York Mystery Plays

[Skip navigation]

Search the NCEM archive

Search the archive for

Show a full index A-Z

Item details

Interview with James Brown

Interviews : James Brown (1951 composer) Interview transcription

Item type: Interviews
Archive reference: YMP/C/2
Date/year: 2002
Description: Transcription of Interview 26/04/2002
Venue: 29 Vespergate, Leeds
Interviewer: Cathy Dew
Interviewee: James Brown
Recording Reference: INT/08

CD: Right, that seems to be running. Perhaps you could, just to try and see if the tape's running OK,
JB: Reminisce and so on. What I remember chiefly is that we seemed to have glorious weather all the way through the performances. I can't...
CD: OK. It's Friday 26 April and I'm in Leeds with, on a project to record some of the memories and reminiscences of the York Mystery Plays. It's a project called Illumination: [From Shadow into Light], and mine name is Cathryn Dew and I'm from the York Early Music Foundation. Before we go any further, I'd like to thank you very much for agreeing to speak to me today. And I wondered if we could begin our conversation with you introducing yourself, and by telling me how you first came into contact with the York Mystery Plays.
JB: Right, well, the thing was, around that time, the early 1950s, I was chorus pianist to the Leeds Philharmonic Society. And Allan Wickes was the chorus master, and we were more or less contemporary with each other over this, and we developed into quite a friendship over the weekly meetings. And we found ourselves congenial company. And he then discovered that I was a composer, and was very interested and enthusiast and encouraging. And as far as I recall it was because of his connection with York, being sub-organist at the Minster, that he was called upon to take an interest in the Mystery Plays. And he then put my name forward as a likely person to compose the music, and so it was really through him right from the start that this opportunity came, and at that time I hadn't any particular connection with York, but it developed from then very, very nicely. So I got a great deal of delight in this and I was able through Allan to get involved with the actual production by rehearsing the various musicians. Incidentally, one of the people that isn't mentioned in that programme, I don't know if Allan Wickes has spoken of him, is the man who ran the 8 men who were brass band players; this was Conrad Martin, who, I don't know whether he's been mentioned at all, has he?
CD: Not to my knowledge, no.
JB: Well, I think his name should certainly appear in this, because he was as you might say one of the team, he chose these players. He was in fact himself, he'd been to Neller Hall, and I think, yes, eventually he became instrument teacher at Ampleforth College. So his knowledge of brass bands and brass instruments was extraordinarily useful. I don't know if he was actually resident in York at that time, he probably was, but he and Allan knew each other, and so I got to know Conrad as well. So it was a very happy alliance amongst the three of us, you see.
CD: Just for the benefit of the recording, perhaps you could just tell me your name?
JB: James Brown.
CD: Just so we've got that on tape! Thanks very much! OK. So you composed the music for the very first performance of the Mystery Plays.
JB: That's right.
CD: Since the Middle Ages. Before you were approached to compose the music, perhaps you could just tell me a little bit about your musical background and how you came to be in the area.
JB: Yes, I will. I came up to Leeds in 1948 when I was, when I joined Leeds University Music Department. That was how my association with Yorkshire began, you see, and has remained all that time. And I suppose from the point of view of composing, this is the thing that has always been central to my life from day one, as you might say, and before I came to Yorkshire, I had written quite a lot of stuff one way or another, but it was very delightful the way in which when I came here I had opportunities to do allsorts, and I may say that it was through Allan that I got to know one or two people in York itself who were musicians, and they got me to write things for them. Amongst them was Margaret Reed, she was the wife of Sir Herbert Reed, and they were very keen people, and she played the viola and she got me to write a work for her and a colleague of hers that played the clarinet. And I suppose that when Allan offered this project to me I saw that it would be very wonderful to do it. And I'd also had the benefit of when I was younger of being in a choir, and so that, as it were, gave me a very nice insight into what choirs did and sort of what the literature was and so on.
CD: So, can you remember how much time you had to write the music? When you were approached and what sort of timetable you had to work to?
