LDA – L.D.Austin’s life in music
(edited by Allan Thomas)
Steele Roberts Publishers 2012
Review by William Green
Louis Daly Austin – London-born teacher, composer, New Zealand pianist, columnist and inveterate letter-writer – lived a long and productive life … too long and too productive would be the opinion of his detractors, and it would be fair to say that there were many. Readers of newspapers and of the Listener during the 1950s and 1960s would no doubt remember being subjected to a barrage of sharply-worded letters from Austin (or ‘LDA’) expounding in no uncertains terms his typically reactionary views not only on musical matters but on anything which had provoked his ire. Often others would fire salvos back at him, not always seriously, as the following example illustrates. Austin objected to the carillon in Wellington, recommending that it be dismantled and reassembled on Somes Island, in Wellington harbour. Someone replied that it would surely be cheaper to take L.D. Austin and reassemble him on Somes Island.
But what shaped this trenchant critic into the controversial figure many knew only through his later correspondence? We now have musicologist Allan Thomas to thank for bringing Austin’s hitherto unpublished memoir to light – nearly fifty years after it was written – in a volume published by Steele Roberts. Allan edited the manuscript and provided an introductory paragraph but due to illness he was unable to see it through to publication. We owe a debt of gratitude to his family for bringing the project to completion after his death in 2010.
Far from being solely an excuse for airing a collection of firm opinions, the memoir reveals a colourful and varied life with a generous sprinkling of encounters with the good and the great, and a substantial fund of anecdotes, many of which – detractors take note – are surprisingly humorous. Being born into a wealthy and cultured family in London in 1877 predisposed him to a love of the arts and from an early age he attended a great many concerts, recitals and theatre performances. His depiction of musical life in London during the 1890s and early 1900s is rich in detail – he describes it as “the richest musical period of my whole life” – and one can sense his excitement at hearing such luminaries as Paderewski, Rachmaninov, Casals and Caruso first hand.
In 1908 however, he made a complete break with his past and travelled first to Australia and then on to New Zealand, where he discovered his true calling as a cinema musician. For nearly thirty years he worked as a pianist, orchestra director and arranger for silent film in various parts of New Zealand. This chapter of his life, in turn, ended with the advent of the ‘talkies’ and at nearly 60 years of age he forged a new career as a teacher, radio broadcaster and music columnist, penning his last column the night before his death in 1967 at the age of 90. This later period also saw him flourish as a composer and several of his pianistically written (if conservative) compositions were played by Moura Lympany and Louis Kentner.
His middle period, as it were, gives us an insight into early cinema days in Australia and New Zealand and also provides us with some of the more unusual anecdotes. During a mining strike in Newcastle he and his fellow musicians were pelted with lumps of coal by nearly 1000 drunk miners, and while playing solo on a later occasion – and having unknowingly replaced a band of five musicians who were bent on revenge – he was bombarded by ” a curtainfire of orange-peel, banana-skins, odd pieces of confectionery, empty chocolate boxes, ice-cream cones and other miscellaneous ammunition”. Fire, wind blowing music off music stands and a plague of water rats added to the challenges of the job, as did a bevy of colourful colleagues and employers. On two separate occasions he was swindled by the same violinist and once got into a fist fight with an Italian flautist who, he decided, was deliberately playing in his face. An earlier incident where he tore a cigar out of a manager’s mouth and slapped him hard across the face did him no favours. His ‘Irish blood’ was boiling, he states by way of explanation.
However, if we wish to understand Austin the later reactionary we must turn back again to that golden era of his life, the London of the 1890s and early 1900s. It was a magical time for him, not only of witnessing great musical performances but of meeting Sir Arthur Sullivan, thrilling to the acting talents of his godfather Sir Henry Irving and finding himself at Clara Schumann’s funeral, standing at the graveside next to a blubbering Brahms. And how many others can claim to have been snubbed by Moritz Rosenthal? It was in this cultural melting pot that he felt at home musically, and all subsequent composers’ works were measured against its conservative standards – and often found wanting. “Thus was my musical taste firmly established” he writes of this period. With Brahms firmly ensconced in his mind as “the last of the great composers” it’s little wonder that someone like Aaron Copland was seen as ‘cacophonic’, or that ‘Bartokery’ was something to be railed against at every available opportunity. He regularly lambasted the works of Douglas Lilburn, although the latter is given no mention in the memoir despite most of his instrumental music having been performed by the time of LDA’s death. One can’t help but wonder what kind of apoplectic spasm would have befallen the old man had he heard the composer’s electronic music. Needless to say, popular music doesn’t get off lightly either. Jazz is sheer degeneracy and in 1958, the news that a radio station in America intended to smash every rock and roll record in its collection was greeted with euphoria.
