Philip Christian Darnton
was born near Leeds on 30 October 1905.The family had been ennobled to a Barony of the Holy Roman Empire in 1715 and were related to two families of peers: the Holdens and the Illingworths.Just before the First World War, his
father, born John Edward von Schunck, changed his
name to Darnton
.Although this certainly avoided anti-German sentiments, this was not, as had originally been thought, the main reason, but in order to comply with terms in his
(Warlock's five-bar How many miles to Babylon? from the Candlelight cycle, was published in the same year, but certainly written several months earlier; so although Darnton
does not best his
makes up for it by saying what he
has to say three times as fast).In a similar vein are Four Pieces for Piano, the second of which is entitled Charades (on a chord played by Eugene Goossens at a party.) [The chord is: G# below middle C, B natural a minor third above, middle C# and D natural a minor second above].He
played Ireland's virtuosic Rhapsody for piano in the May concert of his
first year at Cambridge, but other information from this period is sparse.
As was not uncommon at the time, Darnton
took no degree at Cambridge, and after coming down in 1926, entered the Royal College of Music
, where, at first, his
principal study was conducting and the second, bassoon.Evidently matters did not run smoothly: the students' register shows that the precedence of these disciplines was reversed after his
first half term.Again, he
left with no formal qualifications, having resided for only three terms, the minimum required.However, he
had made valuable contacts with the conductors Iris Lemare and Anthony Bernard, the latter proving a particularly useful colleague only a few months later.
Aside from music, Darnton
and Warlock had much in common: well-connected scholars and linguists both, with a joint sense of humour which might be described conservatively as Rabelaisian, they enjoyed some degree of intimacy in the twenties.Their relationship might have continued without incident had not the start of Darnton's professional career been particularly awkward.He
had achieved a few performances of some of his
pieces, notably the Octet for flute, clarinet, bassoon, cornet in A and string quartet on 26 March 1927, when it was conducted by Anthony Bernard at the Grotrian Hall.However, four days later, his
parents mounted an entire evening of Darnton
there.Doubtless they had his
best interests at heart, and as Denis ApIvor points out, the composer had amassed an enormous body of work and had no other way of experiencing any of it.However, it resulted in the severing of many relationships, particularly the Gray/Warlock entourage, who disrupted proceedings with characteristic gusto, considering the whole affair as a rich debutant's presentation and arrogant in the extreme; while Rootham went out of his
way to assure Edwin Evans of the BBC
was not responsible for the young man's counterpoint.Darnton
was only 21 and it was clear that his
music was nowhere near ready for that kind of exposure; in retrospect, his
future wife, Joan Bell, certainly thought so.
During the Second War, Darnton
busied himself writing music for documentary films but while serving in the Civil Defence he
suffered an horrific fall, which resulted in partial paralysis and a considerable change of personality, since he
was rarely free from pain thereafter.
For the second period, lasting about fifteen years, he
was under the spell of Communism and having decided that his
music was too complex, determined to write specifically for mass appeal.The disastrous consequences of such a profound dilution of his
style were not apparent to him until much later.
also went abroad to Berlin, and wrote several works under the tutelage of Max Butting, the most important of which was probably his
first Violin Concerto, but again, much is missing: only a piano score is known to exist.While in Baden-Baden, he
met the painter Joan Bell, whom he
was to marry the following year.
Returning from Berlin in January 1929, Darnton
took a post at Stowe School
as second music master, which he
loathed, as it involved teaching children who had no interest or aptitude, as well as covering for his
Head of Department who preferred to go out hunting.He
left after only a term for a final visit to Berlin, where he
found time to write Two Compositions for Pianola
, the second of which, in a whirling prestissimo of rhythms, with no bar-lines or time signatures, remarkably foreshadows some of the Studies for Player Piano of Nancarrow.Much of the year was taken up with plans for his
wedding followed by an extended honeymoon in the Tyrol.However, once the couple finally arrived at a tiny albergo in Murano, Darnton
spent most of December working at his
first Symphony.This is uncomfortable music, the opening diatonic fanfares quickly becoming distorted by major sevenths, a favourite interval of the composer at the time.There is profusion of invention, perhaps rather too much, and considerable energy.The extremely unsteady mood prevails through the ensuing Lento which is again shot through with biting sevenths, while the final Vivo is a frenetic dance in 15/8, highly chromatic and opening most effectively on unison strings, marked ppp.
In 1931, following a lean period at the BBC when Darnton
could make little headway in obtaining broadcasts or performances, Evans wrote personally to Adrian Boult, urging him to inspect the composer's Symphony: "He is one of the very few of our young men who have looked across the North Sea for wisdom."
...Darnton was appointed Assistant Editor of 'The Music Lover' under Evans in 1932 and held the post for three years.
In the 1930s, Darnton
produced three Suites for piano, which were later collected as op.1932: the composer frequently employed an eccentric but logical system of opus numbers in his
However, the work is particularly notable for the inclusion in the third movement of a chromatic 15th-century descant, which obsessed Darnton
for the rest of his
life.Entitled Litaniae mortuorum discordantes: De profundis clamavi, it was to appear again in the third String Quartet of 1934 and finally in the Fourth Symphony, where its tritones permeate the first movement.Both the First and Third Suites (there are no details of the Third) were performed at one of the Macnaghten/Lemare concerts, apparently the first instance of Darnton's new association with a fellow student at the Royal College
, although it is not known whether composer approached conductor, or the other way round.
Two other works of this period deserve a mention.
himself designated it "the worst performed programme in the annals of Broadcasting House … never have I been so upset" and was obliged to spend a day in the country to recover from it.
A work with a similarly unsettled genesis but a happier outcome was the Piano Concerto, written in 1933.
This was the first occasion on which Darnton
was supremely satisfied with the outcome of one his
works: "everything conspired auspiciously" he
Chaired by the pianist, with Darnton
as Secretary, the rest of the committee originally comprised Rawsthorne, Britten and Sophie Wyss.
Nonetheless, the programmes were of considerable originality and interest, Darnton
frequently delving into the British Library
to edit a Fantasy or Ricercare of Locke or Palestrina, which was then played by a string quartet and programmed alongside works by Webern, Balakirev, Hindemith or members of the Committee and their friends.Darnton
, Rawsthorne and Britten all wrote works for the Hallis Concerts
while Darnton's Minutes of the committee meetings are a lively record of racy and frequently bibulous occasions.
In November 1938, Darnton
Five Orchestral Pieces which were accepted by the jury of the International Society for Contemporary Music
at once.Along with the Five Pieces for String Quartet they received their first and only performance in Warsaw on 14 April 1939, an event to which Lutyens, another English delegate, referred in 'A Goldfish Bowl'.
In no. 4, fragmented forms of the theme are passed from part to part, with Darnton
clearly indicating to the players the main material as opposed to subsidiary figures; this results in wispy trails of sound which are very precisely calculated.No. 5 is one of the briefest but has the most magical ending, accomplished by the divisi of the strings into thirteen-part chords.Much rehearsal is therefore required for a short item in a programme, factors which may well have rendered the work financially unviable and doomed it to oblivion; certainly the BBC refused to touch it, despite a lucid and moving plea by the composer: "… are we not, I ask myself, supposed to be fighting someone in the name of the preservation of Civilisation?… speaking as one of the Oppressed Minorities, I hold also that a little word, 'culture', which the Germans spel