Australian Biography

Dame Joan Hammond - full interview transcript

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When you had the accident and you ... after the operation you got your hand moving again, did you ever think of giving up the violin?

Well I had to. I realised that I could never use it in certain positions again, that the holding of the ... violin would be so tiring and I could never get my wrist around, my arm around, certain ... and I can't do that ... many many movements are restricted and have been ever since. But ...

Straight after the operation, did you start playing immediately?

Oh well, of course, I couldn't. I mean, straight after the operation nothing moved at all.

And they did all the things that you described to get it moving again?


And then what happened with the violin?

Have you got that? Have I told you that already?

No, we didn't get it, that's why I'm getting it again.

... Oh, I see. Oh, I'm sorry ... I should have told you this.

Yes, yes. Tim missed it and I ... it was ... we got all the stuff about how he got ... how you got your hand moving in the hospital.

And with the rings?

But we were particularly interested in how you, with great determination, kept on playing the violin.

Oh right, right, that's good.

Right. So that's the bit I'm after now so I'll ask the question again. With this problem, did you think of giving up the violin?

I had to think of giving it up because of the restrictions of movements following the ... what I've already described, and the fact that everything was so slow in getting back to normality, with my movements, my ... even then I thought that I could perhaps soon play it again, and I of ... I mean I ... I was ever hopeful, and ...

It was your fingering hand, wasn't it?

Oh yes, oh yes, yes.

So how did you get on? So did you start then trying to finger again?

Slowly, slowly, yes ... first time I picked it up it was very, very painful and I ... couldn't hold it at all, you know, this putting it in the position, then ... gradually I used tennis balls, I think, that time ... to squeeze, to get my hand, get some strength back. And that helped tremendously, and eventually I was able to hold it and even that was very painful, and I had to keep on putting it down because of the position that I ... that I can do normally with ... because of this arm and I just can't now even with this, and I worked on it, and I really did. I was determined to try to play again because I loved it, I wanted to continue playing. And I was ... I did eventually get there, and hold it for a certain amount of time, and when I was accepted in the orchestra the conductor was, oh, he would take no notice if I had to put my violin down, which was a big thing I thought in after-years although I didn't think so then, I thought, well that's very nice and ... I still hoped that I could go on, and in fact on one occasion I played the Bach, you know Ave Maria, the violin obbligato, and sang the ... [laughs] ... must have been awful, must have really been awful, but I did get back enough to play that, I couldn't get my Tchaikovsky going again, or any of the difficult things to play, but I was able to do that and, as I say now, it must have been a ghastly, ghastly performance, of playing the violin obbligato and then singing the melody. But it strengthened, and I ...

Kept at it ...

... [interruption] ... got going and had a great deal of pleasure from it for many years after that, and then of course once I travelled with my violin it went everywhere, but I had two at that stage, and they both went in the fire because they came ... they went over to Europe with me, I brought them back, in fact when I was desperate and things were going wrong and everything was not working out at all well, everything was going wrong, I'd get the violin out and I'd play it and it ... really was very funny. Lolita played the violin also, and if she got out and we started playing duets together when we were feeling very low and things were just not working out, we'd soon end in bursts of laughter because the sound — I once said to my agent, 'If you really want to get an audience in, just book us for a concert somewhere, and we'll play the two violins and they'll go into fits of laughter and so will we.' But we got a lot of fun out of it.

So you got laughter out of the violin, and the audience always got a great deal of feeling out of your voice, and I wanted to ask you about that because you had the kind of voice that really moved people — when people describe your voice, when you hear it on recordings, it's a voice with great emotion, and something in the quality of the voice that really moved people. Now that's how the audience hears it. When you're up there on the stage and singing, and this glorious voice is coming out, how does that feel to you from your side?

