Nights at the Ballet

I had left the London Philharmonic in 1946 with a promise from them of being engaged for all their prestigious concerts.  My diary was comparatively empty and I was pleasantly surprised when one day Morris Smith the “fixer”*  for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden phoned me to ask whether I would be free to play a season as principal bass for the Royal Ballet. I immediately said ‘yes’ and I was engaged on the spot.

There were only the old chestnuts like /Swan Lake/ etc. and I soon settled in.  Later on we added Arthur Bliss’s /Miracle in the Gorbals/.  The conductors were John Lanchberry , Warwick Braithwaite and Constant Lambert.

Lambert was a fine conductor and musician.  His Rio Grande is one of my favourite pieces.   Unfortunately he was overly fond of alcohol, and when he arrived in the orchestra pit would attempt to climb on the rostrum from the violin’s side, then lurch over towards the ‘celli and would be helped up again, but once he was in position he was wonderful.  He had the knack of picking  the exact tempo, always anticipating the dancers in the “lift”.  He was a great favourite with the dancers.  Talking of the lift, I was getting some fresh air at the stage door when a friend of mine, one of the male dancers,  came up to me in a frenzy and said ‘Fat old cow, she won’t jump, I nearly ruptured myself’!’.    The female has to jump in the lift, otherwise the male has to bear all her weight.

I last saw Lambert in the sixties. It was on a Boxing Day and I had to play at a broadcast for the BBC with Lambert conducting.  He came into the studio and was sweating profusely and his hands were trembling from D.T’s.  What a pity!  That was the last I saw of him.

During the course of the season I became very enamoured with one of the principal dancers, “D”.  We became very friendly, and I must say I became extremely jealous when she was doing the “Hearts and flowers” stuff in Swan Lake.  Did I see the male dancer going too far up her leg in the lift?   I played resounding pizzicati  in the /pas de deux /and felt like Spartacus whose girl friend was being raped by a Roman in the next cell. The double bass is very important in these solos as it sets the tempo for the lifts and various pirouettes. At the end of the ballet I waited like a dog for a pat on the head when she came out on stage to make her curtsy, and would nod in my direction.  Afterwards, when she had showered and changed we went to the local pub, the “Nag’s Head” for a discussion of the night’s performance and then, to quote Pepys, “And so to bed”.  No shacking up in those days!  She chided me for being so jealous, but I think she secretly enjoyed it.

Margot Fonteyn was then the Prima Ballerina Assoluta and I’m afraid “D” wasn’t in her class.   I sometimes ran into her at the stage door and she always had a warm, friendly smile.

In 1964 I was asked to play with the Pro Arte Orchestra at a television show where Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev were appearing.  She was getting on in years but Nureyev seemed to inject new life into her.

Margot had been married to a very rich Panamanian politician, Roberto Arias, who had been shot by a rival and ended up being a paraplegic.  After his demise she continued to live on their estate in Panama in penury, and later on someone visited her, noticed her poverty and afterwards arranged a benefit concert for her in London.  She was then able to live comfortably, but she passed away at a relatively early age.

I don’t like to say so, but the ballet dancers ‘s pay was dreadful; at that time I was making more money as principal bass than she was.  It was only when television and films began to book them that they began to earn a reasonable salary.  The film ‘The Red Shoes’, starring Moira Shearer seemed to give ballet the fillip that it needed.

Going back to “D”; soon afterwards  I was asked to play at Glyndebourne Opera with Benjamin Britten, and there I met my future wife.  Cad that I am, all thoughts of “D” were forgotten.

*Orchestral manager.

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