Ways and By-Ways of a Singing Kiwi with the N.Z. Divisional Entertainers in France
Introduction — New Zealand — 1914
New Zealand — 1914.
A quarter of a century makes a big hole in a man's life, and it is a long way to look back to those seemingly uneventful days, before the Great War came to alter, for many of us, the whole course of our lives, in that far-off post of Empire, New Zealand.
As a semi-amateur vocalist, I had done only a little local concert work, and an oratorio or two, when, one day, whilst rehearsing during the lunch hour, in the town concert hall, for a function which was to take place that evening, my accompanist and I noticed that a woman entered and sat in one of the back seats. At the conclusion of one of my numbers, she advanced to the stage and inquired the name of the song, which happened to be Squire's "Mountain Lovers," saying she liked the way I attacked my top notes; she asked would we mind if she constituted our audience, and would I sing all my songs through again for her.
Of course we assented, and the rehearsal continued.
At the close, she came forward again, and said how she'd liked my singing, and did we think she could come to the concert that night.
We were pleased to let her have tickets, and she explained that she was particularly anxiouspage 13 to hear again one of the songs, which turned out to be the charming little "Sylvelin" of Sinding's.
We had no idea as to the identity of our visitor until she remarked that Sylvelin was written in such quaint time. "You know," she said, "once when I was appearing with Sir Henry Irving" (and here my accompanist and I looked at each other open-mouth, for Ellen Terry was billed to appear in the hall the following evening) "we wanted some music to fit in to a passage of "Macbeth," and Sir Arthur Sullivan wrote us something in 5-4 time—that was quaint time, wasn't it? And so I couldn't help thinking this song is written in quaint time too."
After arrangements were made to have the tickets delivered to her hotel, Ellen Terry said, "Now, to-night, when you come on to the platform, I'll go 'S-s-s' " (here she made a hissing sound through her teeth) "so that you will know where I am sitting."
We departed, a little late for our afternoon's work, somewhat thrilled at having attracted the interest of so notable a personality and artist as the world-renowned Shakespearian actress. How the hours passed the rest of that working day has not remained in the memory, but I shall never forget, on coming on to the platform that evening, seeing Ellen Terry standing in her place and nodding, to let us see where she was.
Of course her action was most noticeable, and many of those in the front row of the gallery were craning over to see who it was standing up, no doubt recognising at once the well-known features. The memory of that night will everpage 14 remain with me as one of the most thrilling experiences of my all-too-short singing life—I had almost said career. The audience seemed to catch something of the thrill we were experiencing, and encores were numerous. We were sent for to go and sit with our guest, and at the end of the concert she asked would I once more sing "Sylvelin" for her; so, while hundreds waited, I sang it for her for the fourth time that day.
Anyone who has heard "Sylvelin" knows that what contributes to its beauty, perhaps even more than the lovely melody and words, is the delightful glissando accompaniment which C A. Martin, now a Mus. Bac., played like the artist he undoubtedly is.
Ellen Terry looked at him, and asked how old he was, and on learning how really young he was, she said: "My! you must have started when you were just a kid." Asked where I got my interpretations from, and what artists I had heard, I mentioned my greatest inspiration, Paul Dufault, but she had never heard him sing, though she had heard great reports of him. Yes, she had heard and liked John McCormack. What violinists had we heard?
No, she didn't care so much for Heifetz; she thought he always seemed so cold, but Elman was different—he had more soul.
But quite the best violinist she had ever heard was—"whatever was that man's name again? How my memory is going; you know, quite recently I sensed I was going to forget a certain word in one of my Shakespearian performances, and when I came near the passage, I knew it hadpage 15 something to do with veins or sinews, so I looked at my hand and thought of all its component parts, until I found the right word. Now, what was that man's name?"
Here she began to tick off on her fingers: "A, B, C, D," etc., until she came to J; "J, I'm sure it began with J. Oh yes; Joachim, that's the man; oh, he was spiffing!" And so she rambled on, there being nothing to suggest the great culture that had placed her at the head of her profession in the English Theatre.
On the way to her hotel, our visitor spoke of her friendship with many of the world's famous artists, and said that the greatest feast of music she had ever enjoyed was when Liszt played almost an entire day for her, only stopping on occasions for a cup of tea.
She gave us tickets for her recital, which consisted of excerpts from Shakespeare's works, and as showing how her memory was fading, she made frequent recourse to a book wherein the text was printed in extra large type.
However, Ellen Terry's visit to Dunedin will long be remembered by two aspiring beginners in the musical profession who were thrilled by the great condescension and charm of her lovely personality. She could not procure a copy of "Sylvelin," so she had it copied for her own use, as she said she simply must have it with her always. She strongly advised me to go to Munich to study, where, she assured me, one really breathed the atmosphere of music.
Little did I think then that I was to be privileged to get to Germany, but not, unfortunate-page 16ly, in the way nor for the purpose suggested. That was in July, 1914, and within a month the whole world was to be knocked off its balance, and in the holocaust that ensued was to be deprived of some nine millions of its best and bravest inhabitants.
I fear I must ask your indulgence in submitting so unusual an introduction to this supposedly plain account of the doings of a concert party in war-time, but I would just like to give some idea as to how I approached the Great War—or, rather, in what spirit of mind the war caught me, and I have no doubt at all that there were a great many more like me, among the soldiers of our non-conscripted Empire, than to be found in the ranks of our erstwhile over-militarised enemies.page break