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Basil Cameron - The Quiet Maestro

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This entry is one of a series in which orchestral conductors of a past era, famous in their own time but largely unknown to a modern generation, are remembered as the musical celebrities they truly were.

Basil Cameron (1884 - 1975)

To say that Basil Cameron was nonchalant would not be true. His bow to the audience was almost apologetic, and he would casually invite the players to be seated as if he were to start a relay race.
- Bill Newman - Episodes from a Memory Bank

Basil George Cameron Hindenberg was born in Reading, England on 18 August, 1884. His father, Frederick Clementz Hindenberg - born around 1855 in Berlin, Germany - was a piano tuner by profession. He came to England, where he met Eliza Helena Sherman, who was also born around 1855, in St Pancras, Middlesex. The couple were married in the summer of 1877 in Camden, London, and took up residence in a house at 34 Waylen Street in Reading, Berkshire.

None of the first three children (all boys) born to the couple, survived beyond three months. Finally a daughter, Gertrude, was born in 1883, followed a year later by another son, Basil. However, in 1887, at the age of only 32, Basil's mother died, leaving her husband to bring up the two young children, then aged only four and three. The family moved to Tiverton in Devon, and lived in a house known as Canal Villa, where Basil's father continued to earn his living as a piano tuner, and probably also as a music teacher. Here Frederick met and married his second wife, Jessica, with whom he had two further children: Helena (his first wife's middle name) and Wilfried. Shortly after Helena's birth, Gertrude, his daughter from his first marriage, died aged only ten. So at the age of nine, Basil had lost both his natural mother and his elder sister, and was living with his father and step-mother.

The Early Years

Basil Hindenberg began his musical studies in 1900, with T Tertius Noble, the organist and choirmaster at York Minster. Then from 1902 to 1906 he was a student at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, where he studied violin with the great Hungarian performer and teacher, Joseph Joachim1, and composition with the composer Max Bruch. On completion of his studies, he returned to England and found employment as a violinist in the Queen's Hall Orchestra2, in which he played for five years.

Prior to World War I, quite a number of English towns, particularly seaside towns, employed their own orchestras, and in 1912, Basil Hindenberg became the conductor of one of these - the Torquay Municipal Orchestra - playing in the town's new Pavilion. Although comprising only 25 members initially, Hindenberg worked wonders with them, and in 1913 organised a Wagner Festival that achieved success way beyond what might be expected of a local orchestra.

In 1914, at the start of World War I, it was less than ideal in England to bear the name Hindenberg, so the family name was discreetly dropped and he adopted the identity that he retained for the rest of his life – Basil Cameron3.

1924 - 30: Harrogate/Hastings

In 1924, Cameron become director of the Harrogate Orchestra. The 33-piece core of this orchestra had been built, largely by a very talented musician, Julian Clifford, into a more than competent band; their reputation was sufficient to attract world-class stars of the day to perform with it. Daily concerts of popular favourites were given, with a Symphony concert on Wednesday evenings. An odd attribute of the orchestra was that after their summer season at Harrogate finished in October, they would decamp to the south coast of England and become the Hastings Municipal Orchestra for the winter months. The Hastings Municipal Orchestra, conducted by Basil Cameron, recorded in the White Rock Pavilion, Hastings, for the Decca Record Company in 1929, the first year of the company's existence.

In Harrogate's Royal Hall, Cameron and the orchestra introduced much new music; in 1929 a British music festival was presented, at which composers including Arnold Bax, Peter Warlock, Henry Balfour-Gardiner, Joseph Holbrooke and William Hurlstone came to conduct their latest works. Cameron also commissioned a new work by Eric Coates4, a suite in four movements called Four Ways, (North, South, East and West), which received its first performance in Harrogate.

The financial austerity of the 1920s and a lack of enthusiasm among some elements of Harrogate Council began to take its toll, and at the end of the 1930 season the orchestra was forced to disband.

1930 - 38: The US

The next decade took Basil Cameron to the US. He was appointed co-conductor (with Issay Dobrowen) of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, succeeding Alfred Hertz. In 1932 they gave the first performance of Arnold Bax's Fourth Symphony. Partly because of greater public support for the San Francisco Opera and also due to the Depression, in 1934 the SFSO was forced into bankruptcy. However, it was reconstituted in 1935 with a new conductor, Pierre Monteux.

From 1932 to 1938 Cameron was also conductor of the Seattle Orchestra. This was an unhappy experience, playing to half-empty houses and battling both the directors, who were principally concerned with their standing within Seattle's society elite, and the orchestra's unruly5 musicians.

The War Years

Cameron returned permanently to England before the World War II to guest conduct various British orchestras, and became Sir Henry Wood's assistant conductor at the London Promenade concerts. It is with the London Philharmonic Orchestra that he came to be most associated.

