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REVIEW: A Song Begins by Mary Burchell

Dear Readers,

n148656At last to the final book which Sunita loaned to me. Of all the books mentioned in the “Safe Passage” posts, I think this one garnered the most votes and fond recollections. After reading it, I can see why. The impact is that strong. For those who’ve not read it yet, I suggest that you proceed with caution in reading this review as the whole thing will be sort of spoilerish. I already knew the outcome of the book before I started and can only imagine how much more of a shock and delight the ending would have been if it had hit me broadside.

Anthea Benton is taken aback when her voice teacher informs her that Anthea is ready to move beyond anything Miss Sharon can teach her. But money is tight in the Benton household and the cost of Anthea moving to London and affording the kind of lessons which she needs to realize her gift of a voice is prohibitive.

So when her younger brother shows her a newspaper advert for a local contest with a  £500 first prize (and remember this book was first published in 1965 when this was a shit load of money), Anthea realizes this could be the answer to her prayers. As she listens to the other contestants, she’s confident that even her fairly untrained voice is the best there.

And she would have won the contest if not for the odious Oscar Warrender. A last minute coup of a judge on the part of the contest supporters, the world class opera conductor is obviously the one who persuaded the other judges to award the prize to another person. Crushed, Anthea doesn’t hold back her disappointment and is only a little embarrassed that the great man himself overheard her view of him.

So when a letter arrives shortly afterwards announcing that Warrender wants her to appear in London to audition to be his student, Anthea is shocked. But not too shocked to realize that this is her big chance. As he tells her after she sings for him, she is to put herself totally in his hands, listen to what he tells her to do then, by God, DO IT.

It will be hard. It will be long. She will need every ounce of strength and intelligence she possesses to withstand the training and hard work to become an opera singer and not merely someone who can sing. If she is a good girl, and does what she’s told, and doesn’t do what she’s told not to do, then maybe, just maybe she will become a star. But will Anthea be able to keep from strangling Warrender on her way to a Covent Garden debut? And what else will she discover along the way?

This isn’t just a book about a young woman finding love. Lots of people can write those and write them well. Rather, it’s a book about a young woman finding herself and reaching for the operatic stars – and finding love along the way. As Warrender warns her, the road is rocky and strewn with boulders and obstacles. She has the voice, Warrender also tells her, somewhat grudgingly, but is she disciplined enough to make of it what can be made? Or will she be seduced by easy praise and flattering users who will casually allow her to ruin her voice as so many others have done?

Early on, Anthea hears something a famous soprano said of Warrender (to paraphrase): that sometimes she could cheerfully kill Oscar and then she’d be the chief mourner at his funeral. And that he can make anyone sing better than they think they ever could. Anthea learns these lessons herself and we watch her do battle with her temper after some cutting remark Oscar makes or some casually dismissive statement he utters. His praise is faint and rarely heard, his anger at a mistake is great and Anthea finds him a demanding bastard. Yet, she also admits that there is something about him that inspires greatness from his singers and she knows she’s damn lucky he’s taking the time to work with her.

Still she can’t help but get angry at him when he easily brushes aside the friendship Anthea shares with a young man from home. And when he throws down the gauntlet and makes her choose between singing and family, she almost breaks. It’s here that he utters the famous lines Barb Ferrar posted earlier -

“I’m sorry about your mother”-’he did not sound in the least sorry-’”but I presume the estimable Neil Prentiss has everything in hand, as you say. They must manage without you.”

“They can’t!”

“They must!” he shouted at her suddenly. “Great heavens, do you suppose we’ve worked to this point in order to let everything go? Don’t you understand even now what it means to be a professional artist? The performance comes first, last and all the time. Understand that now and for the whole of your future. Your entire family can be ill, your husband can have left you for another woman, your house can be on fire, but if you can get on the stage and do a great performance, YOU GO! Is that clear?”

At this point in the book, I was almost ready to bust Oscar myself. The nerve of the man! Her mother is ill and he’s demanding she make a choice. Only, as the story goes on, we find out…well, I won’t say but we see that Oscar isn’t a total shit without family feelings.

