Composer of the Week on BBC Radio 3: Philharmonic for the people

The Royal Philharmonic, moneygrubbing Beethoven and the 9th.

Composer of the Week
BBC Radio 3

Five understated and languorous programmes celebrated the bicentenary of the Royal Philharmonic Society (5-9 August, 6pm) the UK’s oldest and most illustrious concert society. It was established in 1813 (just a few weeks after the seismic publication of Pride and Prejudice) by 30 professional musicians – many of whom hated each other – with the goal of funding London’s first purpose-built orchestral hall and putting classical music on a par artistically with the Royal Academy of Arts.

Of the many works commissioned and premiered by the RPS, it was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that caused the biggest stir – because it didn’t happen. Three members of the society paid Ludwig £50 in 1823 (£40,000 today), then waited 21 increasingly anxious months for the score, only to hear “on the grapevine” that he had premiered the piece in Vienna instead. “Some people could say that was naughty” was as critical as a commentator got when referring to this act of gobsmacking Ludwigian chicanery.

This kind of thing was in no way unusual for the composer. “For God’s sake, buy nothing of Beethoven!” went the cry in Europe at the time. There was never a more mendacious, crooked, moneygrubbing toe-rag than Ludwig in the later years of his life. If he were alive today, he’d have an account in the Cayman Islands in his dog’s name. So Napoleo - nic and oppressive did his behaviour become that his nephew blew off the top of his own head with two pistols at a place where the two of them used to walk, incredibly surviving his cast-iron “fuck-you-Ludwig”.

On 11 August, Westminster Council unveiled a plaque outside the building on Regent Street where the Ninth Symphony was eventually played. The 1825 records state that the RPS organised not just a public rehearsal but various alternative performances and discussions, all strikingly modern, yet at the same time so admirably and thoroughly of the period. Two hundred years ago was the best time in history to be a fan of classical music. The form, once commissioned by the church or state, was now done so by lovers of music, music collectives, or even the audiences: incomparable listeners, acutely aware of something we can have no conception of today – that in their lifetime they would hear this piece of music just once.

The mendacious, crooked, moneygrubbing late Ludwig. Photograph: Getty Images.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser