A largely autodidact composer who studied briefly with Anton von Webern (Vienna, 1937… Searle – who also studied with Jacobs, Morris and Ireland – used this Austro-German experience while working with the British intelligence service during the Second World War) while spending much of his life cataloging the music of Liszt was bound to have an intriguing take on contemporary music. The formalism of twelve-tone and serialist musical construction (more of the Schoenberg school than his teacher's, admittedly) was Searle's dominant musical aesthetic; but an obsession with the purity of the tone-row was never his musical style… like Liszt, Searle was a great compromiser, always willing – and able – to fuse techniques to achieve the desired musical effect. [The Piano Sonata (1951) is a good case in point; and ties together the two main threads in Searle's musical life with a surprising neatness… written for (and premiered on) the 140th anniversary of Liszt's birth – the work is closely modelled on Liszt's B minor sonata; but is written using twelve-tone techniques.]
In essence, a romantic serialist (which isn't a contradiction in terms, although some people seem to assume that it is), Searle delighted in cats and unusual instrumental ensembles. "The Owl and the Pussycat" (after Lear; 1951) and "Two Practical Cats" (early 50s; a distinctly un-Lloyd Webberian setting of T.S. Eliot's "Macavity: The Mystery Cat" and "Growltiger's Last Stand") had both; being written for speaker, flute, cello and guitar ("Two Practical Cats" can be found on the Bridge CD, "New Music with Guitar, Vol. 4"; see below… "The Owl and the Pussycat" to the annoyance of all lovers of sophisticated nonsense – as well as avian and feline navigation – is not currently available). The composer worked in all of the major musical forms (five symphonies; two piano concerti; three ballets; and a large number of chamber and instrumental works); but his works list is dominated by vocal pieces: three operas (one a setting of "Hamlet" (1964-68)), a large number of songs and some mighty choruses… the best-known, a trilogy for speaker/s, chorus and orchestra from texts by Sitwell and Joyce: "Gold Coast Customs" (1949), "The Riverrun" and "The Shadow of Cain" (both 1951).
As one might have already noticed, works with a spoken text formed a unusually large part of Searle's musical oeuvre. In some respects, this use of spoken word reflected the challenges involved in Searle's preference for advanced musical techniques… often, the text forms an anchor around which Searle's musical experimentation could develop, in much the same way that the images on the screen could visualise the emotional qualities in Searle's film music (extracts from his scores for "The Abominable Snowman" (1957) and "The Haunting" (1963) are available on "Horror!", a Silver Screen Records disc; again, see below).
Writing a traditionally structured (and abstract) instrumental or orchestral work such as a symphony using these techniques posed a very different kind of challenge… both to Searle and to the audience. As the composer himself put it: "… (the classical symphony) depends to a great extent on contrasts of key which cannot be realised easily in twelve-note music". It was a challenge easy to avoid had Searle wanted to; but the composer was carved from tougher intellectual stuff… in his mature abstract works, Searle offered a series of dramatic and developmental solutions to the problem of the modern advanced musical composition.
Often, Searle found these solutions in the traditions of the past: the Piano Sonata mentioned above uses a Lisztian thematic transformation structure within a twelve-tone context; while the Second Symphony (1956-58) is a twelve-tone symphony cast in a perfectly traditional three movements… it even comes complete with a decent, god-fearing sonata format opening movement. These solutions may not necessarily have been correct (whatever that means, in this – or any – artistic context); but they're inevitably interesting… which makes the somewhat painfully slow rediscovery of Humphrey Searle's music a valuable (and – to my ears, at least – enjoyable) addition to the history of 20th century music.
In addition to his own musical composition, Searle's research into – and advocacy of – the music of Franz Liszt should also be noted. Although the Abbe's music had never totally dropped from view; when Searle became honorary secretary (and co-founder) of the Liszt Society in 1950, the average listener's familiarity with Liszt's music is likely to have been restricted to a handful of piano showpieces and the pride of the cliffhanger serial, "Les Préludes". Searle's writings on the composer, including "The Music of Liszt" (1954; rev. 1966), and his cataloging of the composer's works (to this day, Liszt's music is identified by S (Searle) numbers; although the actual catalog has been revised by others since Searle's death) played a significant role in the musical rehabilitation of Franz Liszt .
Of course, any review of the music of Humphrey Searle would be incomplete without reference to his comic alter ego, the distinguished Teutonic musicologist, Bruno Heinz Jaja. Like Malcolm Arnold and Franz Reizenstein, Searle was a stalwart of the "Hoffnung Festivals", those nights of musical mayhem inspired and perpetuated by the cartoonist Gerard Hoffnung (1925-1959); and in works like "Punkt Kontrapunkt" (1958) and the duet from the comic opera "The Barber of Darmstadt" (1961), the insider Searle skewered the excesses of academic modernism more brilliantly than any tonal traditionalist ever could.
(As an aside: Hoffnung rewarded Searle with one of his wonderful caricatures, included in the booklet to the "Hoffnung's Music Festivals" disc listed below. Sitting in a lounge chair, smoking a cigarette, a purring cat sitting happily on his lap, the image is one of those rare sketches which looks more like a person than a picture ever could.) ~ Robert Clements