Daring to Excel: The Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain 
by Ruth Railton.
Secker, 466 pp., £20, August 1992, 0 436 23359 2
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‘Ruth gave the Prime Minister as a Christmas card an old map of the Broadstairs area of Kent.’ The Prime Minister thanked her for it, writing from Chequers ‘in his own hand’. In his 1970-74 diaries Cecil King records a warm relationship between his wife, Dame Ruth Railton, and Edward Heath. ‘I think he is fond of her,’ he wrote on 6 March 1971 after Ted had been round for tea, ‘and finds the friendship of an intelligent and musical woman, with no possible axe to grind, very welcome.’

Daring to Excel is not the book of someone who has no axes to grind. On the contrary, it tells the story of how an intelligent and musical woman ground one particular axe exceedingly fine, honing it into a lethal weapon for splitting and dividing, for cleaving the hearts of children in the service of her ideal. The book also explains why it wouldn’t have been necessary for Railton to grind her axes with Edward Heath. When they had tea together in March 1971, Mr Heath had long been a fan of the National Youth Orchestra. In 1963, as Secretary of State for Industry and a VIP with musical credentials, he had been made an honorary NYO member and awarded its badge. When Railton retired as Musical Director in 1965 and the orchestra temporarily suspended its activities, Edward Heath spoke up for it in the House of Commons. In 1969, it was natural that Peter McLachlan, at the time administrator of the NYO and later active at Conservative Central Office, should invite the then Leader of the Opposition to visit the orchestra on its Easter holiday course at a minor public school in Ramsgate, just down the road from Broadstairs, where Mr Heath lived. On that occasion, after listening to the orchestra play, Mr Heath mounted the podium to speak. From my position at the rear of the orchestra I thought he looked surprisingly small for a major politician. As to what he said, I remember little of it, except that he made one priceless slip of the tongue. How hard it had been, he said gravely, to choose between setting out on a career in public life and becoming ‘a professional museum’.

I doubt whether there was anyone among the hundred and fifty or so teenagers in Mr Heath’s audience for whom that ‘imaginary museum of musical works’, as Lydia Goehr calls it in the title of a recent book, was not the centre of life. We virtually lived there, and in most cases had done so for years. My own love of the museum had begun when I was nine and ill in bed. Previous visits, under the guidance of my father, had left me curious. But now – perhaps it was the temperature or the rather unhappy state of mind I was in at the time – I suddenly saw the point and sat for hours propped up against my pillows learning the first names of composers from a 1938 edition of the Oxford Companion to Music, while listening to a record of the Eroica which I wore out within a week.

By the time I was 16 and sitting at the back of the horn section of the NYO half-listening to Mr Heath, I had penetrated quite deeply into the labyrinth of the museum. Like my colleagues in the orchestra I had early discovered the wonderful fact that you could work the museum exhibits yourself, step inside them, even in a way become them. The intensity of these experiences beat everything else on offer, until, perhaps, falling in love for the first time, but even then the music rose to the occasion, providing a whole repertoire of voices in which to articulate the inarticulacy of feeling. The more proficient I became at playing, the greater the rewards of ventriloquism. Playing the piano offered ways to impersonate genius: playing in an orchestra group ecstasy. At a local level the height of these experiences came for me in a performance of the Verdi Requiem in Winchester Cathedral. Playing the horn in the Tuba Mirum, I seemed temporarily to lose all physical boundary in the sea of sound. But it was the National Youth Orchestra that provided the ultimate highs. Could anything equal the feelings of reverence and awe that came from playing the climax of Elgar’s Nimrod in an orchestra of one hundred and fifty players in the Festival Hall? What sensual experience could approach playing the final pages of Scheherazade? Where would one feel closer to a sense of a vengeful god than in contributing to the opening bars of the last movement of Mahler’s First Symphony? ‘Not one child had ever experienced or imagined music-making of that level,’ Ruth Railton says of an occasion early in the orchestra’s history when the players had been rehearsing with Walter Susskind.

Ruth Railton lived for this intensity. She gave up a promising career as a pianist to find it. She was in love with the capacity of children to love music. ‘The freshness that comes from the first experience of a great work’, ‘the natural purity of the pre-adolescent’ playing Mozart, the ‘mysterious power’ at work in ‘a tiny nine-year-old compelling an entire audience into the truth of Bach’, ‘the fresh faith’ and ‘lovely energy’ which allows children to touch ‘emotional peaks that adults cannot’: these were Ruth Railton’s fix, the qualities she searched the country to find – to capture, nurture and promote.

