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A Personal Tribute to Peter Gellhorn from his Old Chorister and
Friend, Janet Baker
The rise of Nazi Germany during the 1930s had an unexpected side effect on the life of this country. We received a gift in the form of people: talented people. They were like a shot in the arm and brought with them an extra-ordinary wealth of mind and spirit. I was lucky enough to know quite a number of them, one of the most influential, in terms of the impact he made on me as a young musician, was Peter, in his capacity as master of the Glyndebourne Chorus.
To walk into the chorus rehearsal room in 1956 was unforgettable. My colleagues then as now, were all very much up and coming performers convinced that the world was their oyster and that fame and fortune beckoned.
Peter was good to us: we were chosen and special in a way, but he was very anxious to make us aware of our great luck in being there at all and also of the huge privilege and responsibility that membership of the Glyndebourne Chorus carried with it. He impressed on us that the chance to watch, listen and learn from both the music staff and distinguished colleagues around us was an unparalleled opportunity which we should grasp with enthusiasm.
He taught us the value of discipline. To be on time: rehearsal time is expensive and being late was an inexcusable and unforgivable sin.
To learn our work: t o study our choruses and our lines. I was given a small understudy role in a Rossini opera which involved fast passages of music and a lot of words. Some bright spark informed me that we were very rarely if ever called to the stage and advised me not to waste my time learning it: I decided to obey my chorus master and ignored him. Peter used to say that to learn our understudies was not only useful but was also a matter of personal integrity since we were being paid a small sum for doing so.
Sure enough, some time later, I was called out of the chorus rehearsal room and told to report on stage: one of the Italian singers was unwell and I was required to do the last half-hour or so of the morning rehearsal before the lunch break. It just so happened that they had reached the first-act finale, a very fast and wordy ensemble which had taken me hours of sweat to learn: I found myself on stage with the principals and expected to fit in at a moment’s notice. If the lesson Peter had taught us hadn’t been taken seriously, I would have been left with a large amount of egg in my face.
He taught us respect for the music: to regard the notes on the page as sacrosanct. He showed us the amount of work necessary to achieve international standards. He told us time and again to put passion into our singing. So often down the succeeding years I’ve heard his voice urging us to “sing with a will”: I strived all my working life to do just that.
He was proud of us and sometimes used to tell us so. To be exposed to quality is great good fortune and we always remember those who inspire us especially when we’re young. Peter was a great chorus master and a great influence.
In recent years the phone would ring on my birthday and I would hear Peter’s voice at the end of the line, sounding just as always: he would greet me affectionately. It was good to have those calls. One of the sad aspects of loss is the store of memories our friends take with them. My recollections of Peter and our Glyndebourne days are not necessarily like his: everybody sees the same situation slightly differently. We need shared memories to get a clearer picture of our lives.
Those who help us, teach us, encourage us and give us confidence remain special: The contribution Peter made to my own development as a musician is something I’ve cherished and never ceased to be grateful for: It means such a lot to me to have this opportunity to acknowledge my debt to him and to say ‘thank you’ before his family and friends this afternoon.
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