Reading the score, Peter Russell

Facing the Music: Charles Baeyertz and the Triad
Joanna Woods
Otago University Press, $45.00, 
ISBN 9781877372551

Charles Nalder Baeyertz was born in Melbourne in 1866, his surname inherited from a German who came to England in the 18th century – though after the outbreak of WWI he discovered (like German biscuits) – a Belgian ancestry. His parents had married 14 months earlier – in secret in an empty church, for his mother Emilia being Jewish and his father Charles a Gentile, neither family would countenance the union. Emilia’s father disinherited her and she never heard from him again. Worse was to come. While out shooting quail her young husband, a banker with a reputation for carelessness, stood his loaded gun against a fence and leant over it to shake hands with a friend, killing himself. Their son Charles was but four. His grief-stricken mother then underwent a dramatic conversion to Christianity which launched her on a path of itinerant evangelism for the rest of her life. Emilia’s powers of oratory were to fill halls not only throughout Australia and New Zealand, but also in the USA, Canada and England.

The mother’s eagerness to educate, and love of the public platform, were inherited by her son – in whom, however, they found not religious but cultural expression. It may also have been Emilia’s enthusiastic account of New Zealand that motivated Charles in 1891 to move with his wife, son and daughter to Dunedin. Independent-minded, self-confident and musically trained (though largely self-taught), Charles hoped to obtain a position there as an organist. He had no luck, and for a time had to get by with other activities. Then in 1893 his enthusiasm for music, innate showmanship and entrepreneurial zeal united in a bold venture: a magazine “devoted to Literature, Art, Science and Music” he called The Triad, which, astonishingly, was to last for 35 years. It is for that reason we have this biography by Joanna Woods who, guided to the subject through her research on Katherine Mansfield (the subject of a previous book), believed she had found here a phenomenon that challenges fundamentally the prevailing negative view of the cultural life of New Zealand of that time. Different readers will I think give different degrees of assent to this claim.

Her book is well-written, informative, entertaining and rich in quotation. It is also meticulously researched and annotated, abundantly illustrated, and has an excellent index. Its title, Facing the Music, wittily pinpoints two of its dominant features: first, the fact that, as Baeyertz owed his celebrity above all to his music criticism, we read much more about music than about the other areas mentioned; and, second, the fact that his outspokenness regularly embroiled him in a metaphorical “facing the music” in forms ranging from frothing correspondents to costly (but hilarious) libel suits. The book’s subtitle, Charles Baeyertz and the Triad, equally points to a key feature: that the one was in effect the other. For Baeyertz did more than imprint his personality on his magazine: he used it as a receptacle for his every enthusiasm and dislike, “from Tolstoy to the railway tea-rooms at Waipukurau”, so completely throwing his energies into it that it became his raison d’être.

The first number had 16 pages and cost sixpence. Described as “A Monthly Magazine of Music, Science & Art”, its title was explained as meaning “three in one” and as “a technical word for harmony”. While it got off to a shaky start, Charles’s marketing nous soon established it on a firmer footing, and it grew. He travelled the country seeking advertisers – of anything – and contacting painters, musicians and writers. (Later the Triad would have its own agents around the country.) He offered cash bonuses to readers who recruited new subscribers. He included popular free supplements of photographs, songs or piano pieces. There were competitions too, some even sillier than those of today’s Radio New Zealand Concert. Thus: “Write down on paper the names of those whom you consider the six greatest composers, in order of merit, in the following list of living musicians.” (Of the nearly 4000 lists received, none got it right.) After the Triad’s office had in 1915 moved to Sydney and circulation flagged, it even tried pictures of a nude girl (see the back cover).

