It has been said of the musician, Peter Warlock (nom de plume for Philip Heseltine) that he could not be understood if the girls in his life were ‘indicated only in the most shadowy way’. By the same token, we cannot fully understand Elizabeth without knowing more of her relationship with her friends, including the men in her life, particularly Phil, as she called him, around whom there had long been an atmosphere of mystery which Elizabeth herself had helped to maintain, consistently refusing, when asked, to talk about it in any detail.
At the time of her death, no correspondence between them was forthcoming and it was assumed that any such had been included in the material destroyed, at her instruction, by her nephew Jim Poston. Nothing between them was included within the collected letters of Peter Warlock published in 2005, although a short portion of one from Elizabeth to Warlock’s mother, written in February 1931 following his suicide the previous December showed that she had known him very well and that he was ‘fine & generous & great-hearted & all love & admiration for him only grow greater’.
Rooks Nest House, was a beloved home to both E M Forster and Elizabeth Poston. He lived there with his widowed mother during his young, formative years of four to fourteen and there, educated at home, he set deep roots, exploring the neighbouring countryside and developing an interest in gardening – including growing tall red poppies – especially enjoying identifying the local flora. In his earliest known teenage writings he said ‘the surroundings of the house were altogether very pretty, first and foremost the fine view’. His affection for his home was profound since it represented stability and security and so he was distraught when he had to leave it to be educated away, first in a boarding school at Eastbourne and finally as a day-boy at Tonbridge in 1893. His mother had socialised with the local gentry including Charles Poston and family, recently arrived at a nearby large Georgian Manor, called ‘Mallows’ but later renamed ‘Highfield’. The family made a lasting impression on the 7-year old Forster.
Charles’s wife died in 1900 and he remarried – the much younger Clementine – whose beauty and gentle personality captivated Forster when he travelled down from Cambridge and visited Highfield briefly in 1907. Clementine’s first-born, Elizabeth was just a year old at the time, but as a child she later had an indirect acquaintance with him through inheriting one of his dolls, christened ‘Morgan’! To be truthful the doll was not very popular and, when given away to a needy neighbouring child, involved a certain amount of tossing to and fro over the garden hedge!
Forster’s Howards End, published a few years later, in 1910, reflected very strongly his connection with the world of his childhood. In its first few pages he reiterates, ‘the views marvellous – views westwards to the high ground’. There is also a clear connection between his fictional characters and aspects of people he knew in his youth, including Clementine (who we can identify in Howards End as Ruth Wilcox, the first wife of Charles).
Charles himself died in 1913 and the widowed Clementine, having to economise, moved, quite by chance, as tenant of Rooks Nest House. Here, Elizabeth, after initial disappointment, became just as enchanted with the place as Forster had been and was as sad at leaving it when sent away to boarding school, even absconding on one occasion to return home.
In her mind the house was very much identified with Howards End, so much so that she often used the name as her address, often speaking of its charm and special atmosphere. In a letter to friends after they had organised an abridged performance of Howards End at the house she wrote of its mysterious secret,
‘fragile and yet so strong, a spell that is a sense and seems also to impart one ... too mysterious for description. Yet one can’t attribute it only to Forster, as he was conscious of it when he first trotted in [...]. All those 300 years odd of Howards perhaps, living and dying and going on again?* But, no more. It defies analysis. Feeling is enough.’
So, Forster and Elizabeth shared a deep love of Rooks Nest House and the garden and surrounding landscape but it was not until 1940 when she was an established musician that they actually met. It was the occasion of a Myra Hess wartime concert at the National Gallery at which she was performing, quite against the rules of the BBC for whom she was working as Director of Music for the European Service. Of course she invited him to see the house, and entries in her pocket diary, like ‘went to sleep in the cowslips’, show increasing contact with him until just before his death in 1970. He often brought presents for the house and even paid off the mortgage.
When the house and neighbouring land were threatened by the New Town development after World War II Forster responded to Elizabeth’s call for support, publicly questioning whether building houses were ‘man’s final triumph’ or whether ‘there [was] another England, green and eternal, which will outlast them?’
The longstanding threat to Forster Country has come to a head this year with a planning application to build 800 houses on it, though we may be grateful that at least Rooks Nest House has been saved from destruction. Also Elizabeth has preserved some of the local folk culture, in particular three Hertfordshire Folk Songs, Garland Gay, which Forster would have heard sung in his youth and which she arranged as a surprise to celebrate his 90th birthday as part of the concert given by King’s College Musical Society.
That same year Elizabeth composed the incidental music for the BBC TV production of Howards End, commenting that, ‘no one else knew the real story. A lifetime – several lifetimes – went into the music: not only the poignancy of the present, but an almost unbearable nostalgia for a past, which the book enshrines.’
Recalling shooting of the burial scene of the first Mrs. Wilcox, she said she could have wept. In even more reflective mood, she empathized not only with Margaret Schlegel’s marriage to a man so much her senior, likening it to that of her parents, but also with the youthful relationship between Leonard Bast and Helen Schlegel, speaking of Forster’s ‘amazingly penetrating perception and understanding of aspects of the other sex and of its relationships [...] I know of no other man who states with more uncompromising truth, aspects of life as I have known and lived it [...] it has been an almost symphonic experience to enter in as a part of the story – even to write the music for one’s own funeral, for Mrs Wilcox holds the key to the whole thing,’
Elizabeth had many friendships but none so closely connected to Rooks Nest House and its environs as the one she had with Forster.
