Songs for Robbie: An Interview with Miriam Gordon-Stewart

Miriam Gordon-Stewart
Miriam Gordon-Stewart

Songs for Robbie
Saturday 7 December
Scots Church, Melbourne
Miriam Gordon-Stewart, soprano
Kate Golla, piano
With readings from the memoirs of Eileen Robbins by Susan Bullock

Berlin-based soprano Miriam Gordon-Stewart took a break from singing Sieglinde in The Ring to discuss her upcoming recital at Scots Church, Songs for Robbie.

There have already been some excellent interviews on your upcoming recital Songs for Robbie in Limelight and on The Music Show, but could you please tell us again how you found the memoirs of your grandmother Eileen Robbins?

I knew that Gran was doing some writing when she was about eighty. She lived to 101, so this was quite a long time before she died. My mother thought it would be good for her because she was physically quite incapacitated. She couldn’t stand up or walk very easily, she had quite bad hearing throughout her life and her vision was going, but her mind was still extremely active. My mother said, “Why don’t you write some things? You’re a lovely writer, write a journal.” I didn’t hear much more about it and never saw any evidence of it. But when I was in Australia about a year ago I was locked out of my brother’s house and he sent me a text saying there was a spare key in the shed (I won’t tell you where he lives, because then you could break in). So I went looking for the key and in the process found a box labelled “Gran’s stuff.” I opened it up and the memoir was in there, a manila folder containing foolscap papers written in fountain pen.

Did you immediately grasp the significance of the document?

I thought I’d read it because it could be fun, but then I realised it was a full-scale memoir. It is incomplete, covering only birth until her mid-twenties, so 1906 until the early thirties, but the detail of that period is extraordinary. As with many older people, her memory of that period was more sharply in focus than what happened yesterday. She could remember the names of eight of her neighbour’s siblings, what they used to wear and the conversations they had. She has a beautiful natural writing style, but also the historical period it covers is fascinating: Two World Wars and the transformation of the small village where she grew up into a larger village and then a town. Langley used to be a very small village and is now more a part of Slough. I thought it a really important historical document.

I thought, since we already know a bit about your grandmother’s audition at the West End and her experience singing at military hospitals from the earlier interviews, we could talk about the music you have chosen to perform in your recital. How did you go about finding music to go with this memoir?

It went the other way around actually. I always had it in mind to do something with the memoir, but I didn’t know what. I decided to do a recital during this period and it just happened that I wanted to do repertoire from the early twentieth century. There’s a bunch of things that I’ve wanted to do for ages. Whenever anyone who is into recital repertoire has heard me sing they’ve said, “You have to do the Berg Early Songs.” Knoxville: Summer of 1915 by Samuel Barber is basically every American singer’s favourite piece. People aren’t as familiar with it here, but I think they see its value as an extended reverie about a time and place. Viktor Ullmann is a composer who has not been performed much in Australia at all. His Sämtliche Lieder album was published relatively recently. His compositions are broken into several periods, firstly when he was in Vienna with Schoenberg and Zemlinsky and learned amazing things about writing for the voice, as all those guys did, then he went to Prague and was working in the Prague opera. He was then transported to the Theresienstadt ghetto, which I visited over the summer, and he wrote a lot of music there, as well as performing it and writing criticism in the prison camp. His writing style, understandably, then became way more complex and his poetry became a lot darker. It’s incredible music and I think people will really respond to it.

And a work by Margaret Sutherland?

The Sutherland was disappointingly difficult to get hold of, but I found the music to be really stunning. She wrote a series of songs to the poetry of John Shaw Nielson. I don’t know if people study him in school now, I certainly didn’t, but I would consider him Australia’s wartime poet. Everything I have read is extraordinary, beautiful, pastoral. He grew up in rural South Australia and was a working man building roads and writing poetry in his spare time. He’s our Auden, basically. I wanted something Australian because I wanted to represent a few different perspectives from that period, especially during the war. So we get an English, an American and an Australian perspective.

Would your grandmother have sung any of this repertoire?

