Interview with Dominic Vlasto: Sunday, October 9th 2005 by Marcy Kahan
To mark theoriginal launch of the Musical Index on the Noël Coward Society website, playwright Marcy Kahan interviewed Dominic Vlasto, the musicologist and performer who created the Index with Alan Farley. They met on a balmy October evening at the pavement table of a Thai café in St Martin’s Lane, diagonally across the road from the soon-to-be-renamed Noël Coward Theatre.
Marcy Kahan: How did you first become acquainted with the work and music of Noël Coward?
Dominic Vlasto: Schooldays at the King’s School, Canterbury, which was quite a strong musical school. When I was about 16 or 17, our house put on an evening of Noël Coward entertainment, two one-act plays and a bit of music, and I got asked to sing one of the songs.
MK: Were you immediately attracted by the music?
DV: Yes. Before then, I’d done music theatre, Gilbert & Sullivan, and Coward seemed the closest modern equivalent.
MK: Then you studied music at Cambridge. Were you supplementing your grant by doing Coward cabarets?
V: In a very amateurish way. You never realise at that age quite how amateurish you are. In my last year, I had to do a dissertation. All this time, I’d come up against the problem with Coward’s music that what you get in the printed sheet music version is just not how people would approach the accompaniments on recordings. So I was very interested in how the interpretation of light music (performance, recordings) was quite a different art to how it was published.
MK: And the person you approached for clarification was one of Coward’s main accompanists, Norman Hackforth?
DV: I went first to the publishers, Chappells, who led me to all sorts of bits and pieces in the archives that I never knew existed. Eventually said you’d better go to Joan Hirst (Coward’s last secretary). And Joan put me on to Norman Hackforth who said: “I probably know more about Noël’s music than anyone alive. Come and see me and I’ll see if I can help.” And we just sort of clicked from the word go. It all became easier and yet at the same time a much more complex and interesting subject from then onwards.
Norman had retired to a country cottage on the edge of the Romney Marshes, not very far from Goldenhurst. In the years after that, I found that Norman was quietly in touch with a lot of people who trod the same path that I had. It was through Norman that I met Alan Farley, who had written to him and visited him, and Steve Ross.
MK: What was the most interesting conclusion you came to about the relationship between the recorded legacy of Coward’s music and the scores?
DV: It was something I learned very early on from Norman, which was that as a performer, you have to learn the piece of music in such a way that it’s in your head and you then re-interpret it from your head. The best way I can illustrate this, as a singer, you have ways of giving emphasis to a piece of song, emphasis of words and subtle nuances and the way you pull rhythms around, and give slightly longer on something and hold a particular note a bit longer, which you can’t possibly ever write down. The same applies to Schubert or Wolf or whoever it may be: the artistry, the skill, is in the precise interpretation and nuances that the vocalist will bring to emphasise words or phrases or even just the way you might bring consonantal clarity to certain phrases will give it a flavour. In the same way, a light music accompanist will do the same thing with what they’re doing on the piano. And there’s less of it that can be written down, there’s less of it that can be fixed, because there’s that much more which is flexible, there are very few hard and fast rules, one of them is the melody, another one is the larger shape of the overall harmonic structure. Now beyond those two fixed points, there is a huge amount of flexibility.
MK: In your essay (in Look Back In Pleasure: Noël Coward Reconsidered), you talk about the spaces between the end of a musical phrase – and it’s in those spaces – that’s where the flexibility is.
DV: That’s particularly true if you’re working on orchestrations or if you’re an accompanist who has to provide the fill at that point. A very clear example is “Poor Little Rich Girl”. At the end of each line you’ve got (singing) “Better Beware…3…4…5…6…7…8…Laughing at danger” – you’ve got that big gap. Well, if you are a pianist or an orchestra at that point, what you do is very much going to add or subtract to the overall flavour and mood and pacing and characterisation of the song. Now that’s what interests me in interpretation, what happens underlying the basic structure. It can be well or cleverly or stupidly done.
MK: Similarly, in terms of delivering the lyrics, you can do too much, not trusting the clarity and the rhythm of the line and trying to indicate its meaning with unnecessary emphasis.
DV: Yes. Another difficulty with Coward is that his range as a composer is terribly, terribly wide, from the personified punching comic fast numbers…
MK: Senorita Nina from Argentina…
DV: Or Mad Dogs and Englishmen or whatever. At the other end of the scale, you’ve got luscious melodic Viennese waltzes, which are as close to one of the Strausses as you can get. You can’t approach those two types of music in the same way; you’ve got to be very flexible.
