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Emily Hogstad

The Devourer and the Devoured: The Intertwined Lives of Poet Annie Vivanti and Prodigy Vivien Chartres, Part 2/4

May 21, 2012 at 8:59 PM

Here's part 2 of 4 of a long essay on turn-of-the-century violin prodigy Vivien Chartres and her famous author mother Annie Vivanti. Part 1 is here.

***

One day George and Peggy came to visit them at the boarding-house. And with them they brought Mr. Markowski and his violin.

In the drawing-room after tea Nancy asked the shy and greasy-looking Hungarian to play: and the fiddle was taken tenderly out of its plush-lined case. Markowski was young and shabby, but his violin was old and valuable. Markowski had a dirty handkerchief, but the fiddle had a clean, soft white silk one. Markowski placed a small black velvet cushion on his greasy coat-collar, and raised the violin to it; he adjusted his chin over it, raised his bow, and shut his eyes. Then Markowski was a god.

Do you know the hurrying anguish of Grieg’s F dur Sonata? Do you know the spluttering shrieks of laughter of Bazzini’s “Ronde des Lutins”? The sobbing of the unwritten Tzigane songs? The pattering of wing-like feet in Ries’s “Perpetuum Mobile?”

Little Anne-Marie stood in the middle of the room motionless, pale as linen, as if the music had taken life from her and turned her into a white statuette. Ah, here was the little neoteric statue that Nancy had tried to fix! The child’s eyes were vague and fluid, like blue water spilt beneath her lashes; her colourless lips were open.

Nancy watched her. And a strange dull feeling came over her heart, as if someone had laid a heavy stone in it. What was that little figure, blanched, decolourized, transfigured? Was that Anne-Marie? Was that the little silly Anne-Marie, the child that she petted and slapped and put to bed, the child that was so stupid at geography, so brainless at arithmetic?

“Anne-Marie! Anne-Marie! What is it, dear? What are you thinking about?”

Anne-Marie turned wide light eyes on her mother, but her soul was not in them. For the Spirit of Music had descended upon her, and wrapped her round in his fabulous wings – wrapped her, and claimed her, and borne her away on the swell of his sounding wings…


The last long-drawn note ended; then Anne Marie moved. She covered her face with her hands and began to cry.

“Why do you cry, darling – why do you cry?” asked Nancy embracing her.

Anne-Marie’s large eyes gazed at Nancy. “For many things – for many things!” she said. And Nancy for the first time felt that her child’s spirit stood alone, beyond her reach and out of her keeping.

***

According to her mother, Vivien Chartres was a strong-willed child who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. She once got into an argument with a little French girl who was boasting of her silk blue coat. Vivien retorted that God had given her a blue silk coat as a consolation for having a “horrid French father.” She then ripped out a fistful of the French girl’s hair.

She expressed a constant impatience with all things, as many gifted children are apt to do. It was not uncommon for her to suddenly stop in the middle of a walk and tell her mother, “I want to be at home.”

“Well, darling, we will go home,” Vivanti would answer.

“No, I don’t want to go home. I want to be at home. Now directly. Without going.”

As Vivanti wrote in The Pall Mall Magazine:

No amount of coaxing, no promise of sweets or toys would pacify her, or cause her to move a step farther. I could not help marvelling at the deep philosophy in the child’s apparent unreasonableness: for do we not all of us in all things want to “be” at our wishes’ ends, without the intermediate “going” there? But at the moment it was embarrassing, for the child would scream, and sit down on the pavement, causing a crowd to gather, which would look reproachfully at me, and give me heterogenous advice. It was only by playing “horse” with her as far as the nearest cab-stand that I could get her to move at all; and it was most unpleasant for me to have to pretend to canter and trot, and to say “Giddy-up, gee-gee!” with everybody looking on.

On her sixth birthday, Vivanti came into the nursery to wish her daughter a happy birthday and to ask her “if she was a happy little girl that day.” Vivanti wrote:

“Oh, no!” she said. “I am not happy. I am very tired of being alive, and always doing the same things. I do not wish I were dead; but I wish I had never begun!”

