Australian Biography

Dame Joan Hammond - full interview transcript

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After the war was over, you got an opportunity to return to Australia for the first time in 10 years. How did you feel when you heard that there was the chance to go there?

Oh, I was elated of course, and the big problem was that I had no idea of my popularity out here until I arrived. I came out on one of the flying boats, you know the ... landed at Rose Bay, right opposite my old golf club there, the Royal Sydney, where I played most of my golf, and of course the number there to welcome me, it was absolutely overwhelming, I couldn't believe it. Then down to work it was because I had to give 12 recital programs in ... in those days they did a half-program, put it over the air, the ABC, and then they did the other half of a concert, and they all had to be different programs, naturally. That doesn't happen today, yes, singers haven't got that sort of work, but I had to ... study and plan out, and it takes some planning, recital programs, you've got to have a change of mood, a change of key and ... it's wonderful, it's wonderful work fitting in and thinking, now, oh, what would I like to think here or there, and how fast, how slow, and the words as I said when you're doing it. You become so involved that what happened with me, I had a very favourite key, which is the key of F major, ha, why I couldn't tell you, but it just was one of my favourite keys and ... so everything that I was choosing happened to be in F major; of course that meant a lot of chopping and changing, so it went on.

So part of your role as a singer was to help in the whole arrangement of the actual concert programs?

Oh yes, it, the programs were entirely up to me.

Right.

And, of course, then translations: if it was a German group or Italian whatever ... French, I had to put in ... do the translations for them from home, and the programs were beautifully got up really, so the audience did have the original, and they could quickly look up if they wanted to — the poet and the poem and the words.

So with this great optimistic feeling, you set out on what was a very arduous program of work for you. Was it a great success?

You mean the tour?

The tour.

Oh yes it was, and ... monetarily it was I'm sure for the ABC but for me it ... did bring about a ... a physical strain and tiredness, and eventually a vocal strain. I had ... to take it easy towards the end of the tour, but it wasn't so much that I was as worried vocally, and I left here, not feeling at all right, and I knew that when I got back to London I would have to, you might say, like a car, put it in for ... and having its plugs cleaned and scraped or whatever. Ha.

There had been a lot of emotional strain too, hadn't there, during that time ... [interruption] ... It hadn't been ...

Oh yes, yes. Especially seeing my family again.

What was the emotional strain connected with that?

Um, oh they ... a tremendous amount really, and there was a great deal of friction at the time, so many things that I had to pick up and find out what had gone on in the 10 years and, as with them, it was ... it drained without my being really aware of it going on because these things happen, you know, and it's such a slow silent manner that you're not aware of your bodily reaction, which eventually begins to show and I'm ... I went on and it was a very tiring tour.

You'd left a very happy family behind when you ...

Yes.

And it wasn't quite the same when you came back?

No.

Were there tensions between parents or between your brothers or what was the pressure there?

Dame Joan Hammond Oh, there were tensions everywhere, I think. Ha ha. And the ...

... The war had taken its toll ...

... I've, yes, and I've ... I left very ... with a very unhappy feeling family-wise.

And then also in relation to Australia itself ... Although many people took you to ... to their hearts, and you had this great welcome when you arrived, there was also some criticism wasn't there?

Oh ha ... with us there's always criticism and the higher you go the more critical they become. I think this is a sort of natural way of .. people's reactions somehow. They ... I learnt I think, more ... from the general feeling of critics then than ever before, because in Europe you don't get so much criticism at all, the papers don't give over that much to the musical criticism, and what you wore, how you looked and that sort of thing. But here ... as in America, it's a very ... important item for the singer to remember what dress you wore — I kept a little book of course of every dress I wore for every concert, and the place which I did, right throughout my career, but of course here it was very important, and oddly enough, men were more critical about clothes than the women. Or the dress, if you wore the same dress twice, and they seemed to be on the ball about that, as I say, far more so than the women.

So they went along to look at you as much as to listen to you?

I ... ha ha ... I used to wonder which it was at some stages ... [laughs] ...

