Random Recollections of a Bohemian. 3: Musical Memories–Malcolm Sterling Mackinlay (July 1905)

The start of this article (about whether musical performers are born great or become great) becomes a little more poignant when you know that M. Sterling Mackinlay was the son of Antoinette Sterling Mackinlay, a famous singer. At the time of writing this series of articles, Malcolm had recently given up a singing career to become a singing tutor – he would continue to work in music, teaching and forming several opera companies, for many years. 



“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Among the best-known names connected with music, whether of the past or present, it is hard to point to any who have not reached their honoured position by means of the second of the above three alternatives.

What of those who have been “born great,” bearing names inherited from some brilliant member of a past generation? Have they not usually found the reflected glory bequeathed to them a drawback rather than an assistance? Has it not invariably from the first drawn upon their well-meaning heads a comparison with their progenitor, in which the younger generation has been practically bound to suffer? A case in point was the son of a great singer who came out as a vocalist, and obviously got himself up to look like his father. His appearance provoked the following piece of poetic pleasantry from that ever-ready humorist, Sir Frederick Bridge, who, as organist at the Abbey, has earned the nickname, “Westminster” Bridge:-

The minstrel’s boy to the concert’s gone,
On the platform you will find him;
His father’s hair he has girded
But his voice he’s left behind him.

As to those who in the musical world have become known by the third method there has, as a general rule, been an unpleasant preliminary. During their lifetime they suffer poverty, neglect, and all manner of privations. At last their reward comes and greatness is thrust upon them. But this is not until some years after death, so that it is not altogether satisfactory from the recipient’s point of view. It savours too much of lynch law, “Hanging first, judgment after.”

The present article will be confined to those who have achieved greatness during their lifetime.

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Sims Reeves, who, by the way, like Jean de Reszke, commenced as a baritone, was, like most artistic people, of a somewhat uneconomical turn of mind. In going North to fulfil an engagement in Scotland, he was known on more than one occasion actually to order a special train. The cost of this little extravagance must have swallowed up a goodly portion of his fee. Often at the hotel he would, on arriving, engage all the rooms immediately over his own suite, so as to ensure undisturbed slumber next morning. Again, when singing at an evening concert in St. James’s Hall–that musical landmark now “lost to sight, to memory dear”–instead of returning to his home at Norwood he would sometimes pass the night at one of the most expensive hotels, accompanied by his family. Among the concert-goers of twenty years back surely none will ever forget that familiar form, clad in old-fashioned frill-shirt, neat evening dress, and white kid gloves–with genial face, wavy hair parted in the middle, and heavy iron-grey moustache–tripping lightly on to the platform, a sheet of music in the hand (in place of the book of words which is more customary nowadays), to give vent to “My Pretty Jane,” “Come Into the Garden, Maud,” or, perhaps, to complete that magnificent quartette of oratorio singers with Sherrington, Patey, and that great artist who, as a veteran, still makes occasional appearances to show how the old Italian method of the centenarian Garcia, coupled with a fine intellect, feeling, and dramatic instinct, can triumph over mere weight of years. I refer, of course, to that name which is honoured and reverenced throughout the musical world for high ideals nobly sustained, Charles Santley.

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Before leaving Sims Reeves, one more reminiscence may be of interest. Scene, the artist room of St. James’s Hall. Time, 3.30 on a November afternoon some fifteen years ago, during one of the Ballad Concerts. It was the tenor’s usual practice when not singing to remain in the larger room at the back of the stage. Here there was certainly a greater degree of comfort, in the way of grand piano, chairs, table (on which a plate of biscuits and some liquid refreshments raised their inviting heads, like an oasis in a desert of sheet music), and, what was more dear than all these to the feminine mind, a looking-glass. Sometimes the star would come for a few minutes into the front artist room at the side of the platform, where there was nothing to cheer the performers save a long bench running along either side.

On this particular day Reeves had wandered into the front room to hear a new ballad which was being brought out. A young tenor was singing at St. James’s Hall for the first time, and was in consequence immensely puffed up with a sense of his own importance. He had been put on right at the beginning as one of the forerunners to prepare the way before the public favourites, who were to come on later in the programme.

