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The Beethoven Obsession
By Brendan Ward
University of New South Wales Press LtdCopyright © 2013 Brendan Ward
All rights reserved.
Bodgies, widgies ... and Beethoven
Kingaroy in the 1950s was an insignificant speck on the map, four bone-rattling hours by road from Queensland's capital. Conservative to its core, it was best known for peanuts and, in the years ahead, a hard-nosed Lutheran called Joh Bjelke-Petersen. This was where Brisbane newlyweds Carmel Doneley and Leonard Ward set up shop during the war, after the Depression had ravaged their families' wealth. Carmel Doneley had been a brilliant academic and talented pianist who jettisoned a stellar future to be with the man she loved in the cultural desert they called home for twenty-eight years. Music was in her DNA. Her mother, a church organist, had topped the state in piano in 1900 and Carmel, the eldest of eight, followed suit.
In May 1927, a Miss Beppie de Vries was the headline act at Brisbane's His Majesty's Theatre. The 'Famous Dutch Star' was ending her sold-out run in the musical comedy Madame Pompadour to make way for the Russian violin virtuoso Jascha Heifetz. On the last Thursday of that month, the nearby School of Arts hosted a concert featuring precocious graduates from the London Trinity College of Music's antipodean outpost. The closing performance, the slow movement of Beethoven's fifth piano sonata, was played by Carmel Doneley. The work of a moody Beethoven that night was in the delicate hands of a teenager from the Queensland scrub. Its subtle pauses, the simple chords that brought it hypnotically to a close confirmed the start of her lifelong spiritual love affair with the man she called 'the behemoth from Bonn'. Beethoven's piano sonatas – thirty-two works that transformed the genre handed down by great composers such as Domenico Scarlatti, Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – would underpin Carmel's devotion to classical music. Seventy-one years after that Brisbane performance and just four months before Carmel Ward died, her son would be overseeing a unique Australian recording of Beethoven's sonata number five.
* * *
The small wooden house in Albert Street where Len and Carmel Ward settled was filled with music: a mother's voice singing alternated with bewitching sounds – more than likely Beethoven – from her cherished piano. It was where I, their only child, spent the first twelve years of my life. By the time the wind-up gramophone and scratchy 78s of Artur Schnabel playing Beethoven's piano sonatas were replaced by an electric record player and remastered LPs, I was tuning in to tales from Enid Blyton and W E Johns – Noddy and Big Ears one year; James 'Biggles' Bigglesworth the next. Always followed by the music whether recorded or live. My mother was both storyteller and concertmaster. Bedtime Beethoven – Schnabel or Carmel.
It was the era of bodgies and widgies. Elvis was king. His local subjects cruised the streets in souped-up FJ Holdens. Throughout the week Kingaroy was a Bible-Belt town divided by religion. On weekends it was the destination for an unruly indigenous community blighted by drink and unemployment. Drunken brawling on a Saturday afternoon among Aborigines from the nearby Cherbourg Mission was the curtain-raiser to a pious Sunday morning for Catholic and Protestant congregations – the respite before irregular enmities resumed, contingent on how one pronounced the eighth letter of the alphabet. The local radio station filled in the gaps in conversation with a fast-food diet of serials, sport and hillbilly hits. Once a year an eisteddfod tempered the grit of life, showcasing talent from the district's schools: their bands, dancers, musicians and verse speakers. Among those assisting adjudicators from 'the South' was my mother. In the audience, calming juvenile nerves, her good friend and my piano teacher, 'Bonnie' McKinnon.
