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Article for British Double Reed Society Magazine 1992.

"Jock" is Sidney Sutcliffe who was principal oboe in London's Philharmonia Orchestra under Herbert von Karajan, and Wilhem Furtwangler. Terence MacDonagh was Sir Thomas Beecham's principal oboe in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

Both moved to the BBC Symphony Orchestra as co-principals. I (Geoffrey Browne) was second oboe, my first orchestral job. John Wolfe was the cor anglais player.

The picture shows L-R, Sutcliffe, MacDonagh, Wolfe (CA), c1969.


Seconds Out

Each summer we have festivities to put New Malden on the map. We have to do it most years because somewhere between July and Christmas it often seems to slip off again. That is not to say that New Malden is a backwater for it has featured in the national headlines no less than twice in one year. On both occasions it had caught fire. The reasons for this are uncertain, but whenever I want to find out about something I visit the place I call Encyclopaedia Casa Publica. That is to say, I go down to the Goose and Whistle where I can meet experts from every walk of life, from nuclear physicists to professional tasters of dog food. Our local boffin solved a problem for me by suggesting that I might stop my central heating system from drawing air into the radiators by fixing the mouthpiece of a whoopee cushion to the overflow pipe in the loft. This certainly stopped the air from being drawn in but if the system decided to expel some air then some of the noises coming from my attic could be quite surprising. Here one can seek the company of many of many members of Her Majesty's Constabulary in off-duty mode, all kinds from senior officers to the flat footed Bobby.

The Goose and Whistle is also an artistic centre where we have had poetry competitions and readings from literature, mostly back copies of War Cry and stories by me which have been turned down by snooty magazines. Once, during our annual festivities I played the Mozart oboe quartet for a charity concert. I was introduced as the famous exponent of the cor dangle and that cut me down to size for a start, but then, just before I began to play, I realised that the audience was full of policemen and this made me really nervous; I think I would have been happier with a stocking over my head and perhaps I should have done since they never asked me to play it again. However this little concert did generate a smidgen of interest in the oboe and leaning against the bar I went into my usual banter about the instrument, reeds, and conductors. One person seemed more knowledgeable than the rest and as I prattled on, and as his questions became more searching, I found my attention being turned form the smell of cigarette smoke and spilled ale, and from my friend the bar maid who was emptying the ash trays and avoiding my gaze, and I began to think about what I was saying. Behind her and next to the dart board was a notice written in chalk and it said "Ears pierced while-U-wait $3.50".

"What was it like playing second oboe to Terry MacDonagh and Jock Sutcliffe?" I was surprised by the question but I had indeed done just that, for four years in the BBC Symphony Orchestra, back in the late 1960s.

I do not know why they gave me the job. Possibly they had muddled me up with somebody else of a similar name, but anyhow the job was mine and I confided in a friend that I was not entirely sure what I was supposed to do, since prior to that I had only worked in the theatres. "Quite simple, old boy. You just follow the principal; whatever he does, you do the same."

My first concert was a memorial tribute to Sir Malcolm Sargent who had died the very same day my contract began with the BBC . The concert was at Westminster Abbey and I had only five notes to play. I was so green that I missed all five of them. This was a bad start. My second event was a rehearsal of Beethoven's fifth at Maida Vale studio, and it was conducted by Rudolph Kempe. Terry was principal oboe that day and he had the devil in him. He decided to jazz up all the tunes in the first movement. Not only that but he pointed the oboe vertically up to the ceiling. Then he did an imitation of how Alec Whittaker had played the cadenza, and this had us all looking at our watches. Kempe didn't bat an eyelid.

Sometimes Terry would blow the instrument directly into the ear of a string player sitting in front of him. I began to think that following the principal and doing just what he did might well end up on my being carried off in a white van. But I persevered, and by and large things were fine, until we did Brahms first symphony where in the last movement the oboes go independently. I made them go together and on a live broadcast too. Sir Adrian always used to go purple in the face with rage whenever things like that happened, and it was he who was conducting at the time. Another bad one was at the Gaumont Theatre Ipswich, in 1968. There is only one crotchet rest for the whole orchestra in Schumann's second symphony and I filled it in with a crotchet of my own. That was very embarrassing and yet I have known much worse things happen in quarter-note rests, but I will have to tell you about that some other time when I know you better.