Youth is full of reverence–for itself. When, therefore, the great tenor robusto strolled into the room, the little tenor obscuro marched up, and in the most patronizing way said, “You’d better use the piano on the farther side of the platform. You’re down for a big song, you know, and the nearer piano is right up to full concert pitch.” The other artists looked round in amazement at the calm impertinence of the new-comer, while the one and only Sims replied, “How dare you speak to me like that? I shall certainly sing it at the high pitch. I’m not one of your little squeezed-up baritones.” He would have added more, but was stopped by his wife, who had followed him in, to see that he didn’t talk too much, “Come back into the other room. You must keep quiet before going on to sing. You know how delicate your voice is, and how careful you ought to be.”

Just before his turn had come to appear on the platform his better half entered, went over to Sidney Naylor, the accompanist, and said in a loud voice: “Mr. Reeves will sing to the high pitch piano.” Then, in a whisper, she added the pregnant words: “But please transpose it down a semitone.”

Naylor was a most wonderful accompanist, the least of his abilities being displayed in the ease with which he was able to transpose, absolutely at sight, any piece of music into whatever key might be desired. There have not been many who could be depended upon to do this with any degree of certainty, among the elect being Henry Bird, who is, perhaps, the veteran accompanist of the present time. When any artists received a command through Sir Walter Parratt, the “Master of Musick,” to appear before the late Queen, Henry Bird would be almost invariably called upon to “officiate at the piano.”

The hard-worked and little-thanked instrumentalist does not always find his life a happy one. His position strikes one as resembling the “coxes” in the riverside regattas. If the oarsmen win the race they pat each other on the back and say, “Well rowed “; but if they lose they all thump the “cox” on the back and say with one voice, “Badly steered.” So, too, the singer goes forth to sing. If he makes a success his bosom swells with pride, and he says to himself, “I am a great artist”; but if he makes a failure his bosom swells with anger and he says to himself, or, better still, to another singer who has made a similar fiasco, “He’s a rotten accompanist!”

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The ladies, of course, do not make use of that epithet; they probably substitute the word “shocking,” but they mean “rotten” all the same. All of which is enough to make any self-respecting accompanist “lose his hair” with the vocalist. If they confine themselves to doing so in the metaphorical sense, well and good. But I remember a concert, given some years ago, in which the accompanist lost his hair in the literal meaning of the phrase. The singer was Michael Maybrick, better remembered, perhaps, to the public of the present day as Stephen Adams, the nom de plume adopted by him as composer of “The Holy City,” “The Star of Bethlehem,” and other songs of world-wide fame. For many years he was a popular baritone, making the greatest success with such songs of his own as “Nancy Lee.” At this particular concert he was down for “The Midship-mite.” The man at the wheel, or rather at the piano, went on peacefully until Maybrick, thinking to help by turning over the music, stretched out his arm. While doing so he began the refrain, “With a long, long pull, And a strong, strong pull,” when, unhappily, in moving his arm back, his cufflink caught in the pianist’s hair. The audience forthwith saw the hair gradually lifted from his head, and discovered to their amusement that it was a wig. The victim suddenly realized what was happening–he possibly felt an unaccustomed draught on the top–and clapped both hands to his head, being just in the nick of time to “effect a clever save,” in football parlance. The music may have had a nasty turn, but it was nothing to the nasty turn the unfortunate accompanist received.

The way Maybrick was left to go on by himself while the wig was being disentangled reminds one of another experience. A new singer was making his first appearance with Riviere’s orchestra. M. Jules Riviere used to have immense success in the seventies with his Promenade Concerts at Covent Garden. The piece which the vocalist was rendering was an operatic recitative and aria of considerable intricacy, and the band had not had opportunity for more than one short run through. All went well till some noise at the back of the arena called the conductor’s attention off his music for an instant. When he resumed he searched in vain for the proper place. He tried to keep up a beat, while his eyes eagerly scanned page after page of the full score. Meeting with no success in this effort his beat became more and more fitful, till at last it stopped altogether. At this the orchestra, who naturally had been getting shaky, gradually went to pieces, tailing off one by one till at last the unhappy performer was left to finish absolutely by himself. Certainly an experience which few artists would care to undergo themselves.

