Hylton & Stravinsky
"The mixing of different genres always turns out badly. The jazz version of Mavra has just confirmed this truth in striking fashion. Let jazz stay as it is, played by specialist musicians who know the technique; and let other musicians keep to their own genres where they are sufficiently distinguished."
One of Jack Hylton’s particular strengths as a bandleader and one which made him ultimately so successful, was that he knew exactly what his audience wanted to hear and gave them exactly that. He also appeared to know how to develop his band when they moved from the dance halls onto the concert platform and one tactic he and his team of arrangers used was to borrow from the ‘classical’ world, producing what became known as ‘light classics’. This appears to have been more of a shrewd show business move than a deliberate attempt to bridge the gap between popular and classical music.
One example of borrowing from the ‘classical’ world is worthy of particular note. Hylton and Igor Stravinsky collaborated on one of Stravinsky’s works and the result was, at the very least, disappointing. This unprecedented story begins around 1930, a time when Jack Hylton and His Orchestra were touring with remarkable regularity, especially in Europe. The band was as big an attraction on the continent as they were in their home country and France in particular made the band feel very welcome on their numerous visits.
"Hylton empathised with Paris completely; and there can be little doubt that Paris reciprocated in the same way. He seemed happy to spend more time there than anywhere else; and of course we had to be there with him."
One of these tours began on February 17th, 1931 with a concert at the Paris Opera House. This was no ordinary event, as this was the first non-classical concert ever to be given at the venue. It was widely reported in the French press at the time as being a landmark occasion for the Opera House and a landmark also for jazz music – a suggestion that this music was gaining a respectably which had been lacking during the first part of the century. At least as important as the venue, was the choice of music:
"Jack Hylton will perform a completely new programme, the main attraction of which will be the first rendition of a symphonic fragment of the comic opera, Mavra, by Stravinsky."
With the Hylton band approaching the height of their popularity as a stage band, the Paris Opera House was an ideal venue to perform in – a well loved and well respected concert platform. It was never Hylton’s intention to play a classical concert but it was to prove a good opportunity to display one of the band’s most serious arrangements to date, the idea for which began the previous year.
"During one of these periods [in France] a chap hung around quite a bit. He and Hylton did quite a degree of chatting; mostly with the hands and gestures and sidelong looks at the band. Jack introduced him as Stravinsky, the famous composer."
The amount that Stravinsky ‘hung around’ with Hylton varies from report to report. Chappie D’Amato contradicts the above quote from Les Carew by suggesting that Stravinsky attended one of Hylton’s concerts in Berlin in 1930 .
Whatever the case, it appears that Stravinsky liked the band enough to ask them to play an arrangement of one of his works. It is perhaps strange that Stravinsky would be so keen to associate himself with dance music, but sections of his output suggest a man who not only wanted to push the boundaries of his art, but also embrace elements from other genres. For example, Ragtime from 1918 speaks for itself and the Ebony Concerto from 1945 was written for clarinet and jazz band. These pieces certainly captured a flavour of jazz and may have satisfied Stravinsky’s desire to be ‘modern’, but would not be considered as ‘jazz music’. These works borrowed from the jazz idiom in the same way that works such as Le Sacre De Printemps borrowed from indigenous Russian folk culture.
It is perhaps an indication of Stravinsky’s knowledge of the genre that he took to Hylton’s band, rather than a more pure form of the music by one of the American bands from the same period. Although Duke Ellington, for example, did not appear in Europe until the summer of 1933 (coincidentally brought over by arrangement with Hylton himself), Stravinsky did not appear to have heard any Black-American jazz, or sought it out. Rather, he favoured the music that he had stumbled across or had been prompted to listen to by mutual contacts. It is unlikely that Stravinsky was a fan of jazz music, or a fan of Jack Hylton’s music in particular. What he saw was a proficient orchestra playing modern, popular music and he saw a way to further his knowledge of the genre and become better known amongst the public. Whatever his true reasons, Stravinsky did approach Hylton regarding the project. Richard Taruskin cites an account in The Voice from August 1930.
