“… the same unseen beauty”: Music Returns to Gregynog Hall

Members of the Mid Wales Opera performing at Gregynog, July 2021

Like much of the heritage of Wales, and indeed the world, the interior of Gregynog Hall was off limits during the pandemic (ongoing at the time of this writing), even though its extensive grounds continued to provide a welcome retreat for local visitors in the days of social distancing.  Gregynog – pronounced as you would a portmanteau word for an alcoholic yuletide treat named after a Pope getting chummy, with an “un” wedged between the man and the intoxicant – was known for keeping the two apart for the purported benefit of the former.  During its heyday – between the two World Wars – the Hall was owned by the teetotalling and public-spirited Davies sisters, Gwendoline and Margaret, and the recommended stimulant to be taken in there was produced on location during Gregynog’s renowned Festivals of Music and Poetry.

I shan’t rehearse what, in Wales at least, is well-known, as much has been written elsewhere about Gregynog and Davies sisters, who bought the mock-Tudor Hall in 1920 and, even though they did not initially intend doing so, lived there from 1924 until their respective deaths some three to four decades later.  Suffice it to say that, during their residence, the Hall was not only a home filled with art or for the arts.  It was a place devoted to cultural, spiritual and social uplift through the arts, as the sisters – encouraged by their friend and advisor Dr Thomas Jones (TJ) – understood it.  

The performing arts are returning, and so are the crowds.  On a warm and sunny afternoon in July 2021, the grounds of the estate once again resounded with classical music, as young members of the Mid Wales Opera – sopranos Meinir Wyn Roberts and Llio Evans and tenor Huw Ynyr, accompanied by pianist and Music Director Charlotte Forrest – came to give a crowd-pleasing concert of arias from works as diverse as Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, Puccini’s La Bohème and Il tabarro, Leonard Bernstein’s Candide (“Glitter and Be Gay”), with Jonathan Dove’s The Enchanted Pig and Disney’s Snow White (Frank Churchill’s “Some Day My Prince Will Come”) thrown into the mix, and appropriately so, considering that, these days, Gregynog is a popular venue for weddings. 

Equipped with a lawn chair, a bottle of champagne and a husband, I was glad to attend that charmed picnic concert, having spent some time behind the scenes in the months and weeks prior to the event to volunteer – despite a lack of practical skills but owing to the decidedly practical prince I wed anno 2014 – in getting the Hall ready to welcome back visitors.

When not lugging books or furnishings, I was ensconced in the library at Gregynog Hall, where I had a browse through the Festival programs and other documents still waiting to be drawn upon for a social history of the place.  

The program for the first Festival of Music and Poetry in 1933 reminded me of the mission of the sisters to put the family wealth to good use:

In these days of unprecedented difficulty and disillusionment, when the very fabric of our civilisation is rent and torn, we are compelled to return again to the unfailing sources of inspiration and delight.  Music and poetry are no longer the luxury of the few but the necessity of the many.

Thousands upon thousands of our fellow beings are dragging out a dark and desolate existence; exhausted and in despair they stand at the corners of the streets, for no man hath need of them.  A bewildered Government doles out to them the pittance which keeps them alive, but their minds and spirit are starved, for man doth not live by bread alone.  They are bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, their powers and potentialities are the same as ours, the same unseen beauty is theirs, could we but show it to them.

Held during the depression, that first festival was designed to raise money for Coleg Harlech, a Training Centre for Unemployed, contributions towards which, as the program stated, were “gratefully accepted during the Interval each evening.”  Thomas Jones would later become President of the Coleg.

Many who stayed as guests at Gregynog enjoyed the music and appreciated the spirit in which it was offered – but some found the sober atmosphere less than inspiriting.  “We all went to Gregynog to stay with the Davies sisters,” actress Joyce Grenfell reminisced in her autobiography.  Grenfell, who visited Gregynog as a friend of Thomas Jones, noted how important music was in the lives of the sisters.  “[W]hen new staff were needed for the house, garden or farm,” Grenfell was told,

the sisters advertised for a contralto-housemaid, a bass-undergardener or a tenor-cowman to take part in the Gregynog choir.  All through the winter months the choir, under a professional master, worked on programmes for the summer festival, when musicians like Sir Adrian Boult and Sir Walford came, with their wives, to lead the music.

