This is the final part of a four-part essay on turn-of-the-century prodigy Vivien Chartres and her author mother Annie Vivanti. Part one here, part two here, and part three here.
After taking London by storm, Vivien returned to the Continent for yet another tour. A psychologist based in Vienna named Dr. Herman Swoboda (a pioneer in the field of biorhythms) asked to study Vivien; after meeting her, he declared that “The musical wonder-child is a revelation of the divine. She is the nearest approach to those ideal beings that men call Angels… She is a living messenger from Beyond, waking our souls with her god-given music to believe in what is above all human understanding.” In late 1906 Vivien gave eight concerts in Turin, Italy, the city of her birth. She had a blazing success there; one reporter claimed that “there has been no such triumph since Paganini.” She also visited and charmed Queen Margherita, who she adored (in fact, she cried every time her face was washed, because she did not want the queen’s kiss to be wiped off her cheek). In a touching gesture, after performing a Paganini concerto, she trimmed some lilacs and laid them on the composer’s grave with the simple note, “To Paganini, humbly, Vivien.”
In 1907 the two Chartres women sailed back to Britain. In September of that year Pall Mall Magazine ran a feature on Vivien. Vivanti claimed that it was Vivien’s diary, but anyone familiar with Vivanti and her love of mixing fact and fiction certainly wouldn’t put it past her to tweak her daughter’s words…if not make them up outright.
I am giving an “at home” with music this afternoon. Nobody invited but animals. I am going to play the “Chaconne” to them, and they are not allowed to go to sleep or to walk away. It is to be quite like a real “at home.”
The cow hates music…
One year ago to-day the King kissed me…
We have been to a party. The E string broke while I was playing the “Hungarian Dance,” but I went on with only three strings quite well. My fingers went where I did not know they had to go…
I have been in the field and played my violin to the pony and the dogs. The dogs listen and then they go to sleep. But the pony keeps on listening, especially when I tie him to a little piece of wood. I have played things that I like and that I hate to play to other people. I played great slow things by Beethoven; and I played Bach. And Schumann. And then long compositions by me…
I have received a letter from a gentleman in a workhouse. He has no money to buy violin strings with. The workhouse is in Hackney. He would like my old strings when I have finished with them, to play to some other old gentlemen who are living there.
Papa says I may bring the strings myself, and play to them. I am going to-day. And Mamma says I am to dress like when I played to the King, because they are very poor and will like it…
We have been to Hackney. I played in all the wards where the sick people are. Many of them cried.
I did not know there were so many people ill in the world. I am sad for the sorriness of all these things.
My mamma held my hand tight, tight, all the way home…
The Chaplain asked us to come into the little church after everybody had gone, and I and mamma went and knelt down like for Communion.
And the Chaplain said to God: “I want to dedicate this little girl’s gift of music to You. Please take care of her.” He said many other things differently and better than I write them, and mamma cried, and I did too.
Then we all three said our prayers, not loud. I said: “Our Father,” and I also said: “Now I lay me down to sleep,” which I should not have done.
But mamma says it does not matter. She kissed me very much…
As Vivien grew older, she played the violin in public less and less. Whether her interest in music had waned, whether she was asserting her independence, or whether she was applying her considerable intellect to other hobbies, is unknown. She lived with her mother, who in turn lived separately from her father.
In the early days of World War I, Vivien met a man named Arthur Lindsey Burns. According to a letter written by an acquaintance named Amelia Nyasa Laws, Vivien fell very deeply in love and wanted to marry as quickly as possible. Laws described Vivanti as “sensible, if a little business-like,” and, true to that reputation, she soon began busying herself inquiring after character references for her prospective son-in-law. Presumably Burns passed her inspection; he was the General Manager for the Singer Sewing Machine Company in Italy and was, like his future wife and mother-in-law, a polyglot. The two were married 19 July 1915 in Milan. Vivien was twenty-two, Burns ten years her senior.
Annie Vivanti had anticipated her daughter’s marriage five years earlier in the second-to-last chapter of The Devourers.
The carriage that was to take the bride and bridegroom to the station was waiting in the Tuscan sunlight, surrounded by the laughing, impatient crowd. As Anne-Marie appeared – her rose-lit face half hidden in her furs, her travelling-hat poised lightly at the back of her shining head – the crowd shouted and cheered, just as it had always done after her concerts. And she smiled and nodded, and said, “Good-bye! Good-bye! Thank you, and good-bye!” just as she always did at the close of her concerts. The bridegroom, tall and serious beside her, would have liked to hurry her into the carriage, but she took her hand from his arm and stopped, turning and smiling to the right and to the left, shaking hands with a hundred people who knew her and loved and blessed her. With one foot on the carriage-step, she still nodded and smiled and waved her hand. Then the young husband lifted her in, jumped in beside her, and shut the carriage-door. Cheers and shouts and waving hats followed them as the horses, striking fire from their hoofs, broke into a gallop, and carried them down the street and out of sight.
…Nancy had not left the house. She had not gone to the window. She could hear the cheers and the laughter, and for a moment she pictured herself with Anne-Marie in the carriage, driving home after the concerts – Anne-Marie still nodding, first out of one window, then out of the other, laughing, waving her hand; then falling into her mother’s arms with a little sigh of delight. At last they were alone – alone after all the crowd – in the darkness and the silence, after all the noise and light. And Anne-Marie’s hand was in hers; Anne-Marie’s soft hair was on her breast. Again the well-known dulcet tones: “Did you like my concert, Liebstes? Are you happy, mother dear?” Then silence all the way home – home to strange hotels, no matter in what town or in what land. It was always home, for they were together.
Nancy stepped to the window, both hands held tightly to her heart. The road was empty. The house was empty. The world was empty. Then she cried, loud and long – cried, stretching her arms out before her, kneeling by the window: “Oh, my little girl! My own child! What shall I do? What shall I do?”
But there was nothing left for Nancy to do.
No doubt Vivanti felt many of the same emotions that her fictional counterpart did.
Vivien Chartres Burns, the former wonder-child, had children of her own in August 1916 and September 1917: a girl and a boy. The girl was named Vivien Ann-Marie, presumably a tribute to Vivien’s fictional alter-ego.
Mr. and Mrs. Burns and their children lived happily together until 1925, when Arthur Burns died of pneumonia, leaving Vivien a young widow with two young children to raise. Before his death, Burns had suggested that Vivien marry a dear friend of his named Sir Richard C.R. Young, who was three decades Vivien’s senior. Vivien was apparently hesitant to follow her late husband’s advice: two weddings were planned and then canceled. But happily the third time was the charm, and Vivien and Young were married in August 1927.
A few months later John Chartres died. Vivanti had not lived with him for many years. It is unclear how much contact they had leading up to his death, or even if much affection lay between them after Vivien was grown.
Vivien Young committed suicide in 1941 in her home in Hove in the south of England. It was not as a protest against her lost youth, or because of a failed career, as some might expect. Rather, she had grown profoundly depressed after her husband grew ill with paralysis. She refused to watch him suffer or to contemplate a life without him. So she sealed her husband’s bedroom, lit the gas fire, and attached a rubber tube from the gas to a gas mask.
