Hitting the High Notes

A Portrait of George Eskdale by Tully Potter

On an evening in 1935, the modern performance of baroque trumpet music was changed utterly by one of the most thrilling bursts of virtuosity ever heard on the concert stage. In one of those lucky chances which occasionally come the way of the gramophone, this interpretation was recorded the very next day; and it still sounds as thrilling as it did then. The place was Queen’s Hall, London, the music was Bach’s Second ‘Brandenburg’ Concerto and the trumpeter was an unassuming man with a slight limp called George Eskdale.
Born on 21 June 1897 in Tynemouth, George Salisbury Eskdale received his early musical education from his father, a well-known brass band conductor and adjudicator, and while still a boy was already a noted cornet soloist. Much of his childhood was spent in Greenock, Scotland, where his father owned two cinemas, and he was educated at the Greenock Academy. His father roped him into playing for the silent films, where he formed a quartet with his brother and two sisters, and his first professional job was on a pleasure craft sailing up and down the River Clyde. In 1911 he entered the Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall, where he studied with the legendary cornettist Charles Leggett, also learning the violin. During World War I he served in Palestine and Europe with the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment and at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917 he was severely wounded in the leg; thereafter he qualified for a small disability pension.


T236_George Eskdale (Centre) Kneller Hall in 1916

Eskdale at Kneller Hall (middle front row)


After recuperation, he returned briefly to Kneller Hall as an instructor. Once hostilities were over, he settled in London, again playing for the silent cinema and then with dance ensembles including the Savoy Havana Band, in which he was the only non-American; already an efficient violinist, he taught himself the saxophone so that he could double on it in the band.


T235_George Eskdale in Savoy Havana Band c 1922

Eskdale with the Savoy Havana Band (second from right)