"His meeting with Igor Stravinsky was one of the most memorable events of Jack Hylton’s recent continental tour. It was at a concert in Holland that the creator of Petroushka first heard Jack and his boys and he was so interested that he followed the band to the next city on their tour and attended the concert there. After the performance he went into the artists’ room and spent over an hour with the wind and percussion players of the orchestra asking each man to demonstrate the capabilities and limitations of his instrument…"
There appears to have been some kind of discussion between Hylton and Stravinsky at this time and this is confirmed in Hylton’s letter to Stravinsky on September 10th, 1930.
"I am coming to Paris next week for a few days and I am writing to ask you if it is possible for us to meet and discuss the music which you honoured me by asking me to play."
Billy Munn suggests that Hylton’s French agent had the idea originally and introduced them. However, it has been suggested that Hylton himself presented the idea to Vera Sudeikina, Stravinsky’s mistress and later wife, on March 20th 1930, over lunch. Stravinsky himself has in print contradicted all of these sources, saying that the ‘jazz’ element of Mavra was perceived by Hylton himself, who then sought permission to arrange a particular section.
This appears to be a good example of Stravinsky contradicting himself; something that he appears to do in his extensive published writings and something that has hampered progress on the confirmation of details for this matter. Both Les Carew and Billy Munn suggest that Stravinsky chose both the piece and the section of the piece and it would seem unlikely that Hylton would have had enough knowledge of Stravinsky’s work to pick a specific section from one of his lesser known operas. It may be that retrospectively Stravinsky wanted to disassociate himself from the whole episode and so is suggesting that the idea came from Hylton; this is hard to accept. Indeed, Stravinsky has mentioned in his writings that the piece had a jazz element, a clear contradiction of the last point.
"I used wind instruments principally [in Mavra], both because the music seemed to whistle as wind instruments whistle, and also because there was a certain ‘jazz’ element in it – the quartet especially – that seemed to require a ‘band’ sound rather than an ‘orchestral’ sound."
The Times, from January 29th 1931, agrees with the most likely scenario of Stravinsky seeing the band in concert in Paris on a previous trip and admiring the performance so much that he suggested they may like to play something of his. This agrees with the article cited in Taruskin’s book. It is also worth considering what appears to be misinformation from Melody Maker of February 1931. It suggests that Stravinsky heard the band in Paris and was “enthralled by the performance of the combination”. The article goes on to quote Stravinsky.
"I was told I should hear a jazz band, and instead there is a combination with all the qualities of the symphony orchestra. I felt a great desire to hear Mr. Hylton play one of my works, and I have chosen my composition, Mavra…I have rescored a great deal of the work to make it suitable for a modern combination..."
Evidence shows that the work was arranged the band’s staff arrangers and that at no time did Stravinsky aid them by giving them a version to work from. Perhaps Stravinsky was misquoted and was merely pointing out that he had chosen the section of the work that he wanted Hylton to use, suggesting a way in which voice parts could be translated into instrumental parts successfully.
The phrase “I was told to hear a jazz band” lends weight to the argument that Stravinsky was encouraged to seek out this music, rather than discovering it himself. It is interesting to note that he had a great desire to hear this band play one of his own works and not simply to hear more of the band playing their own music. This may suggest that Stravinsky heard an unfamiliarly orchestrated band showing a high level of technical skill and musicianship and saw that as an opportunity to have his music played to a new audience, or that he felt he could explore new avenues with his music in what was to him, a new idiom. His mention of a ‘modern combination’ suggests again a need for something new. There was (and still is) a great deal of scope for different combinations within the accepted orchestral set-up, but he may have felt that something seen by popular culture to be modern was a better canvas to work with than a combination which was merely seen to be radical. Either way, the piece played by the band was an arrangement of an existing work and it may have benefited both parties if Stravinsky had composed a new work specifically for the band. The whole occasion would be seen now as having historical importance for both ‘classical’ and ‘jazz’ music if this had been the case.
Preparations and Progress
Certainly, by the end of 1930, preparations were underway for the arrangement and it became clear that the band would need a little more rehearsal for this piece than for a stock concert arrangement. The band were not averse to complex arrangements – when they were free from the strict tempos required by dancers, the arrangers were allowed to explore more elaborate changes of tempo and meter, but the band simply were not used to time signatures changing every few bars or even every bar, as in the chosen section of Mavra. They realised it was a challenge, but these were some of the very best dance band musicians in Europe and expected perfection of themselves.