'Bonnie' was really Madeline. A spinster with greying hair and a slight stoop, she lived alone in what to a wide-eyed eight-year-old appeared to be an enormous haunted house guarded by two sentry-like trees. My first piano lesson was on Australia Day in 1959. From then on, twice a week after school, I would set out from my father's newsagency, alone on foot, to the haunted house to play Miss McKinnon the scales I had practised and the simple melodies I had learnt. The fifteen-minute excursion took me past Nicholson's Music Shop, through a park filled with trees, noisy birds, swings and my favourite slippery dip, around a rotunda commemorating the district's fallen war heroes, past the croquet club with white adults in white uniforms hitting white balls through white metal hoops, and finally across a gravel strip to 5 Burnett Street. If early I would wait outside and listen to another student's plinking sounds accompany the currawong chorus in the nearby gums. Either that or a game of fiddlesticks on the kitchen table kept mind and fingers occupied and thoughts of ghosts in check until my name was called. I would then gingerly approach a sleek, black piano. Compared to my mother's Palings upright, Miss McKinnon's Bechstein grand was a luxury.
That year was Queensland's centenary. Across the state we celebrated our separation from New South Wales with parades and festivals. In Kingaroy, the town's annual show had record gate takings of £1627 and the eisteddfod marked its silver jubilee. (It had to be abandoned the following year due to a lack of interest.) Peanuts – and alcohol – kept the town ticking. Unseasonal weather could not stop a huge crowd cheering on the inaugural Peanut Festival parade and a bumper crop coincided with what was billed as the biggest promotional campaign for eating peanuts ever undertaken in Australia. In the court of petty sessions, local resident George Lubke pleaded guilty to driving under the influence and was fined £40. He told police he had driven his Fargo ute after drinking more than thirty beers.
Not long after starting my lessons, Bonnie McKinnon organised a concert to raise funds to buy the local ambulance a two-way radio and, according to the local paper, 'to provide the community with a cultural treat'. The highlight was a performance of Beethoven's Waldstein sonata by an Australian Broadcasting Commission artist 'of many years standing', Miss Dulcie Sampson. I had heard Schnabel's vinyl version of this sonata, but I will never forget seeing it played for the first time. The church hall upright could not have been the ideal instrument to showcase this mighty work, but at the time I was transfixed. Fingers raced up and down the keyboard in a black and white blur of flesh and ivory. The Waldstein is pure Beethoven – a show stopper anywhere.
A cultural refuge was the home of local ambulance chief and eisteddfod impresario Herb Biddle. One night a week, a small group of classical music lovers would gather round Biddle's record player, a HMV four-speed radiogram 'consolette' – the best in town – to listen to the latest long-playing releases from Nicholson's Music Shop. Wilhelm Kempff's recording of Beethoven's Emperor concerto was one LP that made the cash register ring. The chief's house was next to the ambulance station, so the genial Biddle was always on stand-by in case of an emergency. Despite that he insisted on two rules for the musical routine at his soirees: lights were out and no one spoke. All the better to appreciate the Emperor in glorious mono. It was here that the local branch of the Arts Council was born, with my mother voted in as secretary. It was also where plans were hatched to bring opera and symphony concerts to town.
The first landmark to catch the eye of Rudolph Pekárek as his train pulled into Kingaroy station on a crisp Monday morning in May 1960 was a giant cluster of concrete phalluses protruding from the one-storied landscape. Built in the town's centre, the peanut silos dominated it visually and commercially. With Pekárek, a Czech-born Jew who survived Auschwitz, were fifty-six musicians from the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. Kingaroy was the first stop on a fortnight-long rail tour of the state that took the orchestra and their illustrious conductor as far north as Cairns. Eight towns, sixteen concerts. Welcome to the Queensland bush! It was the orchestra's first trip to Kingaroy and a major coup for Biddle and Ward. It would not be their last. Five months later the Elizabethan Theatre Trust Opera Company staged Verdi's Rigoletto in the Club Hall. It was the first opera ever performed in the shadows of those skyscraping silos and five hundred locals turned up to see it and to be seen. One reviewer praised them for their 'very appropriate and well-timed applause' and another for being 'fully attentive'. But the highest compliment was reserved for their 'outstanding frocking ... with furs and theatre coats being worn as the night was a cold one'. I don't remember the furs, but I do remember a wild, kinetic kaleidoscope of dark grey curly hair, flapping arms and flashing fingers in a whir of action below the front of centre stage. This was opera at its most basic – no sets on stage, just the cast; no fifty-piece orchestra, just music director Georg Tintner and an old upright piano. Tintner, another escapee from the Nazis, was simultaneously conducting and playing the score in a hyperactive performance that will live with me forever.