*A royal grant of land was made to a George Howarde as early as 1558 (see Peter J. Harvey (1999) The Brotherhoof of the Holy Trinity in Ashby, Margaret (editor) St. Nicholas Church, Stevenage: Recent research. The Friends of St. Nicholas Trust in association with Cambridge University Board of Continuing Education).
- Written by Anne Conchie
After a decade of work on the Poston papers, John Alabaster has produced a glossy book encapsulating much of the previous works. As the title suggests, it is a full list of works published or not, set in a biographical context. Though more expensive than earlier subsidised works, it is for anyone interested in her or neglected female composers of her era. It is available at Lulu.com page http://www.lulu.com/shop/john-alabaster/elizabeth-poston-catalogue-of-works-with-biographical-context/paperback/product-23663053.html#expand_text
- Written by Anne Conchie
At a time when the destruction of virtually all the Green Belt Forster Country seems almost inevitable, it is good to realise that its cultural heritage is bound to live on and, in the case of its heritage of music, to be aware of several happenings this year that prove the point.
The first is an exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Music Museum, Hitting the Right Note to highlight the achievements of around twenty five of its amazing female alumnae from its earliest years through to today which will, of course, include Elizabeth Poston. Featured will be a biography and photographs of Elizabeth, facsimiles of her handwritten scores and, hopefully, items to do with the musical codes she used in wartime BBC broadcasts which are being sought from the Polish Underground Movement Study Trust. It opens on 29 June and will continue until 18 April 2019; opening times of the Museum in Marylebone Road are 11.30 am – 5.50pm Monday to Friday and 12 – 4 pm on Saturday but closed on Sundays and Bank holidays and the whole month of December.
Then, in the Autumn, some of her many songs are to be performed at two concerts. The first arises from Elizabeth’s friendship with the cellist/composer William Busch which started in 1942 when she was at the BBC and he had thanked her for her performance, with singer René Soames, of one of his songs, Rest, a song whose fine quality she very much appreciated. Musically they were on the same wavelength and kept up a vigorous correspondence until his untimely death in 1945, at one point agreeing to each set the poem Snowdrops in the Wind. The concert celebrating William Busch’s Life and Times will take place on Saturday 20 October at 2.00 pm at The Hinde Street Church in Marylebone and the singer will be the mezzo-soprano, Diana Moore, well known as a leading exponent of English music.
Diana is also known for shining the spotlight on female composers, in which role she proposes another programme in November featuring Elizabeth as one of five or six chosen. As well as singing her songs, she will focus on ‘Elizabeth’s life and achievements in the field of music, her support of composers, and her impact on women in music going forward.’ It is likely that we will hear both versions of her Sweet Suffolk Owl.
The other development, now that Elizabeth Poston’s archives of private papers and music have been made available and safely deposited at the Hertfordshire Public Records Office and the British Library, respectively, has been the production of a catalogue of her compositions, including, particularly, unpublished material which might otherwise be unknown or forgotten. Many people have heard of her Jesus Christ the Apple Tree without realising that she wrote or arranged nearly 1000 works! The catalogue runs to over 57,000 words about half of which deal in detail with her connections with both the music and her many musician friends associated with it. It will be available in a few weeks time when details will be posted in on my website, johnsalabaster.com.
- Written by John Alabaster
Among the works missing from Elizabeth Poston’s archive of music that was left at Rooks Nest House, after she died in 1987, was her Concertino da Camera on a Theme of Martin Peerson, written for early instruments in 1957 and based on a transcription by her friend, Marylin Wailes; all that could be found among her papers was a single MS title-page. The work, described by a critic as new wine poured successfully into old bottles, had been dedicated to Marylin and her London Consort of ancient instruments.
Elizabeth thought that Marylin’s copy of her music was the only one in existence when, in August 1985, she asked for its return in order to add it to her ‘National Archive’, explaining, ‘I am trying very hard to put together writing I count of any value & leave it tidily while I am still alive & not forgetting or gaga!’ There is no evidence that the music was actually returned before Elizabeth died but a copy (perhaps Marylin’s) did, at some time, get into the possession of Faber Music and, in January 1968, was passed on to David Munrow, the well-known enthusiast for early music and ancient musical instruments. After Munrow’s untimely death in 1976 that copy was given by his widow to the virtuoso recorder player, John Turner. He, finally, with the kind permission of the copyright-holder, Simon Campion, has now had it published by Peacock Press, (PJT 201) and a copy has been safely deposited at the British Library with the rest of Elizabeth’s extant manuscripts. He has also recorded the work on the Prima Facie label (PFCD 005) with Richard Simpson (oboe d’amore), Richard Tunniclife (viola d’amore) and Ian Thompson (harpsichord).
The piece has the unique position of being the particular one Elizabeth chose when asked to lecture on the subject of composition; now that the music has been found and printed we can follow more clearly what she described with such enthusiasm.