Hell in Cornwall, and Brisola the organ-grinder from Brisola

Two favourite anecdotes from Maisie & Evelyn Radford’s musical mission to the Cornish and thence to the English.

A Radford production, perhaps Rossini's Moses in Egypyt.

A Radford production, perhaps Rossini's Moses in Egypyt. Image: Jennet Campbell.

Maisie and Evelyn Radford’s Musical Adventures in Cornwall (1965) is an immensely endearing little book which tells of the sisters’ attempts, from the 1920s to the 1960s, to seed little-known classical repertoire into Cornwall’s great Wesleyan communal musical tradition, and to transplant the successes to London. Their first organisation was the Roseland Concert Party, named after the peninsula opposite Falmouth where they had a house, their second the Falmouth Opera Singers; their vehicles, small boats, horses and carts, and unreliable motor vehicles. Indefatigable translators of libretti, preferably in hotels on the Riviera, amongst their triumphs was the first performance in English of Mozart’s Clemenza di Tito, in 1931, in Cornwall. Jennet Campbell (do read it all, and right-click on the images and open them in new tabs to see them full-size):

Maisie, the older born in 1885, studied singing and violin, first in London then for 2 years in Berlin with Hans Moser, who was the second violinist with the Joachim Quintet. Later she abandoned singing herself but encouraged others always in choirs. She was a poet and Bard of the Gorseth.

Evelyn, born in 1887, went to Newnham College, Cambridge, to read classics – she was by then a a talented pianist and linguist, played the oboe, fenced, and was one of the Neo-Paganists of whom Rupert Brooke was best known – an intellectual, artistic, liberal group not quite so notorious as the Bloomsbury lot but, like them, reacting against Victorian restrictions in the early years of the new century.

The book begins at the very beginning, with Maisie telling Evelyn, “I’ll write a story if you’ll spell it,” but segues rapidly into post-WWI Cornwall. Maisie again:

On one particular night we were returning from lecturing in St Austell when we had a curious adventure. The car seemed to be losing power but we did not dare stop for fear of not being able to restart. Strange noises were coming from under the bonnet and we were aware of heat under our feet (the Trojan [inevitably nicknamed Helen] had a horizontal engine). Gradually we realised that the engine was boiling and we were forced to a stop. We were in a narrow road, a long way from any houses. Obviously what we needed was water. With some difficulty we started again and crawled along keeping a lookout for any glimmer of light from a cottage or farmhouse. At last, when we almost despaired, we saw, in a field set back from the road a little, a long, low shed, and through the chinks in the doorway a bright light. I stumbled up a rough pathway and knocked. There was no answer. I knocked again and tried the door. It opened. I went in blinking from the darkness and stopped petrified by what I saw. Opposite me was a fire, a roaring furnace with flames leaping up and almost blinding me after the darkness. In front of it, between me and the fire, and stretching the whole length of the room, was a long, low table, and on the table a motionless figure clothing from head to foot in white. For what seemed an eternity I stood horror-stricken. Slowly, very slowly, the figure raised itself into a sitting position. The memory of those moments is so vividly in my memory that it eclipses everything else. Was it then at last, or only much later, after I had several times passed by and tried to identify the spot, that I realised the true explanation? I had strayed into the village bakery and the bakery had gone to sleep on the table! Certainly there is still a bakery there, just such a long, low building, but now in unromantic concrete.

More topically:

Much of this was in our pre-car days, when we set out by water [from Roseland] to Falmouth, thence by train or bus to the nearest point where we could be met or walk. A nice encounter remains in mind from those days. We were to play at a little village up one of the Fal creeks, and were setting out from Truro to reach it via Malpas by bus, Tolverne by ferry rowboat and thence on foot. We were carrying violin, music case and stand and rucksack, when in the main street we met Brisola. Brisola (we never knew his real name) was a tiny little man with an immense white beard who toured the country with his beloved hand organ, small and beautifully made in Italy. He was an old Garibaldi soldier, and for him ‘the war’ was the Italian War of Liberation. We asked him once where he lived and he answered ‘Brisola’; it took a few minutes’ though to identify it as Bristol. We were already old friends, and he stopped turning his handle to wave to us. So there we stood chattering in Italian in Boscawen Street, and what polite Truro made of our oddly assorted bunch of itinerant musicians we neither knew nor cared. When last we saw him, he told us he was, he thought, 99, and he wanted to live to be 100, but we never knew if he achieved it.

(For more Brizzle linguistic ingenuity, see Little Pete’s barrow organ.)

I am told that among the summer imports for their scratch orchestras, moonlighting on the French horn, was the distinguished marine scientist Tony Laughton (recollections), whose open days at what became the National Oceanography Centre were a source of considerable wonder to small boys.

The book cover is a (mistranscribed) phrase from one of the most popular numbers from Mozart’s Idomeneo, whose English première the Radfords produced in 1937(!), the British premiere having been given in 1934 by the Glasgow Grand Opera Society under Erik Chisholm using the Radfords’ libretto translation:

“Placido è il mar, andiamo” is “Calm is the sea, let’s leave now,” or, less literally, in the translation by the 19th century English radical and choirmaster Collet Dobson Collet, “Calm is the glassy ocean.” Here it is sung by the groundbreaking African Sweet Melodies from Sebokeng township, Gauteng, under Thabang Bodibe:

The South Africans strike me as more Cornish, as it were, and perhaps more 18th century than conventional interpreters:

I hope that the Radfords’ book can be reissued. If I can be of assistance…

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