‘That Mozart was born once, and once and for all, is a happening and consummation which beggars understanding and all known science, all psychology, physics and metaphysics, and all cosmogony whatsoever.’ Thus Neville Cardus (not yet Sir Neville) shortly after Mozart’s two-hundredth birthday in 1956. Now hear Samuel Langford in 1926: ‘The player who does not become a finer creature when he is faced with Mozart’s music is, so to speak, no musician at all. Other men compose music; Mozart is music.’ The language, the tone, is similar, the influence of Langford on the impressionable Cardus obvious.

It is a remarkable story. Born in 1888 in a less than salubrious district of Manchester, his mother and aunt both prostitutes and no father visible, Cardus left school at thirteen, and from that moment onwards educated himself. He took a string of menial jobs – message boy, newspaper seller, pavement artist –, and in his mid-teens found himself employed in ‘insurance’. It was an easy-going line of business, it seems, from which he was allowed to escape from time to time to absorb more intellectual pursuits at the Manchester Reference Library; also to visit Old Trafford to discover the delights of what must have been the Edwardian heyday of Lancashire cricket. (Could he ever at that time have envisaged the day when he would become President of that august club, or that he, almost alone, would be responsible within a few years for the greatest and most influential flowering of cricket writing yet known?)

By a process of osmosis, no doubt, he acquired some cricketing skills himself, and for five years, in what is one of the more unlikely episodes of his life, he became assistant cricket coach at Shrewsbury School. When the headmaster was promoted to the headship of Eton, having recognised his qualities, he invited Cardus to accompany him as secretary.

It is hard to account for the emerging talents and cravings of Cardus at this time. He was, and remained, a voracious reader, a habit nurtured in earlier years in public reading rooms where he had fallen under the intoxicating spell of the great critics of the day – musical, theatrical, literary. But what hidden impulse had convinced him that eventually he would join their ranks and write the pants off any of them? The free lectures he had attended, the concerts, the theatres, the music halls, the cricket, the political arguments of the day, must all have fed his imagination and awoken extraordinary ambitions. ‘I would one day live by my pen or perish,’ he said, looking back at the end of his life. And of course live by his pen he did.

In what turned out to be a pivotal moment he penned a beautifully written letter to C. P. Scott, the editor of that fount of all learning and literary brilliance, the Manchester Guardian, asking if a position of any kind could be offered him in its offices. ‘I am a young student,’ he wrote, ‘intent on devoting his life to politics and art … I have had to educate myself, and my culture, such as it is, has been got by scorning delights and living laborious days for some eight years.’ He was now twenty-eight.

Well, Scott eventually accepted him – this period is beautifully evoked in Cardus’s Autobiography – and for several formative years Cardus honed his skill reporting on anything to which the powers-that-be considered he could turn his fluent pen: court cases, committee meetings, music hall entertainments, learned lectures; all the while taking pains to absorb the paper’s style and method as well as developing his own. The Manchester Guardian taught its reporters conscience in the use of the English language, he said, whether writing a leader or reporting a street accident.

No doubt keeping an eye on him at this time was that firmament of a great writers (never mere ‘journalists’) occupying what was known as the Corridor: A. N. Monkhouse, Haslam Mills, C. E. Montague, James Agate – and Samuel Langford; lofty, cultured men deeply engaged in the arts, all with ample space and opportunity to ply their trade and astonish their readers. Cardus often spoke of the awe he felt simply occupying the same offices as these giants.

Langford had been the paper’s chief music critic since 1905, a formidable, serious, private man absorbed in this most intangible of the arts and the problems of transforming his impressions into words. He is totally forgotten today except in affectionate reminiscences in Cardus’s writings and in a rare volume of his criticisms edited by Cardus in 1929, following Langford’s death. It was from Langford that Cardus learnt to regard great music not as an abstract concept, a thing in itself, but as the expression of a full mind experienced in the ways of the world. When Langford, having listened to the late quarters, remarked that ‘it is something to belong to the same race of beings as Beethoven’ you realised there is more to music that beautiful sound.

Having served his apprenticeship, Cardus succeeded Langford as music critic at the age of thirty-seven, wondering whether he was too young to take on such responsibility. But it was a natural transition, a handing-over to a like-minded but still free-thinking writer. With hardly a gap, Cardus went on to serve the Manchester Guardian for fifty-odd years, dying in his mid-eighties in 1975, not a rich man but a man rich in experience and the fullness of life. Having died so recently he is more immediately with us than Langford, and despite being largely out of print now can still be found along the shelves of the better second-hand bookshops, or located electronically in the depths of the Amazonian jungle. Of his thirty or so books, half on cricket, the rest either autobiographical or musical, it is difficult to determine the most distinctive since they all possess the inimitable Cardus stamp. Autobiography (1947) and its sequel, Second Innings (1950), are both masterpieces. Ten Composers (1945), enlarged subsequently to A Composers Eleven (1958), takes us to the very heart of Mahler, Elgar, Brahms and the rest. And Conversations with Cardus (1976), a transcript of tape recordings made during the final three years of Cardus’s life and edited by Robin Daniels, is perhaps the most touching of all, a summing up of Cardus’s entire philosophy and aesthetic, in his own extempore spoken words.