JB: Not a lot, I don't think. I rather think, Cathryn, that I was approached before the Easter vacation of 1951, and I spent that time in, as it were, getting it together, and for the rehearsal..was it about June they started, the actual performances? I know.does it say?
CD: I know they ran during the summer.
JB: I think it was that sort of time.
CD: I don't think the programme has dates.
JB: Well, anyway, it was, as you might say, late spring or early summer. That was the sort of thing, you know. So I think that that was more or less it. I was given an indication of the pieces I would have to write, and to a certain extent, I think I was given a free hand to decide on what sort of thing the choir would sing. I think that one or two of the sort of carols or pieces that they sang were chosen by me but the indication that it should be something about Adam's Fall, should we say, or the coming of the shepherds, the angels and the shepherds, things like that.
CD: Right, so the selection of the texts was up to you.
JB: To a certain extent it was. But there was a lot obviously that was not, particularly with the more traditional stuff like the Royal Banners, the [unclear], other traditional pieces.
CD: Right. So, how did you decide what sort of musical, vocal and instrumental forces to write for? Was that again your idea?
JB: No, no, that was more or less told me beforehand, that I should write for a choir of SATB, basically, although I think I.I was just wondering whether I,..there was sometimes a little more dividing up.
CD: What, splitting the vocal parts into more than the four?
JB: That's right. But as far as the instrumentation went, that was set out, you know that there should be 4 trumpets, 3 trombones and tuba, a wind [sic], a brass octet and I might have said. That I was told about. I was given the actual material the forces to write for.
CD: And do you know whose idea that was to make it, I mean it was orchestral brass, wasn't it, as opposed to brass band.
JB: No. I should think probably it was done in consultation between Allan and Conrad Martin, I don't know, I should think so. I mean, from the point of view of the choir, it was really a matter of a realistic sort of number of people.[looks through programme].you see there you have the choir, I should imagine that all that number were not used every night. I should think it would have been half those people, and then half the next night.
CD: I see, so that they had a bit of a break.
JB: I think so, Cathy, yes.
CD: Cos it's a big job, isn't it?
JB: Yes.
CD: Right, OK, that's interesting. So you knew that you had to write for a brass, orchestral brass, octet, and presumably, I talked to Allan about this last week, that brass instruments would probably withstand some more adverse weather conditions at little bit better than strings or other wind instruments, and thought that might be one of the reasons why the brass group was chosen.
JB: I should think so, probably, yes.
CD: And so you had quite a short time, it sounds, to write the music, and you sort out texts from medieval sources?
JB: As far as I could, I have never been a scholar at all about this sort of thing. But I know that there was one text that I used at the end of part one, which was from Chaucer.
CD: Right.
JB: And I think that the other things like one or two of the choral pieces were probably traditional words, so there was one about 'out and out of the dust and clay,' and I think it was a traditional thing rather than a, as far as I know. I was going to make one point there, I forgot what it was now.it's gone.
CD: You'll remember.
JB: It'll come back to me perhaps.
CD: Right, and so when you composed the music, obviously you looked up and found out about medieval texts. With your music, did you think at all about medieval musical style, or did you make things totally original?
JB: The sort of authentic. I did, I suppose that I didn't want the thing to sound too out of context with the medieval text, but writing my own stuff I suppose that it would inevitably be almost a pastiche sometimes, you know. But I suppose that I was.how shall I put it.keen to write what I myself felt, but with an awareness of what little I did know about medieval music or earlier music. I think that was really how it was. I think the thing I was going to say, Cathryn, was in connection with what happened in rehearsals in, and when things were adjusted, because it might well happen that I would be asked to write another fanfare for.that sort of thing, for Pilate I remember there had to be another one for him. And obviously as things went on a certain amount of the music that I did write wasn't required.
CD: Cause it was all going on too long, or something.
JB: Yes, that's right. Descent Into Hell, where I wrote a lot of music for the trombones, but not a great deal of it was used, was needed, you know.
CD: Ah. And so, what was used is retained in your score here, is it?
JB: It is.
CD: And what about the bits.
