12. VOICES FROM THE PIT
with RICHARD GRAVES
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
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