There are several elements in the memoir which aroused my curiosity. One is the use of language, which is distinctly ‘olde worlde’ and which sometimes makes for a quaint and stilted read. For instance, one particular host’s casual clothes were described as “somewhat plebeian habiliments” and the effect on a listener of many hours of non-stop opera is described as being “apt to pall upon a sensitive organisation”. Another curiosity (also noted by Allan Thomas in his introduction) is the complete absence of any mention whatsoever of his wife Hilda and his five children, reminding me of the wife of a certain famous man who, when asked for comment on a draft of her husband’s autobiography, remarked, “marvellous dear, but tell me – did you ever marry?” One would imagine this ommission was deliberate but to me the inclusion of family life would have made for a more 3-dimensionally character, and would have counterbalanced the descriptions of his early upbringing and family (which he does deal with, although not in great detail). Opinions are valued more than wives and children evidently, and LDA has an occasional tendency not to let the facts stand in the way of a cherished belief. As a pianist himself, he is convinced that members of this august profession live long and robust lives and by way of proof, offers us a list of great pianists who, he confidently assures us, “all passed the 80 mark.” His list includes Rachmaninov and Godowsky, who died aged 69 and 68 respectively.
In summary, while the memoir appears to have some gaping holes (in the ommission of his later family life) it is a full and fascinating record not only of musical life in London around the turn of the twentieth century, but also of the developing musical scene in this country. We can see his constant agitation in later life, both in the Listener and in newspaper columns, as being that of an irascible old curmudgeon stuck in a time warp; or of someone “obsessionally retrogressive” as John Mansfield Thomson described him in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography; or even as someone seeking status and attention. It does seem that some of this agitation, for example on behalf of emerging artists, and in support of a national orchestra, did bear some fruit, and one must admire his courage and persistence. The New Zealand musical scene would surely have been less vital without him, and as former Listener editor Monte Holcroft comments in his autobiography ‘Reluctant editor: the ‘Listener’ years, 1949-67′, “he was a character, one of the people who now and then brought colour and presence to the 1950s.” Perhaps we should leave the last word to Allan Thomas, who despite ill health took the trouble to rescue this stimulating and valuable memoir from obscurity. “LDA’s writing provides a window onto a world of music making in New Zealand that continued the romantic tradition.”
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(Another review, by Peter Mechen)
Louis Daly Austin (1877-1967) was undoubtedly one of the great characters of the musical scene in New Zealand for many years. His own memoir, hitherto unpublished, has now appeared in print, beautifully annotated by the late, lamented ethnomusicologist Allan Thomas, and expertly and attractively presented by Steele Roberts Publishers.
The author, writing in the book’s final chapter, sums it all up in a nutshell:
Anyone who essays the task of reviewing his lifetime experiences, as I have done, must necessarily face the risk of appearing egotistical, and I am no exception.
Austin’s writing is self-revelatory, and in much more than a time, place and events sense – throughout the memoirs we get something of the character of the man as described in editor Allan Thomas’s introductory section, thus:
a controversial figure in New Zealand music for more than four decades……provocative and extreme opinions….extraordinary recall of the detail of his earliest music experiences…tremendous enthusiasm for music….
The book consists of that editorial introduction, followed by LD’s memoir, written up to the age of eighty-seven as a more-or-less continuous span (though there’s far less detail in the narratives dealing with his later years). There’s also a chapter-like section towards the end containing various extracts from Austin’s long-standing (1929-1967) music column which ran in Dunedin’s “Evening Star” newspaper, thus providing examples from his career as a music journalist.
Had this section been more extensive (perhaps even including selections from his numerous letters to the newspapers), then the reader would have been presented with an even stronger, more pungent idea of Austin’s ascerbic personality and critical style. I did wonder whether editor Allan Thomas, having introduced this element (successfully, in my view) into the book, might have thought at any stage about amplifying this section even further along similar lines?
As demonstrated repeatedly in the course of the memoir Austin had a well-developed sense of his own worth, both as a musician and as a journalist; and of course his reactionary views regarding modern music (which he called “Bartokery”, and which included jazz and “pop” music) became widely known over the years. He revelled in his opinions, and in response to a query regarding his damning criticisms of modern music he said that he could be compared to medical practitioners working to eradicate disease.