According to the visitor book, Grenfell attended the final two of the original Gregynog festivals in 1937 and ’38; she also returned at Easter 1939, when, as she recalled, “Elsie Suddaby, Mary Jarred and Keith Falkner sang Bach’s St Matthew Passion in the big white music-room hung with a series of Monet’s water-lily paintings.” When there was “religious music,” Grenfell noted, a “great EI Greco was put on a stand to conceal the choir and the conductor.” Grenfell was unconvinced; not only did it “do more than hide a few of the performers,” the artful cover-up struck her as “more of a disturbance than an inspiration.”

“Staying at Gregynog was a mixed blessing,” Grenfell summed up.  “The music was unalloyed pleasure but the atmosphere in the house was cool, correct and daunting.”

The mood and tone on that July 2021 afternoon was decidedly more relaxed.  After months of home front battle and its concomitant fatigue, the small crowd assembled on the lawn facing the entrance to the Hall felt reassured, no doubt, that “beauty” need no longer go “unseen,” or, for that matter, unheard.  And while those in attendance, unlike Grenfell, were not subjected to the scrutiny of “two maiden ladies” – owing to whom it was “not possible to forget one’s ps and qs” – there also was nothing of the “missionary zeal” Grenfell observed in Thomas Jones and Gregynog as a project.

I am of two minds about such zeal.  It is a worthy cause to make art something other than “the luxury of the few.”  All the same, it is worth questioning just what constitutes – and who determines – “the necessity of the many.” That “necessity” needs to be felt like a yearning rather than being imposed, defined and determined by those presumably best equipped to judge what is proper art in the best possible taste.  

Instead of demanding the “same unseen beauty,” we need to recognise that much remains “unseen” because it is not yet deemed to be art.  Clearly, that is why I am teaching “Gothic Imagination” again this autumn, why I encourage students to engage with “inconvenient objects” in our galleries (more about that in the next post), and why I write about canonically neglected radio plays (more about that in the previous entry).  I don’t wait for the prince, thank you.  I’ll do the crowning, or tiara-ing, using whatever materials are at hand …

Letters of a [Class] Betrayed: Opera Without Soap

I am not inclined to manual labor. If I lift a finger, it is likely to come down on what isn’t grammatically up to scratch or else to add a few scrapes to my scalp as I take some rambling bull by the inkhorn. There has been a little more of that going on lately—teaching and editing—and, my furrowed pate notwithstanding, I am heartily glad of it. Yet as much as I relish being back in the game after suffering the indignity of being benched for the better—or, rather, worse—part of the past five seasons, the academy has never felt like a home court to me. It is as if, carved into the trunk of my family tree however rotten, puny and lacking in shelter it might be, are memos more emphatic than the certificates of achievement now gathering dust in the drawer I am so little inclined to tidy. Instead of considering myself invited as I enter places of culture and learning, I still feel at times as if I were crashing a party.

Program and ticket stub for Letters of a Love Betrayed

You see, I was born into that endangered social stratum known as the working class. It is an origin of which I am mindful, though neither proud nor ashamed. At least, I am not ashamed of it now. I used to be as thrilled about it as Ann Blyth’s character in Mildred Pierce, even though my parents bore a closer resemblance to Lana Turner in Imitation of Life—that is, too busy to notice that living up to their aspirations left their offspring in the dust they raised as they tried to shake the dirt clinging to their roots. At any rate, stuck in that cloud of dust was I, an asthmatic kid who couldn’t afford to hold his breath at the off chance of parental attention.

