A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

And Ludwiga Kressel — a genuine diva, that one, to whom Domdaniel had introduced her after a performance at Covent Garden. Ludwiga had dominated the party, a powerful, brass-haired woman, with a sense of humour as heavy as her own tread. She had compelled them all to silence while she told them of her experiences with the stage director at the Metropolitan. She had been unable to continue, convulsed by her own fun, yet protesting through her big-throated laughter, “However funny I am I cannot be so funny as Graf.” She had got to the Metropolitan because she had previously secured an engagement in Vienna. “Byng is impressed by Vienna, but Vienna is nothing, nothing at all.” Did she want to think like Ludwiga, who talked endlessly of “concertizing” and “recitalizing”? Did she want to live like Ludwiga, whose ferocious schedule of plane travel made it possible for her to cram the greatest possible number of appearances — operatic and concert — into a single season? No, no; not like Ludwiga.

By six o’clock she was in the depths, and wanted a drink more than anything else. No — obviously not more than anything else, for a drink was easily within her reach; Kevin and Alex had been discreetly keeping her modest needs supplied. But a drink before a concert might disturb her voice, so it was out of the question for her to have one. She knew very well, as she denied herself, that she was by that abnegation settling her shoulders to the singer’s yoke.

The recital was to be at half-past eight, and well before eight she was entering the artist’s door of Fallen Hall. The artist’s door, in this case, simply meant the entrance to a poky little room, piled half-full with folded wooden chairs and ferociously over-heated by steam coils, at one side of the stage. But this was what an “artist’s door” meant in her native land — not the mysterious and somewhat furtive side-doors which led to stages in England, nor the glorious, lamplit courtyard which led to the stage entrance of the Paris Opera; she entered Fallen Hall itself by just the same door as the public used; for after all, what had an artist to conceal, or what marked him off from the general public? Nothing, of course; nothing but a world of dedication.

Having failed to open a window, or find a janitor to do it for her, Monica was fearful that she might take cold even before her concert. The air was hot and dry, so she went into the corridor, and at last found another room, dark and not so hot, where faculty meetings were held, and here she concealed herself until five minutes before the concert was to begin.

Her accompanist, Humphrey Cobbler, had not yet arrived, and Monica worried furiously. But with a minute to spare he appeared, much rumpled and utterly unpressed, but in evening clothes and plainly in very good spirits. During rehearsals she had learned to know and like Humphrey very much, and so now she was able to speak sharply to him about his lateness.

“But I’m not late,” said he, smiling indulgently. “You don’t suppose they’ll get going before eight forty-five? My dear, the nobility and gentry, the beauty and chivalry, not to mention the money and the stretched credit, of Salterton are assembling to hear you. You can smell the moth-balls and the bunny coats away back here if you sniff. And it’s all for you. Don’t fuss; glory in it.”

“I can’t glory. I think I’m going to be sick. Oh, Humphrey, this scares me far worse than the BBC, or anything I’ve ever done.”

“But why?”

“Because it’s my home town, that’s why. You couldn’t understand. You’re an Englishman; you haven’t got Salterton in your bones; you didn’t grow up with those people out there meaning the larger world to you. So far as they know me at all, they know me as a stenographer at the Glue Works. And right now that’s exactly what I feel like.”

“Listen, poppet, it’s very charming of you to love your home town, but now is the time to put that love in its proper place — which is right outside Fallen Hall, in a snowbank. Salterton can’t be your measure of success or failure; what you think are its standards are just the standards of childhood and provincialism. You’ve been away long enough to recognize that your home town is not only the Rome and the Athens of your early life, but also in many important ways a remote, God-forsaken dump. Those people out there are just vincial professors, and bankers, and wholesale druggists who want to be proud of you if you give them half a chance, but who will just as readily take any opportunity you give them to keep you down. Now: don’t try to dominate them; you’re not a lion-tamer. Go out on the platform and do what your teachers have told you, and what you know to be right and best, and pay no heed to them at all, except when courtesy — the high courtesy of the artist — demands it. We’ll walk up and down this corridor, you and I, taking deep but not hysterical breaths, until the head usher tells us that all the bunny coats are in their seats. Come on, Monica: head forward and up, back long and easy, and — what does Molloy say? — breathe the muhd.”


The first part of the Recital was over, and Cobbler returned Monica to the Faculty Room, shut the door and guarded it from outside. It had gone well. That is, she knew that she had sung well, and the audience, after a rather watchful beginning, was prepared to like her.

It was true, as Cobbler had said when she first discussed her programme with him, that she was giving them something tough to chew. But — “It’s a fine programme,” he had said, “and I’m delighted you’re getting away from that fathead notion that music must always be performed in the chronological order of its composition. The audience here has had a thorough Community Concerts training; they’ll be expecting you to start off with a Classical Group, putting your voice through its hardest paces while it’s still cold and before you’ve really got the feel of the hall or the audience, and then a group of Lieder, to show that you know German, and a French group, to show that you know French, and then a Contemporary Group, consisting entirely of second-rank Americans, and topping off with a Popular Group, in which you really let your hair down and show how vulgar and folksy you can be. But this makes sense.”

The programme was prepared on a principle which she had learned from Giles; not the chronology of composers, but a line of poetic meaning, was the cord on which the beads were strung. And so she had begun with Schubert’s An die Musik, and after that noble apos­trophe she plunged straight into Giles’ own Kubla Khan which was certainly tough chewing for a Salterton audience, as it took fifteen minutes to perform and without being in the mode of what Cobbler called “wrong-note modernism” was written in an idiom both contem­porary and individual to the composer. Then, as relief, she had sung a group of folksongs of the British Isles as she had learned them from Molloy. The folksongs had stirred the audience to its first real enthusiasm, for they all felt themselves competent judges of such seeming simplicity.

Now an interval, and then a group of three songs which the audience was asked, in a note on the programme, not to applaud. These were the songs which Monica intended as her memorial to her mother. The oak coffin, the five black Buicks at the funeral, and the red granite tombstone, like a chunk of petrified potted meat, which Dad and Alice wanted, were trash. But in these songs she would take her farewell of Ada Gall.

First would be Thomas Campion’s Never weather-beaten Saile. She would follow it with Brahms’ Auf dem Kirchhofe, and if anyone thought it gloomy — well, let them think. And last, Purcell’s Evening Hymn, noble and serene setting of William Fuller’s words. Would any who had known Ma — Dad, for instance, or Aunt Ellen — find the reflection of her spirit which Monica believed to lie in these songs? During the night-watches at her bedside, Monica had thought much about Ma, and about herself. They were, as Ma had said in her last fully rational utterances, much alike. For in Ma, when she told tall stories, when she rasped her family with rough, sardonic jokes, when she rebelled against the circumstances of her life in coarse abuse, and when she cut through the fog of nonsense with the beam of her insight, was an artist — a spoiled artist, one who had never made anything, who was unaware of the nature or genesis of her own discontent, but who nevertheless possessed the artist’s temperament; in her that tempera­ment, misunderstood, denied and gone sour, had become a poison which had turned against the very sources of life itself. Nevertheless, she was like Ma, and she must not go astray as Ma — not wholly through her own fault — had gone. In these songs she would sing of the spirit which might have been her mother’s if circumstances had been otherwise. Alice had not hesitated to say that she had killed their mother by giving in to her wilfulness. Well, it was not true; what was best in her mother should live on, and find expression, in her.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson