Philip L Scowcroft discusses his life in music with Robert Barnett (Founding Editor, MusicWeb International)
The interview that follows was conducted by correspondence in August 2023 to mark Philip Scowcroft’s recent ninetieth birthday.
Philip L Scowcroft was born in Sheffield on 8 June 1933 and educated at King Edward VII School, Sheffield and Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Admitted a Solicitor of the Supreme Court in 1959, he worked for successive Doncaster local authorities until his retirement in 2003 at the age of 70. He has not regretted mixing music and law.
A widower, with two grown-up daughters, he has long been in demand to lecture and write about his many interests that, apart from the law, include music, transport history, military history, cricket and detective fiction. His major publications include Cricket in Doncaster (1985), Lines to Doncaster (1986), Singing Together: A Centenary History of the Doncaster Choral Society (1988), Seventy Years of Harmony and Song: A History of The Doncaster Police Choir (1995), British Light Music (1997, 2nd edn 2013) and Sidelights on [Dorothy L] Sayers (50 volumes: 1981 to date).
Over the years he has contributed to over seventy periodical publications on both sides of the Atlantic (most notably the British Music Society newsletter and journal, The Light Music Society’s newsletter, Journal into Melody, The journal of The Cricket Society, CADS, Mystery Readers’ Journal and the Elgar Society journal) and to several major works of reference including The New Grove (2001 edition), and the Oxford Encyclopedias of Railway History and of Mystery and Crime Writing. He has been a music correspondent for various Doncaster newspapers currently (1981-) Doncaster Free Press. Doncaster Gazette and Doncaster Evening Post.
Since 1964 he has served on the committee of Doncaster Arts and Museum Society (Chairman since 1968), in which capacity he organised major arts festivals in 1966 and 1970 and several other small festivals locally and a long-running series of lunch-hour concerts at Doncaster Museum and Arts Gallery. He is a member of the Council of the Railway and Canal Historical Society (acting as coordinator of its Road Transport Group and three other Transport Special Interest Groups) and the committees of the Dorothy L Sayers Society and the Spohr Society of Great Britain. For many years, from 1975, he was a Visiting Lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University (formerly Sheffield City Polytechnic) and has been associated in responsible positions with various charitable bodies. He has been President of Doncaster Choral Society since 1992.
Philip has contributed CD reviews to MusicWeb International (try a search under “PLS”) especially during the site’s fledgling years 2000-2005. His most extensive and valuable contributions to the site have been in the form of articles that explore uniquely and in some detail the history of light music in Britain. These are presented by him as ‘garlands’ that anthologise British light music composers, great and otherwise. There are also single theme articles about particular composers in that genre. One example is a far-reaching series that steps out of the light music “zone” on British composer-conductors. All of his writings for this site can be found by browsing/searching the MusicWeb International archive site.
- Philip Scowcroft’s non-Garland articles
- Index to the Garlands and to other of Phil Scowcroft’s composer-based articles.
The Main Act
Robert Barnett: Please tell us about your early life and how this led you to music and recordings?
Philip Scowcroft: Not much to add to the Quick Prelude. The Second World War, when I was six to twelve years of age, was important to my interest in military history. My parents were keen on music and I followed suit. At school I was encouraged to join the choir – a rewarding experience. I had private piano lessons from 1942 onwards but never pulled up any trees beyond getting a few associated board grades. These stood me in good stead because they also enabled me to read music.
I attended concerts by the Hallé at Sheffield City Hall put on by the education authority on Friday afternoons, usually combining this with a Friday night series between September and May. Latterly, I went to these because I sang in the School Choir. Barbirolli rarely conducted these, and never in my experience. The baton was usually yielded to Arthur Percival who was an ace at making classical music approachable to schoolchildren. He was a great wit too.
Apart from those concerts I started going to Sheffield City Hall concerts in 1948 at age 15 and I loved classical concerts in general. I went to concerts more frequently than previously when I went to Cambridge in 1953; there were few professional orchestral concerts that I recall but much chamber and choral music and many recitals.
Among the thousands of concerts, most of which I have enjoyed, I think more than fondly of the Hallé especially in Barbirolli’s day. Barbirolli was the most memorable, but for me Boult was the greatest of British conductors. As for soloists, there have been so many but I offer up the name and memory of Myra Hess, creator of the lunch-hour concert. I should not like to overlook chamber groups and would single out for special praise the Fitzwilliam Quartet. I should add that I once met one of the great paladins of British light music, Stanford Robinson when he came to Doncaster. He gave a talk entitled “Is a conductor really necessary?”
RB Aside from music which books and pictures have influenced you and has there been any interaction between these and music?
PS Books, especially crime fiction from around 1945, remain a pursuit. There’s really no interaction between this and music. That said, my articles do track the music and detective tales of Bruce Montgomery. Others touch on British composers in literature, Crime Fiction and music, Music in English Detective fiction and Agatha Christie and music. The two developed separately. Apart from crime … I read and enjoy Dickens, Thackeray, Jane Austen, Wilkie Collins and others. I have written articles that mingle my other interests, including sport and transport. It gives me pleasure to combine two or more of my interests.
RB You have, for quite a few years, been the moving force behind the Doncaster Museum lunchtime concerts. How did these come about and how have they progressed?
PS The Doncaster Museum lunchtime concerts began in 1966; three of these concerts (one per week) took the form of an arts festival I organised in that year. I had a decisive guiding hand in another arts festival in 1970 but this was really just one lunchtime concert. Those 1966 and 1970 festivals had more evening concerts than lunchtime ones. And the festivals were not confined to music of course. Several mini-festivals followed, including two devoted to British music between Purcell and Elgar. These programmes spanned a period which has not found much favour with music pundits (more fool them!). In recent years all our concerts were lunchtimes. Evening ones I leave to others, though I go to as many as I can.