JB: I think basically, the indications of cuts are fairly clearly marked, you may have noticed them yourself.
CD: Right, I'm just having a look at the score here. A very precious document. Oh I see, so everything you wrote is in here, and if was cut, it just says 'cut.'
JB: This is the original, that's right, yes.
CD: Oh, that's very interesting, it's lovely to see the conductor's marking on the score as well.
JB: Well, that was, makes it more interesting, really.
CD: So, did you talk, did you collaborate quite closely with the director of the plays? E. Martin Brown.
JB: Yes, to a.I myself didn't see a great deal of him, but I would imagine that Allan would have done, and.
CD: Yes, Allan told me he.
JB: And would transfer to me what was being done. I don't suppose really that I as the composer had an enormous amount to do with the organisation, precisely, this was, were planned, and then I went along with what was required. And then on, over the actual rehearsing and so on, yes I think that.
CD: [looking at score] Oh, I see, it says 'Pilate' here, so this is the extra fanfare, is it? Right.
JB: That may have been written, probably was written, you see, after I'd written the score all together, obviously an addition.
CD: Yes, yes. It says 21a, and then 21b is inserted and it's numbered 21b here. Oh right, that's wonderful. So, when you wrote the music for the performance, and then you were involved in the rehearsals of course quite a lot in order .
JB: That's right
CD: .to make all these changes, and.
JB: A fair amount, yes
CD: Rewrite bits and pieces where necessary, and
JB: Yes, yes.
CD: .that sort of thing. I notice looking through your score that there are some Latin texts in here as well. Are they mainly parts of liturgy that you chose to set?
JB: Um, may I have a look and see, to remind myself of what.?
CD: Yes, of course, there you are.
JB: They may have been what I was required to do, well Sanctus, that was a fairly obvious one, I probably chose that myself. Oh that incidently, is the sort, this is The Truth Sent From Above, which is obviously a little more traditional one, but I made an arrangement of it, according to what was required, you know. Which I hope was not out of context, that was the idiom of it. Let me just see now.Yes, I think you see that in this case I was using an existing, carol, Angelus ad Virginum.
CD: Angelus ad Virginum, yes, that's a carol, isn't it?
JB: I simply harmonised it, but I maintained the original tune and everything. I'll see if there's any Glorias and so on.
CD: Was this project your first experience of writing for theatre, or had you ever composed it for a theatrical context before?
JB: I'd never done anything quite like this before. I suppose, let me just try and think for a moment, think back.. No, I suppose that I'd never written for anything of this nature. Later on I wrote incidental music for the University Theatre Group, things of that sort.
CD: Right.
JB: But that was later. So in a way, you could say that.
CD: This was your first experience of.
JB: Yes, yes.
CD: Oh, goodness! It's a big project to take on, isn't it, for the first time you've ever done it.
JB: Yes. I was very thrilled to have the chance of doing it, I think that..[looking at the score] If you take those, 25b and 29, I should imagine that I was recommended to use those particular texts. I was just wondering, have we got the.?
CD: Is it the? The text is down there
JB: I was just wondering whether I should think you see that 25.
CD: So they were recommended in the script that you used, yes.
JB: Right. [looking through the score] Ah, yes, you see.that is part of the text, [unclear: a text?] so obviously there are cases where I was asked to set a particular bit of Latin in the actual play.
CD: Mmm. So, there's a little bit of text here in the play that you've set, and the choir would then sing. Did any members of the cast sing, or was it always.
JB: I don't think so, no I think that the two things were separate. The thing was that I remember that the musicians, the choir and the brass players, we were on a sort of eminence, that was built up sort of structure, so we were fairly high up, you see.
CD: So the sound could carry up
JB: That's right, so we looked across, you see, at the Abbey ruins. Abbey, area. But we weren't geographically so close to them that there was a sort of liaison which we could look across at each other, as it were. But no, the last piece of all, which I was asked to make a very extended number out of, was a Gloria, and the idea was that as the characters moved away from the main stage, as a procession, the choir would sing them out as you might say.
CD: Right, and this was at the end of the Last Judgement?
JB: That's right, the very last.
