Instalment 17

Chapter 9

Catastrophes

During the first concert Eddie had just finished playing La Campanella. The usual tumultuous applause was dying away when George came onto the stage to sing his second group of songs. He began with Schubert and Brahms. Then he suffered a moment  that all singers fear like death itself, a lapse of memory for the words. He whispered news of this sudden vocal horror vacui to Eddie, who immediately prompted him in an undertone from the piano. Strangely the music did not elude him. Eddie whispered the poetry of the Handel Arcadian love aria ‘Where’er You Walk’ from Semele as he played.

A musical nightmare unfolded for the performers. Often  it  was only the beginning of a song that needed to be prompted. Outwardly the artists appeared simply to  be  chatting  before each new number and managed to complete the concert without anyone noticing anything awry. In fact, the Brisbane Standard noted that George ‘won the hearts of his audience completely in a programme that left nothing to be desired. Not only does he use his fine voice with artistic effect, but he infuses into each song the feeling of the people from whom it came.’ The Negro spirituals were sung with such ardent devotion that Lady Goodwin was seen wiping away tears.

Eddie was extremely perturbed by this turn of events. Being a highly strung personality, he was thought by many to be simply overwrought when he cancelled a concert in Canberra and hurriedly packed a suitcase. Margaret, George and Eddie caught  a train to Melbourne where an emergency appointment with a medical specialist had been made for George. The diagnosis was not encouraging as a dark shadows on a cranial X-ray indicated the possibility that George may have a brain tumour. Whether this was benign or not would need to be investigated by an operation carried out by a neurosurgeon.*

George was immediately admitted to Mount St Evin’s Private Hospital where his condition deteriorated by the hour. Emergency medical intervention was to no avail and he slipped away on 2 September 1930 at the age of 44 in the presence of Eddie, Margaret, his mother and brother. Eddie sent a telegram to many of their friends: ‘My best pal has passed away. Broken hearted.’ They had been performing and travelling the world together for sixteen years. In Act II Scene III of Handel’s opera Semele, Jupiter sings a love aria to Semele celebrating Arcadian delights. Eddie found this final Handelian setting that George had sung agonizingly elegiac in the face of his death

Where e’er you walk, cool gales shall fan the glade;

Trees where you sit, shall crowd into a shade

Where’er you tread, the blushing flowers shall rise

And all things flourish where’er you turn your eyes.

Hugo Hymas and the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra
conducted by John Eliot Gardiner

Letters, cables and wreaths poured in from all over the world.

* In the 1930s such operations were performed mainly with hand drills and surgical chisels with little accurate targeting of tumours and much physical movement of the patient. George consulted the famous Australian physician Sir Richard Stawell (1864–1935), a specialist in nervous diseases and a lifelong lover of music.

Sir Richard Stawell (1864–1935)

He was operated on by a Dr A. Newton at Mount St Evin’s Hospital, Melbourne.

Brain Tumour Operation 1931 Harvey Cushing (1869-1939)
Brain Tumour Operation 1931 Harvey Cushing (1869-1939)

If you have the stomach for it, here is a period video from the Wellcome Library of a pre-frontal brain tumour removal operation from 1933 (age -restricted viewing). Thank goodness we live in 2022.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tG5sJmu9vkg

Lennons Hotel, George Street, Brisbane cir. 1930

Eddie, desolated by George’s unexpected death, was advised by his doctors not to give concerts in the immediate future. Characteristically he ignored their advice. He decided to give the first memorial recital informally in the ballroom at Lennons Hotel in Brisbane at the end of October. Sir John Goodwin and Lady Goodwin attended carrying mauve delphiniums tied with a dark ribbon.

Eddie was not without sentiment. A single bowl of crimson roses decorated the stage where George would have stood to sing. He included reflective works bathed in melancholy as well as his customary glittering rendition of La Campanella by Liszt and the Józef Wieniawski Valse de Concert. His inner turmoil may be gleaned from his choice of the most nostalgic of Chopin nocturnes, preludes and mazurkas, the Adieu to the piano attributed by some scholars to Beethoven and a recent work of his own entitled Elegie.

The Australian poet Mabel Forrest* read from her George Brooke memorial poem:

But somewhere in the hallways of the blue, Somewhere amid the stars, your song remains And in the hush of summer silver nights

And in the gentle murmurs of the rain

The wind in the tree tops and the breath of dawn In all fine, eloquent and lovely things

We shall hear you once more … remembering

A festive dance concluded the evening, which had developed in the manner of an Irish musical wake.

* * *

* Mabel Forrest (1872–1935), writer, was born near Yandilla, Darling Downs, Queensland. She was unkindly considered ‘the most industrious versifier in the Commonwealth’ and had a mixed reputation. Publishing in the Australasian, the Bulletin, Smith’s Weekly, the Triad and the Lone Hand, she signed herself ‘M. Forrest’, ‘Reca’ or ‘M. Burkinshaw’.

Mabel Forrest (1872–1935)

Eddie’s personality had more than once teetered on the edge of a nervous breakdown and the pressure of this loss pushed him over the edge once again despite his attempt to continue performing as normal.

A second blow came when he needed an operation for acute appendicitis. In the period of sulphonamides before modern antibiotics, recovery from such major surgery was slow,  risky  and painful. He filled the abyss of grief and physical discomfort by beginning to write a book chronicling his artistic career with George and their exotic experiences together. Tragically, the manuscript is lost.

Not long after this his great mentor Dame Nellie Melba succumbed to paratyphoid in February 1931, possibly caught whilst travelling home to Australia from Munich. Despite his own physical pain, Eddie travelled to Melbourne for the funeral and filed past her coffin in Scots’ Church. He could scarcely face the burial of a musician he considered had ‘the most perfect voice of our time’ and who had been so generous towards him.

On the first day of the beautiful spring of 1931, the first anniversary of George Brooke’s death, the Australian Wattle League arranged that the famous bass-baritone Peter Dawson plant a Golden Wattle in George’s memory at Wattle Park at Burwood, his birthplace in Melbourne. In an emotional speech, Dawson drew attention to George’s ability to weave himself into the hearts of his listeners, his charm, and the fine natural voice of ‘a man who was indeed a singer of the people’. He felt it a great tragedy that George was struck down at forty-four, so early for a musician that would have soon become a household name in Australia.

Wattle Park, Burwood, Victoria

He could think of no Australian musical artists whose star had risen so quickly as Brooke and Cahill. There were few dry eyes when Eddie spoke of the loss of his ‘comrade’ of sixteen years. Two months later a memorial plaque was attached to the tree accompanied by moving recitations of Robert Louis Stephenson’s Requiem and Conrad Aiken’s Music I Heard With You

Inevitably Eddie and George’s close relationship in this ‘masculinist society’ became the subject of malicious gossip. Over the years performing together Eddie and George had become close ‘pals’, mutually dependent on the unique emotional intimacy brought about by such a close musical collaboration. One cruel newspaper article packed with innuendo and prejudice, printed on pink paper wrote:

Ever since the death of his erstwhile friend, George Brooke, Eddie has been more or less at a loose end. Seldom amongst men is such an attachment as existed between these two known and these days Eddie finds himself a lonely man. Rumour has it that he has been offered an interest with a leading firm of dress designers in the South, mainly on account of his social qualifications.*

Eddie never married, giving rise to much speculation by the simple minded. Perhaps he was entre deux lits or perhaps even a repressed homosexual. A stance impossible to determine and largely irrelevant to his musicianship. There  is  no  reference to his ‘sexual orientation’ in his letters or private papers which is hardly surprising since homosexuality at the time was considered a serious criminal offence. In time the label ‘confirmed bachelor’ settled about his shoulders.

Concerts were a way of recuperating from life’s reversals for Eddie. His first official public appearance after a fitful recuperation was on 14 November 1931. He gave a well-received account of the Weber Konzertstück in F minor with the Greater Brisbane Orchestra under the German conductor Albert Kaeser in aid of the Returned & Services League. The Overture to Tannhäuser and the 1812 Overture were also performed that evening.

* * *

* From Edward Cahill’s scrapbook – undated and unattributed.

