A Short Overture
(In Which My Theme is Set)
I cannot remember a time when music wasn’t present. My allotted three score years and ten have well and truly passed, and for at least sixty-seven of them I have been singing or playing or conducting something. Music will remain my life until I die (something I do not intend to do for at least another seventy years). Which is not to say that it has been a bed of roses – more like an enormous struggle and a never-ending quest for knowledge, understanding and wisdom.
Working as a musician, teacher, conductor and music director has provided me with some of the lowest points in my life, as well as some of the highest. I have experienced devastating failures, as well as uplifting success. In the process, I have learned a great deal about myself, about others, and about life. My failures showed me that I was inadequately prepared, or had not done enough of the right sort of work. In my successes I see a combination of factors: the right people at the right time, and the right preparation. Hardly rocket surgery, as a violinist once said to me.
Music is, in part, about people. Through my calling I have met some of the most wonderful people in the world and some of the nastiest. In a profession where jealousy, fear, suspicion and good old-fashioned hate intermingle with compassion, love, support and integrity, it is easy to sort out the sheep from the goats, the lovers from the haters. For me, there has been a fortunate abundance of people with whom I have forged strong and enjoyable working relationships. I count myself privileged to have met and worked with a few of the gigantic talents of twentieth-century music: composer Carl Orff, and conductors Otto Klemperer, Carlo Maria Giulini, Georg Tintner and Carlo Felice Cillario. These men were astonishing in many ways, and all have been a great inspiration to me. At the other end of time’s scale, I have met young artists whose great talents I have been able to recognise early, and to whom I have been able to offer opportunities and assistance that were not available in my student days.
I did not begin formal music lessons until the age of thirteen. As a late starter, I had the distinct advantage of having enormous amounts to learn and enormous amounts to do. I say this in all sincerity. In the early part of my life, when I wanted to learn music above everything else but family circumstances meant that it simply wasn’t possible, the good, the wise and the clever reminded me constantly that all the great musicians started very early, and that I had probably missed the boat. Mozart was a child prodigy, Beethoven began composing very young, Chopin was a genius as a teenager, and so on. I was to learn that discouragement could be almost as effective as encouragement (just as false encouragement is potentially very dangerous indeed).
One of my mother’s friends, for example, had received her cap and gown for the piano at the age of seven. Another said that young Betty Bucket, who had been learning piano since she was three, had just got her cap and gown at the age of nine, and was going to a place they called ‘The Con’ for special lessons!
What a cap and gown meant, and what was required to earn them, were concepts totally unclear to me. But the idea that they were the measure of success was drummed into my brain very early. As a young child I developed the notion that music was all about caps and gowns – which probably explains why I don’t have any now. My letters for music consist of two honorary doctorates, neither of which was directly my doing.
Other words I often heard as a child were, ‘You have to catch up; you will need to catch up; you will never catch up if you don’t start soon.’ The warning was never exactly clear. Catch up with what? And to whom? When I started at the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music in 1959, these words came back to haunt me. I was suddenly acutely aware of how far my musical knowledge lagged behind that of my contemporaries.
So much of what happens in our early lives is entirely out of our control. Music was never really part of my early childhood in a formal way; nor was ours an overly musical home. Nonetheless, I owe my parents, Stephen and Lydia, a massive debt, which I never fully acknowledged while they were alive. I regret it but there is nothing I can do now other than acknowledge it here. My parents instilled in me a love of words, of reading, of literature. Above all, my mother instilled in me a love of learning for its own sake. It was enough to learn something because it was there. It is to her, principally, that I owe my love of poetry.
My father was a great reader, especially of encyclopaedias and dictionaries. He left school at the age of twelve and went to work for the Sydney ﬁrm of William Brooks, a publisher of school texts and reference books. Although he had received a very limited formal education, at Holy Cross College, Ryde, he was widely read, deeply interested in learning, and a person with a genuine sense of inquiry.
That he was such a devoted reader was due, partly, to his deafness, ﬁrst diagnosed when he was a child of ten or eleven. Reading led him into worlds about which others around him had no idea, or could never share with him. Within this silent world, my father could hear. The pages of the books spoke to him, and he conveyed something of them to me, albeit obliquely.
To my father I owe also the notion of being independent or, at least, having a sense of independence and not being in anyone’s debt. ‘Stand on your own two feet and don’t expect anyone to do anything for you,’ my brothers and I were told, almost on a daily basis. Dad was self-employed, delivering paper bags and wrapping materials to shops all over Sydney. He kept and supported a family of three boys, educating us at Catholic schools because of his ﬁrm beliefs about God and the church.
