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Life and Reminiscences of Jessie Bond > Chapter 3
NOW I must go back to the period following the birth of my child. I stayed on in my father’s house, and as soon as I was strong enough I began to take singing lessons again and to seek for concert engagements; I also gave piano lessons, for it was necessary to earn a living. It was then that the kindness of those dear people at the Seel Street Benedictine Church so comforted my sore heart. I sang in their choir, I also sang in oratorio for the Società Armonica, and in the Sacred Concerts of the National Sunday League.
It is strange that at such a period of my life it should have been my fate to sing so much classical and devotional music. I think that these things fall into their places for us, what we are ready and fit for is given us to do. My sorrows, and the deepening of character that sorrow brings, gave power and pathos to my singing. No one who has not suffered can rightly interpret the sufferings of others, or speak intimately to the sad heart.
My reputation as a singer of feeling and spirituality became firmly established, as a criticism in one of the local papers will show. The writer begins by remarking: “It is a singular fact that the majority of the local leading vocalists and organists in the Roman Catholic choirs are non-Catholics, many being attracted by the superior practice.... The contralto (Miss Bond) has a voice that speaks to the very heart in some of the prayerful solos selected for her; tone and expression are always touching and true, and never since the Ave Marias as spoken rather than sung by Miss W––– in this church have we heard such truly tender renderings of sacred subjects as her rendering of Rossini’s ‘Fac ut Portem’ and Cherubini’s ‘O Deus, ego amo te.’”
The first oratorio in which I took part was “The Messiah,” rendered by the Società Armonica, a very important musical organization in those days. It was in January, 1872, when I was just nineteen, but mature beyond my years. A criticism of the concert said: “Miss Bond, who has a contralto voice of considerable compass, sang the beautiful airs ‘He shall feed His flock,’ and ‘He was despised,’ with great pathos and pathetic sweetness.”
From that time onward I sang in many oratorios, and in all Haydn’s and Mozart’s Masses. I remember singing in “Elijah,” in “Samson,” in “Athalie,” in “ Stabat Mater” and in “Jephthah.” Probably there were others which I cannot now remember, for in those days the public loved oratorio. There were then few theatres and no cinemas; nothing to divert the attention and spoil the taste for classical music fostered by so many vocal and instrumental societies. The National Sunday League, in particular, gave magnificent concerts. The object of this movement was to secure for the people intellectual and elevating Sunday recreation, to promote excursions and entertainments, to arrange for the opening of Art Galleries, Museums and Libraries, and generally to cheer up the dismal Victorian Sunday. Those were revolutionary aims and ideas at the time when many even of those who secretly hated its dullness were constrained by convention and custom to make it a day of penitential boredom. But the movement succeeded, as it was bound to do, being part of the general movement and change in social ideals – and one of its most striking and elevating manifestations were these splendid concerts, which brought into so many thousands of grey lives the purest and most spiritual of pleasures.
It seems to be still the North that best supports these great musical associations, the land of desolate, wind-swept moors and peat-stained torrents, of smoking chimneys and grey streets echoing to the sound of wooden shoon. There is something in the hardy Northern folk that instinctively responds to music – that divine breath of the spirit, blowing where it listeth.
It was in those concert-singing days that I first met one of the North’s most musical children – Charles Santley, sweetest singer of his day. That event was distinctly a milestone on the road of my life. He was to me a true and a powerful friend, he advised and directed me and used his influence on my behalf, and all so kindly and so willingly that it is impossible for me to be sufficiently grateful. We have even sung on the same platform, an honour for me of which I am deeply conscious. He knew that I was ambitious and not very happy; my marriage had unsettled me; life in my father’s house now seemed too constrained; I had to teach for my living, which I profoundly hated and did badly.
“Why don’t you go to London and study at the Royal Academy?” he asked me one day, after hearing me sing. To do that had long been my ambition, but I had thought to devote myself to the piano. However, Santley advised me rather to develop my voice and make a name as a contralto, taking the piano only as a second subject. He was kind enough to discuss the matter with my father, who was then as always willing to do anything in his power for my happiness and advancement, and so it was arranged that I was to go.
