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An Autobiographical Journey
By Rebecca West
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 the Estate of Rebecca West
All rights reserved.
My family were living in Notting Hill only briefly, and not wholly because of poverty, although they were certainly poor.
To tell the whole story, I must start far earlier than my own life and spend some time describing the rich textures of my mother's ancestry as manufactured by the Scottish tradition. She came of Highland peasant stock on her father's side: her paternal great-grandfather had been born when his parents were on the run after the rebellion of 1745. When the family settled down, their reaction was apolitical and musical. They looked round for a town band and joined it, and so did their descendants.
Then came my grandfather, Alexander Mackenzie, whose gifts as a violinist were above the average, and whose precocity brought him at thirteen into the highly regarded orchestra of the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh. (It stood where the Post Office is today.) On his own savings he went to Dresden and studied under the teacher, Lipinski, and went later to London to learn from Prosper Sainton of the Royal Academy of Music. He went back to Edinburgh and became the leader of the Theatre Royal Orchestra, and started on a career as a populist song-writer, setting to music the verses of an old friend, James Ballantine, a house-painter who became a painter of some technical achievement and a poet remarkable only for persuasive emotion, chiefly of a political kind. All his songs had the tear-jerking quality necessary in material designed by the artists for whom they were designed, the street musicians who then sang, or played wind instruments, in the quieter parts of the town as the darkness enclosed them. Up through the blackness between the tall houses, which was hardly dispersed by the primrose light of the old gas lamps at their bases, the sweet, sweet tune rose like a soaring sugar bird; and then there would come the sounds of a window-sash or two being thrown up, and the chink of coins falling light on cobbles or pavement, and lastly, softly shouted thanks and good-nights came up and down slanting lines from ground level and the high windows, and the street was quiet.
That manifestation of my grandfather left survivals on the childish memories of many among us. Street-singers, muffin-men, the 'Sweet Lavender' callers, the 'Ripe Strawberries' men were all about us: we were glad to have a cause for family pride in our street-singing share of the show (which we thought eternal, but it has utterly passed away). But my grandfather had his roots in a more remote period. The manager of the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh, where he was leader of the orchestra, was a greatly admired actor named William Henry Murray: he was married to an Irish actress whose sister was the wife of Tom Moore. But Murray was also the grandson of the Sir John Murray who had been secretary to Bonnie Prince Charlie and had betrayed the Jacobites after Culloden, and a hundred years afterwards the shame had not been forgotten. When William Henry Murray went to play in other Scottish provincial cities, great was the glory, but there were landladies who would not give him lodgings; and when he stood as godfather to my Uncle William Mackenzie, the christening mug was oddly inscribed 'To William Murray Mackenzie from William H. Murray, Esquire of — what?' The meaning was: his grandfather's beautiful estate at Broughton in Peebleshire had (like his title) been sequestrated.
There is a pendant to this story. My uncle Willie lived all his life with his mother in Edinburgh, and the time came when they suffered that preliminary taste of death, that first word of the farewell we must say to the things of this earth, called burglary. My grandmother, giving a list of her losses to a policeman, mentioned the christening mug with the tragic inscription, and briefly explained its significance. The policeman took the point at once. He was aware, not in detail but in heavy outline, of the historical issues involved, and though he was civil to my grandmother he said some very rude things about the Murrays. This would be in the 1870s, about ninety years after the death of Bonnie Prince Charlie in Rome.