It's a strange ... naturally, the first thing I think about is a tonic. You know what I mean by that. Healthy and right and all vibrations working. Then when you're interpreting, well ... if it's in opera or a song, because just as much goes into a song as it does into the opera, in the recitatives or the arias, and you have those, for instance, lovely Verdi passages, Herr Verdi and Puccini, and they wrote so well for the voice, and put the voice in the right place to ... where you could give when you wanted to give because a lot of composers do not do ... do that, especially today, where they’re using intervals in such a way that the voice ... the human voice, which has never changed and can't change, it's just a part of our anatomy and it ... you can't say, oh you ... you'll get another instrument or do something, you can't go around the corner and replace a string or something, and you can't buy it. I mean a violinist saves up or any instrumentalists, they all save up to get a beautiful instrument. It costs them a lot of money, that initial one, but we don't have that problem, but we have so many others. And this feeling when you're singing and, you know, the voice ... if the orchestra's accompanying you or the piano, it ... that time when it soars above everything else, and you're getting those top notes, and you know that they're ringing out, you know that they're coming as you want them, and that you have that power, that ... great ... something inherent that you know nothing about and yet it's there. I mean, it is a mystery what ... well ... why ... whoever thinks about it realises what a mystery the voice is. How do we pitch a note? How do we know that's a B flat or whatever? And the feeling when everything's going well and the performance is going well, is one of inner joy, I think that's possibly the only way I can express it. You feel something within yourself that you have a power, that you have ... the desire to express, and that you know that you've got that report with the audience, and you can tell when you're taking a top note that there is an immediate response down there, that perhaps they're getting goose pimples, that is, they ... we don't feel that naturally, in fact that ... you don't feel any of those sort of emotions but you do feel that you've got something within, that is ... that you're able to project. That you're able to sing a lovely phrase, and there's nothing more satisfying than to be able to sing that phrase musically correct and vocally correct.

Do you believe in God?

I certainly do. Very much. Oh yes. Always said a prayer before I went on stage, always. In fact I ... I say a prayer before I do most things, especially in difficult moments ... any moment, no, I do ... I not only believe but ... thought I had a private line to him on one occasion ... [laughs] ... he has a lot to listen to.

When was that?

Oh in the ... it happened several times ... if I started going into that we'd never finish.

Have you ever doubted?

Ever doubted? No, no.

Not even when the ... [interruption] ...

... No, but when I was very young ...

... in the fire. Not even when you nearly died in the Blitz ... [interruption] ... not even ...

No, no. That's right. You're quite right. I've always thought that it was teaching me a lesson, that I had something to learn, or I deserved it. And I think from all the things that have happened to me, I have learnt. I have learnt something.

What do you think is the most important lesson that you've been taught in your life?

I hope it's humility. I mean, I used to think that golf taught me humility, which it did, because so many times, you know, you ... one says, 'well, just a game,' well, all these things in life are very important, and ... I played in so many championships and I used to ... say my prayer to God, 'Oh please help me.’ I watch them in the tennis now, I see a lot of them going ... making the sign of the cross, these top tennis players, just before they're about to serve, I think, oh good, good for them, but so many people forget, I think, forget God, and the mysteries that we don't know anything about, and when I hear of people scoffing, which of course today they do, scoff so much, and scoffing at miracles, also many miracles have happened in the history of the world, really miracles, and so there must be some very great force. And when, when the A.D., before Christ and after Christ, that changeover, it might ... there ... it must have been a tremendous thing, that night that God and God's son Christ, I ... well I read a lot of poetry, I love poetry.

Do you feel anything like a miracle has ever happened to you, a bit like a miracle?

Well, I've ... I should say the first thing that brought this to my mind was this very accident, when it happened, because I'd never thought about not having an arm, or not being able to play all the games and do what ... that's why I had the strength and the determination to make myself play hockey to ... I had ... they insisted that I wore a guard, which I had to have specially made for me, in order to play hockey and in case I got a hit. The only thing that I've never done, and I was told I would be very foolish if I ever did it, was to skate. And I've never, never done it, I've never gone to the snow and tried to ski or anything like that because ... I think that's about the only thing they said that I would be very foolish to do.

So what was the miracle about having your arm hurt?