At every opportunity my mother would take me by bus to Brisbane to see how opera was properly staged. In July that year, as snow fell in Kingaroy for the first time in living memory, we went to see Joan Hammond and Donald Smith in Madam Butterfly. Puccini's drama was one of three the Elizabethan Theatre Trust Opera Company was cramming into a fortnight at Her Majesty's Theatre. Brisbane's leading critic complained about the audience's persistent and 'pernicious habit of applauding at the end of a scene'. To highlight the parlous state of opera at that time, all the singers' contracts expired immediately after the final performance. This prompted musical director Karl Rankl, yet another refugee from Nazi tyranny, to warn audiences that his company could no longer do opera 'as we have done it so far'. The Brisbane Courier Mail's music writer, Roger Covell, predicted the end of professional opera in Australia.
That prophecy proved to be unfounded. Georg Tintner returned to Kingaroy two years later to conduct another Verdi opera, La Traviata, from the same upright in the same hall, watched attentively by the town's well-frocked audience. Once again, his mop of hair and waving arms and hands kept us spellbound. Unfortunately, my musical upbringing was nearing an end.
Success in the annual AMEB piano exams – passing each grade with honours – helped me retain a happy relationship with Miss McKinnon and her mighty Bechstein. However, like thousands of country kids with parents wanting to give them a better education, I was shunted off to boarding school. Miss McKinnon wished me well, made me promise to continue my piano studies and reminded me to 'keep practising those scales' before I left Kingaroy to join four hundred other boys in our new home away from home, Downlands College. As my father's Holden reached Mount Kynoch on the outskirts of Toowoomba, the school's red brick buildings and green playing fields came into view in the valley below. My heart sank as it would every time we made that trip over the next five years. No more listening to my mother playing the Moonlight or Tempest sonatas at bedtime, or anytime. No more Für Elise, no more Beethoven. In my mother's family, Downlands was much more than a Catholic boarding school. Tyson Manor, the original homestead that housed the priests who taught at the college, had once been owned by my great-grandfather.
At Downlands sport ruled. The college maintained a grand rugby tradition with the First XV the pride of the school. Studies came a close second, helped along by a liberal handout of corporal punishment. (My Latin class counted down to Easter holidays one year with a daily increase in the number of straps for failing tests.) A weekly assembly marked the passage of time. But of all the assemblies I attended in those years, the only one I remember is the first. Standing in front of the school's all-male body was its grey-haired rector, Father Mooney. As he droned on and on in an endless monotone listing the school's rules (no smoking, drinking, or escaping) and a variety of punishments (Saturday detention) it was obvious why he was nicknamed 'Dead Fred'. 'Those boys who want to learn the piano, assemble in the priests' library after this and see Father Sykes,' brought the tedium to a close. That meant me ... me and, as fate would have it, only four others. Five out of four hundred. Not even a rugby pack. Life away from home was difficult enough, but the unholy reception reserved for 'sissies' that greeted me in the Year 8 dormitory on my return from Father Sykes ended my piano playing days for thirty-two years. The cloistered life at boarding school meant that my decision remained hidden from my mother and Miss McKinnon until the end of term. By then, despite their displeasure, there was no going back.CHAPTER 2
A very grand grand piano
He thinks it was 1987, but it might have been 1986. 'Three of us were just walking around looking,' says Kevin Atkinson, describing the day he stumbled across a whitish-coloured log with tiny black markings lying in a mountain stream. Atkinson could not believe his eyes. There, in an unnamed tributary of the King River on Tasmania's rugged west coast, was a perfect specimen of Huon pine. 'I've gotta have it,' he thought. He checked the growth rings. 'Would've been eight hundred to a thousand years old.' A baby really. Some of the Huon pine Atkinson would excavate before they dammed the King River was, by his reckoning, five thousand years old or even more. But this piece, submerged under a current of crystal-clear water, was special. Those small black markings, the bird's eye, a rarity among the pines and the best Atkinson had ever seen, increased its value enormously.