Ruth Railton’s own energy, if not exactly ‘lovely’, was remarkable. She built the National Youth Orchestra from scratch in less than two years, practically on her own (Cecil King had yet to come on the scene). Her account of how she did this has a Pathé Pictorial exuberance. The challenge is presented as heroic. Hardship is a source of vitality. Living in a shared garret in Ebury Street among the ruins of bombed-out houses, saving for her orchestra out of meagre earnings as a teacher and performer, setting up her centre of operations in the gangway of someone else’s office, sleeping rough on railway stations to meet a punishing audition schedule. Her resolve was fuelled by such experiences.

Meanwhile, she put a lot of people’s backs up. The musical establishment in post-war Britain was overwhelmingly male, and much of it was amateurish and provincial in the manner of that 1938 edition of the Oxford Companion to Music, where Mahler is described as being of little interest outside Germany and Holland, and Berg gets the same number of column inches as Ebenezer Prout. Ruth Railton, a young woman working on her own, sought to galvanise the club of sleepy males into an intensity of action they deplored, in some cases feared. Those who felt most threatened did their best and nastiest to try and stop her.

‘Too much faith and too few years,’ droned Sir George Dyson, Director of the Royal College of Music. ‘It would be a pity to ruin your reputation so early,’ threatened the sinister Dr Sydney Northcote, Director of the Carnegie Trust, ‘we’ll leave you to think about it’ – and he locked Railton in a room for two hours to bring her to her senses. The Music Teachers’ Association and the School Music Association instructed their members not to co-operate; the Musicians’ Union sent ‘tough-looking men’ to intimidate her; someone strung a trip wire across the top of the steps down to her basement office; hate mail came in a bilious stream. But Railton had powerful champions. Many of the country’s leading conductors, and some of its best instrumentalists, supported her. The Royal Family promised and later delivered patronage. The public schools, through the Music Masters’ Association, were enthusiastic. And numerous individuals in the state sector broke ranks with the official line. Most important of all, the Daily Mirror, under Cecil King’s chairmanship, secured the orchestra’s future with a generous and long-lasting sponsorship deal.

By the summer of 1951, Ruth Railton had effectively routed her opposition and established the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain as the most remarkable institution of its kind in the world, an orchestra of children and teenagers that was being compared favourably with major symphony orchestras. At the Edinburgh Festival in August 1951, Bruno Walter described an NYO concert as ‘one of the most inspiring things I have ever heard in my life’. Jean Martinon was later to call the NYO’s playing ‘a miracle’.

Success did not soothe Ruth Railton. She continued to look for opponents, although now it was increasingly the enemy within who preoccupied her. In 1953, when the NYO’s governing council took steps to temper her power, her first impulse was to resign, knowing that the Mirror would then pull out and the orchestra collapse. ‘Thinking of the children’, she stifled the impulse, and, of course, friends urged her to stay:

a telephone call asked me to see Jack Thurston. He was dying ... He managed a joke and a smile. Then:

‘Listen, my sweet, just listen. They want to take it over, and get you out. Don’t go. Do you understand? Don’t go.’

‘Who is “they”, Jack?’

‘The establishment. It’s too good, my sweet, too important to belong to you. They want it. If you go so will the imagination, the originality, the unique atmosphere. Don’t go.’

Daring to Excel is cloyed with talk of sacrifice and the nobility of the life of service (virtues Railton assumed she exemplified and expected others to emulate) while at the same time making it plain that to serve the NYO was to serve Ruth Railton. Anyone who declined to do so unconditionally was written off as weak, as not made of the right stuff, a traitor. That the NYO continued to exist after she retired is a matter on which Railton is almost totally silent, as if this in itself was a betrayal. She claims that it would have broken her heart had her orchestra closed but says nothing of how it contrived to continue. Her successor, Ivey Dickson, apart from being her friend, had worked with the NYO for ten years when Ruth Railton asked her to take it over. At first Dickson declined: ‘I really tried everything, but failed to instil in her enough dedication to the cause to overcome her lack of social confidence ... It was hard to believe she would run away at such a critical time, and that self-esteem was more important than the future of the NYO.’ Not another word about Ivey Dickson, no hint that she was to change her mind and remain Musical Director for the next 18 years.

