Anne and Webster asked me to accompany for some of their students at the eisteddfod, which was held during the Easter holidays. In previous years a few of the more flamboyant singing teachers had made a great show of accompanying their students so that attention was often focused on the mannered accompanist rather than the timid contestant. There was also a concern that the adjudicator might be a personal friend of the teacher and therefore favour the students of Madame X rather than Madame Y. In those days there were still several teachers who styled themselves “Madame” this or that!
In 1964 therefore, accompanists were hidden behind a black curtain so that nobody in the audience would be distracted by their idiosyncratic behaviour at the keyboard, and adjudicators would be unable to recognise their dear friend, Madame X, and feel obliged to mark her students up accordingly.
As an anonymous accompanist I played for Selwyn Lotzof, Heather Cox, Margaret Britt, Yvonne Marais and Reeka, whose surname I do not remember, but I may have played for others whose names and faces I have forgotten after forty years.
One student - who shall remain nameless here - was a very attractive young blonde with a beautiful unforced soprano voice. Unfortunately her musical ability did not match her God-given instrument, and she was inclined to make unforeseen musical errors. To my horror she made such an error at the eisteddfod and I had to use all my wits to cover up her mistake as best I could. From behind the curtain I caught her giving me a sour and disapproving glance, as though it had all been my fault that she had skipped out a chunk of the song. I was grateful to be hidden behind the curtain and, needless to say, she did not win that competition!
Webster had presented a programme on the English Service called Great Voices from the beginning of 1963. The broadcasting critic of The Star, Jon Sylvester, criticised the programme, not for the first time, as follows:
“It is not often that I repeat a criticism of a programme. This week, however, in response to a number of complaints, I must again refer to the habit of the once popular tenor Webster Booth in regularly playing one of his own recordings in a programme entitled Great Voices.
If this programme (Saturday, 7.30 pm English) had been entitled Singers of Yesterday this practice would not be so bad.
I was in a room full of people last Saturday evening when his programme was broadcast and everyone was embarrassed when the Booth record was played – a rather indifferent recording of an operatic quartet.
There must be numbers of superior recordings of this famous quartet.”
I was very cross to read this piece and wrote a letter of complaint to the paper, and part of my reply was included in his column the following week:
“WEBSTER BOOTH PRAISED
A Johannesburg reader, who wishes to be known as Pooh Bah, disagrees with my comments on Webster Booth.
‘“I, for one, appreciate hearing Mr Booth’s own beautiful recordings on the air, and I also enjoy hearing this famous singer’s reminiscences of his professional life in Britain.”’
These things are of course a matter of personal opinion, but I know my opinion is shared by many.”
People expected to hear Webster play his own recordings on the radio. A few days after my reply was published I met Webster outside the studio.
“You were Pooh Bah, weren’t you?” he asked.
“How did you know?”
“There isn’t another person in Johannesburg who would take the trouble to stand up for me like that,” he replied.
Shortly after this Webster and Anne went on a tour with the SABC orchestra, and then Anne went to the Cape to assist Margaret Inglis with the production of Tonight at 8.30 by Noel Coward. Anne was to appear in Family Album, one of the one-act plays making up Tonight at 8.30, opposite Michael Drinn. During rehearsals Michael Drinn realised that he was not up to the singing role, so at the last minute, Webster was asked to take over the part of Jasper.
While Anne was in the Cape working with Margaret Inglis, I played for Webster in the studio. When we had free time I cued him for his part in Family Album and we worked through the musical score together. What appeared difficult to Michael Drinn was very easy for Webster. We were highly amused with the lines of one of Jasper’s songs, “only married two short years and three fat sons already”.
While Anne and Webster were touring the Cape with the play, my old school friend, Margaret Masterton (who studied singing with Sylvia Sullivan) and I auditioned for JODS’ production of The Merry Widow, which was to be produced by Anthony Farmer at the Civic Theatre, with the charming English actress Olga Gwynne as the Widow and American Robert Rounseville as Danillo. Myrna Leach and the late Robin Gordon, also students of the Booths, were in the cast from the beginning, while Dudley Holmes joined the production several weeks after rehearsals started.
Dudley came up to the studio each week to practise his songs to my accompaniment and he usually brought the letters Anne had sent to him. Although I had received several letters from Webster, mainly about the teaching arrangements for his return, I felt rather hurt that Anne had not written to me. I mentioned this grievance in passing to other members of the cast.
I received the results of my LTCL paperwork while Anne and Webster were away. I had passed! Webster wrote me a letter of congratulations from their Port Elizabeth hotel, addressing the envelope with my name followed by all the letters I was now entitled to put after it.
Webster had once pointed out that passing a musical diploma did not automatically turn the holder into a performer. He, who was a supreme singer, musician and performer, had no formal professional musical qualifications at all. I was conscientious and keen, but at best would only be an average performer, despite all the academic qualifications in the world.
Ironically Anne and Webster were refused membership of the South African Society of Music Teachers. The rules of the society stipulated that prospective members should either have a musical qualification or a number of years’ teaching experience. At the time of their application they were excluded because they had neither musical diplomas nor teaching experience! Someone in that organisation should have had the foresight to bend the rules. The society would have benefited from their experience of performing in every kind of musical entertainment at a very high level. Surely the most important reason for studying music is to develop performance skills to the highest possible standard.
After Anne and Webster returned from the tour I sensed that Anne’s attitude towards me had changed. She was perfectly polite to me but she no longer treated me as a friend and confidante. A year later Webster told me that one of their students who appeared in The Merry Widow had passed on a distorted version of my thoughtless remark about her not writing to me.
In November Anne and Webster were at the opening night of The Merry Widow and came backstage afterwards to speak to the “four babies”. The following day they left on holiday. While they were away I heard that I had been accepted by the Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal to appear in Verdi's Nabucco the following year. Dudley was also accepted, so we went with Martin Croesser and the late Natie Weinstein, with whom we had become friendly in The Widow, to sign our contracts at the PACT Headquarters at the Queen’s Hall, Johannesburg.
That Christmas, I was surprised and delighted when Anne presented me with an ornate necklace with green and amber stones, while Webster gave me a grey Sheaffer pen with a gold nib and a gold-embossed cover.
Extract from my book "Sweethearts of Song: A Personal Memoir of Anne Ziegler & Webster Booth" Read more about my book at LULU.