My second book, Fields of Grace https://t.co/CmeG06m2mm?amp=1 is a love letter to my grandmother, Dagmar Scammell nee Thompson based on her relationship with me and her teacher, the Master violinist, Eugene Ysayë.
In writing the story of this part of her life I decided to change her profession to acting rather than music to incorporate my love of, and knowledge of, theatre. But like my debut novel, Catch the Moon, Mary, music flows through the narrative. I also gave her the advantage of being born in England rather than Australia, which was then and remains, a cultural desert. I also forward-dated her rise to success ten years after it actually happened to factor in the impact the burgeoning WW2 had on my protagonist’s career. Unlike Grace Fielders, the protagonist in Fields of Grace, my grandmother’s marriage to my grandfather was a happy one and the child who blessed that union, my step-father, was a much-loved, rather spoilt only child.
Be that as it may, Fields of Grace still captures the elements of my grandmother’s life as told to me by her when I lived with her after my grandfather passed away. We shared a love of music and theatre and I listened fascinated to her stories of London in the 20s and 30s when she was feted as a musician of exceptional talent and beauty, “tall and divinely fair” was the florid description of her by the journalists sequestered to the Sydney Morning Herald. I can certainly attest to her arrestingly beautiful turquoise eyes and generosity of spirit. I adored her and she adored me so please forgive a little bias.
Dagmar Thompson before she left Australia in 1924.
My grandmother whom I called Lala, hat-tip to her Norwegian ancestry, was raised in Sydney’s Clifton Gardens by her widowed mother who struggled to feed and educate her three gifted children, Fred, Dorothy and Dagmar. Ultimately it fell to young Fred, a talented solicitor, to support the household, his wage supplemented by his mother and sister Dorothy’s income teaching piano at home. Rather than competing for use of the single piano in the house my grandmother, Lala, decided to learn the violin. Within a few years it became apparent that her gift was exceptional but in a country that favoured men in all areas of life it was clear she had no musical future in Australia.
In 1921 the Master violinist Eugene Ysayë decided to mentor three violinists of exceptional ability. To find the candidates he auditioned accomplished young violinists worldwide. He had already discovered an American girl in New York and offered her a position and closer to home, a French girl. Australia was the last stop on his worldwide search and had fate played out any other way my grandmother would have ended up teaching from home like her mother and sister. But Ysayë had not found a third student and so he came to the bottom of the earth in search of one.
Lined up in the corridor at the Sydney Conservatorium were hundreds of young violinists including Dagmar Thompson. A beautiful, nervous young woman whose violin had been purchased on credit by her mother, sister and brother several years earlier she had practised hard, and seemingly all her life, for this one opportunity to break free of Australia and compete on the world stages. She was determined to give it her best shot. For her audition she chose Mozart’s Allegro Moderato and Bach’s Partita in E Major.
I can only imagine what Ysayë must have thought when this statuesque, she was 5’9″, elegant young woman entered the room. He must have prayed her talent matched her looks. It did. My father told me he had never heard anyone reproduce the tone my grandmother achieved and I daresay it was this exquisite musical sensitivity captured so eloquently that persuaded the Master to send all the other candidates home and offer my grandmother the final place.
The move to Belgium was achieved by the family passing the hat around and that charity extended to the affluent family next door, the Scammells, who owned and ran a successful pharmaceutical company called Fauldings. The youngest Scammell, Rupert, was a boy of fifteen who made no pretence about being wildly infatuated with the twenty-three year old violinist who lived next door, an infatuation that lasted his entire life. Never did my grandfather even look at another woman. I must add here that my grandparents grew up in mansions next door to each other in Bradley’s Head Rd Clifton Gardens but whilst the Scammells were wealthy, the Thompsons had inherited the house and struggled financially. I imagine life inside the Scammell mansion was ordered and charming whilst life inside the Thompson mansion was chaotic, lacking any semblance of routine and saturated with conflicting melodies. It was to my grandparents’ credit that they were able to harmonise these contrasting lifestyles.
In Belgium my grandmother’s story gets interesting. Freed of the constraints of home and aware that she is a prodigious talent who owes it to her struggling family to become a success she applies herself diligently to her studies whilst simultaneously frequenting the many cabarets on offer, led on by her wild and wealthy French co-student with whom she shared a flat. My grandmother told me they were both on an allowance from home which covered their rent and sundry items like stockings, hats and food, the latter often forfeited in favour of the former. Many days my grandmother subsisted on a cheese sandwich while her reckless French friend got by on gin.
Two years of intense daily studying later, Ysayë discharged his students with certificates and introductions to patrons in London, a mixed blessing for my grandmother who was loathe to leave the comfort and allure of seeing her handsome teacher daily and having to finally honour her family’s faith in her.
My grandmother had fallen in love with Ysayë or at least become infatuated and is it any wonder? He was a charismatic romantic genius, albeit married, but at that age when men start to worry about death and can have their heads turned by the adulation of a beautiful young student.
Ysayë, the charming and handsome and very married teacher.
Did they have an affair? I don’t know for sure but I do know they stayed in touch and wrote to each other for the rest of his life.