“Forgive me,” she wrote in a suicide note. “I cannot go on. I cannot watch my dear husband becoming more paralyzed and his pain becoming worse and worse… We shall go together, quietly and peacefully.” Just like when she was a little girl, Vivien was determined to have things her own way.
For her first violin teacher, she left a hundred pounds; for her daughter, trinkets from Queen Margherita and the family of Prince Bismarck; for her son, a bronze and portrait of her, as well as a brooch that had been presented to her by King Edward VII; and to the Church, a piece of jewelry for the Altar of the Sacred Heart in Brompton Oratory in London, “in gratitude for blessings received.” Her Gagliano was bequeathed to the Musician’s Benevolent Fund in London and sold for the benefit of the Fund.
Annie Vivanti was living in Italy when she received word of Vivien’s sudden death. She was devastated. Although many years had passed since mother and daughter had toured so triumphantly together, Vivanti’s rooms were still filled with mementos of their work and travels. She converted to Catholicism a few days before her death – which occurred a mere six months after Vivien’s.
Certain people share strangely intense bonds with one another. It often seems as if they’ve known each other before, as if they’ve merely picked up where they once left off. Maybe Ševcík was right; maybe Vivien had indeed played the violin in another time, and was not actually learning, but rather remembering. If so, then surely Annie Vivanti had been at her daughter’s side in that earlier incarnation. There would have been no Vivien Chartres without Annie Vivanti, and Annie Vivanti would have lost out arguably on the most momentous experience of her life if she had not had Vivien Chartres. Together they brought an unearthly joy and beauty into the lives of music lovers across the world. Maybe a day is coming when their remarkable relationship can be remembered as it deserves to be.
Anne-Marie holds my heart… I am one of the Devoured. Little Anne-Marie has devoured me, and it is right that it should be so; she has absorbed me, and I am glad; she has consumed me, and I am grateful. For it is in the nature of things that to these lives given to us, our lives should be given.
A PDF bibliography will be available soon at my website.
This is part 3 of 4 of a long essay on turn-of-the-century violin prodigy Vivien Chartres and her author mother Annie Vivanti. Part I and Part II can be found here and here.
On a chilly evening in early January 1905 Vivien made her orchestral debut in Prague with the Bohemian Philharmonic Orchestra in the Bruch g-minor concerto. She was eleven years old.
All Prague sat expectant – rustling and murmuring and coughing – in the stalls and galleries of the Rudolfinum, on the night of the concert. The Bohemian orchestra were in their seats. Kalas stepped up to his desk, and an overture was played.
A short pause. Then, in the midst of a tense silence, Anne-Marie appeared, threading her way through the orchestra, with her violin under her arm. Now she stands in her place, a tiny figure in a short blue silk frock, with slim black legs and black shoes, and her fair hair tied on one side with a blue ribbon. Unwondering and calm, Anne-Marie confronted her first audience, gazing at the thousand upturned faces with gentle, fearless eyes. She turned her quiet gaze upwards to the gallery, where row on row of people were leaning forward to see her. Then, with a little shake of her head to throw back her fair hair, she lifted her violin to her ear, plucked lightly, and listened, with her head on one side, to the murmured reply of the strings. Kalas, on his tribune, was looking at her, his face drawn and pale. She nodded to him, and he rapped the desk. B-r-r-r-r-r-r rolled the drums.
During the concert Vivanti sat paralyzed in the audience, wondering how it was possible for her little girl to play so beautifully – how she could memorize so many notes – how her little fingers could land so quickly and accurately so many times in a row. Vivanti was terrified that Vivien would break down at any moment, or forget her place, or even run off the platform. But of course she needn’t have worried. The concert was an unqualified triumph. News of it leaked back to London, where a review of her concert appeared in the Times: “her public performance…seems to have surpassed all expectation,” the reporter wrote. If the account in The Devourers can be trusted, Ševcík came backstage after the concert and said simply, “I have taught you what I could. Life will teach you the rest.” There is no record of Vivien ever returning to him for instruction.
After the triumph in Prague, Vivien and Vivanti made their way to Vienna, where Vivien played nine concerts. A correspondent for the Daily Chronicle noted that no English musician had ever achieved such a success there. After Vienna, mother and daughter came to Berlin, where Vivien collaborated with no other than Max Bruch. Bruch’s colleague, violinist Joseph Joachim, met Vivien and thought her gifts “fabulous.” After Vienna came Zurich – Stockholm – Rome – Palermo. It wasn’t long before Vivien was visiting and bewitching the European aristocracy. She had an extraordinary ability, intelligence, and charm, mixed with a pure childish innocence that endeared her to everyone she met.
In early 1905 Vivien and Vivanti returned to London so that Vivien might make her British debut. A writer named Wakeling Dry from the Daily Express came to interview her.
“How do you do?” I said.
“Very well, thank you. This is my frog,” said the little girl, holding up a jar for me to see. I was ostentatiously interested in the little green animal sprawling on the watercress in the bottle. “And this is Schopenhauer,” she said, hoisting up a puppy. “They are a little unwell. They have travelled all night.”
“Where have they travelled from?” I asked.
“All the way from Prague,” said the little girl. “A most far-away travel.”
I laughed and Schopenhauer barked.
“Is your name Vivien?” I asked.
She nodded. “If you like you may hold my frog,” she said in a sudden access of friendliness, and gave me the glass jar, which I took with every appearance of gratitude.
“Do you play the violin?”
“Yes, thank you,” she answered politely. “This is a very thorough-bred dog,” and the small, shining head bent over the woolly puppy. “When I hold him up by the tail he hardly whines at all. I tried it again this morning. He is growing throroughbredder and thoroughbredder.”
“Tell me something about your violin,” I suggested. “Do you practise much?”
“Oh, not much,” she said, airily. “I have so little time. I have also two birds and a canary. And eight dolls. Two of the dolls were given to me at the concert with Van Dyck.”
“What is your favourite music?”
The little girl thought awhile. “Bach and Grieg,” she said. “And also ‘Rockaby, lullaby, bees on the clover.”
“What about Paganini?” I inquired.
“He is not very pretty,” was the answer. “I only play his music for fun because Schopenhauer whines so loud at the harmonies.” And she laughed cheerfully. “If you really want to, you may hold Schopenhauer, too, for a little while.” So I held Schopenhauer.
“How did you like Prague?”
“Very much, thank you.”
“And Professor Ševcík?”
“Very much, thank you.” She looked anxiously at the dog.
“Oh, very much, thank you” – hurriedly. “I think you are hurting his paw.”
She made me sit down on the bench with the frog and the dog, and she stood before me smiling and small.
“What violin do you play on?” I enquired.
“I have three,” she said, “but they are not mine. Professor Ševcík has lent me one of his own to play Moïse on; it has only one string. And Dvorák, in Prague, has lent me another to play everything else on. And the third – ” She hesitated and blushed.
“What about the third?” I asked.
“The third is the one I post my letters to the fairy in.”
“What fairy is that?”
“The fairy that lives in the violin,” said Vivien. “Her name is the Spirit of Music, papa says.”
