A Bank of Violets, The Musical Memoirs of Havelock Nelson. Published by Greystone Press, 1993
When you write your autobiography," my Dad would advise me - note he did not say "if' - "Start with the statement 'Havelock Nelson was born of poor but respectable parents."
Certainly the statement of my parents' respectability was undeniably true. Their category of poverty was more arguable. Dad had trained as a chartered accountant and he once told me that during his apprenticeship his annual salary was xxxx. The family background was solid County Antrim farming stock. My paternal grandfather died before I was born but I remember my grandmother clearly. A small pretty woman, who was looked after in her later life by an unmarried daughter, she lived to a ripe old age without any physical disability, apart from increasing deafness. She used to take me twice weekly to the local cinema in Dun Laoghaire, the Pavilion, which screened silent movies. This undoubtedly aroused my interest in "the pixters" as Dubliners referred to them. Later it was to lead me to live drama and opera.
Dad's family were generally fair-skinned, with blonde hair, and no doubt there was a strong strain of Scandinavian blood in their veins. Possibly the Vikings had raided the area centuries before! I have looked up the name in various volumes and discovered that the variants in Ireland extend from Nielsen to O'Neill. A Danish friend remarked on my name on one occasion when I was working in Denmark."We have a famous national composer, Carl Nielsen," he said. "In addition, your Christian name (pronounced Hav-luk) is Viking in origin. I told him of the many times I have been introduced on the air or appeared in the press abroad as Havelock Ellis, a sex psychologist of the early part of this century. That's the worst of having a distinctive Christian name. In fact I was named after a favourite cousin of my mother who was killed towards the end of the first world war.
My mother's maiden name was Graham. There is strong evidence of a Scottish connection. Her father was an enthusiastic genealogist who researched a family tree going back to Robert the Bruce, mostly from the wrong side of the blanket. My grandfather was from Tobermore in County Tyrone and had nine or 10 brother and sisters. Three of the boys emigrated to America and made money in the linen business. He himself entered the Baptist ministry and was a disciple of C H Spurgeon, one of the founders of the denomination. He was sent out to the mission field in what was then the Belgian Congo and worked there, trying to save souls and also helping in the fight against the many prevalent diseases.
In these tasks he was greatly assisted by my grandmother. She was an Australian who had come to England to train as a nurse and met my grandfather just before he went to Africa. My mother, born in 1891, was sent home when she was two because of the dangers of malaria and was brought up in Belfast by a childless uncle and aunt.
My maternal grandfather was an excellent writer and speaker. He wrote book about his life as a missionary called "Under Seven Congo Kings" 1930 by R H Carson Graham. There were interesting reminiscences too about people he had met in Africa through his work, including David Livingstone the explorer, and Roger Casement who, at that time, was a colonial officer. He entertained us children for hours, singing Percy French songs, which he put across with great verve.
Mother and Dad met through music. He had a fine baritone voice and had studied under Captain Charles Brennan, the then organist of St Anne's Cathedral. To add to his meagre salary from accountancy he took singing engagements at the Saturday night miscellaneous concerts popular in the city at that time. On one occasion his usual accompanist fell ill and my mother was sent as a replacement. They married in 1916 and shortly afterwards my father took a job in Cork where I was born on 25 May 1917. I was only a month old when we moved to Dublin where Dad had secured a much better position.
My earliest memories of a home was a large Victorian house in Sandycove, County Dublin, where I grew up with my three brothers, Niall, Dermott and Robin, the youngest. There was only five years between me and Robin. I say the house was large: when I saw it years later, it didn't seem as large as I remembered it. Beyond the small back garden there was a field euphemistically referred to as "the orchard", though by the time I came to know it most of the trees had disappeared and we used it as a hockey pitch after school. From it a short lane ran down to the rocky seashore where we all learnt to swim.
I was about five years old when I had my first piano lessons, and I was extremely fortunate in my first teacher Jeannie Russell, who lived nearby. She had met my parents at a musical event and offered to take me as a pupil. She was a fine pianist and had also studied the violin and viola. She declared that she not only produced pianists who could play well but they were also musicians. She encouraged my father to use me as his accompanist when I had become technically proficient, since by this time my mother, now with four children, had little time to keep up her piano playing.
I well remember going for lessons to Auntie Jeannie, as we called her. She lived in a big old rambling house on her own. Both her parents had died some years previously and she was an only child. There were souvenirs of foreign travel everywhere, mementoes of family trips abroad, wood carvings from Africa and tea-sets from China. Over all, there was an air of "the relics of oul' daicency".
