Author Archives: Andrew Cusworth

A Tale of Two Questions: St Spiv, the musical


Hello Ronnie, how are ya? Ronnie, I want you to say hello to my son, here, this is Jeff
– Jeff, this is Ronnie Duncan.

Until recently, one of the more puzzling artefacts in the Ronald Duncan Collection was a recording of a set of musical theatre songs identified as ‘Music for Ezra Pound’s plays’. This identification did not ring true – the greeting and introduction recorded on the tape were very clearly addressed and it seemed almost as unlikely that Duncan should be involved in discussions about music for Ezra Pound’s plays as it did that Ezra Pound would be known as ‘Ronnie’. However, aside from the songs, the only significant pieces of evidence offered by the recording as to its origin were that one of its participants was named ‘Jeff’ and that he was the son of the other speaker. Here, then, was our first question: What was this recording? Without knowing all of Duncan’s work intimately, and with seemingly little else to go on, the recording joined a number of cryptic items that we hoped to understand better as the project unfolded.

The question was answered when Caroline Walter (project archivist) found a reference to a musical production of Duncan’s novel St Spiv in a letter from Jerry Wayne. With this information and some very helpful correspondence with Jeff Wayne’s assistant, Lindsey Key, Caroline was able to confirm that the recording is a demonstration tape of a musical theatre adaptation of St Spiv by none other than Jerry Wayne and his son Jeff Wayne, the creator of Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds.

Ronald Duncan, proudly highbrow, seems an unlikely partner in the creation of a musical, but the collaboration came about through Eric Glass, agent to Ronald Duncan and London agent to Jerry Wayne. Glass, a recurrent figure in the collection, was himself a well-known character within literary and theatrical circles who had also worked briefly with MI5 during the Second World War in an operation to divert funding for Nazi spies in Britain away from its intended recipients. When informed that Jerry Wayne was interested in producing musicals for the London stage, Glass suggested a number of stories that might be suitable for adaptation, one of which was Duncan’s St Spiv. Arrangements were made, the script, lyrics, and music were written, and, after arriving in the UK to set things up, Jerry and Jeff went to stay with Duncan for a few days at Mead Farm, Welcombe, to work on the musical.

Jeff Wayne playing the piano at Mead Farm, c. 1966.

A farcical tale of a Cockney spiv who finds himself possessed of miraculous healing powers, St Spiv had existed in a number of formats before it came to the attention of Jerry Wayne in 1964 – as a short story (The Cockney Circus), as a play and, latterly, as a novel (first published in 1961). By mid-1965, its latest incarnation was being foreshadowed by the press and, on the 10th of June 1965, The Stage reported that Jerry Wayne was to present it in London in the September of that year, noting that the musical was based on Duncan’s novel and that ‘Mr. Wayne [had] adapted the book and [written] the lyrics to music composed by his 21-year-old son, Jeff Wayne.’ In May, a similar article from the Evening News, London, had reported that St Spiv would be presented in ‘the fall’, as well as a production of Two Cities (based on Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities), also adapted by Jerry and Jeff Wayne. Of these two musicals, only Two Cities was to appear before the public proper. Although it received a club performance and professional demonstration recording, St Spiv was never to make it to the open theatre. But why? This was our second question.

In a letter dating from the 10th of March (probably of 1966), Jerry Wayne asked Duncan to send him the reviews of St Spiv ‘… when it played at the new Arts Theatre’, and, in the same letter, he dealt with a number of script editions needed before setting a date for the show to appear. The tone of the letter was a positive one, and Wayne ended it by writing ‘I therefore feel it is absolutely imperative that no further time is lost in accomplishing this rewrite.’ Artistic differences, then, seem not to have been the cause of the show’s demise; likewise, and based on the lively and catchy numbers preserved by the informal demo-tape, it seems unlikely that quality was the problem. Instead, and as in many cases of musico-literary collaborations, it seems that a rift opened between the collaborators on the matters of rights and royalties. In a letter to Duncan dated the 6th of May 1966, Eric Glass suggested that negotiations had reached an impasse – the 30% required by Duncan was too distant from the 15% offered by the co-producer, Stanley Gordon. Taking the view that he could negotiate no further, he wrote

… I think in the circumstances all we can do is try and sell the film rights or find a musical author or lyric writer who may be prepared to start from scratch on your original novel.

It is very sad that after all this time the deal has come to nought…

As a coda to this post, here is the end of the last song from the show, which is both accidentally apt and rather enjoyable.



Written by Andrew Cusworth. We are very grateful for the assistance of Jeff Wayne and his assistant, Lindsey Key, and for Jeff Wayne’s permission to share parts of the demonstration tape and the photograph of Jeff Wayne at Mead Farm.

What are notes but tears with wings? Duncan, Schubert, and the Sublime

‘If I had to grade the necessities of life, I should put them in this order: the sun, for without it we are dead; horses, for without them to look at we are blind; music, for otherwise we are deaf.’
(Duncan, 1964, p. 101)

It is not entirely surprising that Ronald Duncan, close friend of and sometimes librettist for Benjamin Britten, had a deep and intricate relationship with music, a fact touched upon occasionally in the first volume of his autobiography, All men are islands. Duncan makes mention of often visceral responses to musical works, of the bust of Beethoven that he kept with him, of his encounters with musicians (including Stravinsky), and of how he would invent poems to the rhythms or melodies of pieces that he knew; however, his connection with music was at a distance, and, a little below the comment quoted above, he goes on to write

‘Sadly I realised I had been deprived of the one language I needed. For I could not write or read music.’
(Duncan, 1964, p. 101)