I was horroruck. I led her into the breakfast-room with a trembling heart, and showed her her presents arrayed on the table. Fortunately she was pleased with them, and was especially delighted with a false beard that her father had put on for the occasion. I had to wear it all through breakfast because it amused her; and she insisted that Mary should wait at table in it that evening, when we had guests for the birthday dinner. I was so shaken by what she had said in the morning that I could refuse her nothing. Mary wore the beard; but was very cross about it, and gave me notice next day.

It was at that memorable dinner that I was to be reminded of the Vocation in a strange and unexpected way…

Aunt Margaret turned the conversation by inquiring about Vivien’s presents.

“I have everything I want,” said Vivien, “except a bulldog and a violin.”

A violin! How strange that she should ask for a violin, suddenly, of her own accord! Everybody said that it clearly denoted great talent and a gift for music; and I determined to buy her one the very next day. I did so: I bought a charming half-size instrument of a bright brown colour, and most excellent in tone, the dealer told me. Of course we did not get the bulldog.

Vivien’s auspicious start did not immediately translate into the glittering career her mother was anticipating. According to The Pall Mall Magazine, she used the fiddle as a money box and a depository for bread and milk. As Vivanti remarked, “I…began to doubt as to the Gift and the Calling.”

Eventually, however, Vivien’s talents began to manifest themselves, although the details are fuzzy. In some accounts (including “The True Story of a Wunderkind”), it is said that an Italian gentleman named Signor Santavicci was Vivien’s first teacher; other sources indicate that her first instructor was a player named Luigi Marescalchi from Monaco. In addition, it is unclear when exactly she began her studies. Although Vivanti claims that Vivien began to play between her seventh and eighth birthdays, it is possible she began earlier; Vivanti had a habit of fudging dates. More research is required on the point.

At any rate, a while after she began playing the violin, Vivanti’s uncle sent his grand-niece two beautiful dolls, which Vivien adored. She slept with one on either side of her. Vivanti related that one night:

…She called me in an agitated voice. I hurried to her bedside. She had the two dolls huddled in one arm and the other stretched out. “Give me my violin,” she said; “give it to me quickly. I dreamt that it was jealous.”

“Nonsense, darling!” I said, laughing.

But she was much disturbed, and insisted upon my bringing it to her.

“If it thought that I liked the dolls best, it might be angry, and make ugly voices at me tomorrow.”

So she insisted upon sleeping with the violin on one side of her and the dolls on the other.

Thus it was that I noticed that to her mind the violin was a live thing: a rather evil, impish thing, with an uncertain temper – a creature to be appeased and propitiated lest it should make “ugly voices.” I thought the idea uncanny. And one day I resolved to tell her a story, such as mothers invent under the inspiration of their children’s questioning eyes. And here it is, as I told it to her and to the dolls, all sitting in a row:

“Vivien, dear, in the violin there lives, as you have already guessed, a being – a tiny, beautiful, invisible fairy, whose named is The Spirit of Music. The man who long ago made this violin caught her by her wings as she was flying in the air and shut her up in the violin. A spell was cast over her – ”

“What is a spell?” said Vivien.

“An enchantment – a – a kind of net,” I said vaguely.

“Butterfly-net?” said Vivien.

“Well, yes. Something of the kind,” I answered; “so that her wings were tied, and she could not move, or speak, or see – ”

“Or eat,” said Vivien.

“And she lies there in the dark waiting for the spell to be broken.” Vivien’s eyes grew large and resplendent. “Now, do you know how the spell can be broken? How the net – ”

“Is it green?” asked Vivien; “and is the stick inside too?”

“What stick?” I said impatiently. “If you keep on interrupting I shall stop telling the story. Now, there is only one way in which the fairy can be released; and that must be” – I took Vivien’s small warm hand in mine – “by the hand of a little girl. One day a little girl will come, who will play so beautifully, so perfectly, without one mistake – ”

“What shall I have to play?” interrupted Vivien.