The christening mug was one of six needed for the family. There were two daughters, four sons, of whom only one came to special note. This was the eldest, Alick, a gifted violinist and a more gifted composer than is generally allowed, who became President of the Royal Academy of Music in London and held that office from 1888 to 1924; and probably he was the only eminent member of his family because he was the first-born. His father had time before his death to put the child's feet on the path that would enable him to develop his evident inheritance of the family's musical talent: the little boy was sent at nine to get a general education at Sondershausen, in Thuringia, which was one of the thirty-six separate states comprising the German Federation, and this could ensure him a good musical education, as there was a renowned orchestra at the court of the local Grand Duke. Rich, rich as a good plum cake was the substance of Europe in that time. How did a penniless musician with a large family contrive this beneficial arrangement for his little boy at a time when there were none of the agencies, grants and scholarships that nurture young talent in our day? It was easy. In those days even obscure musicians wandered over Europe, footloose as medieval scholars, and foreigners often appeared in Edinburgh and did their stint there for a year or two, and this was a two-way arrangement. My grandfather had noted that there was one exceptionally well-trained cellist in the orchestra of the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh, named Gunther Bartel, and found that he was from Sondershausen and that his father was an important member of the Grand Duke's orchestra, as well as being the Town Musician, its Stadtmusiker. This official exercised a marvellous function. He had to pack his house with apprentice performers whom he had to feed and teach, and when they were up to standard pour them out over the town to meet such need for music as was felt there at balls, weddings, christenings, banquets, funerals, and in the streets at Christmas time.
The elder Bartel consented to receive my uncle Alick as a pupil and boarder, though not in his capacity of Stadtmusiker, as that office, and the innocent guild which it had controlled, were about to disappear, for the reason that both Frederick the Great and later Napoleon had worked long and hard to transfer their duties to military bands. The nine-year-old was to be taught from the first with an eye on the Grand Duke's orchestra; and by chance he met the Grand Duke almost as soon as he arrived in Sondershausen. His father wrote to his wife in Edinburgh:
We went for a drive the other day to the 'Possen', a hunting lodge, when we came upon a respectable-looking man who turned out to be the Grand Duke of Schwarzburg-Sondershausen. He entered in conversation and showed us about the place and lifted Alick to see the deer.
A few weeks later, back at his home, Alexander Mackenzie died, of some wasting disease not diagnosed. On that, his son, alone in another country, fell into a deep melancholy and had an experience he was never to forget, that was to strike him again and again when he remembered it, with the awe caused by the original happening. He was walking in the Battels' garden, in the shadow of the ancient city wall, when he heard his father calling 'Alick, Alick,' from the street outside. He ran out to find him but there was no one there. All his life my uncle was persuaded that he had recognized his father's voice. Some time after that, he woke one morning to find his obsessive gloom gone and a negotiable grief in its place; and during the day he discovered that he could suddenly speak and understand German, though till then he had found great difficulties with the language.
No doubt he was sustained by his musical rapture. Certainly he was able to study in conditions which would break the spirit of most modern pupils. He was to have a late experience of medieval darkness - gas did not come to Sondershausen till he had been there for two years — and of medieval noise. He had been living with the Battels for a full year before his host and teacher came to the end of his duties as Stadtmusiker and could disembarrass himself of the crowd of young guildsmen who practised their art literally all over the house — the flautists in the attic, the clarinettists in the cellar, the double-bass in the wood shed, the trombones in the garden, and violinists all over the place.
But young Alick himself was to have a more immediate and exciting and prolonged contact with that delicious moment in history when neo-classical Maecenases could pelt the descendants of the gods with roses and bid the Ganymedes to fill up the wine-cups, and when there was no shame in patronage because the patrons knew that the gods were worthy of worship as well as the artists they protected, so that the entertainment was sanctified by piety. This dream of life was to be realized under his eyes as he became absorbed into the ducal orchestra, which offered a spectacle surprising to our modern view. This can be judged from the free open-air concerts provided on Sunday afternoons out of the ducal funds, which took place at a little distance from the town, in a wide clearing in the Thuringian woods. The orchestra was placed in a baroque bandstand in the centre of the open space, and was surrounded by the audience, which consisted of the four organized groups of citizens: the large number of officers on the strength of the very small ducal army, the civil servants, the merchants, the townsfolk and villagers. On the stroke of three the Hof Marschal, who bore the incredible name of Hof Marschal von Wurmb, took his stand in front of the orchestra, and the conductor turned to face him. The Hof Marschal then raised his tall gold-knobbed staff and both bowed. It was a signal that the ducal party had arrived at the edge of the clearing, and were descending from their carriage. By a curiously barbaric routine the orchestra then plunged into the first item of the programme, while the Hof Marschal slowly crossed the sword to find his sacred charges, turned about and led them as slowly back. It is not known how the appearance of the family accorded with the great music which so often accompanied them, as my uncle was blind to that. Even when he was not playing his violin his eyes were elsewhere.