What things did they say about your clothes?

Oh no, I ... that ... what dress I wore.

Yes, but what did they say about your dress, what kind of criticisms did ...

... Well, I ... it only happened once, and it never happened again, in fact I'm not even sure in retrospect whether it happened here or in Europe but men were ... noted what you wore, the colour, the type of dress, was it off the shoulders, a V-neck or whatever, and it surprised me, and when one quoted what I'd worn at some concert, last concert or whatever, I thought to myself, this is one thing you must be careful about and never slip up on. Then my little book was really kept completely and utterly up-to-date. I didn't let the ... a day go by until I put the dress down that I wore the night before, because you know these things slip out of the memory especially if you're doing concert after concert.

Did they criticise the music?

Yes that was ... my programs were criticised. First of all in Sydney, that's where I began. They were too highbrow, I did not — and of course I did not — sing the arias at the end, they didn't get O My Beloved Father, for instance, and they had Hugo Wolf to contend with and Richard Strauss, Schubert, Schumann, well, the ... and they wanted the arias, and I wasn't aware of that when making up my programs in England.

You thought they might like to hear some good singing?

Well, I was asked for the best, and would I like to do Lieder recitals, and I said yes I would, and so I gave the best programs that I could plan, and I mean the list was it ... to me, now, I feel tired at the thought of it, but ... what happened then, sort of two bands started up of people in Sydney, and went around with these banners saying program's too highbrow, Joan Hammond, you know, and then another lot went around saying we love them, we appreciate them ... [laughs] ... so it was, ha, it was good publicity, and certainly not manufactured by me ... it was the last thing I would have thought about. And I couldn't understand why they didn't like the programs, so of course then I realised the popularity and how I'd gained all my popularity was through the O My Beloved Father, for instance.

So the people who had supported you when you went away as ... on your ... for your student days, were they all waiting to greet you when you got back?

Oh yes. Yes. Some of them were no longer with us but yes, oh well, indeed.

And Lady Gowrie?

Oh yes, yes.

And did they support you through this period of criticism?

Oh, they didn't come into anything like that, really, once I was there and working, I didn't hear much because the fund as it was, at it ... it had finished, I was on my own, earning my own little bits and pieces.

Did you feel, though, that you owed something to them, to make the Australian tour really work well?

Oh, I'm ... I would ... I mean, right throughout my career, I never forgot the fact that’s how it was that I went abroad, how it was I got that big chance. No, that's something I never forgot.

Now, during this time people were worrying about your clothes, they were ... what dress you were wearing ...

... And they weren't very fashionable, I don't ... oh fashionable, yes, but the ... I didn't spend much money on clothes, and indeed I didn't even think much about my clothes, it was only later that I realised that, now, when I was getting better fees, that I could think about spending money on clothes. You see I ... coming up from nothing, you might say, and saving every groschen and every Austrian schilling, I ... had become very careful with what and how I spent my money, and ... a little bit would come in and it had to go out ... [laughs] ... as soon as it came in, and I was ... actually broke once in London, completely broke, it wasn't a very nice time, but I learnt a lesson, and I think all these things happen, you've got to learn from them, and I learnt that I must always keep something aside, no matter how small, I'd have to ... put something aside.

So when you were on the Australian tour ... there were people who criticised your dress, and people who criticised your musical program, and there were other sort of criticisms, but you, yourself ... what was worrying you was your voice. What was actually happening to it?

For me, it wasn't vibrant, it was losing its ... what I call ... I was overcritical and I always have been, and always will be, about my singing voice, and I was aware of this really ... it's a ... you know, when the voice, I always call it tonic, I use the word tonic such a lot, I always have done, I've said no, my voice is not tonic today. Which meant that it wasn't ... ringing, the tone was not there, and some people used to say, oh, my voice is back or my voice is down the throat or something. I knew it wasn't down the throat, but I also knew that it wasn't resonating as well as it should.

And this was something that you really had no control over?

Oh, no.

You couldn't by will make it better?

