• Mansfield Musings

Musical Scenes

Updated: Jan 19

Songwriter Sue Casson explores some of the reasons why she feels Katherine Mansfield is the perfect subject for musical dramatisation.

For a woman who came to be known for her writing, there are many musical scenes in Katherine Mansfield’s life that turn out to be a gift to someone like me, who wants to tell her life story through music.

As a songwriter with a literary background, I was initially drawn to KM as a subject for a musical as I saw a parallel in form between the short narrative that constrains the story in the short stories for which she is famous, and the limited number of verses that comprise a song. In both, brevity is no obstacle to meaning.

Further research however, reveals there is greater affinity between Mansfield and music than I had anticipated, and it has become increasingly clear to me that what drew me to her was more instinctive than form alone. Music was central to her life. She was a musician, singer and lover of music, and her musical understanding and sensitivity reflect in her stories.

A Musical Haven

Born into the prosperous Beauchamp family in Wellington, the middle child of five, young Kathleen was raised surrounded by music, as well as books, and pictures. There was a piano to play, and she and her eldest sister Vera wrote songs together, sitting at it, Vera playing, Kathleen singing.

Upstairs in her bedroom, as well as being an avid reader, she would spend happy hours practicing her cello. She was so serious about her playing that for a short time she considered becoming a professional.

Concert Parties in Wellington

This passion for musicianship may have been fed by the private recitals she and her family often attended in Wellington. Of one of these she writes in her journal:

‘Music enveloped me – again – caught me, held me, thank heaven.’

The twin sons of her cello teacher Thomas Trowell would sometimes play at these recitals. Both close to her in age, the slightly elder son Arnold was already taking steps to pursue a musical career. She formed an unrequited romantic attachment to this prodigy she secretly called ‘Caesar’ exchanging letters with him when he travelled to Europe to study. He later repaid her adoration when in 1908 he published Six Morceaux for Violoncello and Pianoforte, which on its' title page had a dedication to Kathleen Beauchamp.

Concert Parties in London

Kathleen took her beloved cello with her when she came to settle in London, at the age of nineteen. Unaccustomed to living on a budget (her father gave her an allowance) she sold it to settle a debt, but continued to sing, taking lessons from a friend of the Trowell’s, George Bowden.

It may have been Bowden who introduced KM to hostesses of London parties. Her biographer Antony Alpers (one of the few available when I was first researching her life), writes of the way she would earn a little money singing at these events. She had a particular fondness for music hall songs and ‘turns,’ and in a scene in Two Tigers I imagined her, strikingly dressed (her friend Ida Baker recalls she had new dresses made for these performances which cost more than the fee) spinning stories of her dramatic and unconventional life, to an audience charmed and shocked in equal measure.

A Grand Piano & a Guitar

Two years later, hearing her sing with a guitar, an opera singer living immediately above her first offered lessons, and sometime later the opportunity to buy her grand piano, an opportunity KM seized with enthusiasm, going halves with Ida. When Mansfield moved into a flat in the Gray’s Inn Road shortly after it turned out to be the only furniture she owned, which demonstrates a delightful disregard for practicality that I recognise and find very endearing. Visitors there also mention a guitar hanging behind the door - next to her silk kimono.

Some year later there is an account in the diaries of Dorothy Brett, of Katherine playing and singing with a guitar at Garsington. There is something lovely about the idea her entertaining Ottoline Morrell and the rest of the ‘Bloomsbury set’ with folk songs and negro spirituals ‘in a low whispering voice’. Given what a notoriously tough crowd they were, it isn’t surprising that Brett notes it was ‘after much persuasion’.

Two Tigers

When I wrote ‘Home’, which draws on Kathleen’s youthful impressions of her native landscape, I was unaware of her playing and singing in this way, although this song unconsciously captures the folk guitar style that was a feature of her playing at Garsington. Early in the project I abandoned the idea of trying to translate any Mansfield stories directly into music, but I found I could thread her words through my lyrics. Phrases translate well into musical themes, and wanting to use her words unedited, as the show developed, I often underscored her poetry and letters between verses.

According to an eyewitness at the Gurdjieff Institute in Fontainebleau, Katherine was impatiently awaiting the traditional dancers that were a feature of evenings there on the night she died. ‘I want music,’ she is reported to have said. ‘Why don’t they begin?

Listen to Home from Two Tigers - Sue Casson is accompanied by John Jansson.

Next time on Mansfield Musings, I’ll be looking at how KM’s love of music spilled into her writing. Join me then!

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