Salzedo: the forgotten part of 20th century English classical music

Leonard Salzedo conducted the recording of Spanish Fiesta, which included his own Divertimento Espagñol. Photo: Courtesy of Caroline Salzedo

He was a prolific composer of ballet and orchestral scores evoking the rhythms of his Sephardic roots, but best known for a 10-second trumpet fanfare that once heralded BBC broadcasts for the Open University.

Yet Leonard Salzedo remains the forgotten man of 20th-century English classical music, rarely performed and little recorded, with an hour-long requiem he considered one of his finest works yet to be premiered 22 years later. his death.

All that could be about to change with an upcoming concert at Conway Hall in Holborn to celebrate his diverse musical heritage featuring former friends and colleagues including violist Richard Crabtree, bandleader and pianist Leslie Howard. as well as mezzo-soprano Lotte Betts. -Dean.

It’s organized by the Leonard Salzedo Society which his daughters, Caroline and Sue, started in 2018. “We really want to raise Leonard’s profile and get his work out there, performed and recorded,” says Caroline. “He was highly respected and wrote many plays, but somehow he got left behind.”

Although a rising star in the 1950s, Salzedo found himself facing the controversial BBC Music Review Panel, a kind of chamber of musical stars which, until 1967, decided which scores could be played on the third program. . At the time, it was the only classical music radio station, and musical tastes were generally conservative.

“The jury accepted very few of his pieces,” she says. “It was almost like a closed workshop. You had to be on their list to get a radio show, so my dad was barely on the radar. It didn’t help that he wasn’t a great networker or good at promoting himself.

The concert will begin with the cheerful Divertimento for three trumpets and three trombones whose opening notes were taken over by the Open University as a theme in the 1970s for 20 years. Instantly recognizable, it was one of more than 180 works he wrote during a long career that began as a virtuoso violinist.

Born in Stamford Hill in 1921, he likely inherited his talent from his father, an amateur gambler whose ancestors were Jews who fled persecution in Spain in the 15th century. Salzedo began learning to play the violin at the age of six and was already composing at the age of 13.

“There was a lot of tension between his parents when he was growing up and for my father, music was a companion, a sanctuary and a vocation”, explains Caroline, a shiatsu practitioner.

He then became a star student at the Royal College of Music, where he won first prize for composition, followed by the Tagore Gold Medal for Outstanding Student of the Year, awarded to him by Princess Elizabeth in 1943 .

In the 1950s he was a violinist for the London Philharmonic Orchestra and then the Royal Philharmonic, working with luminaries such as Matthew Arnold and Thomas Beecham, but independent as a composer, providing the music for Hammer’s 1957 horror film . Frankenstein’s Revenge.

His gift for composition was spotted by Marie Rambert, who commissioned him to write for her company, the Ballet Rambert, beginning with Le Fugitive in 1944. A collaboration that would last 30 years, including five as musical director.

His ease in expressing drama, energy and emotion was also evident in his piano scores for Les Ballets Nègres, formed in London by two Jamaican dancers to become Britain’s first black ballet company, which he joined. in 1946 with his new wife Pat Clover.

The move reflected an adventurous spirit and a willingness to take his work in new directions.

“My father was very proud of his Sephardic heritage and was interested in Kabbalah and other Jewish traditions. You can hear it in the melodies and rhythms of his work. But he also liked to learn new things,” adds Caroline. “He loved folk music and adored jazz, especially Duke Ellington who was a big influence.”

Salzedo, who died in 2000 at the age of 78, also drew on his training as an orchestral player, allowing him to embrace winds, percussion, brass and piano with brilliant inventiveness.

“He wrote very well for strings but became interested in so many other instruments after playing in orchestras,” she continues. “You can tell from his plays that he had insider knowledge.”

He wrote 17 ballet scores, the most successful being 1955’s The Witch Boy, which was subsequently performed around the world. He then became Principal Conductor of Scottish Ballet and from 1982 to 1986 was Music Director of London City Ballet.

Subsequently, he devoted himself to composition, producing 10 string quartets, the Stabat Mater for soprano, alto, choir and orchestra, a violin concerto, a piano concerto and, in 1989, Requiem Sine Voxibus which Salzedo considered one of his finest achievements but which was never executed.

Caroline remembers when her father worked full time but still found time to write music, sitting at the desk he had built for himself in his Wembley home, looking like he was in a other world.

“He often wrote early in the morning and even when he went on tour he took manuscripts with him to work on. He was away a lot and we missed him a lot. But he was great fun and loved taking my sister and I to the movies to watch cartoons all day.

Since its launch, the Leonard Salzedo Society has been digitizing his scores, which are archived at the Royal College of Music, and recording more of his work. Last year, a 20-minute documentary, Leonard Salzedo A Life Composed in Music, was made to mark his centenary and is available on YouTube.

“It’s been fabulous to do all of this,” says Caroline. “My father’s work deserves to be better known and we hope that the concert will help to make it known even more.

The Leonard Salzedo Celebration Concert takes place at Conway Hall, WC1R 4RL, September 24 at 6 p.m. Tickets from £12.50 to £17.50.

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