CD: Yes, it says in the script here. [unclear] as well. I notice in the score that there's very few cues written into the part here, so you
JB: That's right.
CD: So whoever was directing, whether it was you or Allan, had to follow the printed text all the time.
JB: That's right.
CD: That must have been quite difficult?
JB: It was really. Yes, we had to turn over pages rapidly.
CD: Particularly where there were cuts, it must have been quite.
JB: That's right!
CD: I suppose you had plenty of performances to get used to it.
JB: Well, true enough, that was absolutely it.
CD: So can you remember what it felt like, presumably you rehearsed separately from the actors at the beginning of the rehearsal period.
JB: Yes.
CD: What did it feel like when you were rehearsing together for the first time?
JB: Now, I have to think that one out.
CD: Did you have time to consider, sort of the significance of the occasion, or was it very busy?
JB: I suppose we must have done, it's a bit, my mind now exactly how; yes I suppose that we must have done rehearsals actually in situ beforehand. I can vaguely, vaguely remember this. And I supposed, yes, that on the strength of the rehearsal Martin Brown would have made decisions as to what should be cut out, and this sort of thing.
CD: Yes, of course, because you wouldn't have been able to decide that sort of thing until you saw the whole thing together.
JB: I think that's right.
CD: So the initial rehearsal period must have been quite busy, really, for you, rewriting bits and adding bits and taking things away.
JB: Quite, quite busy, yes. That's right.
CD: So your job wasn't done, by any stage at that point.
JB: I suppose in a sense, you know, that the musicians being as it were in a separate area of their own meant that they waited to be called upon, as you might say, while the play was going on, and then, 'Musicians, would you sing now?' or not, or, you know.
CD: So there was a lot of sitting around, and waiting I suppose.
JB: That's right, yes.
CD: And then the first night?
JB: Well you know I don't remember very vividly about the first night. I suppose there must have been a great excitement and happiness about it. I don't remember that we had any nerves or anything like that. I imagine you know that the very first performance, Allan would have been in charge, and I would probably have sat in on it, you know, and got the general picture. So probably the very first one, I wasn't involved at all, I could just sort of sit and take it all in.
CD: Well I suppose that's quite a luxury to be able to do that? Having been busy with the preparation.
JB: Yes, because Allan was, he was the man who really, really was able to conduct and this sort of thing, he was marvellous at this sort of thing all together.
CD: So you made a good team!
JB: [laughs]
CD: Are there any parts of the music that you remember in particular?
JB: You mean from the point of view of the performance, or?
CD: Yes, yes.
JB: Let me have a look and see. [looks at score]
CD: Allan mentioned one or two moments that he thought were very effective, and exciting.
JB: I suppose the very first fanfare for God the Father. I was happy about the way that came about.
CD: So this is the first time that the audience has heard the brass group play?
JB: Yes, that's right, right at the very start. I thought it was a bit, erm, exciting from that point of view. Yes if you look at it, I suppose that I started in unison and let the thing become more complex as it went on, as it, making a piece.involving a number of points of view..
CD: Yes, I can see how it starts with.a unison G and
JB: Yes. Just the trumpets, and also for Christ, but for Satan that one used the trombones.
CD: Yes, they have always had a sort of significance, haven't they?
JB: That's right, yes.
CD: A symbolic connection with sort of sacred and profane at the same time I suppose.
JB: When it came, I had to write this fanfare for Pilate, I thought what's left of it? I might as well use the whole lot! So he.
CD: So Pilate had a very grand fanfare!
JB: Yes, the central [unclear: rav?] Let's see if there was anything else which made an impact? I suppose one of the things which was very, which did make an impact was very, the Carrying of the Cross, The Royal Banners Forward Go, that with the brass and the choir doing that. It seemed, it did have a very remarkable effect really. Seeing this on the stage going forward, you know, and this traditional tune, the choir singing and the.and I think that it fades away at the end as far as I remember. You've got a big build up, and then it fades at the end so that.am I right?