When I reached the age of 10 and had become a reasonably proficient pianist, I started to play chamber music, in particular, piano trios. Auntie Jeannie played the violin and enlisted the services of a local cellist, Frank Mease. He had been a singer but with advancing years his voice had deteriorated - Dad described it as roaring like the Bull of Basham and so he transferred his musical interest to the cello. He could never have been rated as a Casals but he was enough of a musician to keep his place in the ensemble and so we managed to get through much of the trio repertoire. For me it was a miraculous journey of exploration. Most of the compositions we played were by Haydn (he wrote 32 trios) and Mozart who remain high on my list of favourites to this day.
These early incursions into chamber music continued weekly for almost 12 years - indeed until I finished university. The performances were never designed for public hearing - those were catered for by ensembles with fellow students at the Academy of Music in Dublin - but they were a musical joy to the three performers, an example of music-making as it should be.
After kindergarten, we went to Kingstown Grammar School in Dun Laoghaire. It was run by a Church of Ireland minister who was a passionately keen hockey player and he instilled a love for the game in me and my brothers. When, some years later, I was introduced to ice hockey in Toronto I reflected on the contrast between the friendly rivalry of those schoolboy sportsmen and the violently partisan atmosphere we encountered at that ice rink when a musical colleague and I found ourselves sandwiched between the supporters of the two rival teams. The moment we applauded a particularly good pass we got black looks and threats from the opposing team's supporters. We had to sit silently through the whole game.
When I was 12, Niall and I went to school in Dublin. My parents chose St Andrew's College. It meant a journey by train to Westland Row Station as it was then. From there we would walk to Stephen's Green, passing the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Westland Row on the way. I entered for a scholarship exam to the RIAM which I won, and this gave me a year's free tuition on the piano and a harmony course. Musically, the RIAM was to be my alma mater for the remainder of my musical studies. Then I first started to go up Westland Row, I had noticed that many people made the sign of the Cross as they passed a big church. My father as most amused when, one day when we were together, I did the same Ling when we passed the Academy.
But life wasn't all serious music. From about 1929 my brothers and I started putting on little shows for the family. Dermot in particular had a fine voice, Niall played the piano and Robin was a willing general dogsbody I was the director and compere. In these entertainments we were inspired partly by the pierrot shows we saw during holidays in Portrush and partly by the artistic, literary ambience of our Sandycove surroundings.
The Martello Tower, where James Joyce had once been a resident, was on the seafront at the bottom of our road, and Bernard Shaw had lived a few miles away in Dalkey. The playwright Lennox Robinson, and L A Grong, the novelist whose books featured the area where we were living, also lived at Dalkey. We often saw Lennox Robinson, who was a founder member of the Abbey Theatre, on the train on our way to school. He was very tall thin man with florid colouring. Another regular traveller on the train was the actress Maureen O'Sullivan who lived in Killiney Hill. At at time she was about 20, a sweet ingenue who always sat in the corner the carriage. I think she had already appeared in Tarzan the Ape Man. We had no car in those days but Killiney Bay was only a short tram ride away with two beaches to choose from, Whiterock and Killiney Strand. eney were shingly beaches and relatively uncrowded. Dad was a good swimmer He encouraged us all to learn and when we could swim the fingth of a particular large sandy pool that he had selected for the purpose, we got half-a-crown. No prize I ever won gave me as much pleasure as that in when I was finally able to claim it.
The eldest of four sons, I always had a warm relationship with my father My success in two career fields, medical science and music, was a source of great pleasure to him. On the other hand, Mother and I were temperamentally very alike. Both of us had a strong sense of what we considered right and wrong and we would take differing sides in an argument, often over quite trivial matters. If I expressed admiration for someone, Mother would point out their faults and that made me defend them strongly. A week or more could pass without our speaking, until we made peace again. As I grew older I came to appreciate better her fine character. She was outgoing and hospitable, with a talent for friendship. We became closer after I married and she adored my wife Hazel, the first of her four daughters-in-law.
My memories of school days at St Andrew's are pleasant, probably misted by nostalgic euphoria. However, I did have one major complaint. It was a completely unmusical establishment. The traditional subjects were admirably taught but participation in the Arts was not encouraged. One of my best subjects was Latin which was the Headmaster's speciality. One day my father got a letter inviting him to come and see him. "I think it would be a good idea if Havelock gave up this musical nonsense so he can concentrate more on the Classics," he said. Dad said politely that he would think about it, and that was the end of it.
