burlesque

Dylan Thomas LPAt Clifton we never had a radio and there was no gramophone until the mid-1960s, when we were given an old one by Betty Allen, a distant cousin of Jack’s. On this Jack played his small collection of records – Dylan Thomas, Gertrude Stein and T.S. Eliot reading their poems, Bruno Walter conducting Beethoven’s Ninth, and a few other popular symphonic works, some by Russian composers like Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky.

During my time at SACS, a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta was produced every year, and rehearsals started early. Attracted by the scent of poster-paints, the lights, the stage make-up and the possibility of evading schoolwork, I tried to enlist in this project in my very first year, and learned the words of several songs but was sniffed out as a ‘buzzer’ – a flat or unenthusiastic singer – by Mr Brown, and thrown out of the cast. After that I was not welcome in future productions, and such confidence as I may have had in the musical realm was finally broken.

Jack was a great admirer of Gilbert and Sullivan, an affection that was based on his love of the wit and irony of W.S. Gilbert’s words rather than any special musicality on his part; like me, but unlike Anton, he was tone-deaf. It must have been on my first long holiday back in the Lowveld, in July of 1965, that I rather ingenuously asked Anton what he thought of Gilbert and Sullivan. For me, the musicals with their orchestral backing and enthusiastic singing of the music-hall variety were cut from the same fabric as the operatic fare he played, and I had hoped, I suppose, to establish a common enthusiasm as a bridgehead to communication. For Anton, however, they were the antithesis of the music he loved, a burlesque of serious culture not deserving of attention. ‘No,’ he said witheringly, ‘I don’t like them. I suppose your father thinks they are great.’ I went red and lied: ‘I don’t know. He hasn’t said anything about them,’ I answered, and fled.

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