Obituary – Wyn Morris

WYN MORRIS (1929-2010)

by A. J. Heward Rees

The once-celebrated Llanelli conductor Wyn Morris died in comparative obscurity near Slough on February 24th, a few days after his 81st birthday. His death has brought deep sadness to a great many people and a quite special regret to numerous friends and acquaintances who witnessed how his meteoric rise to prominence in the musical world was all too frequently marred by bouts of controversial behaviour and a curious instinct for self-destruction. The London press in quite lavish obituary columns duly noted his evident triumphs and achievements, but used terms like “his own worst enemy”, “unmanageable”, “arrogant”, “cantankerous” (and mentioned a “a philandering and bibulous lifestyle”- surely common enough in the profession?) to explain his prolonged absences from the public eye. Nevertheless there is enough ground for legitimate local pride in his extraordinary career and in the adventurous quality of his personality. 

Wyn was the son of Dr. Haydn Morris (1891 – 1965) the Llanelli-based freelance and hard-working musician who was well known as a fluent and skilful composer and conductor (and also a teacher, adjudicator and even a piano salesman). Haydn not only served for several years as Chairman of the Central Music Committee of the National Eisteddfod but was also the musical pillar of Capel Als which became celebrated in time for vigorous and innovative performances of largescale choral classics. Having himself striven to overcome extreme poverty as a musically gifted youngster by sheer force of personality, he may have passed on a certain combative and even rebellious streak to his only child. Llanelli was definitely Wyn’s home town (which he tended to haunt during adverse periods in his career) although, rather curiously the printed records claimed that his birth took place on 14th February 1929 in “Trellech, Monmouthshire”. This must surely be a mistake for the village of Trelech, Carmarthenshire, since his family was native to the county and moreover he used to claim that he knew no English till he was seven years old. This, however, is yet to be confirmed.

After his time at Llanelli Boys’ Grammar School he went to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London (conducting being his principal subject). Rumour has it that this was against parental wishes. His career there was quite successful. Indeed much later (in 1964) he received the honour of a Fellowship (FRAM). During this period it is worth noting that his principal local ‘fan’ was the late Harold Prescott, the Llanelli Borough Librarian, whose special pet project was an outstanding music section – the envy of many other towns and which still to this day, against various odds, retains a commendably high standard. Thus, Wyn was given access to many rare scores and recordings (significantly including the works ofMahler) which were otherwise virtually unobtainable.

Crucially there followed a period of study at the Salzburg Mozarteum with the famous Russian conductor Igor Markevitch, a former Diaghilev protégé. Later came a concert at the Royal Festival Hall when he conducted the Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra. Incidentally, during his period of National Service as bandleader in the Royal Artillery ( 1951 – 53), it seems his mischievous disregard for authority expressed itself in an irreverent version of The British Grenadiers March during a passing-out parade.

At home in 1954, he formed an ‘ad hoc’ Welsh Symphony Orchestra which gave a number of well-attended concerts such as at the Brangwyn Hall, in which Wyn Morris, by kind permission of Llanelli Library his typically dramatic and authoritative posture on stage contributed no little part to the popular success of the venture, even if a failure to remunerate many players (including two late colleagues of mine) caused lasting annoyance with the rank and file, and an ominous pattern for the future.

Next in 1957, came a triumphantly successful visit to the famous Tanglewood Festival in Massachusetts, the summer residence of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Morris’s conducting skills on display caused a sensation and, at 28, he was the first Briton to be awarded a Koussevitsky Memorial Prize. This impressed the internationally famous conductor George Szell who promptly invited him to be his assistant with the renowned Cleveland Symphony Orchestra for a three year period during which his technique and style came to maturity. Szell was a perfectionist but also a very notorious martinet, frequently treating his professional musicians with scant respect. Some believe that this attitude influenced Morris’s style with his performers and was to be a blight on his relationship with managers and very many players under his baton for the rest of his career. Had he instead experienced the quiet unshowy authority of a Carlos Kleiber or the relaxed charm of a Dmitri Mitropoulos in the USA, his career might have developed rather differently. In truth, the reign of famously tyrannical conductors, like the legendary Toscanini, was already over, and belonged to a different era. Szell, however on account of his huge celebrity could behave in a certain manner which would no longer be acceptable in the profession at large. Morris lacked the stature and fame to get away with this but, given the right conditions, there was no doubt he could inspire and stimulate any group of players from his podium to give of their best, as many critics were to testify.

Wyn’s first major British breakthrough was to come in 1963 when he conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall with a performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. This coincided with a new upsurge of interest in this composer which he was to make his speciality. The reviews were ecstatic, and the Times compared him to the great Bruno Waiter. The term “a Celtic Furtwangler” was even bandied about. (He had even claimed to have learned much from his illicitly listening to this maestro’s wartime broadcasts on Gem1an radio).