In August, 1940, Cameron and Malcolm Sargent set off on a British tour with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, starting at the Glasgow Empire. Tours by the orchestra the previous year had been a commercial disaster, but, for this tour, the tremendously popular band-leader of the time, Jack Hylton, stepped in financially. As well as being a fine musician, Hylton had a knack of knowing what would attract an audience. He suggested a rolling programme of popular bits and pieces to be given in Britain's provincial theatres and music halls. Given that many theatres had been either bombed or burned out, and with the difficulties of travelling around wartime Britain, it was a bold plan, but one which proved a great success nonetheless.

On 6 April, 1941, at the Queen's Hall, the violinist Thomas Matthews and the LPO, conducted by Cameron, gave the first UK performance of Benjamin Britten's Violin Concerto op 15. This was the first work Britten completed after his departure for the United States in 1939, and it had received its world première in New York at the end of March 1940. Another Britten/LPO/Cameron first UK performance was the Sinfonia da Requiem op 20, given at the Royal Albert Hall on 22 July, 1942. This performance was broadcast on radio by the BBC.

The Post-war Years

Cameron conducted the National Symphony Orchestra for the music in the 1946 Gainsborough Studios film on the life of violinist Paganini, The Magic Bow. The film part of Paganini was played by Stewart Granger; the violin solos were by Yehudi Menuhin.

In 1950 Malcolm Sargent (by now Sir Malcolm) was appointed as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and hence principal conductor of the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts; Cameron and Sargent shared the conducting role for a great many of the Proms at this time. Between May and September 1951, post-war Britain celebrated the new era with the Festival of Britain. As part of this festival, Cameron conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a season of concerts at the Royal Albert Hall between 10 May and 30 June.

Basil Cameron was one of the British conductors who took part in The Conductor Speaks, a weekly BBC television series broadcast in 1952, designed to explain classical music to the general public.

June 1954 marked the 50th anniversary of the founding of the London Symphony Orchestra. The inaugural concert in 1904 had taken place at the Queen's Hall in London, conducted by Hans Richter. To mark the anniversary that concert was reproduced, this time at the Royal Festival Hall, conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent, Anthony Collins, Basil Cameron, George Weldon and Muir Mathieson.

In 1957, Basil Cameron was awarded the CBE6.

As well as British orchestras, Cameron appeared as a guest conductor with the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Czech Philharmonic and the Budapest Symphony orchestras.

At the Royal Festival Hall on the evening of 31 March, 1960, Cameron began a concert with the London Symphony Orchestra. The first half of the programme comprised Beethoven's Egmont Overture and his Piano Concerto No 5 (known as the Emperor), with the celebrated pianist Wilhelm Backhaus as soloist. Having only just started the concerto, Cameron was taken ill on the podium and had to be carried off, unable to conduct the concerto, or the second half of the concert.


Basil Cameron retired in 1964. At his final Prom, to mark his 80th birthday, he conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in performances of the Brahms Symphony No 4 (his favourite symphony), Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms and one of the Mozart Horn Concertos.

An archetypal English gentleman, never assertive, Cameron was sometimes given a hard time at rehearsals by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, even to the point where he would leave the podium and lock himself in his dressing room. Sir Malcolm Arnold, then Principal trumpet with the orchestra, remembers players saying: Basil, we know exactly what you want. Please let's get on with it!

Soloists loved performing with him since he firmly believed that the orchestra should support the soloist, and not vice versa, as some conductors of the period were inclined to think. Despite his quiet nature, he was capable of conjuring great energy and exciting performances from his orchestra. His 1959 LP recording of the Edvard Grieg Peer Gynt Suites Nos 1 and 2 remains a treasured possession of this Researcher.

Basil Cameron, the Quiet Maestro, died at Leominster7 in the County of Herefordshire, England, on 26 June, 1975.

1Joachim's performance, at the age of only 12, of the Beethoven D major Violin Concerto op 61, in London conducted by Felix Mendelssohn, revived a work that had remained almost unknown since its composition in 1806.2The Queen's Hall Orchestra was founded in 1895 to inaugurate the Promenade Concerts, which are now one of the finest annual musical festivals in the world. The Queen's Hall itself stood in Langham Place, before it was completely destroyed by bombing during the night of 10/11 May, 1941.3Various sources have suggested that the name Hindenberg was adopted because German (or at least German-sounding) conductors could find work more easily than English ones could. It has also been suggested that the name Cameron was his mother's maiden name. Both these claims are wrong.4Composer of, amongst other things, 'By the Sleepy Lagoon', the signature tune to the long-running BBC Radio 4 programme Desert Island Discs.5Meaning misbehaved, uncooperative, undisciplined, thoroughly unprofessional behaviour, in fact a complete nightmare for a conductor.6Commander of the Order of the British Empire, a decoration awarded by the monarch for service and achievement in the recipient's field.7Pronounced Lem-ster.

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