Both Terry and Jock were meticulous but with Terry there was no subtlety about it. He insisted on perfect intonation and ensemble at all times. It was not necessary for Jock to do any insisting because all the insisting had been done already and enough for two people. If I got into terminal difficulties Terry had two phrases which would guide me, if all else had failed: "Ghost it, boy" and "Bags of jellywobble". For an extreme pianissimo the instruction was "Pussy cats on blotting paper". Jock always had a long string hanging from his reed like a fuse to a stick of dynamite. I could never figure out why he did this. Also he could have as many as five oboes on the stand with him, each with its own reed. He used them like golf clubs, each with its own special ability. One of them played Tippett's second symphony at sight and without a mistake. Terry never created the same sort of puzzles for me and never left me in any doubt about things, except that the rehearsal was never the same as the show.

Both players were particularly good at modern music. They could each give something to the pieces that perhaps the composers had never thought of. Jock had a wonderful operatic style which he did on a plastic reed and this was most suitable for Shoenberg. Terry could play notes so short and so loud that they sounded like bullets from a gun. This reduced me to hysterics in a performance of Elliot Carter's piano concerto. Sometimes Terry blew the oboe so hard that I thought he was going to die, but passion was very much a feature of his playing and sometimes each very note seemed to express a personal tragedy of its own.

Once, when my cor anglais laid an egg in a Mahler song, Jock laughed so much that tears ran down his face. I have never forgiven him for that. Although Terry shouted many commands at me he would seldom express an opinion directly, and I would usually find out what he thought via somebody else. Alf Flaschynski, the trombone player, told me "Terry MacDonagh thinks you are a fine player but not very professional". I took the statement to heart and tried to work out how a professional second oboe might differ from an amateur. One sunny day I saw Terry standing in the bus queue outside the Albert Hall. He hated the building and I learned that, when he was a fireman during the War, it had been his task to put it out. That fine day I was going to Victoria myself so I crossed the road to join him. Terry spotted me and went to hide behind the hedge until I had gone away.

Gradually I began to figure out how to be a good second oboe: never practise in the same building as the principal; never try to stand in the same bus queue; never hear other people's mistakes; never be too pushy for promotion; never turn round, and always have your own pencil and screwdriver. It is not really the principal's job to be an assistant for his second. A second player who is truly supportive to the principal is worth his weight in gold, and promotion will eventually come if he or she wants it. Sensitivity to what is really needed may be the most important asset of the performing artist; in this case, sensitivity to what is most helpful the principal, not what you yourself may need. It seems like unselfishness but it can be extremely rewarding ... an art in itself.

John Wolfe was the cor anglais player and he would often act as messenger between Terry and me, so if I wanted to know what Terry thought about something it was safer to ask John than Terry, who was usually busy scrawling his 'guide dogs' all over the music. I learned to interpret these marks which, years later, also guided me through the first oboe parts of the Mozart Operas at Glyndebourne. John still recalls a rehearsal in Paris of the Silken Ladder when neither of our principals was to be seen. John became very worried that he would be asked to stand in for the famous impossible oboe solo and was not reassured when a telegram arrived for saying "Regret detained Moulin Rouge, signed Jock and Terry". They were both watching John's reaction from the wings, of course. John had been somewhat bald when he was the second oboe but when he became the cor anglais player he suddenly sprouted a magnificent head of hair (it was the other way round in my own case). This astonished everyone and nobody spoke a word to poor John throughout a whole rehearsal and concert. Jock broke the silence at the end of the evening by leaning across to John and saying "bravo John. That was really lovely cor anglais playing, I must tell you how thoroughly I enjoyed it ... much better than that silly old fuddy-duddy we had last year".

When I had finished my monologue, the person who had asked the question and sparked off my reminiscences said "you should write your autobiography and include some of these anecdotes". Well I have started to write it, but when I look at the pages I think to myself that nobody would ever believe this. In fact when I think of some of the people and events that I have known I am not sure that I really believe it myself.

Geoffrey Browne (c)1992.