But, as previously mentioned, LD’s memoir concentrates mainly and mostly upon the first two periods of his life, before he became a music critic – firstly his early years as a child in London and his student experiences on the Continent; and secondly his emigration to Australasia, and his taking up a career, mostly in New Zealand, of “playing for the pictures” in the heyday of silent film. These are the experiences that Austin brings most vividly and entertainingly to life, whirling us through sequences of evocative description and tales of incident-packed events.
Time and time again, LD’s compelling storytelling style captures the reader’s attention, his skills managing to transcend what comes across in places as an almost compulsively egotistic manner. Perhaps, as with beauty, such is “in the eye of the beholder” – for some people LD’s frequent self-congratulatory paeans will seem like proper self-respect, while to others they will smack of either naïve narcissism or pompous arrogance. It’s a tribute to his genuine talents that such things seem far less important than do the stories of his experiences he recounts so enthusiastically.
And what experiences they were – to add to the more personalized tales of interactions with family members, fellow pupils and teachers and friends, there were accounts of attending concerts by people such as Clara Schumann and Edvard Grieg in London in 1889, and also of hearing Tchaikovsky conducting one of his own concertos. And then, the following year there was pianist Ignaz Paderewski playing in London in his prime, an experience the youthful LD recalled as “imcomparable”. (LD’s later, somewhat disconcerting encounter with a much older Paderewski in New Zealand is also mentioned in the book),
The wonderment of those times wasn’t merely musical – Austin devotes some of his narrative to accounts of his boyhood explorations in “England’s Home of Mystery”, an exhibition near Piccadilly featuring magical entertainments, courtesy of John Nevil Maskelyne (who also invented the pay toilet!), and whose installations featuring life-like mechanical figures were renowned throughout the land.
Just as diverting were LD’s recountings of his experiences while at school in Europe, and his return to London, therein to witness an embarrassment of riches vis-à-vis many renowned musical and theatrical performers – in fact, a veritable roll-call of famous names of the period, too numerous to replicate here. Austin also had an interest in extra-musical activities (he was the godson of the famous actor Sir Henry Irving), and along these lines were experiences such as his attendance at the first performance of Oscar Wilde’s play “The Importance of Being Earnest”, followed, of course, by the shock of hearing of the unfortunate playwright’s subsequent downfall and degradation. By contrast, out-of-doors, there were the notable on-the-field exploits of the most famous cricketer of the day, W.G.Grace, whom Austin witnessed scoring his thousandth run of the 1895 season.
The second “phase” of LD’s career came with his emigration in 1908, firstly to Australia and thence to New Zealand, beginning a whirlwind course of events involving the young man’s involvement as a performing musician with the silent movies. Again the storyteller’s gift is strongly in evidence as Austin recounts an absorbing saga of numerous hirings and firings, boom-times and bust-ups, satisfactions and frustrations, a pattern that seemed to bedevil LD’s efforts in this particular field. But some of the descriptions, especially of venues in Wellington long since obliterated, are fascinating and invaluable. At the end of this career-phase he had played for “the pictures” for no less than 27 years.
Interestingly, the third and last phase of LD’s life is the least well-documented within the author’s own memoir. Allan Thomas also points out a curious anomaly regarding Austin’s life-chronicles:
– there is nothing written of his marriage, the birth and education of five children, frequent moves….or the difficulty of making a living in the final decades of his life….he separated the family scene from his musical life…..
And yet he was described as “a genial man at home” who played the piano for his and others’ enjoyment. He gave many of his piano lessons at home, and often used the wind-up gramophone owned by the family to help him make his arrangements for the theatre orchestra.
Regarding the lack of detail in the third part of the memoir, it’s probable that Austin “spent himself” in other writing activities, such as his frequent letters, and his writings for both the “Evening Star” and “Music in New Zealand”. So, in a sense the present publication is one “going with” what LD did write, rather than seeking to “beef up” the content – and for what has been made available at last we must be truly grateful! – with the help of Allan Thomas’s family, LD’s daughter-in-law Lola Austin, and Roger Steele, publisher, this book’s happy leap into the light of day has been brought about in great style.
If one’s interest is music, or history or biography or rattlingly good storytelling, then this book will please and delight for many a day. It can be requested readily as an order through Unity Books in Wellington City.