There is very little information on the arrangement and rehearsals of this piece and all the evidence put forward here has come from the reminiscences of Billy Munn (who could remember the details clearly, some sixty-five years after the event) and from the Les Carew article already been quoted. It is known that Stravinsky had nothing to do with the actual arrangement of his work. He certainly chose the sections which were to be arranged (although the final version may be shorter than was originally intended), but he did none of the arranging. The score was sent by G.G. Paichadze, Stravinsky’s publisher, to Hylton at the end of 1930 and Hylton asked his foremost arranger, Billy Ternent, to begin work on the new piece. However, Ternent was a man of modest ego and suggested that Leighton Lucas would be more suited to the style that was needed.
Indeed, theoretically Lucas was better equipped for the job. The career paths of both men following the break-up of the Hylton Orchestra corroborate this idea. Lucas was one of the drafted men from the band in 1940, where he served in the RAF. Following that, he became known as an orchestral composer, noted for his film work. He wrote a number of ballets and works for varying groups; chamber orchestras, string orchestras, solo voices, piano trios, etc. Ternent stayed with the band for some fifteen years, both as arranger, violinist, baritone saxophonist, friend and confidant of Hylton and leader of the band in Hylton’s absence during rehearsals. He had more to do with the running of the band than any other individual after Hylton. When the band split up, he went on to a career with his own band, which enjoyed considerable success, in a time where dance bands were fading.
Leighton Lucas’ arrangements for Hylton were, unsurprisingly, lightly textured, orchestral in colour and perhaps more suited to a Stravinsky transcription. Ternent wrote in a more sectional way, much as a modern big band is written for, with the saxophones and brass playing as blocks, being supported by the rhythm and string sections. This created a fuller sound, one that Hylton perceived as being the ‘Hylton sound’.
Lucas took on the task, with only a couple of months to the concert at the Paris Opera House. He took the duet and quartet from Mavra (from section 44 to section 92) and arranged it for flute (doubling on clarinet), oboe (doubling on clarinet and alto saxophone), alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone, two trumpets, two trombones, piano, three violins, cello, bass and percussion (kit, timpani, xylophone). Lucas had apparently listened carefully to Stravinsky’s orchestral version and tried to make a true re-working of the piece. The Lucas version consists of two parts simply titled Part I and Part II. Part II remains unfinished and it is unclear where this part might have concluded. It picks up the score just a few bars after Part I and finishes eighty-six bars later. The next logical place in the score where it could finish is after a further twenty-four bars, but this would only make Part II around two-and-a-half minutes long, against the six minutes of Part I. It could well be that Hylton and Stravinsky’s original idea was for an extended work which would have gone on to the end of the original score and would have made more musical sense. This is more likely when considering the scale of the pre-concert press.
"In due course, Leighton arrived with the parts and wished us luck. Well! It was a case of ‘What the hell’s all this? What’s it all about? How are you supposed to read this’...it was nightmarish!"
Indeed, to a band which was more used to regular time signatures and regular numbers of bars, this arrangement must have come as a shock, despite their ability. Due to the nature of Lucas’ sparse writing there could be no reliance on other members of the section, as there was no sectional work. As an example, in one section (three bars before section 47) the alto and tenor saxophones are playing one melody by themselves. Two trumpets are playing a counter melody, while baritone saxophone and bass play a simple crotchet pattern. The dynamic on the score is forte, but the score does not display the sheer volume of instruments associated with forte in the usual Hylton sense. At section 67, the woodwind double the strings, but the orchestration of the woodwind section is not thick with saxophones, but features flute, oboe and clarinet. The brass at this point are playing dissonant offbeat quavers, across the changing 3/4 and 3/8 time signatures. It is certainly well arranged and compares favourably with the Stravinsky original score at section 67, which features just oboe, violins and one voice on the main melodic line, with the trombones and low strings taking the offbeat quavers. It is unclear whether this was an approach to arranging which Stravinsky would have been happy with or whether he required a closer approximation to the ‘Hylton sound’. Certainly, there would be no impact on the audience of the famous Hylton brass or saxophone sections.
