A FEW MUSICAL NOTES BY PERCY KAHN
A Famous Accompanist Talks' About the Celebrities With Whom He Has Lived and Worked
By HERMON GILL - Accompanied by
"WHEN I was bound apprentice in famous
Lincolnshire . . ."
Writing about a musician, one is entitled
to open with a theme song, and the one that springs to my lips in thinking of Percy Kahn - who is renewing his acquaintance with Australia as Richard Tauber's pianist - is "The Lincolnshire Poacher." Not that Percy Kahn is a poacher, but it was while he was serving his apprenticeship to music in Cleethorpes, the Lincolnshire seaside resort, that he met Sandow, the strong man, and thereby hangs one of his many tales.
"Look at this," he said to me the other day in his hotel bedroom in Melbourne - a room which was shared with him by a piano - "here's a Melbourne man writing to ask, 'Are you the Percy Kahn, the boy soprano, I heard singing Tosti's "Good-bye" and "Cherry Ripe" some years ago?" Percy Kahn rubbed the wide parting on the top of his head reflectively and said. "The Melbourne man is right. I burst forth as 'Percy Kahn, the famous boy soprano,' at the age of 10, and I was reminded of the Cleethorpes episode the other day when Tauber and I watched a private screening of the new Australian film 'The Broken Melody.'
"Van Biene, the actor-'cellist, wrote the song 'The Broken Melody,' a few bars of which are introduced in this film, and it was when I was appearing in his theatre at Cleethorpes that I met Sandow. I was l8 years of age then, but still singing as a male soprano, and Sandow was im- pressed with my Tosti's 'Good-bye' and asked me if I would teach him to sing. I took the job on. He was very impressionable, and my singing of Tosti's 'Goodbye' melted his soft heart. 'See,' he said to me, wiping his eyes, 'see! You are the first man that bring the strong man to tears.' He was born in Königsberg. A nice, simple soul, and very fond of music. I taught him to sing Schubert and Schumann, in whose songs he delighted.
"Did you see the film 'The Great Zieg- feld'? Ah, you should have done. It's a fine picture. Ziegfeld's four-in-hand coach figures in it, and I know that coach. You see, Sandow and I got on so well together that he persuaded me to go to America with him. At the time I was under contract to Charles Coburn - you know Charles Coburn, of 'Two Lovely Black Eyes' and 'The Man That Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo' - but he released me and I went across the Atlantic with Sandow, and thus met Florenz Ziegfeld, who was Sandow's first manager. And It was while I was over there that I drove through Central Park, New York, with Sandow and Anna Held on the coach.
"Mischa Elman? I was with him for seven years, and an extraordinary bond of sympathy grew up between us. We were like brothers. ' We could play together with the deepest understanding of interpretation without ever his having to say, 'Play this in such and such a way.' Our musical moods were identical. It is the same with Richard Tauber, who has never once told me that he wants such and such an interpretation.
"Ah, there is fire and genius, a sort of savagery, in Mischa's playing. And people used to say of him when he was young, 'Yes, he plays very well for his age.' And that reminds me. It was at that period that Joachim, then quite an old man - when his intonation wasn't quite as good as it used to be - was giving a recital in Berlin, and Mischa went along to hear him. People were thinking how interesting it was, the young genius hearing the older master, and, 'Well?' they asked Mischa when the recital was over. 'Yes,' said Mischa, 'he plays very well for his age.'
"That naturally leads me on to another master, Pachmann. It was in the pre-war St. Petersburg that Pachmann was strolling down the Nevsky Prospekt one morning when he met the Grand Duke Constantine, who was also a pianist. The Grand Duke was effusive. 'Ah!' he said. 'Pachmann, Pachmann. How are you, my dear colleague?' Pachmann drew himself up to his full height - which was not very great. 'And since when,' he asked, 'have I been a Grand Duke?'
"Yes, I was for seven years with Mischa Elman. We played all over Europe and did eight coast-to-coast tours in America together. It was in Calgary, where we played the Mendelssohn Concerto, that one of the music critics got muddled up with the fact that it is in three move- ments. 'Tell me, Mr. Elman,' he asked at the conclusion of the concert, 'what were the names of your first two en-
"AND it was in Detroit that I got a
rap over the knuckles from an indignant member of the audience, Mischa and I were playing the Beethoven Sonata in C minor, in which the piano has as much say as the violin, and often has to pre- dominate. It was after the first move- ment that the indignant one came to our manager, Defoe. 'Look here,' he said, 'you tell that little fellow at the piano not to play so loudly.' Defoe explained the position and the part the piano played in the sonata. 'I don't care about that,' complained the aggrieved. 'I paid to hear Elman play the violin, not that little guy at the piano.'
