A musical life

Lynn Mutti

Warner’s life was immersed in music from an early age. She began her musical education at Harrow School where she grew up, her father being a schoolmaster there. In an unpublished and undated typescript entitled ‘Piano’s and Pianolas’ housed in the Warner Archive, she describes her early piano lessons:

My hands were set on the keyboard and coerced into playing scales in unison – a hateful proceeding – and in contrary motion which was enjoyable. I hated the whole thing. I progressed from sheer boredom and exasperation, till the day when my first teacher left and a new one arrived – a lady of very different notions, who took me by the scruff of the neck and dropped [me] into a Haydn Sonata.

From Haydn Sonatas Warner progressed to becoming a pupil of Dr Percy Buck, a musician of many talents and inexhaustible energy, who became Director of Music at Harrow School in 1901. Warner’s precocity in playing the piano may have meant that lessons with him began as early as the mid 1900’s. Certainly she had progressed to composing Piano Variations by 1912, as a later diary entry shows: 

Earlier in this well-fitted day I wiled away a half hour waiting in a bookshop where I re-read ‘The Wild Geese’ [sic] from The Untilled Field. I read it last at Badworth sixteen years ago. Odd to remember and come on the passages that so moved me then; but it was really that time which caught me. I wrote some piano variations on it, O Lord help me, what a long way ago! 

While Buck was not a household name in Britain as a composer or organist, he was clever, astute and at the centre of the musical life of London during the First World War and beyond; he was ideally placed to aid Warner’s early hopes of a career in music. Although there is no archival evidence to substantiate it, in 1916 Buck assisted Warner by introducing her to Dr Richard Terry, Organist and Choir Master at Westminster Cathedral and a leading authority on polyphonic church music. Buck and Terry were both organists and would have known each other professionally; they were also friends.

Terry had been transcribing Tudor and Elizabethan music from manuscripts in the British Library for use with his Westminster choir. Henry Hadow, educationalist and musician, heard the quality of this choral music and early in 1916 approached the Carnegie (UK) Trust for funds to enable work such as this to be published. His persuasiveness prevailed with Carnegie, and in June 1916 Richard Terry was appointed Editor-in-Chief of the Tudor Church Music project to research, edit and publish the works of significant Tudor composers including John Taverner, William Byrd, Thomas Tallis, Robert White, Thomas Tomkins and Orlando Gibbons. 

Buck would almost certainly have known of this new musical enterprise and was aware that Warner would benefit from a demanding musicological task. In a short time she was learning the intricacies of transcribing Tudor church music manuscripts under Terry’s direction at the British Museum. He soon came to consider her a ‘brilliant musician’, and later to voice the opinion that he thought her to be ‘more than clever, in fact . . . nothing short of a genius’. Warner progressed to become the most knowledgeable Editor of the Tudor Church Music volumes.

Music was at the heart of Warner’s life in London between 1916 and 1930, both professionally and personally. When she began tuition with Terry in 1916, she also joined the Bach Choir in which many of Buck’s contemporaries were Committee members. Several were eminent composers and music teachers, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, Sir Hubert Parry and Ralph Vaughan Williams among them. At this time too, and probably at the urging of Buck, Warner composed a piece of music to be entered into the newly created Carnegie (UK) Trust Music Publication Competition. She had no success there, although many other works were lauded, and this may have been the catalyst that altered her belief that a career in music was her metier. 

During the years of the Tudor Church Music project, Warner was also writing extensively about the complexities of Tudor notation. These pieces include her paper entitled The Point of Perfection, read to a distinguished audience at the Musical Association in London and later published in their Proceedings, several articles published in the journal Music and Letters (a marvellous conjunction of two important threads in Warner’s life), and a chapter in a revised edition of the Oxford History of Music.

In addition, her distinctive writing style is evident in the introductory historical and musicological essays in volume one of Tudor Church Music, together with several of the biographical essays on composers in other volumes.

Editing and transcribing music for Carnegie by day was often followed by concerts in the evening, primarily at the Queen’s Hall. Warner’s diary entries show professional knowledge of the structure of music and an acute awareness of a composer’s skill:

In the evening I went to The London String Quartet concert. They played Beethoven, the Rasoumovski  no.2, doing the exciting cold-blooded structural scherzo extremely well. The rondo subject, too, skipped over the empty stage from the top right to the bottom left hand corner in its oblique beam of limelight. Then G.ma op18. Then O wonder, op.135. The natural uproar of the second movement, the long evening of the third, and the tragedy of Es muss sein where at the end it is no longer a challenge and feels but an acceptance and renunciation. The introduction comes back with philosophy and then the last bars whistling over the love of it.

