Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Musical "likes" of 1926

In 1926, Gramophone magazine's Compton Mackenzie asked a number of worthies of the day—including Noël Coward, GK Chesterton, Ivor Novello, George Bernard Shaw, and DH Lawrence—to name their favorite song, composer, and singer. Like Shaw, I said to myself "no way," but the responses are fun and certainly indicative of the times (what a pash for Wagner!). Here are a few "likes," in the social media of the day.
George Bernard Shaw (Playwright, critic, novelist)
Says that only people in a deplorably elementary stage of musical culture have favourite tunes and so forth, and he considers the question a monstrous insult.
Noël Coward (Playwright, composer, singer, actor, director)
My favourite song is 'L'heure exquise' (Reynaldo Hahn). My fayourite composer is George Gershwin. My favourite tune is 'Mountain Greenery',  by Laurenz Hart and Richard Rodgers. My favourite singer is Yvonne Printemps (right; she starred with him in 1934's Conversation Piece, which produced the song "I'll Follow My Secret Heart").

Walter de la Mare (Novelist, poet, children's author)
Yours would be a difficult catechism even for an expert, so you can imagine what it must be for a mere amateur.  In spite of many efforts, I cannot decide on my 'favourite' song. But if, at pain of being jazzed to death, I was compelled to come to a conclusion, I think I should find myself at the last still hesitating between a song of the 'folk' kind and one of Brahms's or Schubert's. Among the records I know, one of the most successful, I think, is Hahn's' L'heure exquise'; but my range is limited. I suppose a list of records of quiet 'parlour' renderings of good songs long since appeared in Gramophone, and by 'quiet' I mean, chiefly, not of operatic technique.
For 'composer,' though 'favourite' sounds both a feeble and arrogant term in relation to such a name, my choice would be Bach, and for 'tune' the aria' 'Have mercy upon me, O Lord,' from the St Matthew Passion. After him, I think, Mozart; but after the apex, difficulty of choice increases like the width of a pyramid.

DH Lawrence (Novelist, poet, playwright, critic, painter)
My favourite song is, I think, 'Kishmul's Galley', from the Hebridean Songs, and my favourite composer, if one must be so selective, Mozart; and singer, a Red Indian singing to the drum, which sounds pretty stupid.

John Galsworthy (Novelist, playwright)
I'm not a good hand at symposiums, but since it's you who asks, here goes:
My favourite song (well sung), 'Che farò', from Gluck's Orfeo.
My favourite composers, Bach and Chopin dead heat, with Gluck beaten half a length, Stravinsky beaten off, and Wagner left at the post.
My favourite tune depends on my mood and varies from 'The Marseillaise' to 'The Bens of Jura.'
My favourite singer? At the moment, I would rather hear Chaliapin sing the 'Volga Boat Song' than anyone else sing any other song.

Ivor Novello (Composer, singer, actor)
My favourite song is 'Morgen', by Richard Strauss; my favourite composer, Wagner; my favourite tune (l presume you mean of the modern variety), 'By the Lake' ; and the singer I most admire is Emmy Bettendorf, who you know records for Parlophone. I choose her not only for the exquisite quality of her voice, but for her astonishing versatility. She seems to be able to sing anything.

Hugh Walpole (Novelist)
As you rightly remark, these questions are a damn bore, but if it gives you any pleasure to know it I would say that certainly Brahms is my favourite composer, and ... for Scandinavian things, a pal of mine, Lauritz Melchior. As to a tune I can think of thousands; two of the best, if you call them tunes, are Desdemona's song in the last act of Otello, and the Orestes music in Elektra.

W Somerset Maugham (Playwright, novelist, short-story writer)
What a devilish fellow you are to ask a harmless and respectable gentleman like myself to answer such questions; but here they are:
Favourite song: 'The Prize Song'.
Favourite composer: Wagner.
Favourite tune: 'The Fire Music'.
Favourite singer: Lotte Lehman.
Curses on your head.

Care for a little Wagner? You've come to the right place!


  1. I read Gramophones 1926 list, people sure loved classical music back in the day and also I noticed Feodor Chaliapin, the Russian opera singer, was popular with a lot of people on the list.

  2. Thank you for "L'heure exquise". The lyrics are by Paul Verlaine, and demonstrate the sensitivity and extreme romanticism that has gone out of vogue, malheureusement.
    I'm surprised Schubert's Standchen wasn't mentioned more often.
    I'm dumbstruck by the contrast with the popular music of today. I can only hope that the coarsening of expression does not reflect nor result in a less thoughtful, less understanding listener.

    1. The song reminds me of that Takahashi moonlit scene, or a poem by Tu Fu, with a gentle berceuse rocking.

  3. What else was around back then, Stephen Foster, "Bicycle Built for Two", "Camptown Ladies"--not too sure about that name. Were "Over There" and "You Are My Sunshine" around?
    There is a snob appeal to citing classical works...not that these venerable types would do that!

  4. Top songs of 1926: "Bye, Bye Blackbird"; "Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue"; "When the Red, Red Robin Goes Bob, Bob Bobbin Along".
    What snob appeal?

  5. These were mainly in the classical idiom because Gramophone is a classical music magazine. I'm sure Noel Coward loved all kinds of popular music, since he wrote hundreds of great songs for shows (and bucked up England during the war with "London Pride").

    1. I remember the line: All I've had is a talent to amuse...If love were all, I would be lonely."
      Rather sad, for a genial chap.

    2. A strain of tristesse does run throughout his non-novelty songs. I would like to read a good bio to get a glimpse of what made him tick. One factor may be that it was hard to find a stable relationship in a homophobic world; and also he led a peripatetic life i think.

  6. Is this the same Compton Mackenzie who wrote Monarch of the Glen which is now out of print?

  7. What's with the bloke filing out the hole in his record for 3 minutes, just to hear a really lousy recording of the Figaro overture? Couldn't we have had "Morgen" instead?

    1. Oh yuck! Morgen it is!! Just give me a minute....

    2. Well, not exactly...but I always preferred "At Sunset" better anyway. This is Mozart.