David Watkin and his Three Musical Heroes

Ascending the Hierarchy of Conductors  we come three conductors at whose rostra Mr.Watkin worshipped. They could do no wrong.

In ascending order then,

  • Hans Knappertsbusch
  • Willem Mendelberg
  • Wilhelm Furtwangler

Their performances were exemplary despite the ruined surface of scratched shellac disks, despite the ear splitting distortions from the timpani, and sometimes the clear sound of bombs seeking the Chancellery during a live performance.  Sometimes they were giving strident interviews to lackeys, or be overheard rehearsing with particular brutality towards the Orchestra. They were not to be questioned as to their judgment (either political or musical) or their sexual disposition. Their names were hallowed and not to be mispronounced. Their faces loomed out of the walls at the Mews. In distant parts of the house bundles of specialist journals detailed their more obscure performances and recordings.

“Just what is it that makes a great conductor, David?” I asked.
“Interesting question,” he said. “I’ll put my mind to that.”

Later in the day, came the response.”The Orchestra adored him. They even played exceptionally when he was sitting listening at the back of the concert hall.  Furtwangler was a sort of presence.”  David always avoided the word ‘spiritual’ in his conversation, but I knew what he meant. We traded anecdotes about the conductor achieving a balance of orchestral forces. It was time to stir things up, I thought. ” Is the Great Conductor like a Great Film Director? ”

He then launched into  an extended criticism of the Film Industry Fools he had worked with in his professional life, of their erratic judgments, lack of aesthetic sense and their grasping natures. Each point he made actually served to reinforce his total and blind faith in the Great Conductors. Each aspect of the Three Heroes omniscience revealed how David would have like to have led his own life, as inspirer of men (perhaps some women), the revealer of truths, the apotheosis of dignity and frivolity, the source of a million anecdotes that caused the world to chuckle for years.

Looking through my own collection of cds David would sometimes spot a Furtwangler performance he had not encountered and which I had acquired in all innocence (monkeys and typewriters). He would fix a gimlet eye on me, convinced that in an act of sheer discrimination I had moved ahead of him in Knar-ology. I admit to a sense of elation at my own contribution to the game. “Right, I’ll get Keith to get this tomorrow.” He would usually find on his return to the Mews that he had the performance already but in another package and I would hear nothing more.

  One Reply to “David Watkin and his Three Musical Heroes”

  1. 14/10/2009 at 1:47 pm

    There is a fourth conductor that David would have added to this list that of Sir Henry J. Wood. In his teens and until he was called up to serve in the British Army David joined the audience at London’s Queens Hall for the Henry Wood Promenade concerts each summer. It was a musical education for David (as it was to be for me 30 years later when “Flash” wielded the baton at the Proms, by then moved to the Royal Albert Hall). Wood’s clear beat from a long stick he held and his fearsome eyes produced astonishing performances from under rehearsed orchestras. Adrian Boult another long stick conductor was also held in high regard by David except for Tchaikovsky, a favorite composer for Boult, but certainly not with David!

    One day I drove David to meet a record collector friend in Dulwhich. Sat in my friend’s lounge completely dominated by an EMG gramophone with a 3ft diameter horn, David listened to early acoustic recordings made by Wood. My friend then produced the full orchestral score of Sibelius En Saga and David eyes lit up when he found it contained the blue pencil marks of Sir Henry for it was Sir Henry’s conducting copy. Thereafter David asked me on many occasions if my friend was minded to part with the score. It was a score he would have loved to own. Holding the score was only second best, but an experience David never forgot.

    You can watch Sir Henry and his big stick conduct Grainger (a composer that David held in low esteem) at

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