Ground-breaking writer Katherine Mansfield is at the heart of musical Two Tigers which English Cabaret are producing later in the year. Whilst re-imagining her show, writer Sue Casson has been exploring new facts about her life that have emerged 'a iifetime on' in a series of Mansfield Musings, which we are re-publishing from the beginning.
In this second blog, Casson takes a look at scenes from KM's life that make it perfect for musical dramatisation.
As a songwriter with a literary background, I was initially drawn to Katherine Mansfield as a subject for a musical as I saw a parallel in form between the short narrative that constrains the story in the short stories for which she is famous, and the limited number of verses that comprise a song. In both, brevity is no obstacle to meaning.
However, it quickly became clear that translating stories directly into song in the way I'd simplistically imagined wasn't going to work. (I later found, when composing The Happy Prince, that a 5 page story turned into a full-length chamber musical.) In any case for me it was Mansfield's journal that first piqued my interest. The way she told her life, spilling it out in emotional response to her experiences was what I found I really wanted to put on stage.
In focusing the drama of her life in musical scenes I quickly found a great affinity between Mansfield and music and this time around, as more of her notebooks have become available, it is clear that my point of inspiration was more instinctive than form alone. Music was central to her life. She was a musician, singer and lover of music, her phrasing is poetic and rhythmical and her musical understanding and sensitivity continually come to the fore in her stories.
A Musical Haven
Born into the prosperous Beauchamp family in Wellington, the middle child of five, young Kathleen was raised surrounded by music, as well as books, and pictures. There was a piano to play, and she and her eldest sister Vera wrote songs together, sitting at it, Vera playing, Kathleen singing. Sometimes they would entertain guests with their performances, The NZ Graphic & Home Journal (1907) reviewed one of these.
‘The hostess was assisted in entertaining by her clever daughters, who gave a really capital musical programme, including songs, together with solo and concert items on the violin, the cello and the piano.’
Upstairs, alone in her bedroom, as well as being an avid reader, KM would spend happy hours practicing her cello. For a time she was so serious about her playing that she considered becoming a professional.
Concert Parties in Wellington
This passion for musicianship may have been fed by the private recitals she and her family often attended in Wellington. Of one of these she writes in her journal:
‘Music enveloped me – again – caught me, held me, thank heaven.’
The twin sons of her cello teacher Thomas Trowell would sometimes play at these. Both close to her in age, the slightly elder son Arnold was already taking steps to pursue a musical career. She formed an unrequited romantic attachment to this prodigy she secretly called ‘Caesar’ exchanging letters with him when he travelled to Europe to study. He later repaid her adoration when in 1908 he published Six Morceaux for Violoncello and Pianoforte, which on its' title page had a dedication to Kathleen Beauchamp.
Concert Parties in London
Kathleen took her beloved cello with her when she came to settle in London, at the age of nineteen. Unaccustomed to living on a budget (her father gave her an allowance) she sold it to settle a debt, but continued to sing, taking lessons from a friend of the Trowell’s, George Bowden.
It may have been Bowden who introduced his young pupil to hostesses of London parties. Her biographer Antony Alpers (one of the few available when I was first researching her life), writes of the way she would earn a little money singing at these events. She had a particular fondness for music hall songs and ‘turns,’ and in a scene in Two Tigers I imagined her, strikingly dressed (her friend Ida Baker recalls she had new dresses made for these performances which cost more than the fee) spinning stories of her dramatic and unconventional life, to an audience charmed and shocked in equal measure.
A Grand Piano & a Guitar
Two years later, hearing her sing with a guitar, an opera singer living immediately above her first offered lessons, and sometime later the opportunity to buy her grand piano, an opportunity KM seized with enthusiasm, going halves with Ida. When Mansfield moved into a flat in the Gray’s Inn Road shortly after it turned out to be the only furniture she owned, which demonstrates a delightful disregard for practicality that I recognise and find very endearing. Visitors there also mention a guitar hanging behind the door - next to her silk kimono.
Some year later there is an account in the diaries of Dorothy Brett, of Katherine playing and singing with a guitar at Garsington. There is something lovely about the idea her entertaining Ottoline Morrell and the rest of the ‘Bloomsbury set’ with folk songs and negro spirituals ‘in a low whispering voice’. Given what a notoriously tough crowd they were, it isn’t surprising that Brett notes it was ‘after much persuasion’.
When I wrote ‘Home’, which a song inspired by Kathleen’s youthful impressions of her native landscape, I was unaware of her playing and singing in this way, although this song unconsciously captures the folk guitar style that was a feature of her playing at Garsington. I may have abandoned the idea of trying to translate any Mansfield stories directly into music, but I found the natural poetry of her words could be threaded through my lyrics. Phrases translate well into musical themes, and wanting to use her words unedited, as the show developed, I often underscored her poetry and letters between verses.
According to an eyewitness at the Gurdjieff Institute in Fontainebleau, Katherine was impatiently awaiting the traditional dancers that were a feature of evenings there on the night she died. ‘I want music,’ she is reported to have said. ‘Why don’t they begin?'
Listen to Home from Two Tigers - Sue Casson is accompanied by John Jansson.
This blog was first published as the first in a series of Mansfield Musings on www.SueCasson.co.uk