When you write your autobiography," my Dad would advise me - note he did not say "if' - "Start with the statement 'Havelock Nelson was born of poor but respectable parents."
Certainly the statement of my parents'
respectability was undeniably true. Their category of poverty was more
arguable. Dad had trained as a chartered accountant and he once told me that
during his apprenticeship his annual salary was xxxx.
The family background was solid
Dad's family were
generally fair-skinned, with blonde hair, and no doubt there was a strong
strain of Scandinavian blood in their veins. Possibly the Vikings had raided
the area centuries before! I have looked up the name in various volumes and
discovered that the variants in
My mother's maiden name was Graham. There is
strong evidence of a Scottish connection. Her father was an enthusiastic
genealogist who researched a family tree going back to Robert the Bruce, mostly
from the wrong side of the blanket. My grandfather was from Tobermore
In these tasks he was greatly assisted by my
grandmother. She was an Australian who had come to
My maternal grandfather was an excellent
writer and speaker. He wrote book about his life as a missionary called Under
Seven Congo Kings. There were interesting reminiscences too about people he had
Mother and Dad met through music. He had a
fine baritone voice and had studied under Captain Charles Brennan, the then
organist of St Anne's Cathedral. To add to his meagre
salary from accountancy he took singing engagements at the Saturday night
miscellaneous concerts popular in the city at that time. On one occasion his
usual accompanist fell ill and my mother was sent as a replacement. They
married in 1916 and shortly afterwards my father took a job in
My earliest memories of a
home was a large Victorian house in Sandycove,
I was about five years old when I had my first piano lessons, and I was extremely fortunate in my first teacher Jeannie Russell, who lived nearby. She had met my parents at a musical event and offered to take me as a pupil. She was a fine pianist and had also studied the violin and viola. She declared that she not only produced pianists who could play well but they were also musicians. She encouraged my father to use me as his accompanist when I had become technically proficient, since by this time my mother, now with four children, had little time to keep up her piano playing.
I well remember going for lessons to Auntie
Jeannie, as we called her. She lived in a big old rambling house on her own.
Both her parents had died some years previously and she was an only child.
There were souvenirs of foreign travel everywhere, mementoes of family trips
abroad, wood carvings from
When I reached the age of 10 and had become a reasonably proficient pianist, I started to play chamber music, in particular, piano trios. Auntie Jeannie played the violin and enlisted the services of a local cellist, Frank Mease. He had been a singer but with advancing years his voice had deteriorated - Dad described it as roaring like the Bull of Basham and so he transferred his musical interest to the cello. He could never have been rated as a Casals but he was enough of a musician to keep his place in the ensemble and so we managed to get through much of the trio repertoire. For me it was a miraculous journey of exploration. Most of the compositions we played were by Haydn (he wrote 32 trios) and Mozart who remain high on my list of favourites to this day.
These early incursions into chamber music continued
weekly for almost 12 years - indeed until I finished university. The
performances were never designed for public hearing - those were catered for by
ensembles with fellow students at the
After kindergarten, we went to
When I was 12, Niall and I went to school in
But life wasn't all serious music. From about 1929 my brothers and I started putting on little shows for the family. Dermot in particular had a fine voice, Niall played the piano and Robin was a willing general dogsbody I was the director and compere. In these entertainments we were inspired partly by the pierrot shows we saw during holidays in Portrush and partly by the artistic, literary ambience of our Sandycove surroundings.
The eldest of four sons, I always had a warm relationship with my father My success in two career fields, medical science and music, was a source of great pleasure to him. On the other hand, Mother and I were temperamentally very alike. Both of us had a strong sense of what we considered right and wrong and we would take differing sides in an argument, often over quite trivial matters. If I expressed admiration for someone, Mother would point out their faults and that made me defend them strongly. A week or more could pass without our speaking, until we made peace again. As I grew older I came to appreciate better her fine character. She was outgoing and hospitable, with a talent for friendship. We became closer after I married and she adored my wife Hazel, the first of her four daughters-in-law.
My memories of school days at St Andrew's are
pleasant, probably misted by nostalgic euphoria. However, I did have one major
complaint. It was a completely unmusical establishment. The traditional
subjects were admirably taught but participation in the Arts was not
encouraged. One of my best subjects was Latin which was the Headmaster's speciality. One day my father got a letter inviting him to
come and see him. "I think it would be a good idea if
My favourite school subjects were the Sciences, History and English, especially English. The master in charge of English - an Ulsterman, as most of the staff members were, since it was a Presbyterian establishment -was fanatically enthusiastic about drama in particular and induced the same feeling in his pupils. My class had a large percentage of literamry fans, and Mr Johnston - Johnnie as he was commonly known - responded by working through many of the Shakespeare plays with us and European and American drama as well.
My interest in school sports was rather
Music continued to be my absorbing interest and I became more and more involved with RIAM activities. My principal piano teacher, who took the place of Jeannie Russell, was a dedicated lady called Dina Copeman who had given up a promising career as a performer to devote herself to teaching. She was a real tyrant who terrified any pupil who had not done sufficient practice. But she certainly got results. Even after I had left her, I used to return for refresher lessons. In fact I still went to her for teaching until I left college in 1943.
The "character" on the staff was a
rotund lady called Dorothy Stokes. Despite the fact that she had been educated
at a high class ladies' school she had a fierce
Apart from the piano I studied the organ, the viola and the double bass. Miss Stokes encouraged me to start composing and I sketched out the music for an opera early on. Where I got the libretto from, I've no idea. I is allowed to go to the Gaiety Theatre to see opera matinees (only), so at last I knew what an opera was. In addition, over the years I had collected library of 78 rpm records: Mozart, Wagner and Puccini were special favourites. My own operatic masterpiece never saw the light of day.
From the time I started going to opera matinees I began to develop an interest in live theatre. From the early 1940s, together with my brothers I unded up a bunch of friends, including girlfriends, to take part in amateur dramatics, mostly light comedies, staged mainly in the Peacock theatre a small auditorium beside the Abbey Th.eatre which was a popular venue for experimental and more conventional amateur drama. These early theatrical efforts stood me in good stead in composing incidental music for radio and television drama in later years.
During the 1 940s the pressure to plan one's
future career was not so easy as it is nowadays. From
my early teens I had no doubt that I wanted take up music as a profession but
the question was, what branch of music? I didn't feel the call to be a teacher
and I knew I was not of the calibre to be a solo
pianist. I think my father may have had divisions of me starving in garret and
dying of tuberculosis as in the romantic & fiction of an earlier time.
After lengthy discussions, we came to an agreement. He would not object to my
musical aspirations provided I had something to fall back on if failed
musically, and so I sat the entrance exams for
Some years before I went to university, I
thought I'd try to earn some money. In those days, it wasn't easy to get a
holiday job and parents did not necessarily encourage you to find one. I
decided to learn the organ and earn a salary by playing in church. There was
only one snag. I was somewhat ignorant of church music in general, having been
brought up in the Society of Friends which had no music in its services. The
Quaker strain came through my maternal grandmother who had sent my mother to a
Friends' boarding school, when my grandfather and she were missionaries in
I had organ lessons at the Academy from Dr
George Hewson, who combined the post of organist in
St Patrick's Cathedral with the professorship of music at
My first post at 15 was a small Methodist
church in Bray,