There’s another part of the book which also struck me. It’s said by Anthea’s London voice coach:

“I’m afraid he is probably a pretty hard taskmaster,” the other woman admitted. “But one day you will be glad of that, Anthea. This is almost the hardest life there is, if one does it properly, and perhaps someone has to be hard with us in the very beginning. Kind words and easy applause can come later. Not at the beginning.”

“I suppose you’re right.” Anthea sighed. “But he’s pretty beastly sometimes for no reason at all.”

“Possibly. All great artists live on their nerves, and seldom suffer fools gladly,” replied Enid Mountjoy bracingly. “The general public glibly refers to this as being temperamental. If you have the temperament to put on a great performance, it’s asking too much of you that you should go home afterwards and cook the lamb chops with your own little hands. Or, in the case of a man, make yourself tamely agreeable to all and sundry.”

And this is just so true of so many opera singers. We the general audience just get to sit there and listen but they are ruled by their voices and any little thing that could affect that with which they make their living. And Mary Burchell, aka Ida Cook, had known enough singers to have seen this. All these parts of the story are so convincing because she had watched singers burn out early and destroy what made them so briefly famous. As well, she had known the singers who were disciplined enough to take their time and slowly bring along their voices, thus allowing for a long career.

I doubt that many other authors could convey this lifestyle – both the singing and the conducting – as well as Burchell. She knew the singers and, in the person of Clemens Krauss – watch for his name in the book – she knew conductors. She also knew her opera and, as portrayed by Anthea’s fellow students, Burchell had experienced camping out for tickets to Covent Garden performances and the thrill of listening to a new voice. As Anthea knows she’s in the hands of a master conductor, I read this book knowing that Burchell was telling it like it was, and in some regards, probably still is.

This isn’t an easy road to romance book. You will have to be content with knowing that the payoff will be spectacular but also long in coming. Also, Oscar will come off as a total ass several times. However Anthea does stand up to him or realizes that what he’s ordering is best for her voice. Those who don’t want to wait that long will be best advised to skip this one. But those who want to see the hard work that goes into a truly fine operatic performance and are willing to sit tight for the “I love yous” are in for a treat. B+

~Jayne

This book can be purchased at Amazon or other UBS stores. It is not being reprinted currently.

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

13 Comments

  1. Kalen Hughes
    Aug 13, 2009 @ 16:05:35

    “Possibly. All great artists live on their nerves, and seldom suffer fools gladly,” replied Enid Mountjoy bracingly. “The general public glibly refers to this as being temperamental. If you have the temperament to put on a great performance, it's asking too much of you that you should go home afterwards and cook the lamb chops with your own little hands. Or, in the case of a man, make yourself tamely agreeable to all and sundry.”

    This is complete crap IMO. Artists, be the singers, painters, writers, sculptors, dancers, what-have-you, have no more excuse to behave badly than anyone else who works a hard or stressful job (doctors, lawyers, teachers, pilots, etc.). They behave badly because they're so often allowed to get away with it; encouraged even, as it is proof of their “artistic temperament”.

  2. Jayne
    Aug 13, 2009 @ 16:13:02

    Careful, Kalen, don’t burn your bridges. Now if you ever show your ass in public, you won’t be able to count on “artistic license” as your excuse. ;)

  3. JayP
    Aug 13, 2009 @ 16:37:43

    Thanks for the reminder of this book. I read it way back when – probably in the mid 70′s. Your review really matches my overall impression of my (less than perfect) memories from it. I can recall being annoyed by Oscar but still struck by Anthea’s journey into a very challenging career.

    It seems to me there was another Burchell book that I also read with some of the same characters. Might have to look them up for a reread.

