Filson Young

Filson Young: The first media man (1876-1938), by Silvester Mazzarella

Table of contents

17. “The Saturday Review”

The last two chapters have probably given the impression that Filson’s life in the years immediately after 1908 was one of increasing frustration and failure. In one respect at least this was not so: the Saturday Review (35) gave him the chance to develop the skill as an essayist that he had first shown on the Manchester Guardian at the turn of the century and had confirmed for the Outlook in the busy days of 1906. His writing for the Saturday Review also brought him fame and the admiration of important people, and this compensated him to some extent for the disappointment of no longer being taken seriously as a writer of books.

From its first appearance in 1855 till about 1890 the Saturday Review, with the Spectator, stood out among the London weeklies. By 1908, when Filson succeeded Arthur Symons as its music critic, it was mostly living on past glories but could still call on a distinguished team of contributors and it was still an honour to be invited to write for it. In recent years Filson had been too busy to have much involvement with music apart from conducting the Ruan brass band in Cornwall and writing an ambitious and competent motet for eight voices, for the Madresfield Music Competition which ?had a link with the leading English composer of the day, Edward Elgar. This motet was published in 1905. Now, in the winter of 1908-9, the Saturday Review required him to review London concerts several times a week. His notices were long and thoughtful. In his first he criticized the famous soprano Nellie Melba for making recordings which had done a lot to make ‘that deadly instrument’ the gramophone popular:

There is hardly a country house in England in which, straying unsuspectingly into some tapestried gallery or hall, you are not liable to be affronted by the sight of a monstrous trumpet sitting on a little table and emitting, after initial rasp and buzz, the loud, nasal and metallic travesty of Melba’s heavenly voice.

Melba must one day die,

but those durable marks on the cyliders and waxen plates … will remain; packed in air-proof cases, stacked in warehouses all over the world, they will wait in silence their deadly opportunity; and when the beautiful voice itself is perhaps no longer there to give the lie to them, they will proclaim their raucous travesty of Melba …(36)

How many connoisseurs of early recordings today would agree with this assessment?

More important than Melba was the premiere of Elgar’s First Symphony, about which Filson wrote at length twice, the second time after he’d been able to hear it several times. His first impression was that Elgar had reached maturity in this work, following the ‘Catholic Wagner’ of his oratorio The Dream of Gerontius; in the symphony Elgar ‘had passed from imitation to creation, from the disciple’s company and weakness to the master’s loneliness and strength’. A few weeks later he gave his considered opinion; apart from his prophecy that Elgar would never do anything better, his judgment would no doubt still be accepted by many today:

He has expressed himself here fully and successfully, and no man can do more than that. If he were to become a greater man he would write a greater symphony; but what he is lies before us here, and it is a very worthy achievement … Nothing immense or tremendous has happened, no new portent has appeared in the musical skies; it is just an artist who in those solitudes of the soul where all true artistic effort is made has wrought a work of beautiful design and noble craftsmanship. (37)

The French composers Debussy and Fauré came to London. Debussy conducted his own Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and Nuages. Filson didn’t like most of Debussy’s music but was nonetheless at pains to explain to his readers why he considered him an outstanding composer and important innovator. Fauré springs to life in Filson’s description,

a charming, venerable figure sitting modestly at the Bechstein accompanying his own songs with such evident pride and pleasure and appreciation of the way they were sung‘ (38)

The season also saw the first performances in English of the Ring cycle and Die Meistersinger at Covent Garden, under the baton of the great Wagner conductor Hans Richter. As a passionate Wagnerite, Filson naturally had a good deal to say on the subject and devoted four full-length notices to it. (39) He praised the music and the use of the English language, but had many damning things to say about direction and stage-management. Some of the things he didn’t like were changed in later performances. He later elaborated his thoughts on directing Wagner in his vigorous article ‘The Old Age of Richard Wagner’ in the April 1909 number of the Englishwoman. He pointed out that Wagner had had a deep conviction that anything which outgrew its usefulness should be abolished or altered, but the Bayreuth régime under his widow Cosima and son Siegfried, which had controlled performances in the twenty-six years since Wagner’s death, had gone counter to this spirit by preserving the productions of his operas exactly as he had left them. Filson insisted that if Wagner had lived this would not have been so, and that it should not be so now:

Not a note of his music, the living spirit, need ever be touched; but the operas must be reconsidered, some of them cut down and endowed with the grace of proportion which at present they lack, and the whole question of the mounting of them gone into from the very beginning – not on the lines of existing stage methods, with strips of cloth for skies and fretwork trees and cloth stones, but on such lines as the most able and imaginative genius which can combine poetry and stage illusion shall lay down. The time is not quite yet, but it must come before long, and the sooner we begin to accustom ourselves to the idea the better.

