Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer

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9780099546573: Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer

The night before brilliant but erratic composer Charles Jessold's opera - about a betrayed husband who murders his wife and her lover - is due to open, Jessold is found dead, having apparently murdered his wife and her lover. Leslie Shepherd, music critic and Jessold's collaborator on the opera, reflects on the scandalous affair in a dazzling, passionate and witty novel about the dangerous relationship between artist and critic.

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About the Author:

Wesley Stace is the author of two critically acclaimed novels, the international bestseller Misfortune (2005) and By George (2007). Stace is also a musician who, under the name John Wesley Harding, has released 15 albums ranging from traditional folk to pop music. The Los Angeles Times hailed his most recent pop release, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, as "Bookshop Rock like no other... expertly tweaking the lyricist's game at every turn" while the Wall Street Journal praised the album's "lyrics that dazzle without condescending."

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

I met Charles Jessold, the murderer, on 21 May 1910, the day after

King Edward’s funeral. We were guests at a Hatton Manor

Saturday-to-Monday, and it was on that very fi rst eve ning that I

had occasion to tell of Carlo Gesualdo, the composer whose story

made such a lasting impression.

I had just entered the room, a quick inventory of which revealed:

three composers (one of note, two of naught), a conductor,

and a miscellany of vicars, musical scholars and enthusiasts; not to

mention Cedric Mount (our most esteemed member) and of course

Antic Jackson who, despite arriving on the same late train from

town, had managed to beat me downstairs. I was, as ever, the token

musical critic.

The only stranger was a young man standing over the piano. In

impeccably creased grey flannels and gaudily striped tie, he was our

junior by some years. His face, a pick-and-mix assortment, conformed

to no classical ideal. His forehead was too broad and his

lips too mean for his fleshy cheeks, although the ever-glimmering

smile at their left corner gave an impression of geniality. His thick

black hair was slicked lavishly with pomade.

His eyes, later described as devilish, were nothing of the kind;

rather they were beady, though being a lucid emerald green, not

unattractively so. In conversation, they spoke directly to you, a

somewhat unnerving compliment that turned a stranger into a

confi dant whether he cared to be or not. When it was his turn to

listen, those eyes never strayed from yours. To avoid his gaze, one

sought refuge in the perfectly straight line from the top of his nose

to the cusp of the chin that he was later to disguise with a goatee

(interpreted as Mephistophelean, of course). Above his eyes, that pale

billboard of forehead advertised his every fl icker of emotion.

This newcomer leaned in rapt attention, back arched to a stylised

forty- five degrees, his elbow on the lid of the piano, hand to

his chin, thumb tucked under: a remarkably self-conscious pose. I

found myself wondering whether he was perhaps used to being

observed. He certainly ‘lit up’ a room. Any producer worth his salt

would have plucked him from a crowd.

I realised that someone was playing the piano only when he

stopped. The pianist, Mark Wallington, rose and with a sweep of

the hand surrendered his stool to the young man, whose mask of

deliberation disappeared into a broad smile that bared unruly

teeth dominated by handsomely vampirical incisors. He raised his

hands, as if to demonstrate that there was nothing up his sleeves,

and played what he had just heard to an astonishing degree of accuracy.

The performance, brought off with some relish, was

greeted by applause from a group by the fireside.

‘The arrangement and harmonisations to boot!’ proclaimed St

John Smith à la ringmaster. ‘Will anyone else try to stump him?’

The young man bowed. Not so self-conscious after all; just youthful,

serious, in the spotlight.

I called casually to our host, the fifteenth Viscount Hatton, who

met my eyes with a raised finger implying that I was far more interesting

than what ever minor obstacles stood in his path. He was

known as ‘Sandy’ for his sun-freckled, desert complexion, though

all he knew of the Sahara was a bunker at Sunningdale.

‘You’re like a German verb, Leslie,’ he said when he finally materialised.

A calculated insult. ‘Always last.’

‘But just on time, and like a French adjective, agreeable.’ I

waved a vague finger towards the young man: ‘Who’s the performing

seal?’

‘Now now.’

‘Can he balance a red ball on his nose?’

‘Probably.’ Sandy surveyed his domain with satisfaction. Jackson

and I were the last pieces in his weekend’s jigsaw. ‘A pleasure,

Leslie.’ I bowed. ‘Ah,’ he said with an approving smile at the cabal

in question. ‘A reprise of the star turn.’