CD: Yes, it starts with the full chorus and.men's voices in unison, and then, and that's accompanied quite strongly by the brass group. And then you get a semi-chorus, still men, and then all men's voices again at the end.
JB: Yes.
CD: Yes, again, they're in unison again. And the brass, the brass fades away and just joins the men's voices at the end in unison.
JB: Yes, that was meant as it were to be a fading thing.
CD: So what about the, what about the sort of significance of this first performance in nearly 400 years?
JB: From the point of view of the general public?
CD: Yes, and you, really, if we can manage to separate the two. When did it.
JB: I suppose that.what can I say about it? [pause] I suppose I can say that it was inspiring. I suppose that's as good a word as I can use. To me, inspiring to have this wonderful experience to be involved in this revival of something which was so magnificent as a project, as it were bringing back all these centuries as it were of worship. One of the things, that, mentioning off hand, was that while we were, the various people who were involved in it, we found that so often we were quoting from the Mystery Plays in ordinary conversation! There was one particular passage where Caiaphas.rather modestly refuses to sit next to Pilate, and says, 'Ah no, sir Pilate, not for me,' sort of thing. And Pilate says, 'In courtesy, sir, you must give way,' 'no, no,' and 'say no more, sit beside me, I mean what I say.' [laughter]
CD: And that became a catchphrase.did it?
JB: I mean what I say! That sort of thing, a very friendly. One of the sort of things, now that you've asked me about this, it was all so friendly. The whole.everybody seemed to be so involved in this, and no personal reputations or anything, they were of no importance at all. And it's rather.When Richard [?Shepherd] came over and he was looking at this, it was nice to see that Judi Dench was one of the people who was in the first production.
CD: Yes. I read in the programme that her mother was the wardrobe mistress, is that right, Olive Dench is the wardrobe mistress in the first production?
JB: Yes, it mentions Judith Dench, amongst the.I think eventually she became the Virgin Mary at a later stage.
CD: Yes. It was a later performance that she played.
JB: Can I heat your coffee up again?
CD: No, it'll be fine, I'll drink it like that, that's fine. Yes, it's lovely the way that there seemed to be such a community feel to the performance?
JB: Yes, that's right.
CD: Yes, I've just noticed, Judith Dench is an angel. She must have been a young girl when she did that?
JB: I suppose that the musicians and the actors didn't, as it were, come, we didn't mix a great deal. But when one did, when one was with them all, there was a lovely atmosphere amongst everybody. And that probably is the thing I would regard as the most important quality of the whole thing. This friendliness that seemed to be so in line with the whole character of the work itself. I remember the Mystery Plays as a sort of whole.
CD: Yes, as a community project.
JB: That's right, yes.
CD: Very much like it was in the Middle Ages, yes.
JB: Yes, I think that.
CD: That's fascinating. And so you were on the staff at the University of Leeds?
JB: That's right. I started in 1948 and I did 35 years, and then I retired.
CD: Wow. So you were teaching composition at the time?
JB: Yes.
CD: But presumably most of this took place during the long vacation, in the summer, didn't it?
JB: Yes, I suppose most of my composition happened during the long vacation, and the.
CD: And the Easter vacation.
JB: Yes. That's right, although I suppose things went on in between.
CD: I suppose you must have been dashing backwards and forwards from Leeds to York quite regularly?
JB: Yes, I suppose so. Now let me just try and think that one through..I certainly stayed with Allan and his friend Willy Cobb, who was a solicitor in York and played the viola, no doubt, he was a very live wire, he would probably have had various activities connected with admin.and I rather wonder whether I couldn't have stayed the whole period.no.no I suppose that I just had to get over to York at evenings and do this.
CD: So did that mean travelling by train?
JB: By train, it would have been, yes indeed.
CD: Hmm, that's amazing. Now I'm just trying to make sure there wasn't.Yes there was another question I wanted to ask you before we finish. Have you ever had any involvement in any of the other productions of the Mystery Plays?
JB: None at all, no, one only.
CD: This is the one and only.
JB: I believe.
