[From Mannin, #4, 1914]

Manx Miniatures—II.


A little bird sang in his nest,
In spite of wind and cloud and rain;
With him the Fairies sang their best
Till all the valley rang again.

That little bird strayed from his nest,
All day, all night he did complain;
And so the Fairies would’nt rest
Until they’d got him home again.


NOW true it is that ‘sweetest melodies are those that are by distance made more sweet’ ! To that boy, born of Manx parents in a foreign land, the first songs of nature-music that reached his ears were those of the gentle waves of the tideless Mediterranean distant only a few yards from the old baglio gate at Marsala, the ancient Lilyboeum of the Romans. That nature-music was accompanied by the singing to him of delightful Sicilian cradle songs by his dear old nurse Maruzza. These remain as sacred, lifelong, and unfading memories. On one day in the week, Don Michaeli, the Cathedral organist,used to come to the baglio to teach the two sisters music while the boy would listen with rapt attention to their delightful Italian solfeggi. Later on the sisters were allowed to go to the opera once a week, and, the boy being considered too young for such entertainment, the younger sister would retail to him on the following morning what she could remember of the acting and the singing of the prima donna. Also occasionally, to his delight, itinerant pifferari with wonderful strident bagpipes would come marching into the court-yard and play pastoral music. In those days Bellini, the Sicilian composer was in the zenith of his fame, and his opera, ‘Norma’ was going the round of the civilized world. So it happened that when the appointed time arrived, when he was nine years old, and he was shipped to London en route to his future home Malew, Vicarage, not only was his little head full of Bellini, but a huge musical-box—a votive offering to his appointed guardian angel in his future home—played nothing but Bellini ! And yet he might have fared worse, for truly that music, though weak, is at least pure and refined. It was soon after his arrival at the Vicarage that he made acquaintance of a kinsman of the family in the person of Tom Brown, who was some nine years his senior and after another term of nine years was destined to become his master at King William’s College. The actual words of that first greeting strongly impressed the boy as in some way oracular or mysterious, especially as they were accompanied by a tremendously hearty shake of both hands. ‘Well,’ said he, ‘so you have arrived at last ; and how are the Sicilian Mariners ? ‘ This little joke was lost upon the boy who simply answered, ‘Very well, thank you,’ but felt puzzled if not humiliated, for he did not then know what he soon afterwards found out from the church hymn-book, that there is a well-known tune bearing the name of ‘Sicilian Mariners.’ As to the Vicarage itself and its inmates, subsequent ‘Miniatures’ , may go into general details as opportunity may offer. For the present it may suffice to say that for him and his younger brother who followed later on, the lines had fallen in pleasant places. If some good fairy had said, ‘Choose your lot, your destiny, your home, your companions, your surroundings, your mental and spiritual atmosphere,’ these boys could have made but one reply:

‘This is our earthly paradise, our promised Fatherland, and here we will gladly stay till the fates us do part.’ And so it was ordained to the unspeakable blessing of both the boys. But the central figure in the picture, the ruling spirit of this ideal household, was ‘The Old Lady’, as every body called her,—the brightest, bravest, sunniest soul that ever trod on God’s earth. To paint of her a worthy portrait would be possible only to a Fra Angelico on his knees.

But, to follow the musical trend or motif of the present narrative, among the itinerant work-people of the household was the family tailor, Tim Bridson, one of the tenor singers in the church choir. True to the traditions of his trade he used to sit cross-legged on the kitchen table with his music-book always in his pocket ready for casual reference in the intervals of business. One day as the boy, who had now attained the proud position of assistant organist, was passing through the kitchen, Tim pulled the book out of his pocket and, turning to one of the tunes, spoke admiringly of it as a very pretty one Invited to sing it, he did so, at the same time pointing to the music note by note. As he approached the end of each phrase there were evidently more notes than he sang and to make tip the deficit he would slide his finger to the next double bar, and this went on till he had finished the tune. Of course the performance was duly admired, as was also the singer’s good taste in liking so excellent a composition, so that poor old Tim’s face beamed all over with delight. On looking at the page, however, a single glance showed that he had been singing one tune while pointing at the notes of another and as the tunes were of different metres he adjusted the balance by simply sliding his finger ! How many a chorus singer in our own day substitutes as Tim did, memory and guesswork, for bona fide sight-reading ! There was then no Tonic Sol-fa in the Island except a smattering of Shepherd’s Lancashire version, but nature and commonsense had already suggested to the boy the use of figures and letters as auxiliaries to the staff notation.

And this thought brings us to Charles-a-Killey—the ‘Chalse’ immortalized by our national poet. One day, it seems like yesterday, he came marching along, a veritable conquering hero, with a bundle of papers under his arm. He was on his way borne from Bishop’s Court whither he had gone to consult his Lordship as to the printing of his Hymns. ‘Chaise,’ said he exultingly, and quoting his Lordship’s words, ‘The hybmns is glorious!’ Dear old Chalse!

Then there was that grand old man with a big voice, Bobby Gale, the basso profando of the choir who, having a decided genius for composition, would occasionally bring his latest inspirations to he criticized. In one of these laudable attempts a full half—the better half, had been bodily cribbed. This the dear old man with delightful naivete called ‘ a remarkable coincidence,’——a phrase which thenceforth became proverbial among the Vicarage boys.

Then, again, there was one estimable friend, Mr James Caley, organist at St. Mary’s who, tradition said, was wont to retire for the night with writing materials on a little table by his bedside ready for recording nocturnal inspirations. Or was it intended for the fairies? Anyway it was he who, as Dr. Clague has since reminded us, used to provide for poor old Shepherd, the Lancashire Sol-fa singing-master, sleeping accommodation in those comfortably cushioned pews of the chapel. And indeed it is only due to Mr. Caley’s memory to record here the fact not generally known, that at least one of his hymn tunes was published during his life-time in a collection entitled, ‘Warren’s Psalmody ; ‘ also several chants by his son who was Precentor at Hereford Cathedral, were familiar in most choirs and places where they sing. At that time there were no evening services at Malew Church; and so one day, if only to show his fatherly interest in the boy’s musical proclivities, he invited him to attend one of his own evening services. So the boy went and felt very proud as he sat on the organ bench by the side of the maestro and occasionally pulled out one stop or pushed in another as directed. Then came the tug-of-war, the crucial point of the programme, when the boy himself was to play the outgoing voluntary. Of course he did his level best, played the ‘showiest piece’ he knew, and so the day passed and was duly ticked off as a red-letter day. Shortly afterwards, however, quietly and kindly, the dear old man suggested to his protege that his voluntary was hardly the right kind of thing, that, in a word, it was too ‘lax and secular,’—an expression which, like the one already mentioned, tickled the fancy of the Vicarage boys and became proverbial as applied to anything lacking good taste. But, to the boy the experience was one of serious import, that set him a-thinking ; and then, as usual, the fairies came to his assistance and one day under their friendly guidance he found his way to the hitherto unexplored regions of the house where in an attic he discovered two old books, one a volume of Coreili’s so-called Sonatas and the other a book of Rinck’s Organ Voluntaries. Here was food and medicine combined,—models both of them—one of simple classical beauty, the other of solid but not dry Counter-point. About that time also he discovered at a friend’s house the original MS. of the hymn-tune ‘Hatford’ composed, not, as some have erroneously stated, by Tom Brown but by his father, the Rev. Robert Brown.

Another of the boy’s helpful Mentors was Lewis Garret, of Douglas,—a born mimic and accomplished musician. He was organist at St. Thomas’s and some few of us will remember how one quiet evening while the townspeople were, or ought to have been, singing vespers, they suddenly heard music which was decidedly both ‘lax’ and ‘secular,’ and this loudly pealing from the church tower. The bells were a recent acquisition and had not yet been heard, and Garret had previously instructed and rehearsed the singers on the quiet, so that at the given signal, ‘those evening bells’ poured forth what must have tickled the ears of all the fairies in the Island, and set them all a-dancing—namely, a spirited rendering of the then popular song of the day, ‘Pop goes the weasel.’ O tempora ! O mores ! or in Manx, ‘The capers tha’s in is shockin !‘ But just a glimpse at the other side of the picture. In Garret’s well trained choir, the best in the Island, sang occasionally the leading soprano of that day, Mrs. Alfred Lemon, wife of the present writer’s beloved drawing master at King William’s College—a triple alliance which, begun in Mannin, was afterwards happily renewed and continued for many years in London.



Back index next


Any comments, errors or omissions gratefully received The Editor
HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2000