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Beginnings

From my parents I inherited a useful combination of talents. My father was a gifted engineer (mostly electrical) and very practical, my mother fine water-colourist and instinctive piano player although she would choose not to recognise her talents.

At the age of ten my father and I were designing radio circuits but growing musical interests were overtaking things electrical and my mother painted the sound board of a psaltery (a plucked dulcimer) that I had just made.

Having played the piano from the age of five, I was always interested in keyboard instruments and when my piano teacher gave me a piano keyboard (the carcass having been burnt), I set about chalking up a design for a piano on the concrete floor of the garage.

Quite soon I realised it would be impossible and with the piano keyboard sticking out of the roof of the car, I arrived at Oundle where I was sent to study engineering.

About this time, my parents gave me a fabulous train set by Graham Farrish; I had ached for one several years before, but they thought with probable justification, that I would take it to bits as I always wanted to know how things worked. Within a week I had taken it to a Pawn Shop and swapped it for a Mandolin. I must say that I wish I still had the train set!!

A spell in the School workshops was required of each pupil, in fact one week of every term. I was in my element- but most boys were not!

It was James Armstrong, my piano teacher, who introduced me to early musical instruments and I realised quite quickly that part of the piano keyboard could be used to make a clavichord; and so it appeared in a Speech Day Exhibition- clumsy joints filled with spectacular amounts of plastic wood but it PLAYED! When my cabinet making improved, I saved the wood.

Then I started on a double manual Harpsichord (nothing seemed to daunt me) and I spent much free time in the workshops which were extremely well equipped. The instructors did not know how to teach me how to do inlay and crossbanding, so I read it up, and one evening veneered and crossbanded the whole bentside of the instrument. After that there was a queue of teachers to view this unusual phenomenon, and, having had a rather unhappy time at school I was completely nonplussed by the attention. The Harpsichord was used for many concerts and subsequently by the Philomusica of London.

Bob Thurston Dart was a terrific musical influence on me at this time, and I used to go to Cambridge and listen spellbound to his playing of Bach's 48 preludes and fugues on the clavichord in his rooms at Jesus College.

And then I discovered the HARP!

It had been dumped next to a pile of coal in the basement of the School Science Block. I already knew the instrument as it had been used in a cabaret given by the masters for the boys. A rather weedy biology master had strung the harp with rubber bands and flicked paper pellets into the audience.

So, I rescued the harp, dusted it down and strung it with harpsichord wire, painting the F and C strings the appropriate colours. And, as one master said "an inky fingered schoolboy, on a winters afternoon, sat down and learnt to play the harp." (note: I'm still learning!).

My father had a colleague whose wife played the harp- Mrs Alexander (Frances Callow) and she had studied in France with the great Henriette Reine. She showed me what real harp playing was like and gave me a good foundation. She left her beautiful Lyon and Healy Harp to me in her will and I have an everlasting gratitude for all the wonderful things she did for me.

At the time, I needed to get a more useful instrument and I bought an Erard Gothic Harp for £2-10s (£2.50). It wasn't in very good condition and my father was worried that I had been "ripped off"- but once polished, strung and regulated it turned out to be a rather good instrument.

I was 18, in my last year of school, when Ruth Rainlton came to audition Young musicians for the National Youth Orchestra. The Director of Music (who never liked me) pushed violinists, horn players and trombonists at her and was horrified when she chose me (I had only been learning for one year) and he paid me back during a rehearsal for Wagner's Mastersingers Overture.

I had to wheel the harp through town (perched on a gardener's trolley) to the jeers of the boys. He spent the whole rehearsal rehearsing all the passages without the harp. I overheard him saying to another music master "that will teach Watkins to think that the harp is the most important instrument in the orchestra."

Now things were getting serious. A concert with the NYO in the Colston Hall at Bristol (and a recording) conducted by Walter Susskind (May 1, 1913 – March 25, 1980), and my father was getting very worried. I overheard him, saying to my uncle on the phone-"My son wants to be a harpist- I thought harpists were ladies in long dresses," and to my headmaster he said "We must send him to a famous harpist who can get the silly idea out of his head".