The Paganini Concerto,” I said, on the spur of the moment. “And on that day the Fairy Spirit will wake up and shake out her beautiful wings and come forth from the violin to do the little girl’s bidding.” I read in Vivien’s face that she was going to say, ‘What is bidding?’ so I went on quickly. “She will obey the little girl and fulfil all her wishes. She will turn the violin-bow into a magic wand, and the little girl will work charms with it: make bad people good, and sad people happy, and poor people rich – ”

“And order pony-carriages at once? And make Fräulein Muller vanish away?” cried Vivien, intensely excited.

“Everything!” I replied, in order not to spoil the effect of the story. Vivien had already flown to the case, and now she held the fiddle up and turned it in every direction, peering into the sound-holes with anxious eyes. I improved the occasion. “And the more you practise, the sooner will she be visible. Every hour you play loosens a little the bonds that tie her. Scales especially have a very loosening effect,” I added.

I confess to feeling some twinges of remorse the next morning, when I heard her practising scales all by herself for a long time. At the end of every scale she looked into the fiddle; and before lunch she came and whispered in my ear, “I think I heard her move!”

These two juxtaposed stories perfectly illustrate the attitude that Vivanti had toward her daughter’s talent – at least publicly. She loved it, was fascinated by it, was a little afraid of it, and cared very deeply for it; she was both attracted to, and in a way, repelled by it. As can be shown from her words after the Huberman concert, she was only too aware that it would be discomfitingly easy to use her daughter’s talent to break her spirit, and yet she still encouraged its development. Vivanti, ever the dramatist, reveled in the tension.

As with everything Vivanti wrote, the anecdotes in “The True Story of a Wunderkind” need to be taken with a grain of salt; it is impossible to ascertain what exactly about them is true or false. For instance, in another interview from 1905, Vivien herself told a reporter that her father, not her mother, had been the one to tell the story of the fairy. One wonders where exactly Chartres was during all this. In “The True Story of a Wunderkind,” he appears only three times – to dismiss Vivanti’s gut instinct about her baby’s talent, to encourage Vivien not to make an early debut, and to ask (basically) what the hell the two of them were doing auditioning for a teacher in Prague. Were it not for those three mentions of him, readers would be forgiven for assuming Vivanti was a widow or divorcée. Was Chartres really so distant from his wife and daughter? Had Vivanti’s relationship with him turned so rocky that she wrote him out of her past? Perhaps it is significant that in The Devourers, Anne-Marie’s father is an irresponsible gambler and womanizer who ultimately leaves Nancy and Anne-Marie to fend for themselves. Or maybe Vivanti merely understood that the idea of a girl and her mother fighting alone against the world was much more dramatically appealing than a traditional family unit doing the same.

***

Thanks to the instruction of her teacher, her mother’s encouragement, and her own remarkable innate talent, Vivien soon began to excel in a truly shocking way. A few months after she began playing, she was performing Svendsen’s Romance. Around that time Vivien visited her great-uncle, Paul Lindau, in Paris. He was astonished by her progress and suggested that mother and daughter travel to Prague so that Vivien could audition for arguably the greatest violin teacher in Europe, Otakar Ševcík. Being accepted into the Ševcík studio would be no small feat; it would be, in a way, an achievement akin to Annie Vivanti befriending Carducci so many years before. Ševcík’s services were in remarkably high demand; over the course of his career, he rejected hundreds of pupils, many older than Vivien. According to Vivanti, after hearing her uncle’s suggestion, she took Vivien straight to Prague from Paris, without even telling her husband of her plans. After a dirty, disagreeable trip by train, Vivien decided to wash her violin and bow before her audition so that they might feel fresh and clean before the momentous day. Of course after this treatment the violin could no longer speak. But somehow mother and daughter secured a second instrument on which Vivien auditioned.

Otakar Ševcík was a giant of nineteenth century pedagogy. Born in 1852, this shy, thoughtful, generous man was one of the great instructors of the late Victorian era. His students included some of the greatest violinists of the age: Marie Hall, Jan Kubelík, Erika Morini, and Efram Zimbalist, among others. He had a punishing professional regime: he usually began to teach at seven in the morning, took a break in the afternoon, and then worked late into the night. He expected his select students to be just as committed to their education as he was, and he advised them to practice no less than eight hours a day.

After her audition, Vivien Chartres became one of those select few.