"Celebrities? Yes, I suppose so. I've been playing in international celebrity concerts now for 25 years. I've played
with Kubelik, Jean Gerardy, Ysaye, Helfetz, Toscha Siedel, Tetrazzini, Kreisler, Scotti, McCormack, Mischa, of course - and then there are those others, those musicians and music-lovers - for in- stance, when I was with Mischa and we used, in our pyjamas and dressing gowns, to practise at the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York, many a time have I seen Pavlova steal into the room and sit silent, curled up in a chair listening; and Rachmaninoff, gloomy and saturnine ...
"AND Caruso. There is that record you
may know of my 'Ave Maria.' Caruso singing and Mischa Elman's obbligato, to my accompaniment. We made that
record five times. The first time there was some whistling noise crept in. The second time - something wrong. The third time it was perfect. Magnificent. I could not contain myself, and jumped from the piano stool as we finished, cry- ing, 'My God! That was wonderful!' and It came out on the record. How Caruso laughed. I can see him now. There was a screen in the room, and he stood against it, knocking his head against it and laughing while the tears ran down his face. He was a great singer
and a fine man.
"There was a time I played for him at Lady de Grey's home in London - the Marchioness of Ripon. Queen Alexandra was there. Caruso was wearing all his decorations - he had dozens from various
countries - ribbons and medals, including the German Red Eagle, which had
been given to him by the Kaiser. Queen Alex- andra was very interested in them, and got him to explain them all to her. When he had done so and had got to the Red Eagle. 'But,' she said, 'how did you get that? For that is a decoration usually reserved for noted generals and so forth.' Caruso agreed. 'But you see, madame, the Kaiser asked me the same question about my decorations as you have done. And when I had answered him he said, "And now I will give you one worth all those others put together," and he pinned the Red Eagle on my breast.' 'He would,' said Queen Alexandra. 'Isn't that just
"Australians? Yes, I have played with many notable Australians. Evelyn Scot- ney, Stella Power, Florence Austral,
Wilma Berkeley, Harold Williams, Fran- ces Alda, Peter Dawson, Lauri Kennedy - and Melba. And I have recently made a record with John Brownlee -'King
"In fact, apart from that I have very close ties with Australia. My first cousin, Esther Kahn, my father's brother's daughter, is a Sydney girl. She is a composer and pianist. And my mother's brother married the sister of Sir Lewis Cohen, who was a number of times Lord Mayor of Adelaide; so that I have many blood relations here. And I might have become an Australian by adoption. I was born in London, and won a scholarship at the Royal College of Music when I was 15 years of age, and studied for four years under Sir Walter Parratt, and studied the 'cello with W. H. Squire. There was a chance that I might have come out as organist at Sydney Cathedral . . . but the fates
"So I have travelled all over the world - with my home in London, where my wife and daughter are now. My wife, who married me after saying . . . but I will tell you what she said. You see, her mother brought her to me first of all for me to teach her singing. She was singing then with one of those hooting contralto voices, and she sang for me 'The Hills of Donegal.' And I imitated her, singing as though I had hot pota- toes in my mouth. And I told her mother all her singing faults. They retired to
talk it over. 'You know,' her mother ' told her, 'I think he might be able to do your voice some good.' She demurred. 'I wouldn't have anything to do with that rude little man,' she said, 'not for a thousand pounds.'
"SHE sings beautifully now. Listeners to the B.B.C. programmes know her voice well as that of Olive Kavann. If people ask her why she married me she says, 'Oh, I thought it would be a good idea to have an accompanist around the place.'
"And now I am out here with Richard Tauber. I have been with him for four years, and consider it an honour to be associated with him. He is, I consider, the greatest musician with whom I have been associated. He is an artist - a great artist. A great musician. All day he composes. He is not only a singer but a fine conductor, with a complete know- ledge of orchestral work. When he broadcasts with an orchestra it is he who conducts as he sings and brings in the various instruments as he wants them. I cannot tell you how happy I am in our
"I am happy, too, to see Australia again. I like Australia. I like Australians. They are among my friends in London. David Low is my near neighbour in Golders Green. But one sad moment I have had since I arrived here, and that was when at George Armstrong's invitation I went out to Coombe Cottage. Everything is the same, except that the garden has grown .. . and Melba is not there."
And that is Percy Kahn, who is himself a great artist and a charming man. And, if you want more than Esther Paterson's drawing to tell you what he looks like, this is what he told me Augustus Yorke said to him, speaking of "Potash and Perlmutter": "By Jove, Percy! What a fine Potash you'd make!"