And her barbed wit is evident in her diaries too; she had this to say about a well-known soprano singing Bach’s St. Matthew Passion:

Dorothy Silk in her last phrase in the burial recitation got a vibrato on each several note. She was also damnably mannered and coquettish in ‘Alas my Saviour’, in fact she wanted thrashing throughout. As for the vibrato it grows worse and worse; very soon she will be indistinguishable from an electric drill, and they will be able to use her E flat to take up Piccadilly. 

Warner had been writing poetry and prose concurrently with her work on the Tudor Church Music volumes, and, as with her music, did not promote her writing. Her friend Stephen Tomlin showed some examples to David Garnett, who then took them to Charles Prentice of Chatto & Windus. Many years later in a letter to Garnett she expresses her gratitude and lack of regret about a life not spent in music:

If you hadn’t intervened, dear David, I should have gone on writing poems and hiding them in hatboxes, and being an ornament to the Plainsong and Medieval Society, and publishing such learned treatises on the Hoquet in the Fourteenth Century at long intervals. How glad I am you intervened. And how grateful.

Her writing on musicological subjects, and her own musicianship and love of sound, were harnessed to literary ends; musical knowledge coupled with vivid imagination added another perspective to her prose and poetry. 

This, for example, from her guide book Somerset: the smell of cider apples that ‘floats from doorways […] but this is no more than the first orchestral evocations of the choral hymn in the Ninth Symphony, the real thing begins in August with the first wind-falls’; or the voice of the cow-man ‘like a bass wood-pigeon, the general effect was as edifying as a cello sonata’. Warner also describes the landscape of the West Quantocks in musical similes: ‘If one were an artist one would re-set one’s palette […] If one were a musician, one would re-balance one’s orchestra, charging it with horns and adding several bass-clarinets’.

Warner’s acute ear tuned into the life around her and articulated it in her writing. For example, this wonderfully evocative description in the short story ‘Boors Carousing’ from The Museum of Cheats:

All through his lovely empty house rang the noise of the rain singing in the gutters, lisping against the window-panes, plashing on the flagged walk; and in his mind’s ear he heard the most melodious rainfall of all, l’eau qui tombe dans l’eau, the rain falling into the swollen river that washed the foot of his garden and tugged at his Chinese willows. 

Literature came to predominate over a life previously immersed in music when Warner’s long relationship with Buck ended in 1930, shortly after she had fallen in love with Valentine Ackland. This major fracture in her musical life was exacerbated by Ackland’s dislike of concerts and their subsequent move to rural Dorset. From then onward, the wireless became Warner’s chief source of music and was essential to her for the remainder of her life.  

Friends were important to Warner who was a peerless letter-writer to them. She wrote with wit, warmth and humour, often using musical references or musical language, particularly to musicians such as Paul Nordoff and Peter Pears. Janet Stone, cousin to Pears, introduced Warner to her literary, artistic and musical friends, the composer Gerald Finzi and the artist John Nash for example, and so widened Warner’s cultural circle. It is not surprising, therefore, that in middle-age Warner collaborated with friends on musical and other projects. From her joyful and exuberant letters about the Sea Change opera libretto to the American composer Paul Nordoff, to the immediate writing of a requested Communist-inspired poem for the composer Alan Bush to set to music, Warner enjoyed collaboration with others. If they were not known to her initially, Peter Pears for example, they very quickly became her friends. Her friendship with Pears, made in old age, is perhaps the most poignant. The visceral pain of shared loss coloured this friendship and Pears was a great support to Warner in her final years, as she had been to him throughout his partner Benjamin Britten’s long illness. 

Music was a mainstay of Warner’s life; from her early years in Harrow to her death in rural Dorset in 1978, music and sound in all its forms were a passion. A late diary entry just a few months before her death in 1978 shows her frailty and the continuing importance of music in her daily life. Sound and music are contained in one eloquently descriptive sentence: ‘I fell against the tool-shed with a loud clang. Little the worse. Revived by a fine performance of the Pastoral Symphony.’ 

Lynn Mutti has worked as a professional librarian and researcher in universities, private companies and museums in the UK and Canada. Her projects have included cataloguing the vast collection of early opera recordings belonging to Sir Paul Getty, KBE. Some of the materials in the Warner–Ackland Archive led her to research Warner’s early life as a musicologist. She obtained her doctorate from UCL in 2019.

Sylvia smoking
Sylvia Townsend Warner by Howard Coster, 1934
Sylvia Townsend Warner at 113 Inverness Terrace, London, late 1920s