George Malcolm 100

Peter Watchorn pays tribute to a musical genius.

My own experiences of George Malcolm’s musical genius were early and personal, as one of my first teachers studied alongside him at London’s Royal College of Music in the 1930s. As a young Australian who became a professional harpsichordist I was never very far removed from the influence of England’s major musicians, as their legacy surrounded me through my teachers and also through my parents (who were both musicians).

Discover George Malcolm’s recordings on Eloquence

“Georgie Malcolm was a very clever boy!” – this was how my teacher, the distinguished Australian musician, Harold Lobb (1913–1992), foundation Principal of Newcastle Conservatorium, and teacher of my own parents at Sydney Conservatorium during the era of Eugene Goossens in the late 1940s, as well as former classmate of George Malcolm (1917–1997), responded when, one day in 1975 I brought two of my newly-acquired Decca LPs to our lesson. One was SXL 2259, a dazzling Bach harpsichord recital recorded in 1961 on a Thomas Goff instrument from London (dramatically pictured on the cover under a portrait of George IV in Fenton House, Hampstead). The other was SXL 6101 from two years later, a recording of two Bach Harpsichord Concertos with Malcolm, accompanied by my favourite orchestra at the time, the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, conducted by its founder, Karl Münchinger. Its cover was graced with a beautiful photo of the keyboards of the 1762 Kirkman harpsichord, also in Fenton House, Hampstead, which, with its handsome veneer and sturdy appearance, for me then epitomized the ideal instrument of the eighteenth century. Both of these LPs, given to me by my father, an avid early music enthusiast and fine teacher, spurred my own aspirations to become a professional harpsichordist.

As we listened together, Lobb went on to detail his personal recollections of the youthful George Malcolm: of his reputation as a prodigy – at the age of seven, the youngest student ever to be admitted to the Royal College (where he, Lobb and Benjamin Britten were all students together in the 1930s); of his remarkable and consequential tenure (1947–1959) as organist and choirmaster of London’s Catholic Cathedral at Westminster (several miles from the Anglican Abbey, near Victoria Station); and of his breathtakingly fluent and facile technique as a keyboardist. (Lobb, a fine organist and student of George Thalben-Ball, who had also studied counterpoint and improvisation with Vaughan Williams, was himself one of Australia’s pioneers in the use of early keyboard instruments through his association with Dr. Vincent Sheppard, student of Thalben-Ball and Thurston Dart in London.)

I learned from Harold Lobb how George Malcolm had transformed the sound of the trebles of the Westminster choir, pushing them towards the more open and articulate continental ideal of tone production, getting away from the usual ‘hooting’ of the English boy sopranos, thereby inspiring Benjamin Britten (another of Harold’s student contemporaries at the Royal College) to compose his Missa Brevis in recognition of his achievements with the choir. George Malcolm was far more than just another English keyboard player: he was a multi-faceted genius and a phenomenon on the English musical scene from the very beginning, when he was taught music by a remarkably prescient nun. She, sensing his unusual talent, organised his audition for entry to the Royal College at the age of seven – which he undertook as a violinist, though by then he also played piano and organ. Malcolm remained a lifelong devout Catholic, and in 1970 was awarded a Papal Knighthood, the Order of St. Gregory, in recognition of his service to Catholic music in England during his twelve years at Westminster Cathedral.

Malcolm’s precocious musicianship was first recognized formally in a letter (24 June 1924) to his mother from Sir Edward Elgar, who praised the boy’s initial attempts at composition and expressed his best wishes for a future career in music. He entered the Royal College and studied with Kathleen McQuitty and, after his war service with the RAF, continued as a piano student of Herbert Fryer (who later taught Australian Richard Bonynge, among others). It was shortly after the war that he acquired his first harpsichord: an original 1775 Shudi (built in the same year as Haydn’s instrument by the same maker and now displayed in the Vienna Museum of Fine Arts). As word spread of his ownership of a harpsichord he began to accumulate engagements as soloist and continuo player.

Looking around for a modern harpsichord (to save having to transport the antique Shudi) he made the acquaintance of Thomas Goff, a distant relative of English royalty, who worked at 46 Pont Street, London, near Sloane Square with the celebrated cabinet maker Joseph C. Cobby, producing an elaborate model, two-manual harpsichord. Goff’s instruments became as closely identified with Malcolm as the 1912 Pleyel harpsichord was with Wanda Landowska (1879–1959). Their distinctive sound (Goff only produced one model of harpsichord, and all examples have the same characteristic tone) came to symbolize the twentieth-century English harpsichord, through their constant presence in performance and on many recordings. The Goff harpsichord had four sets of strings (16’, 2 x 8’, 4’), a metal frame like the Pleyel, and seven registration pedals to effect quick changes of tone colour, a feature which George Malcolm exploited to the greatest possible extent. The instrument was also capable, through its complicated pedal-changing mechanism, of genuine crescendos and decrescendos, which became one of Malcolm’s more astonishing trademarks.

Though lacking in volume (compared to the classical harpsichords), the Goff instruments, through their various registers and pedals, were capable of a dazzling array of sounds, especially in the hands of a master like Malcolm, and especially when presented on recordings. The 1961 Bach recital, as well as Malcolm’s recordings of the Goldberg Variations (on L’Oiseau-Lyre) and the complete works of Rameau (Argo) all give a good idea of the sound and its versatility. Although in a concert hall the volume is weak, on a good recording it is startlingly present and the tone often surprisingly sweet and ‘classical’. Malcolm used Goff harpsichords in England up to around 1970, when he switched to instruments from the Robert Goble shop in Oxford, mainly because of their reliability.

George Malcolm, along with his friend ‘Bob’ Thurston Dart (1921–1971) was a ubiquitous figure on the London musical scene as harpsichord soloist and continuo player from the late 1940s. Malcolm participated in many Decca recordings of Handel (including both of Sir Adrian Boult’s Messiah recordings and Alcina with Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge), while Dart explored music by English composers (Bull, Lawes, Arne, Purcell), partly due to his prominent position as an editor for the Musica Britannica series of editions, published by Stainer & Bell. Malcolm also worked closely with the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, musicologist Robert Donington and the American flautist Elaine Schaeffer, recording (for EMI) the complete Bach sonatas for violin, flute and obbligato harpsichord, as well as a memorable set of the Brandenburg and Harpsichord Concertos and A Musical Offering.