The remarkable Miss Poston
PUBLISHED: 18:28 28 July 2014 | UPDATED: 18:28 28 July 2014
The life of a Stevenage composer, performer, critic, broadcaster and friend of novelist E M Forster can now be studied in detail thanks to the donation of her private papers to the Hertfordshire Archives. Dr John Alabaster of the Friends of the Forster Country reveals the remarkable Elizabeth Poston
The private papers of the musician Elizabeth Poston, preserved since her death in 1987 in some 100 box files by her literary executor, copyright holder and publisher, Simon Campion, have been deposited in the Hertfordshire Archives and Rural Studies in Hertford. They form an invaluable, accessible part of our social and cultural heritage.
Her letters, beautifully written in English, French and German, provide a great insight into her thoughts about music, music-making and musicians, and in particular about people.
They also touch on her early years of privilege and foreign travel in the 1930s; her part in the development of the BBC and its intelligence work during the war years; the place of women in society; the impact of Stevenage New Town; and, above all, the nature of friendship, for she engaged with a wide spectrum of society, often keeping quite separate the many professional and private elements.
Her copious writings show how, nurtured in rural Hertfordshire, she loved the countryside – its wildlife, its peace and beauty – and especially the views to the west of her home, Rooks Nest House in Stevenage. These views were equally beloved by her friend E M Forster, who lived in the house as a boy and wrote about them and the house and its inhabitants in his novel Howards End. Appropriately, when the book was televised by the BBC in 1970, it was Elizabeth who wrote the music for it.
In her papers she makes many references to the rhythms and sounds of the countryside. She had a perceptive ear – for the cawing of resident rooks holding their parliaments on her lawn, the swish of steel scything through surrounding grassy meadows and the rhythmic variations and ‘pail pitch’ of hand milking from the farm nearby. She relished too the lilt of the local country dialect; indeed, it was the music of words, as well as her love of literature, that guided Elizabeth in her choice of texts for her song arrangements. Her best-known work is Jesus Christ the Apple Tree, often broadcast at Christmas by King’s College Chapel Choir. That she is not better known for her other 300 compositions is attributable partly to the fact that, after being performed, she set most of them aside in her attic.
Most are choral works, solo songs, song arrangements and vocal collections, for she favoured small-scale, intimate, subtle composition.
Elizabeth was much involved with the BBC. In 1942 she was director of music for the European Service and after the war was asked to establish a new BBC Third Programme of quality music and literature – what she called ‘that splendidly idealistic phoenix that was to arise from the jaws of hell’.
Details of her intelligence work at the corporation she never divulged. Her BBC commissioned work reached a peak in the 1950s and she was subsequently engaged to report to the music advisory panel on broadcast music, filing perceptive and fair criticism of several hundred programmes and thousands of performers.
Without regular salaried employment, however, her financial position was generally precarious, made more so by her determination to preserve Rooks Nest House for the nation, despite the expansion of Stevenage. This threatened to destroy both the house and surrounding beloved countryside, and remained a continual, debilitating worry throughout her life. Her fears were held at bay by the ready help of Forster, international support and, eventually, a local group, the Friends of the Forster Country. But the panorama that Forster described as ‘the loveliest in England’ is still under threat.
She continued to cope with the problems of life at Rooks Nest House – care of the property, deteriorating health of her beloved mother and ailing old servant and, finally, her own health following a fall in 1986 at the age of 81. Despite this, she continued to compose – a setting for massed voices called My Settled Rest and a book of carols, later completed by Malcolm Williamson, Master of the Queen’s Music.
Elizabeth’s story has not yet been told in full, and nearly 80 per cent of her music remains unpublished. But those who knew her or have read what she has written and, especially, who have heard her music, are left with a deep impression of a truly remarkable person.
She was someone of undoubted talent as a musician, demanding the highest standards of herself and of others; a meticulous scholar; impressive behind the microphone; a great raconteur, given to a little spicy exaggeration; always elegant whether in evening gown or draped in her French shepherd’s woolly jacket over jeans; and, above all, a person of humanity, sympathetic to the interests and needs of others.
Elizabeth received a belated Civil List Award, which carried a special pension, but she died before she could receive any benefit from it. Her own ‘settled rest’ had finally come on March 18 1987. A plaque next to the monument to Forster in the graveyard of St Nicholas Church, Stevenage, where her parents are interred commemorates the centenary of her birth.