The affairs of a Casanova conductor
In a new biography Stephen Dodd finds, though charming and seductive, conductor Malcolm Sargent's life was tinged with loneliness
HIS engagement diary bears frequent witness to his appetites. In its pages, women's names often conclude the tally of a day's busy workload. Supper, Sargent would write against the name of his prospective date, and then the appointed hour 10pm hinting that much more than simple sustenance might be on the menu.
Malcolm Sargent was irrepressibly charming. It was his gift, his calling card, the tactic he used to propel him to the forefront of the classical world. He played the piano with charm and precision; he beguiled high society soirées and cajoled sublime performance from the most unpromising orchestral nonentity. Often, too, Sargent's charm was a boudoir lure, seducing his targets with a facility that might make Mozart's Don Giovanni seem tongue-tied.
His conquests were legion. He enjoyed a love affair with Princess Marina, the dowager Duchess of Kent, and was an occasional lover of Edwina, Lady Mountbatten. Once, after he bedded the under-age daughter of a peer, the outraged aristocrat threatened to have the conductor horse-whipped. Yet the philandering was not all Sargent's fault, his supporters argued. Cultured, impeccably groomed and outrageously talented, Malcolm Sargent was just too good a package to turn down.
"Papa found it impossible to resist the admiration of these women," his son Peter recalls. "They found him irresistible and he found that irresistible in itself. He needed to be wanted by as many people as possible and if some nice girl offered herself, it seemed bad manners to refuse."
There is an undercurrent of form in English society that dictates all social interaction, and sexuality is no exception to its unwritten rulebook. To Malcolm Sargent, a boy-made-good with working class roots and uncertain parentage, musical talent was more than mere creative expression. Music was his transcendence, the tool to take him away from a world he found dull into the promise of cultural richness and enlightened living.
Where Sargent grew up, in the shadow of the gas towers in Stamford, a small Lincolnshire town, he had quickly gained a reputation for ambition. Hour after hour, he would pound away on the home piano, spurred on by his ambitious coal-merchant father (there were local rumours that he was really the son of a travelling Italian music teacher) and his tutor, the aptly named Mrs Tinkler. Young Malcolm's discipline at the keyboard earned him his first nickname. Neighbours called him "The Banger". Years later, transformed by his own industry into the dapper hero of the Last Night of the Proms, he would enjoy the more elevated sobriquet "Flash Harry".
Stamford, for all its provinciality, served admirable purpose as Sargent's stepping stone. Here, he learned his crafts. Virtually pitch perfect, he laboured on musical theory until his command of the classics was absolute. He could name any note played at random on a piano; for a party-piece, he demonstrated his command of complex polyrhythms by tapping out four entirely different beats at the same time using feet and hands.
It was Stamford, too, that formed the training ground for Sargent's scamper up the social ladder. The town, small but genteel, had long attracted the attentions of London gentry who came to join the Melton Mowbray hunt. The fast set, from dukes and rajahs to their hundreds of hangers-on, descended en masse, turning Stamford into a hotbed for gossip. Malcolm Sargent, church organist and already something of a local celebrity, was lionised by the toffs.
Sargent was quick to exploit his attractions. His biographer Richard Aldous, a history tutor at University College Dublin, writes of dozens of sexual adventures, an almost systematic process of seducing the wealthy middle-aged visitors, and sometimes their daughters as well. Prolific activity brought inevitable consequences; after bedding and impregnating his golfing partner's servant Eileen, Sargent was hastily married. His son believes it hardly affected his activities.
"The infidelities began very early and she knew she had lost him even then," Peter Sargent remembers.
When Sargent, capitalising on his contacts, made the big break to the London concert halls, he was lost to Stamford as well. His childhood in the small terraced house in Wharf Road was almost abandoned as the conductor, fast becoming the toast of the London classical circuit, dropped the embarrassments of his true history. His parents "made him look jumped up", his son believes, and so he hardly saw them.
"We never went down to Stamford," says Peter. "I am ashamed to say that my grandfather lived until 1936 and my grandmother until 1942 but I hardly knew them."
IN London, Malcolm Sargent was earning his new nickname. He wore the finest tailored suits and frequented the best addresses. Well before his earnings rose to meet his spending, he had developed a lavish taste for luxury. While training as a conductor alongside Adrian Boult, Sargent made sure he always found the cash to travel to college by taxi.
