As a rather moody eighteen year old, I had a Summer holiday job working as a waiter in the small and very pretty Sussex village of Alfriston. For over two months I lived in the building on the left of the photograph below called, accurately enough, the Tudor House. It was indeed a largely Sixteenth Century building with earlier bits discernable if you looked hard enough. It was a beautiful if somewhat spooky house owned by a couple whose son, about my age, was away for the Summer doing something much more exciting than working as a waiter. I inherited his room at the front on the left hand side with a very atmospheric view down the High Street.
It was mostly very hard work. My job was to get the place ready every morning in time to open for morning coffee then to serve the pre-lunch customers – mostly coffee and scones – and then to gradually set up the tables for lunch when I was joined by two or three other waiters or waitresses who travelled in by bus from a nearby town. Alfriston was, and I guess still is, a very busy tourist village in the Summer so we were kept pretty active serving meals indoors and in the garden at the back from Noon until 2.30 every day and then taking half an hour for our own lunch before turning the restaurant round again for afternoon tea when even larger crowds, often in coach-loads, descended on us for cream teas with cakes and icecream. Two or three evenings a week I served dinner too so there wasn’t a lot of time to mess around.
I remember the Summer of my eighteenth year as hot and long but then that might be true of everyone’s memories of that most atmospheric of times in our lives. I enjoyed living in this old house and, once I had decided not to be spooked by stories of the place’s ghost and learnt to ignore those bumps in the night, I felt almost at home. The owners mostly left me to myself when I was off duty so I could spend my time idling with a book, playing with the two large Alsatian dogs or the two rather sinister black cats hoping that my waiter’s feet would eventually stop aching all the time. They did and soon it was as if I had always been a waiter in this lovely place.
The proprietors’ son was obviously cherished, if not spoiled, by his parents because, much to my envy, they had build him a chalet at the bottom of the garden that he used as his study/den and, most enviably of all, because it was a long way from the house and the neighbours, he was given a powerful stereo system that he could play away from prying ears. I was determined to get in there and to try it out as I had only ever heard hi-fi equipment in Music classes at school. I was scheduled to go to music college that Autumn and music was, as it still is, my obsession.
My relatives had been buying me opera recordings since my early teens but the newer stereo recordings had to be played in boring old mono. My wages were never going to buy a decent stereo player so I had to content myself with envious daydreams about that little wooden building at the bottom of the garden. On a rare day off, I returned home and secreted away my latest opera recording, Ponchielli’s La Gioconda (written as you may have guessed if you have been following these blogs) in 1875. This story came back to me because I have just been listening to music written that year as part of my self-imposed journey through the history of classical music.
The composer, Amilcare Ponchielli, is not one of the greats but in this passionate, tuneful and wonderfully melodramatic opera, he found his voice and wrote something that instantly blew the moodily eighteen year old me away. I just had to hear it on that stereo system with the giant speakers I had spotted through the window. I thought up various devious ways of getting in there but in the end just asked the owners and they said yes.
Now this was my first solo experience with very expensive hi-fi and excited would be an understatement for the way I felt. I was free that evening, it was one of those endlessly light Summer evenings when the temperature never dropped below very hot. I went down there with the key, sorted out the controls, put on the first LP and sat back across the room on an indulgently comfortable sofa ignoring the sauna conditions soon generated by having to keep the windows closed. Now for me there is only one volume for Italian opera and that is as loud as you can make it. The stereo system didn’t disappoint and the little wooden shed truly rocked.
The role of La Gioconda was taken by the great Italian soprano Renata Tebaldi, nearing the end of her career as the possessor of the best lyric soprano voice of her generation. For her twilight career, she decided to let rip and in this recording threw caution to the wind and gave it her considerable best plus a whole lot more. The other stars met her on her own level and fulfilled the promise of this opera where all the main characters are totally out of control and often hysterical through the extremes of passionate love. This was, in my opinion, what love was meant to be like. The opera performance that evening will always play in my memory as one of the most exciting moments of my life – sad though that might seem to you.
The evening turned to night and the last note faded leaving me silent, overwhelmed and thrilled. I savoured the moment for as long as I could but then there was a knock on the door.
Yes, you may have guessed, what had been the right volume to my ears, had been received as an outrageous onslaught on the tranquil sensibilities of Alfriston’s villagers. Apparently there had been telephone calls from irate people way down the High Street but the owners of the restaurant, bless them, didn’t tell me about it until the music ended.
I couldn’t repeat the experience, of course, as I wasn’t interested in playing the music pianissimo but I didn’t regret it or, in my youthful arrogance, express any remorse. There could never be a more exciting way to experience the all-or-nothing glories of Ponchielli’s opera. It still had that power when I played the recording again, decades later, as part of my nerdy musical project.
If you dare, play this clip from the recording as loud as you can and, hopefully you will see what I mean when the two main females, Renata Tebaldi and Marilyn Horne sing ferociously in a vocal competition to see who loved the poor tenor hero , Enzo, the most. Horne, as Laura, sings “I love him as the very breath of life!” but Gioconda counters with “I love him like the lion loves when it’s drawn to blood, the wind to flight, the lightning to the summit…and the eagle to the sun!” These women are not to be messed with, either of them.
This is the music I still hear when I walk down that quaintly beautiful Sussex village high street: