TODAY I got me a pair of wings and flew away out of the war; I flew back into the good old days, or on into the good new days — I don’t quite know which.
I went to the Penmorvah Orchestral Society’s Annual Concert, which has been held every spring for more than fifty years in Penmorvah Town Hall. Nothing was changed. Nothing was different. Here were the same rows and rows of old ladies with black ostrich tips in their hats, and the aspidistras — the very same, I do believe, that were first used in 1891 — grouped disconsolately round the conductor’s rostrum. Here were the same performers. Bearded shepherds were lugging in double basses; the butcher of Madron Church Town was climbing up behind the big drum, and the melancholy chimney sweep from Fish Lane was fingering his clarinet. Farmers’ wives and daughters, in their best dresses, were tuning their violins and exchanging dairy news. And dear old Dr. Berry is still conducting the orchestra - - a little more massive, whiteheaded now, but still walking serenely on the mountains, as great a maestro in Penmorvah as Richter ever was in Munich.
Musical snobs think they have to sneer at the Orchestral Society. It’s true that Dr. Berry and his rustic band are not very accomplished performers. It’s true that they are somewhat ambitious in their choice of programs. Nothing is so difficult that they won’t try it, and their maxim seems to be that if you are going to make a fool of yourself you had better 208 do it on a grand scale. When they fling themselves upon the Ninth Symphony, in the spirit of the Light Brigade at Balaclava, there are always one or two superior beings in the audience who close their eyes in pain and murmur:
‘Of course . . . when one’s heard it in London . . . when one knows what it ought to sound like . . .’
‘Which is more than Beethoven knew himself, half the time,’ Dr. Berry is reported to have said to one of these critics.
But amateur music, so long as it is sincere, has a charm and a quality. The skilled professional who never hears a better performance than his own is tempted sometimes to forget that there is a better performance — the perfect one that we shan’t hear till we get to Heaven — and he leaves off listening for it with his inward ear. But the humble amateur has less temptation to forget; he listens for it, and sometimes, surprisingly, in the midst of his falterings and blunders he plays a chord, a note, half a bar, which might be an echo from a better world.
My neighbor, Mrs. Treloyan, drove me over to Penmorvah, and on the way we talked about her children, Elizabeth, Tim, and Marigold, whom I have not seen since they were in kindergarten. Now they are all grown up. Tim is stationed somewhere in the North, and Marigold is going to have a baby.
Anyone who knows Penmorvah would have known it was concert day, even without the posters. An air of excitement and bustle filled the streets. The shops were closed; the concert is always fixed for an early-closing day. Anybody who had come to town at all had come for the concert. The country buses, rumbling in from the moors, were full of people carrying queer and bulky musical instruments, cellos and French horns and trombones.
The old reek of paint and size met us as we went into the Town Hall. Why that building should invariably manage to smell as if it had just been redecorated I cannot think, for I don’t suppose it has seen a paintbrush since the Armada sailed. But so it is.
Lady ushers sell us enormous programs full of notes written by Dr. Berry, telling us what the music really means, and when we must listen for ‘the chromatic passage for the oboe which reintroduces the first subject.’ But we scarcely need to look at these programs, for the bill of fare is invariable: a substantial joint of Beethoven, something in the Rosamunde line or else some Tchaikovsky, some nice old Italian string concerto that is really almost within the powers of the performers, an interval, something modern thrown in as a tolerant gesture, a lady singing a piece of grand opera, selections from Hiawatha, and the Valkyries’ Ride.
And hurrah! There are the Red Cross nurses! Ever since Dr. Berry discovered that two trained nurses attend every concert in the Albert Hall, London, lest anybody in that vast audience should be taken ill, he has insisted that at least three nurses should attend his concerts in Penmorvah.
And now Dr. Berry makes his entrance and we all clap. He bows and waves us to our feet for the National Anthem, which we all sing very loudly because if we didn’t he would make us stop and start again. As it is wartime we sing all three verses, including the one which, between wars, we condemn as chauvinistic, out of date, and due for the blue pencil. But just at the moment we feel no objection to it, and instruct Heaven most emphatically to ‘ confound their politics, frustrate their knavish tricks . . .’
Silence. A few latecomers steal nervously in. Dr. Berry turns round and glares at them till they quite lose their heads and drop their umbrellas and fall over their neighbors’ feet. He waits until the last rustle has died away. Then he lifts his baton and leads the Penmorvah Orchestral Society into their annual Balaclava charge.
You may have heard it in London. You may have heard it in Berlin, Munich, Paris, or New York. You may think you know how it ought to sound. But you are a fool if you don’t listen. Because this is Beethoven, and even now, even here, you may suddenly discover something you did not know before.
And the orchestra is lovely to watch. There is not a face which is not alight with enthusiasm and determination. The men reveal more than the women do. There is a kind of sadness, a mixture of melancholy and pleasure, which I have noticed before in men’s faces when they are making music, or listening to it. There is none of that taint of boredom which haunts the paid musician. This is not done for a living. These shepherds, shopkeepers, and railway porters give to music their rare moments of leisure. They find in it their escape from a world that is often hard, narrow, and bitter. Most of them are tired and middle-aged. They have the queerest assortment of faces: long faces, pug faces, red faces, pale faces, spotty-blotchy faces, bald heads and bat ears. But upon every face, just now, there is a most beautiful expression — the melancholy dignity of a king in exile who hears a strain from ‘the Imperial Palace whence he came.’
Only the butcher, in charge of the percussion, seems to be quite at home in this world, pounding here, pounding there, here a tap, there a tap, and then sitting back with folded arms to wait for his next spell of activity. He never takes his eye off his drums between whiles, but watches over them as though they were alive and might start up of their own accord if he did not control them.
The women’s expressions are more veiled. They are more conscious of themselves, their best dresses, and the audience in front of them. Among the violins I pick out three to remember.
The first is a little schoolgirl dressed in a sort of shroud which I judge to be a confirmation dress. Overwhelmed at the honor of inclusion in this adult assembly, overwhelmed with anxiety lest she should let her side down, too modest to sit where the audience can see her, too conscientious to sit where she cannot see the conductor, she is never in the same place for two bars running. She keeps appearing and disappearing, peeping anxiously over fresh heads and shoulders, but always fiddling away for dear life. She does not appear to need her music. I suspect she knows the score as well as Dr. Berry does.
The second is a type to be found in almost any provincial orchestra. She sits next to the first violin and feels that she gives tone to the whole affair. She is refined and artistic. She wears ‘handwoven’ clothes, and her sandy hair is wound in great knobs over her ears. She knows herself to be a great deal more cultivated than most people in Penmorvah and she would like us to know it too. Her pale blue eyes are intensely soulful. She handles her bow very efficiently. In this hullabaloo it is impossible to know how well she plays, but it is likely that she is hampered by conceit, that archenemy of all the arts. I suspect she enjoys herself more when she is playing the Preislied to a circle of admiring friends in a nice, refined drawing-room.
In the long periods when the violins have nothing to do she keeps her eyes fixed on Dr. Berry with an eager readiness, as though prepared for any sudden, unexpected call. When he glances their way to indicate an approaching lead she gives him a little nod, as if to assure him that he can rely on her.
The first violin, sitting next to her, is a complete contrast. Her face is red and square. Her black hair is cropped. She has small and singularly expressionless black eyes. Her dress is of brown artificial silk with green and yellow comets dashing around all over it. Her large, sensible feet are placed well apart and she sits very upright. Her profession is revealed by her great red forearms which have been obviously milking cows and making butter for at least thirty years. But her bowing is a joy — so firm, delicate, and flexible. The jerk of her elbow, and the balance between thumb and little finger, show her to be an orthodox disciple of the Wilhelmj school.
In the Italian Suite we get a chance to hear her tone, for she has a long solo passage. It is very pleasing, a little too soft, but pure and sweet. Her great arm pulls long ribbons of melody out of the little fiddle with a kind of steady precision, just as though she were churning butter. I wonder how she ever found time to become so good an executant. From time to time she throws a scornful glance at her refined neighbor. Clearly there is no love lost between them. How could there be? Sandy Hair returns these glances with smiles of condescension and encouragement.