No, well, by practising, and doing certain scales, that was how I always got it back. I said ‘off the rails or on the rails’, and I always got it back on the rails, it had to ... well the voice has to be out of the throat, that's number one and the most important thing of all. A throaty voice is a sick voice, and if you go on singing when it's back, then of course it gets worse and worse, and mine was getting to my ears and my ... the way I knew it should be, it was really worrying me, coming up to the end of the tour and I was so relieved when it was over, but I also knew that I wasn't going to do much when I got back home but put it right again, and rest. Rest is one of the best things out for the human voice.

So when you got back, what did you do to make it better?

Quiet ... [laughs] ... yes I did, I kept very quiet, and I had to be patient, and that's another thing that you have to try and drill into singers, that the one thing they have to do is not to use it, and of course the one thing a singer wants to do when their voice is sick is they use it, to try to find out if it's still there.

Were there other ... [interruption] ... were there other techniques you had to master?

Oh ... techniques?

In order to in ... at this stage, with this voice problem, were there things that you needed to learn then in order to make it right?

I came to a very big crossroad later on — what I call these crossroads were vital and I did have a bad period when it was a follow on, you might say. I started again and went, oh, I was singing operand recitals — I was doing both, which I went on doing all my life really, all my singing career — I ... had an illness, bronchitis, and I stared too soon, which is always a fatal thing, you must let the chords really get back to normal because they're so relaxed anyhow after singing, and doing a lot of work, and then you suddenly stop everything, so it's like an athlete or anybody, you ... you work up to a pitch and your ... the tension’s in your body, the right tension, and your muscles, everything, but once you stop, of course, they stop, and just get flat and the same happens with the vocal muscles, and the larynx of course, and everything becomes relaxed, and you've got to ... slowly, and I emphasise the word slowly, bring it back by working on scales and exercises with a great patience, and really a lot of patience, and a lot of tears and ... thrown in. Well, that did happen, but it ... in the end it was a wonderful thing, because it made me more conscious of my instrument. It made me realise that for the future, to stop it coming on again, that I must know exactly what I'm doing, and in fact I took my voice to pieces, you might say, and built it up again, in my own way. I taught myself and this, although it was a long and unhappy period, it was a wonderful period, and I gained tremendous knowledge through that, which has been really great you know for me ever since.

And you had to do this for yourself, you had no-one else to ... ?

No, no. And I knew I had to do it, I knew that I had to know my own instrument. You may have read or heard of singers going around with their teachers. Well, of course, a lot of them do and have to, but to travel like that, I think, in the old days, perhaps before my time, old days now, but it was my youth, but before my time, I believe Melba went around with a big entourage, even her own chef. Well, the tennis players do that today, don't they in a way. But we normally can't afford that sort of thing, and I certainly couldn't, nor did I want it.

Now, after you rebuilt your voice, as it were, and put it all ... mine's going [interruption] ... put it all together again, you actually then launched on, really, the very major part of your career, and you travelled to almost every country in the world, singing. Was that a very adventurous time for you?

It was a very interesting time because I went all over South Africa, and to places that no ... where no recitals had ever been given, and in Asia and Malaysia, I mean, I went to a little place called Ipoh right up the north there and I ... they'd never heard of a recital, never heard of such a thing, and I ... everywhere I went I realised how it was, how I had become so popular in these places where they'd never had music like that. O my beloved, that record went everywhere and as a result I went everywhere. There wasn't a place that didn't know that record, and of course [at] the concerts I always sang them, at the end, and I'm sure all of the people came to hear that at the end, and not the whole, whole boring rest of the recital program. No, actually, I'm ... I don't mean that really ... [laughs] ...

But the Australian tour had taught you that you ... there was a certain element in the audience you needed to please?

Oh yes, oh indeed. It also helped me — I designed a different type of program as a result of my Australian tour, because going to places like Tanganyika [mainland part of today’s Tanzania] — all the ... I use the old names you'll note, not the modern ones for these countries — they keep changing their names don't they? Anyhow, I realised that my programs, I must make sure that I put in something for everybody, I couldn't ... I wouldn't leave out ... I'd put a group in that I knew would please the serious concert-minded person, and I'd put a more popular group — I'd mix them up and put in something that everybody knew and liked at one stage or another.

Africa must have been quite a dangerous place in that post-war period?

It was indeed. Especially ... um, I don't know why I'm laughing, I really don't, it was very serious because I had an agent and put ... the London agent got in touch with this agent in Africa who was doing it all and arranging it, and he really was a bit mad ... I didn't realise it until after this had happened, but he took us for a drive, and I had Mr Ivor Newton as my accompanist ... and one place we went, out to where they were using all the ... that ... what was it called, oh ghastly, you know, the natives, they were all ... they were fighting.

The Mau Mau [Kenyan rebels against the British colonialists].

That's right, exactly, thank you. And he took us out to see a tobacco farm, way out, which he should never have done because we went through all these villages and we were looked at in such a way, I thought, if the car breaks down — and he was the most hairy scary driver, I don't think he'd driven a car before. Anyhow we got out there, saw the ... it was very interesting and lovely, and on the way back dear Ivor couldn't stand this man at the wheel any more, and he said, ‘Joan, will you drive? I cant stand this.’ He said, ‘I'll die, I'll do anything, I'll jump out of the car’ ... [laughs] ... And I thought, I can't have my accompanist lying out in the back blocks so I did, I took over, I just said to this man (I've forgotten his name), but ‘would you care if ... for me to drive, I'd love to drive and try this car,’ and I knew that Ivor was sitting at the back then, purring as much to say, thank God, so he, well, he agreed straight away, he didn't say 'oh no no, no-one drives this but me', and that's why I'm sure he'd never driven it before, it may have been a hire car for all I know, but anyhow I got to the wheel and I drove back and that part went fine. That was over. Then when we were in ... it's extraordinary how these names are avoiding me today ...

Were you in the capital of Kenya [Nairobi]?

Yes, and we went to the falls.

In Nairobi?

... and we went to Nairobi, yes, but ...

... and the big Victoria Falls ...

... in Tanganyika ... but anyhow, we went to the falls, and then we were taken for another hairy scary flight in a small plane, over Uganda where you can't go, you ... you can only see the wild animals from the air in other words, and we were taken in this little plane across and, again, Ivor I think was having heart failure, that was wonderful but I ... it worried me because we seemed to almost take the giraffes' heads off, you ... we were so low, and that was another exciting episode, and a final one was at a camp at night arriving at one of the big ... game places, where we had the head man, it was all arranged that he should take me out, we left the hotel at about 2 o'clock in the morning, and we went out to this camp so ... 'cause you have to see them at dawn, the animals, and he ... we arrived at the first stop where we were to have coffee and a bit of something to eat, and Ivor again ... [laughs] ... everywhere we ... everyone had gone on in and Ivor ... I turned round to see what was happening, why he was hanging behind, and he was very ... he was frozen, absolutely frozen, and he pointed down at his feet saying, 'I was ... what's, what's been going through my legs? ' ... [laughs] ... and it was a cat. He thought it was some wild animal, you know, about to attack him; it was the camp cat. What else? Oh, so much happened in those ... days.

How did you get on in America?

Oh well, of course America was very civilised ... [laughs] ...

But professionally. Did you take ... did you get a lot of opportunity in America?

Again I think ... [interruption] the first tour was alright. I think what killed me eventually was the fact that I had to cancel the tour through illness and ... extraordinary ... in Europe of course a singer has to on occasions. If you don't you, well, it's wonderful to go through without anything happening, but again I think I had bronchitis, I couldn't go anyhow, and my agent there in New York wrote to me saying, ‘I can't book you at the same places,’ well, and ... in fact, I think I rang her and I said, ‘What? Why not?’ She said they won't have any singer who turns them down once ... [laughs] ... That was a strange lesson and I thought what an extraordinary thing, she just said, no, they just won't. If you've had to cancel, that's that, and I had to go and get engagements in all different places, so that it was ... a very unexpected sort of slant on a career.