When Vivien was accepted into Ševcík’s studio, Vivanti’s life became even more intertwined with Vivien’s. She no longer had any time to fulfill her own professional promise; she was too busy helping to fulfill her daughter’s. She wrote a fictional account of this time in The Devourers:

…She went with Anne-Marie and Fräulein to Prague, where the greatest of all violin-teachers lived, fitting left hands with wonderful technique, and right hands with marvellous pliancy; teaching slim fingers to dance and scamper and skip on four tense strings, and supple wrists to wield a skimming, or control a creeping, bow. And this greatest of teachers took little Anne-Marie to his heart. He also called her the Wunderkind, and set her eager feet, still in their white socks and button shoes, on the steep path that leads up the Hill of Glory.

Nancy unpacked her manuscripts in an apartment in one of the not very wide streets of old Prague; opposite her window was a row of brown and yellow stone houses; she had a table, and pen and ink, and there was nothing to disturb her. True, she could hear Anne-Marie playing the violin two rooms off, but that, of course, was a joy; besides, when all the doors were shut one could hardly hear anything, especially if one tied a scarf or something round one’s head, and over one’s ears.

So Nancy had no excuse for not working. She told herself so a hundred times a day, as she sat at the table with the scarf round her head, staring at the yellow house opposite…

Besides this ache was the yearn and strain and sorrow of her destiny unfulfilled. For once again the sense of time passing, of life running out of her grasp, bit at her breast like an adder…

The door opened, and Fräulein’s head appeared, solemn and sibylline, with tears shining behind her spectacles.

“Nancy, to-day for the first time Anne-Marie is to play Beethoven. Will you come?”

Yes, Nancy would come. She followed Fräulein into the room where Anne-Marie was with the Professor and his assistant.

The Professor did not like to play the piano, so he had brought the assistant with him, who sat at the piano, nodding a large, rough black head in time to the music. Anne-Marie was in front of her stand. The Professor, with his hands behind him, watched her. The Beethoven Romance in F began.

The simple initial melody slid smoothly from under the child’s fingers, and was taken up and repeated by the piano. The wilful crescendo of the second phrase worked itself up to the passionate high note, and was coaxed back again into gentleness by the shy and tender trills, as a wrathful man by the call of a child. Martial notes by the piano. The assistant’s head bobbed violently, and now Beethoven led Anne-Marie’s bow, gently, by tardigrade steps, into the first melody again. Once more, the head at the piano bobbed over his solo. Then on the high F, down came the bow of Anne-Marie, decisive and vehement.

“That’s right!” shouted the Professor suddenly. “Fa, mi, sol – play that on the fourth string.”

Anne-Marie nodded without stopping. Eight accented notes by the piano, echoed by Anne-Marie.

“That is to sound like a trumpet!” cried the master.

“Yes, yes; I remember,” said Anne-Marie.

And now for the third time the melody returned, and Anne-Marie played it softly, as in a dream, with a gruppetto in pianissimo that made the Professor push his hands into his pockets, and the assistant turn his head from the piano to look at her. At the end the slowly ascending scales soared and floated into the distance, and the three last calling notes fell from far away.

No one spoke for a moment; then the Professor went close to the child and said:

“Why did you say, ‘I remember’ when I told you about the trumpet notes?”

“I don’t know,” said Anne-Marie, with the vague look she always had after she had played.

“What did you mean?”

“I meant that I understood,” said Anne-Marie.

The Professor frowned at her, while his lips worked.

“You said, ‘I remember.’ And I believe you remember. I believe you are not learning anything new. You are remembering something you have known before.”

Fräulein intervened excitedly. “Ach! Herr Professor! I assure you the child has never seen that piece! I have been with her since the first day she überhaupt had the violin, and – ”

The Professor waved an impatient hand. He was still looking at Anne-Marie. “Who is it?” and he shook his grey head tremulously. “Whom have we here? Is it Paganini? Or Mozart? I hope it is Mozart.”

***

In the third part, Vivien and her violin take Europe by storm, charming an entire continent. Her mother is there to chronicle every step, both in fiction and non-fiction...

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