A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

“You’ll let me study with you, then?”

“Not for a while. Not till we find out what your politics are.”


“Haven’t you any politics?”

“Well, Dad’s a good union man, of course, so he always votes Conservative; he says the working man can get most out of them.”

“Sorry. Just a bad joke of mine. Let me give you a short talk on politics, and then you’ll have to go. There are, the world over, only two important political parties — the people who are for life, and the people who are against it. Most people are born one or the other, though there are a few here and there who change their coats. You know about Eros and Thanatos? No, I didn’t really suppose you did. Well, I’m an Eros man myself, and most people who are any good for anything, in the arts or wherever, belong to the Eros party. But there are Thanatossers everywhere — the Permanent Opposition. The very worst Thanatossers are those who pretend to be Eros men; you can sometimes spot them because they blather about the purpose of art being to lift people up out of the mire, and refine them and make them use lace hankies — to castrate them, in fact. You’ve obviously been in contact with a lot of these crypto-Thanatossers — probably educated by them, insofar as you have been educated at all. But there’s a chance that you may be on the Eros side; there’s something about you now and then which suggests it.”

Sir Benedict had risen, and was pushing papers into a briefcase. He rummaged on the top of his piano, and found a box containing some conductor’s batons, and he put this in the case also.

“I’ll get in touch with you from time to time to see how things are going and if your political colour has begun to show. Our first big problem is that you don’t appear to know anything except how to read music and play the piano. I’ll arrange some language lessons for you. And we must get your voice out from under wraps. You’re all buttoned up, vocally and spiritually. I’m going to send you for a few months to the very best vocal coach in London — old Murtagh. He’s a real artist, by the way, so take a good look at him. He’ll unbutton you! He’ll get a good healthy yell out of you if anybody can! Yes, I’ll start you next Monday with Murtagh Molloy.”


“You’ve the bar’l of a singer,” said Mr Molloy, giving Monica’s waist a squeeze which was certainly intended to be professional, but which had a strong hint of larkiness about it, too. He had been feeling her diaphragm with his stubby, nicotine-stained fingers, blowing out sour clouds of cigarette smoke meanwhile. Suddenly he drew her arms about his waist. “Feel this,” said he, and Monica felt his bulging, rubbery abdomen spring into embarrassing life under her hands. “That’s the way to do it,” said Murtagh Molloy, winking and lighting another cigarette.

This was going to take some getting used to, thought Monica. Sir Benedict had said that Molloy was the best singing coach in London, and she had expected someone comparable to himself; someone surprising, perhaps, but distinguished. Had not Domdaniel de­scribed him as an artist, an Eros-man? But here, on the second floor of a house in Coram Square, was a stumpy Irishman, bald and fifty if he was a day, who bade her feel his stomach, and talked about singing as if it were wrestling. Murtagh Molloy was a long way from the daemonic von Francius in The First Violin.

“Ben wants me to do what I can for you,” said Mr Molloy, “and I’ll do it because he’s an old friend. But I’ll be frank; if you don’t come across with the goods — out you’ll go. I won’t waste time on duds, and it’s not everyone I can teach anyhow. You’ve got to be simpatico — d’you know simpatico? Means we’ve got to get along. I worked with a dozen teachers when I was young. I even had a few lessons with ffrangcon-Davies in his last years. You wouldn’t know anything about him; a great, great artist. Why, I even worked for a while with William Shakespeare — ah, I thought that’d make your eyes bug — not the poet, of course, but the singing teacher — died, oh, it must be more than twenty years ago. But the greatest of them all was Harry Plunket Greene. You’ve heard of him? No? He was in Canada often. Worked with him off and on for years. Well, the point is, I was simpatico with ’em all, and that’s why they could teach me, and that’s why I could learn from them. If you’re simpatico you can get down to business without a lot of palaver; hard words don’t hurt, and praise doesn’t puff y’up — makes you humble. Now, let’s hear you sing something. What’ve you there?”

“I’ve got a terrible cold,” said Monica, apologetically.

“You don’t have to tell me that. But Plunket Greene used to say that all a singer needed was two teeth and a sigh. D’you get that? Something t’articulate with, and a wisp o’breath. What’s that? Old Tosti’s Good-Bye! That’ll do fine.”

Monica fought down her fears as well as she could, and sang. To her surprise, she sang rather well, Molloy accompanied her with a delicacy and helpfulness which she had not expected from the blunt, punching manner of his speech. But a greater surprise was to follow.

“Would you believe I once heard old Tosti play for Melba when she sang that?” said Molloy. “Long, long ago, but I recall it very well. I’ll give you an idea.”

He sang the song himself. It was unlike any singing Monica had ever heard, for although his voice was unremarkable in tone, and he sang without a hint of exaggeration or histrionics, it became as he sang the most compelling and revealing of sounds. The song invaded and possessed her as it had never done in all the time she had known it. Her own rendition, moulded by Aunt Ellen, was carefully phrased and built up emotionally until, she flattered herself, the final repeti­tions of “Good-bye” provided a fine and satisfying climax. But as Molloy sang the song there seemed to be no calculation of this kind, and the phrasing was hardly apparent. Yet the whole song was sung with a poignancy of regret which was the most powerful emotion that Monica had ever heard expressed in music. “It’s unbearably sad when you really understand it,” Aunt Ellen had said, thinking of her dead lover, and Monica had striven to re-create that sadness herself; sometimes she had succeeded, until the sob mounting in her throat brought on a prickling of the eyes, and then a fullness in the nose which ruined the singing. But that was real feeling, wasn’t it? And that was what made great music, surely? Yet here was Murtagh Molloy, apparently as cool as a cucumber, giving rise to a sadness in her which swept far beyond anything she could associate with Aunt Ellen and the dead schoolteacher. This was the sadness of all the world’s parting lovers, of all the autumns since the beginning of time, of death and the sweetness of death. Monica was moved, not to tears, but to a deep and solemn joy. This, then, was the bardic singing of which Domdaniel had spoken.

“I surprised you, did I?” Molloy was looking intently at her. He winked, and picked up what was left of his cigarette from the end of the keyboard. “When you came in here you thought I couldn’t sing because I didn’t look like it. Well, it’s a long study, girl, and while I was at it me beauty went on me. Now, how do you think my performance compared with yours?

“Ah, now, don’t blush; I shouldn’t have asked you. But you see the difference, don’t you? You were dipping your bucket into a shallow well and I was dipping mine into a deep one. No, no, not experience; I’ve had no more experience than most men. But I know what to do with mine, and I know how to get at it. Your song was all careful little effects. Well, good enough. But mine had one powerful effect. It had the proper muhd.”

Monica was now sufficiently accustomed to Molloy’s way of speaking to recognize that this was his way of saying “mood”.

“The muhd’s everything. Get it, and you’ll get the rest. If you don’t get it, all the fiorituri and exercises in agility and legato in the world’ll be powerless to make a good singer of you. The muhd’s at the root of all. And that’s what I teach my beginners, and my advanced pupils, and some who’ve gone out into the world and made big names, but who come back now and again for a brush-up or some help with special problems. And mostly it all boils down to the muhd.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson