May 25, 2012 at 5:23 PMThis is part 3 of 4 of a long essay on turn-of-the-century violin prodigy Vivien Chartres and her author mother Annie Vivanti. Part I and Part II can be found here and here.
On a chilly evening in early January 1905 Vivien made her orchestral debut in Prague with the Bohemian Philharmonic Orchestra in the Bruch g-minor concerto. She was eleven years old.
All Prague sat expectant – rustling and murmuring and coughing – in the stalls and galleries of the Rudolfinum, on the night of the concert. The Bohemian orchestra were in their seats. Kalas stepped up to his desk, and an overture was played.
A short pause. Then, in the midst of a tense silence, Anne-Marie appeared, threading her way through the orchestra, with her violin under her arm. Now she stands in her place, a tiny figure in a short blue silk frock, with slim black legs and black shoes, and her fair hair tied on one side with a blue ribbon. Unwondering and calm, Anne-Marie confronted her first audience, gazing at the thousand upturned faces with gentle, fearless eyes. She turned her quiet gaze upwards to the gallery, where row on row of people were leaning forward to see her. Then, with a little shake of her head to throw back her fair hair, she lifted her violin to her ear, plucked lightly, and listened, with her head on one side, to the murmured reply of the strings. Kalas, on his tribune, was looking at her, his face drawn and pale. She nodded to him, and he rapped the desk. B-r-r-r-r-r-r rolled the drums.
During the concert Vivanti sat paralyzed in the audience, wondering how it was possible for her little girl to play so beautifully – how she could memorize so many notes – how her little fingers could land so quickly and accurately so many times in a row. Vivanti was terrified that Vivien would break down at any moment, or forget her place, or even run off the platform. But of course she needn’t have worried. The concert was an unqualified triumph. News of it leaked back to London, where a review of her concert appeared in the Times: “her public performance…seems to have surpassed all expectation,” the reporter wrote. If the account in The Devourers can be trusted, Ševcík came backstage after the concert and said simply, “I have taught you what I could. Life will teach you the rest.” There is no record of Vivien ever returning to him for instruction.
After the triumph in Prague, Vivien and Vivanti made their way to Vienna, where Vivien played nine concerts. A correspondent for the Daily Chronicle noted that no English musician had ever achieved such a success there. After Vienna, mother and daughter came to Berlin, where Vivien collaborated with no other than Max Bruch. Bruch’s colleague, violinist Joseph Joachim, met Vivien and thought her gifts “fabulous.” After Vienna came Zurich – Stockholm – Rome – Palermo. It wasn’t long before Vivien was visiting and bewitching the European aristocracy. She had an extraordinary ability, intelligence, and charm, mixed with a pure childish innocence that endeared her to everyone she met.
In early 1905 Vivien and Vivanti returned to London so that Vivien might make her British debut. A writer named Wakeling Dry from the Daily Express came to interview her.
“How do you do?” I said.
“Very well, thank you. This is my frog,” said the little girl, holding up a jar for me to see. I was ostentatiously interested in the little green animal sprawling on the watercress in the bottle. “And this is Schopenhauer,” she said, hoisting up a puppy. “They are a little unwell. They have travelled all night.”
“Where have they travelled from?” I asked.
“All the way from Prague,” said the little girl. “A most far-away travel.”
I laughed and Schopenhauer barked.
“Is your name Vivien?” I asked.
She nodded. “If you like you may hold my frog,” she said in a sudden access of friendliness, and gave me the glass jar, which I took with every appearance of gratitude.
“Do you play the violin?”
“Yes, thank you,” she answered politely. “This is a very thorough-bred dog,” and the small, shining head bent over the woolly puppy. “When I hold him up by the tail he hardly whines at all. I tried it again this morning. He is growing throroughbredder and thoroughbredder.”
“Tell me something about your violin,” I suggested. “Do you practise much?”
“Oh, not much,” she said, airily. “I have so little time. I have also two birds and a canary. And eight dolls. Two of the dolls were given to me at the concert with Van Dyck.”
“What is your favourite music?”
The little girl thought awhile. “Bach and Grieg,” she said. “And also ‘Rockaby, lullaby, bees on the clover.”
“What about Paganini?” I inquired.
“He is not very pretty,” was the answer. “I only play his music for fun because Schopenhauer whines so loud at the harmonies.” And she laughed cheerfully. “If you really want to, you may hold Schopenhauer, too, for a little while.” So I held Schopenhauer.
