I was about to say that our New Year’s music wasn’t the sound of the waltzes and marches from that gilded and flower-bedecked Concert Hall in Vienna, convincing ourselves that it was better on TV as we got to see the dancers and the scenery as well as hearing the music. But it was, though even when I was quite little, something struck a false note about the encores that you just knew were going to happen, and the orchestrated clapping at the very end, with the very raggedness having something that wasn’t entirely random about it. All the same, I still loved the music, and was both comforted and unsettled by the melancholy inside the rhythms and the frivolity. Yes, that was our New Year’s Day music, but it wasn’t our New Year’s Eve music.
Seeing the New Year in was a ritual, and one that must be observed in every detail. I was allowed to sit up for it from when I turned eleven. No, I was not allowed. I was expected. It was expected. Let me give no false impressions here. If I had said I was tired and I didn’t want to stay up, nobody would have forced me back down on my chair, nor even told me I was ungrateful and odd. I would have been greeted the next morning with a kiss and a sincere wish for a Happy New Year. I say “nobody”, but what I effectively mean is my parents. I was the late-coming only child of two lecturers, indulged in some ways, deprived (as I saw it) in others. Sometimes one of the neighbours popped in, and they were neither made unwelcome nor especially welcome. When Mr Bradley lived next door but one, as he was undeniably very tall and very dark, he was in popular demand with the more superstitious as a “first-footer”. He bore it patiently, and I doubt he ever revealed to anyone that he really didn’t like alcohol, but I knew he didn’t, because I knew without needing to look in a mirror that my expression was the same as his when he drunk it. But Mr Bradley had moved away, and after he had, Mummy made a great point of saying that he was a thoroughly nice man and she didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but it was all just silly superstition, really.
“We all have our rituals,” Daddy said, in that non-committal way of his. They were always very civilised. When I was little, I mean VERY little, I had called them Mamma and Papa, but I discovered when I started at Kindergarten that nowadays NOBODY called their parents that, no matter what their heritage was. So I was allowed to say Mummy and Daddy, at least until I grew out of my childish lisp and could pronounce my “th” sounds. I longed to call them Mum and Dad, and I’m sure they must have suspected that I did at school, so we reached a tacit bargain that as long as I didn’t do it at home they wouldn’t make an issue of it.
But to get back to the music. We saw the New Year in with Wagner. With great chunks of massively orchestrated soaring chords and heroic tenors and sopranos living in a mythological land that had once seduced a boy king.
Earlier on in the evening, there were the “bite-sized chunks”. I liked them despite myself. I liked the sea-spray that splashed on us from the overture to the Flying Dutchman, and the drama of Siegfried slaying the dragon. My foot tapped to the apprentice’s dance from the Meistersinger, and I felt the joyous solemnity of the wedding march from Lohengrin.
The thing is, Mummy and Daddy did love Wagner, but they weren’t the sort of people for whom he is the only composer who has ever existed or deserved to exist. At other times of year we went for days and weeks without hearing a single note he composed or a single word he penned, and listened to poignant Schubert song cycles, and Chopin’s piano music that made the piano sound more eloquent than a full symphony orchestra. We by no means only listened to classical music, either. I grew up to Johnny Cash and Edith Piaf, to Joan Baez and the Glenn Miller orchestra. They made a point of never condemning what was in what they rather quaintly called the charts, and said that Noel Coward had been right about the potency of cheap music, but the fact remains, they still called it cheap, even if only quoting someone else, who happened to be, in his quirky way, a favourite of theirs.
But on New Year’s Eve, it had to be Wagner. And as the minutes and hours edged by, and became long since my normal bedtime (though they had always been lenient on the matter of reading in bed) it had to be Parsifal. We had a DVD of it, as we did of many operas, but that wasn’t part of the ritual. They had only quite recently, and reluctantly, replaced their old vinyl records of it with a CD, but it had the same cast, it was exactly the same recording, the Georg Solti one, and they said that vinyl still had a sound to it that even CDs never did, let alone – they said it as if it were a mild swear word in a foreign language they half understood – downloads. I had my own cache of musical quotes, too. Ours was the kind of household where there were books of literary and musical quotes, and humorous ones, and the dictionary of National Biography, and a thick, well-thumbed thesaurus that really deserved the credit for the praise I garnered for being told I had a wide vocabulary. I knew that Rossini had been sarcastic about Wagner having beautiful moments and awful half-hours. I thought it was quite funny, but didn’t know if I agreed with it or not. I DID know that Rossini had been a Leap Year baby, and I had come close to being one, because I was born in a Leap Year, but on the 27th of February. I could never quite decide if that was a disappointment or a relief, either to me or to Mummy and Daddy.
