ACCOMPANYING FOR WEBSTER AGAIN.

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I had played for Webster for two weeks while Anne was away and assumed that I would no longer be needed now that she had returned. Anne and Webster insisted that I keep the spare keys to the studio so that I could work there when they were not teaching. I was preparing for the ATCL singing examination in October and Grade 8 piano the following year, so I found the studio, high above the hustle and bustle of downtown Johannesburg, the ideal place to work and practise. In return, I answered queries, took messages on the phone, and answered the door to visitors.

Towards the end of May the Johannesburg Operatic Society (JODS) asked Webster to take over the role of Colonel Fairfax in their production of The Yeomen of the Guard at short notice. This was an incongruously youthful role for someone aged sixty-one, but he acquitted himself as well as always and lifted the production with his dynamic stage presence and undiminished vocal gifts. The show opened to mixed reviews, but all the critics had great praise for Webster. Dora Sowden headed her review in one of the Sunday papers:”Webster towers”. He had certainly taken on a remarkable feat as the juvenile lead at sixty-one.

Later that week we went to see The Yeomen at the old Reps Theatre in Braamfontein, now named the Alexander Theatre after Muriel Alexander. We were very impressed by Webster’s performance as the somewhat elderly Colonel Fairfax, who wins Elsie Maynard and breaks poor Jack Point’s heart in the process. Anne told me that Webster would be very hurt if I didn’t go backstage to see him afterwards, so I did. He was fighting off the ‘flu and did not look well, although from the auditorium nobody would have realised that he was ill.

In June, while Webster was still involved with The Yeomen, Anne told me that their housekeeper, Hilda, who was from the island of St Helena, was planning a trip home for six and a half weeks. Anne and Webster had decided to do alternate days in the studio while she was away. Would I care to accompany for Webster again? I did not have to think twice about it before agreeing to do so.

After Hilda left on her trip I settled into accompanying for Webster once again. Anne came in on alternate teaching days so occasionally I had a lesson with her. One Monday afternoon Ruth phoned me at the studio to ask whether I would like to have dinner with her family before going to the SABC choir meeting afterwards. Webster gladly agreed to take me to Parkwood instead of Kensington, as it was on his direct route home. We drove past Zoo Lake and he pointed out his bowling club, saying it was the loveliest setting in the world in which to play bowls. He had played golf in England, but could not afford to do so in South Africa.

I had a pleasant dinner with the Ormonds, and then Mr Ormond transported us to the meeting in his big black Rover. There was a party after the meeting and Ruth and I chatted to Anton Hartman, the chief orchestral conductor at the SABC. Toward the end of June, we sang in the Light Music Festival where we did a number of unaccompanied American, German and Afrikaans folk songs. The Dutch conductor Jos Cleber conducted the orchestra, with Gert Potgieter and Bob Borowsky as soloists. Ruth was working for matric exams, and I for my singing diploma so we decided to take leave of absence from the choir, with the idea of returning when our respective examinations were behind us.
One evening after we finished work at the studio Webster took me with him to see one of The Three Petersen Brothers in connection with going into partnership in a new film company. Webster introduced me as: “This is Miss Campbell. She plays for me.” The Petersen brother concerned looked mystified. Webster had to explain to him exactly what it was I played! Although they had a long discussion, nothing came of the film company as far as Webster was concerned.

In July Anne had a very bad cold which lingered on for a long time, and Webster had a funny turn one evening. He lost his vision, and his head was spinning even when he was lying down. Anne told me that she wanted him to see the Doctor about his general health and his general grumpiness, but he refused to do so. She admitted that he hated teaching everyone apart from his few “pets”. She was very worried about him.

From the way he treated Lucille at her lessons, I gathered that she was one of the “pets”. She was having her twenty-first birthday party and had invited them to her party, but they had another engagement and could not attend.

A few days later Webster told me that Anne’s cold was not any better. He wanted her to see the doctor, but instead she had insisted on going to Leslie Green’s draughty house for dinner. She was not pleased when he told her she would be better off staying in bed and trying to get rid of her cold.

One evening I was washing the dishes in the kitchen before we left the studio for the night, when I overheard him telling Gertie, the last pupil of the day, for whom I had just played the accompaniment of Softly Awakes my Heart from Samson and Delilah, what a wonderful musician I was at only nineteen. Praise indeed.