“How did you like Prague?”
“Very much, thank you.”
“And Professor Ševcík?”
“Very much, thank you.” She looked anxiously at the dog.
“Oh, very much, thank you” – hurriedly. “I think you are hurting his paw.”
She made me sit down on the bench with the frog and the dog, and she stood before me smiling and small.
“What violin do you play on?” I enquired.
“I have three,” she said, “but they are not mine. Professor Ševcík has lent me one of his own to play Moïse on; it has only one string. And Dvorák, in Prague, has lent me another to play everything else on. And the third – ” She hesitated and blushed.
“What about the third?” I asked.
“The third is the one I post my letters to the fairy in.”
“What fairy is that?”
“The fairy that lives in the violin,” said Vivien. “Her name is the Spirit of Music, papa says.”
“Oh, of course,” said I. “And does the fairy answer you?”
“Always,” said the little girl with eyes alight. “You see nothing written on her letters until you heat the paper in front of the fire. Then the writing jumps out! They are very kind letters. One day when I play perfectly I shall see her, and she will turn the bow into a wand to do everything I want with. Make poor people rich and unhappy people happy. Papa told me so. And pony-carriages and everything,” she added with a sweep of her small hand. “I think I shall turn Schopenhauer white,” she said thoughtfully, looking at the woolly black ball on my knee. “With long silvery, silky hair.”
“And when will you see the fairy?” I inquired.
“When I play quite, quite perfectly,” she said; then added confidentially: “Sometimes when I am practising all by myself, I make a few mistakes on purpose. You know,” she said, dimpling and smiling, “of course, I should love to see the fairy. But still – well, I should prefer to see her when Mama is in the room!”
I got up and took my leave. I shook paws with Schopenhauer, and saluted the frog, and took off my hat to the little girl who gets letters to the fairy and who plays Paganini for fun.
“When you come again,” she said, standing at the gate in the sunshine, “you may see the dolls and the two birds and the canary – but you won’t hurt Schopenhauer’s paw again, will you?”
As the press became more and more fascinated by this gifted young girl, Annie Vivanti began to claim that Vivien was born in 1895, and not 1893 – presumably so that her playing might seem all the more extraordinary. Prodigies’ dates of birth have been fudged from time immemorial, and Vivanti doubtless thought it a harmless practice (she had, after all, indulged in some personal date-fudging of her own). Unfortunately, in Vivien’s case, the decision had horrible unforeseen consequences. And rather than causing a scandal in the press, or taking the risk of discrediting her daughter’s achievements, Vivanti chose to keep silent.
Vivanti relates in The Devourers of Anne-Marie’s London debut:
The first London concert was to be the week after their arrival. The manager, pink-faced and blue-eyed, came to the hotel to talk about the programme.
“England is not Berlin. Don’t make it too heavy,” he said. So the Beethoven Concerto was taken out, and the Vieuxtemps Concerto put in its stead. The Chaconne was taken out, and the Faust Phantasie put in its stead. The manager said, “That’s right,” and went out to play golf.
So Anne-Marie played the Beethoven Concerto and the Beethoven Romance, the Bach Chaconne and Fugue, Prelude and Sarabande. And the audience shouted and clapped.
But the critics carped and reproved. How can a mere child understand Beethoven and Bach? How wrong to overweigh the puerile brain with the giants of classic composition! It is almost a sacrilege to hear a little girl venturing the approach the Chaconne. Let her play Handel and Mozart.
So in the third concert Anne-Marie played Handel and Mozart, and the audience shouted and clapped.
But the critics said that, though she played the easy, simple music very nicely for her age, still, in a London concert hall one expected to hear something more puissant and authoritative. And why did she give concerts at all? Why not do something else? Study composition, for instance?
“That’s England all over,” said the manager, and went out and played golf.