I was called after a Wagner heroine, but it could have been worse. Mummy always said she had a weakness for the junior Valkyries, but didn’t saddle me with a name like Helmwige or Grimgerde, or even (didn’t the Mitford sister with a serious crush on Hitler have it as a middle name?) Valkyrie itself. I thought Senta and Elsa were pretty names, but knew that the former would have led to schoolyard jokes about Senta What? Senta Letter? Senta Clause, and the latter to remarks about lionesses. I could live with Elisabeth, and quite liked the slightly more unusual spelling with an “s” instead of a “z”.
Perhaps it was as well that unlike the Valkyries, the Flower Maidens in Parsifal didn’t have individual names, or heaven only knows what I may have ended up being called.
As I grew a bit older, and entered adolescence (which is a thing everyone does, but the word itself seems to have gone out of fashion) I mulled over some anomalies as we sat listening to Parsifal on New Year’s Eve and I certainly didn’t intend drawing my parents’ attention to the fact that I was generally only allowed one glass of wine. I decided it might be an acquired taste, and wished we had some savoury nibbles instead of mince pies, as their sweetness made the wine taste sour. Anyway, I thought, it was one of those quirky, inexplicable but somehow self-evident things that it was fine to play music related to Easter at any time of year, whether it was Parsifal, or the St Matthew Passion or Cavelleria Rusticana, but playing Christmas music at other times of year was just wrong and somehow vaguely embarrassing. It was true that the organist played some of Bach’s Wachet auf, uns ruft die Stimme at Great Uncle Conrad’s funeral, and that was in April, but maybe funerals are the only exception.
Not that it was Christmas any more, though we would leave the tree and the decorations and the cards up until 12th Night. More out of tradition than superstition.
Growing up made me more cynical and I decided there was something downright weird about Parsifal, and not just because we always played it on New Year’s Eve. That business about never applauding at the end of the first act, and as for a character who had suffered the same fate as our cat (though in the cat’s case, Mummy and Daddy tried rather too hard to convince themselves and me, if not the cat, for his own good) singing in the deepest and darkest of bass voices.
But there was still something pervasively appealing about it, and about the notion of the Holy Fool (though at times, beautifully sung as it was on our recording, I thought Downright Thick might be a better description, even if he was a good shot) finding his way into a magic garden full of seductive women with their hands all over him. It was a bit like the Song of Songs in the Bible, and wrong and right at the same time.
I was thirteen when Mummy told me what she called the “whole story” about why we played Parsifal on New Year’s Eve. Great-Great Aunt Nathalie (subsequently referred to as simply Aunt Nathalie, or Nathalie, or even Thalia) – Great Uncle Conrad’s mother – had been an opera singer. That didn’t surprise me as much as it might have done many girls. Our family was “musical” and not just because of the rich and varied record collection. Mummy was a good pianist and Daddy sung in a local choir where his flexible, sweet voice was admired, though it did fall somewhere uneasily between a tenor and a baritone. I had a good voice myself, and had taken piano lessons up to Grade 5, though recently I had got it into my head I wanted to learn to play the cello.
“Are there any recordings of her?” I asked, eagerly.
“We’ve not found any,” Mummy sighed. “And I don’t want you to run away with any grandiose notions, Elisabeth. I’m certainly not saying that, if things had worked out differently, she might not have been a great and famous singer. But she was only just starting to step out of the chorus. But I do have a picture.”
I knew this was something that mattered, and also knew that generally we weren’t the kind of family that pored over old albums ad infinitum. This photo wasn’t in an album, it was in a simple silver frame, under glass. The young woman on it wasn’t exactly pretty, but there was a sweetness in her face and an intensity in her eyes. It was a black and white photo, almost but not quite sepia-tinted, and I knew at once that she was wearing the costume of a Flower Maiden. “It was taken in a studio, so far as I know, and not on stage,” Mummy admitted. Many respectable middle class parents in a staunchly traditional little Swiss town at the time might have raised serious concerns about their daughter’s morals and welfare if she had expressed a wish to go on stage, but it seems that Thalia’s parents gave her their blessing. They lived not that far from Wagner’s own Swiss retreat at Triebschen, near Lucerne, which I knew now had a fine collection of decidedly Un-Wagnerian early instruments.