I tend to think of all of ‘my concerts’ as memorable. Each in its own way was a landmark event. I had been involved in concert promotion before the Museum series. The Doncaster Arts and Museum Society (I have been Chairman since 1968) did stage evening concerts locally, as well as lunch-hour ones; a few of those evening fixtures pre-dated the lunchtimes. These concerts are, as far as I know, unique in the North of England. It’s worth noting that funding for all of them was erratic and now non-existent. That apart, I put my hand in my own pocket when required.
Some of the musicians who have played at the concerts I know personally or through other contacts. Sadly, Covid put a stop to the lunchtime concerts and we quite naturally had problems with concert venues. That said, I have just finished arranging a Doncaster series for Autumn 2023 (a gap of over three years since Covid forced a halt to concerts.)
So far as music by British composers is concerned I like to encourage unusual things and young artistes. I have tended to avoid series (particular composers or sonata cycles) at the museum concerts: variety is the spice of life. The audience numbers are usually fewer than I would wish but hope springs eternal.
There have been works that I have included which I wanted to hear again or for the first time. But it depends whether artistes can be persuaded to play them. If any artistes have a keenness for a particular composer(s) I encourage it and I always aim to have variety in the series. I hope the audience likes the choice. I remain optimistic about a future for the Museum concerts.
Anyone setting out to make a success of a local concert series needs to be patient and enjoy what they are doing.
RB Your writing has, over the years, been a feature of British Music Society (BMS) publications, newsletter and annual journal and the musical items have a permanent presence on the MusicWeb Internal site. Can you tell us more about this?
PS I eagerly took opportunities to write for the BMS newsletter and, some time ago, for the Society’s annual Journal. These at first took the form of a sequence of numerous articles, usually about particular British light music composers. After this the main and most abundant presence came in the form of the “Garlands” in which groups of British light music composers were presented. These were the forum for expanding upon hundreds of men and women who otherwise had not any – or only little – coverage. Add to this a series of reports about concerts in and around the Doncaster area – the latter a valuable snapshot of the ferment of one city’s local musical activity. Through these I faced up to the challenge of writing as much as I wanted to write combined with full-time employment. One always finds time to do what one really wants to do.
RB You have written more than 1300 Garlands of British Light music composers (and only 450 have been typed up for the site with another circa 800 still in a long queue in your original handwriting).
PS Is it that many? I had no idea. I cannot type, so must write. The fact is that I still get queries about composers mentioned in the online Garlands but can answer few of them. I can’t know as much about music as some people think! In writing the more than 1000 Garlands I simply kept my eyes and ears open and applied some goodwill (especially to the Doncaster Borough Library Service) and basked in some luck.
RB I have your “British Light Music – a personal gallery of 20th century composers” book (1997, Thames Publishing, 2nd edition 2013) on my shelves. How did you choose who to include and who to omit? Whose idea was that long and illuminating Foreword by Ernest Tomlinson (1924-2015)? He very effectively set the scene with that ten-page narrative; was that your idea or Thames’?
PS The Garlands came before the book. John Bishop of Thames Publishing read some of them and they gave him the idea for the book’s first edition. The composers featured were my choice, hopefully informed by personal knowledge. Ernest’s foreword was John’s idea which I went along with. I was happy to get to know Ernest and his family.
RB What are the differences between the first and second editions? Were you able to include composers omitted from the first and did any composers migrate from “The Best of the Rest” summaries at the end of the book to receive fuller treatment with a chapter of their own?
PS There are very few differences. Essentially, these were some corrections of errors which I had missed first time round, and dates of death of those composers who had ‘left the field’ between the two editions. As far as I know there are no prospects of a third edition? One can always hope. I enjoyed writing the book and hope that it had some beneficial effect.
Light music was somewhere near its zenith when my interest in music began. There is undeniably less of it now, for which I hold the BBC mainly responsible. I am sure that it is alive and kicking but ‘light music’ is a broad church and I suppose how it is defined affects one’s answer. I should add that Radio 3 and its predecessor have been important to developing my knowledge of music. Historically that, prominently, includes the BBC Proms from the 1940s to the present. I should add that I also have great respect and affection for brass-banding and this plays a big part in light music.
RB Aside from music by British composers which other pieces have etched a place in your mind and heart?
PS Lots of them. Handel (but I regard him as English), Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Dvorak, Grieg ….
RB How have commercial recordings figured in your life?
PS My favourite recordings would mostly be of British music but I prefer live to recorded music. I have many of Guild’s “Golden Age of Light Music” series as well as those Marco Polo, EMI, ASV and Dutton British light music discs. I have a large collection. Too many: CDs, LPs, tapes, even a few 78s. I read The Gramophone for many years though I haven’t seen it recently. I suppose there will always be new pieces worth recording but there are so many recordings now I hesitate to add more. But if I had my pick of music to be newly recorded it would mostly be British pieces.
PS When one has interests comparable to my own, a lifetime, even of nine decades, is not long enough to deal with them as fully as I would wish. One can only derive as much enjoyment out of them as I can in the time allotted. I hope and believe I have done this. I am grateful to the many people in the world of music for their part in this and I hope I have given something back to that world in gratitude for what music has given to me. I wish I had my time to come again and I can’t think of anything I would want to change. I cannot conceive of a life without music. It has been a pleasure to cast my mind back over past delights and put my memories on paper however imperfectly.