It took them two days to lug the wood to Atkinson's craft shop in the tiny township of Zeehan, birthplace of the once-famous pianist Eileen Joyce. There he planned to cut it up and make as many tourist souvenirs such as jewellery cases and model ships as possible. It would be a lowly end for this prince of trees.
Huon pines are among the oldest trees on earth. Their timber is soft, sapless and oily. They do not rot and are slow growing, adding about a millimetre each year to their diameter. They are unique to Tasmania, found mainly in the state's west along riverbanks and swamps. Today they are protected, but in the early days of white settlement they were felled in great numbers for shipbuilding. Felled by men called 'piners': men as unforgiving as the wilderness where they worked and as durable as the trees they downed. Atkinson was a modern-day piner.
The piners' folklore began in 1822 with the convicts from Tasmania's penal settlement, Sarah Island. For more than a decade they were forced, under threat of beatings and starvation, to log timber in the virgin, inhospitable country nearby. Pristine beauty assaulted by spartan brutality. The leech-ridden creeks and swollen rivers became highways for the piners as they floated massive logs to remote settlements for milling. Timber was in great demand throughout the British Empire, reliant as it was on shipping for prosperity. Gutsy generations of piners followed before their domain was turned into an environmental battleground when the state tried to dam the rivers in the 1980s for electricity. Harvesting Huon pine is still allowed, but only the logs lying in riverbeds and on forest floors.
Kevin Atkinson went to school with the Stuart brothers, Wayne and Colin. The three boys had something in common – a love of wood. Woodworking was a tradition in the Leven Valley, south-west of Devonport, and Wayne Stuart routinely topped his class with eye-catching cabinets and drawers, sometimes even a model piano. The brothers – Wayne in particular – were quick to earn a reputation for excellence in the craft.
Kevin Atkinson's shop has long gone. He pulled up stumps in 1992. But he still remembers the day his old schoolmate, the champion woodworker, walked into his shop and back into his life. In the year or so since he had dragged the bird's eye pine out of the King River basin it had sat in pieces in a shed, drying under a hessian blanket. Out of sight but not out of mind. 'It wasn't for sale,' says Atkinson. 'I wanted to make my own stuff out of it. I was making large tabletops out of Huon pine, but not with this one ... just had it sitting there.'
Excerpted from The Beethoven Obsession by Brendan Ward. Copyright © 2013 Brendan Ward. Excerpted by permission of University of New South Wales Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Author's Biographical Note,
1 Bodgies, widgies ... and Beethoven,
2 A very grand grand piano,
3 Destination Australie,
4 Run by Yamaha, taught by Suzuki,
5 Hawking condoms and contraband,
6 'Not Fit for Overseas Service',
7 Bureaucracy and the cultural cringe,
8 Rallying behind the renegade,
9 Out of tune at the Opera House,
10 The man who invented Beethoven,
11 The big, goofy guy,
12 'Oh no ... fuckin' old repertoire!',
13 Recording Beethoven the Australian way,
14 From the sublime to the profane,
15 Beethoven has the last word,
16 'Thirteen down, only nineteen to go',
17 Bucking the Steinway trend,
18 Beethoven's greatest challenge,
19 Beethoven tops the sales charts,
20 'A high note of pure gold',
21 Into the war zone,
22 The impact of one tiny note,
23 Orchestral manoeuvring,
24 Revealing the piano's full set of teeth,
25 Unfinished business,
26 Diabolical Diabelli,
27 Variations on the make-up of a genius,
28 Steinway's marketing muscle,
29 A perfect match,
Epilogue: Reconstructing Beethoven,