“Oh, of course,” said I. “And does the fairy answer you?”
“Always,” said the little girl with eyes alight. “You see nothing written on her letters until you heat the paper in front of the fire. Then the writing jumps out! They are very kind letters. One day when I play perfectly I shall see her, and she will turn the bow into a wand to do everything I want with. Make poor people rich and unhappy people happy. Papa told me so. And pony-carriages and everything,” she added with a sweep of her small hand. “I think I shall turn Schopenhauer white,” she said thoughtfully, looking at the woolly black ball on my knee. “With long silvery, silky hair.”
“And when will you see the fairy?” I inquired.
“When I play quite, quite perfectly,” she said; then added confidentially: “Sometimes when I am practising all by myself, I make a few mistakes on purpose. You know,” she said, dimpling and smiling, “of course, I should love to see the fairy. But still – well, I should prefer to see her when Mama is in the room!”
I got up and took my leave. I shook paws with Schopenhauer, and saluted the frog, and took off my hat to the little girl who gets letters to the fairy and who plays Paganini for fun.
“When you come again,” she said, standing at the gate in the sunshine, “you may see the dolls and the two birds and the canary – but you won’t hurt Schopenhauer’s paw again, will you?”
As the press became more and more fascinated by this gifted young girl, Annie Vivanti began to claim that Vivien was born in 1895, and not 1893 – presumably so that her playing might seem all the more extraordinary. Prodigies’ dates of birth have been fudged from time immemorial, and Vivanti doubtless thought it a harmless practice (she had, after all, indulged in some personal date-fudging of her own). Unfortunately, in Vivien’s case, the decision had horrible unforeseen consequences. And rather than causing a scandal in the press, or taking the risk of discrediting her daughter’s achievements, Vivanti chose to keep silent.
Vivanti relates in The Devourers of Anne-Marie’s London debut:
The first London concert was to be the week after their arrival. The manager, pink-faced and blue-eyed, came to the hotel to talk about the programme.
“England is not Berlin. Don’t make it too heavy,” he said. So the Beethoven Concerto was taken out, and the Vieuxtemps Concerto put in its stead. The Chaconne was taken out, and the Faust Phantasie put in its stead. The manager said, “That’s right,” and went out to play golf.
So Anne-Marie played the Beethoven Concerto and the Beethoven Romance, the Bach Chaconne and Fugue, Prelude and Sarabande. And the audience shouted and clapped.
But the critics carped and reproved. How can a mere child understand Beethoven and Bach? How wrong to overweigh the puerile brain with the giants of classic composition! It is almost a sacrilege to hear a little girl venturing the approach the Chaconne. Let her play Handel and Mozart.
So in the third concert Anne-Marie played Handel and Mozart, and the audience shouted and clapped.
But the critics said that, though she played the easy, simple music very nicely for her age, still, in a London concert hall one expected to hear something more puissant and authoritative. And why did she give concerts at all? Why not do something else? Study composition, for instance?
“That’s England all over,” said the manager, and went out and played golf.
Vivien’s London manager was a man named Narcisco Vert, from the firm of Ibbs and Tillett, which represented a number of artists in Britain at the time. In May 1905 Vert allowed Vivien to play a concert without a license. Since Vivien was said to be “a child under the age of eleven,” the performance was deemed to be a violation of the Prevention of Cruelty to Children Act. Of course, Vivien wasn’t under the age of eleven; she was just about to turn twelve. But neither one of her parents spoke up about their deception, and Vert and the Chartres family ended up in court. Not even then did they tell the truth, although John Chartres did cryptically say, “They are always advertised as young as they are, that’s all I can tell you. Her age will be produced at the proper time.” Vert ended up being fined twenty-five pounds and Chartres five. The stress of the affair arguably killed Narcisco Vert: he died at the age of sixty on 3 June 1905 of a heart attack. If the description of the manager in The Devourers is any indication, Annie Vivanti doesn’t seem to have felt much guilt over her lie. The incident makes one wonder just what Vivanti was all willing to sacrifice to make sure that Vivien fulfilled her potential.
Despite the untimely death of her manager, Vivien received rave reviews in London. “An exceedingly clever child violinist,” proclaimed The Violin Times. “The most marvellous of all marvellous children,” praised The Daily Graphic. “Another Sarasate or Kubelík,” predicted the Daily Chronicle. “Most amazing of all the prodigies,” deemed the Sunday Times. “Certainly one of the most talented children that England has ever produced,” opined the Graphic. “This little damsel played with wonderful dexterity on her debut at Queen’s Hall on May 15, and is undoubtedly gifted musically to a very exceptional degree. This having been satisfactorily demonstrated to the public, let us hope that her parents will not subject her to the strain and excitement of such performances for some years to come,” intoned The Musical Times.
This was a typical criticism, but Vivien and Vivanti did their best to ignore it. Vivanti in particular was going to do what she thought was best, regardless of what people thought or said; she knew Vivien the best, she felt. In “The True Story of a Wunderkind” she wrote:
People come into the house and look at her and criticise her; say that she is large, that she is small; that she looks ill, that she looks well; that she is over-worked, that she does not work enough; that I ought to dress her in white, that I ought to dress her in black velvet; that she ought not to play Bach; that she ought only to play Bach; that she ought not to wear socks; that she ought to do gymnastics; that she ought to cut her hair; that she ought to play for charity; that she ought never to play for charity; that she ought to take iron pills; that she ought to go and study in Berlin, in Leipzig, in London, in Paris, in Brussels; that she ought to give up the violin at once; that she ought to practise fourteen hours a day; that she ought to have begun when she was five years old; that Wunderkinder never turn out anything but disappointments; that I am much to be pitied, that the child is much to be pitied; and that the father must be a Brute.
Nobody would believe how difficult it is to be the mother of a Wunderkind. Everything I do is wrong; everything the child does is “for effect”; everything we say is utterly untrue. If Vivien runs up to me and kisses me, I hear it murmured that she is trained to do so. (“Whipped to be affectionate in public!”) So I tell her never to do it again. Immediately people remark how cold I am to the child; how the poor little creature evidently fears me and prefers Fräulein Muller.
We take her with her hoop and skipping-rope to play in the park? It is said we make her pretend to be infantine, force her to act the “happy child” when people are looking on! So we take her toys from her and conduct her for prim walks between us. “Poor little unnatural creature!” say our friends: “she has no child-life at all.”
People come and ask us how old she is.
“Eight,” I reply. (The answer is greeted with smiles of polite disbelief.) [Warranted, it turns out.]
How long has she studied?
“Two years and three months.” (Incredulous sneers.)
How long does she practise every day?
“As long as she likes. Usually about three hours.” (Silence and exchange of eloquent glances.)
Then they embrace the child and say, “Poor darling!” Whereupon they go away, leaving us sore and snappish. My servants are cross-questioned when I am out, and I receive anonymous letters finding fault with me.