Why read Cardus in 2012? Partly, I suggest, for the beauty of his prose (he was a great essayist whatever the topic); partly for his beguiling wisdom, garnered from a lifetime’s experience of music, literature, cricket, travel, friendship and conversation; partly for his humour (a rare commodity in Langford but in Cardus a sine qua non); and partly as an antidote to the pygmy music scribes of today, who so rarely write a memorable phrase or engage the imagination of the reader through unpredictable perception or wit.

Ernest Newman (whose aim in criticism was objectivity – the notion that music can somehow exist independently of its performance) often referred to Cardus as a ‘sensitised plate’, a recorder in other words of subjective impressions based on personal experience, musical and otherwise. Cardus asserted that no other criticism is possible. The two men, who in fact had a healthy respect for one another, agreed to differ. The debate continues, and perhaps is futile. Read Cardus, in Ten Composers, on Schubert:

‘If we consider Schubert in relation to his musical background during the years extending from 1797 to 1828 we can think of him as one who strayed when very young into Mozart’s groomed garden and picked a bloom or two, then went along the slopes of the height tossed up by Beethoven’s earthquake, and near the summit found wildflowers in plenty. It is a wonder he was not arrested by the custodians of Mount Parnassus for loitering without visible means of support – in other words, without counterpoint. He was unmistakably the first vagrant composer.’

This has as personal a tone as anything in Cardus; it could not have been written by anyone else, of whatever musical or literary persuasion. And yet in a few imaginative words it sums up the essence of three of the greatest of all composers.

In the best of his writing (and he could certainly on occasion nod) there is a generosity of spirit, a sympathetic awareness and an unfailing mastery of language that one looks for in vain in music criticism elsewhere. It is the style no less than the substance that compels the reader to follow his argument and read on. In this respect there is a purely musical aspect to his prose, a lyrical tone that resembles the course of a great song as it moves towards its dénouement and final cadence. Is it too fanciful to liken the thunderous prose of Newman to the more grandiose expanses of Wagner, the ever-present wit of Shaw to the effervescence of Rossini, and the melodiousness of Cardus to the wayward charms of Schubert?

Cardus was fundamentally a romantic writer, given, at least in his cricketing output, to the backward glance and the creation of an idyllic world long past. In music his sympathies, though paying lip-service to Bach, in truth began with Haydn (especially if conducted by Beecham) and ended, again somewhat reluctantly, with Britten, whose Peter Grimes he recognised as a master-work but whose Billy Budd he dismissed as too conversational for opera. Most of the products of the atonal school or the avant-garde passed him by or became targets for humour, being essentially humourless. (His invention of the po-faced Erich Hartleibig, creator of the one-note tone row, is rivalled only by Hans Keller’s Piotr Zak, who turned out to be Keller himself, aided by a colleague, hitting with relish anything he came across in the studio, deceiving in the process more than one gullible critic.)

One hopes that interest in this most readable of music critics will have been stimulated by the publication in 2009 of Robin Daniels’s Cardus: Celebrant of Beauty, which only incidentally retraces the Cardus biography, but at exhaustive length – it is a weighty tome, beautifully produced – it subjects all facets of his actual work to the closest possible imaginative and critical scrutiny. It is a labour of love, born of personal friendship but also of objective observation. I think it would have surprised Cardus, much as Hans Keller’s analyses of early Britten surprised Britten, who had not realised how clever he was. Despite the conscious study and practice that attended Cardus’s apprentice years, there is still in his writing a strong element of the spontaneous and instinctive.

Above all he was an enthusiast – for music, for cricket, for great literature, for the best of popular entertainment (he regretted the passing of the old music hall tradition), for the sheer act of writing and communicating his passions. As a self-made man he regularly came in for criticism from the university or college-educated ‘élite’, or from those whose approach to music criticism was purely analytical (or, as he would say, unreadable). The fact is, he could write, he could entertain, and within the natural boundaries of his particular sympathies he shone as none had done since the days of Shaw and Langford. Shaw, a hundred and thirty years ago, boasted that he could make music criticism readable by a deaf stockbroker – an aim shared I am sure by Cardus, who could match Shaw for wit at the drop of a hat.

As Robin Daniels says: ‘Music criticism and cricket commentary are raised to literature by the four Cardus literary virtues of charm, human interest, heightened aesthetic, and integrity … Vivid and witty, a Cardus review or cricket report is in itself a performance.’ A creative genius then among critics, a connoisseur of life in all its vicissitudes, and for ever a joy among those who have fallen under his spell. It is possible that a good many of the stories and reminiscences found in his autobiographical writings have a touch of the fictional; but that is the prerogative of the artist seeking the higher truth, always the more telling for a little ornamentation. ‘In the unlikely event of your being offered a knighthood,’ Beecham once advised him, ‘take it. It makes tables at the Savoy so much easier to come by.’ The knighthood did come along, as much one suspects to his surprise as to his delight.

The smile on Neville Cardus’s face when in his sixties is mirrored in the warmth of his writing.

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