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9. Prague: Spring, 1949

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Albert Sammons
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9. Prague: Spring, 1949

This fascinating article gives a vivid account of what it was like to take part in international competitions in the late 1940s. On this occasion Hugh Bean was unsuccessful, but in 1951 he came second in the Carl Flesch International Violin Competition. In 1952 he won a Boise travelling scholarship to study with André Gertler at the Brussels Conservatoire, where he gained a double premier prix for solo and chamber music playing.



On the morning of May 12 three British students set out on a journey from England to Czechoslovakia. Representing our Empire, two colleagues and I were to be the only three British candidates to compete in the International Violin Contest for the Jan Kubelik prize, held in Prague, as an item of the annual Spring Festival. Before we left Victoria Station, many and varied were the formalities we had to confront. Besides giving details of any professional experience, all intending candidates had to declare that they were not at present nor had ever been connected in any way with a Fascist movement. Thus we were assured that no political bias would affect the judging of our performance, whatever nationality we claimed. After being selected by Dr. Pavel Eckstein and his committee as suitable candidates, visits to the Czech Consulate and Embassy in London as well as normal passport regulations were necessary before we were equipped with the necessary visas enabling us to book a passage from London to Prague without fear of meeting international and military difficulties.

Our first sight of the Continent was the famous Dunkirk Beaches. We proceeded two or three miles off the coast until we reached our port of arrival, Ostend, just four hours after leaving Dover, and at the station we enjoyed to the full the delicious sensation of buying ham rolls, oranges and other Continental provisions for the thirty-one hours' train journey ahead of us. Ninety minutes' fast travelling brought us through Bruges and Ghent to Brussels, which seems to have made a truly remarkable recovery after German occupation. It seemed wise at this point to replenish our already diminishing supplies with more provisions, but here we were limited to the extent of our Belgian currency.

At various stages in our progress through Germany, customary inspection of our documents was made by police officials. Proceeding slowly and dozing fitfully in our seats we reached Cologne, truly a stricken city, roughly at midnight, and were greatly impressed by the sight of the moon shining through the Cathedral. At this hour of midnight all seemed a perfect setting for a German folk tale. Ruins of ancient castles on the banks of the Rhine lit by the moonlight presented a sinister panorama until we reached the industrial town of Frankfurt. Here in the early hours of the morning, stiff, tired, cold and irritable, we ate sparingly from our meagre rations, and then, finding the whole carriage empty, took a compartment each as a practice room and indulged in some very necessary technical practice. The next break was at Nürnberg, where we were shunted to a siding for a wait of some two hours till the train was reassembled with some coaches from Paris and Amsterdam as the Orient Express. Very soon we left industrial Germany behind and made good speed through the rapidly changing countryside to the pleasant surroundings of the American Zone, where all language difficulties dissolved. After having our military permits stamped we were allowed to proceed to the Czech frontier town of Cheb, but here our instrument cases were ruthlessly examined, violins shaken and peered into and clothes scrutinised. The Customs official was particularly suspicious of my rectangular violin case, designed in his estimation for the specific purpose of secreting arms. In the cool of the even- ing we proceeded through Czechoslovakia to Prague. Laden with luggage, exhausted, and with not a word of the language at our command, we were very grateful for the guidance of two former College students, living in Prague, who met us at the station and took us to our hotel.

After a sound night's sleep and a welcome breakfast we made our way to the Festival Office to report our arrival and to be intro- duced to the Secretary of the Festival Committee, Dr. Pavel Eckstein, who impressed us greatly by his courtesy and efficiency. He himself welcomed us and placed rooms in the Conservatoire at our disposal should we require them for practice. We were also given complimentary tickets for every concert in the Festival, a gesture which we very much appreciated as we were thus enabled to hear such orchestras as the Czech Philharmonic and the Budapest Philharmonic in Prague's outstanding concert hall, the Smetanova.

During our stay we were shown over the Prague State Conservatoire. The main difference we noticed, compared with our own College, was the almost complete lack of social life, there being neither common room nor cafeteria. The practising rooms were excellent, each being provided with a grand piano, a sound-proof door and lock and key. The Conservatoire gave us the impression of being ideally situated, easily accessible by tram from the centre of Prague, yet quite detached from the atmosphere of busy streets, overlooking as it does the river Vltava, and having ornamental lawns on two sides of the building.

As we were staying in a hotel our food was very good, but in the shops food and clothing is extremely scarce and almost everything severely rationed. Shoes such as we are used to wearing cost roughly thirty pounds, and commodities the ordinary citizen is able to buy are of a very poor and inferior quality. Most of the contestants were being accommodated at the same hotel and it was a strange sound when travelling in the lift to hear the set pieces for the contest approaching and receding as one passed the floors. A few days before the contest was due to commence we were introduced by the Chairman of the jury to the examiners. We were most interested to meet the great Russian violinist, David Oistrach, and although he could speak no English and we no Russian he impressed us as being a very likeable and unassuming personality. Also among the jury were Arthur Grumiaux, from Belgium, and Max Rostal, representing England.

