William Beckford
 

William Beckford - the role of music in his life

by Maxwell Steer 10/1999

Numbered highlights link to footnotes. Other highlights link to details about the music under discussion.

If I were to sum up William Beckford’s compositions in a phrase, I should say that he was a clever linnet. That is to say, he was a natural melodist with an instinctive sense of song form. Although Beckford self-consciously modeled his style on Mozart, his best melodies have the untinctured simplicity of the semi-folk tunes found in The Beggar’s Opera. Despite a life (1760-1842) encompassing that of Beethoven, Beckford’s musical sensibilities remained firmly rooted in the ancien regime’s galante idiom. He may have prefigured the tortured Gothick world of Byron & Mary Shelley in literature, but in music he never really went beyond the pleasantries of the 18thC drawing room.

It’s hard to be sure how much of the music or orchestration is authentically his since most of the scores are in copyists’ hands. To judge by various references in Beckford’s writings he must have written a good deal more than has survived (1): for instance, two ‘orphaned’ choruses (Vol 3, 6203 & 6227) were evidently once part of larger works. Only a few pages show Beckford’s own manuscript - which is invariably sketchy (see my notes to 6301 & 6303, Vol 5, where there are neither clefs nor key signatures). The writing is crabbed and scrappy, and tho he was clearly familiar with orthography, the quality of the hand suggests that musical literacy was something of a struggle. As a remark in his Portuguese Journal (2) shows, he found the actual business of getting his thoughts onto paper hard: ‘I have need of some sweet-breathed animal to enliven my spirits, to run into citrus thickets and bring me flowery branches, to arrange my parts, transpose my songs and write down the musical ideas which rush into my mind in happy moments.’

Nevertheless the instrumental writing shows that Beckford must have had a pretty clear idea about orchestration since his musical ideas are well structured in terms of colour and never demand anything unplayable of the woodwind or brass. When in a Serenade (Arcadian Pastoral, 6113) he uses a guitar, he may not do anything adventurous with it, but at least he shows an understanding of its character. The thing which raises the music above lesser composers of the period is its melodic gift, even if there are few surprises in its unfailing regularity. For all his admiration for Mozart, Beckford lacked the musical technique to flip a repetition, vary phrase length or to detour via strange harmonic territory in the manner of his idol. But then it was an age that set little store by originality.

I suspect that in music as, so far as I can perceive, in other realms of life, Beckford was a ‘natural’ who wrote, composed and designed largely by instinct. Apart from his fabled encounter with Mozart in 1765, when he was 5 and the wunderkind 8 -which could hardly amount to ‘studying composition’- there is no direct evidence of his being formally instructed in music. However, Eric Darton (3), in the second of his comprehensive Beckford Studies , unearths the phrase ‘… my good old Music Master Doctor Nares’ in Beckford’s Farington Diary in Liber Veritatis to suggest that his first mentor may have been Dr James Nares (1715-1783) organist of the Chapel Royal and author of the first systematic keyboard method Il Principio or A Regular Introduction to Playing on the Harpsichord and Organ, 1759. A further entry speaks of ‘Parsons, his music master’ which could only refer to Sir William Parsons (1746-1817) who succeeded John Stanley as Master of the King’s Band in 1786. Darton also quotes a letter dated 8/9/1781 to Louisa Beckford, his cousin and his uncle’s wife, inviting her to Salisbury Cathedral where ‘I have promised that fido pastore Benson Earle to take you to hear his new chaunt.’ This suggests that Salisbury Cathedral organist WB Earle (1740-1796) may also have assisted Beckford’s musical studies. The same letter speaks of John Burton, who seems to have been the first of Beckford’s musical factotums. Having met in Paris in 1781 he participated in Beckford’s 21st birthday celebrations [see below] and accompanied him to visit Sir William & Lady Hamilton near Naples in summer 1782, where he died of malarial fever.