In a letter dated 3rd May 1956, Marie Goossens (1894-1991) wrote:-
"David seems to me to be highly sensitive and was very nervous when he played. He nevertheless produced a good tone on the harp and I think with good tuition he should play well. He is so terribly keen that it would be cruel not, to let him have a musical training."

I obtained a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music after Sir Thomas Armstrong (15 June 1898 – 26 June 1994) listened to me playing Bach's 5th Prelude and Fugue on the harpsichord. However I can't remember which harp piece I played.

Gwendolen Mason was the harp teacher - she had studied with John Thomas and had played for Queen Victoria and she was a great lady and a fine musician but "Elbow up a little higher dear"- Why - and, in exasperation "we always do it that way" wasn't a good enough answer for an enquiring mind.

The sight singing classes were hell - I was so terrified singing in front of the class that I cut them and got a bad reputation. A highpoint was my friendship with William Mathias and his lovely wife Yvonne. Bill wrote his wonderful "Improvisations" for me at this time and there were harp pieces from the composer Vladimir Rodzianko.

I was saved by winning a French Government Scholarship to study with Solange Renié. My father was still not quite convinced and contacted Sir Adrian Boult for advice. His letter was dated 20th April. 1960.

"Dear Mr Watkins,
I had the pleasure of seeing your son this afternoon, and would like to tell you that I was very much impressed with what he told me, and I am anxious to help him, if I can in any possible way.
I do hope his scheme for some months in Paris will come off because there is no question about it that the teacher with whom he wishes to study, Mdme Renie, has something to give him from which he will greatly profit, and it will put him in a position which will enable him to hold his head up beside any harpist in the country.

I was particularly impressed by the way he has buckled to in order to keep things going and has not hesitated to do other jobs in order to carry on with his main objective. He is almost unique among students of the present generation in realising the importance of technical proficiency. It is of tremendous importance, and terribly neglected nowadays.

Perhaps I may have special sympathy for your son, if I may say so, for you too because I too was an only son and when I was about 17 my father, who had hoped that I should carry on his business after him, decided to re-arrange his affairs in order that I might become a musician. I am glad to say he lived long enough to enable him not to regret that decision, and I much hope that you will be able to satisfy yourself on this score.

Yours Sincerely,
Adrian Boult.

Sir Adrian Boult wrote to me on 2nd May 1960

Dear Watkins,
Many Thanks for your letter: I am indeed glad that you have got that scholarship. I hope you will have a happy and successful time there.

Yours sincerely,

 Adrian Boult.

How wonderful for a student to receive such a blessing and support from such a great man and superb conductor.

 

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PARIS

The Escape from London was an exciting Adventure. My harp was loaded onto a palette and swung by a giant crane into the hold of the ferry. Cars were treated in the same way-how things have changed and this was C. 1960. I was quite used to carrying the harp for quite long distances-it was a small Edwardian Gothic-and at least I did not have to listen to Paddington Station Porters saying "Took me harp to a party did we".I could have murdered Gracie Fields for that song.

The first few weeks in Paris were quite wonderful with a feeling of having been let out of school (for ever!!). To begin with I had a room in my teachers apartment, and took my meals "Chez Rosalie"- good simple food- sawdust on the floor and much frequented by Picasso in the past.

I met Fracis Poulenc after a concert who told me that he found writing for the harp very difficult. Sadly I was not able to coax a harp piece out of him.

Rene Huyghe became a great friend and inspiration. He was the French equivalent of our Kenneth Clark who wrote the book "Civilisation".Rene wrote a famous book called "L'Art et L'Ame" (Art and Inspiration) and in it he wrote "To David Watkins, who knows how to play the harp with as much art as inspiration". When asked why he befriended me he said "I like his handwriting."

Solange Renie wanted to keep me on scales and studies for at least a year. When I arrived with flowers she knew I hadn't practised and, tossing the bunch onto the kitchen floor, "and now you will play me your study."

Being mighty frustrated, I wrote my first major harp composition inspired especially by the river Seine which ran rather romantically at the bottom of the garden of her country house near Rouen. Mme. Renie declared that the Petite Suite was far too difficult for me to play and so she recorded it and sent it to a competition in America where it won first prize. The cheque came in very handy for an impecunious student!