My grandmother moved to London and was quickly absorbed into the highest artistic echelon courtesy of letters of introduction from Ysayë. She played in salons and met artists of every stripe and before the year was out she was well on track to becoming a major star in the field of classical music.
Letter of recommendation from Ysayë
The boy back home kept up-to-date on her triumphs, his youthful love maturing into passionate adult consideration for the woman he hoped would one day marry him against all odds. Meanwhile he was becoming accomplished in his own right, a clever bio chemist he created a product for Fauldings that became its signature, Fauldings Lanoline and he pursued his passion for photography, recording the changes in Sydney’s skyline with his trusty Brownie Box camera. He sent these updates to his glamorous neighbour in London who no doubt saw the boy as little more than a back-up plan.
My grandfather’s pictures of Sydney.
By 1933 it became clear that Hitler was a madman hellbent on world domination. Lala’s mother told her daughter she must come home but promised she could return when things settled down in Europe. Reluctantly my grandmother boarded a ship and sailed home. I can only imagine her pain as she saw her dreams receding in concert with those white cliffs, and more ominously, the coast of France beyond which her beloved Ysayë remained domiciled in his fairy-tale existence in Belgium, surrounded by beauty and music and a doting family and undoubtedly three more privileged young artists. I know the pain of leaving England and Paris myself whenever I’ve had to board a plane and grind my way back to the bottom of the earth so far from the lustre of genius that permeates the London and Parisian air.
Program from concert at Aeolian Hall London 1924
I can only imagine her pain when the war set in like a long dark winter and so much of her beloved Europe and London was shattered under cover of dark when those arrhythmic discordant bombers ground overhead and dropped their lethal cargo of whining incendiaries. The atonal squeals followed by the nightmarish thuds, the screams of those trapped under rubble slowly chilling to silence.
My grandmother followed the passage of the war with every headline and newscast dreading the loss of her friends and most of all, Ysayë.
Back in Sydney my grandfather reintroduced himself and my grandmother must have been thrilled to see the spindly boy had matured into a handsome charming and highly accomplished young man who had already built her a home in anticipation of her accepting his offer of marriage. The home he built for her was around the corner from their childhood mansions in Clifton Gardens and modelled along European lines, his best effort to recreate the Europe she would almost certainly miss. As the war dragged on it became clear to Lala that she would never be able to pick up where she left off and so she accepted the offer of marriage and made the best of it.
Unlike the character in Fields of Grace who drags Grace to Australia and away from her fame, her family, her friends and memories of her beloved, my grandfather was a sensitive thoughtful man who empathised with my grandmother’s loss. He knew she was incomplete without her music and all Australia offered this genius musician was second fiddle in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. The insult inflamed my grandfather as much as it infuriated my grandmother and after a couple of half-hearted attempts to establish her career as a soloist in Australia she gave up entirely and threw herself into charity work.
Fast-forward five decades. My grandfather passes away and a teenage actress on fire to conquer the world moves in with her grandmother to keep her company in her loneliness and the years of grief that followed the loss of that good and great man, Rupert Scammell.
Me at nineteen
Me when I lived with my grandmother.
My grandmother decided I had a great unambiguous talent for music and we spent hours planning my future which included a stint at the Conservatorium learning to sing. Despite my having a fairly unremarkable voice Lala insisted I had the music in me just as she did. Her unshakable faith in my musical ability was the rock upon which I built my faith. But it didn’t materialise until the 90s when I wrote my first musical, Scheherazade.
Then one day she decided to share her treasured past with me. Just as I wrote in Fields of Grace, she opened her trunk and together we poured through the memorabilia of an almost world-beating life on the stages of London. Her best friend, Janine, the French student married a French Count and retired to the south of France. They have stayed in touch and my grandmother decided to speak to my parents about sending my younger brother Marcus to France to live with their son and his wife for a year in exchange for their grandson Eduard who would live with my parents in Sydney for a year. The idea was willingly embraced so there was much shuffling of grandchildren and homes at that time, orchestrated by my grandmother.
Janine de Balthazar’s home in Olivet, Chateau Bellevue
My grandmother was the outstanding student, an artiste as Ysayë had said and that evening over wine and with programs spread out all over the dining room table my grandmother and I shed a few tears over what might have been. What should have been had Hitler not ruined the world and so many lives.
After reinterring the programs and photos and promise of an incomplete life my grandmother looked at me and said, “He’ll come back for me you know. We never finished our dance.” I assumed she was talking about my grandfather and I squeezed her hand and said, “Of course he will.’
After her death I had cause to wonder if it was my grandfather she was talking about.
She left me her trunk and it was full of photos, letters and memorabilia of Ysayë and her performances. There was only one picture of my grandfather.
My grandfather’s passport photo 1940.
Years later I sit at my desk and can finally find the courage and expertise to turn my beloved grandmother’s tragedy into a story of charm and redemption. I did it for her and for me and all the genius lost in that insidious episode fomented by a mediocre little man who made nothing worthwhile of his life and sought in his frustration that single province available to the undeveloped – CONTROL.