We can easily dismiss Beckford’s senescent claim -recorded in a letter by Venn Lansdown (4)- that he wrote the melody of Non più andrai as a march during this lesson with Mozart and that 21 years later Mozart ‘had the generosity to write to him “Do you remember that march you composed which I kept so long? Well, I have just composed a new opera [Figaro] and I have introduced your air.” Since Beckford kept every scrap of paper that showed him in a favourable light he would never have parted with Mozart’s holograph. Moreover the very idea that the 29 year old Mozart, at the height of his powers, would have given a moment’s thought to music dating from his -or anyonelse’s- childhood is ridiculous.

We know little about Beckford’s minority, except that he never went away to school nor mixed much with other children but was educated in Wiltshire in the lonely grandeur of Fonthill Splendens by tutors. His father, a jolly rogue, died when he was 10, leaving sole heir to an immense fortune (5) – which was to make Beckford the most eligible young man in England. ‘Alderman’ Beckford, as he was universally known, was Anglo-Jamaican. He inherited a fortune in sugar plantations which he extended by adding a refinery, before coming to England to protect his interests according the fashion of the age, bribery, first as Lord Mayor of London and then as a Member of Parliament, where he was a popular figure who never lost his broad Jamaican accent. Hogarth depicts him in his 1762 satire The Times as profiteering from his support of William Pitt senior in the Seven Years’ War. The Alderman was much inclined to ‘scatter his maker’s image o’er the land’, in Dryden’s immortal phrase, and acknowledged seven bastards (6) in his will in England alone. Nevertheless, he chose as his legitimate wife Maria, a Scot of noble descent but puritan temperament.

That Beckford’s youth was solitary has generally been ascribed to maternal possessiveness, but the fact that ‘Mam’ didn’t send him to school may mean that she recognised that there was something special in her son and feared that it might not have survived the barbarity of a gentleman factory like Eton. We know that in later life William was preoccupied with himself beyond mere selfishness - these two qualities, his artistic sensibilities and his self-obsession, could be taken to indicate a condition of mild autism.(7) Did Maria Beckford recognise this? It’s easy to attribute Beckford’s wilful self-centredness and emotional isolation to his wealth, Mowl calls him ‘at times little better than a sociopath’, but perhaps it was genetic? Throughout his life Beckford was given to furious rages, (8) as when he returned from travelling in 1803 to find that his architect had not respected his wishes about the interior of the Abbey and rushed up to the offending balcony where by main force he dislodged the stonework, sending it smashing down onto the furniture below. Whatever the benefits of young Beckford’s upbringing, its drawback was that it gave Beckford no experience of relating to people of his own age, and indeed reinforced his position as a parvenu by denying him easy intercourse, if I may so phrase it, with gentry of his peer group. While Beckford’s lack of formal education fed his image as a naturkind or 18thC upper-class hippy after the Rousseaesque model, it perhaps also meant that he remained self-conscious of his auto-didactic knowledge.

But when he wanted to, noone could exceed his charm, as the stroffe (songs, 6209-6217) make clear. The year of composition is hard to decipher, but is either 1787 or 1789. If the former then the dates of composition correspond perfectly with Beckford’s seduction of the 17 year old Gregorio Franchi, (9) the ‘sweet-breathed animal’, in Lisbon. After visiting the Cathedral on May 28th, he wrote in his diary: ‘The same music of Jommelli was repeated and filled me with the same thrilling sensations. During sermon time I slipped away with Polycarpo and ran up a flight of wide easy steps at the top of which stood the menino who plays so well on the harpsichord. He took hold of Polycarpo’s hand and seemed beside himself with joy at this opportunity of showing his talents [doing] ample justice to the glorious compositions of Haydn he played. I could have passed an hour agreeably in hearing of him and was in fact delighted; but rose up, after I had listened about a quarter of an hour with dignity and apparent coldness. [...] Polycarpo in behalf of his disciple hinted that my pianofortes would set off his talents to greater advantage. I suppose he wants me to send for him. All in good time.’