Recently I had played in a performance of Zoltan Kodaly's Psalms Hungaricus and I was absolutely "sent" by the delectable harp part. So, I stole the harmonic sequence (and similar figuration) and incorporated it into my Nocturne. Feeling somewhat guilty, I wrote to Kodaly and confessed my "Sin". Three days later I received a handwritten letter from him which was the beginning of a wonderful friendship.

A scholarship lasting 18 months was far too brief and my father said he would help me financially to be able to prolong my studies. He was probably right to put restrictions on my expenditure but I was so cross and returned hot headedly to Paris to try and earn a living to pay for my studies. One of my jobs was copying music and tuning the harpsichord for the Ensemble Ars Rediviva.

One day they were performing a composition by the Swiss composer, Harry Brown, an anglophile who looked rather like my uncle. Gentle and charming, he told me that he had already heard a lot about me and was very worried about my health. (I was down to seven stone and thin as a rake.) He insisted that I had lunch everyday at his apartment and his cook would always cook for me when he was away.

About this time,1962, I competed in the Israel Competition and thought I had already made enormous progress with Mme. Renie, I was unaware of the stamina and experience needed to support a technique which was still not properly formed. I made it through to the next round when Pierre Jamet said that my performance of Faure's Impromptu was "quite good, for an Englishman" but then I played Salzedo's Variations like twelve pigs tied together and I stormed off stage to go to the Hotel King David where, for the rest of the night I consumed lager and peach melbas alternatively.

Maria Korchinska told me to give up the harp and return to England to become a solicitor or accountant. Phia Berghout witnessed this rather agressive lecture and told me not to take any notice of her. I didn't, and returned to Paris to continue my studies.

Harry Brown told me that he financed the Ensemble Ars Rediviva, and if I continued working for it (which was not very onerous) he would give me the equivalent amount of money that I had received for my scholarship.

It was only when I went back with him to his house in Switzerland (Langmatt, Baden), I realized that his family was the Brown of Brown-Boveri. The house contained one of the biggest, private collections of impressionist paintings in the world and I used to practise the harp in front of a different painting every night.(Cezanne, Renoir. Gaugin, VanGoch etc.)

Now the house is open to the public, and in a glass case in the Main Gallery, are photographs of Dinu Lipatti, Clara Haskil and myself. There is an extraordinary postscript to this story. Unbeknown to me, my father had done an apprenticeship in Diesel-Electric Locomotives with Harry Brown's father.

I shall be eternally grateful to Harry Brown and was so happy when he came to Covent Garden and heard me playing in the Royal Opera House Orchestra.

 

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THE ROYAL OPERA HOUSE, COVENT GARDEN

On my return to England there were auditions for the position of Principal Harp at the Royal Opera House and, never thinking that I would have a chance, Georg Solti chose me out of 14 harpists. I was rather astonished as I had so little orchestral experience. Solti was very patient with me and nursed me through some difficult scores. Often it was quite terrifying but in retrospect I have a debt of gratitude to him.

There was one horrible moment when Michael Jefferies was ill and I had to sightread a ballet score at a performance. I was still trying to work out where I was in an Allegro movement (which went like the wind) and then there was silence suddenly. The Grand Adagio had just started and the solo harp chords were not there...... PHEW!!

After that I learnt very quickly.

There are brilliant and difficult Harp solos in the Opera and Ballet repertoire, but the harps main role is in accompanying arpeggios to melodic lines or adding colour within the orchestral texture. Hearing and accompanying a great singer not only inspires a musician but informs his musicianship.

Maria Callas was the first soprano to make a powerful impression on me, nervous and with her diminutive frame (latterly), she was not only a great actress but acted with her voice.

 In Tosca, those moments leading up to the murder of Scarpia (Tito Gobbi) still give me gooseflesh when I remember them.
After one Opera, when Tito Gobbi was singing, we landed up in the same restaurant and when I entered, he and his party stood up with their glasses and toasted "The Harpist".