Not to suffocate under the rubble of post-Second World War Germany, my parents had to put their noses far closer to the proverbial grindstone than I ever did. Their generation, aided by American interests, pulled off the Wirtschaftswunder or “economic miracle,” a sleight-of-hands-on approach to the lasting trauma caused by total war and final solution, the coming to terms with which would have required equipment far more difficult to handle than shovel and broom.

I am not so disingenuous as to pass off my staying put as a form of sit-down strike, of giving the clean-and-cover-up efforts of my parents’ generation the spotless finger; but apart from the months I ill served my country working as a hospital orderly or the hours I spent cleaning apartments in New York City to help finance my college education, I remained sedentary for much of my life.

So far, it’s been a life spent lost in thoughts, ensconced in writing, and plunked down for performances that artists work on studiously for our delight and instruction—the kind of delight my father found it difficult to accept as serious work and the instruction he thought less of than the empirical knowledge that, along with calluses, is the badge and perquisite of the experience-hardened laborer.

I suppose it is easier for the worker—not to be equated here with the impecunious—to aspire to material possessions instead of culture and learning, since exposing yourself to something that poses a challenge rather than promising instant gratification requires still more work on the part of those who have little time and less energy to spare.

Now, my comparatively indolent existence permits me to spare that time; yet, as if my conscience and buttocks alike had been shaped by Protestant work ethics, I often feel rather uncomfortable. I’m not one to pooh-pooh the benefits of resting on one’s Popo (as dainty Germans call the posterior); but, there is nothing like wriggling in my seat in hopes of improving my mind to convince me that the calluses—and I—belong elsewhere.

I had that impression sitting through Letters of a Love Betrayed, a new opera by Eleanor Alberga (libretto by Donald Sturrock). Reading about it, I was intrigued by the promised fusion of Latin rhythms and a neo-Gothic romance based on a story by Isabel Allende, but felt let down by a score that to my untrained ear sounded forbidding, unmelodious, and, worse still, forgettable. Perhaps, the perceived cacophony was the result of a clanging together of too many stereotypes. Whatever melo- Letters possesses is all in the drama; derivative and contrived, it is creakier than a chair that has been squirmed out of too often.

I didn’t get it. I didn’t like it. I felt like a tired, vitamin deprived miner lured into a soup kitchen of the arts, the drama being a concession to what is assumed to be his tastes as he is being fed a presumably healthy diet with a none too musical spoon.

As I sat down again to express my thoughts on the matter of what’s the matter with me, I kept wondering whether what I was responding to so angrily was utter musical rubbish, dreck worse than the grime to which I chose not to expose myself, or whether my inability to open my mind was dictated to me by my past, a past unfolding in letters of a class betrayed.

Many Returns, Mostly Happy: Toscanini at NBC

“I want you to go to Milan and get him. The American radio listener deserves the very best in music. All we can lose is a few weeks of your time and the expenses of the trip. No more cables. Get on a boat.”

Toscanini and his wife, Carla De Martini

That is what, back in the fall of 1936, RCA president and NBC chairman David Sarnoff told New York Post music critic Samuel Chotzinoff, whom Sarnoff made musical director at NBC. The man that “Chotzy” was to go “get” was none other than the legendary Arturo Toscanini, born on this day, 25 March, in 1867. Earlier that year, Toscanini had announced his retirement from the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra and, on 1 March 1936, he had conducted what he meant to be his final radio concert as guest conductor of the General Motors Symphony. Nearly seventy, Toscanini could hardly be expected to jump at the opportunity of raising his baton in a series of weekly broadcasts; but that is just what General Sarnoff had in mind.

Chotzinoff, who was a friend of the temperamental Maestro and later recalled his career in the somewhat less than faithful Intimate Portrait, sailed for Europe to make Toscanini an offer he could not refuse. He was promised an orchestra “hand-picked from the finest virtuosi available,” along with the enticing sum of $40,000, and the added perk to have his income tax paid by the network.

