The school was at the top of the town for a start. So reaching it was an effort in itself. It had been granted a royal charter by Edward VI during a particularly strenuous nappy change, and stands as an eternal reminder of the folly of giving people under 16 the vote.
The music department sat in the “old building”. In my time it was presided over by an archetypal suburban nightmare who (for legal reasons) I will refer to as David Wellborn. Wellborn was a master of mediocrity and, thus, fitted the ethos of the school perfectly. His main claim to musical fame was that he was friends with the composer of “Walking in the Air” and he would spend endless lessons droning on about how nice it was to be friends with the composer of “Walking in the Air.” This and his other delightful habit of calling his pupils “morons” ensured that I was never going to get on with this odious little rodent. For this reason, the main support I found for my compositional endeavors was almost totally removed from the music department. My contempt for Wellborn pretty much much came to a head when I asked whether the school record library held any Schoenberg that I could listen to (I was fascinated by atonality at that age and was wanting to get my ears around as much as I could). His response: “Page, you moron, why on earth would YOU want to listen to that stuff for anyway?” merely confirmed my negative opinion of this clown. Luckily a biology master at the school had a record of the Piano Concerto which he was kind enough to let me borrow. (“Wellborn” is now managing director of one of the big London orchestras, which shows how far they have sunk. One of his special favorites, a particularly snooty, arrogant little tyke, went on to conduct it at one stage. They deserve each other.)
The music department was full of choristers from the local cathedral and a pretty sniffy bunch they were too. There seemed to be an attitude of “your not worth speaking to unless you love Stainer’s “Crucifixion”” as if it were the sublimest work in the whole repertoire. Attempting to interest these jumped up little cretins in composers I loved like Berlioz, Beethoven, Bruckner et al was usually met with a blank stare and a “who is this idiot?” expression. You could spend years throwing names like Kandinsky, Klee, Stockhausen, Messiaen at these creeps and would still be met with icy contempt. However mention Stainer, Bairstow or Wesley and their faces burst into warm affection and regard. On such foundations is the musical establishment built. At least in the U.K.
My musical life at this school was, therefore, rather like that at home, a determined trudge against indifference and hostility. I was consigned to hanging around the music buildings looking for spare pianos I could use for improvisation and compositional purposes, before being interrupted by Wellborn’s hallowed cry of “Page, you moron, murdering the pianos again I see.” The Bairstow lovers were allowed to play the organ and harpsichord et al, of course. I wasn’t even allowed to look at them.
Personally, I am now rather happy it worked out like that as I have managed to keep my mind free of all those bourgeois cultural deficiencies which value different performances of the same half dozen pieces over a broader perspective which looks at each composer as an individual. I have not allowed my mind to be infected with value judgments passed down through centuries which means that I am able to approach each composer with an open mind and not in terms of “10th rate Bach old boy”, one result of which is that I have discovered, and continue to discover, composers well outside the mainstream who, I find, of equal and even greater interest than the ones so often promoted in the kind of concerts Wellborn and his equally odious little favorite are capable of giving.
However, it was years before I regained my self confidence and belief in my work and its value as a result of these fatuous non-entities. These ridiculously pompous little Bairstow freaks who riddle the musical world like cancer.
The Conservatoire in Birmingham where I was summoned on the basis of a handful of piano pieces and where I spent 7 wonderful years some 10 years later? That’s a totally different, far happier, story.
By the way, for any members of the Edward Bairstow society who read this rant? Nothing personal.