On This Day… October 3

Today we move away from the composers and look instead at a conductor. The late 18th and early 19th century brought about a move away from composers as conductors and started to see conductors rise as prominent figures in their own right. Today we look at a man considered by many to be Britain’s leading conductor of Choral works, Sir Malcolm Sargent, who died on this day in 1967.

Born in Bath Villas, Ashford, in Kent to a working class family, he received his musical training first through joining the choir at Peterborough Cathedral, then learning the organ and receiving a scholarship to Stamford School. He went on to achieve his diploma as Associate of the Royal College of Organists, and at the age of 18 received a Bachelor of Music from the University of Durham.

Sargent started work as an organist at St Mary’s Church in Leicestershire, where he was chosen for the position from over 150 other candidates. During his time here, he got involved in many other musical projects, including conducting and producing Gilbert and Sullivan productions. At the age of 24, Sargent became England’s youngest Doctor of Music, an award he received from Durham University.

Early in 1921, Sir Henry Wood brought the Queen’s Hall Orchestra to Leicester, and commissioned Sargent to compose a piece. Having completed it too late for Wood to learn it, he asked Sargent to conduct the premiere of Impression on a Windy Day. Wood was so impressed by the composition and Sargent’s conducting skills that he invited him to perform the piece at Wood’s annual season of promenade concerts, known as the Proms. He was invited back to perform his compositions for the next two years, but was encouraged by Wood and others to focus more on conducting. He founded the amateur Leicester Symphony Orchestra in 1922, which he continued to conduct up until 1939.

Sargent would go on to conduct such ensembles as the Ballets Russes, the Royal Choral Society, the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company (where a radio relay of a performance of The Mikado was listened to by over 8 million listeners), and the London Philharmonic, Hallé, Liverpool Philharmonic, BBC Symphony and Royal Philharmonic orchestras. He was chief conductor of The Proms from 1948 to his death in 1967.

Cellist Pierre Fournier called him a “guardian angel”, while Cyril Smith wrote “…The seems to sense what the pianist wants of the music even before he begins to play it… He has an incredible speed of mind, and it has always been a great joy, as well as a rare professional experience, to work with him.”

I decided to wallow in my English heriatage today, and choose a recording of Elgar’s Land of Hope and Glory with Malcolm Sargent recording. Even though I am an Australian (Half English), this piece always makes me want to go to England, to visit the place my mother called home. This recording is interesting because Sargent takes the tempos slower than what we are used to hearing. (as a comparison, I include the performance from the 2007 last night of the proms)

Are you all feeling English? What do you think of Sargent’s version as opposed to the 2007 Proms version? Got any Proms stories? Let me know in the comments, or write a blog post linking back here, and I’ll include a link below.

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