Vivien’s London manager was a man named Narcisco Vert, from the firm of Ibbs and Tillett, which represented a number of artists in Britain at the time. In May 1905 Vert allowed Vivien to play a concert without a license. Since Vivien was said to be “a child under the age of eleven,” the performance was deemed to be a violation of the Prevention of Cruelty to Children Act. Of course, Vivien wasn’t under the age of eleven; she was just about to turn twelve. But neither one of her parents spoke up about their deception, and Vert and the Chartres family ended up in court. Not even then did they tell the truth, although John Chartres did cryptically say, “They are always advertised as young as they are, that’s all I can tell you. Her age will be produced at the proper time.” Vert ended up being fined twenty-five pounds and Chartres five. The stress of the affair arguably killed Narcisco Vert: he died at the age of sixty on 3 June 1905 of a heart attack. If the description of the manager in The Devourers is any indication, Annie Vivanti doesn’t seem to have felt much guilt over her lie. The incident makes one wonder just what Vivanti was all willing to sacrifice to make sure that Vivien fulfilled her potential.
Despite the untimely death of her manager, Vivien received rave reviews in London. “An exceedingly clever child violinist,” proclaimed The Violin Times. “The most marvellous of all marvellous children,” praised The Daily Graphic. “Another Sarasate or Kubelík,” predicted the Daily Chronicle. “Most amazing of all the prodigies,” deemed the Sunday Times. “Certainly one of the most talented children that England has ever produced,” opined the Graphic. “This little damsel played with wonderful dexterity on her debut at Queen’s Hall on May 15, and is undoubtedly gifted musically to a very exceptional degree. This having been satisfactorily demonstrated to the public, let us hope that her parents will not subject her to the strain and excitement of such performances for some years to come,” intoned The Musical Times.
This was a typical criticism, but Vivien and Vivanti did their best to ignore it. Vivanti in particular was going to do what she thought was best, regardless of what people thought or said; she knew Vivien the best, she felt. In “The True Story of a Wunderkind” she wrote:
People come into the house and look at her and criticise her; say that she is large, that she is small; that she looks ill, that she looks well; that she is over-worked, that she does not work enough; that I ought to dress her in white, that I ought to dress her in black velvet; that she ought not to play Bach; that she ought only to play Bach; that she ought not to wear socks; that she ought to do gymnastics; that she ought to cut her hair; that she ought to play for charity; that she ought never to play for charity; that she ought to take iron pills; that she ought to go and study in Berlin, in Leipzig, in London, in Paris, in Brussels; that she ought to give up the violin at once; that she ought to practise fourteen hours a day; that she ought to have begun when she was five years old; that Wunderkinder never turn out anything but disappointments; that I am much to be pitied, that the child is much to be pitied; and that the father must be a Brute.
Nobody would believe how difficult it is to be the mother of a Wunderkind. Everything I do is wrong; everything the child does is “for effect”; everything we say is utterly untrue. If Vivien runs up to me and kisses me, I hear it murmured that she is trained to do so. (“Whipped to be affectionate in public!”) So I tell her never to do it again. Immediately people remark how cold I am to the child; how the poor little creature evidently fears me and prefers Fräulein Muller.
We take her with her hoop and skipping-rope to play in the park? It is said we make her pretend to be infantine, force her to act the “happy child” when people are looking on! So we take her toys from her and conduct her for prim walks between us. “Poor little unnatural creature!” say our friends: “she has no child-life at all.”
People come and ask us how old she is.
“Eight,” I reply. (The answer is greeted with smiles of polite disbelief.) [Warranted, it turns out.]
How long has she studied?
“Two years and three months.” (Incredulous sneers.)
How long does she practise every day?
“As long as she likes. Usually about three hours.” (Silence and exchange of eloquent glances.)
Then they embrace the child and say, “Poor darling!” Whereupon they go away, leaving us sore and snappish. My servants are cross-questioned when I am out, and I receive anonymous letters finding fault with me.
But if Vivanti was stubborn about letting Vivien’s talent take its course, so, it seems, was her daughter. Vivanti continues in the same article:
...If I suggest taking her violin away, she shrieks and is very naughty. I cannot punish her, lest the neighbours should think we are beating her to make her practise. The child knows this, and cries whenever she wants anything that she ought not to have; and her digestion is utterly ruined by the amount of horrid things we allow her to eat, rather than that she should scream for them…
Of course there are moments of thrilling happiness that compensate for much anxiety and worry.
It is a great joy to see Vivien step out on the platform, where a thousand people look at her and love her for the music that she makes. I like to think that on those dear small fingers flying across the quivering strings I have said, “This little pig went to market” only a short while ago, that those blue eyes (they grow so deep and solemn while she plays) laugh up at me every morning limpid and light with all the babyish thoughts I love. When the applause rises round her like a storm, her smile meets mine, and my heart beats loud with happiness at the thought that that little girl belongs to me!
