My Orphic Experience: Christoph Willibald Gluck Comes to Corby
The musical idiom I went crazy and “gone” over in 1955-56 was the new rage of rockabilly and the four-four beat and clatter of rock and roll. For most of us, it all began with clumsy 78 rpms and Elvis (the Pelvis) Presley’s “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog,” (really just entitled “Hound Dog” but why not slur out the whole line?). We kids did our best to play it at fever pitch, when parents who didn’t approve were scarce, and danced the bop-style boogie-woogie like the older kids showed us. This wonderful noise and rhythm we daily struggled to find space and time for. This was mostly music of home life, for those lucky enough to have a record player. Rock n’ roll was unfortunately never a feature of Britain’s stately radio programs in those days.
At school it was very different. There an old-fashioned musical theme prevailed: traditional hymns at morning prayers and sedate sacred choir compositions in music class. In the grammar school (as British high school or college prep levels were known) our music master wore a coal-gray cloak and even on occasion a mortarboard when he strode through the halls between classes. He was the choir master, Dr. Neville Dilkes, who picked out a dozen or so of us young boys still possessed of virginal vocal chords that could manage the range into high treble notes, such as the sublime Vienna Boys Choirs are known for: “O, for the wings, o the wings of a dove….”
On occasion, we of the morning boys’ choir, used to standing on stage during morning prayers, were conducted by Master Dilkes down to the 18th-century Episcopal Parish Church in the old village of Corby. The acoustics of the stone chapel aided our perfecting the tonality the master desired. The way we saw it, Dilkes went ecstatic while playing the organ. In late winter of 1956 I remember once or twice a week after classes, we rode our bikes down from Corby Grammar School, usually in a miserable gray drizzle, for an hour’s practice standing in the great, cold, stone choir alcove of the airy chapel. There we had to learn to sing pieces in Latin for the upcoming Ides of March ceremony.
Fuit Caesar, omnibus praestantior. (Once he was Caesar, pre-eminent among all men.)
It nunc per iter tenebricosum. (Now he travels the path of dark shadows.)
This dirge we were eventually to chant out through trembling blue lips, against the chill breeze of March, standing on a hillock, clad in T-shirt and briefs beneath togas of white bed sheets. Caesar’s bier would be paraded before us, surrounded by a procession of armored soldiers and sheet-toga’d Roman citizens.
In art classes we had made Roman insignia with Eagle standards and SPQR banners, soldiers’ helmets, cardboard armor and greaves of soccer shin guards, all colored with metallic gilt paints. Our mothers sent us to school with eggs and rolls, bags of grapes, apples and bananas for refreshments at a funeral banquet in the school canteen. As I recall, after the outdoor performance, we choir boys had to perform extra songs of mourning in the “triclinium” banquet room, our eyes growing large and anxious while our friends enjoyed the feast. Some left-overs we hoped the greedy-guts would save for our treats. What some of them were I cannot forget: boiled purple-yolk eggs and strange snails which the school supplied.
As choir boys for two or three years from ages 11 to 13, we also played our part at other ceremonies, learning Master Dilkes’ quite difficult scores, practiced ad nauseam. He was a good egg to tolerate our shenanigans so long as we could sustain the proper notes and diligently learned our verses. These were years of dutiful pupil-hood, performing as puppets for whatever the masters and mistresses wanted of us. Then, one day in 1957, the year before my emigration from England to America, the puppetry act ceased. Neville Dilkes’ music for us to practice grew serious, stranger, excruciatingly difficult and far more dolorous than even the dirges of the Ides of March ceremony.
Doctor Dilkes grew his hair long so it flowed upward and back as he flew on his bicycle into the school yard, and it flew that way more frequently as we choristers followed him in a bike line down High Street Lane to the village chapel, early fall weather coming on. Now, in the dank chapel, we stayed till long after dark (around 4:30 pm in those latitudes) practicing songs of difficult rhythms and tediously repetitive verses. Long-hair Dilkes weaved and bounced with his fingers on the pipe organ, all stops out, playing what he called the “Underworld” passages, with some name like Luck or Glue attached to them. The deep importance of this somber music was apparent to us all. Let out of school in mid-afternoon, we often missed the last class. Practicing long hours, we’d better have our lamp batteries fully charged for the bike ride home, long after even the workers were released in droves from the nearby steelworks. Neville–which was what we privately called him—impressed upon us that we would play a very important part in an evening performance to come. No slackers, we’d better get it perfected before the time came.