During the season he became friendly with the conductor Landon Ronald, who had just taken over the New Symphony Orchestra from Thomas Beecham. Ronald gave a performance of Filson’s orchestration of Schumann’s fugue on the name B-A-C-H in his concert of 23 April 1909. Filson himself missed this event because he was in America, but while there he managed to do a bit of music reviewing for the Saturday Review. He maintained that American serious music was still in its infancy, still all derivative. The best thing he heard was McDowell’s D minor piano concerto, and that was Germanic in style. At the opera [Met?] he saw some badly performed Wagner and a more enjoyable Aida with Emmy Destinn and Caruso, conducted by Toscanini, ‘obviously a young man of great talent’. (40) But his days as music critic were nearly over. Next season (1909-10) he reviewed only one concert, and his place was taken by none other than the J.C.Runciman who, in the same job a number of years earlier, had sneered at Baughan’s  Musical Standard and praised Filson’s Mastersingers. It seems likely that Filson had asked to be relieved of the chore of regular concert-going since he continued to write on musical subjects for the Saturday Review from time to time, among other things reviewing a book by Runciman on Purcell, whom both Runciman and Filson thought grossly underrated, and contributing studies of three prominent conductors. These were Sir Henry Wood, an ‘Orpheus in peg-top trousers’ whom Filson considered the outstanding English conductor of the day, and two conductors with sharply contrasting styles, Hans Richter and Landon Ronald. Of Richter he wrote:

The most nervous player could hardly fail to be reassured by that heavy motionless figure and the grave incurious countenance; in the most tempestuous moments of musical storm he sat at his desk controlling it all, like an old scholar reading in a lamp-lit room.

In contrast, Ronald was all emotion:

Landon Ronald can do nothing about which he is not enthusiastic; and as one cannot always be in an enthusiastic mood, he must either batter himself into enthusiasm for a neutral subject or do it flatly and badly. The thing that he does best is the newest and latest thing that has attracted his personality; he pours the whole of himself into every new mould that attracts him. (41)

Gradually he began to write about other subjects for the Saturday Review. Before the late summer of 1909 his only non-musical piece was prompted by the death of an admired friend, the poet John Davidson. This egotistic and uncompromising man, ready to put up with any degree of isolation and material hardship for the sake of his art, had left London the previous year to live in Penzance. It was then that Filson, still at Ruan, got to know him well; Grant Richards was Davidson’s publisher and also gave him work reading manuscripts. Filson believed Davidson’s work to be unjustly neglected  and wrote an appreciation of his poetry published in the Fortnightly Review in January 1909 after several other editors had rejected it. Davidson said the article was the most generous gift ever made to him and Richards’ considered opinion (in his memoir Author Hunting, 1934) was that it was the only piece published on Davidson in England that did his work anything like justice. In New York a few months later, Filson heard that Davidson was missing presumed drowned, having apparently thrown himself into the sea from cliffs near Penzance (his body was found at sea some months later). He immediately wrote an impassioned defence of the poet for the Saturday Review:

The truth about John Davidson is that he was hounded out of life, not by the neglect of the public, or the miseries of poverty, or the terrors of ill-health, but by the indifference of his own fellows, those who should have been his comrades in spirit and who, even if they did not praise him as a philosopher, might have loved him as a poet. (42)

If Filson’s travels during this period gave him sorely needed relief from the hectic life of London, they did nothing to get him back to writing full-length books. But they did get him back to some sort of extended writing, as he reported and analysed his experiences in the Saturday Review in his five articles on Connemara, eight on Trinidad and, rather later, five on France. But at one time it seemed as if even this had been a false start. After the Trinidad series ended in May 1910 he contributed only two more articles to the paper in the next ten months; one of his worst periods, when he was reduced to constantly begging Richards for small instalments of the money he was owed, and when he seemed incapable of doing anything more than jot down synopses of novels he refused to write because no one would pay him extravagant advances for them.