Thus it is that the Stroffo Primo of July 1st would appear to correspond to Beckford’s diary entry for the same date, where [...] in came Gregorio Franchi, the boy who played so delightfully on the harpsichord in the Patriarchal and does such honour to [his instructors]. I think his eyes are grown larger than ever, and fix themselves so inveterately upon me that I cannot help colouring. He caught my style of playing instantly and flourished away several overtures and sonatas at sight perfectly in my manner. These Portuguese youths are composed of more inflammable materials than other mortals. I could keep them spellbound for hours at my side, listening to the childish notes of my voice, and dissolving like snow in sunshine.’

The Terza Stroffa would then correspond to July 3rd: ‘Gregorio Franchi takes me to be not much older than himself, and imagines I shall soon lose the high clear notes of my voice. I could not help smiling at this notion, but I am not surprised at it. My movements, gestures and attitudes becomes, Whenever I please, those of a child.’ After this, songs are composed on a daily basis, while the diary is eloquently silent until Sunday July 15th, when there is an erased entry where the words ‘Franchi came sneaking in at tea time and I felt confused and guilty’ are just legible. Eventually Franchi’s return was demanded by the Seminary, and a month later Beckford took one last moonlit walk with him: ‘The blossoms of azareiras or Portuguese laurel dangled over our heads and their shadows cast by the gleams of the moon played before us. I loaded Franchi with childish caresses ...’ [line deleted!]

In fact Beckford had six private musicians on his staff; but on Friday September 21st he was still missing Franchi so much that as soon as some visitors left ‘I propped myself up with cushions in a corner of the sofa, and whilst the music was playing a slow and melancholy strain, folded my arms, closed my eyes, and fancied I beheld Franchi.’ A few days later he had evidently returned for Beckford was ‘welcome[d] home by the gambols of Franchi, whom I have reason to think a very faithful animal strenuously attached to me.’

Given that Beckford was a natural mimic, and at parties would apparently improvise on the piano copying conversations in progress elsewhere in the room, it’s not surprising that much of his music is a clever imitation of the fashionable composers of his youth - such as Sacchini and Anfossi whose arias (Vol 6: 6410, 6411) evidently charmed him sufficiently to have them copied, probably in 1781/2. But that having been said, if you reflect that Napoleon’s favourite composers were Paisiello & Jommelli, where was the reward for being original? Coming back to the bird analogy: one might say Beckford was a compositional magpie with a beady eye for bright Mozartian nick-nacks but without any real understanding of their deeper musical implication.

If he was a bird, he certainly lived in a gilded cage. The title page of the Phaeton Ouverture proudly declares him: ‘M de Beckfort, Amateur’. Then as now, it was not the ‘done thing’ for someone in the moneyed classes to be seen to try too hard. Moreover if you were just about the richest young man in England, why would you want to? It was the age of the dilettante like Beckford’s cousin Sir William Hamilton, and in going ‘thus far and no further’ Beckford was only conforming to the expectations of his class and age. There is an interesting parallel with the 20thC polymath Lord Berners, who did not permit his wide-ranging talents to interfere with his privileged lifestyle, and accordingly was never taken sufficiently seriously by his contemporaries to allow his composition, art or writing to be stretched to their full extent. The interesting question is: did Beckford ever wish to escape the cage? Well, the cage maybe, but the gilding (gelding) ... who can say?

It may not be mere coincidence that Beckford’s composition occurred principally at two turning points of his life, each lasting little more than a year. Who knows - if he had received genuine, rather than sycophantic, applause to what deeper creative level he might have penetrated? The first period was in 1781/2. It is melancholy to reflect that over three quarters of Beckford’s output, and nearly all his most accomplished work, dates from around the time of his coming of age. Although the untitled piano piece (6304) bears the earliest date, 25th Dec 1780, the Aria for Sgra Wynne (6226) must precede this, since the only occasion his path crossed that of Augusta Wynne seems to have been in Venice on his first Grand Tour earlier that year. She was the great-neice of a Welsh baronet and his Italian wife. Her connection with Beckford came about throu her aunt Catherine, Contessa Giustiniana Wynne d’Orsini-Rosenberg who was an upper-class moll floating just beneath the surface of respectable Venetian society, luring young milords to private casinos and procuring for them. Casanova (10), speaking of her former beauty, concludes ‘She now lives in Venice, the widow [of the Austrian Ambassador]; she shines in her native country by her discreet behaviour,’ ... a quality doubtless amply rewarded by Beckford. At all events ‘Sgra Wynne’ not only sang well enough to perform what is really Beckford’s most ambitious vocal writing, she fixed up the 19 year old with the ‘services’ of two respectable but impoverished teenage sisters, who didn’t interest him, and their brother – who did, and with whom Beckford experienced ‘delirium’.

