Born in 1890, Alf Corum was from a musical family, although his father (also Alfred) was a bookseller’s assistant. His mother’s father had been the assistant stage manager at Drury Lane Theatre and Alf’s mother occasionally watched rehearsals from the wings. She had an aunt who was a ballet dancer. Even though at the age of 12 she went into service, she began to write poetry on lavatory paper in her rare free moments and freely read the books in her employer’s home library.
As she matured, she was courted and won by Alfred Corum, a young man who worked in a bookshop in Berners Street, Soho. The young family lived in Tooting and, although Alf Senior was not a socialist, his wife was a firm supporter of the rising movement. Alf Junior soon took his politics from his mother. To keep the peace, during elections, a socialist poster would go up in the window in the daytime when Alf Senior was at work, only to be quickly replaced by a Tory one for when “Father” returned at night! Although young Alf recalled one of his happiest memories was sitting on the roof of the garden shed in the rain – reading, his father’s great love.
Nonetheless, and despite the expense, Alf Junior and his sister, the two eldest children, had music lessons from a teacher around the corner, and passed on their knowledge to the youngest. The family held regular Sunday musical evenings. Young Alf developed his musical imagination very early by playing for silent films with his sister at the local flea pit on Tooting Broadway. Having peanut shells and orange peel chucked at him as he began earning a living at the age of fourteen prevented him from “retiring to the delightful ivory tower of nature and art”, as his daughter would later recall.
By the time he was 20 years old, Alf Junior was a return room clerk, although it is likely that he saw this as a job designed to keep him until he could work musically. His younger sister (who died relatively young) was already a music teacher.
In his very early 20s, Alf Junior was speaking for the British Socialist Party on the corner of Church Lane, Tooting, even though he would often stutter with the intensity of feeling that came over him.
During the 1914-8 war, Alf became a conscientious objector, aided and abetted by his mother to the disgust of his father. A stint at Wandsworth prison saw Alf starve himself, until he was allowed to feed himself, despite the use of the suffragette-inspired “cat and mouse act”. Having recovered strength he was forcibly hauled back to a strait-jacket and a padded cell. Another time he got a job and was seized from the orchestra pit of the Finsbury Park Empire.
He became editor of “The Winchester Whisperer”, a secret and hazardous occupation. A prison magazine, written on thin brown sheets of toilet paper using the blunt end of a needle and the ink supplied for monthly letters home. Just the one copy was passed secretly from one prisoner to another. Since Alf was not allowed manuscript to write down musical ideas, he again used lavatory paper. Many of his future compositions were evolved at this time.
He courted his future wife, Evelyn D Gore, with poems, songs, violin solos and his now growing confidence at the prospect of becoming a serious and successful composer. He was certainly talented enough and Alfred (as he would become known professionally) would go on to today be remembers as a serious and successful, if minor, composer in the English classical tradition.
A committed Socialist since she was a girl, Evelyn was in concert party, or a Pierrot troupe, a kind of travelling variety show and he was playing at Blackpool Tower, where they met. Married in early 1920 both Evelyn and Alf were founder-members of the Communist Party that year and would go on to be life-long members of the Communist Party.
Their children Wendy (1923-2012) and Peter (born in 1925-1963) were born in different places as Alf continued touring in the early years of his career. Alf then become a cinema musical director for silent films but was thrown out of work when the talkie movies came in during 1927. During the Great Depression he played the fiddle on the streets, after losing what little money he had on the gamble of running a record stall in Croydon Market. One day, he coughed up blood in the sink but was out of hospital within a week, fending for his family as best he could. Evelyn became “bolshie” when she had to stand in full pregnancy to answer means tests questions but in the end had to have an abortion for economic reasons, then a highly illegal thing to do. (Like most women, she always regretted never seeing baby “Anne”.)