My mother did the books for his business, running the household from a swivel chair positioned at the end of our dining-room table, where she held court for all the women of the neighbourhood, for whom she was a sort of oracle and problem-solver. There were more cups of tea and sympathy shared in that dining room than one could ever hope to count. The drinking of tea sustained my seriously overweight mother in the same way that air sustains the rest of humanity. A cup of tea would solve every problem, ease every heart, and soothe every condition.
Our first family home was at 229 Clovelly Road, Clovelly; a semi-detached cottage in a beachside suburb, south-east of the city. The wireless set provided the only music in the house, and it was usually switched on. My mother was a keen listener to Radio 2FC – Radio National, as it is known today – a station run by the Australian Broadcasting Commission. The announcers had quasi-English accents, and the programs carried no advertising of any kind. Among many people around us, the ABC was considered a little bit snooty and very North Shore indeed. But my mother, who lived in Clovelly, which was definitely not the North Shore, listened to the ABC all day.
I have vivid memories from very early childhood of the wireless emitting a wonderful sound, high-pitched, strong, sweet and multi-layered, which I learned later was that of violins. There were regular programs of classical music including an opera hour each day at 11 am, the sounds of which went right through my body. I found the sounds of operatic voices – half-singing, half-crying – extraordinary and I tried to imitate them.
Also in my memory, courtesy of the ABC, are the musical themes of its children’s programs: Kindergarten of the Air – ‘Boys and girls, come out to play’ – and The Argonauts – ‘come with a hop, a skip and a run’. You could join the Argonauts club by writing in for membership. Via return post, you received an Argonaut badge and an identifying ship name. Mr Melody Man, the pianist and composer Lindley Evans, would encourage us Argonauts to write music and send it in to be played on air: ‘Hellas 36 of Nambucca Heads writes a tune for ﬂute, and here it is.’ To be an Argonaut was very sophisticated; it gave one just a slight edge over everyone else in the playground.
The other musical sound that is still vivid in my memory is that of plainchant associated with the Roman Catholic mass. In 1946, at the tender age of four, I began school at St Anthony’s, Clovelly, a convent school run by the Sisters of St Joseph. For years, I puzzled over these frightening women, but what I can thank them for is the fact that they cared about singing the mass, and made sure we learned it. I can still recite all the responses from the old Latin mass, as well as the entire Benediction, including all the hymns. It was the most amazing form of memory training.
Singing was not the only memorable thing about church. The mass was pure theatre. The altar was the stage, the priest was the principal actor, the altar boys were the extras, and the choir in the gallery was a heavenly chorus. To this scene add swinging thuribles belching frankincense, bells ringing at the altar, the priest holding up a monstrance, allegedly containing the body and blood of Christ, and the choir roaring away, and you have a scene rivalling the ‘Triumphal March’ from Aida.
My favourite musical times were Easter, the Forty Hours Devotion and Christmas, in that order. Lent, the period preceding Easter, was a time for fasting and self-denial. As a ﬁve-year-old, I gave up eating sugar of any description; a huge sacriﬁce for me. I was devoted to sweets of all kinds, including cakes and biscuits, but God, our Father in Heaven, would know if I had eaten a sweet and would punish me accordingly when I died.
During Easter, all the statues in the church were covered in purple. The altar was stripped bare. The priest wore purple vestments, and the ‘Gloria’ was not sung. The organ was silent. Once we started to practise the music for Easter, my world changed and I entered paradise. Come Passion Sunday, and then Holy Thursday, a musical feast would unfold, with chanting, anthems, motets and the like, and incredibly long litanies of the saints, to which one responded with the chant ‘ora pro nobis’ – ‘pray for us’. All this with incense, and the lighting of the Pascal candle from a ﬂame produced by a ﬂint struck outside the door of the church. And the altar! What an extraordinary transformation! From a plain marble surface to one featuring a luxuriant ﬂoral display on Easter Sunday. But best of all, the fast was over and we could eat sweets to our hearts’ content without offending God or the Sisters of St Joseph – well, God, anyway.
It was one of those inspirational Easter rituals that encouraged me to build an altar in our backyard at home. I made a spectacular structure out of bricks, boards and corrugated iron, which included a wooden altar with a tabernacle in the form of a large tin can. I ﬁlled jam-jar lids with mud, and stuck sprigs of lantana into them for the altar flowers. My vestments were a sheet and a towel.
The girl who lived next door, Wilma Moore, was asked to join my sacred order of the backyard, in the capacity of a chorister. As women were not allowed to serve at the altar in those days, I relegated her to the back of it, and set her up with a small sheet of corrugated iron, which she banged with a stick for the instrumental music. At ﬁrst, my parents were unconcerned. They decided to remove the altar the day my maiden aunt Josephine was seen kneeling in the dirt, while I heard her confession and forgave her sins.