MK: Since your Cambridge days, has your view of Coward’s music changed?
DV: I’d say it’s been strengthened and strengthened and strengthened.
MK: What has been confirmed?
DV: Two over-riding things. His extraordinary range as a composer. And that ties in with what I think will be the main thrust of what I shall be speaking about at the Conference (in Oxford in September 2006): how peculiarly and extremely and unusually autobiographical his musical output is. More so, very much more so, than Kern, Berlin, Porter, Rodgers – whoever his “competitor song-writers” may have been. There is a huge amount of autobiography, and that includes all the waltzes, because there he’s saying, this is the music that resonates with me, this is my heritage, this is where I’m comfortable.
MK: Coward wasn’t afraid of emotion.
DV: Well, sentiment. Not sentimentality but he wasn’t afraid of sentiment. He was strong on that. He knew how to make it work, which is more than most.
MK: Who got the idea to do the Musical Index?
DV: Ah, well this grew out of huge frustration on the part of myself and Alan Farley. When I first met Alan, he was trying to compile a list of all Coward’s known recordings, and I was trying to compile a list of all Coward’s known musical compositions. And we had both been slightly amazed that neither list seemed to exist anywhere. There were gaps in Joan Hirst’s records, and that made us think, we could do it if nobody else has done it. Chappells never had a list. So we started trying to do a complete index, well, roughly fifteen years ago.
MK: Good God. So this project pre-dates the Internet.
DV: Very much so. And the Internet is uniquely suited for this sort of catalogue, better than a bound printed book, because it can be updated and annotated and corrected – and available online to all Coward obsessives and performers and light music researchers. Alan and I very quickly realised that we were better off collaborating, and when Barry Day decided to do a book on the Complete Lyrics, that was a great relief, because there might be two or three different lyrics, but in terms of the musical index, there’s only one song.
MK: When our members hit the Noël Coward Musical Index (NCMI) hyperlink on the website, what are they going to discover?
DV: The first way you can use the index is if you know a particular song title and you want to find out everything about it, you would simply go to “M” in the main index – for “Mad Dogs” or “Mad About the Boy” – and it will tell you when it was composed and where –
MK: The license number of the rickshaw he was sitting in when he wrote it…
DV: Precisely. Absolutely. What show the song was originally composed for, who performed it, what other manifestations it had, where it’s been published, all the supporting research and documentation, my commentaries on the song as a piece of music, how it works and so on. Then, at the bottom of the entry, you get a list of recommended or interesting recordings.
MK: You won’t get the lyric?
DV: You won’t get the lyric, because you can jolly well go to Barry Day’s book and look it up there, but you will be told if there are lyric variants. That’s the main part of the index. But along the way, there are all sorts of things you might not know about. You might not know that there was a title called “I Wish I Wasn’t Quite Such a Big Girl”, which was published in the vocal score of Pacific 1860, I think. And you’ll discover that as far as the refrain is concerned, it’s rather a neglected treasure. In fact, there are a lot of things that have come out of the archives that most people don’t know about, because they’ve never been in the public domain. Some recent research on unpublished bits of the Noël Coward Diaries has added quite a bit of detail to our knowledge of the circumstances of several songs’ inspiration and emergence.
MK: So it’s a good idea to do some free-range browsing.
DV: Absolutely. A lot of the unknown material is linked to the shorter subsidiary indexes, for instance a list of music by Coward with lyrics by another writer. Also, in separate sections, there’s a wonderful discography, which is Alan’s main contribution. If you’re not happy with the list of recommended recordings given on the main index, which is only a subjective selection on our part. The Discography has a list of all the recordings Coward ever made, all the original cast recordings, and a fairly exhaustive listing of all the other people who have recorded Coward’s music.
MK: Anything else?
DV: There is a section tracing everywhere the music’s been published in different forms, another section that deals with how popular Coward’s music is, so you’ve got a list of the most-performed songs all the way down to the ones that are never performed, based on an analysis of royalty returns.
MK: Is there a section on his orchestrators and accompanists: Elsie April, Norman Hackforth, Peter Matz?
DV: No, there is still a musical biography waiting to be written but the place for that is in a different medium, the book about Coward the musician.
MK: You must write it immediately. In the meantime, congratulations to you and Alan Farley on completing the Index.