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One of the most amusing frequenters of the artist room at St. James’s Hall was Signor Foli–tall, powerful, with long, curly hair and a deep basso-profundo voice of extraordinary compass and power. He was, of course, unmistakably Irish, but, having had operatic aspirations in days when without a foreign-sounding name no one could hope to enter the charmed circle, he promptly Italianized his surname Foley, and took the prefix “Signor.” During the off-season he used to spend a good deal of time out in California, where he owned a ranch. Here he would fish, ride, shoot, and lead the healthy out-of-door life of which he was so fond. Again, it used to be his great delight to run down to Monte Carlo and indulge in a gentle little flutter at the tables. Unfortunately he did not always meet with complete financial success upon these trips, and on several occasions might have had some difficulty in returning home again had he not taken the precaution of buying a return ticket when he set out on the expedition. One evening he got back from one of these outings just in time for a concert engagement in London.

He stalked into the artist room. “Sure, Oi’ve lost every penny Oi had, and if it wasn’t for what Oi’m making to-night Oi shouldn’t have any at all.” He had one of those cheerful Hibernian dispositions which look on the bright side of everything, and the contretemps did not seem to have upset him in the least. With his magnificent physique he always had a supreme contempt for any sign of effeminacy in his fellow-men. I remember as an undergraduate going to supper with him at the Clarendon Hotel, when he came up to sing at Oxford one term. After having attended to the wants of the body, thereby making a tremendous hole in the pickled onions, for which he had an insatiable appetite, we settled down to a little food for the mind, not forgetting the soothing presence of My Lady Nicotine. During conversation the name of a certain violinist came up. “Oh, don’t talk to me of that spalpeen. Sure, he’s got a face loike a milk pudding.”

Everyone who knew Foli had heard of his parrot, a knowing bird with a retentive memory and great facility for mimicry. Visitors would sometimes be considerably “flabbergasted” by a little scene which the basso and his wife had carefully rehearsed with the bird. First, Polly would say, in a deep voice, “Have you got any money for me?” Then a high screech would reply, “No; I sha’n’t give you any more!” An answer would come in the lower tone, “You might let me have a fiver.” To which the other returned, “Not one farthing.” “But I must have some. Come on.” “I won’t, I won’t, I won’t.” With which thrilling words the drama would be brought to an end.

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In those days Edward Lloyd was at his prime. Being a clever man of business, he was wise enough to lay by a large portion of his income. Consequently he was in the happy position of being able to retire while still at the zenith of his glory, before anyone could say he was beginning to lose his voice. This tenor was another case of what hard work will do. His musical career may be said to have commenced at the age of seven, when he became a member of the choir at Westminster Abbey. From here he removed to the Chapel Royal and to St. Andrew’s, Wells Street. At the latter church the organist was the late Sir Joseph Barnby, who subsequently left the appointment to take up the post of precentor at Eton College. This he retained for many years, only resigning in order to become Principal of the Guildhall School of Music, where he remained up to his death. At St. Andrew’s a great friendship sprang up between the two musicians. A delightful memory of this is afforded by the following anecdote. “Joe” Barnby, as he was always called, had written a new oratorio, “Rebekah.” By those who had heard portions of it privately it was supposed that the work would be an enormous success, one of the numbers, “Softly Sighs,” being specially beautiful. In spite of this, however, it failed, for some reason, to make the impression which had been anticipated, and has never been very largely performed by the choral societies. Not long after the oratorio had been produced the composer was invited by some intimate friends to a large house-party at Christmas. Before his arrival a novel surprise was arranged by his host in conjunction with Lloyd. When Barnby came down he was told that there was going to be an entertainment that evening in his honour. When he adjourned to the music-room with the rest after dinner he had no idea what was going to take place, but had a fancy that there would be charades, or something of the sort. One of the party sat down at the piano, while Edward Lloyd and the other vocalists present went up to the seats prepared for them on the platform. When all were settled in their places the pianist commenced to play the music as arranged. “By Jove!” was the exclamation which sprang involuntarily to the composer’s lips, for with the opening chords he at once realized what was the nature of the entertainment which had been kept so secret. His look of surprise and pleasure at the compliment paid him was good to see, while the performers went through the music of his own work “Rebekah.”