“The one thing they did insist on,” Mummy went on, “Was that she didn’t go to Germany to study – not then, in the 1930s. For obvious reasons,” she looked thoughtful. “Though I gather she wasn’t very pleased about it. I’m probably being fanciful and projecting my own feelings onto her, but I can imagine that she assured her parents she wouldn’t get involved in politics, and begged to be allowed to try to study in Berlin or Munich. But they wouldn’t budge on that, and she probably decided that at least she was allowed to study singing, so perhaps she shouldn’t make too much of a fuss.” Anyway, as she went on, there were some advantages to being a relatively big fish in a relatively small sea, and though Thalia was undeniably talented, she made more rapid progress in her musical career than she might have in a musical metropolis. Apparently her feet were still firmly on the ground, and it was her own idea that she taught music part-time at the local school to help finance her studies. “I gather,” Mummy smiled, “That one of her party tricks was that she was an excellent yodeller, though I daresay her singing teachers warned her it might damage her voice. But I imagine it impressed the children.”
There was a lot of “I daresay” and “I imagine” in the story, as there had to be, but it all seemed to fit, and I found myself wishing so much I had known her.
Every two years they had a music festival in the town, almost always held in February – between Christmas and Springtime.
“Like my birthday!” I exclaimed.
“Yes – like your birthday. Anyway, though they knew they didn’t have the means to put on a full-scale operatic production, and certainly not of a Wagner opera, part of it was always that they did at least an act of one – and fully staged, with costumes and props.” I knew she approved of that. Listening to opera on the radio or on CDs was fine, you could use your own imagination, but no matter how beautifully it was sung, Mummy maintained that there was something intrinsically wrong about people in rows in suits and evening dresses.
Thalia was chosen as one of the Flower Maidens. As Mummy said, she probably sighed that there was no solo female role for a high soprano voice in Parsifal, but as she had also been promised she would be one of the performers at the Lieder recital, she wasn’t unduly upset, and especially as she appeared to have a mild crush on the tenor who was singing Parsifal, she decided it would have its consolations. “I can tell you what colour the costumes were,” she said, “Lilac and pink and cream and blue,” I tried to paint the black and white photo with the pastel palette.
“I’m afraid, Elisabeth,” Mummy said, quietly, “This is where I have to warn you that the story doesn’t have a happy ending – that’s why we waited until you were more grown-up to tell you.”
That New Year’s Eve was as beautiful as only a winter day in the mountains can be, but there was not total peace and silence there, not any longer. The motor car had come. Thalia’s own parents didn’t own one, though her father could drive. At first Thalia probably smiled and called out a greeting when she saw one of her little pupils, a cheeky, likeable girl called Greta, working with rapt concentration on a snowman in the front garden of her family’s brightly painted chalet. But then she saw the car skid on the icy road that had not been treated and career out of control heading towards Greta who was like a baby rabbit frozen with fear in its path. Thalia acted from instinct, rushed across the road and pushed Greta out of the path of the car.
It so easily could have been a happy ending, with the little town celebrating their “sweet voiced heroine”. It came within a couple of millimetres of being a happy ending. But Thalia, normally sure-footed, tripped over a tree root lying in ambush under the blanket of snow – and into the path of the car. “She didn’t stand a chance,” Mummy said, with a sigh.
“Oh, that’s so unfair!” I exclaimed, wiping away my tears.
“I won’t say don’t cry, as I cry myself thinking about it sometimes,” Mummy took me into her arms. “It’s terribly sad. But I’m afraid life is unfair, horribly unfair, sometimes, and no matter how hard parents try, they can’t always keep their children safe.”
“And – if they’d let her go to Germany, she might have been safe,” I said.
“She would probably have come home for Christmas, but the thought of how that must have tormented them is almost unbearable.”
We didn’t talk about Thalia as we listened to Parsifal that New Year’s Eve, though I know my parents wouldn’t have tried to change the subject if I raised it, but of course, this time, all three of us were thinking about her.
New Year’s Eve has passed and gone now, and it’s only a couple of days to my birthday, and it will be the first birthday I have spent away from home. We are going to a music festival in Switzerland, as a special treat – and the first performance we have tickets for is in the Nathalie Mayer Memorial Theatre.