A considerable number of compositions followed these works culminating in the Arcadian Pastoral of 1782. As much of the music is undated we cannot be sure how many of the miscellaneous pieces date from this period, but it’s my hunch that most of the piano pieces do, because the character of the later composition is informed by a clearer moral identity while these, like the fantastical To the Oceans (6202), are so plainly the work of someone testing identity/ies to discover himself.

Roger Fiske's (11) claim is unquestionably wrong that the short opera ‘in which, incredibly, Tenducci, Rauzzini, and Pacchierotti were the singers’ at his 21st birthday celebrations was Beckford’s own - for it was a pastoral cantata Il Tributo by Rauzzini. However it gives some idea of the scale of the celebrations at Fonthill that they were designed by Philip de Loutherbourg, whose development of theatrical spectacle at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane was made possible by his innovation of lycopodium lamps to supplement candle-power. Here he deployed his eidophusikon to simulate moving pictures.

The librettist of Arcadian Pastoral was Lady Craven (12), an enthusiastic -if not exactly successful- amateur dramatist, ten years his senior. Married at 16, she bore her husband seven children before going on to acquire a ‘reputation’ which led eventually to their separation. How they came to collaborate on Arcadian Pastoral is unknown, but it gave rise to Beckford’s most substantial piece, a ballad opera or opéra comique, of which only the music survives. It demonstrates many 18 carat qualities which would undoubtedly have been more fully developed in subsequent stage works - if there had been any.

There isn’t a seriously weak musical phrase in its seventeen numbers, even if her Ladyship’s relentless rhyming couplets grow as wearisome as the hymnody of Isaac Watts; and it compares favourably with minor English composers of this period such as Attwood, Smart, Goss or Samuel Arnold - Lady Craven’s regular collaborator. Fiske says ‘The music is Italianate, galante, uninspired, and astonishingly professional.’ Galante, certainly – astonishingly professional, without doubt – but uninspired? I don’t agree. I suspect Fiske’s opinion derives from a single performance, on the BBC Third Programme c1960. Since this was given by adults rather than children, a great part of the ‘point’ of the music’s simplicity would have been absent. The melody “For years I lov’d, yea hopeless lov’d” (#7) has a simple poignancy that is the equal of any melody in The Beggars’ Opera. It is also essential to bear in mind that its composition was itself an act of virtuosity, written without revisions in a couple of months for aristocratic children to perform as a private masque on April 13th 1782. And yet it shows Beckford’s unerring sense of scale. He doesn’t attempt to show off or to write an over-ambitious ‘opera’ but provides good, simple, accessible tunes that lie easily within the vocal range and consciousness of children.

The piece ‘was presented at Queensbury House in Burlington Gardens by a cast of children stiffened by well-known professionals [...] with all the money in the world Beckford could afford the best professional advice and help in London.’ While this may be so I still contend that there is a stamp of homogenous authorship, which would not have been the case if someonelse had had to revise substandard sections, or prune inept melodies. ‘Barthélemon led the orchestra, and his wife collected a small choral group that sang behind the scenes in support of the diminutive and incompetent choral singers on the stage. The great Pacchierotti himself, the idol of the King’s Theatre, was present to lend a hand. John Henderson coached the children in their acting and Vertoni in their singing. Ballet dancers were brought in from Drury Lane. ‘Her frolic ladyship’ was much in evidence helping with the clothes, which were sumptuously beautiful, but Beckford did not think highly of her libretto which he altered here and there.’ In fact her contribution went beyond the libretto to include composition of a brief Second Act Overture (6106).