No, she had singing lessons, which, from the descriptions in her memoir were really excellent singing lessons, but classical training was not a part of her culture. I guess people may have been studying with instrumental teachers who just happened to live in her town, but her life revolved around the church and around fundraising for the hospital and various other charitable circles, so most of the time she was studying with someone from the church. She learned to sing hymns and was then introduced to music hall repertoire, which she loved. She loved singing the bawdy stuff and entertaining soldiers. She auditioned for a West End show and could have gone down a whole other path. I thought of programming some of that repertoire, but ultimately I don’t love it when classical singers do recitals of repertoire that comes from another technical place. I don’t think anyone wants to pay to hear me sing musical songs. I think I have something else to offer in a recital.

Some of the repertoire, such as the Barber and Sutherland, is retrospective as well.

You have described elsewhere the profound emotional effect on your grandmother when she learned to focus on communicating the meaning of the text when singing and that you have also had this experience. Are there lines of text in these songs that you particularly enjoy singing?

Definitely Barber’s Knoxville. It is a story. It is somebody sitting on a porch and reminiscing. They are carried back to childhood and are a child again at certain moments, but with an adult’s perspective on childhood as well. It is almost too painful to sing. I have spoken to other singers about this, who say, “I’m going to be a mess when you sing it.” There is one phrase in particular which breaks everybody. It’s like the final scene in Die Walküre. It took me ages to be able to sing it because it means so much. The poet, James Agee, talks about this feeling at the end of the day in Tennessee, though it could be Melbourne or Adelaide where I grew up just as easily, where your parents are spreading quilts on the grass that has started to go damp and you’re sitting out on these quilts talking about nothing. He says, “my father has drained, now he has coiled the hose” and I thought “oh yes, the necessity of coiling the hose,” I think that is something every Australian kid can remember. Little things like that transport you back. Of course you have to go back there when you are rehearsing and you think “I have to cut the piece” because you are sobbing every time, but once you transcend that and get yourself out of the way, then it becomes very special, it becomes for the audience and not just self-indulgence.

Are all of the songs about remembering in one way or another?

No, they are not all about memory. Some of the Berg are and some of the Ullmann are, but others are about questioning the nature of existence. One of the Ullmann songs begins, more or less, with the question “What is life all about?” For me, that’s less about childhood memory than it is about humility. How do I sing this song as a middle-class Australian woman who has never been forced to question whether she is going to live another week? We probably all should ask this question, but I have never been forced to. But he wrote the song for a female voice and art outlives its circumstances, so how do you go about that knowing the situation that he was in? Having had a very visceral experience of where he was when he wrote it, which, to this day radiates such evil that I couldn’t even open the car door to get out and look at it.

So there is a juxtaposition of remembering the past and questioning the future from that time. This seems entirely appropriate for a Ring month. And several times in your grandmother’s life she would not have known what would happen next week.

Yes, I think dreams became more short-term. This is why I am hesitant to say that my grandmother’s wildest dream was to become a famous opera singer. I don’t think that was an option for her. It was a moment in time in which a door opened for her that could have led to another life. Then it closed, so it was just enough for her to lurch momentarily in that direction. But that sense of “well, if I work hard enough I could work my way out of my circumstances,” that probably didn’t exist as much back then. If the circumstances as a whole changed, with unionisation, development, if jobs were created for you, or another war provided your father with employment for a time, then your circumstances changed, but she was a very working class girl at that time and couldn’t change her situation much through sheer effort. Inasmuch as she could, she changed other people’s circumstances a lot by singing in concerts, raising money, writing to aristocracy, getting cheques. She was as effective as a woman could be.

Dreams were shorter-term and more essential: I want enough to provide for and have a family. Maybe I want to meet someone I can love. I want to be a good Christian. But these things come full circle and maybe we are going back to that now. I really hope we are. The move towards localisation may move towards a change in dreams. Maybe people won’t hope for world domination, but want a farm and make goat’s cheese.

Says the opera singer flying in from Berlin.

I’m not part of your generation. I’m still clinging desperately to my hedonistic dreams with bloodied stumps for fingers.


Partial Durations is a Matthew Lorenzon/RealTime joint project.

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