But if Vivanti was stubborn about letting Vivien’s talent take its course, so, it seems, was her daughter. Vivanti continues in the same article:
...If I suggest taking her violin away, she shrieks and is very naughty. I cannot punish her, lest the neighbours should think we are beating her to make her practise. The child knows this, and cries whenever she wants anything that she ought not to have; and her digestion is utterly ruined by the amount of horrid things we allow her to eat, rather than that she should scream for them…
Of course there are moments of thrilling happiness that compensate for much anxiety and worry.
It is a great joy to see Vivien step out on the platform, where a thousand people look at her and love her for the music that she makes. I like to think that on those dear small fingers flying across the quivering strings I have said, “This little pig went to market” only a short while ago, that those blue eyes (they grow so deep and solemn while she plays) laugh up at me every morning limpid and light with all the babyish thoughts I love. When the applause rises round her like a storm, her smile meets mine, and my heart beats loud with happiness at the thought that that little girl belongs to me!
But does she really belong to me?…Does not her soul fly out of my keeping at the sound of her own music, when her eyes grow deep and solemn, gazing at things I do not see?
Another story – this one from The Devourers – demonstrates the stubbornness and depth of artistic conviction that Vivien herself had. It resonates with more emotional truth than any other episode in the book.
Many people called at the hotel to ask for autographs, and to express their views. One elderly musician was very stern with Anne-Marie, and sterner still with Nancy. He began by asking Nancy what she thought her child was going to be in the future.
“I do not know,” said Nancy. “I am grateful for what she is now.”
“Ah! but you must think of the future. You want her to be a great artist – ”
“I don’t know that I do,” said Nancy. “She is a great artist now. If she degenerates” – and Nancy smiled – “into merely a happy woman, she will have had more than her share of luck.”
“Take care! The prodigy will kill the artist!” repeated the stern man. “You pluck the flower and you lose the fruit.”
Nancy laughed. “It is as if you said: ‘Beware of being a rose-bud lest you never be an apple!’ I am content that she should bloom unhindered, and be what she is. Why should she not be allowed to play Bach like an angel to-day, lest she should not be able to play him like Joachim ten years hence?”
“Yes, why not!” piped up Anne-Marie, who had paid no attention to the conversation, but who liked to say “Why not?” on general principles.
The stern man turned to her. “Bach, my dear child – ” he began.
Anne-Marie gave a little laugh. “Oh, I know!” she said cheerfully.
“What do you know?” asked the gentleman severely.
“You are going to say, ‘Always play Bach; nothing else is worthy,’” said Anne-Marie, regretting that she had joined in the conversation.
“I was not going to say anything of the kind,” said the stern man.
“Oh, then you were going to say the other thing: ‘Do not attempt to play Bach – no child can understand him.’ Professors always say one or the other of those two things. Much stupid things are said about music.”
“It is so,” said the gentleman severely. “You cannot possibly understand Bach.”
Anne-Marie suddenly grasped him by the sleeve.
“What do you understand in Bach? I want to know. You must tell me what you understand. Exactly what it is that you understand and I don’t. Bemolle!” she cried, still holding the visitor’s sleeve. “Give me the violin!”
Bemolle jumped up and obeyed with beaming face.
“Anne-Marie, darling!” expostulated Nancy.
But Anne-Marie had the violin in her hand and wildness in her eye.
“Stay here,” she said to the visitor, relinquishing his sleeve with unwilling hand, and hastily tuning the fiddle. “Now you have got to tell me what you understand in Bach.” She played the first five of the thirty-two variations of the Chaconne; then she stopped.
“What does Bach mean? What have you understood?” she cried. The English musician leaned back in his chair and smiled with benevolent superiority.
“And now – now I play it differently.” She played it again, varying the lights and shades, the piani and the forti. “What different thing have you understood?”
“And now – now I play it like Joachim. So, exactly so, he played it for me and with me…
“…Now what have you understood that I have not? What has Bach said to you, and not to me, you silly man?”
Nancy took Anne-Marie’s hand. “Hush, Anne-Marie! For shame!”
“I will not hush!” cried Anne-Marie, with flaming cheeks. “I am tired of hearing them always say the same stupid things.”
The visitor, smiling acidly, stood up to go. “I am afraid too much music is not good for a little girl’s manners,” he said.
“Mother,” said Anne-Marie, with her head against her mother’s breast. “Tell him to wait. I want to say a thing that I can’t. Help me.”
“What is it, dear?”
“When we were to have gone to a country that you said was hot and pretty – and dirty – where was that?”
“Yes, yes, yes! You said something about the little hotels there…the funny little hotels. What did you say about them?”
Nancy thought a moment. Then she smiled and remembered. “I said: ‘You can only find in them what you bring with you yourself.’”
“Yes, yes!” cried Anne-Marie, raising her excited eyes. “Now say that about music.”
And Nancy said it. “You will only find in music what you bring to it from your own soul.”
“Yes,” said Anne-Marie, turning to the visitor; “how can you know what I bring? How can you know that what you bring is beautifuller or gooder? How can you know that Bach meant what you think and not what I think?”
“Don’t get excited, you funny little girl,” said the visitor; and he took his leave with dignity.
But Anne-Marie was excited, and did not sleep all night.
Here's part 2 of 4 of a long essay on turn-of-the-century violin prodigy Vivien Chartres and her famous author mother Annie Vivanti. Part 1 is here.
One day George and Peggy came to visit them at the boarding-house. And with them they brought Mr. Markowski and his violin.
In the drawing-room after tea Nancy asked the shy and greasy-looking Hungarian to play: and the fiddle was taken tenderly out of its plush-lined case. Markowski was young and shabby, but his violin was old and valuable. Markowski had a dirty handkerchief, but the fiddle had a clean, soft white silk one. Markowski placed a small black velvet cushion on his greasy coat-collar, and raised the violin to it; he adjusted his chin over it, raised his bow, and shut his eyes. Then Markowski was a god.
Do you know the hurrying anguish of Grieg’s F dur Sonata? Do you know the spluttering shrieks of laughter of Bazzini’s “Ronde des Lutins”? The sobbing of the unwritten Tzigane songs? The pattering of wing-like feet in Ries’s “Perpetuum Mobile?”
Little Anne-Marie stood in the middle of the room motionless, pale as linen, as if the music had taken life from her and turned her into a white statuette. Ah, here was the little neoteric statue that Nancy had tried to fix! The child’s eyes were vague and fluid, like blue water spilt beneath her lashes; her colourless lips were open.
Nancy watched her. And a strange dull feeling came over her heart, as if someone had laid a heavy stone in it. What was that little figure, blanched, decolourized, transfigured? Was that Anne-Marie? Was that the little silly Anne-Marie, the child that she petted and slapped and put to bed, the child that was so stupid at geography, so brainless at arithmetic?
“Anne-Marie! Anne-Marie! What is it, dear? What are you thinking about?”
Anne-Marie turned wide light eyes on her mother, but her soul was not in them. For the Spirit of Music had descended upon her, and wrapped her round in his fabulous wings – wrapped her, and claimed her, and borne her away on the swell of his sounding wings…
The last long-drawn note ended; then Anne Marie moved. She covered her face with her hands and began to cry.
“Why do you cry, darling – why do you cry?” asked Nancy embracing her.