For the audience was not wholly indigenous. It often included music critics and musicians from much larger and more important towns, such as Weimar, Leipzig and Berlin, who felt they had to attend, through this meant for all of them a long and uncomfortable journey by stagecoach. The magnet was the remarkable conductor, Kapellmeister to the Duke, Eduard Stein, who would have been in trouble in Thuringia had he found himself there only eighty years later, but then walked confidently on that and all ground, believing as Jews did at that time that Germany was as friendly to their people as any country in Europe, provided only that they did not try to get into the army. Stein was the quick-witted but profound intellectual who alone can be the perfect conductor; he loved fostering the individual talents of his orchestra; and because he was an intellectual he understood the battle that was being fought for a new kind of music.
Wagner they played in Sondershausen, and Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt. It could not have been a more marvellous place and time for the boy. Most of these great men had been composing seriously during the last twenty years; in fact he was, in a sense, not so much younger than they were; he was playing their music, he had a hand in it; and sometimes there was more to it than that. Liszt had actually visited one of these Sunday afternoon concerts to hear his own Mazeppa; and then Alick had watched him in the interval with adoration not diminished by his sense that the great man was looking slightly ridiculous. He was as romantic in appearance as was reported: slender and upright, with brooding profile and finely cut lips, a mane of prematurely grey hair and a blanched skin. But he was wearing a hat too small for him, and his hands, large as befits a pianist, were crammed into elegant grey kid gloves wrong for him by a size or two. Though my uncle was a small boy he was moved not to mockery, but to a tender and cherishing amusement, which he was often to feel again when, twenty years later, the great man had become his friend. But there was something about Liszt, however intimate they became, which forbade my uncle to ask him why he once went to a ducally sponsored concert at Sondershausen in somebody else's hat and gloves.
Alick's life was to continue on the same level of happiness he had reached at Sondershausen. He was a master of the theory and practice of music, and in those days there was a network of music-lovers all over Europe which could be approached on the spur of the moment and would welcome them according to their capacity (except where, as in the Paris Opera House, politics had entrenched themselves or where there was furious warfare between the Old and the New music). He took full advantage of that easy situation, finding colleagues, friends, devotees everywhere, and always earning gratitude by his competence. He was disappointed because he never was recognized as a composer, and there he had a case: Busoni, though that reserved being was no close friend of his, admired a piano concerto of his and played it himself for some years, and taught it to his pupils, as a neglected and valuable work. But this neglect was Alick's unique displeasure, for his unending service to his art gave him everything else, even personal happiness, since his emotional needs were fully satisfied by his profession.
Impossible not to respect Alick Mackenzie for these Studienjahre. It looks like a moral triumph. The boy had devoted himself with fervour to his studies, had accepted hardship so long as it was a condition of receiving useful tuition, handled his earnings and his poor little allowance from home with great good sense, did not get himself lost on long journeys here, there and everywhere by stagecoach, ship and early train, picked the right teachers, entered himself for the most convenient scholarships and when he got them, settled in decent lodgings, finding jobs in theatre orchestras, and presenting himself, clean and tidy, to fulfil the conditions laid down by all employers and teachers likely to be useful to him. I would admire him for all these achievements in any case, and my admiration is the warmer because such discipline is rare in later generations of my family. Nevertheless I have to admit that my uncle Alick's independence and fortitude did a disservice to all his relatives.
Excerpted from Family Memories by Rebecca West. Copyright © 1987 the Estate of Rebecca West. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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