I doubt if we shall ever hear again effortless coloratura as poured forth from Joan Sutherland, supported by her husband the conductor Richard Bonynge. When they came to supper, Joan did embroidery under the table between courses. It was only in retrospect that one realises that this period was a Golden Age in the history of the Royal Opera House.

Who will ever forget the voice of Jon Vickers, whose passionate and ardout delivery in Berlioz's Trojans, seared one's heart, Joan Carlisle's soavring soprano in Verdi's Otello, Elizabeth Vaughan's amazing characterisation in Puccini's Madame Butterfly, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf's beautifully, contained voice as the Marschallin in Straus's Rosenkavalier, Birgit Nilsson a powerful and integrater soprano in Puccini's Turandot and Straus's Electra, Gwyneth Jones's gorgeous voice in her debut as Siegelinde in Wagner's Walkure, Hans Hotter's magisterial Wotan in Wagner's Ring and of course, many more. 

Christina Ludwig, one of the greatest sopranos, made her debut at Covent Garden in the role of Amneris inVerdi's Aida. This was only because Grace Bumbry (if I remember rightly) was ill. There was almost a riot and shouts of SHAME! when Sir David Webster announced that this was the first time that she had sung there. I was so moved by her singing that I went to see her afterwards.
The Opera that moved me most deeply for musical and dramatic reasons was Berg's Wozzeck. I shall never forget Marie Collier's reading of the bible to her child and in the last scene, her orphaned son playing, unaware of his mothers death.

Schoenberg's Moses and Aavou conducted by Solti, was a high point in Covent Garden's Productions and with a controversial orgy scene. They had to dispense with a camel (which fell through the stage) and I suppose the strong smell of the animals was authentic. My harp got splattered with blood (tomato juice) and I had astonishing glimpses of the "goings on" on stage.

The ticket sales were poor until the Evening Standard announced that Soho Strippers would be taking part in the Orgy. It was a Box Office success! I took Zoltan Kodaly to a dress rehersal (I presented him to Solti and the orchestra) and often wondered what he made of this audacious production.

The harp always has an important part in the Ballet Repertoire and of course is indespensable in the great Ballet scores of Tchaikowzky. How lucky I was to witness and play for the extraordinary dance partnership of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nuryev.
I learnt much about musical phrasing from Fonteyn who was the most natural and musical dancer (many dancers just count!) and I always thrilled to the energy and the elevation of the Leonine Nuryev. (We were both born in the same year). His charisma, especially at curtain calls, was so powerful that the stage would be pelted with, and covered with flowers and bouquets. (some fell into the pit and I would take them home!)

For Gala Performances, the auditorium would be smothered in thousands of carnations which would be especially flown from San Remo. We recorded Prokoviev's Romeo and Juliet which is still available, and a touching reminder of a great dance partnership.
It was recorded 40 years ago and I can hardly believe that you can still hear my harp being played!  

There was hilarious delight when Frederick Ashton and Robert Helpman danced the ugly sisters in Cinderella- Ashton sensitive and Helpman waspish.

I remember a very funny incident which was not planned. Svetlana Beriosova was dancing the same part in the ballet Persephone (PERCYPHONE to us) by Stravinsky.It was also a speaking part and a radio-microphone was concealed in her decolletage. We were hugely entertained when we also heard police car instructions which emanated from the Bow Street Station opposite. She subsequently recorded the words and mimed to them as she danced.

Princess Margaret often attended Ballet rehearsals and I remember an incident, when, carrying a tray of cups of tea for my colleagues, I slipped on some fat and nearly tripped the contents over HRH. When we sat down, one of my colleagues said "Haven't I seen you somewhere before?". "I don't find that PART-I-CUL-ARLY amusing," If only she had said "I come in every Wednesday to scrub the floors" we would have had a good laugh and relaxed.

This musical life was confined with a glittering social life and I met the most fascinating people.

 

THE WELSH NATIONAL OPERA

When I joined the orchestra of the Royal Opera House, there was another dreaded moment, when, two hours before a performance of Madam Butterfly, I was told that I had to play a score that I had never seen before.