The whole period of preparation was difficult to explain to my parents, my aunt, and grandmother who questioned where I had been, coming regularly home so late from school long after normal teatime. Being rather tacit and secretive by nature, not thoroughly conscious of what it all meant, all I could tell them was we were important as the choir for an upcoming evening performance at the school. I could sing passages of what was obviously classical music to give them a clue, but intellectually I knew little of the overall performance it was intended for. As a student I was a terrible listener, my mind often blank or in reverie of something I’d rather be doing. Besides, excuses were legion: other studies still had to be attended to as homework and preparation for exams was always mind-blurring and stressful for me. Until next practice, whatever we were torturing our voices for, I would let my thoughts wander like any juvenile’s brain would allow. Little did I know I was undergoing a rite of passage and the day would come when I would see the light. The dusk of autumn, however, was still predominant through the weeks of practice leading up to the night of the performance.
Then during the week before the Friday night performance, we cocky boys of the choir felt our importance shrink. On the school stage for what would be serious rehearsals, it was not just us twelve trebles that showed up, but 128 other older students and grown-ups, some gray-haired. Neville, striding in with great pomp, began arranging the 140 bodies into places over the stage and upper benches at the back of the hall curtains, explaining how dreadfully important it was we get this right before Friday arrived. At the grand piano, Master Dilkes banged out the introduction, and soon, at the loaded glance and the nod of the master’s head, the massive choir began to sing voluminously and impressively the verses in conjunction with the parts we had separately been learning for weeks. What a shock this was! We were but a small unit of a grand choral arrangement of Gluck’s Orpheus in the Underworld. Yet a greater shock was still to come.
Neville the devil took us aside to the music room one afternoon before the evening practice. Clearing his throat, he switched on his acoustic equipment and placed the stylus carefully on a turntable, onto a record, not unlike those Elvis Presley and Gene Vincent recorded on, but one with a distinguished-looking maroon label, His Master’s Voice, the dark platter taken from a box set. We sat enchanted listening to Eileen Farrell (1920-2002) sing the aria “Che faró senza Euridice” from Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice. (See footnote.) The melody was sublime. Little did we know that this was sung in part III by Orpheus, but that did not matter; we knew what joy lay ahead when the big night came.
I remember riding home on my bike singing the parts we had learned for the grand choral evening. I walked dreamily about the house chanting out the dirge, “Let him pass in, His boon to win!” over and over. The final rehearsal passed and we were informed the major singers would arrive tomorrow. Major Singers? What singers!? Puzzled and deflated we left the hall bewildered.
The evening arrived. Scrubbed and dressed in my best school uniform, I went off early to find my place with the treble gang among the host of well-dressed choristers from elsewhere. The hall filled up with the audience of mumbling town folk, and then a hush was called as Herr Doctor Neville Dilkes introduced the evening of music to come and then to my—our—great surprise, he brought on the four opera singers, the major voices, whom we, the vast 140, would be supporting. It was an evening of shock—not just the sheer beauty of the sounds, with operatic voices swelling and soaring—the whole performance went smoothly according to Neville’s conducting nods and quieting hand gestures. The profession singers were astounding to my ears. Applause was raucous, the personages bowed and scraped, and Neville the Dilkes, his hair flopping, bowed himself silly. We all trundled off stage and my family went home by bus; I rode on my bike. Job done.
The shock was that our boys’ choir, having practiced for weeks, played such a small part in the whole choral extravaganza behind the voices brought in from some large city beyond our town in tiny, minor Midlands county.
This event was my Orphic mystery, one of many rites of passage to come.
David Gilmour, March, 2015
Unable to find a YouTube of Eileen Farrell, I have chosen a version by Maria Callas singing Orfeo’s “J’ai perdu mon Eurydice”