‘The occasion was much talked about, and a very distinguished audience assembled to watch the children and in some cases to hear the music; among those present were a great many Lords [also, Horace Walpole and Dr Burney. The seven] Craven children seem to have been less able performers than most. Beckford was characteristically amorous in his praise of the boy hero, and the Barthélemons’ daughter [who, later, as Mrs Henslowe, was to entertain Haydn] was First Fairy.’

When one compares Arcadian Pastoral to the more ambitious Phaeton Ouverture or the concert Aria for Sgra Wynne (6226) one gets a sense of what Beckford could do when the right hat was dropt. Was the fact that he didn’t compose more a reflection of how infrequently this occurred? Was this part of his frustration? The Wynne aria is indeed the compositional and vocal tour de force that was evidently demanded. These achievements become all the more remarkable when you consider that Beckford wrote all his music from a cold start – there are no surviving boche shots which show him getting his eye (or ear) in. And I think there would be if they existed since there are uncompleted sketches bound into the folios.

However it is with the poetic aptitude of a Greek tragedy that Beckford’s largest orchestral work, and only engraved edition, should concern the mythical figure of Phæthon. The score is undated but was published in Paris and I concur with Chapman’s opinion (14) that 1781 is the most likely of all of his visits to that city. There he was, the young milord, traveling with a retinue of carriages; how better to make a splash than by composing a work and having it engraved? And how many admiring hands there would have been to applaud … and to assist in lightening the young milord’s pockets of his Louis d’or? Whilst this tyro work is more characterised by exuberance than depth, it still says a lot about Beckford that he should have chosen so ‘unEnglish’ a way to shine - like Winnaretta Singer (afterwards the Princesse de Polignac) demanding a string quartet concert for her 21st birthday.

However it is with the poetic aptitude of a Greek tragedy that Beckford’s largest orchestral work, and only engraved edition, should concern the mythical figure of Phaethon. The score is undated but given that it was published in Paris I find 1781 the most likely of all of his visits to that city. There he was, the young milord, traveling with a retinue of carriages; how better to make a splash than by composing a work and having it engraved? And how many admiring hands there would have been to applaud ... and to assist in lightening the young milord’s pockets of his Louis d’or? Whilst this tyro work is more characterised by exuberance than depth, it still says a lot about Beckford that he should have chosen so ‘unEnglish’ a way to shine - like Winnaretta Singer (afterwards the Princesse de Polignac) demanding a string quartet for her 21st birthday present.

Phaethon was the son of Phoe;bus, the Sun God, who begged his father to be allowed to prove his manhood by driving the Sun’s chariot for a day. Phoe;bus begs his son to demand any other gift for the headstrong lad is insufficiently experienced as a charioteer. And, sure enough, no sooner has Phaethon left the stable of the dawn than he loses control of the horses, threatening the disintegration of the universe by his erratic course until he is killed by a Jovian thunderbolt. What more poignant metaphor could there be for a young man who had all England at his feet, yet who within three years would be obliged to resign his seat in Parliament and slink out of the country, living the rest of his life in a limbo of bitterness, effectively ostracised by his peers?

Apart from the stroffe, his other known period of composition was 1800/1. This coincides with the inception of Fonthill Abbey and as most of the pieces have a religious flavour it shows the way his mind was evidently working. There are three versions of the apostrophe O Astra, O Coelum. Tisbury’s venerable Catholic Priest doubts this to be a biblical or liturgical text, and the Latin has a distinctly canine odour. Nicholas Wilshere’s translation is ‘O Stars, O Heaven, fire that can never be put out, conceal your light in a black robe. We weep for one who has been extinguished, who was born to a cruel end: once your light. but my light also.’ It seems as if it must have been written to mark deep grief, but over what or whom we don’t know. In May 1800 the first of several substantial collapses of parts of the ascending Abbey occurred, but as the first version of O Astra dates from September it seems unlikely to be the sole cause.