"The rehearsal was a shambles. Leighton struggled valiantly, but it was only towards the end that it began to show any effect. Luckily, Stravinsky wasn’t there. Even as it improved it made little or no sense. Odd squeaks, grunts, groans, snorts at completely unrelated moments seemed to happen at the whim of the instrument concerned. Hylton looked bewildered. Disbelief was in his eyes as he surveyed the ruins of his lovely band. What could he do? He was obviously committed – no backing out now. Maybe it needed more thorough rehearsing – more and more, until the idiots could think of nothing else."
Nevertheless, despite the efforts of the musicians, it was not a suitable vehicle for the band. Jack realised this and decided Ternent would have to re-arrange the whole piece . It was not uncommon with a band such as this to rework an arrangement with a different arranger, but this was an exceptional work and many hours had already been spent on rehearsal; the band (and Leighton Lucas) were not pleased. Jack had stated that it did not sound like his band and that Ternent’s job was to make it exactly that. Ternent took the orchestral score and Lucas’ arrangement, but time was short (the concert had only been around two months away when Lucas began working on his arrangement). He made no reference to an original recording and simply blocked out the notes he saw, for the instruments that he had at his disposal.
This version was therefore scored differently and more heavily than Lucas’. Three alto saxophones (doubling on either clarinet or flute), tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone (Ternent himself, doubling on violin), two trumpets, two trombones, three violins, cello, bass and percussion as before. On the end of Ternent’s score are the words “Thank God!” which one assumes, sum up his feelings on arranging this particular piece in these particular circumstances. However, the changes seemed to work, despite the whole band having to learn new parts and the arrangement was certainly a lot ‘fuller’ than the previous one. When comparing scores at section 67, the Ternent score has no resting musicians at this point. Alto and tenor saxophones and two trumpets carry the melodic line, while two other alto saxophones, trombones, bass, strings and drums all carry a much heavier offbeat quaver pattern. This process applies throughout the arrangement. The essence of the piece is the same and the orchestration is similar, but there are simply more people playing more of the time in the Ternent arrangement. Appendix B features copies of the first section of the Ternent and Lucas scores and also the original vocal orchestral score (photocopied by agreement with Boosey and Hawkes).
"Whether it would suit Stravinsky was another matter, but Jack began to relax a little. The music became smoother and notes began to seem to have a reason for existence."
It was during the period of rehearsals that Hylton informed the band that this piece was to be the centre of attention at the Paris Opera House and the band recognised this as the reason for his anxiety. As the date drew closer however, the ensemble improved to the point where Mavra was being played as competently as anything else in their repertoire.
When the arrangement was polished, Hylton took over the conducting, as he often had before after Ternent had rehearsed the band. Of course, Hylton could not hand the baton to Ternent for a piece with the expectancy of Mavra. Unfortunately, Hylton was more of a showman than he was a conductor, and the arrangement was simply too hard. As Billy Munn put it, “the Mavra arrangement was not too hard for the band...but it was too hard for Jack to conduct.”
Ternent attempted to guide Hylton through the score, which he did successfully – Hylton was a competent musician and had arranging credits of his own, so will have developed some level of understanding of the piece.
This is how the situation stayed. The piece had been chosen, the arrangement had been worked out, the piece was well rehearsed and Hylton was to front his band as he always did. Mavra was to be the special feature throughout this European tour, which was to run for exactly two months.
On January 29th 1931, The Times gave a review of a concert from the previous evening. Stravinsky was a guest soloist for the BBC Orchestra, conducted by Ernest Ansermet, at the Queens Hall in London. On the morning of the concert, Hylton’s band were rehearsing in the small hall next door and it is from this meeting that the famous photograph of Stravinsky, Hylton, Ansermet and some of Hylton’s musicians is taken. Billy Munn was lucky enough to have assistance from Stravinsky himself who sat next to him at the piano and explained the score that he was using and some of the more tricky fingerings. Some of these can be seen on the piano reduction score which Munn used (as there was no piano part scored by Ternent). From the report in The Times, we can judge that the piece was sufficiently rehearsed for performance, as indicated in the descriptions given by Carew and Munn. Indeed, the press, or at least the reporter from The Times, was witness to this rehearsal with Stravinsky and favourably commented on the bands’ arrangement and performance.