It wasn't the only thing that you found yourself having to turn down in America too, was it? There was another time when you turned down an engagement that you were asked to do — you were asked to sing for somebody?

Oh. You're probably ... you've read my history a bit too closely haven't you? You ... you can remember things that I can't now, would this be Mrs Roosevelt?

Yes.

Through my dear fairy godmother, Lady Gowrie, that it was arranged. This was like a door really slamming in my face, not that I knew or expected such a thing, but Mrs Roosevelt, being the First Lady, asked me to go to a luncheon and to sing at a luncheon for her, and it happened to be on a day of my opening night of Tosca, and I had the rehearsal in the morning, orchestral rehearsal, and the performance at night, so I declined as gracefully as I could because I realised it was like the Queen — rejecting to sing for the Queen — and I just knew that it was something that I couldn't do, that I didn't want to do vocally, I didn't want to spoil my performance ... my singing at lunch, which I ... something we don't do anyhow, but that was it, and I, well, I thought, well perhaps she'll ask me another day, when she knows what I'm doing. But not at all. I never heard again and I realised that I had slighted her ... which was a surprise and upsetting of course, I was very sorry about it and I wrote and told Lady G all about it, exactly what had happened, but that was ... those were my principles, just as I don't do anything much on the day I sing if I ... sometimes I have had to rehearse on the day, many times in fact, so you save your voice as much as you can for the performance at night, and Tosca's not the lightest of roles, it's not as though it's just a few pages.

Did you regret that? Do you feel that was a mistake ...

Oh, yes.

... in the sense of your career?

Oh, I have regretted that, but I still think and I ask myself if it occurred again, what would I do, and I think I would've done the same thing because the performance to me at night was the most important thing.

So did you always feel you never did quite as well in Americas you should have?

Oh yes, I'm sure. I really ... and I blame myself.

Would that mean ...

... I really do.

Would that have made a big difference to your career? American success.

Oh. I should think so, yes.

In what way?

Well, I think America's very important, and I loved being there, and I loved the people, I always have and always will, and there's a ... I don't know, I can remember a chap saying to me 'democracy,’ I can't take his voice off, but I can always hear him saying, 'There's nothing like it. America. Democracy!' So, ha, oh lots of things happened, lovely things and funny things, and it was from New York that I tried to get up to Canada, during a very awful period when the flights were all cancelled because the weather was too dreadful, and I was ... I'd come from Chicago and I was in New York and I had to be at ... in Toronto the next morning. Well, it was no no no and then they rang me and said, look, a bus is going to try and get through and to go by bus. We can get you by air to somewhere or other ... I don't know, it was a short flight then into a bus, and that bus got me sitting all the ... into Toronto I think about 8 o'clock in the morning, somewhere like that, and I remember having a quick shower or bath or whatever, and changing because the rehearsal was at 10 o'clock. I got there, I wouldn't know why because it was ... an afternoon, a matinee, and that's why that I, ha ha, that was perhaps good because I didn't have a chance to get on the bed and go to sleep. In the afternoon I would have, and probably woken up feeling so awful, but anyhow.

Do you think you pushed yourself too much?

Well, that wasn't my fault, I couldn't help that. It was ... that's one of the few things ... in America, when you arrive, if say you were arriving at the New York the ... your manager, they send you out an itinerary, and some of the things down there such as the Verdi Requiem. I hadn't even brought my score because they hadn't advised me that I'd even been booked to sing the Verdi Requiem. One performance was in Philadelphia and another was in another place altogether the next night, two nights running, and when I saw this in this little itinerary book I thought, oh oh dear, so I had to ring home and get them to post off my score to me — all the things that can just happen because they don't consider that you should be consulted, whereas we are accustomed always to being consulted before the contract is agreed upon, to, well, will you sing this or will you sing that and where, what time, but not over in the States, no, as I say, you're sold like a tin of sardines or something.

So you felt like a commodity there rather than an artist?

Yes, yes.

I think we'll just stop there for a minute because when, earlier on, when we were talking about ... [interruption] ...

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