Boult rebuked him for his spendthrift ways, only to meet with Sargent's disabling wit.
"All the more room for you, Adrian," he retorted, "on the bus."
Bluster, of course, could only go so far. Within grasp of his goal, it took Sargent's legendary capacity for hard labour to capitalise on his gifts. He brought a new professionalism to a milieu that had been dogged by talented dabblers, taking over orchestras and shaking them free of dead wood, pushing the survivors to perform at their best.
"The curse of English conducting is amateurishness," he once said. "That's where so much English conducting begins and ends."
Sargent, as loyal to his love of music as to his own ambitions, was having nothing of the old ways. He shook up the classical scene, breathing new live into a jaded musicality with relentless rehearsal. He embraced the burgeoning medium of recording, taking extraordinary pains to recreate faithfully the concert sound. At one session, he directed singers to crawl on their hands and knees to and from microphones, and strapped himself to a the wall above a shelf so he could conduct from the best vantage point.
He had as many enemies as allies. He became notorious among rank-and-file players for suggesting that a perilous financial future would drag the best from an instrumentalist. At a production of the Royal Choral Society, he found himself at daggers drawn with its patron, Lord Shaftesbury, who had instructed Sargent much against the conductor's wishes that the singers would have to wear traditional red and blue sashes. Outmoded stuff, Sargent thought, and on the night of the concert the sashes were nowhere to be seen.
A furious Lord Shaftesbury demanded to see Sargent and repeated the rule.
"It's in the constitution that sashes must be worn," he stormed.
"Yes," the conductor replied. "But it doesn't say they have to be worn on the outside."
As his career flourished, the list of adversaries grew. The conductor Sir Thomas Beecham threw public barbs; in 1938, when Sargent was touring in Palestine and his car was caught in rifle fire, he commented: "I had no idea the Arabs were so musical." Cecil Beaton wrote that Sargent "is appallingly conceited and says things to honour himself that curl one's toes." One leading academic put it more bluntly, telling the young Edward Heath: "To @@STYL XLEG succeed as a conductor you must be prepared to be just as big a shit as Malcolm Sargent."
Whatever Sargent's standing with his peers, it was the Last Night of the Proms that cemented his celebrity among the wider concert-going public. An unashamed populist, Sargent summoned all his powers of the theatrical, turning the final evening of the Promenade series of concerts into a brash, flag-waving extravaganza. To many it was tacky pomp, but middlebrow Britain loved it, and television exported both the spectacle and Sargent's reputation. For a time, he was classical music's idol. On one Australian tour, young women fought to catch his spare baton.
While Sargent stormed the world, however, his private life seemed to hide darker secrets. He was aware of his failures, as a husband and a father, and he despaired when his daughter Pamela, a polio sufferer, died after recurrent bouts of illness.
"I don't think he ever recovered emotionally," Peter Sargent says. "Her death was the greatest tragedy of his life."
The cost of material fulfilment the successive shedding of old skins ultimately left Malcolm Sargent facing his bleakest crises alone. As he grew old in the late 1950s and 1960s and his health began to falter, Sargent started to confide in friends.
"After supper, Malcolm would say, 'Please stay' because he was terrified to be left alone," one acquaintance remembers. "Sometimes one would talk until four in the morning as he poured out his troubles."
For many concert-goers, Sargent's finest hour came just before his death. Stricken by cancer, with days left to live, he forced himself to make a last appearance before the Promenade audience to hand over the baton to his successor. Even the effort of the journey found him vomiting in exhaustion, but when he stood on the rostrum, standing bolt upright before the crowd, no-one in the audience could have suspected the truth of his condition. He told the audience he had been invited back the following year.
"God willing," he announced, "we will all meet again then."
It was never to be, because in two weeks Malcolm Sargent was dead.
His last days brought a measure of peace, as telephone calls from well-wishers reflected the extraordinary scope of the Stamford boy's progress. The Queen rang, and Prince Charles. The Archbishop of York called in person.
But the most important visit of all brought a reconciliation with the past, and with the son and grandchildren he had not met since a quarrel the year before. Now the occasion clearly delighted him.
"If there is a better way of dying than surrounded by your family and beautiful flowers, I cannot think of it," he told Peter.