For one hour, the conductor James Lockhart went through the part with me, and I was so impressed and thankful for his considerate precision and patience with me. Fortunately I took quite easily to the "Puccini Rubato" and the performance went much better than expected. James Lockhart worked closely with the wonderful singer Margaret Price, a soprano whose voice was in the stellar league and I always wish that I had heard more of her. When a conductor, whose musical skills and consideration in accompanying singers, asked me to play in his new orchestra of the Welsh National Opera Company, I eagerly accepted.

The atmosphere with so many young musicians in the orchestra was quite wonderful. There were some spectacular productions and remarkable performances of Aida with the title role sung memorably by Pauline Tinsley. There were also performances conducted by the talented young Joseph Levine.

Now, this Opera Company in its impressive new home overlooking Cardiff Bay is of international importance.

THE ROYAL PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA

Rudolf Kempe has always been my most favourite conductor, Elgar Howarth, his disciple felt the same, but his musical charisma didn't affect audiences in the same way. When Kempe asked me to join the orchestra, I could hardly resist the offer. He knew my playing from Covent Garden days and always liked my sound.

Unusual for a conductor he was very sensitive to harpistic problems and sometimes gave me the freedom to phrase how I wanted, even going as far as saying that the way I did it would give him an idea of how to continue his next phrase.

The general orchestral repertoire was new to me and, when faced with the tricky harp part in Straus's Don Juan, I felt completely inadequate. Leonard Brain, the cor anglais player (brother of Denis Brain) said "Just concentrate on the passage that are quasi solo and do the best you can with the rest". When I had played the work several times and later with Solti, the harp part flowed! Kempe was especially at home with the works of Debussy, and I still remember those performances also his care when I played the solo part in Bruch's Scottish Fantasy with Kyung Wha Chung.

In parallel to my orchestral playing there were Chamber Music concerts and, in particular song recitals. With my sister Helen (Mezzo- soprano)we explored the song repertoire including the Schubert Lieder. My Four Folk song arrangements and Three Shakespeare Sonnets were written for her at this time.

I was also smitten with Mary O'Hara's voice. Accompanying herself on a small harp, she brought back the important traditions of Irish Folk Music. The sound of her pure sensitive voice hung between heaven and earth, and her passion for poetry, guaranteed crystalline diction. After all this time we are still great friends, and with her husband Padraig O’Toole, we see each other often.

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THE LONDON PHILHARMONIC

At very short notice, I received a call from the London Philharmonic asking me to play for the Glyndebourne Opera Season. There were not many concerts with the Royal Philarmonic so I accepted.

Towards the end of the season, the management offered me a permanent position with the orchestra. I was so shocked (and flattered) that I accepted and played with the orchestra for almost 18 years.

Again, I was so lucky as it turned out to be another Golden Age in the history of this Orchestra under the batons of Boult, Solti, Haitink and Tennstedt. In the music of Mahler and Bruckner, Tennstedt was the greatest of all interpreters and when he conducted, there was not a part of his body that wasn't involved.

His movements were hypnotic and it seemed that he embraced all the energies of the Universe. This unleashed power was very much in evidence in his recording of Mahler's 8th Symphony.

Juliana Mankova, the pianist, had been on tour with him in the United States, told me how great he was so I went to talk with our director, Eric Bravinton and rest is history!

There were many recordings, regular concerts at the Royal Festival Hall, and world tours- with of course the "Green Death" as musicians called the Glyndebourne Opera Season. I loved being in the country where musical preparation was so unhurried and of such a high standard.

My greatest inspiration was Elizabeth Soderstrom as the Countess in a stylish "Art-Deco" production of Straus's 'Capriccio'. It was an unforgettable opera experience; With her singing and acting artistry she brought the whole audience into he 'Salon' and made them feel as if they were part of the production.

In the famous Sonnet when she accompanies herself on the harp(mimed to my playing in the pit) everybody thought that she was actually playing. On the last night, I found her waiting in the pit with a single red rose for her teacher!

