Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Noel Mewton-Wood: Brilliant, Tragic, Genius

This is the second mention on Front Free Endpaper for the tragic story of Noel Mewton-Wood (1922-1953), a lost musical genius. A couple of years ago I found a scan of an obituary and noticed the understated reference to his lover between its lines. I am very grateful to a Swedish reader of the blog, Rickard, for recently pointing me to a 3CD anthology of "The Legendary Recordings" of Mewton-Wood not only for the music, which is stunning, but also for the very informative essay in the accompanying booklet. The opening paragraph gives some idea of the kind of person he was by telling us of his "protean grasp of things musical and beyond - he knew Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire almost by heart, could recite large stretches of the unexpurgated Arabian Nights from memory, had learned a great deal about medicine and atomic physics, and was a expert tennis and chess player. He designed and carpentered model theatres, was a fine driver of fast cars and, according to musician, broadcaster and good friend John Amis, 'was the only pianist I ever met who could (and did) whip out a broken piano string and put in a new one on the spot'" And all this on top of being possibly the best concert pianist of his age. 

He was Australian and spent the first 14 years of his life in Australia where his talent was noticed early on as attested by the photos and concert poster at the bottom of this post. So in the mid-1930s he was whisked away from home and taken all the way around the world to Britain where he was enrolled to study at the Royal College of Music in London. A stellar career as a concert pianist ensued but the essay by Cyrus Meher-Homji hints at darker emotions beneath the ostensibly brilliant and successful facade. "Along with that encompassing joie de vivre was a darker side- self-doubt and frustrations when certain situations did not advance with the speed he would have wanted them to. It simmered beneath that Dionysian exterior and was eventually to triumph." At the age of just 24 Noel met a young man called William ('Bill') Fredericks who worked for the British Council and they became lovers, and set up home together at Hammersmith Terrace in London, next to the river. In 1953 Bill died from complications following a ruptured appendix. Bill was known as something of a hypochondriac and so for the first little while Noel hadn't taken his complaints seriously and this seems to have given his morbid side something to latch onto to lay the blame for Bill's death on himself. Possibly already in a period of depression about professional matters Bill's death caused a serious plunge in Noel's emotional stability and despite the best efforts of friends to keep him under observation in the winter of 1953 he drank a cocktail of gin and cyanide in a suicide premeditated by at the least the weeks since he had secretly acquired the lethal chemical. 

Imogen Holst, assistant to Benjamin Britten, recorded the great composer's reaction to the news of Noel's death, "grey and worried, and talked of the terrifyingly small gap between madness and non-madness." Britten wondered aloud why it was that so many of the people he liked the best found living life so difficult.

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