Again a somewhat tuneless original was rendered; again the

young man duplicated it, as though the first player had printed a

piano roll and he merely pedalled it through. It seemed the Memory

Man had reached the climax of his act.

‘I didn’t know there was to be a music-hall turn in addition to

our fishing expedition,’ I said pianissimo as we broadcast smiles

about us.

‘A mere trifle. The pièce de résistance is yet to come.’

‘Oh, I am disappointed.’

‘I believe he was something of an . . . infant prodigy.’ He savoured

the words for my benefit.

‘Played Three Blind Mice in all keys by the age of four? Wrote

his first sonata in utero?’

‘Very possibly. But his days of prodigiousness are done. He is

unhappily studying composition under Kemp at St Christopher’s,

Cambridge . . .’

Kemp’s was a name I was known to pooh-pooh at every opportunity,

so I instead indicated the wunderkind’s tie. ‘Are those Kit’s

colours?’

‘No, I believe that may be the tie of . . .’ he paused for comic

effect . . . ‘the Four Towns Music Festival in Kent. There’s a

mother, I am told, to whom he is very loyal, and she has him work

as accompanist at that august provincial gala. Jessold may not

strictly be from the top drawer, dear Shepherd, but I saw a young

man of promise.’

You invited him.’ I thought we had been speaking of an interloper,

an extraneous other making up numbers in the back of someone’s

Bentley. Sandy waved away my apology.

‘He is going down this year, and when Kemp asked me to speak

to the University Madrigal Society I unavoidably met Jessold, its

president.’ The keen madrigalist was currently attacking a bit of

ragtime with venom, pounding the keys into submission.

‘What’s he got against the piano?’

‘His touch is a little agricultural, probably years of banging out

“Poor Wandering One” for the daughters of the local clergy, but

then Jessold has no pretensions to be a concert pianist.’

‘Eureka! He has pretensions to be a composer?’

‘Yes.’

‘He angled for an invitation to mingle with the great and the

good?’

‘Far from it. Kemp can’t speak highly enough of him. So I con-

vinced Jessold that the one that got away was lurking here in the

Lower Thames . And lo! There he sits! The very image of the

young composer, earnestly ingratiating himself to the crowd as a

child seeks to please his parents. He’ll get over that. I have yet to

hear any work.’

St John extricated himself from the knot around the piano.

‘Racket rather sets my teeth on edge,’ he said with a grimace. ‘It’s

so desperately jaunty. Youth must, I dare say.’

Sandy slipped off his signet ring, tinkling the side of his champagne

fl ute. Glasses of Oeil de Perdrix were raised towards him in

toast. ‘Hatton welcomes you. I welcome you. Tomorrow we work;

to night we play. But first, I know Jessold, new of this parish, has

been diverting some of you. We’ll let the boy take a breather . . .

but I’d like to make him sing once more for his supper. Freddie, to

the piano.’

Fat Frederic Desalles was so cruelly camouflaged by his jacket

that his head appeared to be peeking from behind the cushions

of the sofa. He struggled to attention and made his way to the piano.

We held our breath nervously on the stool’s behalf. Landing

was achieved.

‘I am here.’ He played a little something that he intended us to

imagine effortlessly thrown off, but even this little doodle bore the

tragic hallmarks of his many other failures. Some thought Freddie’s

sole qualifications to be a composer were that he believed in

God and his name sounded foreign; but he could Handel a religious

theme as well as any man in Britain. ‘At your service!’

‘Jessold, make yourself scarce,’ commanded Sandy.

The butler escorted Jessold from the room. I looked at the young

man as he left; he glanced over his shoulder, catching me, as it were,

red-handed. A departing star knows there is always someone looking.

‘When they are at a suitable distance,’ Sandy continued, ‘I will

ask Freddie to play a melody, of say four or fi ve lines, unknown

to Jessold. Perhaps one you might like to improvise for us now,

maestro; perhaps a little something from your redoubtable

arsenal.’

No one could doubt the size of Desalles’ arsenal. Drinks, pale

and pink, were replenished as he sketched his rough draft. It was

typically Desallesean (there is certainly no such word, nor ever

shall be): churchfully plain, easily ignored.

‘We shall now bring Jessold back into the room.’ Sandy tugged

the bell pull imperiously. ‘And you, Freddie, will play him the first

half of your melody. But no more than that.’

On his return, the young man again assumed that study of

trance-like meditation as he refined...

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