An unknown benefactor had sufficient faith in Anthea Benton’s singing voice to pay for her training under the celebrated operatic conductor, Oscar Warrender. She was ecstatic, but her joy was short-lived when she came face to face with the great man. Cold and forbidding, he proved to be a hard taskmaster. She felt her dreams can be coming true… but would she be tough enough to work under such and exacting taskmaster?
A Song Begins is the first in Mary Burchell’s thirteen-book Warrender Saga, which was originally and published between 1965 and 1985. All the novels in the series take place in the high-pressure world of the classical concert hall and opera house circuit; many of the characters are top-flight musicians – singers, pianists, conductors – and it’s very clear, even though I’ve as yet read only this opening entry, that the author really knew her stuff. As someone who worked in the classical music business for a number of years, and as an opera lover, I really appreciated Ms. Burchell’s attention to detail, her knowledge about and obvious love of the music itself and her insight into what it takes to sing those roles and make it in such a fiercely competitive arena.
The story is a fairly simple one. Anthea Benson is an aspiring singer who lives in a small, provincial town, and when the story opens, has been told by her teacher that she has learned everything she can and now needs to go to London to train with someone who can take her further and help her embark upon a professional career. Moving to London and all that it entails requires money Anthea doesn’t have; but when she learns that the local TV company is mounting a talent competition at the Town Hall things start looking up. The winner will receive a cash prize – enough for Anthea to go to London – and she is optimistic about her chances. She’s not conceited but she doesn’t suffer from false modesty, either; she knows she has a great voice but also realises she’s got a lot to learn. That sort of self-awareness and confidence is essential in someone trying to make it as a performer, and Ms. Burchell gets that aspect of her character just about right – it’s one of the things I most liked about Anthea as a heroine.
Anthea makes it to the last four entrants – only to have her hopes dashed by the arrogant, world-renowned conductor, Oscar Warrender, who pretty much forces his fellow judges to choose a different winner. Anthea is furious at his high-handedness and deeply upset; she berates him to a close friend, calling him an arrogant, self-satisfied beast who doesn’t really care about art or music or artists or anything but himself.
A few days later, however, Anthea is stunned when her teacher receives a letter from Oscar Warrender informing her that he has been asked to undertake Anthea’s training by someone who heard and was impressed by her at the competition. Anthea can’t believe it – Warrender is widely accounted a musical genius and she can’t help but wonder what could have induced him to want to take her on. He’s also odious, but ultimately, there’s no denying he knows what he’s doing and that studying with him will provide the best possible start to Anthea’s career.
Apprehensive and excited, Anthea travels to London and to her appointment with the great man. Here, he tells her that he had deliberately prevented her winning the competition because if she had, she’d have found herself in the spotlight for a few years during which she’d ruin her voice and that he had determined to prevent it. Naturally, Anthea fumes at his assumption that she would have taken that path even as she is focusing on his description of her as having a splendid lyric [soprano] voice.
This scene more or less sets the tone for their interactions throughout the book. Warrender is overbearing and brutally honest, but just avoids being an alpha-hole because there’s the sense that he’s asking nothing of Anthea that he hasn’t done or wouldn’t ask of himself. In the style of many an older romance, this is very much the heroine’s story; she’s our narrator and we never get the hero’s PoV, yet Mary Burchell is able to define Warrender so well by his words and actions; she conveys his passion for music and for his craft through the intensity of his manner, and very skilfully shows the truth of his feelings for Anthea in the things he says and does that she doesn’t quite notice or interpret correctly. He’s an odd mix of Simon Cowell and Svengali (!) – although he reminds me most of Boris Lermontov, the character played by Anton Walbrook in the film The Red Shoes. The heroine in that was a ballerina rather than an opera singer of course, but many of the dictats issued by Oscar Warrender reminded me of Lermontov; there’s a scene in which he drags Anthea away from a late night out, admonishing her that “… a singer’s life is a strict and dedicated one. Late hours and nightclubs are not for you and the sooner you learn that fact the better.“ But he also – on occasion – shows a surprising tenderness and concern, heaping yet more confusion upon Anthea, who finds attraction creeping up on her; his strong hands fascinate her, his touch sets her pulse a-flutter… and his completely unexpected kisses are utterly bewildering.
It would have been easy to have depicted Anthea as a bit of a doormat, cowering at the great man’s words and suffering for her art, but she is nothing of the sort. It’s true that she does mostly end up going along with Warrender’s ‘instructions’, but she does it out of a recognition that no matter that he’s being high-handed, everything he does is because he wants to nurture her talent and develop her as an artist – which is what Anthea wants most in the world. She questions him and challenges him and makes clear what she thinks of him – but he also inspires and enthuses her in a way no-one ever has, and his imperious manner only makes her all the more determined to prove herself.
Yet this is more than a romance between master and pupil. In a truly lovely moment near the end, the author fully brings home Anthea and Warrender’s ‘rightness’ for one another in a wonderful moment of emotional bonding and mutual need; and the final scene clearly shows readers that this is a couple whose relationship is built on very strong foundations.
I could say so much more about the workings of this story – as I said at the outset, I’ve experienced the world of classical music and musicians first-hand – and while this book was written some thirty years before I entered that world, so much of it felt familiar. I’ve sometimes been a little wary of reading romances featuring music and musicians – in some books I’ve read, the authors just haven’t known how to go about it properly – but that isn’t the case here because Ms. Burchell’s love for and opera and understanding of what it means to be an artist shines through on every page.
I enjoyed A Song Begins very much, in spite of some niggles over the hero’s behaviour – which was probably not unusual for romances written in the 1960s. At least he’s an alpha because he’s hugely talented, highly competent and well respected, and not because he’s handsome (which he is), built like a male model and has slept his way through half of Europe! And as I said earlier, I never doubted his feelings for Anthea and by the end, their relationship has definitely evened up somewhat. I’m certainly looking forward to reading more books in the series.
As an aside, I did a Google search to find out a bit more about Mary Burchell (a pen name for Ida Cook) and discovered many interesting things about her life, not least of which was how the great love of opera she shared with her sister led to both ladies being among the most effective British transporters of Jews out of Germany between 1937 and the outbreak of war. (Source: The Daily Telegraph, July 2007 – Rescue Mission by Louise Carpenter.)