I jumped at the chance, not only because I really wanted to study in London, but because I had got myself into another pickle at home. I hope you will not think me too vain if I say that always there have been lovers and would-be husbands doing their best to disturb the course of my life and direct it into the same channels as their own. It is a curious thing, because I never wanted them, and can honestly say I never tried to attract them even for fun or to prove my power; and of my two marriages one, as you know, was entered into most unwillingly, and the second, happy one, only after years of waiting.
In Liverpool, not long after the tragic sequel of my first marriage, and while I was still legally the wife of Schotlaender, I met a young man of good family, the cadet of a noble house, who was trying his luck as a cotton broker in the North. He fell in love with me and pestered me into an engagement. I am ashamed to say that I have been engaged over and over again; when I was young it seemed to be the only way to keep these persistent lovers quiet, so I used to say yes for the sake of peace, never meaning it. This young man did all in his power to get me, he knew I could free myself from my first marriage at any time I liked, and urged me to do so. His sister came and joined her entreaties to his. I would not go to stay with her as she wished, but between the two of them they pushed me into an engagement. If it had stopped there I should have just drifted on, but he was bent on marriage, and even began to prepare a house for me – that gave me a fright. What, live always a humdrum life in Liverpool: keep house, look after servants, have children, no, no, no! Then came Santley’s suggestion and my father’s consent; it was a heaven-sent deliverance and I was off as joyously as a bird freed from a cage.
Even then I had not shaken off my lover, he exhausted himself and me in entreaties, and when I started on my journey he got into the train with me and went half-way to London, begging me to change my mind and go back. It was a terrible affair, I was in tears, he, wild-eyed and desperate. Whatever did the other people in the carriage think of us, I wonder? But he gave it up at last, and I finished my journey alone.
I was then over twenty-one years of age and no raw girl, but a woman with bitter experience of life, and well armed against the usual dangers that beset country girls in London. Young as I was, love and marriage were things of the past for me, they had moulded my character and deepened my artistic qualities, but they were done with, my mind was the stronger for them, and open and free for other thoughts.
My life in London began humbly enough, in straitened circumstances and with the usual makeshifts and difficulties of the struggling young artist. My dear father paid for my classes and gave me a pound a week to live on – and I made it do. Would that be possible now, I wonder? Fifteen shillings went to pay for board and lodging, the rest was pocket money, dress, everything – and so I lived, rather like a sparrow on a branch.
My particular branch was in the house of a man who had courted one of my mother’s friends in her youth. Both the man and the girl married some one else, but the acquaintance was kept up, and, when my parents were casting about for some safe harbourage for me in London, this man was found willing to receive me into his family. He had three daughters and they all slept in the same room; a little bed in the corner of it was assigned to me, so there were the four of us together. My fifteen shillings a week paid for that and for my food, not very dainty fare as you may imagine, but sufficient for me, I never was a lover of the flesh-pots. I was quite happy with them all and shared what they had or went short of as one of the family, I studied hard and was too busy to notice deficiencies. There were always my own clothes to make and mend, for everything I wore then and for years afterwards was made by my own hands. I did my little laundry work in hand-basins as girls in lodgings do, and darned my stockings until often there was more darn than stocking.
When anything was left out of that very hard-worked five shillings of pocket-money I took a penny bus and went to the theatre, oftenest to the opera at Covent Garden, waiting there in the queue with other penniless enthusiasts, mounting the steep, ill-lighted stairs with a merry heart, and sitting spell-bound under the charm of those Italian operas that one seldom hears now. An evening of bliss, forgetful of past troubles and present hardships, then home again on my penny bus – if it wasn’t too full – if it was I had to walk, sometimes in pouring rain. But what did that matter? I had spent an evening in Paradise, and I slipped out of my wet clothes and into my little bed, and slept and dreamed of a glorious future.
Such was my life as one of that busy household in Percy Street, Tottenham Court Road, and I believe the old house stands there yet.
One of the boys of that family was severely stage-struck, and later became a fairly successful concert promoter. In those early days of his enthusiasms he hired a schoolroom somewhere in St. Martin’s Lane, and got up a one-night show in which I acted. For that occasion I adopted the high-sounding name of Carlotta Romaine, using my own second Christian name of Charlotte, and the maiden name of my grandmother.