Perhaps, it might have been written in anticipation of the visit of Admiral Nelson and the Hamiltons (15) which took place that December. This is not as contradictory as might at first appear for the second Lady Hamilton was much given to poses plastiques or dramatic tableaux. A Cavatina also dates from this period. At that stage the Abbey walls had barely reached their previous height, so the guests stayed at Splendens. There is an account of music being played in the woods as the party made a nocturnal visit to the Abbey, their mile long drive between the two houses illuminated by flambeaux which also showed tableaux vivants of monastic scenes. Were they greeted by the apocalyptic O Astra when they arrived? A celebrated Neapolitan soprano, Madame Banti, was of their party and would doubtless have been the performer if they were. It would certainly have appealed to Lady Hamilton’s dramatic sense, for though she was almost on the point of giving birth to Nelson’s child she still insisted on striking a few attitudes herself.

This visit was significant, firstly because these were the only persons of rank ever to visit Beckford at Fonthill after the scandal of 1784; and secondly because the invitation itself was a calculated long bacon made towards Society, since the openly troilist relationship between Nelson and the Hamiltons had led to doors being closed against the hero of Trafalgar and the former British ambassador to Naples. It is however worth recording that Beckford was most hospitable to artists, whom he would invite to stay and whose work he would purchase, most famously the young JWM Turner whose pictures of Fonthill are perhaps its best memorial.

The fact that Beckford entirely recomposed the music the following year gives it a unique place in his output. Evidently he was pleased with the second version for he subsequently orchestrated it, though we know nothing of any performance. Also from this later period dates an uncompleted cantata based on Revelations 6.9, Thou art worthy. Given the subject matter, Beckford provides a disappointingly unVathekian treatment. Indeed the rather insipid drawing room music is at odds with the thunderous words, but it does expose an interesting and unremarked aspect of Beckford’s psyche. His mother is known to have been a fervent Evangelical: does Beckford’s setting of these words, with their clear emphasis on ‘redemption by blood’ indicate (if they date from his 40th year, as I feel most likely) that part of his strangely unresolved personality belonged not to Eblis, king of the underworld, but to John Wesley, servant of Jesus Christ?

The other theme in Beckford’s songs which intrigues me is his evident belief in fairies. Timothy Mowl’s recent biography goes into the way this lonely young Midas used to hide away in the groves and meadows surrounding the Fonthill Splendens - today still very much as he would have known them. In the woods by Fonthill Lake there are several grottoes which contain recesses intended for fresh flowers and ferns. I return to this image of Beckford the naturkind because it explains a lot of the music. In Act Five of Arcadian Pastoral Belinda descends to sing:

      From celestial influence sprung, Fairies can avert each care,
      dispensing right, dispelling wrong, harbingers of Heaven they are.

I think Beckford really believed this. In psychological terms he was a classic puer aeternus, a Peter Pan who never could -never needed to- grow up. We have already noted his delight in deceiving Franchi with ‘the high clear notes of [his] voice’ that he was the same age as the latter, when in fact he was 10 years older. In one sense, all Beckford’s life was play-acting, so therefore to a degree he was a fairy, for he could do whatever his fancy pleased; and whether he composed, whether he wrote, whether he commissioned art or buildings, paid functionaries were always on hand to admire and compliment him. (How could he accept that they were just after his money?) He was therefore insulated by his wealth from encountering the bed-rock reality of public acceptance or rejection which alone matures an artist.

In the anni mirabiles of his coming of age -and ‘coming out’- Beckford undoubtedly saw himself like some sky-bound creature. No doubt he wished to imitate the altitude and vocal range of his hero and friend Pacchierotti, the last of the great castrati - whose role-modelship is itself signficant. Does this little fantasy To the Oceans now I fly (6202) to words from Milton’s masque Comus date from that period? It ends ...

      But now my Task is done
      I can fly or I can run
      Quickly to the green earth's end ...
      and from thence can soar as soon
      to the Corners of the Moon.

Perhaps to ceomplement the high camp of Milton’s poe;try, the range of the song is from middle C to top Bb, but there is also a passage extending to E in alt which might be either a ritornello or perhaps a coloratura display. Was this written for Pacchierotti’s legendary range, or did Beckford possibly write this for himself?

