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."
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
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
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
tasks he was greatly assisted by my grandmother. She was an Australian who had
maternal grandfather was an excellent writer and speaker. He wrote book about
his life as a missionary called Under Seven Congo Kings. There were interesting
reminiscences too about people he had met in
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
earliest memories of a home was a large Victorian
house in Sandycove,
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.
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
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.
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
kindergarten, we went to
When I was
12, Niall and I went to school in
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 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.
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
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.
interest in school sports was rather slight.
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.
"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
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.
1 940s 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
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
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
post at 15 was a small Methodist church in Bray,