• Mansfield Musings

A Waking Dream

Impressions of a special concert celebrating Katherine Mansfield : Storyteller & Cellist zoomed in from Wellington, New Zealand.

There is something very mysterious about waking just before 4 in the morning to watch a concert from the other side of the world. Outside the window here silence and starlit darkness, from the blue lit screen, late afternoon sunlight streaming through a distinctive, period window, the sound of distant birdsong, the rustle of an expectant audience gathering.

It is the same time – but not the same time. Time has shifted, just as the hall I am seeing on my screen has shifted. It is the exact same Sydney Street Schoolroom in Wellington New Zealand where Katherine Mansfield, whose love of music is to be celebrated in this concert, performed with her elder sisters in 1907. And yet this hall, though still in Wellington, is no longer in Sydney Street – it has been relocated, brick by brick, to another school just up the road.

I don’t know whether it’s being awake at the ‘witching hour’ when we’re told the living and the dead rub together most freely, or still being in a half wakeful dreamlike state, but for the next hour and a half I felt time slip, as I listened to a recital where Katherine Mansfield herself would not have been out of place.

'At Home' with the Beauchamps

When young ‘Kathleen’ was growing up, entertainments such as these – an instrumentalist or two, a song, a recitation, were not at all uncommon. For her mother’s Friday afternoon ‘At Home' Kathleen, as Katherine was then called, would sing or play the cello, which at that time, as a Wairarapa Daily Times reviewer of one of these observed, was ‘an unusual instrument for a girl to master.’

The cello was also the chosen instrument of Thomas Arnold Trowell, whose music opened and closed our concert. The talented son of KM’s cello teacher, he and his twin brother Garnet, were near contemporaries to her in age. Like Katherine, Arnold (also like Katherine he took a professional name) went on to have a successful career in England - as a composer and musician.

There was a sense, as I listened to the beautifully resonant solo playing of Martin Griffiths, that he was ‘sounding out’ the rooms (as he described it), with two rarely heard Trowell cello Preludes, not only for the acoustic but also for the ghosts of players past. I felt a shiver down my spine remembering that the composer too had performed in this very hall, as the Evening Post recorded in June 1903.

‘Sydney-street Schoolroom was again packed, and there was no mistaking the enthusiasm …Master Thomas Trowell, the 'cellist, was encored again and again.’

This recital was devised in association with an exhibition - Mansfield & Music - that has been showing at Katherine Mansfield’s House & Garden, a museum in Wellington based in the house where she was born in Tinakori Road. Having spent the early part of my year exploring the modernist writer’s musicality, there was an eerie synchronicity in discovering a similar exploration taking place on the other side of the world at nearly the same time.

Cellist & Storyteller

Celebrating Mansfield as both storyteller & cellist, the evening features readings of her work alongside music. Katherine was drawn to recitation herself. Soon after she moved to London, she wrote to Arnold’s brother Garnet of her plans to ‘recite’ at parties, in a ‘simple, beautifully coloured dress.’

‘Tone should be my secret – each word a variety of tone…’

She describes it in almost musical terms, and in my musical Two Tigers, I imagine a scene at one of these London parties, where KM turns her ‘sensational’ life into copy with a series of musical ‘sketches’.

Some ‘vignettes’ and sketches survive from these days, and were written with performance very much in mind. The Chorus Girl and the Tariff a newly discovered piece which Martin Griffiths makes a good case for being one of Mansfield’s, is very much in this vein, and Libbie Gillard who reads it here summons both KM’s enchantment with the theatre, and familiarity with the tribulations of the lifestyle that she briefly sampled when she joined Garnet Trowell as part of the Moody Manners Opera Company touring Great Britain.

Ole Underwood, the second featured story read by the House & Garden director Cherie Jacobson illustrates Mansfield’s musicality in another way – in that she uses rhythm and sound as a punctuation to the eponymous character’s walk to the pub in what is almost a prose ‘tone poem.’ This musicality is taken a stage further in Janet Jennings contemporary musical setting of a 1908 vignette, Cars on Lambton Quay, playfully interplaying cello and viola de gamba between the narrator of the story, to bring alive the setting of an unwanted marriage proposal.


The evening ended with more music by Trowell, which with its’ shimmering piano accompaniment and unresolved motifs suggested the dreaminess of Debussy – it was getting late, and all too soon it was over, the audience were packing up their things and going home to their suppers. I turned off the link, the window onto Katherine Mansfield’s life slammed immediately shut and I was once more plunged into silence and darkness. My world wasn’t yet awake yet Arnold Trowell’s melancholic melody was still playing in my ears. Was it a vision or a waking dream?

I'll be back with another Mansfield Musing in a couple of weeks when I'll be delving deeper into Two Tigers. Add your email at the top and subscribe to get a reminder direct to your inbox!

The Mansfield & Music exhibition at Katherine Mansfield's House & Garden has just come to an end, but there are events throughout the year. Follow the link to visit their website for details.

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