A thread of smoke insinuated itself under the door of the drawing room and wound itself around the leg of the ivory and gold piano and over the cedar bookcase. Soon the valuable tapestry of the Duke Marlborough on horseback at the Battle of Blenheim that was hanging on the wall dissolved in a haze as if engulfed by smoke from distant cannon. A cat fled into the garden through the flap in the kitchen. The Queenslander colonial house of Roscrea, an old Beenleigh landmark belonging to the Cahill family, had caught fire.

On Sunday night 4 December 1932 Eddie and his sister had decided make a social visit to their old friend Mrs Murray on the Tambourine Road, Beenleigh. Shortly after eight o’clock they were told that the family home was ablaze. In alarm they leapt into the Willys Knight Roadster and Eddie drove like a man possessed. They arrived to witness a raging fire engulfing the house and consuming all their possessions. With no fire-fighting appliances in the town, he and the residents of Beenleigh had to stand by helplessly watching the conflagration. A few pathetic buckets of water were thrown at the blaze, but the wooden house quickly burned to the ground.

Eddie lost everything. All his personal correspondence, a significant amount of cash, tributes and gifts of a diamond pin, diamond cuff links and a diamond studded cigarette case. Rare gifts given him by Indian Maharajahs, the King of Siam and British royalty. He lost two pianos, one being his beloved Grotrian-Steinweg valued at £850*. A particularly significant loss among his recordings and music was a first edition of Percy Grainger’s Country Gardens marked with fingering and phrasing by the composer for one of his pupils. Eddie spent hours searching the ashes for the treasured solid gold double Albert watch chain and fob given to him by HH Princess Marie Louise. He also lost paintings, French tapestries, all his clothing including his silk top hats and formal dress for concerts and receptions purchased at ruinous expense at the court tailors Ede & Ravenscroft in London.

* £95,000 in 2015.

More tragically, his beloved mother at the age of 68 had died on 24 July only a few months previously. He had been emotionally overwhelmed by this death. She and his grandmother were the only members of the family who seemed to instinctively understand his sensitive, musical nature. Grief had become a constant companion. And now every beloved object associated with his dearest souls and spiritual companions had been consumed by the flames. Eddie remained inconsolable and scarcely sane for months.

With remarkable resilience, he somehow managed to rise above these calamities. No doubt driven by the overwhelming need to stay together psychologically and earn some money after such extensive losses, by April 1933 he had resumed recitals. A newspaper report read: ‘Instead of the lovely world-famous piano which was burnt in the fire at Beenleigh, Edward Cahill is to play on a piano which had been practically placed in the junk room at Paling’s music store.’

As a solace for grief and a distraction from these tribulations, Eddie allowed another side of his character to flourish. The role of a social butterfly had been hidden away through years of self- discipline. Now he gave this aspect of his personality free reign and threw himself with almost hysterical abandon into prestigious social events in Brisbane and Sydney.

He played at the Farmer’s Business Girls’ Lunch, accompanied the variety artist ‘Burlington Bertie’ Ella Shields and gave illustrated talks describing his career among the royals in London on an afternoon radio programme entitled ‘Women’s Budget’ Session. Most strangely, he was engaged for a season at the Regent Theatre in Brisbane to give solo classical recitals on the same bill as ‘B’ cinema features such as the sensational Royal Air Force epic The Lost Squadron. During this  season  he also returned to his old stamping ground, the silent cinema, and brilliantly accompanied a re-run of the classic 1919 Australian silent, The Sentimental Bloke.

Eddie also actively and rather desperately ‘networked’ among the many glamorous women attending ‘mannequin parades’ as they were termed in the 1930s. It was reported that at a fashion parade of ‘exquisite pyjama ensembles’ Eddie turned to one of the few men present and was heard to remark ‘One time the girls seemed to take off things to go to bed, but now they put on four-piece suits – they wear more to bed than they wear anywhere else!’

He attended luncheon parties given by the Lady Mayoress of Sydney and ‘shared honours’ at the Arts Club in the city with Princess Wiki, the Maori singer and granddaughter of a Rotoruan chief. On one memorable evening he borrowed a lavishly decorated flat in a fashionable suburb of Sydney known as Potts Point and threw a party ‘where there was quite an Australian De Brett [sic] sound about many of the names.’ One wonders what may have been passing through his mind concerning his own career when accompanied by Ella Shields he attended a piano recital by the great Ukrainian Benno Moiseiwitsch at His Majesty’s Theatre early in July 1932 and was moved by his interpretation of the Chopin Barcarolle.

