Best & Worst of Times / I simply had to go and make music: Raymond Leppard talks to Danny Danziger

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My father was a scientist, and didn't like music, and didn't approve of musicians much. He was quite convinced musicians lead immoral lives, and he was rather puritanical.

But he bought a piano when I was five, and I started lessons. My parents were very encouraging at first, they were quite proud that they had a child who could play in concerts.

Later, I had tremendous encouragement at school in Bath; there was a wonderful music master, Eugene Hanson, who had been a tenor in Beecham's company, and was an amazingly inspiring person. He pushed me into all manner of different experiences: I conducted, I played the viola, I sang.

Hanson was widely read and very intelligent: unfortunately, he'd had a car accident and there had been some brain damage. He was subject to the most appalling headaches, which manifested themselves in violent tempers. He was dangerous when he let fly, uncontrollable.

He only lost his temper with me once, but it was scary, and he scared himself and retired.

In those days we had School Certificate, and I did music. I finished the paper half an hour early, and walked out of the examination room - I mean, why stay? He thought I was walking out on the paper without finishing it and he grabbed me: 'What the hell are you doing?' and began shaking me; he just suddenly boiled over.

I couldn't explain that I'd completed the paper, there wasn't time.

A few days later, I went to his house and had tea with him and his wife - he had a nice gentle wife who understood him well. And he said to me: 'I'm going to leave.' I remember feeling distressed about it, but he was quite calm. 'I want you to succeed,' he said, 'and I would like you to have all my music.' And he gave me all his sheet music, vocal scores and operas, of which he had an enormous collection.

He gave up music altogether, and he bought a fruit farm in Worcester, and absolutely cut himself off from his previous life as a singer and a teacher.

I tried several times to get in touch with him again, but I never was successful.

When I decided to read music at Cambridge, my father let me do that without any compunction, because he thought a liberal education simply trains the brain, it wasn't vocational in any way.

And then I got a research scholarship to stay on and do a PhD, and half-way through that I simply had to go and make music, I'd had enough of the academic life.

That was when we quarrelled.

I went home and told my father I was going to become a musician, and he exploded, he practically did a Hanson.

I guess he had my best interests at heart, he must have felt that I was in danger, but I was foxed by his incomprehension, I couldn't understand it, and I became angry myself. In fact I walked out of the house, then and there.

I left everything behind - I had no money in my pocket whatsoever, I'd left it all in my bedroom, and had to hitch-hike to London.

It's the only time I have ever hitched, but a very nice bank manager, driving down to London for some meeting, gave me a lift and dropped me off directly at a friend's, who I knew would put me up.

Inevitably it was touch and go for a little while, but eventually I was making enough money to live, not well, but adequately.

I think my mother was more distressed than anybody probably, but she was a quiet sufferer; also, she was a good Edwardian wife, so she went along with father, there were no two ways about that.

However, it would be wrong to claim any heroic gesture about it, because I knew perfectly well that I could admit to failure and go home, nothing would have pleased my father more.

But I didn't have contact with my parents for a long time, about two years. I thought about them a great deal, and I know they found out news about me from various mutual friends. My father wanted to help me financially, but I wouldn't accept anything, of course. I was determined to prove my point, that I'd done the right thing, I couldn't have been deflected, and I wasn't deflected.

Eventually, my brother effected a reconciliation. My father and I never spoke about music thereafter, I thought it was better. We'd talk about books, and other topics, but we never talked about that particular subject, and he didn't come to concerts.

But he would come and stay with me in London, and it got to be very calm again, and we really were tremendous friends by the time he died.

So it turned out well. It could have turned out badly, but it actually turned out well.

Raymond Leppard will be conducting a series of concerts with the English Chamber Orchestra, particularly featuring the works of Schumann, at the Barbican Hall, 31 January-8 February.

(Photograph omitted)

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