Anne-Marie’s large eyes gazed at Nancy. “For many things – for many things!” she said. And Nancy for the first time felt that her child’s spirit stood alone, beyond her reach and out of her keeping.
According to her mother, Vivien Chartres was a strong-willed child who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. She once got into an argument with a little French girl who was boasting of her silk blue coat. Vivien retorted that God had given her a blue silk coat as a consolation for having a “horrid French father.” She then ripped out a fistful of the French girl’s hair.
She expressed a constant impatience with all things, as many gifted children are apt to do. It was not uncommon for her to suddenly stop in the middle of a walk and tell her mother, “I want to be at home.”
“Well, darling, we will go home,” Vivanti would answer.
“No, I don’t want to go home. I want to be at home. Now directly. Without going.”
As Vivanti wrote in The Pall Mall Magazine:
No amount of coaxing, no promise of sweets or toys would pacify her, or cause her to move a step farther. I could not help marvelling at the deep philosophy in the child’s apparent unreasonableness: for do we not all of us in all things want to “be” at our wishes’ ends, without the intermediate “going” there? But at the moment it was embarrassing, for the child would scream, and sit down on the pavement, causing a crowd to gather, which would look reproachfully at me, and give me heterogenous advice. It was only by playing “horse” with her as far as the nearest cab-stand that I could get her to move at all; and it was most unpleasant for me to have to pretend to canter and trot, and to say “Giddy-up, gee-gee!” with everybody looking on.
On her sixth birthday, Vivanti came into the nursery to wish her daughter a happy birthday and to ask her “if she was a happy little girl that day.” Vivanti wrote:
“Oh, no!” she said. “I am not happy. I am very tired of being alive, and always doing the same things. I do not wish I were dead; but I wish I had never begun!”
I was horroruck. I led her into the breakfast-room with a trembling heart, and showed her her presents arrayed on the table. Fortunately she was pleased with them, and was especially delighted with a false beard that her father had put on for the occasion. I had to wear it all through breakfast because it amused her; and she insisted that Mary should wait at table in it that evening, when we had guests for the birthday dinner. I was so shaken by what she had said in the morning that I could refuse her nothing. Mary wore the beard; but was very cross about it, and gave me notice next day.
It was at that memorable dinner that I was to be reminded of the Vocation in a strange and unexpected way…
Aunt Margaret turned the conversation by inquiring about Vivien’s presents.
“I have everything I want,” said Vivien, “except a bulldog and a violin.”
A violin! How strange that she should ask for a violin, suddenly, of her own accord! Everybody said that it clearly denoted great talent and a gift for music; and I determined to buy her one the very next day. I did so: I bought a charming half-size instrument of a bright brown colour, and most excellent in tone, the dealer told me. Of course we did not get the bulldog.
Vivien’s auspicious start did not immediately translate into the glittering career her mother was anticipating. According to The Pall Mall Magazine, she used the fiddle as a money box and a depository for bread and milk. As Vivanti remarked, “I…began to doubt as to the Gift and the Calling.”
Eventually, however, Vivien’s talents began to manifest themselves, although the details are fuzzy. In some accounts (including “The True Story of a Wunderkind”), it is said that an Italian gentleman named Signor Santavicci was Vivien’s first teacher; other sources indicate that her first instructor was a player named Luigi Marescalchi from Monaco. In addition, it is unclear when exactly she began her studies. Although Vivanti claims that Vivien began to play between her seventh and eighth birthdays, it is possible she began earlier; Vivanti had a habit of fudging dates. More research is required on the point.
At any rate, a while after she began playing the violin, Vivanti’s uncle sent his grand-niece two beautiful dolls, which Vivien adored. She slept with one on either side of her. Vivanti related that one night:
…She called me in an agitated voice. I hurried to her bedside. She had the two dolls huddled in one arm and the other stretched out. “Give me my violin,” she said; “give it to me quickly. I dreamt that it was jealous.”
“Nonsense, darling!” I said, laughing.
But she was much disturbed, and insisted upon my bringing it to her.
“If it thought that I liked the dolls best, it might be angry, and make ugly voices at me tomorrow.”
So she insisted upon sleeping with the violin on one side of her and the dolls on the other.
Thus it was that I noticed that to her mind the violin was a live thing: a rather evil, impish thing, with an uncertain temper – a creature to be appeased and propitiated lest it should make “ugly voices.” I thought the idea uncanny. And one day I resolved to tell her a story, such as mothers invent under the inspiration of their children’s questioning eyes. And here it is, as I told it to her and to the dolls, all sitting in a row:
“Vivien, dear, in the violin there lives, as you have already guessed, a being – a tiny, beautiful, invisible fairy, whose named is The Spirit of Music. The man who long ago made this violin caught her by her wings as she was flying in the air and shut her up in the violin. A spell was cast over her – ”
“What is a spell?” said Vivien.
“An enchantment – a – a kind of net,” I said vaguely.
“Butterfly-net?” said Vivien.
“Well, yes. Something of the kind,” I answered; “so that her wings were tied, and she could not move, or speak, or see – ”
“Or eat,” said Vivien.
“And she lies there in the dark waiting for the spell to be broken.” Vivien’s eyes grew large and resplendent. “Now, do you know how the spell can be broken? How the net – ”
“Is it green?” asked Vivien; “and is the stick inside too?”
“What stick?” I said impatiently. “If you keep on interrupting I shall stop telling the story. Now, there is only one way in which the fairy can be released; and that must be” – I took Vivien’s small warm hand in mine – “by the hand of a little girl. One day a little girl will come, who will play so beautifully, so perfectly, without one mistake – ”
“What shall I have to play?” interrupted Vivien.
“The Paganini Concerto,” I said, on the spur of the moment. “And on that day the Fairy Spirit will wake up and shake out her beautiful wings and come forth from the violin to do the little girl’s bidding.” I read in Vivien’s face that she was going to say, ‘What is bidding?’ so I went on quickly. “She will obey the little girl and fulfil all her wishes. She will turn the violin-bow into a magic wand, and the little girl will work charms with it: make bad people good, and sad people happy, and poor people rich – ”
“And order pony-carriages at once? And make Fräulein Muller vanish away?” cried Vivien, intensely excited.
“Everything!” I replied, in order not to spoil the effect of the story. Vivien had already flown to the case, and now she held the fiddle up and turned it in every direction, peering into the sound-holes with anxious eyes. I improved the occasion. “And the more you practise, the sooner will she be visible. Every hour you play loosens a little the bonds that tie her. Scales especially have a very loosening effect,” I added.
I confess to feeling some twinges of remorse the next morning, when I heard her practising scales all by herself for a long time. At the end of every scale she looked into the fiddle; and before lunch she came and whispered in my ear, “I think I heard her move!”
These two juxtaposed stories perfectly illustrate the attitude that Vivanti had toward her daughter’s talent – at least publicly. She loved it, was fascinated by it, was a little afraid of it, and cared very deeply for it; she was both attracted to, and in a way, repelled by it. As can be shown from her words after the Huberman concert, she was only too aware that it would be discomfitingly easy to use her daughter’s talent to break her spirit, and yet she still encouraged its development. Vivanti, ever the dramatist, reveled in the tension.
