A Mixture of Frailties – Salterton Trilogy 03 by Robertson Davies

Of the fourteen hundred-odd people in the theatre, perhaps a hundred and fifty really knew what the trouble was; another five or six hundred sensed that something was amiss but could not have identified it; the remainder knew only that the music which had been so melodious before, had taken on a queer turn which was probably attributable to some unfamiliarity of idiom. But for several bars a section of the orchestra would be at cross-purposes with the rest; or a vigorous entry would come a beat too soon, or too late; or sounds which no system of musical logic could account for would assert themselves, only to be subdued by the furious, quenching gesture of the composer’s left hand.

As the performance progressed, it became nervous agony for the people on the stage, deeper mystery for the listeners. The singers, upon the whole, fared well, for nothing completely disorganizing happened to their part of the score, though portions of accompani­ment, faintly familiar, yet unaccustomed, rose to their ears. Yet, because they were the most exposed part of the musical forces, they suffered, and their occupational sensitivity to atmosphere worked strongly against them. The philosophy of the orchestra manifested itself in shrugs, which could be seen from the boxes and galleries. But the only outright fiasco of the evening was the ballet of Cupid and Psyche; the six dancers engaged in it were exposed, for the eight minutes of its duration, as men and women who seemed not to know what they were doing. Even Lalage Render, who was admired wherever ballet was understood for her classic perfection, seemed suddenly to be hopping arbitrarily and rather foolishly about the stage, at odds with the music.

The frequent variation of time signature, which was one of the chief characteristics of Giles’ score, and which gave his music the variety and subtlety of nuance which was its chief beauty, seemed to be at the root of the trouble; the opera was not precisely as the company had learned it.

When, at last, the curtain descended, there was applause. For was not The Golden Asse the chief success of the Music Festival that year? And were there not many good people present who, having been assured that they were to hear a masterwork, were humbly ready to accept whatever they heard as belonging in that category? But it was not the kind of applause which had greeted the earlier performances. When Giles did not come at once from the pit to the stage, Amyas Palfreyman tried to find him, to appear before the curtain with the company. But the applause did not last long enough to make a thorough search possible. The company dispersed to their dressing-rooms greatly disturbed; they had taken a few calls, but they could not forget that at the end of the ballet of Cupid and Psyche there had been several hisses and some murmuring from the gallery.

When Monica went into her dressing-room, Giles was there, sitting on the sofa. His expression was furious, but she was not deceived; there was a forlorn look about him which she had never seen before, and it filled her with pity. She ran to him and tried to put her arms about him, but he pushed her away.

“Well — a fine bloody mess that was,” said he.

“Giles, what was wrong?”

“That damned orchestra. Wouldn’t follow the score, wouldn’t follow my beat — absolute chaos! I explained the whole thing to them beforehand, and they said they understood — anyhow the first fiddle did — but they had no idea what they were doing. I could cheerfully have killed the lot of them!”

“Poor Giles.”

“Don’t ‘Poor Giles’ me. I saw you, shuddering and making faces, like Palfreyman and all the rest of them, whenever we got into trouble.”

“We didn’t. It was only that –”

“”You did. You were all mugging like lunatics. Do you think I can’t see? You were throwing the show away with both hands. I don’t particularly blame you. You’re nothing but a bloody little colonial greenhorn who doesn’t know anything about professional conduct, but Palfreyman was flat for the last two acts, and he was glaring at me with his eyes sticking out like doorknobs. I could have thrown my stick at him!”

“I’m sure he was just trying to follow your beat, Giles. We all were, honestly. What was the trouble?”

“I’ve told you the trouble. I was trying to give my opera, instead of Brum Benny’s, and everybody behaved as if I were demanding some obscene impossibility. I’m almost ready to believe you were all in cahoots to do it.”

“Oh, Giles!”

“Yes, you’re all hypnotized by the great Sir Benedict. What the composer wants is nothing; it’s what Sir Benedict wants that counts. He’s bought the whole lot of you with blarney and champagne suppers, and I’m just a stooge.”

“No, it isn’t like that a bit –”

“What’s the good of saying that? D’you think I can’t see? What do you suppose I’ve been doing since I came here? Fighting for my own music. And it appears I’ve lost the fight.”

And so on; much more to the same effect, until there was a soft knock on the door, and Sir Benedict came in.

“Well, we ran into a spot of bother,” said he, smiling.

” ‘We’ didn’t run into anything. I ran into something. I ran right smack into the fact that my music seems to mean less in this theatre than your ideas about it.”

“But my dear fellow, why did you do it?”

“Is it so extraordinary that I should want a chance to conduct my own opera?”

“No. You know what I mean. Why did you try to revise the score at the last minute?”

“I did not revise it; I simply restored it to what I originally meant it to be. I’ve heard your version, with all the neat, conventional little bridges and re-writes and revises you’ve stuck into it, to make it the kind of Leipzig Conservatory stuff you’d write if you could write anything at all. I’ve heard it and it’s just so much Zopf!”

“Giles, Giles, nothing went into your score that was mine. You approved every change and every cut; many of the revisions were in your own hand. Now let’s be reasonable –”

“Revisions I made with a pistol at my head! I never wanted to revise; I damned well knew when the opera was finished. You were the one who wanted to tinker.”

“All right, let’s forget that for the moment. But really, my dear man, if you peel off sometimes as many as seven revisions from a score you must expect trouble. The concert-master tells me that the conductor’s room was knee-deep in gummed paper –”

“I knew he’d be clearing himself to you! They all run to you! Did he tell you he said he understood the revisions?”

“He told me he argued with you, and finally said they’d do their best. Be sensible, Giles. He doesn’t speak English particularly well and I expect you bullied him. The orchestra are first-rate men, but they can’t do miracles; you should have realized that when you’d pulled off all the revisions there were bound to be difficulties, because quite a few of them weren’t gummed to the parts – they were written in by hand. Still, it’s done now, and we’d better say no more about it at present. It’s not the end of the world.”

Giles would no doubt have retorted that it was the end of the world, simply from necessity to dissent from Domdaniel, but it was at this moment that Signer Petri, the manager, came in. A huge man, of immense dignity, and at this moment deeply solemn.

“Mr Revelstoke this was very, very wrong of you,” he said.

“I don’t see that. If your orchestra can’t follow a score, why is it my fault?”

“Mr Revelstoke, I have been with Gnecchi, and he showed me the orchestra parts and they were incomprehensible in many places. There is a place in Act Three, in the ballet, where there are discrep­ancies of as much as six bars in some of the parts. Signora Render is very distressed and who wonders? The theatre doctor is with her now. You made her look a fool. You should not have — what is the word I seek — monkeyed with that score.”

“I did not monkey with the score. I restored it to what I wrote and it was as clear as day.”

“To you, perhaps. To no one else.”

“Damn it, Petri, my score had been revised and patted and pulled and buggered about and I wanted it to be played as I wrote it. Has a composer no rights in this theatre?”

“Every right, Mr Revelstoke. Every respect. La Fenice has presented new scores by Verdi, do not forget it, and by many very great men. But not even Verdi has a right to insult my audience, and make my artists appear to be analphabets in public, and that is what you have done. Now hear what I have to say –“

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Categories: Davies, Robertson