Philip de Vos and his love for Mozart

Philip de Vos and his love for Mozart

Writer Philip de Vos has always had a special place for music in his work and life. Apart from being a writer he has worked as teacher, opera singer, performer, radio presenter and photographer. He has published more than 25 books, translated 40 or more others - many related to classical music - and recently completed a radio series about Mozart, for whom he has always had a fascination.

You are a writer and lyricist in whose life classical music has played an enormous role – as member of the then CAPAB Opera Chorus and also doing your own one man shows. If it was a chicken and egg situation, which one came first in your life?

PdV: I think it all started when I was in Standard 5 (Grade 7), when Miss Ferreira chose me to portray the role of a singing statue in Rendezvous Intermezzo by W. Aletter, a piece of Edwardian music.

I actually found this piece of music on YouTube the other day:

I was hopeless at sport and was always the last when teams were chosen – and it has remained so until this day, but I can fortunately distinguish a soccer ball from a rugby ball and that is about it!

I joined the school choir of Hoërskool Sentraal in Bloemfontein and the choir master, Mr Casaleggio, said that I had a good voice and should one day take music lessons. I did so in my first year as a teacher and the following year had my first role - that of Samuel in Pirates of Penzance. That was the first of more than 40 roles I portrayed for both PACOFS and CAPAB over the years – mostly comic comprimario roles – and I loved it, because I enjoyed the acting as much as the singing.

Philip de Vos as Basilio in Marriage of Figaro

How/where/when did your love for classical music start?

PdV: In the 1940’s we had no gramophone at home so the only music I heard was on the radio. Lion’s Hits of the Week on Springbok Radio on Saturday afternoons, and U Eie Keuse on the Afrikaans radio on Saturday evenings. And nearly every single week there was a request for Tchaikovsky’s Italian Caprice. One number which was especially popular was Dvorak’s Humoresque – a composition I have come to hate and hope never to hear again. A piece of music, however, that impressed me was Ketelbey’s In a Persian Market, which I always listened to when I visited my cousins Sophie and Chrissie.

In 1986 you published a childrens’ book called “Wolfgang Amadeus Muis”, which was published in English in 1987 (as “Wolfgang Amadeus Mouse”), as well as a youth novel, “Trazom” (1993), which is based on a certain period of Mozart’s life. Does Mozart occupy a special place in your heart?

PdV: Yes, Mozart has a very, very special place in my heart. I think I only knew his Eine Kleine Nachtmusik until 1971, when I visited Europe for the first time and then heard Walter de los Rios’s pop version of Mozart’s 40th symphony, which blared over loudspeakers in most supermarkets and elevators.

One of my first children’s books was about a musical mouse who used Grandpa Ben’s false teeth as a type of xylophone. It was originally titled Johann Sebastian Mouse, but, for some reason I changed its name and it became Wolfgang Amadeus Mouse (1986).

In 1985, SABC broadcast a French television series about Mozart by Jean Mistler, dubbed into Afrikaans. In this series I came across an incident that took place in 1770, when the 14-year-old Mozart met a boy of the similar age in Florence. The young Thomas Linley, from Bath in England, was a brilliant violinist. The two boys had a friendship that lasted for 5 days, and when they parted, both boys cried. They never saw each other again and Thomas drowned in a boating accident at the age of 22.


Cover reproduction for Trazom - ‘n Mozart verhaal

This friendship started haunting me and I knew that I had to write about it. After a lot of research - which in pre-internet days was much more difficult than today -  with information I collected from books, and information I received from the British Museum and the Mozarteum, I eventually wrote a novella TRAZOM -  ’n Mozart-verhaal, which was published in 1993. This was later republished as Tot siens, Tommasino! Tommasino, being the name by which Thomas Linley was known in Florence. The novella still gives me no rest. I have refined the text once again, added a prologue and an epilogue and translated it into English and my big dream is to have it published overseas one day.

I even went on a Thomas Linley pilgrimage which I described in my book Kop op ’n Blok, also available on the internet:

Here is a poem I wrote about Mozart, that was published in my book Beware of the Canary.

Wolfgang Amadeus
your lovely tunes
they play us –
both near and far:
I-pod, concert hall and car.
Can anything be finer
than your little Eine Kleine?
Your years on earth
were five times seven.
Bet they play
your tunes in heaven.
Meanwhile, Buddy – cheerio!
I’ll hear you on my Stereo.

Mozart was even part of my text for my cartoon strip: Mozart en das kleine Poeplein:

You recently completed a 13 part radio series on Mozart, which is currently being broadcast. How did this come about, how much research did you do and how long did it take to complete the series.

PdV: After the publication of my book Kop op ’n Blok, Joan Hambidge interviewed me about it on Skrywers en Boeke on Radio Sonder Grense (RSG). Terrance April heard the interview in which I talk about my love of Mozart and asked whether I would write a 13 part series of 50 minutes each on Mozart. It is at present being broadcast on RSG (100 – 104fm) on Sundays between 10:00 – 11:00 am.