As with everything Vivanti wrote, the anecdotes in “The True Story of a Wunderkind” need to be taken with a grain of salt; it is impossible to ascertain what exactly about them is true or false. For instance, in another interview from 1905, Vivien herself told a reporter that her father, not her mother, had been the one to tell the story of the fairy. One wonders where exactly Chartres was during all this. In “The True Story of a Wunderkind,” he appears only three times – to dismiss Vivanti’s gut instinct about her baby’s talent, to encourage Vivien not to make an early debut, and to ask (basically) what the hell the two of them were doing auditioning for a teacher in Prague. Were it not for those three mentions of him, readers would be forgiven for assuming Vivanti was a widow or divorcée. Was Chartres really so distant from his wife and daughter? Had Vivanti’s relationship with him turned so rocky that she wrote him out of her past? Perhaps it is significant that in The Devourers, Anne-Marie’s father is an irresponsible gambler and womanizer who ultimately leaves Nancy and Anne-Marie to fend for themselves. Or maybe Vivanti merely understood that the idea of a girl and her mother fighting alone against the world was much more dramatically appealing than a traditional family unit doing the same.
Thanks to the instruction of her teacher, her mother’s encouragement, and her own remarkable innate talent, Vivien soon began to excel in a truly shocking way. A few months after she began playing, she was performing Svendsen’s Romance. Around that time Vivien visited her great-uncle, Paul Lindau, in Paris. He was astonished by her progress and suggested that mother and daughter travel to Prague so that Vivien could audition for arguably the greatest violin teacher in Europe, Otakar Ševcík. Being accepted into the Ševcík studio would be no small feat; it would be, in a way, an achievement akin to Annie Vivanti befriending Carducci so many years before. Ševcík’s services were in remarkably high demand; over the course of his career, he rejected hundreds of pupils, many older than Vivien. According to Vivanti, after hearing her uncle’s suggestion, she took Vivien straight to Prague from Paris, without even telling her husband of her plans. After a dirty, disagreeable trip by train, Vivien decided to wash her violin and bow before her audition so that they might feel fresh and clean before the momentous day. Of course after this treatment the violin could no longer speak. But somehow mother and daughter secured a second instrument on which Vivien auditioned.
Otakar Ševcík was a giant of nineteenth century pedagogy. Born in 1852, this shy, thoughtful, generous man was one of the great instructors of the late Victorian era. His students included some of the greatest violinists of the age: Marie Hall, Jan Kubelík, Erika Morini, and Efram Zimbalist, among others. He had a punishing professional regime: he usually began to teach at seven in the morning, took a break in the afternoon, and then worked late into the night. He expected his select students to be just as committed to their education as he was, and he advised them to practice no less than eight hours a day.
After her audition, Vivien Chartres became one of those select few.
When Vivien was accepted into Ševcík’s studio, Vivanti’s life became even more intertwined with Vivien’s. She no longer had any time to fulfill her own professional promise; she was too busy helping to fulfill her daughter’s. She wrote a fictional account of this time in The Devourers:
…She went with Anne-Marie and Fräulein to Prague, where the greatest of all violin-teachers lived, fitting left hands with wonderful technique, and right hands with marvellous pliancy; teaching slim fingers to dance and scamper and skip on four tense strings, and supple wrists to wield a skimming, or control a creeping, bow. And this greatest of teachers took little Anne-Marie to his heart. He also called her the Wunderkind, and set her eager feet, still in their white socks and button shoes, on the steep path that leads up the Hill of Glory.
Nancy unpacked her manuscripts in an apartment in one of the not very wide streets of old Prague; opposite her window was a row of brown and yellow stone houses; she had a table, and pen and ink, and there was nothing to disturb her. True, she could hear Anne-Marie playing the violin two rooms off, but that, of course, was a joy; besides, when all the doors were shut one could hardly hear anything, especially if one tied a scarf or something round one’s head, and over one’s ears.
So Nancy had no excuse for not working. She told herself so a hundred times a day, as she sat at the table with the scarf round her head, staring at the yellow house opposite…
Besides this ache was the yearn and strain and sorrow of her destiny unfulfilled. For once again the sense of time passing, of life running out of her grasp, bit at her breast like an adder…
The door opened, and Fräulein’s head appeared, solemn and sibylline, with tears shining behind her spectacles.
“Nancy, to-day for the first time Anne-Marie is to play Beethoven. Will you come?”
Yes, Nancy would come. She followed Fräulein into the room where Anne-Marie was with the Professor and his assistant.
The Professor did not like to play the piano, so he had brought the assistant with him, who sat at the piano, nodding a large, rough black head in time to the music. Anne-Marie was in front of her stand. The Professor, with his hands behind him, watched her. The Beethoven Romance in F began.
The simple initial melody slid smoothly from under the child’s fingers, and was taken up and repeated by the piano. The wilful crescendo of the second phrase worked itself up to the passionate high note, and was coaxed back again into gentleness by the shy and tender trills, as a wrathful man by the call of a child. Martial notes by the piano. The assistant’s head bobbed violently, and now Beethoven led Anne-Marie’s bow, gently, by tardigrade steps, into the first melody again. Once more, the head at the piano bobbed over his solo. Then on the high F, down came the bow of Anne-Marie, decisive and vehement.
“That’s right!” shouted the Professor suddenly. “Fa, mi, sol – play that on the fourth string.”
Anne-Marie nodded without stopping. Eight accented notes by the piano, echoed by Anne-Marie.
“That is to sound like a trumpet!” cried the master.
“Yes, yes; I remember,” said Anne-Marie.
And now for the third time the melody returned, and Anne-Marie played it softly, as in a dream, with a gruppetto in pianissimo that made the Professor push his hands into his pockets, and the assistant turn his head from the piano to look at her. At the end the slowly ascending scales soared and floated into the distance, and the three last calling notes fell from far away.
No one spoke for a moment; then the Professor went close to the child and said:
“Why did you say, ‘I remember’ when I told you about the trumpet notes?”
“I don’t know,” said Anne-Marie, with the vague look she always had after she had played.
“What did you mean?”
“I meant that I understood,” said Anne-Marie.
The Professor frowned at her, while his lips worked.
“You said, ‘I remember.’ And I believe you remember. I believe you are not learning anything new. You are remembering something you have known before.”
Fräulein intervened excitedly. “Ach! Herr Professor! I assure you the child has never seen that piece! I have been with her since the first day she überhaupt had the violin, and – ”
The Professor waved an impatient hand. He was still looking at Anne-Marie. “Who is it?” and he shook his grey head tremulously. “Whom have we here? Is it Paganini? Or Mozart? I hope it is Mozart.”
In the third part, Vivien and her violin take Europe by storm, charming an entire continent. Her mother is there to chronicle every step, both in fiction and non-fiction...