All this time Santley’s kind interest in me never flagged, he was always ready with suggestions and advice, and with more practical help. It was his idea that I should enter myself for the Westmorland Scholarship at the Academy of Music. To win that would have been an immense help to me financially, not to mention the creditable position as a rising musician that it would have carried with it.
But I did not win it. Perhaps the feeling of all that it meant unnerved me, perhaps I had over-studied and under-fed, I cannot remember now, but at the examination I suffered from a complaint to which I have never before or since been liable – from stage-fright. An Italian aria was given me to sing, but try as I would I could not sing in tune. They were all so kind, they encouraged me and let me try again and again. “Let her try again, let her try again,” said Sir Alexander Mackenzie indulgently; he must have seen how frightened I was, and how unable to do myself justice. Three chances they gave me, but I could not sing it, my intense desire to succeed was my undoing.
Poor dear Santley was bitterly disappointed, he had said so many kind things about me, and I had disgraced myself and him too. The only course now was to go in for the ordinary entrance examination at the Academy, and perversely enough, now that the urgency of fear was removed, I passed with flying colours. One of the tutors offered to accompany my song, but with spirits rising again I said with my usual self-sufficiency that he would probably put me out, and I sat down at the piano and played and sang “Nobil Signor” with complete success.
Then began a very happy year of hard study. My singing master was Manuel Garcia, the best teacher of his day, who had once taught Jenny Lind. When he scolded me – as he often did – I used to retort, “Well, every one isn’t a Jenny Lind, you know.” A sign of grace that, in me – recognition of the fact that I had superiors!
Garcia was then over eighty, he was crotchety and irritable, his outbursts of temper used to upset his pupils and make them cry. It was rather a satisfaction to him, I think, to look round a circle of weeping femininity and feel his power. But it was a satisfaction that I never gave him, however harshly he rated me, and one day, exasperated by my want of sensibility, he said to me:
“Why don’t you cry ?”
“Because I want my lesson, please, Signor,” was my matter-of-fact reply.
Not satisfied with lessons and study, I seized every chance of singing in public, and thus gaining practical experience I sang with or without fees for whoever would employ me. Very often I was paid, but if not, no matter, I sang all the same. I accepted engagements to appear at band concerts all over the country, perhaps on one occasion only at each place; but no journey was too long and no conditions were too hard for me. I sang in private houses, I sang for charity concerts, wherever I could get a hearing; and gradually I established my position and got better engagements. In those days we young singers had to work long and hard at our profession; to have a pretty face and neat ankles was not enough then, though, for stage work at least, it seems to be the chief thing to-day. Not for us the fat salaries and easy conditions that singers enjoy now. I have known what it was to want a meal, and have lived and dressed myself on a sum that would not keep a girl of to-day in silk stockings. We did not show our legs – that would have been quite too shocking! – and it was certainly cheaper to keep them covered.
Gradually my position improved, I was referred to in the Press as “the celebrated R.A.M. contralto,” and sang at such places as Sheffield, Harrogate, Brighton, Scarborough, Douglas, Manchester, and even in the grand concerts at the Crystal Palace, that goal of a young artist’s ambition. I was a great favourite at Scarborough, and frequently sang at the concerts held in the Aquarium there, which was open in those days from ten in the morning until ten at night; and, rather appropriately, my most successful song was entitled “The Deep, Deep Sea.”
In London I sang at the Flute Soirées and Concertina Concerts held in the Langham Hall – what memories these names may recall to the concert-goers of a bygone day! – and one concert at which I appeared, in the Queen’s Theatre, Long Acre, deserves special mention. It was held in July, 1877, and one of the items on the programme was an exhibition of the wonderful electric instrument, “The Telephone,” invented by Mr. Cromwell F. Varley. Melodies played in the Canterbury Hall, Westminster Bridge Road, were audible in the Queen’s Theatre, and an explanatory address was given by Professor Field. What a long way we have travelled since then!