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An amusing story which he used to tell concerned the famous singer, Mme. Titiens. Owing to his intimate acquaintance with the oratorios, Sir Joseph’s professional assistance was much sought by those vocalists who wished to make themselves conversant with the correct “tempi” and renderings of the various works.

Among others whom he coached was the above-mentioned artist, and he used to attend at her house for the purpose. On one occasion the hour fixed for the rehearsal was somewhat early, and on arriving the musician was ushered up to the drawing-room and left alone for about twenty minutes. Eventually his pupil appeared, and without further delay proceeded to the business in hand. Suddenly, in the middle of the aria, she caught sight of herself in the glass, and with an agonized cry rushed wildly from the room. What had she seen? A ghost with horrid grin peering over her shoulder? A murderer, dagger in hand, prepared to strike her to the ground? No; much worse. When the unhappy woman raised her eyes to the mirror she saw–her hair all done up in curl-papers! Her instructor had observed them immediately upon her entrance, but consideration for her feelings prompted him to ignore the situation. “Noblesse oblige!”

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A great deal of attention has been lately drawn to the question of royalties paid on songs. Composers have, of course, had from the first the alternative of selling their rights for a lump sum or of receiving a royalty of so much per copy sold. The payments made to singers have, however, been of more recent date. The first arrangement was to give a perpetual royalty to the vocalist who brought out the song. Mme. Sainton-Dolby, for instance, had an agreement with the publishers that they should pay royalties so long as the songs continued to sell. Consequently, after her death the stipulated sums did not cease, but, I believe, are still being paid to her heirs at the present time, though the contralto has been dead a considerable number of years. Soon the publishers began to object to such an arrangement as the above-mentioned, and decided on giving a royalty as long as the singer continued to perform the music; and still more recently this dwindled down to seven years, at the end of which time they were at liberty either to terminate all payments or to make a fresh agreement for a second term of similar length. In the case of “The Lost Chord,” which has been probably the greatest, certainly the most lasting, success of modern times, Sir Arthur Sullivan, as composer, and Antoinette Sterling, for whom it was specially written, each received a royalty of sixpence on every copy sold. During a period of some twenty-five years nearly half a million copies were sold in England alone. When “The Better Land” was written, Mme. Sterling bought the song outright for a certain sum from Dr. Frederick Cowen before it had been heard in public. Afterwards, however, when it was seen what a furore the song was making, it was felt that it was a little hard for the composer to have no share in the large profits which resulted, and so the original arrangement was cancelled. Dr. Cowen, in consequence, received more than a hundred times the amount first accepted, which in itself had been based on the usual profits from a fairly successful piece of music.

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A good deal of interest and excitement arose in the eighties from the advent of a young American soprano, Mlle. Nikita. Her style of singing was something quite new to England, and did not meet with altogether unanimous approval at the hands of her fellow-artists. One of her first appearances in London was made at the house of Joseph Bennett, the musical critic of the Daily Telegraph, at an informal Sunday evening gathering. Most of the leading singers and instrumentalists were present, but this did not abash Nikita in the smallest degree. When asked to sing she handed her music to the accompanist, stood by the piano with the most complete sang-froid, and proceeded to give, to perhaps the most critical audience it was possible to bring together in a private drawing-room, “The Last Rose of Summer,” which was left blooming alone, as it well deserved to be, considering that it was fading. When the first bars were struck, Edith Wynne, who was present, sniffed audibly at the presumption of the new-comer in attempting a song with which she herself had made a big reputation. As it progressed, being given in a most unorthodox way from the accepted British point of view, Mme. Wynne was observed gradually to tilt her nose even nearer to Heaven than had been ordained by Mother Nature. But the climax arrived with the last verse, when the American soprano tried to give additional effect by tearing the leaves of a rose which she had been holding in her hand, and dropping them to the ground one by one as the last lines were given. “Well,” burst out her more mature rival, unable to contain her indignation any longer, “we don’t do that in England, thank goodness! We go in for legitimate singing.” After which she raised her glasses, looked the American up and down, and turned to a professional who was sitting in an adjoining chair. “How old do they say she is? What, sixteen? H’m! As far as her ankles, possibly. She gets at least ten years older–higher up! “

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