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A Foreign Country Called "England"

In the Home of Aged Musicians

by DAVID YEARSLEY

According to long-accepted, though unverifiable anecdote, the idea for the first charitable fund for musicians was born when three London players had just exited a popular coffee house in the Haymarket in 1738 and saw two young boys driving donkeys up the street. There would have been nothing particularly noteworthy about the scene, except for the fact that the three musicians recognized the boys as the sons of Jean Christian Kytch, a well-respected oboist who had played bassoon in the premier of Handel’s first London opera, Rinaldo, back in 1711. A Dutch emigrant, Kytch had died earlier in 1738 and his survivors quickly found themselves in desperate straits, as the sight of his boys in the Haymarket brought home to his musical colleagues as they stood in front of the Orange Coffee House.

Within weeks the Royal Society of Musicians had been founded, its charter granted the following year with many of the most important musical figures of the age joining it and contributing in various ways to its primary charitable mission, the establishment of a “Fund for the Support of Decayed Musicians or their Families.”  Among the founding members were George Frideric Handel, William Boyce, Thomas Arne, John Christopher Pepusch, and Henry Purcell’s son Edward.

The new organization’s first benefit concert was held in March of 1739, with Handel directing the oratorio Alexander’s Feast; the advertisement boasted  “particularly of a new concerto composed by Mr. Handel on purpose for this occasion.” Over the first several years of the Royal Association’s existence Handel played a crucial role in its financial success, bringing his prestige, music and acclaim as a performer at the organ to the group’s aid.

Soon Handel’s Messiah, became a mainstay of the Association’s annual Lenten concert even while the same oratorio provided help to another institution robustly supported by Handel, the Foundling Hospital, which had been established in 1741. Adjusted for inflation, and taking into account interest accrued on the donations derived from its performances over the last two hundred-and-fifty years, Messiah might well have outearned later charitable projects of the mass-media age, such as Live Aid; if so, the Hallelujah Chorus has racked up more karmic credits than We are the World.

Although native born Englishmen made up the majority of the founding members of the Royal Association of Musicians, Germans (like Handel) and Italians (like Giuseppe Sammartini and the Castrucci brothers) were also well represented. The group was radiantly cosmopolitan and reflected the diversity of the London musical scene in the mid-18th century. In the polarized emigration politics of today’s Europe and America, one could well have imagined Kytsch being maligned for being a foreigner who had had the nerve to die and leave behind his impoverished children to drain the resources of the host nation.  Deportation rather than welfare might well have been the result, if the scene in the Haymarket were transposed to the present.

Handel’s London was flooded with foreign musicians. Some of the brightest stars of the day—the famed castrati Farinelli and Senesino, among others—retired to Italy taking with them fortunes, and manners, gained on the English stage. Others remained in their adoptive country. What would English music have been without Handel and other emigrants for that matter, what would have become of the benevolent aims of the Royal Association of Musicians?

There was need for support beyond London, too. As Pippa Drummond documents in an essay published in Music & Letters some twenty-five years ago, the New Musical Fund was established in 1786 “for Decayed Musicians residing in England,” that is to say for those living outside the metropolis. Then, as now, the cities and towns set in the countryside were ethnically monotone. Far from the energy and resources of the big city, this new charitable endeavor soon failed, the mission of “alleviating distress and misery … and administering comfort to age and infirmities” reverted to the Royal Musicians’ Association.

Similarly placed in an “England” outside of polycultural London is the recent film Quartet directed by Dustin Hoffman with a script adapted by the Oscar-winning writer Ronald Harwood from his own stage play of the same title. In it, four aged opera singers—two male, two female—are reunited at a retirement home for elderly musicians.  Back in their collective heydays the four had worked together on the London and international scenes. Called Beecham House in honor of the famed English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, the mansion’s graceful bay windows look out over sumptuous gardens and beyond to hills and fields, the view framed distantly by picturesque oaks and a glimpse of the Thames. “England” indeed.

