‘I have a song to sing, O!’

The Gondoliers

It may come as a surprise to recent graduates of the Scots College in Rome to learn that Francis Walsh (1901-1974), late bishop of Aberdeen is credited with introducing the Savoy Operas to the college when he was a student there in the 1920ies.   Such was the enthusiasm for the Savoy Operas that there was a time when you would be forgiven for thinking that the rector and vice-rector of the Scots College were Gilbert and Sullivan. The seven hills of Rome were alive with the sound of their music.

Frank Kelly and I arrived in Rome in October 1948 to take up the study of philosophy and were immediately plunged into a seven day silent retreat conducted by the Rev Joseph Boland SJ who, at that time, although a Scot, was the English consulter to the General of the Jesuits. The Jeruits always knew where to look for sound advice. He took us on a guided tour of the Discernment of Spirits from the Exercises of St Ignatius.   We sat through it all in open-mouthed wonderment, quite transfixed. There was more to come. By a strange irony he also conducted the last retreat I attended as a student in Rome some six years later. He still seemed to be experiencing some difficulty with the discernment of spirits and I felt I had let him down by not catching up during the intervening years.

On the completion of this retreat, Frank and I were auditioned by Joe Wilkenson who, on the basis of being a post-graduate at the prestigious Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, was in charge of all things musical in the College.   Mind you, he was up against it as the only piano in the place was missing four keys and the soft pedal.  The rector assured him that the notes concerned were not among the most important and, anyway, who needed a soft pedal in a seminary.   On the basis of this audition, which lasted all of five minutes and consisted in giving a rendition of Tantum Ergo, we were both enrolled in the chorus line of the Mikado as Gentlemen of Japan.

I Musici di Roma
Jimmy Quinn, Paddy Gilbride & Joe Wilkenson

The producer was one James Quinn, also a post-graduate, who was steeped in the philosophy of Thomas Reid (1710-1796), the Scottish Philosopher of Common Sense and, on this basis, he took an instant dislike to both Frank and myself.  We never again appeared on the stage of any of his productions. Frank couldn’t believe his good luck. However, it’s an ill wind.   I was snapped up by the stage committee and assigned to the props department.   It fell to me and Tom Hanlon who came from Slamannan and seemed to know his way about, to guarantee that such props and canvasses as were required would be to hand even at very short notice and at no cost with no questions asked.

It is no secret that the canvas Tom used for the scenery had begun life as a massive banner suspended over the Loggia at the front of St Peter’s Basilica on the occasion of the beatification of Blessed John Ogilvie in 1929. It evidently depicted a graphic scene from the martyrdom of the Beatus and the stage committee had already got ten operettas out of it. In later years I have developed something of a conscience about this episode, but am reassured by the old hands that this was common practice.   Even then I knew that a majority vote was not a strong moral argument in favour of such an action.   Anyway, Hanlon was a senior accomplice and this carried a lot of clout in the seminaries of that time.

It would be indiscreet of me to name names when it comes to the students who rose above the chorus line as many of them did and then went on to hold high office in the church in Scotland. Among them were at least two future archbishops. One, whose rendering of ‘The sun, whose rays are all ablaze’ (Yum-Yum: Mikado) brought tears to the eyes of even the most hard-bitten Roman audiences.   The other was more of a tragedian.   His interpretation of Julius Caesar is still talked about in well-informed circles. Less inspiring was a future auxiliary bishop’s rendition of ‘I’m called little Buttercup’ (HMS Pinafore). Some chance!

The Pirates of Penzance

Further down the line there were the choristers.The attached photographs are more entertaining than the sound they made at the time.   The college stage was about two metres square so there was little scope for elaborate choreography. At one performance of The Gondoliers before a capacity audience, the Cachucha got out of control and had to be abandoned halfway through for fear they would go through the floor and take some of the audience with them. Scattered across Scotland today are canons and monsignors and a Protonotary Apostolic who began their rise to prominence in the church as Gondoliers, Yeomen of the Guard or Gentlemen of Japan. Others again masqueraded as ‘sisters, cousins and aunts’ and little has been heard of them since.

Words fail me to describe the versatility of our accompanists over the decades.   Frank Duffy, one of the earliest, brought to the score a talent for improvisation quite unprecedented.   This gift allowed him to interpret the expression on the soloist’s face and change keys as much as an octave up or down and invariably at short notice.   More often it was the expression on the faces of the audience that brought the best out in him. All of this was, of course, accomplished on Joe Wilkinson’s clapped-out piano mentioned earlier.

Three Little Maids from School

I have restricted these random thoughts to the musical side of college life and, indeed, to the secular musical side. Much more is to be said of Liturgical music the world of plainsong and polyphony.  The few students who had eventually mastered round notes on five lines were now faced with square ones on four lines. The square ones refused to abandon their Latin names and obeyed key signatures that defied interpretation. Nonetheless, the same members of the community who rose to the heights in the operettas surfaced again in the world of Solesmes Chant and baroque polyphony. Grace clearly builds on nature.

There is much more to be said about our world of drama and, in particular, of our ventures into the iambic world of William Shakespeare which coincided with the approach of Lent each year. I already mentioned that I was relegated to the Green Room early on. However, I was once pressed into taking my place among the cast in a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. You would need to know your Shakespeare very well to unearth my contribution. I had one entrance and a one-liner that brought the audience to their feet.   (Curious readers are welcome to take a look at Julius Caesar Act 5 scene 4 and draw their own conclusions).

The name of Bishop Francis Walsh stands at the head of this light-hearted reflection on the musical life of the Scots College in Rome.   Quite frankly, I am no longer surprised that it fell to him to pioneer this side of college life.   Music was only one of his many gifts and, like his many other talents, was put at the service of others.  The Savoy Operas generated a companionship that had little if anything to do with the formal academic training of candidates for the priesthood but had everything to do with the companionship and solidarity that would, in time, mean so much to those who, under God’s providence, were called to build up the community of faith often in difficult situations. Those of us who benefited from this experience owe him a great debt of gratitude.

A heavy cross was laid on the bishop’s shoulders in later life.  He was misunderstood and gradually felt himself estranged even from many of his own clergy who never questioned his integrity as a deeply spiritual priest. Many however did not share his unwavering loyalty to the causes he espoused.  There was no room for compromise in his life. His vocation as a White Father had already marked him out as ‘a fugitive and a wanderer’ and, in a sense, this is how he spent his final years.  Bishop Francis Walsh did indeed have a song to sing.

Bishop Francis Walsh
1901 – 1973