Remembering Katherine Mansfield 125 years on


Katherine Mansfield and Arnold Trowell

A concert to commemorate the 125th anniversary of Katherine Mansfield’s birth

Music by Dvořák, Popper, Goltermann, Trowell and Boëllmann

Martin Griffiths (‘cello) / Eleanor Carter (piano) / Fiona Oliver (speaker)

Saint John’s in the City

Te Aro, Wellington

Friday 11th October 2013

Music and Friendship was a commemoration of the 125th anniversary of author Katherine Mansfield’s birth, an evening of music and recitation, held at St.John’s Church in Wellington Central. Welcoming people to the event was Marion Townend, whose obviously sterling efforts regarding the funding, organization and promotion of the concert had brought it all about. Joining her in the venture were two talented musicians, Martin Griffiths (cello) and Eleanor Carter (piano), along with Alexander Turnbull Library curator Fiona Oliver, who read exerpts from Mansfield’s letters, journals and stories.  As Mansfield was also a keen amateur musician, it seemed appropriate to intermingle music and words by way of commemorating the anniversary.

Further linking Mansfield with music was her friendship with members of the Trowell family, prominent in Wellington music circles at the time of the author’s early years – as seemed to be the norm with Mansfield’s interactions with people in general, the picture is a complex one. Mansfield’s ‘cello teacher in Wellington was Thomas Trowell, whose sons, Arnold and Garnet, the impressionable and impulsive Katherine became variously involved with. Arnold, the younger son, left New Zealand when aged sixteen, becoming a successful ‘cellist and teacher in Europe – he seems to have rejected all of Katherine’s advances towards him, eventually marrying someone else.

On first going to London Katherine became involved with Arnold’s elder brother Garnet Trowell, and the pair planned to marry, though parental opposition helped put a stop to their plans, despite Katherine becoming pregnant – an attempt by Katherine to “normalize” her pregnant state by marrying someone else also failed the last minute, and Garnet by this time had rejected her (as a commentator remarked, “Never trust a man whose name resembles a bejewelled garden utensil”)!

A recently-discovered story by Mansfield, “A Little Episode” actually mirrors the tragic triangle Mansfield had constructed around herself at the time, Garnet Trowell characterized as “Jacques St.Pierre”, a musician with “a pouting, eager mouth”, and herself as “Yvonne”, self-characterised as “a bruised, trembling soul”. At this point I forget who first observed that “truth is stranger than fiction”, but the lives of people such as Mansfield certainly bear this observation out.

Anyway, to the concert! The music consisted of pieces that either Mansfield herself or Arnold Trowell had played at various times. Trowell himself built up an enviable reputation in Europe as a performer, his ‘cello-playing having been described by one critic as comparable “with the greatest virtuosos of the present time”. Consequently some of his own music makes exacting demands upon the soloist, evidenced by the occasional rawness of the ‘cello-playing in places tonight,  such as throughout the difficult Waltz-Scherzo – which, incidentally, sported the impressive cataloguing legend Op.52 No.1.

Beside Trowell’s music there were pieces by other composers – first of the musical contributions to the program was Léon Boëllmann’s Variations Symphoniques Op.23, a rhapsodic work with some lovely Elgarian-like sequences and a juicily Edwardian “theme”, though with some tiresome “standard-variation” note-spinning passages as well, and plenty of tremolando passages for the pianist (who coped splendidly, incidentally)! There was a polka by a Georg Goltermann, which seemed to try and be a polonaise for most of the time, and then Dvořák’s haunting Silent Woods, the score of which was given to Mansfield as a present by a member of the Trowell family.

Another piece was by David Popper, one with the Schumannesque title “Warum?”, a piece that Mansfield had played while studying at Queen’s College, London in 1904. Difficult for the ‘cellist at the outset, with the music in the higher reaches of the instrument, the piece”settles down” and provides the player with some lovely, flowing runs, and a beautiful harmonic note at the end, which Martin Griffiths played to perfection. In places, as with Trowell’s Op.20 Barcarolle, the piano part sounded more interesting than did the ‘cello writing – and in the latter work Eleanor Carter readily demonstrated her fluency and poetic touch at the keyboard, for our delight.

The pair finished the musical part of the evening on a high note, with what I presumed to be a relatively early work by Trowell, his Op.3 No.2 Le Rappel des Oiseaux – a piece framed by exciting and restless molto-perpetuo writing underlined by constant piano tremolandi, with a salon-like middle section complete with sentimental melody – in places I thought of Rimsky-Korsakov, which probably tells the reader more about me than about the piece!  The duo made a great fist of it, bringing out plenty of colour, energy and, in places, sentiment.

In between these glimpses of a musical world there were readings which focused and intensified the character of the evening’s subject – frequently music was mentioned or characterized, either by the writer herself or by those writing about her, as in an obituary called “Broken Strings” written by a friend, Millie Parker, in 1923, and which was read by Fiona Oliver.We got an exerpt from an early novel, “Juliet”, written when eighteen, and on which Mansfield herself scribbled when twenty, “foolish child”!

Some journal entries, made in 1907, vividly described her understanding of and love for music, a well as describing her disengagement from Arnold Trowell and her passion for the voice of a singer she had recently heard. Finally, we heard “Mr Peacock’s Day” a story from 1917, in which Mansfield mercilessly lampooned her music-teacher husband George Bowden, the scenario, complete with disapproving wife, producing a kind of paean to the “marry in haste, repent at leisure” principle. The story deliciously exposes the fragile vanities and insecurities of a music teacher who considers himself a success from a society point of view and yet seems out-of-sorts with his wife.

Fiona Oliver’s readings drew us nicely into this unique and idiosyncratic world of a great and complex creative spirit, amply colored and flavored by the musical performances. Though I felt the presentation probably needed a theatre rather than a church, to have a more “focused” impact, the evening’s happenings made a warm-hearted and occasionally piquant tribute to Mansfield’s memory on her anniversary.