Sex and the single listener: adventures at the Edinburgh Festival

“If music be the food of love, play on...”. Ever since the first actor to play Duke Orsino in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night lounged on stage and addressed these lines to the in-house lutenist, the connect between musical performance and the erotic system has been well recognized. Orsino is comically deluded, his devotion to the sable-clad local beauty Lady Olivia as exaggerated and obsessive as her grief for a deceased brother. Yet most of us, at one time or another, have employed the seductions of music, live or recorded, to elicit the favour - even the love - of a desired person. My first girlfriend bought me an LP of Albinoni’s moody Adagio for my birthday, and went on to illustrate – or should I say demonstrate - its effects by candlelight. I wooed my late wife to the Adagio, and now that I’m a widower I’ve ordered a copy on Amazon. Matrons, block your ears.

But lovers do not always document such blandishments. It was thus with delighted surprise that, one morning in mid-May this year - the lovers’ month - I opened the first box of the Great Diary Project in the library of the Bishopsgate Institute in London. I had gone there with two other members of the LED team and a volunteer to cull references to listening from the hundred odd journals in the archive. Whilst my fellow labourers were groaning through entries of the sort ‘Went to the dentist. Very painful’, I instantly came across this:

And then to the Usher Hall for the loveliest concert I have ever been to. Cherkasski was exceptionally brilliant I thought and when we came to “straight from the film” in Variations on A Theme from Paganini, Ronald and I could only smile at one another.

The diarist, I soon discovered, was Gill Caldwell, an eighteen-year old stenographer typist from Palworth Gardens in Edinburgh’s Morningside. From references elsewhere in the diary I gathered she has a sister called Pooh, two brothers and a long-term fiancé called Ronald, who sometimes seems keener on tennis than on her. At the back of one volume she lists the men she knows, and the speed of their wooing, ranging from “fast” to “slow”. Ronald is “rather slow”. Perhaps to overcome their shared inhibitions, she starts taking him to concerts during the eighth annual Edinburgh Festival. On the evening in question, Sunday 14th August, 1955, they are attending a concert given at the Usher Hall by the Scottish National Orchestra under the baton of Thomas Matthews. The Russian virtuouso Sura Cherkassky is performing two works by Rachmaninoff: the third piano concerto and the Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini. For the young couple, Rachmaninoff’s piano music holds poignancy and romantic charge: ten years earlier it had featured in David Lean’s film Brief Encounter with its undertow of mutual passion barely held in check. Hence that coy, shared smile.

Gill is articulate, intelligent and moody, and she possesses quite a discriminating musical ear. Twelve days later, they are back at the Usher Hall to hear the Berlin Philharmonic under Joseph Keiberth render a mixed programme beginning with Haydn’s Surprise Symphony, after which the Hungarian Geza Anda is the soloist in Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto. Gill is an open-minded listener to the Bartók. For both of them, however, the climax occurs afer the interval:

And so to the Usher Hall and the soaring majesty of Schumann’s Symphony and the weird but wonderful sounds of Bartok, played brilliantly by Geza Anda, and the mere subtle opening of Haydn conducted with a deep understanding by Joseph Keilberth. And so we sat, Ronald and I, while the music flowed and soared and fell softly around us.

Thus Gill and Ronald’s love burgeons against the backdrop of the 1955 festival. For her, the intensity of both invites nemesis. On Friday, September 9 they attend a concert largely devoted to Wagner by the Philharmonic-Symphony of New York under George Szell. She prefers the overture to Rienzi to the Siegfried Idyll that preceeds it. Yet, to her, all is gorgeous release. “Oh, I’m so happy, so happy,” she gasps in a concluding sentence. “Will not the jealous Gods punish me in some way?”

The following year they went back, and when Gill was not listening to the music, she was watching the conductors. Pierre Monteux, for example, wryly observed directing Schubert’s Great C Major with the Boston Symphony on Monday August 27 1956, seemed to her “a dear little man with a walrus moustache who walked like a penguin” (Ronald, mind you, was six foot eight). The following week, Sir Thomas Beecham turned up with his Royal Philharmonic, and they had ring side seats for an interraction between conductor and audience that tells us much, both about Beecham’s lordly temperament and the performance protocol of the day. Half way through an unspecified piece, a few members of the audience shyly started to clap. Beecham swung round and addressed them with the words “Ladies and Gentlemen, I fear that this piece of music is not yet over.” The audience stopped applauding and, when the piece did finally draw to a close, were too frightened to begin.

As the diary moves through 1956 and into 1957, and the family re-locate out of Edinburgh, Gill’s enthusiasm for concert-going appears to wane. But she never loses her view of music as an art form aspiring to the sublime. 1956 was the year of Bill Haley’s film Rock Around the Clock, a craze that she resists. On Epiphany Sunday 1957, her younger brother Sandy invites his sixteen-year-old girlfriend Sheena round for tea and they “pounded out Rock and Roll for hours” until Ronald loses patience and puts a classical 78 on instead – and the younger couple fall asleep.

Nor does Gill ever lose her sharpness of ear. Perhaps the most remarkable musical entry is among the last. On Monday 26 August 1957, she and Ronald went to the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh to hear Maria Callas sing the part of Amina in La Picola Scala’s production of Bellini’s La Sonnambula. The prima donna’s first few notes were superb, she reports, “and I was quite prepared for a soul-soaring evening. However, not so. Half way through the last act her top notes started to thin out and I really thought she was going to crack. Darling Ron didn’t even notice. However, she was magnificent and took eight curtain calls supported by her leading men and I should think went home in a towering Callas rage!” You can still hear the high notes straining in Divina’s live recording of that performance (DVN-6); its curtain calls are captured for you on YouTube. Gill Caldwell’s remarks on the diva’s vocal fragility, however, are surely among the earliest.