"The general effect, however, when played with the subtlety of which Mr Hylton’s band is capable, is satisfactory, and as a piece of music it stands securely on its own feet without the dramatic context from which it is taken... Mr Stravinsky... ought therefore to be gratified by the result of this experiment in rescoring."
This is glowing praise and the only example of such positive predilection towards the piece. It also confirms that the band was capable of playing the piece, that Stravinsky heard it played well and that there were more than the Paris concertgoers of February 17th who heard it. These are important points to consider, as will become clear when looking at Stravinsky’s reaction to the concert performance. What is missing is any record of Stravinsky’s reaction at this rehearsal. If the unnamed reporter from The Times is correct, then the performance was a good one, the arrangement worked well and Stravinsky’s idea of having his work performed by a ‘jazz band’ was realised.
During Hylton’s career, press agencies were hired to keep records of any mention he or his band were given in newspapers and magazines both in Britain and in Europe. These, as part of Lancaster University’s Jack Hylton Archive have proved a valuable source of information for the Mavra episode and show how much attention was given to the Hylton/Stravinsky collaboration. Hylton’s office was keen to point out the inclusion of Mavra as part of the programme, but also the inclusion of an arrangement of The Merry Widow, and of a Rachmaninoff Prelude, which were also planned. It is known that the band recorded Rachmaninoff’s Prelude In G Minor, Op.23, No.5 and the Prelude in C# Minor, Op.3, No.2 in London on February 25, 1930 . What is not known, is which of the Preludes (or perhaps both) were intended to be played on this occasion. These and other ‘light classics’ are discussed elsewhere.
"We learn that this Tuesday evening [February 17th], for the first time, the Paris Opera will play host to a jazz concert and that the orchestra chosen for this sensational first is Jack Hylton and his Boys...For the occasion, Stravinsky has presented Hylton with a special arrangement of a symphonic fragment of his comic opera Mavra."
This article also mentions the plans to play Mavra the following evening at the Salle Rameau in Lyon. Even in the British music press, which generally appeared less interested in the band’s happenings when abroad, took an interest in the Stravinsky work.
"To have a composer of the standing of Stravinsky writing for the band must be put down as yet another of Jack’s great triumphs, and there must be dozens of enthusiastic English musicians who bitterly regret that the recital is not going to take place in London."
The culmination of all the preparation, rehearsal and press coverage came on the day of the concert, in Paris on February 17th, 1931 (see Figure 4). This was during a period when the band was generally regarded as being the most successful band in Europe, if not the world. Consequently, the French audience had no problem in accepting the band in the hallowed Paris Opera House, as they would have done at any other French venue.
We do not have a list of the numbers that made up the first half, but we know it was a regular mix of the band’s most popular tunes, such as Body And Soul and Dancing Tambourine and their latest arrangements (no doubt soon to become favourites). We also know it was a huge success. The audience (numbering somewhere in the region of four thousand) roared their applause and the band performed in awe of what was must have been a glorious place to play. “The concert itself was a regal affair,” said Les Carew.
The second half began with another popular number and then French trumpeter Phillipe Brun walked forward and explained to the audience the circumstances regarding the meeting of Stravinsky and Jack Hylton. At this point, he introduced Stravinsky who, eight or so rows back, rose to acknowledge the tremendous applause.
Saxophonist Chappie D’Amato recalls the day’s events.
"We performed this almost unknown work of Stravinsky to a packed audience at the Paris Opera House with the composer present with his family, also the President of France and all the diplomatic corps – what is known, I believe, as a glittering assembly."
There in understandably a difference in the reaction to the performance of those members of the band, whose recollections have been mentioned (saxophonist Chappie D’Amato, trombonist Les Carew and pianist Billy Munn) and the French and English press. Firstly, the band themselves.