Forty Hours Devotion, while not as special for me as Easter, still had all the trappings of a major theatrical event. There were two solemn High Masses and the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. If you stood in front of the Blessed Sacrament you had to genuﬂect on both knees, accompanied by a deep bowing of the head. There were endless litanies of the saints, a favourite musical pastime of mine because of the repetitive and trancelike nature of the music. Best of all, I was chosen one Forty Hours weekend to be a flower strewer!
The nuns dressed me in white silk pantaloons, a white silk shirt and a half-cape in red and gold, and gave me a large basket of rose petals to strew before the priest who carried the Blessed Sacrament. I kissed each petal before it hit the ﬂoor, and sang ‘ora pro nobis’ in response to the litany (‘orate pro nobis’ if two saints were mentioned). My great joy was to count the number of times people sang the wrong response, which I noticed happened often. This was clearly the first sign of the obsessive-compulsive strain that has remained with me to this day.
There was nothing that matched the excitement I felt when we sang something in church, whether a litany, Gregorian chant, or one of the hymns I then believed to be examples of the most beautiful music ever written – ‘Hail, Queen of Heaven, the Ocean Star’ or ‘Hail, glorious Saint Patrick, dear saint of our Isle’. Even the jingoistic, brain-washing hymns written for schoolchildren – ‘I am a little Catholic, I love my holy faith’ – worked for me. All my troubles would vanish as the music began. It has been the pattern of my life.
Quite late in my career, I was asked to become founding music director of Victorian Opera. I didn’t jump at the chance, I ﬂew at it. How often is one asked the question ‘Would you like to start an opera company from scratch?’ An opportunity to commission new work, an opportunity to do work on a small scale, an opportunity to present work that would not normally see the light of day, and an opportunity to engage young people in this work in a very special way. I did not share the view of many Melburnians that, at last, there was once again a company to perform La Bohème and La traviata on alternate nights. I knew I would disappoint such people. I have a broader view of the repertoire than most of my colleagues, and have used this view to direct the company as I see ﬁt. I was not commissioned to maintain a status quo, for by the time of my appointment, in 2005, there was none.
It was high-stakes poker. The funding, much as it was appreciated, was undoubtedly tiny. The company had no proper home. Friends and foes alike told me that it had been set up to fail – no opera company could survive on such a modest portion. It was grist to the mill for me. All my life I’d been told what I couldn’t do, and this was no different.
Even my career as a musician has had its share of controversy. As far as conducting goes I’ve certainly been told, from the day I started, that I’d never make a conductor. I remember the ﬁrst review I received for a professional conducting engagement. It appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, and was written by the music critic Fred Blanks. The performance organised by an enlightened patron of music, Dr Vincent Shepherd. I conducted a Bach cantata – and here I use the word ‘conducted’ in its loosest sense – with a very good professional orchestra and a cast of great professional singers.
The review when it ﬁnally appeared contained this wonderful smack in the eye: ‘Under Richard Gill’s conducting, there was no gainsaying the professionalism of the rest of the ensemble.’ In other words, everyone else was very good but the conductor was rubbish. This has been a theme with some reviewers, though in my own defence I should add that I have also had my share of very good reviews, even when, I felt, I didn’t deserve them.
It’s not only reviewers who’ve caused me grief over the years. I’ve been told by string players and wind players and brass players that I would never be a conductor because I’m not a string player or a wind player or a brass player. I have also been informed by musical authorities in the business of employing conductors that I’m no good at all. On one occasion I was actually told ‘I’d heard you were a bad conductor, but that’s not really accurate’. That was a conversation stopper, though I’m sure it was meant as encouragement.
I ﬁgure that with such a track record the only way is up, and therefore I have everything to gain by keeping on conducting. I can only improve, and effect this improvement by being involved, and listening to what players and singers have to say, especially in rehearsals. I will often ask particular players to give me feedback if they can be bothered, and many do, for which I am truly grateful.
That is also pretty much my approach to music generally. I know no other way! Which is not to say that the experience has been painless, or that skin has not been left under fingernails. Often in the writing of this memoir, I’ve had to relive that pain. When I say that it has been a form of purgatory, I am only half-joking. Yet, I hope that readers, particularly the young and musically inclined, will ﬁnd something of worth here. For this book is about the musician’s journey as I have experienced it: the sublime and the ridiculous; the happy chances and the rude awakenings; the life-changing encounters with true genius; the strong friendships with other singers and players who, like myself, were merely mortal; the providential announcements; the miscommunications; the artistic differences; and – rarely – the invidious enmities, that all somehow combine to form a life in music.
Excerpted from Give Me Excess of It by Richard Gill. Copyright © 2012 by Richard Gill.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.