Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Finding Annie Drummond

Ivor Gurney might finally be receiving the recognition he deserves: Chosen Press’ Philip Lancaster is working on a complete edition of his poems with Tim Kendall; BBC Radio 3 will feature his music in their Composer of the Week series next year; and in November Pamela Blevins publishes a dual biography of the poet-composer and Marion Scott, Gurney’s greatest advocate and among the most influential and respected women of he generation. Here Pamela writes about tracing Gurney's lost love, Annie Drummond:

When I began writing about Ivor Gurney and Marion Scott, I had no idea that parts of their stories had roots in my native Massachusetts. Ivor’s lost love Annie Drummond had emigrated there in 1921 and Marion was descended from the earliest settlers in Salem, a place best known to the world for the witch hunts and trials of 1692. I’d like to say that my dogged research led me to this information but the truth is I stumbled on it more by accident than design.

The first inkling of these connections came in 1989 when I was working in the Gurney Archive in Gloucester. I came across a brief note from Drummond’s mother to Marion informing her Annie had emigrated to the United States, where she married and was living in South Natick, Massachusetts, practically in my backyard.

Once I returned home I was able to trace Annie very easily even though I only had two pieces of information: her married name and an address. All I had to do was visit the Office of Vital Statistics in Boston. Even in those days before computers, Massachusetts had a marvellous system of public records that was incredibly easy to use and efficient. Within 15 minutes I had found details of Annie’s birth, marriage and death.

At the time of her death in 1959, Annie and her husband, James McKay, were living in Wellesley, a suburb west of Boston. That information led me to Annie’s friends and neighbours and through them I was able to locate her daughter Peggy Ann in California. Soon Peggy Ann and I had the first of many conversations. She had known nothing of her mother’s relationship with Ivor Gurney but she had seen his name and wondered who he was. I had the answer.

After Annie’s death, she had found an old leather suitcase of her mother’s “most treasured possessions” hidden away in a cupboard. Among the random memories of a lifetime, Peggy Ann found two items that puzzled her: a copy of Poems of To-Day inscribed to Annie by Ivor and a copy of the score of his Western Playland, a work he had dedicated to Annie although that was not clear from the dedication which reads “To Hawthornden”, one of Gurney’s names for her. Gurney had met Annie in 1917 when he was a patient at the Edinburgh War Hospital. He fell in love with her and she seemed to share his feelings but something went wrong and the relationship failed. But Gurney never forgot Annie and continued to write poems dedicated to her along with the Western Playland. Even during his asylum years he tried to contact her; thus the letter from Annie’s mother.

Peggy Ann shared the story of her mother’s life with me and kindly sent me copies of photographs and documents relating to her mother’s past. Sadly, Annie Drummond McKay’s life was marked by tragedy and her last years bore a resemblance to Ivor Gurney’s. Shortly after her arrival in Massachusetts nearly all of her belongings were destroyed in a fire. She managed to save the book Gurney had given her along with her nursing certificates. Annie and her husband married in 1922 and had a son John in 1924. He was playing in the front garden of their home when a run-away truck crashed into the McKay’s property killing their only child. Peggy Ann was born in the early 1930s when her parents were both in their 40s.

Friends remembered Annie as a talented, “lovely-looking woman” whose artistic nature found expression in the beautiful gardens she and her husband created around their home. Both were avid birdwatchers. Her husband was the head carpenter at Wellesley College and Annie was active in her adopted community, enjoying memberships in various organisations and winning local fame for her special cakes and desserts. But then something started to go wrong. By the early 1950s, friends began to notice a dramatic change in Annie. She was becoming increasingly withdrawn and seemed to be “losing touch with reality”. The last eight years of her life were agonising for her family and friends as she slowly slipped into a world of her own. By 1958, she had taken to wandering from her home. Her condition deteriorated and her family reluctantly had her hospitalized in a facility for the mentally ill where she died on 21 May 1959.

The story of Marion Scott’s American heritage reads like a page in a history book but I will save it for another time. Let’s just say it involves wigwams, the family witch, slave trading, cinnamon, hemp, Russia, and Whistler, the artist.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Getting to know the Alwyns

Another highlight from our Autumn 2008 publishing season is a new biography of the composer, William Alwyn, by Adrian Wright. Perhaps best known now as a film composer, Alwyn’s output included five symphonies, two piano concertos, three string quartets, and several operas and ballet scores, as well as numerous songs and pieces for solo piano. Adrian Wright’s book will be a magnificent addition to our list of books on British composers, but how did he discover the music of William Alwyn? He explains in this extract from the preface to The Innumerable Dance:

I never met or knew William Alwyn. I was alerted to his music in the 1960s by the Stock Editor (a now defunct post) of Norfolk County Library, Robert Illsley. ‘Mr Illsley’, as he was known to most - and certainly by a teenage library assistant in his first job - came from Derby, and had not only an astounding knowledge of books and the people who wrote them but a catholic relish in the arts, however humble or self-important. One of the joys of turning up for work was knowing he would appear (rather like a Demon King coming up through a trapdoor) sometime during the morning and expound on subjects he thought might interest me: perhaps the most recent episode of the TV series Z Cars (he was a keen admirer of the waspish Inspector Barlow), or, a prized favourite of Mr Illsley’s, the soap opera Crossroads, in whose absurdities he delighted. His knowledge and caustic wit ranged widely over the extraordinary and the neglected, from such ridiculous authors as Amanda McKittrick Ros and the novelists employed by Messrs Mills and Boon (he loved to read extracts from the closing passages of their publications), to the less well known British composers of the twentieth century. It was then that I heard of William Alwyn, and my first thanks must go to the late Mr Illsley, whose dress always comprised a suit, trilby and Gannex raincoat, but whose appreciation of art was always worthy of serious attention.

It was much later, in the 1990s, when I rediscovered, or perhaps began to appreciate for the first time, Alwyn’s music, through the long series of his work recorded by Chandos Records. The booklets to the CDs often included a photograph of the composer’s widow Mary, apparently Margaret Rutherford-like in sensible blouse, homely cardigan, plaid skirt and (out of sight in the picture) almost certainly sturdy brogues. She was seen smiling helpfully up at the conductor on his podium. It was now that I began to listen to Alwyn’s music and discover the breadth and ambition of his work. I had left it too late to meet the composer, but eventually I sent a letter for Mary Alwyn to Chandos which led to an invitation to visit her at Lark Rise, the Alwyns’ home at Blythburgh, a half an hour journey from my home just outside Norwich. It was probably at our first meeting that I told her I was some sort of writer, having already written a biography of the novelist L. P. Hartley, and from that moment she suggested I should write the life of her husband. An easy prey to flattery, I was elated, and hadn’t this book fallen into my lap just as my other biographies had, as if there was something fateful about my association with the subjects I wrote of?

I cannot recall now how long it took me to realise that being Mary’s anointed biographer had its problems. Mary was not only extraordinarily strong-minded but revered William and everything he had ever produced – music, poetry, librettos, essays, translations and paintings. It was some months before I finally agreed I would write it, but I was already aware that behind me stood a small army of prospective biographers who had one way and another fallen into disfavour, usually when she suspected a whiff of even the most tentative criticism of Alwyn. Some of these would-be biographers hovered still on the fringes of Mary’s life. At every visit to Lark Rise and to the nursing homes where she spent her last years I was quizzed; how was the book coming along? The progress was snail-like, for I knew that any attempt at a meaningful biography was impossible during Mary’s lifetime. I was aware by now that the story was a complicated one with three leading characters, and that a proper understanding of Alwyn’s personal life was crucial to any appreciation of his career.

Further excerpts from this new biography will appear over the coming months. The Innumerable Dance will be published by the Boydell Press in September.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Lunch at La Pietra

Peter Dickinson’s latest book, Lord Berners: Composer Writer Painter will be published in September. It is a refreshingly new documentary approach to a unique personality - interviews with leading figures and contemporaries who knew Berners and his work. Here Peter Dickinson recalls visiting Harold Acton in Florence.

In 1983 I made a BBC Radio 3 documentary about Lord Berners to mark his centenary – the interviews will be printed in full in my book. I also put on concerts at the Wigmore Hall and elsewhere with my sister Meriel Dickinson singing the songs and Timothy West giving readings from Berners’ novels and autobiography. One of the most fascinating interview subjects was Sir Harold Acton and the BBC producer, Arthur Johnson, and I went to Florence to see him. We joined other guests for lunch afterwards – the waiters wore white gloves – and then looked round the formal gardens lined by box hedges and featuring sculptured figures along vistas.

Acton’s family had had connections with Italy for several generations and it was his father who bought La Pietra around 1900. The villa, approached through a long drive of cypresses, became legendary for its art collection, scrupulously maintained by Acton following the death of his father in 1953 and eventually left to New York University.

Acton’s contemporaries at Eton included Lord David Cecil (also interviewed at length in my book) and at Oxford he was of the same generation as Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene and Anthony Powell. He wrote poetry, novels, a biography of The Last Medici, and studies of the Bourbons of Naples.

Acton spent most of the 1930s in China, lecturing at Peking National University and after the war he wrote Memoirs of an Aesthete and More Memoirs of an Aesthete. He was knighted in 1974 for services to the British Institute and to Anglo-Italian relations. His recreations listed in Who’s Who include ‘hunting the Philistines’. I asked him when he first encountered Lord Berners (he was the only person I met who could go back to World War I):

“I met him when I was quite a young boy really. I had just gone to Eton and I was visiting in Rome with my father who took me to see Berners’ studio, which was full of modern paintings and there were huge bowls of coloured water with tin goldfish in them, which used to stir. There were all sorts of gadgets such as marionettes and peculiar things that struck a boy as extremely unusual. He himself was never very talkative. He just waited for one’s comments. You could see he was anxious to surprise one. There were hidden jokes: something might pop out of a cushion or anything. It had a curious atmosphere of its own which he had created.

One of the most noticeable things was a large photograph of the Marchesa Casati, a very striking lady much painted by all the well-known painters of the period. She was a close friend of his, also very interested in eccentric things. She had Moorish servants feeding leopards from her house - very strange.

He was then in the British Embassy called Gerald Tyrwhitt as Honorary Attaché. That’s when I first met him. And I saw him fairly often when he came to Florence in his huge Rolls Royce with a porcelain turtle in it and a little spinet which he used to play while being driven.”

That was the legend – and legends persist because people often prefer them to the facts. But my book reveals that the instrument was a clavichord kept in a compartment under the front seat.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Wagner and Wagnerism

This week it was announced that Wolfgang Wagner, Director of the Bayreuth Festival since 1951, would retire at the end of August. Although it seems that problems with his successor have not been completely ironed out, the two main contenders, Wolfgang’s daughters Katharina Wagner and Eva Wagner-Pasquier, have submitted a joint proposal to the foundation that runs the Festival.

It was a production of Parsifal at the 1966 Bayreuth Festival that signified Pierre Boulez’ move into mainstream repertoire. His tempi were controversial, he remembers in a fascinating interview with Nicholas Wroe in the Guardian, and although he claims not to enjoy controversy “if you feel something deeply, then you shouldn’t fear polemic.”

Our US-based imprints the University of Rochester Press and Camden House continue to publish widely on Wagner, with the announcement of John W Barker’s Wagner and Venice for November 2008. Wagner died there in 1883, and this book will use new and previously unavailable sources to chart his visits to the city, what it meant to him, and the process through which Wagner and his posthumous reputation became integrated into Venice’s own cultural image.

It joins a distinguished list of publications on the composer, most recently Chris Walton’s well-received Richard Wagner’s Zurich, as well as a companion to Parsifal, a fascinating book of essays on Wagner’s Meistersinger, an examination of the Wagner cult in Scandinavia and the Baltic region, and an analysis of Wagner’s operas in the context of German nationalist ideology. More on Wagner and Venice in future posts.