During that London era I sang nearly every Sunday for the Theosophical Society, whose services were conducted by the Reverend Charles Voysey, at their church in Swallow Street, off Regent Street. It was there that I first met the young soprano, Leonora Braham, with whom I was afterwards associated for so many years at the Savoy.
All this time my dear friend, Santley, had never ceased to help and encourage me, and my rising fortunes gave him sincere pleasure; but it is rather amusing to remember that, just at the time when he was encouraging me as a singer, Sir Julius Benedict was urging me to concentrate on the piano. So may doctors of music as well as doctors of medicine disagree.
At this time, also, I became acquainted with many other musicians and singers whose names will be familiar to readers of my own generation: such as Ben Davies, Hermann Vezin, Miss Cora Stuart, Signor Frederici, Mrs. James O’Hara, Mr. Snazelle, Van Biene the ’cellist already famous by reason of his “Broken Melody,” and Madame Odoardo Barri, of the New York Academy.
Mention of Madame Barri recalls to my mind one of the provincial tours in which she was a member of a party including also a fiery Spaniard named Signor Urio. This man fell violently in love with me, and declared his passion with Southern ardour. When I repulsed him he threatened to shoot me, and it really did seem as if tragedy was imminent. Fortunately Madame Barri was there to befriend me, I locked myself into my room and she guarded me and brought me food at intervals, until my inconvenient admirer had been got rid of, and induced to transfer himself and his emotions to another company.
A concert which greatly influenced the after course of my life was held at St. George’s Hall, Portland Place. I sang, and was well received; “She Wore a Wreath of Roses,” I remember, was my best number. In the interval the Director came and told me that two gentlemen wished to speak to me. You will have gathered that love affairs were not on my programme at that period, I regarded all men outside my profession with suspicion; and my response was:
“I don’t want to see them – what do they want of me ?”
However, the Director persuaded me to go and interview these two, who turned out to be Mr. D’Oyly Carte and Mr. Nathaniel Verte, both well-known impresarios.
Mr. Carte, an alert-looking man with a short, black beard, was the spokesman, and he asked me if I would like some concert engagements. I replied rather shortly:
“That is what I am here for.”
I am afraid he soon had to accustom himself to my rather outspoken methods, and my disinclination to order myself lowly and reverently towards my betters, but he seemed not to resent it. He was then a leading concert promoter, so that notice from him was distinctly a feather in my cap. He had already become associated with Gilbert and Sullivan, then just at the beginning of their long artistic partnership; first at the Royalty Theatre with “Trial by Jury,” and afterwards at the Opera Comique with “The Sorcerer.” He engaged me to sing at his concerts, and that was the beginning of our long connection.
It was in the year 1878 that I went home to see my parents in Liverpool and enjoy a brief holiday after much hard work. I had established my name in London, I was a rising singer, and my dear father’s belief in me and sacrifices for me had been justified. But my ambition was far from being satisfied, I wanted more worlds to conquer. One of my dreams was to see my name walking up and down Regent Street on a sandwich man’s back – and this I actually did see, eventually. So never say die, you aspirants for fame!
Well, while I was in Liverpool a telegram came for me one morning. “Would you like comic opera call eleven o’clock my office D’Oyly Carte.”
It was like a trumpet call! To go on the stage, to play in a company which was doing something entirely new and original in light opera! The name of Gilbert and Sullivan was already ringing through the country, I knew well what chances of advancement association with it would give to me. But – it was the Victorian era, the stage was frowned upon by the respectable, and I had been trained in the strict conditions of concert and oratorio singing. Would not such a change in my life mean social downfall, and would not my parents think I had gone to perdition? I dared not tell them of Carte’s offer, I knew too well beforehand how strong their objections would be. But in my eyes the prospect was too dazzling, I could not turn away from it. I made some excuse about a pressing engagement in London, packed in hot haste, and caught the first possible train. At eleven o’clock on the appointed morning I was in Mr. D’Oyly Carte’s office. He offered me an engagement in his company, and without hesitation I signed a contract for three years, at the princely salary – for – me of three pounds a week.
I was launched at last; my future, if I could please him, was secure.
15 November, 2008