A Hundred Ways to Start a Biography: Numbers 56a & b: Serendipity and Brass Neck

Some years ago, I was given a battered keyboard instrument – part of the estate of a refugee Catalan composer called Roberto Gerhard who had lived here in Cambridge – of what had once been an elegant square pianoforte straight out of a Jane Austen novel: a Stodart of 1807, in a flame mahogany case, with exquisite brass trim and tiny drawers underneath. At some point it had been turned into an ersatz clavichord by chopping off an octave or so from its keyboard and carefully replacing its leather hammers with nails. It certainly wasn’t at all the kind of instrument you might associate with a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg. Inside the case was a tattered piece of card addressed to ‘Mr Dent, King’s College’. I went to King’s.

That first visit to the Edward J. Dent archive at King’s College was more than revelation; it was dumbfounding. Twenty-six years of diaries and thousands of letters, all only recently catalogued and mostly unread. This respectable and respected Professor of Music, it transpired, had helped his old friend Gerhard to escape from Nazi-occupied Paris and organised a place for him at King’s with a small stipend: everything, in fact, any refugee needed for official refugee status. Moreover, it appeared that Dent had done the same for quite a few others, assisting a substantial chunk of musical Europe on the run, but that was only a tiny part of his story.

Many of the names scattered throughout the diaries and letters might have been expected from an eminent musicologist: Vaughan Williams and Hubert Parry, Hugh Allen, William Walton; then Ferruccio Busoni, Alban Berg, Egon Wellesz, Gian Francesco Malipiero, Manuel de Falla and so on, but why E.M. Forster, Rupert Brooke, Hugh Dalton, George Mallory, John Maynard Keynes, Edward Carpenter, Siegfried Sassoon, Osbert Sitwell, Gordon Craig, Albert Rothenstein; Magnus Hirschfeld, Wilhelm Herzog and many others? Startling little vignettes presented themselves, of Dent’s pity at seeing how ill ‘poor little Mrs Murry’ Katherine Mansfield) appeared, sitting in the offices of The Athenaeum; of Dent bumping into ‘the Craiglockhart poet’ (Wilfred Owen) on the steps of the hospital where they were both visiting the wounded Siegfried Sassoon; Dent and Clive Carey inspecting Mrs Strindberg’s Cabaret Theatre Club and its Cave of the Golden Calf as a possible venue for opera; Dent at Busoni’s Berlin flat when Futurists Marinetti and Boccioni dropped by to try to sell him a massive painting.

There was much more; an almost overwhelming mass of people and events gradually revealed in decades of unpublished diaries and thousands of letters with a vast network of friends and associates, which taken as a whole, presents an alternative view of twentieth-century cultural history, a secret history of music, opera, theatre, literature, fine art, sexuality and how so much now taken for granted actually came into being. Behind it all was the extraordinary, elusive figure of Edward J. Dent. I was enchanted.

Few people now know who Edward J. Dent was, which is probably the way he would have liked it, since throughout his incredibly productive life he never sought celebrity however much he might have deserved it. After the Second World War, having seen through one of his lifelong ambitions, formal government support for the establishment of national opera, ballet and theatre as well as what became the Arts Council, Dent refused a knighthood from the Attlee government. It was a typical gesture, modest and perverse in equal measure.

Although his lifetime’s accomplishments are extraordinary and his basic c.v. a remarkable enough document in itself, Dent’s real genius was as a facilitator, providing the mind and energy underpinning some of the major cultural undertakings of the past century, while working behind the scenes suited his subversive and mischievous spirit; he enjoyed confirming his cynical views of basic human nature while energetically working to achieve the contrary. His very apt nickname was ‘The Old Serpent’; he loved watching people take up his ideas – which they generally did – and having carefully laid all the foundations, see these ideas take hold and grow as he tweaked the strings. And since Dent was a manipulator of genius, those he manipulated often remained in genuine ignorance of their own true part in things, while those possessing the large or fragile egos abounding in the arts often simply did not give him due credit when recording their own life’s works. One cannot entirely blame them: to be on the receiving end of ‘the kindest heart and the wickedest tongue in Cambridge’ must have brought up some very mixed emotions.

Born into the landed gentry, Dent grew up in the cosy, comfortable upper-middle classes forming the rigid backbone of Victorian Britain, who ruled the Empire with such devotion and certainty. He could easily have slid along the well-upholstered route via Eton and Cambridge into some professional sinecure; instead he chose music. Gentlemen then did not become musicians, while to be ‘musical’ carried a murky Wildean subtext. These two defining characteristics of Dent’s life and persona – musicology and homosexuality, the one disappointing and undefined, the other illegal and unspeakable – stamped him from the outset as an outsider, while his birth and upbringing gave him a public face which presented the opposite.

This paradox at his core of insider/outsider in fact suited Dent perfectly and forced him to improvise constantly in order to find a way forward without compromising either his musical ideals or his true self. He was born to privilege but voted Labour, pursued high culture but wanted above all for it to be part of the fabric of everyday life, not something rarefied and special, while excellence was never to be compromised at any level. He was a failed composer who became one of the country’s leading academic musicians without ever having held an official academic post before becoming Professor at Cambridge. If Dent’s path had been less difficult, his life would have been far less interesting.

This guest post was written by KAREN ARRANDALE, a Life Member of Clare Hall, University of Cambridge, and former Senior Associate of King’s College, Cambridge.

Edward J. Dent: A Life of Words and Music
By Karen Arrandale
ISBN: 9781783275724, Hardback
List price: £70 / $105
Offer price*: £45.50 / $68.25
*Offer is non-transferable and subject to change without notice.

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