What finally rescued him, in the spring of 1911, was turning away from the present altogether and back to his youth, when he’d been a music student in the organ loft of Manchester Cathedral:

Sometimes the days were very severe, and, to youth hardly yet finished growing,inadequately supported by material nourishment. On a Saturday, for example, there would probably be one’s own private practice in the morning, the cathedral service at eleven, choir rehearsal at twelve,which might last an hour, a dive into some German restaurant for a meal, a walk to some curiosity shop or other where an old print or piece of furniture was to be examined, the return to the cathedral at half-past three, and adjournment from there to the town hall; the remainder of the afternoon till about six o’clock being spent in practice on [Kendrick Pyne the organist's part] and listening and smoking on mine; from six to seven conversation and smoking in his room; from seven to quarter past eight organ recital in the town hall; and at last, famished and exhausted, home to his house for supper. But as I said, the interval between lunch and this late supper was often, from my point of view, inadequately spanned.With some one with whom you are at once on the terms of reverence, a kind of laughing awe, and affectionate intimacy, relations are bound to be complex, because you may be summoned to adopt any one of these attitudes at any moment. He used to think that I was given to general extravagance and over-fastidiousness in the matter of what I ate and drank and smoked; and he used to take a delight on our way from the cathedral to the town hall in suddenly turning into some particularly low and vile tea-shop, and either administering there and then the nauseous corrective of a halfpenny cup of tea and a halfpenny bun (which I was obliged to take, knowing I should get nothing else till ten o’clock), or, worse still, purchase a particularly hateful pennyworth of bread and butter,which was carried away in a paper bag and consumed, but divided by him with strict impartiality between us, together with some nasty cocoa which we used to concoct with condensed milk over the fire in his room. No person has ever taken a greater toll of my affection than was taken on these occasions; but I was positively afraid to criticise or object, from a kind of glorious artistic shame which bade me realise that what was good enough for him was surely good enough for me. He used to try me further (because he himself had a catholic although discriminating taste in tobacco) by buying me rank penny cigars and insisting on my giving my opinion of them; and afterwards, after supper in the evening perhaps, by giving me a really fine Cabaña and telling me that it had cost a halfpenny … But there was nothing that he could do to any of us, no task or trouble that he could impose upon us, for which we had not forgiven him by the time his fingers had been ten seconds on the keys. (43)

The six fine ‘Memories of a Cathedral’ essays made such an impression that Filson was invited to become a regular contributor on general subjects, as he had been on the Outlook under Garvin five years before. He kept this up form the next two and a half years, following in the footsteps of, among others, Max Beerbohm. (44) He began, in April 1911, with an appreciation of Max’s work as a caricaturist. Why does Beerbohm’s often cruelly accurate exposure of his subjects’ weaknesses not make him more enemies, he asks. Partly because he is no more ill-natured (or good-natured) than a child ‘who, seated in an omnibus, fixes his embarrassing gaze on anything at all odd or unfortunate in the appearance of the person opposite to him’. Partly also because to be caricatured by Beerbohm at this time, if you were in the world of politics or the arts, showed you had definitely arrived (even if, as Balzac said, ‘Parvenus are like monkeys; seen from above, we admire their agility in climbing, but when they have reached the top it is only their more shameful parts that are visible’). Filson began[?] with another[?] parody of Beerbohm’s style:

The hour approaches midnight; no one will disturb me; the telephone bell will not ring; that marble bust, to which annually on Shakespeare’s birthday I climb by means of a step ladder and reverently affix a chaplet of laurel, beams down upon me from my bookcase ...[etc] (45)

[check: was F's parody of B in SR of 29.4.11 (‘Max' Secret') or 9.11.12

(‘The Perfect Parodist', a review of Max's own parodies in ‘A Christmas Garland'? Max's letter was about the first article]

This was the year Beerbohm left England to live permanently in Italy. In May he wrote to Filson from Venice, parodying himself as he described his reaction to Filson’s article:

And so – but, to cut a long story short, this morning at the Poste Restante there that number of the Saturday was, to be snatched at by my eager fingers, but – (for, though human, I am an epicure, and the courtyard of a post office is no place in which to read a thing written about me by you) – not to have the wrapper instantly torn off it. No, indeed. I said to my wife that we would go to Florian’s. And there, in one of those absurd and delightful little over-gilded and over-glazed rooms, in full view of the pigeons, I sipped a vermouth while my wife, slowly and with uxorious emphasis, read the article aloud to me. And the crimson velvet of the settees seemed almost pale in comparison with the flush of gratification on my cheeks. And the pigeons soared less lightly than did my soul. And all the lions of S. Mark growled their displeasure at my having a halo brighter than any of theirs. Tomorrow my wife and I return to our home. Venice is too small to hold me now. I need the wide sweep of the Ligurian gulf in which to expand fully to your praises. (46)

