Monday, 3 November 2014

Museum scores a precious find for Budleigh’s musical past

A 1957 Budleigh Salterton Drama Club production for which Joan Bennett wrote the music

Rare compositions of music from more than half a century ago have found their way back to Budleigh thanks to a Friend of Fairlynch Museum who revisited the town recently. 

They give an insight into the background of one of the most successful and versatile composers of our times who was brought up in the area.

 Local jazz enthusiasts are among those who know of Budleigh’s association with the late Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, creator not only of jazz and classical pieces but also of film scores for box-office hits like Far from the Madding Crowd (1967) Nicholas and Alexandra (1971), Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Four Weddings and a Funeral. 

The Bennett family in the garden of Lace Acre, in Budleigh Salterton's Boucher Road 

Sir Richard’s father, the children’s author Rodney Bennett had come to know Joyce Dennys the artist and wife of a Budleigh GP. She had provided illustrations for Rodney Bennett’s books and it was at her suggestion that  the Bennett family moved to the town in 1939.  Their famous musician son lived there until 1961 before moving to London.

He found life in the capital rather different from Budleigh Salterton. But the quiet little coastal town remained, as he said, a place “which I still love and won't have a word said against.” He was delighted to be Patron of the Budleigh Jazz Festival and a year before he died was reflecting on his childhood here.

I was thinking and thinking about Budleigh,” Sir Richard wrote in December 2012. “I re-read The Book of Budleigh. I even went online and Googled it. Wikipedia is a mine of information, including Notable Residents.”

There was, however, a glaring omission which really ought to be corrected. He noted that the celebrities include Sue Lawley, “my excellent sister, M.R. Peacocke”, the puppeteer of Muffin the Mule and Belinda Lee, “a film starlet with whom I was at Miss Bannister's Kindergarten and who had a toy accordion of which I was extremely jealous.”

Sir Richard ended with the mock-serious reflection: “But I haven't made it yet. Sigh.”

Less well known as a musician is his mother, born Joan Esther Spink, shown above.  At least she does get a mention in Wikipedia as a former pupil of the composer Gustav Holst and as a singer in the first 1918 performance of 'The Planets'.


Gustav Holst by Herbert Lambert; photogravure, circa 1921  NPG Ax7745
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Holst had a high opinion of her musical talent and advised her to join the Royal College of Music. When she failed to win a scholarship there, he comforted her by writing “Failure is a most important part of an artist’s training.” His support encouraged her to enter the RCM in the following year; she became one of his composition students and even won a composition prize. 

Part of the musical setting of 'Alice in Wonderland' to accompany the entrance of the White Rabbit, by Joan Bennett

As Joan Spink, she wrote several chamber and choral works, one of which Holst included in a published collection of his pieces by his most promising students. Her work was included in a concert given in November 1922 by the Society of Women Composers at Messrs. Novello's rooms in London.  Her six Irish folk-songs arranged for voice, violin, and violoncello “well preserve the national characteristics” wrote the music critic for The Musical Times of December that year.

Joan Spink married Rodney Bennett in 1924. She seems to have put the furthering of her husband’s career ahead of any of her own aspirations as a composer. After Rodney’s death in 1948 she moved in 1952 from the family home at Lace Acre in Budleigh Salterton’s Boucher Road to Clyst Cottage in the same road. Here she ran a small madrigal group The Tudor Singers. In the 1953 Christmas holidays a concert was performed at East Budleigh church with a carol 'Jesus, Save us by thy Vertu' written by her son Richard along with another, 'Lute Book Lullaby', which he had written as a 15-year-old.

The programme for 'Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Alice through the Looking-Glass’

Joan Spink also provided musical entertainments for the local community. She was a very good accompanist. Her original compositions were part of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Alice through the Looking-Glass’ by Lewis Carroll, presented by Budleigh Salterton Drama Club from 2-5 January 1957.  Familiar names among the cast include Fairlynch Museum President Joy Gawne as the Red Queen and Joyce Evans, better known as the artist Joyce Dennys, as the White Queen.  The artist and book illustrator Cecil Elgee was one of the wardrobe mistresses.

Music by Joan Bennett to accompany the stage appearance of Tweedledum and Tweedledee

A local Women’s Institutes entertainment in the 1950s included an item performed by the East Budleigh and Bicton WI entitled ‘Jam Today’, for which she wrote the music with lyrics by  Pamela Macdonald. 

She also wrote music for a January pantomime ‘Dick Whittington’ of the same period.

All light-hearted stuff.  Yet Richard Rodney Bennett has acknowledged the musical debt that he owed his mother. According to his biographer Anthony Meredith in Richard Rodney Bennett: The Complete Musician one of the happiest memories he had of growing up in Devon was the attractive music Joan used to play - more often than not Debussy or Ravel.  In a 1995 interview with Mike Seabrook reproduced in  the biography he recalls his youthful memories.

Music by Joan Bennett for the Mock Turtle's song 'Beautiful Soup' from 'Alice in Wonderland'

“There was lots of piano and vocal music, also vocal scores, stuff my parents had reviewed, all neatly put away in cupboards, but available; and my mother would always talk to me about those glamorous early days at St Paul's and the RCM and her impressions of Vaughan Williams, Gustav and Imogen Holst, Ireland, Ferguson, Bliss, Rubbra... This was like hearing about film stars! I certainly didn't hear most of the music which we owned, particularly the stranger stuff like van Dieren. But I looked at it, and this I think has a lot to do with me being a composer. I've always been more interested in looking than necessarily hearing. It was music I saw and liked.” 

Various pieces by Joan Spink, dating from the 1950s, are contained in three manuscript books discovered by Sir Richard’s sister Meg Peacocke while she was going through his affairs at his London flat.


Meg Peacocke, in Budleigh October 2014, with a Japanese Acer Palmatum 'Osakazuki'

A distinguished poet herself, Meg came back to Budleigh to give a talk to Friends of Fairlynch and the Otter Valley Association about her memories of the town during World War Two.

Fairlynch Chairman Roger Sherriff has acknowledged her kindness in offering them to the Museum. “The scores give a valuable insight into the way in which professionally trained artists like Joan Spink and Joyce Dennys played a part in the life of the Budleigh community. We are most grateful to Meg Peacocke for thinking of us.”

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