Each morning's candidates drew lots for the order of playing, and with the jury curtained off at the side of the platform performed the compulsory item – the first movement of Mozart's A major concerto with Kubelik's cadenza. After an interval the jury moved to the front row of the audience while the candidates played a movement of unaccompanied Bach and a piece of their own choice. At every stage of the contest the public was admitted and the hall was often packed fifteen minutes before the commencement of the performances. We, from England, felt considerable misgivings to find the hall at the beginning of a morning session enveloped in a thick cloud of smoke, with no windows, inadequate ventilation and artificially lit. The intense humidity made it uncomfortable even to sit in the hall, so we dared not think of its effect on our performance. However, few of the Continental contestants seemed seriously troubled by the heat.

On the Thursday I duly presented myself at the Conservatoire and, together with four other contestants, drew lots for order of performance. I was somewhat perturbed to find that I was to be followed by the youngest of the Russian candidates – a sixteen-year-old pupil of David Oistrach who, armed with a "Strad" and radiating confidence, played through every Paganini Caprice in the book with a flawless left-hand technique and uncanny intonation immediately upon taking his violin from its case. The other Russian candidates were all in possession of three great attributes for a violinist, namely, a first-class instrument (in each case a Strad or Guarnerius), flawless intonation and an impeccable left-hand technique, proving that the Russian teachers, following the tradition of Leopold Auer, are supreme in the production of young virtuosi.

The following day it was my companions' turn to compete, and after several more sessions of this eliminating round all the competitors were summoned to the Conservatoire to hear the results. Of the forty or so who competed, only nine were chosen as contestants for the next stage, among them all four Russian candidates, one American and my colleague, Alan Loveday. It was therefore with the greatest interest that we listened to the second round, for which the required pieces were two Paganini Caprices, a Smetana duet for violin and piano, "From the Home- land," and a concerto of the candidate's own choosing. In this qualifying round the Russians once again proved indomitable, all gaining places. The only other successful candidate was Alan Loveday. To determine the order in which the five prizes were to be awarded the finally selected candidates were required to play their concerto with the Czech Radio Orchestra. Ultimately the first place was awarded to a nineteen-year-old Russian boy, a pupil of David Oistrach's pianist, with the other Russians in second, fourth and fifth places. Alan Loveday was awarded third place and his reception at his final performance strengthened the very great pleasure we had already felt in a candidate from England achieving this distinction.

The final prize-giving concert opened with the first movement of Tchaikovsky's violin concerto, played by Alan Loveday, and the last two movements by Viktor Pikaisen, the second prize winner. The presentation of the prizes took place in the interval, a statuette of Kubelik accompanying the first prize, and the concert ended with a very fine performance of Brahms's concerto by Igor Bezrodnyi, the winner of the Kubelik prize. Each of the finalists was filmed playing an extract from their chosen concerto, but unfortunately we were scheduled to leave Prague before these were to be given a public showing.

This concert marked the conclusion of the violin contest, but as the British Council had asked us to give a concert in the Council Chambers, we were able to stay on for a few days and enjoy an afternoon's car ride through the Czech countryside (very kindly arranged for us by the British Council) and also a concert given by David Oistrach. Then began preparations for our return. Deciding against another long, grim train journey through Europe, we secured an air passage, and with many feelings of regret at leaving a city where we had been accorded such a welcome, eventually took off in a Douglas D.C.3 plane, passing over the forests of Germany, the flat lands of Flanders, the sand dunes of Dunkirk and the ribbon of water that was the English Channel before finally touching down in the pouring rain at Northolt some four hours after leaving Czechoslovakia.

It was with the greatest interest that we subsequently heard Mr. Rostal's broadcast talk on his impressions of the contest, illustrated with recordings he had made during performances, and we were particularly pleased at the credit he so generously accorded to our professor, Mr. Albert Sammons, who not only prepared us for the technical difficulties we were to face but who gave us the spirit of a truly great English violinist to take with us. Such praise as Mr. Rostal expressed we, each one of us, echoed profoundly.

Thus, in conclusion, I would say that, apart from the very rich musical experiences we gained, richer still were the contacts we made with other students of nations differing so much from our own. But most of all, the memory of the hospitality, sympathy and kindness of the people of Czechoslovakia with whom we came into contact will remain with us always.

The RCM Magazine XLV/3 (1949), 84-7
Centre for Performance History, RCM


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