Saturday, 4 April 2015

Madame Suggia and her Cello

I was reading an article about Northumberland recently.  It's a region of Britain I particularly love (if you haven't been there yet, do), and one of the best places to visit is Lindisfarne.  It's not just for the ancient Celtic monastery - though of course that is of interest.  It's not even for the seabirds or the white sand beaches or the fresh crab sandwiches.

No, my favourite thing is the castle.  It's a dinky little thing on the top of a rock, although as you walk along the foreshore towards it, it looks enormous.  From 1901 until 1921, it was the home of the publisher Edward Hudson, who employed none other than Sir Edwin Lutyens (later to be the architect of the Cenotaph in Whitehall, the Thiepval memorial in France, and many other war cemeteries and memorials) to refurbish what had originally been a 16th century fortification.  The result was a pleasant country house.  Hudson even got Gertrude Jekyll to create a walled garden nearby.

It was thus that Siegfried Sassoon found it when he visited the castle in September 1918, in the company of his Canadian friend and fellow poet, Frank "Toronto" Prewett.  Their purpose was to visit the publisher William Heinemann, who had been staying with Hudson and had invited them to call while they were in the area; Sassoon at the time was based at Lennel House, Coldstream, on the Scottish borders, where he was convalescing from the wound that had put him out of the war.  (This was where he was staying when he received his last letter from Wilfred Owen.)

On arrival at Lindisfarne Castle, they found that Heinemann and Hudson were both absent, having been forced to return to London on business, and the only person there to greet them was the famous cellist, Madame Suggia.  It seems to have been the first time they had met in person, though Sassoon, being a music lover and regular concert-goer, was quite familiar with her reputation.

Guilhermina Suggia, born in Portugal in 1885 and thus almost the same age as Sassoon, was already internationally known.  She had recently broken with her partner, another equally famous cellist, Pablo Casals.  She found Britain a welcoming place where she was not being constantly compared with Casals in terms of her talent.

She and Siegfried had much in common besides their age.  They shared a concern about the place of art, music and literature in the context of the ongoing conflict that, at the time, had no end in sight. Sassoon's wide interest in the arts drew him to composers (such as William Walton) and musicians, and he expresses his despair in the poem "Dead Musicians", included in his 1918 collection, Counter-Attack.

Whatever he may have made of the flamboyant Madame Suggia herself, the occasion was one he would treasure in his memory.  In Siegfried's Journey, he writes how they listened to her play "in the reverberant chamber of a lonely and historic castle - her 'cello's eloquence accompanied only by the beat and wash and murmur of waves breaking against the rocks below the windows".  He felt he had "arrived at the end of a pilgrimage, to find peace and absolution in an hour of incomparable music", which took him out of his general wartime mood of depression.

He sent Suggia a copy of Counter-Attack.  In return for the gift, she wrote from the castle to say that his poems were "the finest thing I read for a long time".  The original letter, dated 25 September 1918, is in the Sassoon archive at Cambridge University Library.  Evidently he kept it and treasured it as he did the memory of that wonderful afternoon at Lindisfarne.

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