But does she really belong to me?…Does not her soul fly out of my keeping at the sound of her own music, when her eyes grow deep and solemn, gazing at things I do not see?
Another story – this one from The Devourers – demonstrates the stubbornness and depth of artistic conviction that Vivien herself had. It resonates with more emotional truth than any other episode in the book.
Many people called at the hotel to ask for autographs, and to express their views. One elderly musician was very stern with Anne-Marie, and sterner still with Nancy. He began by asking Nancy what she thought her child was going to be in the future.
“I do not know,” said Nancy. “I am grateful for what she is now.”
“Ah! but you must think of the future. You want her to be a great artist – ”
“I don’t know that I do,” said Nancy. “She is a great artist now. If she degenerates” – and Nancy smiled – “into merely a happy woman, she will have had more than her share of luck.”
“Take care! The prodigy will kill the artist!” repeated the stern man. “You pluck the flower and you lose the fruit.”
Nancy laughed. “It is as if you said: ‘Beware of being a rose-bud lest you never be an apple!’ I am content that she should bloom unhindered, and be what she is. Why should she not be allowed to play Bach like an angel to-day, lest she should not be able to play him like Joachim ten years hence?”
“Yes, why not!” piped up Anne-Marie, who had paid no attention to the conversation, but who liked to say “Why not?” on general principles.
The stern man turned to her. “Bach, my dear child – ” he began.
Anne-Marie gave a little laugh. “Oh, I know!” she said cheerfully.
“What do you know?” asked the gentleman severely.
“You are going to say, ‘Always play Bach; nothing else is worthy,’” said Anne-Marie, regretting that she had joined in the conversation.
“I was not going to say anything of the kind,” said the stern man.
“Oh, then you were going to say the other thing: ‘Do not attempt to play Bach – no child can understand him.’ Professors always say one or the other of those two things. Much stupid things are said about music.”
“It is so,” said the gentleman severely. “You cannot possibly understand Bach.”
Anne-Marie suddenly grasped him by the sleeve.
“What do you understand in Bach? I want to know. You must tell me what you understand. Exactly what it is that you understand and I don’t. Bemolle!” she cried, still holding the visitor’s sleeve. “Give me the violin!”
Bemolle jumped up and obeyed with beaming face.
“Anne-Marie, darling!” expostulated Nancy.
But Anne-Marie had the violin in her hand and wildness in her eye.
“Stay here,” she said to the visitor, relinquishing his sleeve with unwilling hand, and hastily tuning the fiddle. “Now you have got to tell me what you understand in Bach.” She played the first five of the thirty-two variations of the Chaconne; then she stopped.
“What does Bach mean? What have you understood?” she cried. The English musician leaned back in his chair and smiled with benevolent superiority.
“And now – now I play it differently.” She played it again, varying the lights and shades, the piani and the forti. “What different thing have you understood?”
“And now – now I play it like Joachim. So, exactly so, he played it for me and with me…
“…Now what have you understood that I have not? What has Bach said to you, and not to me, you silly man?”
Nancy took Anne-Marie’s hand. “Hush, Anne-Marie! For shame!”
“I will not hush!” cried Anne-Marie, with flaming cheeks. “I am tired of hearing them always say the same stupid things.”
The visitor, smiling acidly, stood up to go. “I am afraid too much music is not good for a little girl’s manners,” he said.
“Mother,” said Anne-Marie, with her head against her mother’s breast. “Tell him to wait. I want to say a thing that I can’t. Help me.”
“What is it, dear?”
“When we were to have gone to a country that you said was hot and pretty – and dirty – where was that?”
“Yes, yes, yes! You said something about the little hotels there…the funny little hotels. What did you say about them?”
Nancy thought a moment. Then she smiled and remembered. “I said: ‘You can only find in them what you bring with you yourself.’”
“Yes, yes!” cried Anne-Marie, raising her excited eyes. “Now say that about music.”
And Nancy said it. “You will only find in music what you bring to it from your own soul.”
“Yes,” said Anne-Marie, turning to the visitor; “how can you know what I bring? How can you know that what you bring is beautifuller or gooder? How can you know that Bach meant what you think and not what I think?”
“Don’t get excited, you funny little girl,” said the visitor; and he took his leave with dignity.
But Anne-Marie was excited, and did not sleep all night.
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