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By the way ...




Someone ought to write a book about the life of theatre orchestral musicians of the past. There must be plenty of material around as every theatre used to have a permanent orchestra of sorts. The shows they played for varied from music hall featuring a dozen or so different acts, to touring musicals and straight plays. These last were eagerly awaited as only introductory and interval music was required, thus leaving the musicians plenty of drinking time in between. That certainly was not the case when touring opera companies would appear, bringing their own conductors and calling for the house band to be suitably augmented for the occasion.

Touring shows travelled of course with their own band parts. It is very entertaining to come across any of these that survive as the musicians often scrawled messages to be passed on to their counterparts at the following week's venue. A Halifax oboist, for instance, would know that at next Monday's band-call his score would be read by a colleague in, say, Huddersfield. Something like this would probably be pencilled in the margin:

  Tom: The second chorus-girl in the 2nd row is worth getting to know. Her name is Bella. Cheers! Fred (Halifax).  


  The MD travelling with this show is even worse than ours!  

Precious few examples of this kind of musical graffiti have been preserved, though Emily Soldene's My Theatrical and Musical Recollections (1897) contain one amusing instance. Soldene was both a singer and, unusually for a female in the 1880's, an actor-manager specialising in touring operettas and grand opera. Her most ambitious production was Carmen which she admitted finding very difficult and very costly:

  There was no end of bother with the orchestra. Fancy, three trombones all wanting £6 per week each!  

When the show played Dublin, she found that the cab-drivers had become very excited, thinking that the opera advertised around the town was to be about them. However, when the Irish gig was over, Soldene looked at the back of the flute part on which the following had been pencilled:

  Soldene's collaring all the chips.
   Bizet's gone to heaven,
And I sit here a-playing the flute
   For a paltry three-and-eleven.

I can't quite understand the arithmetic of that, but I have no doubt it was right. The flautist seemingly didn't get as much as one of the imported trombonists - extra players probably could command a bigger fee than the resident musicians. There would presumably have been six nightly performances as well as two or three matinées - and matinées were invariably paid at half-rates. But even the full evening fee of seven-and-tenpence (or 39 new pence) is hardly over-generous. And there are an awful lot of notes in the flute part of Carmen!


Copyright © Richard Graves, October 7th 1999


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