CD: But you've been to see
JB: .Martin Brown, yes, he wrote to me after the first performance, he was wondering whether he would use my music again for the second performance, but evidently he decided against it, and I think probably the intention became to have something which was more in keeping with the medieval style. Well you'll know more about this than I do, as to what sort of music was used.
CD: Well of course Richard Rastall has done lots of research into that, yes I've spoken to him about it. How he's researched; what is likely to have been used where; and how you can tell. Yes, it's fascinating, a difficult subject to find out about. But yes, that's amazing. So tell me about the broadcast, when was, the whole plays were broadcast were they? Or was it the music on its own?
JB: No, I'm, let's see what it says. I think it was simply excerpts or.
CD: You've got a copy of the Radio Times here. Is this from 1951 or was it later?
JB: Yes, 1951, June 3rd to 9th, 1951, pages 9 and 14.
CD: Goodness, I've never seen a copy of the Radio Times that looks like this before! It's amazing.
JB: Well there's a little article about it, and I think.
CD: Wonderful!
JB: Page 14, hang on I'll hand it to you. I think 14 is simply an indication of.that's right, an abridged version of the.9.30-10.30. If you'd like to look at pages 9 and again on page 14.
CD: So this is an article about the Mystery Plays, and.mm, and this is an interview with E. Martin Brown.
JB: That's right. Yes.
CD: Oh it would be wonderful for us to have a closer look at all of this, then page 14, [reads] The north home service, at 9.30, the York Cycle is the finest and most complete body of Mystery Plays to be found connected with any English town or city. Last performed in 1572, and seen from the production on which the broadcast version is based. So they recorded, or.broadcast.Presumably it was recorded and then broadcast at a later date.
JB: I assume so, I don't think it was actually.
CD: Yes. It says here BBCRecording.
JB: Ah, does it? Yes. I, possibly Allan knows more about that than I would.
CD: On Sunday 3rd June. wonderful. And it says, you're the composer of the music here, but, yes, how interesting.
JB: I suppose it was a very exciting year, you know, being the Festival of Britain all together. I suppose there was a sort of euphoria in the air at that time, because rationing and things like that had gone on quite a little while after the War, but then it seemed to brighten up, and with the Festival of Britain it was a sort of gesture of.
CD: It was a sort of tonic for the nation!
JB: Exactly so. That's right.
CD: Yes, it's amazing. I suppose the thing is that because the Mystery Plays have made such a profound impression on people for so many, so many years since, that we tend to forget that it was one of many, you know, momentous events taking place over the whole country and in York as well.
JB: Yes, that's right, it was York's particular contribution to the whole business of celebration.
CD: So did you have any involvement in the Leeds celebrations for the Festival at all?
JB: Well, not for the point of view of being involved very often. But there was one year when the Festival was on, and I was commissioned to write a work for organ and strings.
CD: Right, but that was on a different year.
JB: That was.
CD: You had quite enough really.
JB: Yes, I don't.I can't remember if there was a great deal going on. When I first came to Leeds, the cultural life was fairly quiet, you know, there wasn't a great deal going on. Well I remember that the Grand Theatre, that there was a pantomime season which started in November and finished in April.
CD: Goodness, that's a very long pantomime season.
JB: And nothing else went on! So people used to come over from all over the place, because Leeds had got this pantomime going, you know, and then other things like plays and other types of show had to fit in with this business.
CD: Is there anything else that you would like to tell me about the Mystery Plays that I haven't already asked you? That's important.
JB: I'm just wondering if there's any point that I should make. Erm.try and think if there's.
CD: Well if anything occurs to you then give us a call.
JB: Yes, I can't honestly think of anything. Sort of trying to think up. I suppose the only other thing that immediately comes to mind was the fact that my own family were very excited about all this and came up for it, you know, my mother and my sister came up.
CD: And was that from quite a distance?
JB: Yes, from Suffolk and from London. So it was obviously quite a thrilling business, the whole thing. I think that's all that I can think of, Cathryn, for the moment.
CD: Okay, well thank you very much indeed for giving us your time and for talking to me. It's been fascinating to talk to you. It's been great, thank you very much.
JB: Okay.

< Go back