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April 2021 - Anne Colley

Updated: Apr 27, 2021

Meditation de Thais. - Massenet

My parents were professional musicians, playing piano/harp, violin/viola/percussion, until war broke out in 1939. At that time, my father was travelling with an orchestra on the transatlantic liners. They had to adapt quickly, so my father began working for British Rail.

Throughout the war, my parents, my younger brother and I, lived in a small terraced house on the hillside in Clifton Wood, high above Bristol docks. Although there was great deprivation of food, clothing, transport and no labour-saving devices, we had the luxury of music. Fortunately, we survived the many bombing raids and my mother began teaching me to play the piano. At the age of 12, we moved to a council house in Oldbury Court – worth noting because the house had the luxury of a bathroom and there was just room for the piano and harp. At times, I would play duets with one of my parents and have chosen this piece to remind me of those precious musical sessions. The violinist in this sensitive arrangement with orchestra is Maxim Vengerov.

Vissi d’arte (Tosca) - Puccini (Sung by Maria Callas at La Scala Milan)

Before leaving school and when playing piano alone, I would often sing the violin part of the duet and try to extend my higher range, hoping to emulate Yma Sumac, the Peruvian coloratura soprano who was popular at this time, due to her extreme vocal range. This is when I ‘found my singing voice’ and began to have lessons. My singing teacher had studied with a teacher of Caruso and introduced me to the Italian style of singing and a selection of arias for coloratura soprano voice including Care Nome (Verdi’s Rigoletto), Ave Maria (Bach-Gounod) and Vissi d’arte from Puccini’s Tosca. Following school, while attending the local Church youth club, we would produce an evening of entertainment once a year. At one such event, I sang the latter, so have chosen this as a memory of when I could sing those high notes with ease, sung exquisitely here by Maria Callas.

Because You’re Mine - Mario Lanza

In those teenage years, young people met at dances. Traditional Jazz was popular, in particular Humphrey Littleton and Chris Barber’s bands and regular dances in Church halls. Then rock’n’roll swept the country and in 1956, Elvis Presley made his UK chart debut with “Heartbreak Hotel” Dancing was a great outlet for emotions at a time when we were so sheltered and naïve. I continued to dance for pleasure: jive, ballroom, square-dancing, line-dancing and finally many years of Le Roc (with Jack and daughter Claire). Musical films introduced me to the amazing tenor voice of Mario Lanza (born Alfredo Arnold Cocozza). A famous role was of his idol, the tenor Enrico Caruso (also mentioned by Gordon). His final hit song was ‘Because You’re Mine’ which I have chosen here to show his vocal range. Lanza sadly died at aged 38, having suffered from many addictions which seriously affected his relationships and health.

Poor Wandering One (The Pirates of Penzance) - Gilbert & Sullivan (Sung by Elsie Griffin)

The celebrity in our family was my father’s cousin, Elsie Griffin, who rose from being one of Fry’s Angels at the chocolate factory to becoming principal soprano for D’Oyly Carte Opera Co and Carl Rosa. Elsie was born in Bristol in 1895. At 13, she sang solo with a Temperance Choir of 500 voice at the Colston Hall. I discovered more about her when researching my family history and talking to her daughter.

At the start of WWI, Fred Weatherly – barrister and lyricist living in Portishead, presented her with his two new songs: ‘O Danny Boy’ (to the traditional tune of “Londonderry Air”) and ‘Roses of Picardy’ (music by Haydn Wood), which she popularised when singing to our troops in France. In 2011, Fry’s Chocolate Factory in Keynsham was to close, so organised an exhibition, to which I contributed Elsie’s story and a CD of her singing ‘Poor Wandering One’ for which she had won gramophone soloist of the year in 1929. Due to the subsequent interest, I campaigned for a Blue Plaque in her memory, which was erected on her old school of St Michael on the Mount Without, off St Michael’s Hill in Bristol in February 2012. The school children sang ‘O Danny Boy’. Unfortunately, there is no recording of Elsie singing these songs.

Lacrimosa (Requiem in D minor) - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

From 1965, family life with two children was spent in Winterbourne. During that time, Sylvia Walton, head of music at The Ridings High School, formed a small choir of new parents ‘The Ridings Singers’ – we sang together for around 35 years when I sang soprano. Sylvia also sang with the Bristol Chamber Choir and invited me to join in 1986, of which I am immensely proud. Sadly, Sylvia died a few years ago.

My 35 years with BCC have been full of wonderful music. There have been several Musical Directors, each of whom introduced us to a variety of styles and composers. It has been fun to travel and sing in many beautiful churches in this country and further afield, especially in Denmark, Ireland and Suffolk last year with Gordon. During this time, Jack and I were married and were pleased to be joined by both The Ridings Singers and Bristol Chamber Choir, who sang on this special day. Jack has already selected a song from this day, in his D I Ds contribution.

I began with the turmoil of a War and am ending during the trauma of a Pandemic, which has hit the country and curtailed our choir rehearsals. We felt a huge loss. What to do ? Fortunately, there were 5 of us choir members living locally and another not far away who, with much enthusiasm, became the ‘Frenchay Six’ and sang madrigals in a glade of the old Frenchay Hospital grounds, accompanied by bird-song and builders’ work. During the winter, we sang Tudor anthems and other music. Finally, leading up to a very bleak Christmas, we sang Carols for audience participation, in four local streets. We are eager to continue again in April after lockdown. My last choice of music, as a tribute to the joy of choral-singing, must be by the great Mozart – he knew what it was to experience life interrupted, he died before completing this work at the age of only 35. This Requiem was a live recording in 2017, from the stunning Basilica of St Denis, France.

Desert Island Discs is a radio show first broadcast first broadcast on the BBC Forces Programme on 29 January 1942. It's now broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and hosted by Lauren Laverne. You can find more information here.

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