I loved working with Raymond Leppard in his exciting arrangements of Baroque Operas (we named them "Leppardisations") with voluptuously effective but tricky harp continuo parts with lute and two harpsichords. I can still hear Janet Baker's incredible voice in one of these roles, passionate and committed.

We performed Britten's Albert Herring with Haitink conducting, not much memorable music but exciting orchestration and a hilarious production. Lady Billow's Avia is a "Tour de force" for the harpist, pages of continuous arpeggios and many pedal changes (for the sharps and flats). Haitink repeated it several times, not giving me much time to change the pedals back to the beginning of a passage. On one occasion I was slow on the uptake. "David, why aren't you playing" I said "because my ankles are killing me." That, haunted me for a long time!

When I look back at the work load of an everyday orchestra player, I can hardly believe that we had so many three session days: morning and evening at the Royal Festival and perhaps an afternoon recording at Wembley or Watford.

A World Tour was not much different especially if one wanted to practise. The harp was always the last instrument to be taken off the van, and by the time it was on the platform, the Brass would be practising loudly and it would be difficult to tune.

Once, on a tour of the United States it was particularly difficult to find any practice time, so I just had to sit in my hotel bedroom and memorise my scores.

We flew back to London and recorded Vaughan Williams's Sinfonia Antartica with Haitink and the next day I flew to Copenhagen. I performed the Gliere Concerto and the Danses of Debussy (from memory) with the Radio Symphony Orchestra in a live broadcast. That night the Television news announced that "David Watkins was in town." I don't think this would happen in London!

The LPO recorded Turandot (Conducted by Zubin Mehta) and of course we never knew then that Pavarotti's "Nessun Dorma" would be played so much. For several years I received a cheque in repeated fees.

I always had a problem with "Avant Garde" music and although I admired Pierre Boulez, I found it difficult to keep my cool in a performance with so many complicated subdivisions, and then, after several days of "snatch and grab" my usual sonority would become thin and mean.

Richard Arnell was asked to write a Harp Concerto for me, but after several bottles of my whisky and several visits there wasn't enough music to justify the title of concerto and the work was rejected.

The performance had already been scheduled and I had just finished writting my "Concertino Pastorale", commissioned by Victor Salvi, the harp maker: and so we performed this work instead, conducted by Walter Susskind at the Royal Festival Hall.

One of my most memorable concerts was performing with Princes Grace of Monaco. Serene in every way, she dominated the stage. With an actor, they recited poetry and I provided musical interludes. She particularly liked my "Fire Dance." The concert at the Goldsmiths Hall was to celebrate the engagement of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer. Lady Diana was wearing that famous black velvet dress which had to be "adjusted" rather frequently.

Leaving the orchestra after 35 years of London orchestral playing was quite a shock, not only for the lack of regular income but for the discipline of the schedule. In the end the results were extremely positive as I was able to concentrate my enthusiasm on looking for early harp repertoire, composing and practising.

Being able to get away from the heavy technique which one uses in general orchestral playing and understanding better 18th century techniques have given me a much better overview of approaches to interpretation.

For a time I kept on my teaching at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and at Manchester's Royal Northern College of Music and have become more and more certain that every child should have the opportunity to play a musical instrument. In 2000, I was Principal Harp in the "World Orchestra for Peace" (founded by Solti) - made up by principal players from around the world. Our Prom concert conducted by Valery Gergiev was an extraordinary experience on all levels.

Since that time, I have given many recitals and masterclasses and my best musical experiences and pleasures have been in performing with the great violinist Michael Bochmann and the wonderful soprano, Jane Leslie Mackenzie.

 

NOTES AND LETTERS

29th March 1993
I have known David Watkins for years, he is an extremely hard working, intelligent and honest person and a fine musician.                 
BERNARD HAITINK

20th July 1987
All my best wishes for this evening and thanks for your beautiful playing   
SIMON RATTLE

29th January 1979
Once again I congratulate you on your very beautiful Concerto Pastorale, Camilla and myself enjoyed tremendously your music and your magnificent performance.

August 1978
Congratulations on your brilliant performance. You are a wonderful interpreter of Debussy. (after Prom solo with Simon Rattle)                    
JAMES TYLER (London Early Music Group).

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