Archive for April, 2006

Early music interest

Several years before I was born a boy pianist about 8 years old gave a recital at the Malvern Assembly Rooms. My father’s family heard him and were so impressed they invited him and his parents back home for tea – and so began a friendship which stretched far into the future. That boy was Vernon Varner. At that early age he already had a formidable piano technique and played many of Chopin’s Etudes. His family were not well off and may father’s family helped them by taking Vernon on holidays abroad – a habit maintained long after I arrived on the scene. I grew up amidst sound of music – especially Chopin – superbly played. My father’s mother – my grandma – was also a talented self-taught musician with a gift for improvisation. All my early years were spent listening to the best of music superbly played and, as I appeared to have an aptitude for the piano in any case, it became a large part of my life. At 13 I remember hearing de Pachmann at the Assembly Rooms and loving his effortless runs in Chopin’s Impromptu in G flat. Afterwards my father introduced me to him as a second Vernon Warner – that’s optimism for you! – and Pachmann examining my hands. “They are no good; fingers too long”! In my old age I would agree with him. Pachmann and Edwin Fischer both had short-fingered hands and both possessed that ability to play whisper-quiet completely even runs up and down the keyboard which I have heard in no other pianists. When I left Stowe at 17 I went to live at Kew and became a pupil of Vernon Warner and actually moved into his house there with him and his wife Paddy. At 25 I gave my first public recital in Malvern and I remember playing Triana – that lovely and extremely difficult piece by Albeniz. I was passionately fond of Chopin, which was natural as a pupil of Vernon Warner. His Chopin was unique. The only other artist in the running was Cortot whose memory and accuracy was not so good. I remember a pupil complaining to Vernon about this and Vernon’s reply “I would rather hear Cortot playing wrong notes than most pianists’ right ones!”

Vernon’s Beethoven was not good and he thought it essential that I should obtain a good training in the more classical side of music which he felt he couldn’t provide. I was to go to Berlin and study at the Edwin Fischer School. So off I went in 1935 for two years in Berlin. My teacher was Conrad Hanson who often took over Fischer’s main class during his absence giving recitals. Hanson’s first words to me were “Each week I want you to prepare a Bach Prelude and Fugue from the 48, a movement from a Beethoven Sonata and a Chopin Etude.” This, I knew was impossible because I was almost dyslexic when it came to reading music. My training under Vernon Warner had stressed towards the perfecting of each phrase in timing, tone, rhythm and touch backed up with many hours of finger exercises (Hanson and others) to strengthen finger mussels and finger independence. Reading music fluency did not come into the category. But later on when I found it embarrassing when I found I couldn’t accompany a singer in even a simple song, and I decided to remedy this failure I could not do so. I am dyslexic as far as music reading goes. I am not alone in this. One of my friends in Berlin was Pablo Castellanos, a sixteen old boy who had come direct from 4 years at the Cortot school in Paris and, in my opinion was the best pianist in Fischer’s master class. I had permission to attend this class and I remember Fischer asking Pablo to accompany another pupil in a Beethoven Concerto and Pablo’s “I’m sorry Herr Doctor I cannot read music” “Well you’d better learn” from Fischer. With the result that Pablo and I spent hours together at a piano with volumes of piano duets trying to make sense of them, but with minimum result. With hindsight I think my time in Berlin was a mistake. I never really understood or loved Beethoven and I can assure you Fischer never understood Chopin. Maybe there is another aspect to these two years.

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The white sands incident

Now in the autumn of my life – my 97th year – I would like to know how I can persuade everyone – yes EVERYONE – to read “The White Sands Incident” by Daniel Fry. This is one of the most important books I have ever read in a long and active life. It is quite short – 210 pages – and is exceptionally well written. I defy anyone to read this book and not be moved into action by the vital message it contains for all of us.


In 1923 I became a pupil at Stowe at the beginning of its life as a Public School. Unlike established Public Schools all the pupils were 13/14 years old. In many ways it seemed more like a grown up Preparatory School. There were a few older boys, prefects imported from Lancing together with J F Roxburgh, our new Headmaster, who had been the Sixth Form master there. They had graded us as best they could into the various Forms, and I was placed in Remove B. David Niven was one of us and I remember him as an extrovert, very pleasant and with a gift for amusing everyone with his quick sketches of events going on outside the classroom windows, where there was always a lot of building taking place. Our Form Master was the deputy headmaster, the Rev. Ernest Earle, a delightful man who, like J F Roxburgh, was a Latin scholar. He had a great sense of humour, had no difficulty in keeping strict discipline and, as a result was a good teacher. He must have been for I obtained a Credit in Latin in my final Certificate. And Niven, for all his cunning and concealing his sketches was nicely brought down to earth when Mr Earle was asking each of us what subjects we wished to take in the final Certificate: “Niven, may I suggest you take Drawing?” I believe Niven did so and obtained a Credit in it. Our English lessons were taken by Mr Arnold – son of Arnold of Rugby I believe – who was often impressed by Niven’s gift for narrative – which was later to blossom into ‘The Moon’s a Balloon’ and others.

About J F Roxburgh – always known as ‘J F’ a much respected man who did so much for us all at Stowe. My wife and I were at Stowe when he retired, and I remember the shock of the day he died. It was then I realised how much we had all loved that man, and that everything which had gone well and smoothly in my life was due in no small measure to his influence during the four short years I was under it. My younger son, who will be 50 in two months’ time, has just asked me what it was like to be 50. I remembered JF’s final words when I left Stowe in 1927 “ People will tell you to remember your school days as the best in your life; this is utter tosh – the best years are always ahead.”

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World War II

An interesting story here.

Here is the comment to the story:
Dear Douglas Smithson ,
I have been reading your most interesting and well writen articals, which as a glider pilot I am well able to understand. I think you could well write a book with all those experiences and get it published.
When you trained at Booker, do you recall an RAFVR instructor by the name of Dudley Steynor there?
After the war he became a part time gliding instructor with Booker Gliding Club, where he taught me to fly, and only finished doing this at the age of 84, in 1994, which must be something of a record. He only finished doing this then, because he felt unable to conform to newly introduced instructional methods. Namely,a change from holding off the the stall with rudder which he had always taught and most effective too, I might add.
He was awarded the AFC in 1944,and the BGA Diploma in1988.
He is also an accomplished pianist ,and studied under Vernon Warner,possibly the finest Chopin player of the day.
He has given me a CD of his favourite pieces produced by Aerosonic Ltd in 1997, with thanks to Ablex Audio Vidio Ltd Telford.
Kind Regards,
Dennis Barnes.


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