Paul McCartney, Benjamin Britten and Roger Quilter among St John's Woods musicians celebrated in church concert
PUBLISHED: 09:52 03 May 2015
Michael White looks forward to a special concert celebrates the 'cultural credentials' of St John's Wood, featuring the work of composers and musicians who have lived there over the years.
Question: what do the composers Roger Quilter, Gerald Finzi, Arthur Bliss, Benjamin Britten and Paul McCartney have in common?
Answer: they were all at some point resident in St John’s Wood – as were the conductor Charles Mackerras, pianist Myra Hess, soprano Jennifer Vyvyan, and a whole concert-party of illustrious musicians whose NW8 credentials have been documented for a celebration at St Johns Wood Church this May.
The tracking down has been the longterm project of a couple, Jeanne and Paul Strang, who themselves have lived in NW8 for long enough to have encountered a fair number of these local heroes personally. And the reason is that, though not actually musicians, they’ve both spent their lives immersed in music. More by accident than by design.
Jeanne’s story is that as a young woman she found herself working for Decca records- officially as a proof-reader but, as she says, “it was the 50s, so if a celebrity musician was coming to London and needed a dolly to take him out to dinner on the company, that was me”.
She got to know a lot of people over Decca dinners and discovered a talent for calming them down when things went wrong in the recording studio. So it was Jeanne who got seconded to handle a problem when the eminent but prickly Thomas Beecham was making his famous 1959 recording of Handel’s Messiah for RCA Victor.
The cast included Joan Sutherland, fresh from the Royal Opera triumph in Lucia di Lammermoor that made her a star. “But one day”, recalls Jeanne, “we got a call to say Sir Thomas didn’t like Sutherland and wanted her replaced. It was all passed on to me and I thought: ‘Oh God, if I tell her to go she’ll want compensation and probably sue us for it’. So I said I wanted a letter from Beecham to admit it was all his fault. He wasn’t happy but he obliged. And six years later, I married his son”.
To make things clear, there was no causal connection between the letter and the marriage. And in truth there wasn’t too much of a connection between Beecham and his son – who was the product of an extra--marital relationship with a soprano known as Lisa Perli who enjoyed a good career at Covent Garden in the 1930s singing Mimi, Melisande and other lead roles.
“A grudging father is perhaps the best way to describe him”, says Paul now of Beecham, “and he wasn’t much involved with me. As I got older he’d say: ‘Come to my next concert and we’ll go out to dinner after’. But by the time I got backstage to the green room he’d have disappeared. Fleeing his creditors probably”.
Opting for a safer career than music, Paul ended up as a lawyer; but much of his legal work has been music-related. Now in retirement, he’s Acting Chair of the Museum of Music History - which to date only exists as a concept, archive and website (momh.org.uk) but is searching for premises.
Meanwhile, the current project of the Strang household is the celebration concert, which grew out of Jeanne’s interest in neighbourhood history.
“People always associate the history of St Johns Wood with society mistresses and discreet brothels”, she says, “overlooking the fact that there’s a huge connection with musicians. So this concert, for which we’re getting in all sorts of people including students from the Royal Academy, is an attempt to rebalance things. The cultural credentials of these few streets are extraordinary. That’s what we want to tell the world”.
Music in the Wood: a celebration concert– Tues 12th May, 7.30pm, St Johns Wood Church. Tickets: 020 7586 3864