I have never worked so hard in my whole life!  I started my research on the 10th May and only finished on 23rd September and sometimes I would start at 6am in the morning and work until late at night. In the beginning I was actually overwhelmed with the enormity of the project. First of all there were the hundreds of letters that the Mozarts wrote, as well as many documents that had survived. In my own collection I must have close to 100 books on Mozart, and to make sense of it all took a lot of thinking. Finding the music was another problem. I have a very big collection, but earlier works were quite difficult to get hold of, especially music he wrote between the age of five and eleven. Here the internet was of enormous help. I am the presenter of the progamme and even now I am still refining certain aspects. In the end it was a labour of great love, as I am merely a lover of music and not a musician.

Many of your verses have been set to music – to be more precise by 18 different South African composers. Have you ever considered composing yourself?

PdV: NO! One must know the limit of one’s own abilties.

As a wordsmith, how did you experience working with “notesmiths”?

PdV: I find it fascinating how different composers approach the same verse – so for example there would be composers like Rosa Nepgen, Peter Klatzow, Pieter de Villiers and Albie Louw who have their own unique version of the same poem.

For interest sake: listen to my performance of Albie Louw’s setting of Op die Duineveld van Bloubergstrand on YouTube:


Cover for “Carnival of the Animals” (words by Philip de Vos, illustrations by Piet Grobler)

You have written lyrics to several grand works of music, e.g. Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Some have even been translated into other languages. Please tell us more about this.

PdV: In 1998 I was approached by SAMRO to write verses for the Saint-Saëns Carnival of the Animals. The Ogden Nash verses of many years ago had become extremely dated and when I wrote my own, I decided to include nothing that would date. Over the years I have often narrated these poems with orchestras. I originally wrote Afrikaans verses, then English, but these were never mere translations. My English verses were later published in the USA and also in translated into Italian, German and Dutch.

Here is one of my poems for Carnival of the Animals:
Lions will eat anything,
be it beggarman or king.
They love noses, they love toes.
They will eat you …
your clothes.
But –don’t give them
a brussels sprout-
and sauerkraut is also out.
Give them T-bones, give them meat,
but never, ever beans nor wheat.
I don’t want one
as a pet myself.
For should it roar,
I’d wet myself.

A few years ago I also wrote poems – again in English and Afrikaans - for Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibtion and Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen. I have often performed these poems with the pianist Tertia Visser-Downie.

I also wrote a rhyming version in Afrikaans of Peter and the Wolf, and English words for the Vivaldi Four Seasons. The original work was actually based on Italian Sonnets. I have tried to make the verses more accessible, with added bits of humour and seriousness. This work, has however never been performed.

I recently also wrote words for Van Hunks and the Devil – a new work by Martin Watt.

As a photographer, you have presented 10 solo exhibitions. In your book “Milieu” (2006), you photographed 132 creative South Africans.

PdV: Being a writer and singer made it quite easy for me to approach well-known creative South Africans – among those from the classical music fraternity that I photographed were Lionel Bowman, Laura Searle, Elsie Hall, Evelyn Dalberg, Mimi Coertse, Pieter de Villiers, Hubert du Plessis, Nellie du Toit, Acáma Fick, Angelo Gobbato, Hendrik Hofmeyr, Laurinda Hofmeyr, Peter Klatzow, Albie Louw, Marita Napier, Lloyd Strauss-Smith, David Tidboald, Virginia Davids. I felt very honoured when composer Hubert du Plessis said that he liked the picture I took of him so much, that it was the one that he wanted to be remembered by when he passed away one day.

Philip de Vos’ portrait of composer Hubert du Plessis

You are a renowned translator of a long list of childrens’ books and youth novels and manage to create astonishingly “musical” word phrasings when you translate. Do you think your musicality helps you with this? After all, each language also has a certain rhythm and “timbre”, if one may say so.

PdV: I definitely think that musicality helps. I have read some published rhymes and limericks in Afrikaans which were quite terrible, and where neither the writer nor the publisher noticed how awful it was.

From how many languages have you translated and do you speak and understand all the languages that you translate from perfectly?

PdV: Although I do not speak any of these languages - apart from English - I have made rhyming translations from Dutch, especially the poems of Annie M.G. Schmidt, also 150 German songs into Afrikaans for Die Groot Sangboek and even from Japanese (!) for an animated series for SATV

Are there any other “musical” projects that you would still like to tackle?

PdV: At the moment I have NO idea, but I am sure something will pop up soon.

Lastly, as a lover of music, what’s in your CD player at the moment?

PdV: A Musical Spectacular – songs and production numbers from the Classic MGM Musicals.

Interview by Christien Coetzee Klingler
Published 12. 11. 2012

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