Authors: Sonia Orchard
For James and Sunday
And with a very special thanks to John Amis, John Dalby and my mother
I’ve found out nothing sharpens the imagination as much as expecting and longing for something, and this is how I’ve been for the last few days. I have been waiting for your letter, and as a result have written books-ful of pieces—amazing, crazy, sober stuff…I sometimes feel as if I’m simply bursting with music.
, I realise I’d always been waiting for the arrival of Noël Mewton-Wood. His entrance occurred with such ease that I began to believe he’d always been there, standing in the wings, long before I’d even laid eyes on him. Thinking about those days before Noël, when I would come home from school and play in my room, performing Schubert to imaginary concert crowds or conversing with people in my father’s musical biographies—even back then I remember being warmed by this sense of expectancy, a knowledge that one day my life would be wonderfully different.
Yes, tonight’s concert has got me thinking about Noël and everything that’s passed. I can hardly complain about where I’ve found myself—standing amid the comforts I’ve always longed for, staring at a wardrobe full of bespoke suits and silk shirts. Still, it will be with some trepidation that I set foot inside the Wigmore in a few hours’ time.
I was ten years old when the war broke out. I remember my excitement at the time, thinking this was the day for which I’d been waiting. The first I knew of it was old Mr Bullard running up and down the street in his undershirt and drawers, waving a cowbell and gasmask, and crying out, ‘The war has begun! The war has begun!’ My aunt—who’d reluctantly taken on the care of my father and myself after Mother’s passing when I was born—rushed in from the backyard with the washing basket, and my father, having summoned us both, sat crouched over at the wireless, his brow knotted, gazing at a fixed spot on the ground. Chamberlain’s voice conveyed none of the delighted anticipation I felt. I stared at my father, waiting for some kind of reaction, unable to understand the graveness with which he and my aunt took the news. I sat quietly, imagining the proud march and shouts from leagues of armed soldiers: boots polished, chins high, rifles like flagpoles fixed to their backs.
But the war, at least to begin with, failed to deliver much of a distraction—I still had to go to school, do my homework, set the table and do my usual chores around the house. Days went by and there were no bombs, sirens or enemy fire; life continued as before, on a canvas stretched taut as a board. Everyone went about their own business of barricading up their lives while still ensuring their tablecloths were starched and ironed. My father, reading through the evening
paper, rarely even mentioned the fighting across the Channel, but just lamented the closure of theatres, cinemas and concert halls, that all the musicians were now out of work, that all the museums and galleries were being gutted of their treasures. He found it amusing, in his quiet, grumbling way, that paintings and sculptures were shipped to safety while we were all told to stay put.
Londoners were blackening their windows each night and walking their children by the hand to board trains and boats for foreign towns. Then, near the end of that first month, the pianist Myra Hess (whom I now know quite well), a small, dark owl-like woman with gracious movements and sparkling black eyes, decided that now, more than ever, London must throw open its doors to the very best music, to carry its people through this difficult time.
My father told me that Myra approached Sir Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery, about holding daytime concerts in the Gallery, joking that Buckingham Palace was another venue she had in mind. Sir Kenneth, who’d just watched the last Rembrandt being wrapped up and carried from the halls for goodness knew how long, was delighted with the idea. So by the end of the first week of October it was announced that weekday lunchtime concerts would be held at the National Gallery under the dome of the Barry Rooms, for an admission of one shilling, in aid of the Musician’s Benevolent Fund.
The first concert was scheduled for one o’clock on the following Tuesday, just over five weeks after the outbreak of war. Two advertisements ran in the newspaper and announcements were made over the wireless of a solo recital to be given by Myra Hess. Steinway & Sons offered the use of a piano, and five hundred chairs were collected and were still being brought in when the audience started to arrive. It had been hoped that, at best, a couple of hundred people might attend, but at twenty past twelve on the Tuesday afternoon, ten minutes before the doors were to open, members of the committee looked out through the Gallery windows and saw people queued along the entire length of Trafalgar Square and around the far corner. When the doors were opened and the first gentleman presented his half-crown, there wasn’t a penny in the till to give him any change.