Here is a very long essay (over a year in the making) that discusses the relationship between violin prodigy Vivien Chartres and her mother, author Annie Vivanti. At the turn of the twentieth century, Vivien Chartres was often mentioned in the same breath as Bronislaw Huberman and Mischa Elman, two of the greatest prodigies in the history of violin playing. And yet for a variety of reasons her name has been largely lost to history. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first Chartres biography publicly available in print or on the Internet. Hopefully it shines a small light on these two extraordinary women and their unique, symbiotic relationship. I would be absolutely delighted if other readers, writers, and researchers dig even deeper into their story...believe me when I say I only skimmed the surface.
I’d like to thank Douglas d’Enno (Chartres’s grandson) and Vivanti expert Annie Urbancic for their generous feedback and encouragement. Any errors that remain in the text are entirely mine. (If you see anything that you feel ought to be altered, let me know.)
This piece will be in four parts. After all four are published, I will make a PDF available for printing that will include a full bibliography.
There was a man, and he had a canary. He said, “What a dear little canary! I wish it were an eagle.” God said to him: “If you give your heart to it to feed on, it will become an eagle.” So the man gave his heart to it to feed on. And it became an eagle, and plucked his eyes out.
There was a woman, and she had a kitten. She said: “What a dear little kitten! I wish it were a tiger.” God said to her: “If you give your life’s blood to it to drink, it will become a tiger.” So the woman gave her life’s blood to it to drink. And it became a tiger, and tore her to pieces.
There was a man and a woman, and they had a child. They said: “What a dear little child! We wish it were a genius.” …
Nearly every prodigy has a parent who supports the development of his child’s unique, oftentimes unnerving gifts. Witness to the blossoming of extraordinary talent from the beginning, he aspires to encourage it and train it, like a gardener might train a vine. The role tends to be a thankless one. It is difficult (some would say impossible) to nurture a well-adjusted prodigy who has also taken advantage of every opportunity to develop professionally. Curious bystanders are always on hand to criticize every decision the parent makes. Your child is playing too much; let her rest and be a child. Your child isn’t playing enough; she will never develop into a great artist. When the child’s successes begin to snowball, it becomes more and more tempting to push her harder, faster, to see what she is all capable of doing. Some parents drift from supporting to hectoring, then from hectoring to abusing. Then, once the child has achieved notoriety - if the child achieves notoriety – the supporting parent inevitably melts into invisibility, his name becoming a footnote in a dusty music history text read by no one but musicology students.
Many of the great violin virtuosas of the nineteenth century had counselor fathers, all of whom have since faded into an even darker obscurity than their daughters. The Italian violinist Teresa Milanollo (1827-1904) had a father who, to his great credit, did not care that the violin wasn’t an instrument fit for ladies; when his daughter begged him for a fiddle, he bought her one, and when she proved to be a prodigy, he traversed the Alps with her so that she might study with the finest Parisian teachers. Wilhelmina Norman-Neruda (c 1838-1911) was born into a family of prodigies, all, regardless of sex, taught and encouraged by a musician father. Camilla Urso (1842-1902) had a flautist father who faithfully badgered the officials at the Paris Conservatoire (an institution that refused to admit girl violinists) until they agreed to hear his daughter play. Teresina Tua (c 1866-1956) was the child of an amateur violinist who became her teacher and traveling companion. Unfortunately his support came at a horrific cost: according to one newspaper ‘account, Teresina’s mother “in the temporary absence of her husband…deliberately burnt herself to death.”
The case of Vivien Chartres, a violin prodigy born in 1893, was different. First, her counselor parent wasn’t her father; it was her mother, Annie Vivanti. And not only was Vivanti a mother; she was also a talented writer, and she had no qualms about pouring her conflicted feelings about her daughter’s talent into an unsettling novel called The Devourers, published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons in 1910. The Devourers is fiction, ostensibly. But it rings again and again with a gripping emotional truth clearly drawn from life.
An appealing ambiguity is available to authors when they write themselves into their fiction. If anyone ever questions them about a particularly thorny passage or plot point, they can always smile and say, “Oh, but that part I made up.” It is possible to say everything while admitting nothing. Vivanti takes full advantage of this freedom, interweaving fact and fiction until it becomes impossible to tell what exactly is what. One gets the impression that three-quarters of the novel is, in fact, a memoir. But which three-quarters? Vivanti never says. It is up to us to read between the lines – to draw our own hesitant conclusions about Vivien and Vivanti’s talents, their unique symbiotic relationship, and the all-consuming nature of exceptionally gifted children.
So Fräulein, after she had tried all the words she could think of, took Lenau’s poems from her own bookshelf, and read Nancy to sleep. On the following evenings she read the “Waldlieder,” and then “Mischka,” until it was finished. Then she started Uhland; and after Uhland, Korner, and Freiligrath, and Lessing.
Who knows what Nancy heard? Who knows what visions and fancies she took with her to her dreams? In the little sleep-boat where Baby Bunting used to be with her, now sat a row of German poets, long of hair, wild of eye, fulgent of epithet. Night after night, for months and years, little Nancy drifted off to her slumber with lyric and lay, with ode and epic, lulled by cadenced rhythm and resonant rhyme. On one of these nights the poets cast a spell over her. They rowed her little boat out so far that it never quite touched shore again.
And Nancy never quite awoke from her dreams.
When Annie Vivanti wrote herself into The Devourers as the prodigy poetess Nancy who is destined to be metaphorically devoured by her own prodigy violinist daughter Anne-Marie, it was not her first time recreating herself. Vivanti specialized in self-invention. Throughout the course of her decades-long literary career, she became a poet, novel writer, short-story writer, playwright, and journalist who switched effortlessly back and forth between English, French, Italian, and German. She was a chameleon, constantly adapting herself and her work to suit respective markets and societies. Accordingly she had a series of monikers she used professionally on different continents and in different contexts: George Marion, Annie Vivanti, Anita Chartres, Annie Vivanti Chartres, Anita Vivanti Chartres, A. Vivanti Chartres…the list goes on and on.
Her impulse toward re-invention came partly from her multicultural upbringing in Britain, Italy, Switzerland, and America. She was born in London in 1866 (although she later claimed 1868). Her father was a silk merchant named Anselmo Vivanti, a revolutionary from Mantua of Jewish descent; her mother Anna Lindau was a German writer who knew Marx and other intellectuals, and who died of tuberculosis when Annie was fourteen. It was an unconventional upbringing in an unconventional household, and it granted Vivanti a strength and independence that she would draw on throughout her life.
Annie Vivanti, mid-1890s
Vivanti began her career as a poetess writing in Italian. In 1890 a firm offered to publish a volume of her work if she could get Giosuè Carducci, the great Italian poet, to write a preface for the book. This was no small request, as Carducci made no secret of the fact that he thought women (and priests) were unable to write good poetry. Despite the misogyny, Vivanti refused to be intimidated by the great man; she traveled to his home to ask him for the preface in person. Not only did he end up providing it, but he declared her to be the equal of Sappho, Marcelline Desbordes-Valmore, and Elizabeth Browning. He even took Vivanti on as a protégée of sorts, their relationship raising more than a few eyebrows. That year her book Lirica was published to great acclaim.