During this period, Alf Corum helped establish the Tooting Tenants’ Defence League in January 1935, following closely the experiences of Wandsworth Tenants Defence League, which had fought some very successful cases in Earlsfield utilising good legal advice. Corum worked closely with Labour Councillor Corbett on what became a high profile campaign by Tooting tenants.To find a means of making ends meet, Alf became a building worker, something far removed from his experiences to date, by studying technical books in the library. He specialised in `debugging’ rooms (not removing listening devices but vermin!), roof repairs, and drain unblocking. Later he would bemoan the callouses on his hands which prevented him from playing the fiddle for fifteen years.
After the Second World War, as soon as opportunity arose, he went back to music, playing in ships’ bands, the only type of music his impaired capacity and lack of practice could sustain. He saw the coast of Africa and Hong-Kong but left the Union and Castle Line under a cloud; his cabin was searched and Communist literature found. He carried on with hack-work and for enjoyment was a devoted member of amateur orchestras.
Throughout their life, Alf and Evelyn were always engaged in political work in the Party, the Musicians’ Union, the Co-op, the Daily Worker Choir, and helping to found the W.M.A. By the 1950s, he and Evelyn were able to afford to visit some of the socialist but missed going to the “Iron Curtain” countries. Unfortunately he felt too unwell to go to the special May Day celebrations in Moscow in 1967, the 50th anniversary of the revolution which both had been eagerly anticipating for years. He urged Evelyn not to miss the opportunity and to go alone.
For much of his professional career he was a playing member of an orchestra but Alf was one of a number of composers of serious music (many of them Communists) who enjoyed some attention in the 1940s and 1950s, especially at Cheltenham and on the BBC. But little mass exposure of Alfred’s work followed and, like Alan Bush, Corum was genuinely discriminated against professionally due to his politics. Although, despite being a man of cheerful personality, “his music tended to be pessimistic”, probably, he considered the musical work he became obliged to perform all his life simply to live was too frivolous, since his orchestral and chamber music lacked the spontaneity humour and drama he had brought to his film music arrangements. However, it is said that his songs were charming and a delight to sing.
Some of the published scores composed by Alfred are:
• The Carpenter [a song with one instrument)
• The First Of May [a song with one instrument)
• People’s Front – an accompanied choral piece
• Pioneer Songs  Song (Vo
• Sonata eroica
• Sonata for violin and piano
• Song Of Man (Chorus + Orchestra}
• String Quartet (3 – 6 players)
• The Summit (Song), Symphonic Variations, Symphony (1966)
In addition, during the last year of his life, he wrote five songs. Naturally, his great regret was that he had not ever had the time or opportunity to develop fully as a composer. That he managed the degree of recognition even now (which grows yearly), given his humble origins is remarkable. In retirement, Corum became a volunteer member of the London Repertoire Orchestra, enthusiastically playing the viola.
During most of the 1950s and 1960s, he was editor of the Communist Party Music Group’s “Music and Life” (see left), with an editorial board composed of Alan Bush, Jane Corbett, Jack Dunman, and Charles Ringrose (see separate entries). Corum was editor for thirteen years and oversaw forty-one issues. During the 1960s, he wrote several pieces for the Party’s theoretical journal, Marxism Today, at a time long before its headlong dash into revisionism when it aimed to grasp with such issues as how jazz and classical music could co-exist, how music could be a tool in the fight for socialism, and the links between poetry and music.
Evelyn died in early 1969 in Brent and Alf followed her into death at Brighton later that year on Boxing Day, as he enjoyed Christmas with his grandchildren. Their daughter, Wendy, also became a composer after retiring from a life-time of progressive politics and teaching and died in late 2012, aged 89.
Alf’s obituary in Music & Life was by the rather more well-known Ruth Gipps. As well as giving the pessimism tag above, more positively, she saw Corum as “a man who all his life most genuinely loved music. On occasion, when somebody has tried to tell me that orchestral musicians grow tired of playing, I have quoted him as an example of one who never did.”
The LRO played his Symphonic Variations, almost finished just before he died, as a sort of memorial rehearsal on 13th March 1970, an event attended by members of his family.
Sources: Music & Life, various issues
Wendy Corum – http://wendyc.gn.apc.org/
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