If Musical Erudition Were All

January 23, 2008

411cp4fcpkl.jpg A formidable social commentator has long since assured us that “Ignorance is like a delicate fruit; touch it, and the bloom is gone.” In reading two biographies of Noël Coward and his diaries, I had been struck by his frequent witty barbs aimed at classical music, its composers and performers. Such evident hostility, which sometimes also revealed a remarkable ignorance, was interesting to me only because it proceeded from someone who had absolute mastery of one corner of an art that he otherwise seemed largely to despise. But poses adopted for effect are not unknown among the epigrammatic.

Now comes the currently-celebrated collection of his letters, and I think I understand his position a little better. For the first time, I learn that this much-carressed son of a doting stage mother had auditioned for the choir of the Chapel Royal and been rejected. There were unmistakable signs that the failure rankled permanently. Even in old age, he was to contradict energetically any impression that his voice had been the problem by asserting that his “performance had been too dramatic.” But the truth is that his musical education had been too spotty. Singing in his local parish choir and taking the available singing and dancing lessons did not give him the skills (crack sight-singing among them) that the Chapel Royal would have been looking for. With the whole kingdom as a talent pool, it must not have been difficult to find a supply of boys with far more musical cultivation than little Noël had been afforded. It is tempting to see it as our good luck that Coward’s very individual genius was not to be spoiled by membership in such a disciplined crew — until we recall that no less an original than Sir Arthur Sullivan was proud till his dying day of his musical upbringing as a “Child of the Chapel Royal.”

Coward’s father was an occasional seller of pianos who was not able to provide lavishly for his family, and Coward used to boast that his entire education had come from the stage, his activities as a child star constituting a full-time job that left no time for conventional schooling. To go, and that pretty swiftly, from lower-middle-class provincial life to being the confidant of royalty (something else that, ironically, might have been less likely had he served the Crown as a chorister) effectively mirrors his musical education. He jumped from living among some of the kinds of socially backward characters that the men of Monty Python have immortalized to ruling among the elite of international theater and hereditary aristocracy, without ever knowing, as an equal, much of what lay in between — scholars or scientists, say. For one who “dearly loves a lord,” it is a great thing to be guest of the titled, but a far greater to be their host, as Coward frequently was. Similarly, he could go from being unfit for membership in a good choir to being the unequaled master of his own musical specialty without stopping at the rigors and delights that ordinarily mark such a journey.

When we learn from the mother — a fact, so far as I know, never acknowledged by Coward — that his paternal grandfather had been the accomplished organist of the Crystal Palace without of course achieving anything like the celebrity and wealth of a Noël Coward, we may learn a good motive for his understandably valuing his own less conventional musical route to fame and fortune. It is, after all, his letters and not those of his hard-working grandfather that are now collected in a best-seller.

As late as 1949, Coward was still dealing with the Chapel Royal setback. In a letter to a journalist he protested that, however much his singing as a boy may have been undervalued by those snooty professional musicians, it “on one occasion moved the ex-Queen of Portugal to tears.”

Take that, Arthur Sullivan!

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