More serious music beckoned, however. He became a member of the New Queen’s Hall Orchestra and in 1928 gave the first broadcast of the Haydn Concerto. In 1930 he joined the New Symphony Orchestra as principal, moving in 1932 to the London Symphony Orchestra, with which he stayed until his death on 20 January 1960 – although he seems to have continued in the New SO as well, for some years. When the Glyndebourne Opera Festival was mooted in 1933, it was planned that Fritz Busch should conduct an orchestra led by his brother Adolf and the other members of the Busch Quartet, with the rank-and-file strings made up of Adolf’s friends and pupils. This idea was vetoed by the Musicians’ Union and so members of the LSO, including Eskdale, played at the pre-war Glyndebourne festivals.
Adolf Busch went ahead anyway with the plan for a chamber orchestra but based it in Basel, where he then lived. The idea was to have a corps of strings and pick up wind and brass players wherever the Busch Chamber Players gave concerts; but he acquired two permanent flautists as well, the father and son Marcel and Louis Moyse. His first assignment was to play all six Brandenburg Concertos at the second Maggio Musicale in Florence in 1935; he had more than 70 hours of rehearsals and brought a new lightness and grace to the music, based on experience gained with small pick-up orchestras during the 1920s. The fiendish clarino trumpet part in the Second Concerto proved to be the only bugbear: an American trumpeter and then a Parisian were sent packing before Busch settled on an Italian who proved satisfactory. The concerts in Florence were triumphs and Busch planned to repeat the two evenings in London. Needing local extras, he booked Aubrey Brain – with whom he had already worked on the Brahms Horn Trio on record and in concert – then turned to brother Fritz for advice and ended up with several LSO players, including the oboist Evelyn Rothwell and Eskdale. The latter had a small trumpet in F specially made by Besson and Company, took time off to adapt his embouchure and created an astounding effect.
Eskdale’s playing was the highlight of the second evening on 16 October, attracting headlines such as ‘A brilliant trumpeter’ (The Daily Telegraph) and ‘Trumpeter’s art’ (Daily Mail). In the wonderful Queen’s Hall acoustic, he stood out even among such colleagues as Busch himself, Moyse senior and Rothwell. His achievement stimulated Constant Lambert to write: ‘I have never heard a greater piece of virtuosity on any instrument’ (The Sunday Times). Richard Capell of The Daily Telegraph felt that Eskdale was ‘the hero’ of the F major Concerto: ‘He played the famous and taxing part in the upper octave (that is, as written, and not transposed down), using a piccolo trumpet in the upper F. […] The effect was charmingly musical, the tone blending to perfection with the woodwind, and the execution was extraordinarily accurate and brilliant.’
Adolf Busch recorded for HMV but that label was not interested in the Brandenburgs, having only recently done them with Alfred Cortot. Fred Gaisberg passed the idea over to colleagues at Columbia, who showed interest; but the project was in doubt until the last moment, when – as happened with so many of EMI’s prestige issues in the 1930s – Japanese subscriptions came in. Busch was given £500 with which to pay the players and the sessions at Abbey Road Studios actually began on 10 October, the day of the first concert, with the Third Concerto – which had been well rehearsed in Switzerland. The First, Sixth and Fourth Concertos followed on the 13th, 14th and 15th, the latter two being set down before the concert performance. The Second Concerto, however, was done on the day after the concert, the 17th, when everyone was still buoyed up and elated – not least Eskdale, who managed to repeat in the studio the extraordinary frisson he had created on his Besson the previous evening. The set (Columbia LX439/40; EMI 2 12699 2) was a tremendous success, quite eclipsing the quirky Cortot version, and the entire cycle of Busch Brandenburgs has hardly been out of the catalogue since.
Eskdale took part in all the Busch Chamber Players’ subsequent European concerts that required a trumpet. The following autumn, Adolf Busch introduced Bach’s four orchestral Suites to his little orchestra’s repertoire and Eskdale flew out to Basel to lead the trumpets in the Third and Fourth Suites. He then repeated the feat at the Queen’s Hall concerts – which also included the Brandenburgs – and led the trumpets in the recordings of the Third and Fourth Suites made at Abbey Road on October 28 (HMV DB3018/22; EMI 2 12699 2). His LSO colleagues were also at the studios that day, recording Bach and Mozart concertos with Artur and Karl-Ulrich Schnabel and Adrian Boult; but fortunately they did not require a trumpet – although the oboists had to be replaced, as Busch had first call on all three LSO players, Rothwell, Natalie Caine and Joy Boughton. The Busch Chamber Players also took their Brandenburgs to Brussels, for two acclaimed concerts in the Grande Salle du Palais des Beaux-Arts, and it looked as if their autumn series would become a fixture in Basel, London and the Belgian capital.
Eskdale continued his solo recording career with the Tarantella from Alfredo Casella’s Serenata, done on 15 February 1937 for the Columbia History of Music with Reginald Kell, Paul Draper, Jean Pougnet and Anthony Pini (Columbia DB1788). The next landmark was his participation in the orchestra at the 1937 Coronation of King George VI in Westminster Abbey, an event which was recorded live (HMV RG1/14). The 1938 Busch Chamber Players series was held under the shadow of the Munich crisis and by autumn 1939 Europe was at war.
Eskdale did, however, give at least one London performance of Brandenburg No. 2 that fateful year, in the Everyman Concerts at the Wigmore Hall on April 4, with Boyd Neel conducting his own orchestra. The Brandenburg ended an all-Bach programme in style. Two days later Eskdale was in the studio with the conductor Walter Goehr and a pick-up orchestra for his second ‘hit’, the première recording of the Haydn Concerto. For some reason only the last two movements were done, in a rescoring by Goehr (Columbia DX933). Even so, the disc had meteoric sales and millions of listeners came to know the work through it. It also had a fascinating discographical history: the original issue used the first takes of both matrices, CAX8537 and 8538, but by 1948 the matrix of the Andante needed renewing, so on 28 May a second take of CAX8537 was recorded; on 4 May 1950 a second take of CAX8538 was done; and the disc was not deleted until April 1959. It beggars belief that even on the two post-war occasions the opportunity was not taken to record a disc of the first movement; but those were pioneering days in which Haydn was treated rather casually.