Vivanti and her Devourers doppelgänger Nancy are tantalizingly similar. Nancy too is the product of a mixed-race marriage: her father is English, her mother Italian. Nancy too has lost a parent to tuberculosis. Nancy too is feted for her poetry from childhood, and she writes a bestselling book of poetry at a young age (sixteen, however, as opposed to twenty-four). From the very beginning of the book we are treated to Vivanti’s characteristic mix of fact and fiction.
So Valeria had her wish. Her child was a genius, and a genius recognized and glorified as only Latin countries glorify and recognize their own. Nancy stepped from the twilight of the nursery into the blinding uproar of celebrity, and her young feet walked dizzily on the heights. She was interviewed and quoted, imitated and translated, envied and adored. She had as many enemies as a Cabinet Minister, and as many inamorati as a premiere danseuse.
To the Signora Carolotta’s tidy apartment in Corso Venezia came all the poets of Italy. They sat round Nancy and read their verses to her, and the criticisms of their verses, and their answers to the criticisms. There were tempestuous poets with pointed beards, and successful poets with turned-up moustaches; there were lonely, unprinted poets, and careless, unwashed poets; there was also a poet who stole an umbrella and an overcoat from the hall. Aunt Carlotta said it was the Futurist, but Adele felt sure it was the Singer of the Verb of Magnificent Sterility, the one with the red and evil eyes…
During the discussion that followed, the din of the two poets’ voices built a wall of solitude around Nino and Nancy.
“How old are you?” asked Nino, looking at her mild forehead, where the dark eyebrows lay over her light grey eyes like quiet wings.
“Sixteen,” said Nancy; and the dimple dipped.
Nino did not return her smile. “Sixteen!” he said. And because his eyes were used to the line of a fading cheek and the bitterness of a tired mouth, his heart fell, loveuck and conquered, before Nancy’s cool and innocent youth. It was inevitable.
In 1892 Annie Vivanti married John Chartres, a businessman, lawyer, and journalist who agitated for Irish independence. Together they moved to Italy. In 1893 she bore him a daughter named Vivien.
Nancy stirred, sighed, and awoke.
In the room adjoining, Valeria was sobbing in Zio Giocomo’s arms, and Aunt Carlotta was kissing Adele, and Aldo was shaking hands with everybody.
Nancy could hear the whispering voices through the half-open door, and they pleased her. Then another sound fell on her ear, like the ticking of a slow clock – click, click, a gentle, peaceful, regular noise that soothed her. She turned her head and looked. It was the cradle. The Sister sat near it, dozing, with one elbow on the back of the chair and her hand supporting her head; the other hand was on the edge of the cradle. With gentle mechanical gesture, in her half sleep, she rocked it to and fro. Nancy smiled to herself, and the gentle clicking noise lulled her to sleep again.
She felt utterly at peace – utterly happy. The waiting was over; the fear was over. Life opened wider portals, over wider, shining lands. All longings were stilled; all empty places filled. Then with a soft tremor of joy she remembered her book. It was waiting for her where she had left it that evening when futurity had pulsed within her heart. The masterpiece that was to live called softly and the folded wings of the eagle stirred.
After her daughter’s birth, Vivanti published several short stories and a novel called The Hunt for Happiness. She also wrote a play called That Man, which ran on Broadway in 1899. (The play became notorious when Vivanti brought the producer to court for altering the fourth act.)
Not long after came a mysterious interlude in her marriage. According to an article in The New York Times dating from December 1900, Vivanti and Chartres traveled to South Dakota in 1897 and were divorced. (South Dakota was famous at the time for its relatively lax divorce laws.) Existing Vivanti scholarship has so far been unable to shed light on the incident; it remains to be seen whether the divorce actually occurred, and in any case, it seems that Vivanti and Chartres were back together within a few years. In the interim, however, Vivanti was cited in The New York Times as London businessman Sidney Samuel’s fiancée. She went so far as to come to America to prepare for the wedding, when finally Samuel gave in to the wishes of his disapproving father and broke off the engagement. Vivanti, ever the businesswoman, demanded $8000 for the amount that she had spent at the Fifth Avenue Hotel and on her trousseau. The sorry affair ended in Samuel’s suicide.
Such stories – true or not – confirm Vivanti’s reputation as an independent woman who wasn’t afraid of doing what she thought was best for herself and for her family, other people’s opinions be damned. She would draw on every ounce of that self-certainty while raising Vivien.
In June 1905 Vivanti wrote a striking essay called “The True Story of a Wunderkind” for Pall Mall Magazine, describing Vivien’s earliest successes. In the article Vivanti relates how she had attended a concert of the prodigy Bronislaw Huberman “some seven years ago” (actually, it was nine), when Vivien was an infant. She found herself unsettled by the sickly boy who played so ethereally, whose astonishing talents she was convinced were being taken undue advantage of. She came home to say good-night to Vivien and whispered to her, “No! you shall never be a violin virtuoso, my baby!”
At this moment – at this precise moment and no other! – that baby turned down the corners of its mouth in the extraordinary way I know so well, and set up a wail of grief, a sudden cry of despair! I was thrilled. It seemed a direct answer to what I had said. I kissed her and soothed her in vain.
Vivanti told her husband of their baby’s response. She brought him into the nursery and tried to produce another such reaction – but to no avail. “No vocation whatever,” Chartres finally pronounced. “She is a most commonplace infant. Just a brat.”
Only one thing spoils this dramatic story: it wasn’t true. Despite what Vivanti claimed, Vivien was born in 1893, not 1895. Bronislaw Huberman didn’t make his New York debut until 1896. Something – maybe everything – was fabricated. But whatever the actual truth, the story illustrates several themes that Vivanti would struggle with, both personally and professionally, in the coming years – the special, indeed sacred bond she felt with Vivien; the competing feelings of fascination and horror that her daughter’s talent engendered; the relative absence of John Chartres in mother and daughter’s professional lives; and most importantly, the sense that Vivien was destined to become a great genius, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
Next time: More italicized excerpts from Annie Vivanti's autobiographical novel. Also, Vivien takes up the violin and travels to Prague to study with none other than acclaimed pedagogue Ševcík...
Last night I had a dream that I was in an orchestra. It was a very good group, made up largely of members from the Minnesota Orchestra, who had given up their careers in that august organization and relocated to my small Wisconsin hometown. We were searching for repertoire. "You should try Bruckner 8!" I said. Although most were ex-members of Minnesota, they weren't familiar with Bruckner 8. So the music magically appeared and was distributed. We began the last movement first (as you do in dreams). We got to a certain point where everything (i.e., the strings, the horns, the horns, and the horns) came together, and you know what? It was magnificent. What a rush. However, we decided to cut it off at one of the climaxes because whatever concert we were programming for had a strict time limit.
I tried listening to the passage in question this morning, curious if my midnight dream had any effect on me. Sorry to say, it didn't. Bruckner still grated. But I'm heartened my subconscious is working on it. We'll see if this dream ever comes true. (Minus the mass exodus of Minnesota Orchestra members to Eau Claire, Wisconsin.)
Anyway. As the kids on Tumblr say...
"This has been a post."
(If this blog means nothing to you, it's probably for the best. Just keep scrolling.)
More entries: April 2012
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