* * *

Eddie had now become a divided man. The social butterfly vied with the serious musician. He profoundly wished to be treated as far more than a society pianist. At 48 he felt age creeping on and being born in Beenleigh was hardly the most advantageous of beginnings for an international concert career. However as a confirmed bon viveur, his love of pleasure, good food and wine, beautiful women and fashion temporarily gained the upper hand after these harrowing reversals.

Yet for a period in 1933 he did turn to his serious side and embarked on a taxing  series  of  educational  lectures  on  music  at almost one hundred Brisbane schools. He had heard a vague rumour that there was to be a policy to establish mouth organ bands and believed that something more serious should be attempted to cultivate young minds with the best in classical music. He felt all children were singers, potential performers or at the very least might make discriminating concert-goers. He found them eager to learn and at every school complete silence reigned as he talked and played. In this educational effort he was assisted by the great bass- baritone Peter Dawson.

Requesting no fee or expenses for his lectures, Eddie explained the instruments of the orchestra, the nature of melody, the development of the sonata, concerto and symphony in very simple terms. He wittily introduced the instruments as ‘the scrapers, the bangers and the blowers’, which greatly appealed to their untutored minds. He introduced them to witty and rumbustious Percy Grainger. He commented in an interview:

Unless children have some preliminary information about the instruments they are going to hear, they cannot keep up a continued interest in concerts. The first and second times, curiosity will sustain them; but, after that, only a minority will want to go again. Also, in Brisbane the second half of the programme was provided by an orchestra of children; and this roused the interest of the juvenile audience to fever heat. [Sydney Morning Herald, 30 September 1933]

Portrait of Peter Dawson, vocalist, with Eddie Cahill on piano, at the Valley State School, Brisbane, 18 May 1933

These preliminary talks were given to some 18,000 children at 50 schools. Although he never gave piano lessons, he advocated introducing children to music gradually so that pieces they first heard would be readily appreciated. Then with the establishment of school orchestras and bands they could in time learn to play much of what was already familiar. The whole project was strongly supported by the Queensland Director of Education.

Edward Cahill speaking from the balcony of the Leichardt Street School Brisbane to an attentive young audience April 1933

His philosophy of musical education for the young was summed up in a leaflet advertising the first of an outstandingly successful series of children’s concerts that followed the school ‘lectures’ in the Brisbane City Hall. He noticed with delight that the body of the auditorium was filled predominantly with youngsters. Eddie chose his programme carefully to appeal to a younger audience and explained each piece. He performed with the Greater Brisbane Orchestra Liszt’s extrovert and spirited Hungarian Fantasy. The orchestra also performed the Overture to Egmont by Beethoven and Haydn’s Surprise Symphony.

 A section of the large and appreciative audience that attended Edward Cahill’s Brisbane City Hall Youth Concerts         
 

Eddie in addition played a selection of piano pieces by the Australian pianist and composer Percy Grainger including the ever popular Mollie on the Shore and Country Gardens. He had recently begun to champion this lively and infectiously charming music. Eddie had mirrored Grainger’s pianistic career in London in many ways, sharing the other’s charm, graciousness and sense of fun.

Percy Grainger (1882-1961)

After the first City Hall concert he attended a reception given in honour of Philip Hargrave, the eleven-year-old child prodigy of the piano. Professors thought Hargrave possessed of great musical genius but this brief comet gave up his concert career to become a doctor after only a few brilliant teenage years.

Edward Cahill and the eleven-year old-piano child prodigy Philip Hargrave comparing hands at a reception at the Town Hall, Brisbane, 1933
 

* * *

All too soon the pendulum of teaching swung away once more from uplifting education to partying. Throughout the remainder of 1933 and much of 1934 Eddie again took up his addiction to the superficial fashionable round and gave recitals at social rather than serious musical venues: the Society of Women Writers luncheon; cocktails in the Lord Mayor’s room; concerts in the elegant department store of David Jones in Sydney; places where the hats and gowns, ladies ‘wrapped in ermine’ or ‘rose-red velvet’ attracted more column inches than the musical impression he made. He found this musical superficiality depressing compared to his truncated European career but was forced to earn some sort of living from music.