At all events, during 1780-2 he had all London before him, and most importantly for Beckford, he had the attention of the -by now- 13 year old future Viscount Courtenay, ‘Kitty’ to Beckford. Some may think this too far removed from consideration of his music, but others may have already spotted a connection and in a moment I shall show a closer one. Although he had a tutor called Revd John Lettice (to whom he subscribed his letters ‘affc yrs Zizzi’) there’s no evidence that Beckford was sexually abused -as he certainly would have been if he’d gone to a public school of the period!- so we must assume that his sexual orientation was ‘natural’. We know that Beckford had been wildly and indiscreetly affectionate towards ‘Kitty’ since he himself was just 19 and so at this stage such love might more properly be called an extended adolescent fixation than paederasty. But where this aspect of his personality entwines inextricably with his work is that in the early months of 1782 when Beckford was composing both Arcadian Pastoral, a charming, harmless divertissement for children and also writing Vathek, a story of bloodthirsty diablerie where fifty of the ‘fairest sons’ are sacrificed to the hero’s insatiable lust for occult knowledge. The proximity of the child-lover with the paedophile (16) could hardly be more expressive. Indeed there’s a Freudian slip in the draft (6108) of ‘Summer’ (6110) in Arcadian Pastoral, the later version of the final line ‘and all the sweets of earth disclose’ is twice rendered thus:

      When timid Spring has blushed away ...
      I hail each warmer glowing day
      and all the sweets of death disclose.

This is a singular enough insight into Beckford’s state of mind, but what is more intriguing why this draft alone of a song for Arcadian Pastoral, was preserved by binding into the folio?

That he was an exceedingly complex man is probably evident by now to any casual observer: so vehemently opposed to blood sports that he built a 12 foot wall round his Abbey to prevent hunting - yet he never exhibited the least interest in the welfare of the slaves who were the source of his wealth: so close to the cause of the French Revolution that its leaders endeavoured to use him as an unofficial contact with the British Government - yet he craved, above all, a title. Boyd Alexander claims that he was within an ace of one in 1782. The patent is said to have been drawn up when his relationship with ‘Kitty’ developed into a public scandal – or at least or was fanned into one by the relatives of ‘Lord Lilliput’. Those unacquainted with Beckfordiana may be surprised to learn that at this juncture he had only just married Lady Margaret Gordon and that, despite having to leave the country under this cloud, the couple lived devotedly for two tragically short years until her death during the birth of their second daughter. And if after that he had his daughters brought up in a separate house on his estate, such parental frigidity (17) was not uncommon. Doubtless it fitted one of them for assuming the icy dignity of a duchess in later life.

There is a tantalising reference to one further composition after 1801. Chapman (op cit, fn1) refers to an unpublished Gloria dated 11th Oct 1839 which was sold as part of the 1882 Beckford sale at Sotheby’s. Its current whereabouts are unknown, but like the religious music dating from the building of the Abbey it shows that whatever his sexual inclinations may have been, Beckford’s private Christianity was undoubtedly sincere.

What I think the music finally shows us is a person with a considerable, if unfocused, creative energy: a carefree youth who found noone to play with – a young man whose lovers were snatched away from him (one by society, the other by death) – a middle-aged man who created an elaborate world of homosexual fantasy but found noone to share it, after he cast off Franchi – an old recluse living above the follies of the world in his tower at Lansdown – yet always, always the lonely boy playing by himself in the forests of his imagination. In one way the music is more heart-breaking for its unfulfilled promise than rewarding for its accomplishments: in another, Beckford is a useful exception by whom we can study the norm.

Music is the most sociable of the arts, and wherever it has been sounded it continues to echo for centuries. Here we have scores which have lain mute for some 200 years. In the intervening years immensely rich sounds have filled our ears and it may take a little while before we accustom ourselves to the very slight sounds at last reaching us from the ancient drawing rooms of Beckford’s dusty folios. Yet beyond the open window, beyond the open birdcage, are the Fonthill woods – and there the birds’ song is still the same as it was 200 years ago.

Google   Enter search:    all web   msteer.co.uk      |   Site by Sam Steer   |   ©2016 Maxwell Steer
<