Billy Munn described the occasion as “a horrifying nightmare”. At first, Hylton got lost, as was expected. Consequently, the whole band got lost, despite how well they knew the piece – “it was a nightmare”. Trumpeter Jack Raine decided to play out a particular section towards the end, where the trumpet had the lead and as the band knew the piece so well, they all picked up on it and the piece ended together. Hylton knew he had done a bad job and was very annoyed that the performance had not been a success; consequently, he dropped the rest of the planned set and carried on with his normal stage show. This agrees with one of the French newspaper reports, which says, “...he forgot to play the Rachmaninoff Prelude which we had been promised.”
Of course, it was not forgotten, but rather cancelled. Chappie D’Amato described it a little more casually, saying it was “a little nerve-racking”, but that the band “got through it”, which for many people listening was how it seemed. Les Carew described those few minutes in more detail and it is best to quote him in full.
"We started off alright, maybe a little tentatively, and confidence grew slightly. Then, funny things began to happen, Jack’s arms began to flail meaninglessly, aggravating a situation that was already dicey. His face went pasty-coloured and shiny with sweat...The flailing of his arms became more pronounced and more off-putting. Between the odd burps and coughs from the instruments we heard him muttering, only just audibly, ‘Take no notice of me, I’m bloody lost!’ We sailed on without a captain to the bitter end – eyes screwed on parts and trying to ignore Jack. Every now and again Jack Raine, our lead trumpet, would poke in his few notes with all the confidence in the world and set us back on course. Nothing barring an earthquake could have shifted Jack Raine. Through him I suppose, we all finished together."
At that moment, Jack Hylton turned to the audience with outstretched arms to take the applause, which had been freely his during the rest of the evening. This time, the audience may have been a little perplexed and the applause may have been a little muted from some, but it was huge applause nevertheless. Billy Munn described their reaction as “uproar”.
"...we got through it, with no one knowing whether we’d played any wrong notes, except, perhaps, Igor Stravinsky.
Only we, Jack and Stravinsky knew the facts. Perhaps Jack also knew that Stravinsky’s music was so unfamiliar in those days, that none of the audience was aware that anything had been other than was intended by the composer; you know, fashionable, debatable..."
Following this change of direction for the programme, the concert went smoothly and was as successful as one would expect. Reports suggested that while the concert should have finished around 11.00pm it went on, due to demand, until nearly midnight, by which time the band was resurrecting old numbers to please the crowd. The receipts for this one concert totalled around £1,400.
The press reaction to the concert seems to have concentrated mostly on the six minutes of Mavra, rather than the other three hours. It is very interesting to compare the opinions of the writers from the French press to those of the Melody Maker article already cited and Stravinsky’s reactions on the day as well as after the event. It is clear that Stravinsky rose to his feet at the end of the piece, as he had done before the piece. Melody Maker suggests that Stravinsky did not attempt to disguise his pleasure at the performance and that he was most open with his praise. However, Le Carnet de la Semaine suggested that Stravinsky left the Opera House immediately after Mavra “cursing both jazz and Jack Hylton” . They go on to suggest that Stravinsky’s departure led to Hylton’s change of programme.
Before the concert, on February 12th, 1931, Stravinsky wrote to Hylton, regarding the publication of this arrangement of Mavra , saying that it “must not use my name otherwise than as the composer of the original” . This is not a very positive attitude to take into the Opera House, but he seemed happy with the arrangement when he helped on January 28th, at the Queens Hall and was not sufficiently put off by the performance on that day, to suggest any major changes. Perhaps another example of Stravinsky’s persistent contradictions. On another occasion, Stravinsky views the experience very harshly, seemingly forgetting that it was his idea originally.
"Mr. Hylton actually conducted this Mavra potpourri in the Paris Opera (!) in 1932 (I believe). It was an awful flop, for the musicians tried to play the music ‘strictly’. Mr. Hylton had merely transcribed the music for his combination of instruments – and Mavra has no place on a ‘jazz’ programme. Mr. Hylton was a sympathetic man, but I think this was the most bizarre concert I have ever attended."
This suggests that perhaps he was not happy on January 28th, but realised that it was too late to protest about the performance, given the interest taken by the newspapers, and the number of people attending the concert on February 17th. It could also be that if the Queens Hall rehearsal had gone badly from Stravinsky’s point of view, which may have prompted his letter of February 12th to Hylton regarding the recording.
This is the only written opinion we have from Stravinsky. Writer E.W. White adds severely, “It seems strange that the composer should have consented to such a travesty of his music.”