In October Beerbohm wrote again, from Rapallo:

When I wrote to you from Venice, I was just finishing a novel (!!), and this strange product of mine is about to be thrown on the world by Heinemann. I am having a copy of it sent to you, not because I can imagine you approving of it, but just because I am yours very sincerely, Max Beerhohm. (This reads horribly like a formula; but I assure you I have never used it before) (47)

The novel, of course, was Zuleika Dobson [insert very brief description]. Filson didn’t altogether approve of it, though he found it difficult to say so. In April 1913, in the course of an appreciative notice of an exhibition of Beerbohm caricatures at the Leicester Galleries, he wrote:

The only time I [said something critical of Max's work], when Max wrote a novel which seemed to me a little short of being a masterpiece, and I said so, I felt as though I had been guilty of a cowardly and brutal assault. (48)

The same year a caricature of Filson by Max almost certainly appeared in this exhibition though it was not published till 1921. It shows Filson at his writing table in ‘æsthetic’ pose, nose in air and quill in hand. No doubt this was a gentle riposte to Filson’s April 1911 parody of Max’s prose style, in which he portrays himself using a quill pen. Filson returned the compliment in 1916 by taking a portrait photograph of Max which is now in the National Portrait Gallery, though not at present on display[what is the imitative pose in this photo? Ask Sarah].

Week by week, during the last eight months of 1911, Filson let his imagination loose in the Saturday Review on any subject that caught his fancy, much as he had done in the Outlook five years earlier. Sometimes he wrote solemnly and reflectively about his childhood and places he had known, or such general concepts as friendship and class distinctions (he believed these should be preserved), and how to treat servants and how servants always controlled their masters; sometimes he wrote more lightly about things that had amused him. Other pieces dealt with topical subjects such as the nuisance of car horns or the visit of the Russian ballet, or the reappearance of old horse-drawn hansom cabs during a taxi strike, or the meretricious and shoddy quality of many of the celebrations for the Coronation of King George V and Queen Mary. In September he suggested to the editor, Harold Hodge, that he should learn to fly and write an exact

account of the experience for the Saturday – if the paper would pay for his lessons. ‘If they don’t someone else will,’ he told Richards, ‘and there is a book!’ (49) Unfortunately nothing came of this idea which would certainly have struck a new note of adventure and danger in the sedate weekly, and he had to wait for the best part of a quarter century longer before the BBC, in a less heroic age of aviation, did finance a course of flying lessons for him to form the basis of a series of radio talks. It seems to me that this idea of Filson’s that Hodge turned down is also a clue to the writer’s block he suffered during these years. Quite simply, without adventure and danger his imagination began to atrophy. In South Africa there had been plenty, and The Sands of Pleasure and some of his early journalism have the same vitality. But New York, Trinidad and France had given little scope for this, apart from the drive to Monte Carlo in 1906 with Charles Jarrott.


35  The London Saturday Review had no connection with the American journal of the same name.

36  The Saturday Review 14 Nov 1908.

37  The Saturday Review 12 Dec 1908 and 16 Jan 1909.

38  The Saturday Review 19 Dec 1908.

39  The Saturday Review 23 and 30 Jan, and 6 and 20 Feb 1909.

40  The Saturday Review 24 April 1909.

41 The Saturday Review 2 Oct, 30 Oct and 13 Nov 1909. Filson discussed Wood, Richter, Ronald and other conductors further in ‘The Art of the Conductor’ in More Mastersingers (1911), 171-200.

42  The Saturday Review 15 May 1909, reprinted in Letters from Solitude, 149-61.

43  The whole series ‘Memories of a Cathedral’ first appeared in the Saturday Review each week from 11 March to 15 April 1911, and was reprinted in amplified form in More Mastersingers, 13-57.

44  [note on Max Beerbohm, & see letters at Merton Coll Oxford]

45  The Saturday Review 29 April 1911.

46  Max Beerbohm to FY, 23 May 1911.

47  Max Beerbohm to FY, 15 Oct 1911.

48  The Saturday Review 12 April 1913

49  FY to Grant Richards, ‘Tuesday’ (undated), ?12 Sept 1911.

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