The Golden Shore
An autobiography by Warwick Braithwaite
edited and annotated by Roger Flury
502 pages. Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-803135625
eISBN: 978-1-803134215
Matador Publishing

Where are the major studies of the lives and music reputations of conductors such as George Hurst, Maurice Handford, Vernon Handley, Norman Del Mar, Leslie Heward, Hugo Rignold, Harold Gray, Stanford Robinson, Ian Whyte, Meredith Davies and Reginald Redman? Some of these figures are touched on – occasionally with affection and regard – as ‘bit players’ and more in the present book. A few have had the benefit of ‘slim volumes’ (Del Mar for one) but each merits a book on the scale and depth of detail attained by this study of Warwick Braithwaite.

This is a weighty proposition of a book. Its bulk promises and delivers much. There are 502 pages in all, of which 362 comprise the central feature, namely an otherwise unpublished autobiography by New Zealand-born conductor Warwick Braithwaite (1896-1971). Editor/librarian Roger Flury has thus rescued and made a viable proposition of a fascinating autobiography.

Braithwaite’s narrative is buttressed and underpinned by Flury’s Preface, by his mid-book ‘Bridge Passage’ chapter (plugging a 1930s gap) and a Postlude. The main self-drawn life-narrative is decked out with unfailingly helpful footnotes by Mr Flury, none of which are indulgent or garrulously unfocused.

Braithwaite family references provide some context, but this aspect of the conductor’s life is a surprisingly brief presence. There is a brief Foreword by Braithwaite’s sons, the brothers Nicholas Braithwaite (the conductor well known to many of us from a host of Lyrita CDs) and Rodric Braithwaite. Appendix 1 has succinct notes on family members. Warwick was one of more than twenty children of his father Joseph Braithwaite (1848-1917) and Mary Ann Bellett; his father was born in Westmorland, his mother in Rotherham. Early on the couple moved to Melbourne and then Dunedin, New Zealand. It was in Dunedin that Joseph rose to eminence as a bookseller as well as a stalwart pillar of church and municipality.

The book is a good read and the pages fairly fly by with a schema being, for the most part, laid out chronologically. The early childhood chapters keep up the tempo and avoid the slough of despond that bogs down many authors’ memoirs in this department. Warwick’s account of old conflicts, disappointments, torments and scandals is gripping, as is his immersive commitment to music and orchestral and singing standards. His own life-account ends in a sheer drop into chasmal silence in 1956. Flury takes over with an Epilogue covering the years to 1971. The latter includes invaluable documentation around the conductor’s obsequies. This serves to fill out some intriguing silences. The conductor’s writings are listed and there we find a reference to his 1952 book The Conductor’s Art.

Braithwaite’s asides add depth and speak of an engaging, if inevitably challenging, personality. His standards were high. Music mattered greatly to Braithwaite. Occasionally he draws breath, away from the chronological trajectory, with chapters (two of them) on personalities. His determination and cussedly hardworking character comes across in his spells presiding over the BBC’s Welsh orchestra, the National Orchestra of Wales and the BBC’s orchestra in Glasgow. He is liberal with his praise of several personalities and of several of the Australian city orchestras (Sydney and Melbourne are mentioned in glowing terms). Neither is diffidence in evidence about the deficiencies of certain other Australian orchestras. A champion early on of Sibelius’s music, his chapter on his time in Finland and meeting the composer at Ainola is instructive. Fanciful programmes for the Sibelius works he had been playing since the 1920s in Cardiff offer new, little-known and amusing perspectives. The list of Braithwaite’s Sibelius performances 1924-56 is an education in itself even if Rakastava is rendered as ‘Kakastava’ and the dieresis on Lemminkäinen is occasionally misplaced.