According to radio historian Thomas DeLong, it took a shrewd businesswoman, Toscanini’s wife (pictured above with her husband), to convince Arturo that it was worth his while to return to the US. The best part of the deal, though, was getting away from Mussolini, whom Toscanini openly despised.

The first of the Saturday evening concerts, broadcast live from studio 8-H at Radio City, New York, was heard on Christmas in 1937. As Francis Chase wrote in the October 1938 issue of Radio Stars, a studio audience of

over 1,400 persons sat breathless as the white-haired, flashing-eyed, dynamic little figure of Toscanini mounted the podium before one of the greatest symphony orchestras ever assembled; certainly the greatest ever presented wholly for the radio audience.  The finest instrumentalists from many great American orchestras sat beneath the master’s baton, while in the brilliant audience, listeners hardly breathed.  There was not the faintest rustle of a program (so that no slightest sound should mar the transmission, programs had been printed on silk).

Less attention was paid to the studio acoustics, which, as B. H. Haggin argues, were “unresonantly dry, flat, hard and made airlessly tight by the audience which filled the studio.” That did not stop the perfectionist from demanding the best from his orchestra, and, judging from the rehearsal recordings shared on NBC’s Biography in Sound tribute that aired on the day after Toscanini died, the Maestro was fierce in his criticism. “Do you believe that I am crazy?” he asked the performers, not waiting for a reply. “No,” he insisted, “sensitive.”

Year after year, the aging and only very gradually mellowed Toscanini vowed to retire—but for seventeen seasons he returned to the studio until, on 4 April 1954, he stepped from the podium for the last time; having faltered and dropped his baton during a performance temporarily taken off the air and replaced with recorded music, Toscanini walked off before the orchestra had played the final chord. He was eighty-seven years old.

The stick with which he conducted the NBC orchestra (if not always too well), must have been a kind of crutch to Toscanini. It enabled him to hold together a body of artists at an age when most men can barely keep their own from falling apart.

Related recordings
“The Man Behind the Legend: A Tribute to Arturo Toscanini,” Biography in Sound (22 January 1957)
Beethoven, Symphony No. 5, NBC Symphony Orchestra, (probably 11 November) 1939

Twenty Men Singing—But Why?

Well, there they stood last night, singing a cappella, performing songs from Schubert to South Pacific, from the 13th-century Middle-English “Sumer Is Icumen In” to Alfred Schnittke’s “Adam Sat Weeping at the Gates of Paradise,” which premiered in 1988. Twenty they were; men of the Welsh National Opera, touring Wales with their aptly titled program Twenty Men Singing. Some of their sonic offerings were tonic, many (and for my taste rather too many) of them somber, reverent, and brooding.

Why were they singing? To amuse themselves, to entertain others, to earn a few quid or to enjoy the applause of an appreciative crowd? Why sing in unison when what you want is to stand out? If, indeed, that is what you want.

According to the program notes, those Twenty Men Singing explore just that: why men raise their voice together in song, whether to celebrate life, to protest or lament. In song, a hoped for unity is being realised in sonic unison. A chorus of disapproval is formed in resistance to voices and actions that may threaten community. Leoš Janáček’s “Sedmdesát tisíc” (1909), for instance (as translated by John Binias), many-voices the pressures inflicted on the national identity of a Czech bordertown by neighboring but less than neighborly Germans and Poles:

70,000 graves they dig for us
Outside Tesin
Beg for help from heaven
Herded like cattle
Like cattle we gaze about
Our own slaughter [ . . .]. 

Let our voices thunder out: [. . .].
Before we are finished [. . .].

This Saturday, performers around the world are singing to bring awareness to what may well be the greatest threat to humanity, regardless how much religion and nationalism, how much faith and terror (and the terror of faith) are being exploited by those who make a fortune keeping us at war with one another. On this day of Live Earth, festivities that coincide with the anniversary of the London suicide bombings of 2005, we are asked to consider the terra we share, not the terror that divides us, to let “our voices thunder out” before we are “finished.” I cannot think of a better reason for joining a chorus.