The NYO I joined in 1968 was nominally Ivey Dickson’s, but judging by this book, it remained, in letter and ideology, if not perhaps in spirit, Ruth Railton’s. It was always said that Dickson’s régime had liberalised things, that she was Khrushchev to Railton’s Stalin. In retrospect, she seems more like Brezhnev, a bureaucratic consolidator, protecting the institution from change. All the basic routines set up by Railton remained in place, not least the routines of order, discipline and surveillance. If beauty could have been secured through regimentation, the NYO would surely have done it. There were clothes inspections, shoe inspections, musical inspections, inspections of deportment, inspections of attitude, inspections of behaviour. Railton was rumoured to have regulated times for going to the lavatory. Dickson decreed that we should gargle en masse with TCP. Everything the orchestra did was rigorously controlled: tuning up, turning pages, coming onto the platform, leaving the platform, sitting down, standing up. At full rehearsals every afternoon, we had to sit in silence between tuning up, at 4.40, and the arrival of the conductor, at five. With the vigilance of a maleficent cat, Ivey Dickson minced in her stocking feet around the edge of the orchestra, watching out for every imperfection: a pencil dropped or mute displaced, a dribble cloth asymmetrically arranged, a sneeze or cough (‘in the NYO we do not cough’), a turn of the head or slouch of the back – all of it noted down meticulously in a book to be brought up in a roll-call of error at the end of the rehearsal. Before concerts the obsession with uniformity became feverish, expressing itself deliriously in the sewing up of boys’ trouser pockets: not, as might be thought, to impede self-abuse at the climax of some dithyrambic tutti, but to prevent white pocket linings from flashing distractingly under the bright lights on stage.

The will to order was rationalised by both Railton and Dickson as a practical and artistic necessity. Getting 150 highly-strung teenagers through a demanding rehearsal programme and the stress of public concerts required strict and orderly routines. Silence and tidiness increased concentration and improved the quality of musical results. It sounds so reasonable, but the reality was tinged with a worrying irrationality. Taken as it was to such extremes, it began to appear that the order was not there for the music but the music for the order.

From the outset, the National Youth Orchestra was premised on a division between the gifted and the ungifted, those who are special and those who are not, the ordinary and the exceptional. Though she kidded herself that she was working to ‘serve the marvellous talent in British children’, Ruth Railton was only ever interested in a tiny proportion of them. And she was clear from the start that what she was after was not just their musical ability but their souls: ‘I chose not necessarily the most advanced players ... but always those with that ... special inner quality ... My role in auditions was to discover the spiritual potential as well as the musical talent.’

To be good at music as a child is not always an unmixed blessing. It brings complications that may take a lifetime to smooth out. For some, a musical gift may prove to be a poison (Gift in the German sense). A child who is spoken to by music will quickly learn to speak through music. This is what adults call talent, and it entrances them, because it allows them to feel in contact with the child, a reassurance which adults want from children. For this reason, and because it is so highly valued in our society, musical ability draws down onto the child the approval of the adult world to an immoderate degree. This can be a source of deep ambiguity. On the one hand, it’s great for the child to feel valued and to have a way of establishing an identity with peers and siblings. On the other hand, the child may come partly to believe he is only valued for his music and not for who he is. I really rated myself when I got into the NYO. But being told at the age of 14 that I belonged to a special musical breed was not what I needed. It just entangled me further in a web of evaluations which my highly competitive education and my highly competitive nature had spun around me, making it harder than ever to find a real basis for self-esteem.

Ruth Railton seems to have suffered in some way herself under the equivocal nature of musical talent. Her book isn’t intended as an autobiography, but it gives a strong impression of a link between her extreme interest in gifted children and a degree of ambivalence and irresolution in her about her own musical ability. She records numerous occasions when people around her (older people) urged her ‘not to let her music go’, as though she had to fight a compulsion to do just that. Be that as it may, in Daring to Excel she shows no sign of acknowledging the psychological consequences of being good at music. Instead, she takes refuge in her own propaganda, in words like ‘soul’, ‘truth’, ‘mysterious power’, which she holds up against the threat of self-analysis or more considered thought as she might a crucifix against a vampire. Her rhetoric was her protection, her licence to sweep through the villages of Britain like a snow queen in search of ‘spiritual’ children to abduct to her world of perfect musical beauty.