When Hilda returned from her St Helena holiday, the Booths went to sing at a concert in the country with Desmond Wright, who had conducted The Yeomen, as their accompanist. Webster said that the only reason he had not asked me to play for them was because he thought that another woman on the stage would draw the audience’s attention away from Anne.

They made a great fuss of my twentieth birthday at the end of August, with Anne singing Happy Birthday to me, and both of them kissing me to wish me a happy day. There was a present of lipstick and matching nail varnish waiting for me on top of the piano when I went in for my lesson. I was very touched that they had remembered my birthday. Ruth had her lesson after mine, so I waited for her, as we were going out for coffee after her lesson.

Webster said, “Don’t drink too much whisky,” as we left. It was another lovely day.

They had acquired a protégé, a talented boy soprano called Robin Lister, whom they were coaching in preparation for his first LP recording. Robin had an exceptional voice, resembling a mature female soprano rather than the typical Ernest Lough boy soprano. He had been having lessons with a teacher in Benoni, but left her to study with Anne and Webster. Before his voice broke he made several recordings supervised by Anne and Webster. He became very well known and sang at a number of concerts. After his voice broke, he continued his lessons with the Booths, changing from singing to piano. The last I heard was that he became an engineer and immigrated to Australia.

Webster phoned me before he left for Michaelhouse School in Natal to sing Elijah to ask whether I would play at an audition for two of their boy sopranos for Amahl and the Night Visitors the following Saturday. I agreed to do so and wished him well for the Elijah performance. “I know you’ll sing beautifully,” I added, and he replied, “Bless you, dear”.

On Saturday morning the two boys, Denis Andrews and Selwyn Lotzof, together with their parents and I arrived at Gwen Clark’s sumptuous penthouse at the top of Anstey’s Building, where the audition was to be held. The boys acquitted themselves well and we were given a lovely tea afterwards, but neither was chosen to sing the part of Amahl. Instead they decided to import a boy from Britain. Webster said that Ruth could have done the part, if suitably disguised, as her voice was like a boy’s, with absolutely no vibrato.

I went back to the studio after the audition to let Anne know how the boys had fared. She had had a tiring morning teaching by herself, as Webster was at Michaelhouse to sing in a performance of Elijah, conducted by Barry Smith, the musical director at Michaelhouse at the time.

Anne insisted on making us coffee before she left. She spoke of Jo’burg “high” society, who had gone out of its way to cultivate them when they first arrived in South Africa as international stars, but soon dropped them when they realised that they were not rolling in money and were obliged to work for a living.

My diploma was pending and I spent a lot of time practising ear tests at Sylvia Sullivan’s studio with Edith Sanders, who was working for a piano diploma. She had perfect pitch, so I admired her sense of pitch and she admired my competent sight-reading, which had improved remarkably since the early days of accompanying for Webster.

My Associate diploma, once again with Guy McGrath as examiner and Anne as accompanist, went well in all departments. After the exam, I went with Anne in her pale blue Anglia to Macey’s, a store in the city, where she bought a new carpet sweeper. On the way there she told me that she thought I was going to be another Mabel Fenney. By this time Mabel had passed her final exam at the Höchschule in Berlin. She was divorced from her first husband, Eric Fenney, and had recently married Maurice Perkin in England.

About a week after the exam Webster phoned me at the studio to ask me to look up something about one of his “great voices” for his radio programme in my musical dictionary. He had seen the heavy tome and always termed it as my Bible.

I met my mother for lunch in Anstey’s that day and was pleased to hear that I had passed the Associate exam with 77%.

When I went to the studio in the afternoon, Webster answered the door. We had our usual shilling bet on passing or failing the exam.
“I owe you a shilling”, I said, handing it to him.
“What’s this for?” he asked as I went into the kitchen-cum-waiting room.
“I’ve passed my exam!” I announced as I sat down.
“Congratulations, darling,” he cried, bending down to kiss me.

We told Anne the good news when I went into the studio for my lesson.
“Did you know about it when I phoned you this morning?” Webster asked.
Anne asked sharply, ‘Why did you phone Jean?”
“I wanted her to look up something in her Bible for me,” he replied mildly.
“Whatever for? We have four Bibles at home!” she retorted, regarding us both with suspicion.
“It’s not a Bible really. It’s a music dictionary,” he explained.

She obviously did not believe a word he told her. I felt embarrassed to suddenly be the object of unfounded suspicions when we had always got on so well together. The episode put a damper on my exam success.

Jean Collen

 

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