The miracle was that I was spared. Because I could easily have got under the front of that car, and I wouldn't be here now. The second time I had that feeling was in the Thames in London with my two poodles, and the Thames was running very, very fast after a storm, and they used to go in after sticks and balls and that, and I wouldn't let them go in. That's only a little place in Battersea Park, a little bit of beach there, and I wouldn't ... I wouldn't let them go in and I made them ... there were two children playing on the sand, it was a very hot day, and I told them not to throw anything into the water, and they threw a stick in, and my big poodle Jani went in after it, and of course he disappeared around the corner, and ... I went in and I held him, and I knew that I couldn't swim against the tide and the river both running out, and he of course was torn ... going like this, and I got his paws on my shoulder and I held him up, and I went criss-cross until I felt, ‘I can't keep on, I'm going I'm going, this is the end,’ and that was the second time I very nearly and ... a friend put her hand around the corner of this brick wall, and grabbed Jani and pulled him out, and of course I was able to pull myself around, and I felt that was the last moment coming. Another time I think was flying up to Brisbane, when I was out here on tour. And the ... one engine stopped, you could see the petrol fly out, flowing out, and I thought, oh this, this is my last moment now, but it wasn't, but I had the feeling that it was. Then the fire, by 10 minutes, I suppose I was saved, but I didn't realise it at that moment, it was only brought home to me, oh, days afterwards when it was discussed, at 10 minutes more if I had not left that house, I would have been ... there was nowhere that I could've ... it ... even I thought I might have gone in the cellar, that wouldn't ... I wouldn't have been saved there, that the heat was so tremendous that it would have choked you before you ... the fire even got to you, same with anywhere else in the house, and under the end of the house, you think of these positions that you thought you might go to be saved but you wouldn't ... I wouldn't have been safe. So that was another and so it goes on.

Do you think there's a life after death?

Now that ... I suppose when you've led a very full life, and so much has happened, I haven't thought a great deal about that, I ... off and on, when I'm in the few times that I sit and ruminate, I may have thought about that. It's come up in discussion naturally with friends, having chats over such things. I should like to think, I should like to believe that we do, that we must continue on, and yet I don't see how possible ... how it could be possible that one does and yet what the ... [interruption] ... I'm going to ask you now, what does happen to us all when we pass on, and now you've got to believe and one does believe in something, but ... you ... I should like to believe that we do, that something goes on.

But you're going to make sure that you get as much done as possible before it happens?

Absolutely, ha, what I feel I'm here on earth to do, I've got to get done.

Can I ask you how you feel about Australia and being Australian, because of course you had to go overseas to make your way, and then really many of your golden years were spent in England as a sort of British artist ... What made you come back to Australia at the end of your career?

Umm. The first part of your question, the British always think of me as being one of them, as a British artist, I know that. The feeling is that when I'm there that I'm not Australian. Of course, I think having spent the war years there has made a big difference, there's this sort of link and something that would always unite me. What made ... to eventually decide to come home was my health, that was the prime reason. They said go to a warm climate when I wasn't making very much progress after the coronary, and ... I don't ... suffered from quite a number of chest colds, always in the winter ... bad ones that I used to have to cancel time and again, engagements, and when they said a warm climate, I naturally thought, oh, oh well Australia, but really our climate is very unpredictable isn't it in ... when you think about it. You know, I didn't want to go up to Queensland where perhaps I should have gone for the heat, and I wanted to go to the coolest part of the country, and that's why I went down to Aireys Inlet. I didn't know anything about Aireys, you know, I ... nothing, in fact I didn't know much about the ambiance here at Melbourne at all, but I wanted to be where I thought it would be cool, and no humidity, but ... ha ... in the end it proved that the heat nearly drove me back again, if I'd ... I said earlier on if I'd had a passport I would have been off and back anywhere, anywhere out of here, well after that fire. But I also had this great, I think, love that was natural for me to have of my homeland and my friends, and it was a ... always a joy to pick up the threads with one's friends coming home, and I think that Dorothea ... Mackellar ... poem I Love a Burnt, ha ...

I Love a Sunburnt Country.

I Love a Sunburnt Country, yes. And I was a bit too sunburnt in 1983 for me, ha, yes it was all ... I was happy to think, well, perhaps this is the warmest part and I'd be better here. Certainly I'm not facing that awful winter that we get in Europe.

Have you felt appreciated professionally in Australia?

Oh. Oh I don't know. That's a difficult question.

Do you think Australia acknowledges its great successes?

Sometimes I don't and I feel that ... well, I know a certain person now that I feel has not been acknowledged yet, and I think one day this person will be, but certainly not at the moment and I just think, well, we all went through it because I had a bad time when I first came back, I certainly wasn't acknowledged then, and I think Joan [Sutherland] and Ricky [Bonynge] went through something ... and it's a strange thing, but I mean that's the same ... what .... in his own country?

A prophet is without a ...

A prophet is ... and I think that applies here as everywhere. I feel that's just universal. I don't think it's anything Australian, in particular, but it's probably more exaggerated and one thinks about it more here because, well, it's a smaller ... smaller ...


No. Yes..

[end of interview]