Keats and Chapman attended the world's first and so far only performance of Karlheinz Stochasm's massive composition for several large orchestras, chorus and regimental artillery, the Cantata for the Victims of Eureka. Afterwards, Keats asked Chapman what he thought of the work, and Chapman admitted that he had quite enjoyed some of the choral themes in the last movement. "You mean melodies," said Keats, who hadn't liked any of it. "Themes," Chapman insisted. "But themes aren't what they sing!" cried Keats. "They so rarely are," said Chapman.
The Macmillan Company of Australia has not been treating me at all well lately. Here it is, nearly April, and I have not yet received a review copy of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, which makes me think I have been quite overlooked. Further, though I have no doubt I would make good use of the New Grove at any time, I had most desperate need of it just after Christmas.
Picture me, if you will, sitting quietly at the Foysters' place on the evening of the 28th, meditating upon peace, goodwill and the soul of man under Reaganism, taking care the while not to smoke too many cigarettes at once because it does terrible things to my friends' wallpaper -- a cosy Yuletide scene indeed, and a memory to be treasured. Suddenly the mood was shattered and my ash went everywhere when John started asking me, all in a rush, a lot of silly questions about music. Who wrote Mozart's 39th? What do the following have in common: Fidel Castro, Yehudi Menuhin, Tommy Flynn? In which opera does the heroine say "Gak!" and die? Which instrument handles water music?
Well, that sort of interrogation might unsettle a lesser man, but I just fired answers back at him as fast as I could make them up. Danzi Finzi Mackenzie. Characters in an unperformed opera by Karlheinz Stochasm. None. Bath tuba. It was the bath tuba, I think, that unnerved him. "You'd better have this," he said, handing me the National Times, "You seem to know more about this stuff than I do."
And that's how I became involved in the National Times Music Quiz Competition, ruining my holiday (Sally was in Tasmania, building snowmen on the beach at Cremorne), driving myself and everyone around me mad for the next week. There were 100 questions, twenty each on Opera, Mozart, Orchestral Music, Chamber Music and Twentieth-Century Music, but because many of the questions had several parts or required multiple answers, I finished up looking for 190 answers. And look for them I did. My creative answers might have satisfied John Foyster, but I had a feeling that they wouldn't fool the judges.
By the time I got to Mervyn Binns' New Year's Eve party I had about seventy answers. "Happy New Year yourself," I said to Mervyn, who operates a retail space-opera establishment in Swanston Street, "Who wrote Mozart's 39th?" "Damned if I know," said Mervyn genially, "Isaac Asimov? Why don't you ask George Turner?" An excellent suggestion. I cornered George, who knows even more about opera than he knows about science fiction, which is an awful lot, and extracted a dozen answers from him (all but one, it turned out, correct). He did not know who sang Figaro at the first performance, claiming not to have been around at the time. You never know with George, but I took his word for it and went off to pester someone else. Myf and Tony Thomas said some of my answers were a bit unlikely, and that I was welcome to look them up in their paperback Grove, which was very decent of them, but at the time I thought that would almost be cheating. Besides, they do live a long way out, practically in the bush, beyond Wantirna. Noel Kerr said it was a pity none of the questions were about Dave Brubeck, because he knows a lot about Dave Brubeck, and I said "Who?" and there was a bit of a friendly scuffle, and just then Damien Broderick jogged past, muttering something about "Drunken loon!", and then we all joined hands with Lee Harding and sang "Auld Lang Syne", and then we went home.
The party continued next day at Damien and Dianne's place. Christine Ashby asked me what I was writing for the Age's funny-writing competition, and I asked her which modern composer died after tripping over a dog, and we all had a good time again. There was a lady at the party who looked remarkably like Valma Brown. Slim, vivacious, reddish-haired -- but Valma lives in Canberra and usually spends Christmas skiing in Brisbane, or whatever they do in Brisbane at Christmas. This lady had come to the party not knowing what Damien and Dianne's friends might be like, and was quite charmed, in an embarrassed sort of way, at the number of people who cuddled her without being properly introduced. I knew she wasn't Valma, because she couldn't tell me who had written a concerto for Ondes Martenot. Also, she was smoking. I think Valma only moved to Canberra because she couldn't stand all the smoking that still goes on in Melbourne.
The rest of my answers (I ended up with 154 correct by my reckoning, 146 by the judges') came mainly from the Gramophone magazine, of which I seem to have accumulated several hundred issues over the years, and Jenny Bryce's books on modern music. Jenny plays oboe ancient and modern, and I thought she would have a few useful books about the place, and I was not wrong, but by the time I borrowed them I was feeling a bit dejected about the competition. All the libraries I usually go to had closed down for the snow season, or whatever they close down for at Christmas. In desperation, prepared if need be to buy Einstein's Mozart, Kobbé's Complete Opera Book and other standard works, I scoured the bookshops of Melbourne -- to no avail. Trudging through the relentless heat, I discovered one thing: that books about music cost the earth. That the $1700 Macmillan charge for the New Grove wouldn't buy you more than two or three feet of other standard references and monographs on individual composers.
The competition closed on 7 January, and I posted off my entry on the 5th. On 11 January the National Times announced a new deadline, the 14th, and I went around fuming for a day or two because I'd wasted a week and the libraries were open again.
The official results took up two pages of the issue for 18 January. The three prizewinners were the secretary of a philharmonic society, a doctor who composes in his spare time and a music teacher. The judges' comments made it clear to me that I had run fourth or fifth.
Why did I go in for the competition? Was it to impress John Foyster, who knows I'm not as clever as I think but may think I don't know that? Was it to prove that a competent book editor can find out anything about any subject if he sets his mind to it? Was it simply to win first prize?
Not, I think, the latter. First prize was two season tickets to Musica Viva, and I haven't been to a musical concert since I was barred from the Union Theatre for snoring through the entire second act of Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea (or possibly Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in patria: I always get those two confused), which was many years ago, when I was still constitutionally capable of listening to music and not smoking for an hour or more. I used to sit through entire Bruckner symphonies at the Melbourne Town Hall without too much discomfort. But these days, no, I just wouldn't last the distance at a concert.
Am I really as far gone as that? Surely not? If someone gave me a free ticket to something I liked, wouldn't I make an effort? It could be the first step towards rehabilitation and a return to a normal, full and productive life. I could go for long rides on trams. I might eventually become a librarian. It's something to think about.
Oddly enough, while I was thinking about that, the Age decided to give away fifty (50) pairs of season tickets to Musica Viva. All you had to do was match up the portraits and autographs of twelve composers, which was a damn sight easier than answering questions like Which composers supplemented their incomes by (a) working as assistant to the architect Le Corbusier, (b) winning the jackpot on an Italian TV program, (c) teaching Greek at Harvard? Then your entry had to be one of the first fifty opened.
Have you ever wondered why so many classical music concerts are absolutely ruined by people coughing? I am now in a position to tell you why this is so. These people are smokers with free tickets, trying to redeem themselves and regain their place in normal society. Be gentle with them, kind reader. They have to start somewhere.
Me? No, I believe I came fifty-first.
Australian Book Review, 1981