Amis-Cellany: Sir William Clock

Musical Opinion, May/June 2010 | Go to article overview

Amis-Cellany: Sir William Clock


John Amis marks the 10th anniversary of the death of Sir William Clock (1908-2000), the BBC's Controller, Music from 1959-72, masterminder of the Proms and champion of many modern composers.

William Clock had a lot going for him; and a certain amount against. He revolutionised the Proms and brought BBC music into the Twentieth Century. As often happens with revolutions, some violence was done.

He was born in 1908. He always maintained that he was not a descendent of Cluck but a friend once decorated a picture of old Willibald van with a wig and it looked pretty like our friend William. He was an organ scholar at Cambridge, a critic of The Daily Telegraph and The Observer (sacked from the latter by writing one article about contemporary music too many). He was a sometime pupil of Artur Schnabel, played so often at the Cambridge Theatre in London in the thirties that one critic suggested it should be renamed the Glockenspiel. After kicking his heels for some years, only writing for The Scotsman as their London Music Critic (a job he generously handed over to me because he was sick of listening to music), his main income at that time being the £600 or so he regularly made betting on the gee-gees. But then fate stepped in and he was made music director of the BBC; he also directed the Proms. He was at that time an outsider in the world of music and his appointment was if, as Walter Legge commented, Martin Luther had been made Pope.

At that time, 1958-59, Maurice Johnston was director of BBC Music, a die hard who sought, like Canute, to hold back the tide of, in this case, the waves of contemporary music; for example, Stravinsky and Britten received very few performances. Johnston was not alone in his diehardiness: Frank Howes and Richard Capell, critics of The Times and The Daily Telegraph, respectively, were almost Canutes. Capell had even damped down Clock's enthusiastic review of the Symphony of Psalms by inserting a negative in front of every laudatory adjective in a Telegraph review from Berlin.

Strange to say, it was a fairly diehard Controller of Music at the Beeb who appointed William, who had spent a year as secretary of the IMA (International Music Association) Club in South Audley Street. Part of his job was to wine and dine musicians in the hope that they would become members. One of these was that Controller, Richard Howgill was fairly reactionary; he once told me he thought that Moeran's Violin Concerto was the greatest work of the decade. But he and William got on well; and Mrs Howgill got on even better with William's delectable French wife, Anne, who took to advising Mrs H on fashion matters. …

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