Previously Wyn had been able to demonstrate to people at home his talents at their most dramatic and flamboyantly successful when he spent two years preparing for the chief concerts of the Royal National Eisteddfod at Llanelli in 1962.As well as large scale choral music by Mendelssohn, Verdi and Berlioz he included a performance of an extended biblical cantata by his father in one of the programmes. Some older people still remember his personal and idiosyncratic handling of the musical forces involved- some, indeed, but not all, with bemused admiration. The reaction to his fiery personality was always partisan. This, in fact, proved to be the case after Sir Malcolm Sargents’s death in 1967 which led to his appointment to conduct the Royal Choral Society (1968-1970), and the famous Huddersfield Choral Society (1969-1974), both “plum jobs” and both ending in recrimination. With the Huddersfield, their regular orchestra (the Liverpool Philharmonic) became the bone of contention. The “Royal” was split apart and a large number or his loyal choristers left with him to form a new “Bruckner-Mahler” Choir. (He had been awarded, in 1968, the American Bruckner-Mahler Memorial Society’s Medal). Under his baton, this new choir went on to give a rare performance of Rachmaninov’s unaccompanied choral Vespers (the “All-night Vigil”), thus demonstrating not only the conductor’s irrepressible temperament but also his genuinely adventurous exploration of the byways of the repertoire. (Rachmaninov’s choral music was far from fashionable at the time; indeed it was Wyn himself who revived the Russian composer’s masterly cantata The Bells). Such indeed was the special venturesome spirit which again led him to perform publicly in 1972 (and later record) Deryck Cooke’s final performing score of Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony to considerable critical acclaim, and rather less effectively, in 1968 Barry Cooper’s realisation of the sketches for Beethoven’s “Tenth”. Later Wyn was to record for the Pickwick label a well-received complete cycle of the Beethoven symphonies, a few of which are still obtainable.

Undoubtedly one of the most important periods in Morris’s career developed from his encounter and relationship with the late Isabella Wallich (1916-2000). She was the niece of the powe1ful and famous boffin of the gramophone’s early years, Fred Gaisberg. It was he who had given Caruso his first recording contract, and later travelled to Craig-y-Nos Castle to record Madame Patti. A performing musician herself, Isabella had considerable powers of organization and many important contacts which enabled her to embark on her own recording projects – the first woman to do so. Having met several Welsh musicians, including the harpist Osian Ellis, she spotted a possible niche for her endeavours, and founded the company Delyse in 1954. In addition to folk and other Welsh items, she soon ventured to record some Mahler orchestral songs with Geraint Evans (in very fine voice) and a youthful Janet Baker under the baton of Wyn Morris. This had considerable commercial and critical success. (She was also later engaged to record the music at the Prince of Wales’s Investiture in 1969- with Morris conducting). In 1964, she and Wyn formed a new orchestra called the Symphonica of London which included the finest available players who were allegedly lavishly paid and given generous rehearsal time quite specifically for special concerts and recordings. A number of Mahler symphonies appeared on disc and on the conceit platform, and received a great deal of interest and praise from specialists. Typical of his spirit of enterprise, Wyn had, some years previously, contacted Mahler’s widow in the USA for permission to re-insert into the First Symphony a movement (“Blumine”) which the composer had later discarded. This had occurred in 1968. A great response met the 1972 performance in the Albert Hall and the subsequent recording of the massive Eighth, nicknamed the “Symphony of a Thousand” because of the enormous instrumental and vocal forces it required. In a BBC broadcast talk on musical versions of the Faust legend which I gave some years ago, I was lucky to be able to use part of this recording with its final setting of Goethe’s celebrated Chorus Mysticus. “Incandescent” was the term applied to this performance by a recent obituarist, and I can personally vouch for the truth of the epithet, at least for the recording.

There was more to Wyn’s musical range and tastes of course than the inevitable Mahler. Although basically drawn to music which would give rein to his more demonstrative and dramatic instincts, his goals seemed to be both innovative and eclectic. French and Russian music and, of course Wagner for example, figured in his programmes and no doubt in recordings now lost to us for copyright reasons. This fact may be partly due to his fatal and quarrelsome resort to litigation which, with other faults, bedevilled his mature years. Likewise, the classical and romantic periods were well explored by him. Intriguingly, we are told that, at the RAM in 1965, he ventured into ‘modern’ opera, conducting Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, and one wonders what that might have led to. The following year, the more conservative Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier was given under his baton at Covent Garden itself. A very special curiosity exists as a recording he made for EMIin 1991 of Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, using the statesman’s speeches as text to the orchestral background performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. The narrator on this disc is no less a person than the recently deposed Margaret Thatcher- quite a coup for a Capel Als boy!

Financial problems (and the bottle) as well as his insufferable hubris led to a weakening of his public career from the late seventies onwards. There were a number of attempted come-backs, including a critically welcomed Beethoven series at the Royal Festival Hall, followed much later (in the nineties) by a promising attempt to revive a “historically aware” version of the old Queen’s Hall orchestra of Sir Henry Wood. His irascibility once more put paid to this venture. As one writer has succinctly described it: “His problem wasn’t the music.” This in fact sums up Wyn Morris’s basic dilemma. As in a Shakespeare tragedy, the flaw lay in the hero’s character. Not lacking in charm or sociability his personality deteriorated in adversity so much so that he eventually became unhelpable and virtually unemployable. Unkindly, a critic described his appearance during his last period as being “a self-made caricature of a sodden elderly Welshman”.

Against this dismal image of his last years we need to remember the adventurous and energetic youth who once seemed to have the musical world at his feet. He studied his scores thoroughly, knew what he wanted in musical terms and vigorously set about achieving it in the face of many obstacles. As soon as he found himself on a podium with baton in hand, only the music itself mattered. He could shape large scale works with flair and instinctive feeling for architectural form Furthermore, he seemed to inspire hard-bitten (and sometimes jaundiced) performers to spontaneous and unexpected heights, which both audiences and critics often dubbed as ‘electrifying’ and ‘thrilling’. It is a matter for great regret that few of his recordings are now available in modern format. Some of these are his truest legacy.

In 1962 Wyn married the late Ruth MacDowell, daughter of a prosperous American businessman. They had two children, Llywelyn and Myfanwy, but later divorced. Elena Rogers was the constant companion of his last decades.