Above all other music, Duncan loved that of Franz Schubert, whose birthday it is as I write this post. As described by Duncan, it was a love, like many of his loves seem to have been, immediate in its conception:

‘I was about twelve years old when I met the influence in my life that has affected me more than anything. I went to the theatre and heard Schubert … The play was a sentimental musical comedy, supposedly based on Schubert’s life, called ‘Lilac Time’. It contained a number of his songs. I was quite unable to keep away from the theatre. I went to it twenty-seven times … I cannot possibly explain why I found Schubert an irresistible influence at the age of twelve, or why he has always remained my favourite composer.’
(Duncan, 1964, p. 44)

Part of Schubert’s appeal, in Duncan’s later life at least, may have been the directness of melody and affect in his music, a quality that has made his lieder (songs) amongst the most enduringly admired of the Western tradition, and which permeates his instrumental work also. This directness of communication would have been attractive to Duncan, who considered poetry and, by extension, art more generally, to be a mode of communication:

‘If you can’t hear me, it is probably because I don’t speak loud enough; and, if you don’t understand me, it is because the poetry isn’t any good, because I really feel, very strongly, that poetry should be lucid. I mean it as a communication, and if I fail to make that communication, I ask you to blame me. I do not believe that poetry should be obscure. What I have to say, if I fail to say it, then it’s my fault.’
(Duncan, transcribed from an audio recording of a poetry reading)

The nature and emotional affect of Schubert’s writing is a large subject, but its effect on Duncan is perhaps best illustrated in his own words. The following is extracted from an anecdote about enduring a potential lover playing the piano badly at her home:

… suddenly I heard a melody I had never heard before. It was so beautiful I had to rush from the room, from the house, before the girl or the mother could see my tears. Years later I heard the melody again. Of course it was Schubert – “The Shepherd on the Rock.”
(Duncan, 1964, p. 124)

Duncan’s fascination with Schubert reached its apotheosis with his play, Schubert, completed late in his life (1980), and performed in the same year. The play takes the form of what might be described as an occasionally interrupted monologue by the composer, who works at an ‘untuned rotten piano’. It is, perhaps, a distillation of Duncan’s view of the artist at work: the genius who is at once confident of the brilliance of his own abilities and wrestling with a vortex of social anxiety and emotional (not to mention physical) pain and frailty. Whether or not these romantic ideas appealed to Duncan’s sensibilities of his own artistic and emotional challenges, it is clear from his other writings that he developed an affinity for and, in his own mind, with Schubert that extended beyond simple admiration for the composer’s music. In a poem from 1970, Duncan describes time as a ‘saboteur’ for separating him from his idol, and laments

What songs we could have written
If your genius with mine
     had been combined
Harnessed by our single mind.
Now only silence sings them
The wind mourning for their loss.’
(Duncan, Weston-Smith, 2003, p. 185)

As evidenced in other poems, particularly Franz Schubert, the affinity felt by Duncan for Schubert seems to have had the effect of turning the latter into a distant beloved, to borrow a phrase from Beethoven’s song cycle, with Duncan describing a love

Far deeper than
                     I ever knew
For any woman[.]’
(Duncan, Weston-Smith, 2003, pp. 311-3)

Page one of the manuscript copy of 'Franz Schubert.

Page one of the manuscript copy of ‘Franz Schubert’.

Page two of the Franz Schubert manuscript, decorated by an idiosyncratic sketch of the composer.

Page two of the ‘Franz Schubert’ manuscript.

With his earthlier and sometimes frustrated relationship with Britten in mind, it was, one might suppose, the very separation and lack of artistic consummation that helped Duncan’s nostalgic and idealised affair with Schubert to flourish. This idealisation of Schubert and his music can be felt most strongly, perhaps, in the lines:

‘Only the deaf
                    dare listen to Schubert,
Music is noise, or too meaningful to bear.
(Duncan, Weston-Smith, 2003, pp. 313)’

Taken with Duncan’s comment, ‘great art affects me like great pain’ (Duncan, 1964, p. 88), this allows us to posit that Schubert specifically, and great music more generally, becomes, for Duncan, a symbol of aching perfection, a reification of and metaphor for the sublime. It is from this position, perhaps, that one of Duncan’s more poignant questions arose:

‘What are notes but tears with wings?’

Manuscript bearing the words 'What are notes but tears with wings?' decorated by Ronald Duncan with a drawing of music manuscript with the notes decorated with read paint, as if bloody.

Manuscript, What are notes but tears with wings? as decorated by Ronald Duncan.

Amongst the Schubert-related items held in the Ronald Duncan Collection are those connected to his plays ‘Girl Friday’ and ‘Schubert’ (including the script, an audio recording of a performance replete with the occasional wrong note at the piano, the music to be played at the ‘untuned rotten piano’, and programmes from performances), his correspondence (particularly with the prominent music lover and patron George Harewood), a film script (Obsession), the scores of some Schubert songs, and materials relevant to his work as the literary editor of ‘The Penguin Book of Accompanied Songs’ (also known as ‘Classical Songs for Children’).

For an enjoyable and easily accessible source of further information on Franz Schubert’s artistic and musical struggles, I would recommend the episode of BBC Radio 3’s ‘The Listening Service’ entitled ‘Schubert’s Dark Side’, which is available from the BBC website:

Andrew Cusworth, 31.1.2018

Quoted sources
Duncan, R., All men are islands, Rupert Hart Davies, 1964.
Duncan, R., Weston-Smith, M., Ronald Duncan Literary Foundation, 2003.