Eddie at some time in the 1930s became acquainted in Sydney with the notorious aesthete William Lygon, 7th Earl of Beauchamp. One can only speculate on its possible significance after discovering a signed photograph of the earl among his papers. This youngest ever Governor of New South Wales had been appointed in 1899 and created a memorable and colourful ‘Antipodean Camelot’ for two years. His sister Lady Mary had accompanied him to Australia Felix for a few months. She was an excellent pianist and a patron of the English composer Edward Elgar, who actually took up boomerang throwing as a pastime with her lady friends.

An inscribed photograph of William Lygon, 7th Earl of Beauchamp found among Edward Cahill’s papers

On his two-month visit to Australia in 1930, Beauchamp, apart from praising the liberal attitudes of Australian society, failed to conceal he was sharing rather intense sexual pleasures with his valet. He was openly accused of homosexuality by his vengeful brother- in-law Bend’Or, the 2nd Duke of Westminster, and exiled from England. In future William would wander those cities tolerant of homosexuality including ‘the clefts in the rocks of Sydney’s Botany Bay’. Bend’Or wrote to Beauchamp in a letter ‘Dear Bugger-in-Law, You got what you deserved. Yours, Westminster.’* Beauchamp was intelligent, sensitive and particularly fond of music. He had been heartbroken at losing his much loved brother, also named Eddie, to a sniper in the Boer War in South Africa, which may go some way to explaining their mysterious acquaintance.

* Quoted in the highly entertaining volume by Jane Mulvagh, Madresfield: The Real Brideshead (London 2008), pp. 286–96. The 7th Earl of Beauchamp (1872–1938) was married to the sensual Lettice Grosvenor, sister of Bend’Or. He had an outstandingly distinguished career in public service. The historic and distinguished Lygon family and their country seat Madresfield were the inspiration for Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Lord Marchmain was modelled on the 7th Earl of Beauchamp. The 2nd Duke of Westminster was named ‘Bend’Or’ because of his possession of a shock of chestnut hair.

Despite loving Queensland and having attracted undreamed of success, Eddie felt increasingly impoverished as a musician. Unemployment was high and conditions grim. The limitations of colonial musical life after his experiences in India, Asia and Europe were painfully clear. Besides practical survival, he felt an inner compulsion to continue his pianistic development and above all widen his repertoire. He had remained in much the same rut for far too long.

Eddie felt desperately alone and isolated. Both his parents had died by now and many of his family had been claimed by illness. His sister Lillian had married a fanatical Norwegian military officer with a ‘superb soap-waxed moustache’, who had fought with distinction in the Boer War and the Great War. He reminisced on battles constantly, played war games and obsessed over his Australian specialist stamp collection. Another sister, Bessie, a fine operatic soprano, had married the latest owner of Cahill’s Hotel in Beenleigh, Ted Moran.

Lilian (Edward Cahill’s sister) and her husband Major Theodore Svensen

The family home Roscrea had burnt to the ground. His musical partner George had been cut down by a brain tumour. The silver voice of his mentor Dame Nellie Melba had been stilled in 1931. It had been a horrible four years. No, there was not a great deal to hold him in Australia.

Like many Australians of the time Eddie felt correctly that he had begun his serious musical studies rather too late in life. Many of the glamorous hostesses in London who had regarded Eddie  as their ‘pet pianist’ were continually pressing him to return to England.

He had resumed his correspondence with the woman he came closest to loving, the Austrian violinist Sabine Adler. She was pressing him to meet her again in Europe. After four years apart their letters had become understandably fitful. Eddie had engaged in some passing romantic affairs in Australia (and possibly Sabine had also been tempted in Austria), but this relationship remained important for both of them. Sabine was attempting to arrange some concerts in Austria and Germany where they could play Bach, Brahms and Beethoven together. He had always suspected that this glamorous creature would by now have become embroiled with a young dashing Austrian cavalry officer or in his more pessimistic moods, a Nazi Gauleiter. But as far as he could tell from her ardent letters, she seemed to have remained unattached and anxious to meet him again.

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