s most wonderful singers; and even joining in with them at times. Pity about the conductors!
Recorded Ealing, July 1995.