(’I think it’s a very, very good thing,’ she says firmly to her own admiring circle, ‘to have a woman like Mrs. Giles leading the orchestra. Just a farm woman, you know, from the High Moors. It gets the country people interested. They come in to the concerts. They get a chance to hear good music. And she really plays quite well. And of course, as I said to Dr. Berry, anytime, if Mrs. Giles became too busy, if it turned out to be too much for her, I could always . . .’)
The soprano soloist gives singing lessons in a little house in Marine Parade. She is a fair, faded, melancholy-looking woman and she wears bright blue satin. Long ago she was a girl with a voice (there are still some lovely notes in it) and she ‘trained’ and she worked, and thought, day and night, about her career — the path of glory that should lead to grand opera. But girls with voices are two a penny, and engagements are not. So now here she is, giving lessons on Marine Parade, and a good deal better off, no doubt, than many divas who have failed, for she earns a living and enjoys a position of respect and prestige. But once a year she lets her lost dreams rip. This is her only chance to sing with an orchestra, and she takes it with both hands and insists upon giving us one of those arias which she will now never sing on the boards of Covent Garden Opera House. This year it is ‘Tosca’s Prayer,’ which she sings, of course, in Italian, a language little spoken in Penmorvah.
In Covent Garden, if I remember rightly, massive prima donnas always roll about on the floor while they sing this number. Madame Bates remains erect. She clasps her hands over her blue satin bosom and laments with grieved dignity. For all we know, her song might be translated thus: —
I never hurt anybody.
In fact, I have always gone out of my way to be kind.
I have not been envious or spiteful,
I rejoiced in the success of others.
Verdi is in my bedroom,
And Schubert in the kitchenette.
I never sang out of tune in my life.
I have given of my best,
But my best was not enough.
Saints in Bliss!
I’m not complaining.
But I do not understand,
I simply cannot understand.
Why, when I have lived for Art,
Should Art give me such a raw deal?
We applaud all this like anything, and before the applause has died down a tribute of carnations and maidenhair fern is seen heaving its way towards the platform. It is a bouquet from Madame’s pupils. It is presented by a tall, blooming, shy girl, whom the people behind us identify as Peggy Baker, Madame’s star pupil, who ‘has a voice,’ and is going to train, to ‘take it up professionally.’
Peggy has lived in Penmorvah all her life and she thinks Madame the greatest singer in the world. The singing lessons in Marine Parade don’t daunt her; if one lives for Art one gets to Covent Garden. Peggy believes in her own career. And so does Madame. She stops to take the flowers with a smile of pure pleasure and affection. She believes in Peggy; her own lost hopes are transferred to Peggy now. There is no Schadenfreude, no crabbed, middle-aged ‘Ah! You must wait!’ in the look she bends on the girl.
It is over, and the last Valkyrie has gone galumphing home. As we troop out to the parking ground the sirens sound an alert, and I remember suddenly that there is a war on and that I seem to have got away from it for a while, into a sane, familiar world, like a person waking up from a bad dream. Sometimes in the past months I have thought, ‘We may win the war, but can we ever forget? Can we ever be happy again? Can we ever find our old, lost selves?’
Now I know that we shall forget, just as the spring forgets the winter. The human lives which I have watched today will be going on when this war is just one of those ‘old, unhappy, far-off things.’
As we drive over the hills we see that the spring ploughing is well forward. The plough goes up the long furrow with a train of white gulls following. Mrs. Giles and her violin are jogging home in a country bus. Madame Bates is putting her carnations in water in the little sitting room with the grand piano, where a bust of Mozart is on the mantelpiece. And Mrs. Treloyan, thinking about Marigold, tells me she has three Shetland shawls at home which have been waiting for twenty years in camphor and lavender for her first grandchild.
This is life, and the very texture of life.
Ere their story die.