That day my father had picked me up from school before lunch and we took the number 12 into town. We were lucky to be among the thousand people admitted into the octagonal room before the doors were closed on hundreds more waiting in the street. Tommies in uniform with tin hats strapped on, public servants, civilians carrying gasmasks, office boys, music students, old ladies with ear trumpets, gentlemen from the press—it seemed all of London had come in their lunch hour to see the beautiful Myra Hess perform.
When all were seated she drifted out silently from behind a curtain, wearing a flowing black gown, sat
down at the Steinway and glided through Scarlatti sonatas, Bach preludes and fugues, a Beethoven sonata, Schubert dances, Brahms intermezzos and a Chopin nocturne and waltz. When the recital ended the crowd burst into an almighty applause before gathering up their briefcases and handbags from under their chairs and hurrying back to their offices.
British troops were being siphoned out daily on naval convoys—at school we would make up tongue-twisting riddles from the names of the destroyers
Faulkner, Firedrake, Foxhound, Fortune
off to the North Atlantic to battle the formidable U-boats. Meanwhile, in London, the Gallery concerts continued every lunch hour, thousands of people shuffling into the Dome Room each week.
By the beginning of November Lady Gater and a group of volunteers had set up a canteen for the concert-goers, and started serving sandwiches and cartons of milk from trestle tables covered in brightly checked cloths. Later a power point was installed, pots and pans were borrowed, English tea and Indian coffee were served from large shining urns, and hot meals were dished up. It was the sandwiches, though, which soon became famous as the best in London: honey and walnut, cheese and salad, crab mayonnaise—combinations so far removed from the processed meats and over-boiled carrots of my world that they only seemed possible in this magical enclave. My father would drop two shillings in my hand and I’d queue up for a piece of moist plum cake, if only to receive a smile
from the radiant Lady Gater, tall and lean like a racehorse, her hair pinned in a tight bun accentuating her pointed features, forever laughing in her dotted pinafore, with pearls and earrings sparkling, and a tea towel tucked neatly like a kimono sash into her apron.
It must have been around that time that I first noticed my father’s illness, a condition that confined him to bed for weeks at a time. My aunt said little about it, only mentioning he wasn’t feeling very well and that it was something to do with his nerves. Even though I missed his activity around the house—playing records and waxing on about Schumann or Beethoven—I wasn’t particularly bothered by his lethargy, and would quite happily sit on the edge of his bed after school, reading to him for hours from his books. The only time I felt bothered was in the evenings, when he’d lock his bedroom door and a pall would hang over the house. I’d sit with my aunt, eating my meal in silence, staring at his door, furious that he was lying there yards away, unwilling to emerge. But on other occasions, in the days before he returned to work, he’d let me stay home from school and the two of us would head into town to buy records and musical scores, and attend the Gallery concert: this fairytale realm that, it seemed, the war had made possible.
I first saw Noël at his London debut, at the Queen’s Hall in March 1940. No one knew his name back then; he was simply a boy wonder who’d come out from Australia and been picked up by Sir Thomas Beecham.
A gangly, wild-haired child with a grey pressed suit and a slight tic in his eye, who walked across the stage as silent as a cat.
But we weren’t there to see Noël; the performance was Beecham’s farewell concert before he left for New York. It was like going to the wharf to see the departure of a hulking warship. My father might have mentioned that Beecham was fleeing the war, I can’t recall. As an eleven-year-old, I was too young to sniff the dank smell of a wake beneath the colourful celebrations.
My father didn’t admire many living people, but Beecham was someone special, he said—‘The greatest conductor Britain has ever known, the greatest in the world today.’ My father was rarely so emphatic—his reverence made me both admire and despise this legendary man, sitting so leisurely at the helm of British music.
We arrived at the Queen’s Hall around six, the sun melting dimly into the fog. As we approached, the massive pillared Portland-stone building seemed to emerge from the mist, and from the façade the chiaroscuro busts of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Elgar glowered like gargoyles.