Boyd Neel’s first major post-war project was to perform and record the Brandenburgs. Naturally Eskdale was his choice for the Second Concerto and although a national tour petered out in disarray, the London concerts – at Chelsea Town Hall, Queen’s Hall having been destroyed by bombing – and the sessions went better. Eskdale’s colleagues in the studio were Evelyn Rothwell again, Arthur Gleghorn, flute, and Frederick Grinke, violin; alas, Boyd Neel was no Busch and by comparison with the pre-war version, the recording of 20 April 1946 lacked panache (Decca K1550/1). Later that year Eskdale appeared in a movie, leading the LSO trumpets under Malcolm Sargent’s baton in the Crown Film Unit production Instruments of the Orchestra. The music played was The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, specially written by Benjamin Britten. This historic documentary is now on video (Beulah RT152). At the 1947 Proms, Eskdale premièred the Elegy and Capriccio by Anthony Lewis; and in 1948 he played with Adolf Busch for the last time, when the Chamber Players gave a Bach and Handel series at the Kingsway Hall, London. The following January, on a trip to Denmark, he recorded Knudage Riisager’s delightful Concertino at the composer’s special request, with Thomas Jensen conducting the Danish State Radio SO (Tono X25145/6; Danacord DACOCD523/4). It was a good way to finish his 78rpm recording career and the finale was used by many a teacher as a locus classicus of triple tonguing.
The 1950s brought more accolades for Eskdale. In 1952 he premièred John Addison’s Concerto in Belfast; in 1953 he played at his second Coronation, which again was recorded (HMV ALP1056/8; EMI CMS5 66582-2) and for which he received four guineas in expenses and a medal; not long after that he featured in his only recording of Handel’s Messiah, under Hermann Scherchen (Nixa NLP907); and the following year he finally recorded the Haydn Concerto complete, in the original scoring, with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra under Franz Litschauer (Vanguard PVL7012). Although one senses no special chemistry between soloist and conductor, this performance – produced by H.C. Robbins Landon – is very fine, with ample phrasing, and a CD reissue might ameliorate the effect of the resonant acoustic. A 45rpm disc featured Eskdale in Jeremiah Clarke’s ‘Trumpet Voluntary’ or The Prince of Denmark’s March, with the LSO under Charles Mackerras (HMV 7EP7031). His magnificent tone was also to the fore in Michael Tippett’s fine recording of Purcell’s ode Hail Bright Cecilia (Nixa NCL16021; Vanguard VCD72013).
Of course Eskdale can be heard on many orchestral records, among which his son Julian identifies these: from before the war, Yehudi Menuhin’s performance of Elgar’s Violin Concerto (HMV DB1751/6; EMI CDM5 66979-2), Sir Hamilton Harty’s interpretation of the first version of Walton’s Symphony No. 1 (Decca X108/13; Dutton CDAX8003) and Bruno Walter’s Schubert Ninth (HMV DB3607/12; Dutton CDEA5003); from the LP era, the Rossini-Respighi La boutique fantasque under Ernest Ansermet (Decca LXT2555); Walton’s Façade Suite under Robert Irving (LXT2791); Elgar’s Enigma Variations (LXT2786) and Pomp and Circumstance Marches Nos 1 and 4, Bax’s Coronation March and Walton’s Orb and Sceptre (LXT2793), all under Sir Malcolm Sargent; and Josef Krips’s Schubert Ninth (SXL2045; 452 390-2DF2).
No one, least of all Eskdale himself, would suggest that he was the only trumpeter of quality during his era, even in Britain. Those interested in the evolution of the modern trumpet style can find excellent examples of the playing of Ernest Hall, Arthur Lockwood and Harry Mortimer: the soprano Isobel Baillie recorded ‘Let the bright Seraphim’ from Handel’s Samson with Hall in 1928 (Columbia 9670) and Lockwood in 1943 (Columbia DX1113); and Harry Mortimer recorded the Haydn Concerto and the ‘Trumpet Voluntary’ in 1946 with the Philharmonia under George Weldon (Columbia DX1535/6). Eskdale was friendly with Hall and sometimes took his BBC rival’s classes at the Royal College of Music during World War II, when Hall was stuck in Bedford – where the BBC SO had been evacuated. ‘George’s influence on the trumpet profession through his flexible style was broader,’ wrote Philip Jones in 1992, ‘but the specialisms of Ernest Hall meant that orchestral playing was very strongly influenced by Ernest’s style.’
Eskdale’s prowess in Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 – which, to quote Philip Jones, ‘was considered virtually unplayable by most trumpet players in the world’ – can be measured by comparing him with the best player on the European mainland. The Swiss trumpeter Paul Spörri, principal of the Berlin Philharmonic and 12 years Eskdale’s junior, took part in recordings directed by Alois Melichar (Polydor 27293/4, Decca LY6061/2) and Edwin Fischer (HMV DB7612/3; Koch 3-7701-2H1), omitting one high note and pecking at many others. When you move to other performances, the Cortot (HMV DB2035/6; EMI Références CHS5 67211-2; Koch 37705-2) or the laughably transposed wartime version directed by Fernand Oubradous (Odéon 123868/9; Dante LYS412), your admiration for Eskdale becomes all the greater. In the old days conductors sometimes substituted a clarinet for the high trumpet in this work; even after World War II, Klemperer (Polydor 566212/3) and Casals (Am Col. ML54345) had Marcel Mule play the part on a saxophone; Thurston Dart proposed a horn; and as recently as the early 1990s, Sigiswald Kuijken had it played by a horn because he felt a trumpeter could not do justice to it. Eskdale took a uniquely musical approach, his superb technique enabling him to phrase almost like a violin at times. Perhaps this propensity stemmed from his early days in the silent cinema and dance bands, when he had to be a credible part of a small ensemble.
George Eskdale had quite a list of solo works in his repertoire, among them concertos by Karl Pilss, Timothy Moore and Arthur Meulemans. He took part in more than 60 performances of Messiah by the Royal Choral Society at the Royal Albert Hall; and he was the regular trumpet soloist for Bach Choir performances, including cantata broadcasts under Reginald Jacques. ‘His flexibility of approach both to his instrument and to styles of music meant that he was in great demand in the film studios and the many light orchestras that broadcast in those days,’ wrote Jones. ‘His position as principal in the LSO meant that he was playing for distinguished conductors throughout his career.’ He gave hundreds of lecture recitals and taught at Trinity College of Music, London, from 1937 and the Royal Academy of Music from 1938, his myriad pupils including Bram Wiggins – a longtime LSO colleague – and Howard Snell. Contemplating those old Busch records, Wiggins commented: ‘It should be noted how he balances with the other instruments even in the highest register, never becoming obtrusive. He was a very thoughtful performer and brought a more lyrical style to trumpet playing than the more heroic, and sometimes brash, playing of his predecessors. The present style of English trumpet playing owes much to him and his great colleague, Ernest Hall.’


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