In that world, beneath the ‘progress and laughter of each day’, there were perplexities which Ruth Railton chose not to see. These were most poignantly symbolised by the child prodigies who were engaged to play concertos. They were the super-special ones, sought out like exquisite delicacies for the connoisseur gourmet, savoured for the ‘quality of beauty’ in their playing, a quality ‘too good to miss on the rare occasions when it could he found’; for example, the 11-year-old brought in by Ivey Dickson for his ability to ‘compel audiences into the truth’ of Beethoven. As he sat at the keyboard, perched on the top of a fully cranked-up piano stool, with his oversized bespectacled head and undersized body, he seemed the epitome of the gifted child – isolated, bereft of ordinary reality. I do not know why he did it, but before he reached the age of 20 he threw himself off Beachy Head.

My membership of the NYO was always a pretty tenuous affair. I was admitted only 18 months after starting the horn, on the assumption, I suppose, that I’d get better. After two years, seeing as I hadn’t improved enough, I was dropped. Still, I’d been in the orchestra and could kid myself it had been my bolshie behaviour (over pre-concert pocket sewing) as much as my horn-playing that had got me thrown out. I knew people who’d been rejected at the outset. They simply reeled from the experience, as who wouldn’t who’d set his heart on becoming a musician and had just been given to understand that, sorry, he was simply second-rate – not just as a musician but as a person (no ‘special inner quality’, no ‘spiritual potential’). After that, you had to be made of very buoyant stuff to carry on as though anything could be the same again.

Disappointment had its role (I am tempted to say its uses) inside the NYO too. Ruth Railton early began a practice, which Ivey Dickson continued, of inviting more children to NYO courses than would fit comfortably on an average concert platform. There were always a handful of ‘reserves’: juniors or children who had yet to prove themselves worthy of full membership. Concerts were the apogee to which we were all being driven; and on the very morning of the concert, at the dress rehearsal, when group excitement was approaching its wire-strung peak, a small margin of players, perhaps five or six, would be asked to leave the stage because there wasn’t enough room for them. No concert for them. No place in the climactic celebrations and euphoria that would follow. Just carpark duty or handing out programmes in the hall. An abyss of exclusion. After all, ‘it is so important that an orchestra looks good on the platform.’ Nothing better captures the spirit of the NYO as it was under Ruth Railton and Ivey Dickson than this gratuitous little cruelty masquerading as an artistic imperative.

I learnt a lot in the National Youth Orchestra, although more about the uses that music may be put to than about music. I certainly got less out of the experience musically than the more proficient players, because I spent so much of the time worrying about making mistakes. Moreover, doubling the fourth horn part (which is what I did mostly) offered fairly limited scope for creative development. But then, the raison d’être of the NYO, whatever its stated objectives, was less education than performance – the kind of performance that would be publicly approved and applauded. In that sense the regimentation we were subject to on NYO courses was entirely appropriate to the effects we were being trained to produce. On one occasion, at a rehearsal shortly before a concert, the conductor, Oivin Fleldstad, forgot the last of the syncopated fortissimo chords at the climax of the slow movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. He brought the orchestra off on the penultimate crash, pre-empting the general pause. With an ordinarily attentive orchestra this would have resulted in a ragged outbreak of blurts and scrapes as some of the players failed to stop themselves blundering into the final chord, notated in their music but not given by the conductor. As it was, no one made a sound. All one hundred and fifty of us teetered on the edge of the musical chasm that opened at our feet, but no one fell in. Control and obedience of this order were terrific for doing what large orchestras can do so well: creating states of tremendous excitement and vague exaltation in an audience, rousing it to acts of unanimity – standing ovations, slow hand clapping – which one might otherwise associate with religious or political rallies.

In 1954, Railton writes, the members of the National Youth Orchestra were taken to the annual tattoo as a form of relaxation after a concert at the Edinburgh Festival. ‘This superbly planned pageant was for them another example of perfect discipline and timing to achieve an artistic result.’ It was no accident, then, that the National Youth Orchestra on parade brought to mind the public festivities of totalitarian states. That was the point. ‘The generals,’ purrs Railton, ‘were always on our side.’

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