People were milling around the arches at the entrance, huddled in small groups, rubbing gloved hands together, exhaling steamy clouds as they lined up for tickets. There were fox furs and tailcoats, foreign men with long hair and floppy hats who waved their programmes about as they spoke, and smart young ladies from the Academy hugging scores into
their coats. Outside this ensemble, Langham Place and Riding House Street were almost empty, and the few passers-by scuttled like moles digging through the dirt, their grey coats, hats and scarves enabling them to slip invisibly into the fog as swiftly as they appeared.
Stepping through the doors was like sliding down the rabbit hole into Wonderland—a glittering celebration in defiance of the world that existed outside the boarded-up windows. Women with Veronica Lake hairdos and gowns that shimmered under the chandeliers sauntered about in front of us, and elegantly dressed men, who all looked like Noël Coward, glided up the stairs past the gold-tasselled curtains. There were elderly dames dripping in jewels, colonels sparkling with medals, and others—whom my father said were critics—dressed like detectives in homburgs and coats, all sweeping along the burgundy carpet of the foyer to and from the grill room and bar, flashing cigarettes, and greeting each other with powdered cheeks or handshakes. My father grabbed my hand, as if I might get swept away on this bewitching stream, and led me towards the crowd, all trilbies and tweed with newspapers underarm, shuffling in the direction of the ground-floor seating.
The inside of the hall seemed too immense to be contained within the building we’d just entered. A subterranean chamber headed by the dazzling golden pipes of the organ, which ran the width of the hall, all the way up to the ceiling, and loomed from
the stage over the thousands of supplicants like a grand oracle.
The sides of the platform were decorated with a crowded collection of rusty medallions of famous composers, and fringing the front was a sparse row of potted palms. The stalls were adorned with rows of tarnished mirrors, and the ornamentation on the balconies and roof was defined by a fine veneer of dust. Except for the Venetian red of the seats, the hall was all grey and terracotta—‘The colour of the belly of a London mouse,’ my father said, telling me that when the hall was being built the chief architect had kept a string of dead mice in the paint shop to make sure his orders were carried out precisely.
Shortly after we were seated, the lights dimmed and the musicians drifted onto the stage and into their seats. A cacophony steadily grew, then the first violin played an A, long and thin as a snake, which rose above the chaos, drawing it into a crystalline hum. The sound drifted out like a receding wave, leaving the auditorium in silence.
Applause erupted when Beecham walked slowly onto the stage. He made a point of ignoring the audience, yet from his profile it was easy to detect a cavalier glint that shone not just from his eyes but also from the impeccably waxed tips of his moustache. Once he reached the podium he stood perfectly straight in front of the orchestra, like a diver on the end of a high board. He nodded to the first violin, panned his gaze across the musicians, then lifted his
baton as if he were about to strike some invisible object in front of him.
Everyone stood for ‘God Save the King’.
The concert began with Mozart’s
symphony and Handel’s
The Faithful Shepherd.
Beecham held the entire auditorium poised on the point of his baton; he could have had us all hold our breath for a minute if he’d so wanted. I soon abandoned my desire to unveil his hypnotic powers, realising there was nothing in this man (who looked more like a Russian tsar than a conductor) that I would ever be able to emulate. I grew gloomy, tired, and by the end of the interval I was fiddling in my pockets and looking about the audience for someone my own age.
My father nudged me as he clapped, and I looked up in time to see a pale skinny boy walking out from the wings. He had flushed cheeks and a gentle lilt to his movements, yet at the same time appeared serene and unafraid. He crossed the stage in front of the orchestra, took his seat at the Steinway and shifted the stool slightly underneath him. Sitting perfectly upright, he clenched his fists then splayed his long fingers out wide. He lowered his palms, resting them on his thighs, and then gazed ahead across the piano, which looked so impossibly large before him.
‘He doesn’t look much older than you,’ my father whispered.
My father had earlier told me that Beecham’s protégé was only seventeen, but the boy really did look so diffident and out of place on that grand old stage
that I began to feel that it could, indeed, be me up there.
All interest in Beecham vanished. I looked around the audience, at the elderly men in tuxedos and women dressed in their embroidered corsages, leaning forward in their boxes with opera glasses held to their faces, scrutinising Beecham’s new find. Then I glanced back at the boy, sitting still and quiet, and decided that we were more alike than anyone else in the hall.