    Jane

  4. Bronwyn
    Aug 13, 2009 @ 17:20:07

    A Song Begins is the first in a series of books that Burchell set in the world of opera with familiar characters reappearing. In The Broken Wing, although technically a secondary character, Oscar is characteristically dominant in the story. There is one scene in particular where he is as true a romantic hero as you could ask for.

    edited to say that I checked and there are 13 titles in The Warrender Saga

  5. Sunita
    Aug 13, 2009 @ 17:30:56

    Awww.

    Another lovely review, Jayne. I went back and read this again after reading Safe Passage, and knowing the backstory added another layer to it. I agree with JayP/Jane that you’ve really captured the essence of both the book overall and the relationship in it.

    Burchell had a talent for writing down-to-earth, well-adjusted heroines who were still interesting. She was also able to take the alpha hero and show how the alphaness was connected to other characteristics, not just an ad hoc personality trait. And over the years, as I’ve aged and reread the books from a different perspective, I really appreciate that she could make Warrender (and other heroes) show flashes of humanity coexisting with fairly unattractive traits. Warrender can act generously at times, but that act in no way negates the other aspects she’s shown us.

  6. Stevie
    Aug 14, 2009 @ 04:13:30

    1965!

    If I could make the text bigger I would do so, but in default of that I will say it again:

    1965!

    and the hell with cooking the lamb chops!

    Mary Burchill was making history…

  7. Jayne
    Aug 14, 2009 @ 05:53:04

    She was also able to take the alpha hero and show how the alphaness was connected to other characteristics, not just an ad hoc personality trait. And over the years, as I've aged and reread the books from a different perspective, I really appreciate that she could make Warrender (and other heroes) show flashes of humanity coexisting with fairly unattractive traits. Warrender can act generously at times, but that act in no way negates the other aspects she's shown us.

    One scene that has stuck with me is Anthea’s opening night when Oscar injures himself between scenes but still gets back in front of the orchestra and conducts through the end of the opera. He isn’t just demanding of Anthea and the other singers, but also of himself.

  8. Kalen Hughes
    Aug 14, 2009 @ 08:27:39

    Careful, Kalen, don't burn your bridges. Now if you ever show your ass in public, you won't be able to count on “artistic license” as your excuse. ;)

    Nor should I . . . my grandmother nipped that in the bud when I was a small fry.

  9. Miranda Neville
    Aug 14, 2009 @ 12:40:50

    Talk about weird. I hadn’t thought of Mary Burchell in years until last week when I brought her up in a blog comment about tenor heroes. And now this. I loved Burchell’s books way back in the days when i scoured the Mills & Boon section of London’s used book stores. Thank you so much for reminding me of them. I don’t know if I read all 13 back then. I feel a glom coming….

  10. Misti
    Aug 14, 2009 @ 13:34:38

    I’ve never read this book, so I can’t comment on it but I love the cover. A few years back I ran across a couple of books published in the 60′s with those types of covers and I bought them. I only kept one (not my style) but I’ve always loved they way they look. I just think they are classic, for some reason. LOL – Call me crazy, but I love the covers on 60′s and 70′s gothics too.

  11. K. Z. Snow
    Aug 14, 2009 @ 14:09:39

    I’m still trying to figure out how one replies “bracingly.” Good thing my dog is out in the pen, or he’d be frightened by the different voices coming out of my mouth.

  12. Camilla
    Aug 14, 2009 @ 14:12:49

    I found this book after getting hooked on Burchell by your earlier reviews…I read it all the way through, and then read it again. I love Oscar Warrender!!!! I also like that Anthea manages to go along with him without being a doormat, and it makes sense in the story – his perfectionism makes him a beast but it also makes him the perfect person to really train her voice and make her dreams come true, but she also does not let him get away with anything. My favorite line is at the very end, when he tells her to remember he loves her, even when he is tough on her, and she responds that he should remember that she loves him too, even when she gives him temperment………………

  13. Doreen
    Aug 15, 2009 @ 16:11:17

    Thanks for the recommendation. I was an opera singer and I teach singing. I mostly conduct these days. I’m very interested in this book. I’m usually disappointed, but it sounds like I won’t be with this book.

    Doreen

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