In its heyday, the Triad aimed to offer informed coverage of cultural activities in New Zealand, Australia and internationally in a mix of critical and original writing. Apart from the contributions of a small band of art and music correspondents, Charles wrote most of it himself. For international coverage he relied heavily on clippings from other magazines, especially the Australian edition of the monthly Review of Reviews, which contained extracts from all the leading British, European and American journals. From 1906 science was dropped, and from 1908 with the appointment as assistant editor of the flamboyant Frank Morton, a self-styled “Decadent”, there was an increasing emphasis on literature, in the form of both critical reviews and original contributions of prose and poetry, many of them by Morton himself. Even Katherine Mansfield sent it something; and from 1914 it had an embattled association with Ezra Pound. It enjoyed huge popularity.

In the changed social and cultural climate of the 1920s circulation dwindled, and efforts both to modernise the Triad, and to “dumb it down”, proved fruitless. It finally folded in 1928. Baeyertz had meanwhile embarked on a career in Sydney as a radio broadcaster. Robbed by the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-19 of the young woman for whom he’d left his wife, he remarried in 1930, and died of cancer at 76 in 1943.

A man of imposing bearing and forthright personality, Baeyertz clearly did much especially to enliven music-making in New Zealand. But I wonder how good a music critic he was, really? I think Joanna Woods gives him too easy a ride. His was not a profound mind, and although he claimed a critical rigour that made no concessions to amateur or professional status, he was himself a mixture of amateur and professional. How else could he have performed the feat of praising unreservedly musical performances in New Zealand’s small towns, while finding fault with both Melba and Caruso? Baeyertz was much preoccupied with vocal technique, and so widely regarded as authoritative on this that, when not working for the Triad, he was often judging competitions in singing and elocution. He held doctrinaire opinions in these matters, as on questions of English accent and enunciation. I wonder if this didn’t limit him? Similarly, much is made by the author of his wit. Yes, Baeyertz is sometimes funny, in his bombastic way. But his “wit” is usually a blunt instrument. To a reader who had sent in a musical composition: “Publish it? no! ‘Poison yourself first: you’ll be glad of it after.’ ” As La Rochefoucauld put it, “Wit sometimes enables us to act rudely with impunity.” He was no George Bernard Shaw.

Another niggle. This is a very public biography, which discloses comparatively little about its subject’s private sphere: Baeyertz as husband, father, family man, friend. Because here too the admiring author never ventures upon judgement, it is difficult to know just how to interpret what we do learn. There are hints that Baeyertz’s self-generated public celebrity was lived out at others’ cost. He was, for example, so regularly away for weeks or months on end – travelling on business, but also enjoying good hotels and a vigorous social life – that one supposes he was not a very satisfactory husband to his wife, Isabella, who had to hold the fort in Dunedin (and after 1909 in Wellington), bringing up their three children. There was at least one outburst from her over this. Isabella seems moreover to have been a fundamentally nice person. That she discovered shortly before their daughter Maida’s wedding in 1911, a large society event in Wellington, that her husband had been having an affair with a singer less than half his age, and had to endure the wedding reception knowing that he would be leaving her forthwith, is one of the most discomfiting episodes in the book. (In a radio interview this year its author did, refreshingly, agree with Kim Hill’s suggestion that Isabella “was hard done by”!)

Again, although we’re told that “he loved children, and most of them responded to his sense of fun”, there are hints that he did not establish a good relationship with either of his two sons. When the elder, Carl, in 1911 married a girl who was four months pregnant by him, his father appears not to have attended the wedding. For the younger, Rudolph, his father “remained a rather overpowering figure”; after a meeting in 1919, when Rudolph had been invalided home to New Zealand from France, Baeyertz “never bothered to see him again”. In his remaining 24 years! And as he died intestate, his widow, 14 years his junior and “virtually penniless”, for the rest of her days had to eke out a living by giving piano lessons. But whether readers share this reviewer’s misgivings about Baeyertz or rejoice in his biographer’s admiration of him – and whether indeed their minds are fundamentally changed or not about our cultural past – they will certainly find this an engrossing and thought-provoking book, which resurrects in vivid colours its unusual subject.

 

Peter Russell’s latest book, Johannes Brahms and Klaus Groth: The Biography of a Friendship (2006), has recently been published in German.

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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction and Review
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