Warwick conducted the main BBC orchestra, BBC Theatre Orchestra, and the LPO and LSO but never found ‘permanent’ chief conductor roles with them. His stability, fortitude and modestly glowing fame rested on orchestras in Wales and Scotland and in New Zealand; otherwise he guested. His accounts of various musical organisations, opera and ballet companies speak of triumphs, troubles and a legacy of scar tissue. These include years at Covent Garden and a most prickly and picaresque spell with National Opera of Australia (NOA) and its unstable genius Mrs Clarence Lorenz. It all makes a good read, but the broken promises and unpaid bills surrounding the NOA must surely have exacted a toll on the most robust of personalities.

There are many telling passages, but one of the most poignant is Braithwaite’s awed encounter with the Wagner family at Wahnfried in 1924. Several chapters are, in effect, travelogues, musical to varying extents, and they are vividly written, evoking in words the colourful Kodachrome family films of amateurs cruising Oceania during the 1930s.

The Golden Shore is essential reading for scholars and enthusiasts of Sibelius, of the work of touring English opera companies, of the composers and other movers and shakers of the English musical renaissance, of the two world wars, of Welsh resurgent culture and the history of the BBC especially the Corporation’s early years into the 1920s-40s. We find Braithwaite touching, in some detail, on a range of composer contemporaries – the great, the good and the obscure – including that man of mystery, Ricardo Blamey Lafone. Amongst the crowd of people mentioned and even expanded upon are two linked Welsh figures: Dylan Thomas and Daniel Jones (13 symphonies issued on CD by Lyrita). Braithwaite writes in a mix of awe and affection of composer and littérateur Daniel Jones. Jones’s Eighth Symphony recorded by Lyrita was a commission for the Swansea Festival and was written in memory of Warwick Braithwaite, who had died in 1971.

A wander through the entries in the BBC Genome reveals some of the breadth of Braithwaite’s concert activity from the 1920s onwards, especially in Wales. In 1924 there were special transmissions to schools with the Station Orchestra on the 5WA station in Cardiff. He conducted for broadcast (usually live) a complete cycle of the Beethoven symphonies, Scriabin Symphony 3, Bax Garden of Fand, Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto 2, Tchaikovsky 6, Liszt’s Faust symphony and the whole of Carmen. In 1942 German’s The Norwich symphony was aired. In addition there were popular concerts called “The Gems of Opera” and “The Gems of Ballet”. With the LSO in the 1950s he broadcast works by Delius, Lalo and Rimsky-Korsakov.

An obvious debt is owed to the Lilburn Trust which has done so much for New Zealand music. The Trust’s role as an open-handed Maecenas has presumably helped keep the price of the book within reach. I should add that the same Trust, established in the name of the composer Douglas Lilburn, has done its utmost to make Lilburn’s music accessible: try the Naxos disc of the three symphonies and the ones on Continuum. To square the circle it should be noted that in the 1950s the New Zealand Broadcasting Service relayed Warwick Braithwaite’s account of the Lilburn Second Symphony with the NZ Broadcasting Service orchestra. If there was any justice this would be issued alongside Braithwaite’s almost contemporary account of Arthur Benjamin’s turbulent Symphony by the same station and orchestra.

Flury’s many pages of discography are more than a nudge as to how much music Braithwaite recorded. There are many discs even if most of them are in mono. Tragically there is precious little in the way of Sibelius and of music by his contemporaries. Also instructive and potentially exciting is Appendix 5. This sets out, in a wonderfully methodical way, all of Braithwaite’s own compositions. His orchestral music ought to be looked at by the likes of Lyrita or Chandos and Rumon Gamba. We could be missing out on works such as the big and substantially complete (at least it would be after some Anthony Payne-like realising/editing) Symphony in E Major, the symphonic poem Ireland, the overtures Barnaby Rudge and Legend, The Coming of Arthur, Excalibur Prelude and Lady of the Lake. This is without mentioning two quintets (one for strings and the other for piano and string quartet), yet another Housman setting (Loveliest of Trees for piano and tenor) and a full-scale opera Pendragon (1939). All the music is held in the Alexander Turnbull section of the National Library of New Zealand.

A warm welcome is due this exemplary book which has been so well realised.

Rob Barnett

Philip Scowcroft’s piece on Warwick Braithwaite is here

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