This is a particularly harsh description from someone not at the concert and who has no real cause to describe the work in this way. The French press however, was present and in a stronger position to comment.
"...on the evening of the concert, Hylton just didn’t have the Stravinsky soul...He conducted all the same, but with such evident boredom that the success of the piece was compromised..."
The Monde Musical was more critical still.
"The performance was and deserved to be a complete failure."
The article suggests that Hylton ‘felt obliged’ to put into the programme something of the nature of Mavra, to fit more into the surroundings and mood of the Paris Opera. It would be fairer to say that the arrangement would have been played at some time, but such an auspicious occasion suited Hylton’s sense of theatre and hence it was chosen as the venue for Mavra’s premiere.
"In this arena, Mavra seemed a poor thing, gauche, deformed, one of nature’s rejects."
When the whole article is considered, it is perhaps referring as much to Stravinsky’s original version, as to the Ternent arrangement, but it still stands as a harsh criticism. It begs the question of why Stravinsky chose Mavra rather than one of his better-known works. The only information we have to suggest the reasoning behind Mavra is from Expositions And Developments, where there is reference made to the ‘jazz element’ in parts of Mavra. It is perhaps more to do with the ‘band’ part than the ‘jazz’ part, given Stravinsky’s comments after seeing the band in France in 1930.
The same Monde Musical article concluded by suggesting that the audience could not hide its disappointment with Mavra and that it paled into insignificance alongside the usual Hylton set.
The quotes from the press get yet more critical.
"It has to be said that their fears were not only justified, but far surpassed. It was in fact one of the most lamentable failures which it has been our misfortune to witness for a very long time."
This article suggests that the first problem was the bringing on of music stands (something which the band very rarely used) and the calming down of the usual band antics. It goes on to suggest that the arrangement did nothing for and may even have had a derogatory effect on Stravinsky’s work. It says this was the wrong work to be chosen for the occasion and that it was really one of Stravinsky’s less important and less appealing efforts.
The Paris Excelsior gives a slightly more favourable review and almost glosses over Mavra as an unfortunate but forgivable few minutes.
"Jack Hylton played jazz at the Opera...and it didn’t bring the roof of this august building...but nor did the applause! Indeed the audience...seemed quite cool to begin with; Stravinsky’s Mavra ...provoked only a fairly visible boredom. In the second half, enthusiasm was revived by the clowning and somersaults in The Merry Widow."
These were the ‘clowning and somersaults’ of the band’s regular stage show to which they had reverted. The one point that all reports seemed to agree on was that the bulk of the audience (at the very least) was keener on the regular numbers than on Mavra, but surely this is to be expected. Melody Maker points out that it was the audience’s insatiable appetite for ordinary dance tunes, which led to the concert running so late.
What does become clear, is that, despite ‘getting through it’, despite the band finishing together, despite Stravinsky taking the applause and despite the audiences reaction, the performance of Ternent’s arrangement of Mavra at the Paris Opera was a failure. This must be the case, as Hylton dropped it from the set for the rest of the tour. It is clear from a perusal of the European press cuttings for the rest of the tour, no mention is made of this most heralded of arrangements and Billy Munn confirmed that he had never seen his part again after that night. The fact that so much time was spent rehearsing and arranging the piece, for it only to be played once and never recorded was one of the few true indications we have of Hylton’s feelings after that date. Of course, it did not put a stop to Hylton’s interest with classical music.
"Unfortunately, or perhaps I should say fortunately, we never made a record of this, but from then on we ventured into popular classics more and more."
When looking at Jack Hylton’s career as a whole, the Mavra episode is almost irrelevant, but it makes for a fascinating story. It is also an excellent example of the genre mixing, which has gone on to such an extent in 20th Century music. Hylton never wrote his autobiography, so of course his true opinions on the matter will never be known and through Stravinsky’s conflicting writings his opinion will remain similarly elusive, but it stands as a wonderful piece of musical history.
"Anyway, in retrospect it was great fun – and after all – we’re all human. A fascinating episode – one such in a lifetime and how many of us are here to remember it? I suppose every conductor has his own particular Mavra hiding somewhere in his career?"