The Beecham name spurs one of the better lines in the script, a crack about the appropriateness of an old folks’ home named in honor of a musician whose family fortune derived from a laxative factory. But even this quip, uttered by the dyspeptic diva, Jean Horton (Maggie Smith) doesn’t measure up to the celebrated comic gifts of Sir Thomas Beecham himself, he of “everything should be tried once except Morris dancing and incest.”

Three of the quartet of opera singers have been residents of Beecham House for some time, and the fourth (Smith) is on her way there, having run through her fortune and now in need of assistance. She keeps her dimming spirits from being enveloped in darkness by listening to recordings of her own classic performances, although she denies that she would ever do such a thing when asked by one of her colleagues. We see a quick shot of her magnificent, empty London apartment, and then ride with her as she is chauffeured to the retirement home where the aged tenor and her ex-husband Reggie (Tom Courtenay) is ensconced, ready to be badly shaken by her arrival. The pair had been married for only a few days several decades earlier and the reunion, feared by both, attempts to provide tension in what counts as the movie’s plot.

The model for the retirement home in Harwood’s 1999 play and in the present movie version seems to have been Ivor Bolton House, which was established with funds from the estate of Ivor Bolton, the great English piano accompanist. The place was run by another charitable organization, the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund from 1981 to 2008, at which point the house was unceremoniously sold and the residents sent elsewhere to live among the non-musicians in what would seem at first glance to be a violation of Bolton’s intentions.

Likewise, the fictional Beecham House is faced with closure unless the singers reunite to perform their signature ensemble number at a benefit gala: the quartet from act three of Rigoletto. With the legendary Horton headlining, premium prices can be charged and financial ruin for the old folks’ pile averted. But there are two big problems with this scheme: first, Horton doesn’t have the nerve to risk failure, preferring to seek sanctuary in the comfort of her voice in its prime as preserved on LP; and second, there’s the matter of her brooding ex-husband. Since this emotional landscape is surveyed with such predictability it hardly takes the illuminating flare of a spoiler alert to discern from the get-go, that discord will conclude with harmony.

Rather than use the potentially rich scenario to say something interesting, never mind profound, about how great singers come to terms—or not—with the decline of their voices, the film traffics in banalities, as in the line the Alzheimer-afflicted mezzo-soprano Cissy Robbins (Pauline Collins) utters repeatedly during the film’s ninety minutes: “old age ain’t for sissies.”

The final member of the quartet is the lecherous Wilf (Billy Connolly): yet even if the spirit is strong, the flesh is unwilling. At the start of the movie, Wilf goggles and gropes a Polish nurse and she seems not to be offended, remaining respectful of her elder rather than slapping him in the face. Indeed, Wilf propositions—jokingly of course—all the women he encounters, including the home’s young, blonde head doctor. They counter with patient smiles and giggles, rather than a slap in the face or knee in the groin. Only a septuagenarian male writer would think this stuff funny and endearing.

Meanwhile in dance class, a black woman teaches a group of old white musicians to shimmy their hips. Nearby, hapless Tom the Tenor gives one of his Tuesday lectures to a group of school kids which even includes some black faces. One of those belongs to a young rapper who improvises some verses about love and opera and thereby earns the aged singer’s respect. These attempts to show wider cultural awareness on the part of the characters, or more especially, the filmmakers consistently misfire.

In Handel’s cosmopolitan London, the foreigners were vital as performers and composers. In Quartet the emigrants change the bedpans and deflect unwanted advances from randy, superannuated tenors. Rather than updating the sentimental story and expanding the frame beyond the rarefied world of opera, these ploys project an unintended message: although the landscape seen through Beecham House’s sash windows looks familiar, it is clear that this aged quartet of singers has, like Farinelli and Senesino before them, fled to a foreign country—one called “England.”

DAVID YEARSLEY s a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com