My favourite school subjects were the Sciences, History and English, especially English. The master in charge of English - an Ulsterman, as most of the staff members were, since it was a Presbyterian establishment -was fanatically enthusiastic about drama in particular and induced the same feeling in his pupils. My class had a large percentage of literamry fans, and Mr Johnston - Johnnie as he was commonly known - responded by working through many of the Shakespeare plays with us and European and American drama as well.
My interest in school sports was rather slight. Rugby was the main game and the Headmaster had been an International player. However, my preference was still for hockey. In later years I went to a number of cricket matches in the West Indies, though I got more pleasure from studying the spectators' reactions than from the game itself!
Music continued to be my absorbing interest and I became more and more involved with RIAM activities. My principal piano teacher, who took the place of Jeannie Russell, was a dedicated lady called Dina Copeman who had given up a promising career as a performer to devote herself to teaching. She was a real tyrant who terrified any pupil who had not done sufficient practice. But she certainly got results. Even after I had left her, I used to return for refresher lessons. In fact I still went to her for teaching until I left college in 1943.
The "character" on the staff was a rotund lady called Dorothy Stokes. Despite the fact that she had been educated at a high class ladies' school she had a fierce Dublin accent. One got the impression she had been jined to sell bananas in Moore Street, a noisy part of Dublin, off 'Connell Street. Even though she sometimes could be quite astringent, I is very fond of her. She directed our theory and harmony class from the ano with a lighted cigarette dangling permanently from her lower lip. We pupils used to watch with eager anticipation to see the lengthening Li drop off and fall down the front of her ample bosom. Strangely tough, I can't remember it ever happening, but there was always the hope!
Apart from the piano I studied the organ, the viola and the double bass. Miss Stokes encouraged me to start composing and I sketched out the music for an opera early on. Where I got the libretto from, I've no idea. I is allowed to go to the Gaiety Theatre to see opera matinees (only), so at last I knew what an opera was. In addition, over the years I had collected library of 78 rpm records: Mozart, Wagner and Puccini were special favourites. My own operatic masterpiece never saw the light of day.
From the time I started going to opera matinees I began to develop an interest in live theatre. From the early 1940s, together with my brothers I unded up a bunch of friends, including girlfriends, to take part in amateur dramatics, mostly light comedies, staged mainly in the Peacock theatre a small auditorium beside the Abbey Th.eatre which was a popular venue for experimental and more conventional amateur drama. These early theatrical efforts stood me in good stead in composing incidental music for radio and television drama in later years.
During the 1940s the pressure to plan one's future career was not so easy as it is nowadays. From my early teens I had no doubt that I wanted take up music as a profession but the question was, what branch of music? I didn't feel the call to be a teacher and I knew I was not of the calibre to be a solo pianist. I think my father may have had divisions of me starving in garret and dying of tuberculosis as in the romantic & fiction of an earlier time. After lengthy discussions, we came to an agreement. He would not object to my musical aspirations provided I had something to fall back on if failed musically, and so I sat the entrance exams for Trinity College in 1935 with a view to acquiring a degree in some branch of the Sciences.
Some years before I went to university, I thought I'd try to earn some money. In those days, it wasn't easy to get a holiday job and parents did not necessarily encourage you to find one. I decided to learn the organ and earn a salary by playing in church. There was only one snag. I was somewhat ignorant of church music in general, having been brought up in the Society of Friends which had no music in its services. The Quaker strain came through my maternal grandmother who had sent my mother to a Friends' boarding school, when my grandfather and she were missionaries in Africa.
I had organ lessons at the Academy from Dr George Hewson, who combined the post of organist in St Patrick's Cathedral with the professorship of music at Trinity College. Apart from his fine teaching, he was also a wise counsellor. He suggested I seek out a nonconformist church vacancy with which to begin, and avoid the difficulties of the Anglican musical service, in particular the pointing of the chants and psalms. To those unfamiliar with this term, which appeared in the middle of the 19th century, it is a method of marking unmetrical verse which enables a choir or congregation to keep exactly together by agreeing on the important stresses of the words.
My first post at 15 was a small Methodist church in Bray, County Wicklow, which was ideal for a beginner. Bray is a seaside resort and so our largest congregations were invariably during the summer months when we were able to get a small choir together. I learnt an early lesson in diplomacy one Sunday when travelling home on the train with one of my singers..........