Margaret Thorby, musician

I was born in NW London in 1952, into a secure and loving family, the first of three children. My first memory is of sitting on grey linoleum in a patch of sunlight, and watching motes of dust as they glittered and danced in a sunbeam. Another early memory is of crying with frustration, as I was too little to talk properly, and couldn’t explain that I wanted a doll’s blanket spread flat, and not folded over at the top.

An idyllic childhood

As I was ill with bronchitis and pneumonia, probably brought on by the London smog, I was taught at home to begin with by my mother. It must have been during this time that I learnt to read music, sitting on my mother’s lap as she played the piano and made up musically-illustrated stories.

With Father Christmas at Whitely’s

In the afternoons we went to Kensington gardens. Very soon after I started school, which I loved, my sister Christine was born. In spite of the large age gap, we played together and got along very well. My father used to come into the playroom and do Russian dancing to a record we had of the Red Army Choir. He had been in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and was captured towards the end of the war. He was one of the prisoners made to walk hundreds of miles away from the approaching Allies on the Lamsdorf death march. Of course, we were told nothing of this. It was here that he learnt Russian dancing. He could also fall flat, from an upright position, catching himself on his hands at the last minute. Apparently it was part of a parachute landing technique.

As a family we listened to a huge amount of music, all classical. We had no television, and went to the local library as a Saturday treat. I loved reading so much that occasionally a book would be taken from me, and I would be made to go and play in the garden. We had wonderful family holidays, lots of walking and running on the beach. The first thing that happened when we arrived anywhere was that my father would go to a library and get us books to read in the evening.

The first party dress

Early impressions of religion

The one blot on the landscape of this idyllic childhood was Methodist Sunday School. The church hall, with its many rooms, was dark, forbidding and ugly. The church was ugly, dark pews, and squares of stained glass in browns and yellows. “The Light of the World” painting by Holman Hunt terrified me, even more so when I was told that the door, choked with vines, represented my heart. It was on the wall outside the Sunday School room. I was confused by the Bible stories, and my many questions were not popular. My father’s  family were Methodist, but my mother was a high Anglican, and calmed my fears of going to hell by teaching me the Magnificat.

School continued to be wonderful. It was a girls’ state school, but I was in a small class of children who had passed some kind of test at the age of 7. The teaching was inspired. We were together until we all passed the 11+.  I went on to a girls’ grammar school , which was quite eccentric. It was next door to a synagogue, and 40 per cent of the pupils were Jewish, so were many of the staff. They had their own prayers in the morning (as did the small scattering of Catholics) and their own canteen, in the synagogue. On Fridays we had joint prayers in the gym. I loved Fridays. The school was fun, highly academic and slightly bizarre. Old Testament was taught by rabbis, up to the flight into Egypt and the massacre of the innocents. New Testament was taught by Anglican lay teachers. It was a very religious school. Maths was taught by a gambling method. We had to assess our ability to solve problems and choose the odds of getting the correct answer. The girl with the most points at the end got a sweet. It was a riot. We learned a lot by acting – Latin plays, Shakespeare, Classical studies: I remember playing the part of Theseus, armed with a ruler. The rest of the class, with their desks, created a moving labyrinth, and Mrs Berkeley raged up and down, being the Minataur.  No wonder, that when we moved to Bury St Edmunds, I found the local girls’ grammar dull.

The move to Suffolk

The pharmaceutical factory where my father worked relocated, so we left London and the life we had there. By this time I also had a little brother, Andrew. I found it quite hard to relate to the girls at the new school. They were much more grown up than me, and had boyfriends and high heels, out of school of course. Luckily there was one good friend who had also moved from London, and played the violin, as I did, and lived opposite me. School was no more than tolerable. Music and English became the  things about which I was passionate. At home, all three of us played the violin, which we did for fun.  I talked a great deal about books and spiritual matters with my mother. When I left school it was a toss-up between English at Oxford, or music college. My headmistress refused to give me a reference for music college so, of course, that is where I went, although I had been offered a place at Oxford.

A career in music begins

A broken string

In 1971 I went to Trinity College of Music, London, and did a performers’ course. It was the right choice. I was there for four years, although I did my LTCL (Licentiate of Trinity College London) a year early. After that I married another student, on the same course, who had also done his diploma a year early. We were both very much taken under the wing of the authorities there, and given permission to perform in public while still being students. We had no money, and our first marital home was a tiny flat over a hairdresser’s in Edgware Road. We played, and practised all the time, and thought about nothing but music. We did loads of concerts.

On leaving college we got jobs as on stage musicians in a Shakespeare company. It was a full-time job, and paid reasonably, so we were able to commission instruments to be made for us. Usually copies of those in museums. After three years we left this job, as it had begun to interfere with concerts and recordings, and we became completely freelance. My husband took over the job of our old music college professor.

Back to Suffolk – with a baby

In 1981, Olivia was born, and we decided to move out of London. We bought the old John Leman School building, in Beccles, and based ourselves there. It was quite tough going, living in rubble and plaster dust with a baby, but we were very happy. We continued with our concert careers, and took Olivia with us as we travelled. I also began to build up a music teaching business, mostly with adults, but then someone asked me if I would start a pre-school music group, which I did. A number of these children continued having lessons with me, to beyond grade 8, and continued through university. We still carried on with our concert careers, and travelled to many parts of the world…. Latvia, Israel, the USA, Czechoslovakia, France, Belgium, Spain, Italy, the Wigmore Hall, the South Bank, St John’s Smith Square….

A privileged life

Musica Antiqua of London

It is a very privileged life style, playing beautiful music in major concert halls, cathedrals, basilicas, crusader castles, with like-minded people, and being appreciated and well paid. Because of the speed of air travel, all this can happen without people realizing that you have just popped over to do a concert in Jerusalem, or Valencia or Riga. It becomes a kind of parallel world. As a family we did a lot of sailing, having bought a Broads cruiser in 1985. We often took nieces and nephews when we cruised, so there were a lot of children in our lives, not to mention dogs, who were such good sailors that when anyone said “ Ready, about” they jumped to the other side of the boat.

Conversion to Catholicism

 We didn’t go to church, although I took Olivia to Sunday School. I had always been interested in the Catholicism, even after having been taught that Luther was a hero.
When I was 15 or so, I went to a camp at Hengrave Hall and, in the nun’s chapel, experienced an intense feeling of love and warmth which I later realised to be the Real Presence. Later on in my life, when we did concerts abroad I had felt the same in Catholic and Orthodox churches. When working in Jerusalem, I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which had a huge impact on me. I have been back many times.

I have been greatly influenced by the nature of the music in which I specialised, much of it religious. Composers in medieval and Renaissance courts were required to write music to entertain, to accompany meals, state occasions, and of course for the Mass and other devotions. Religion was central and essential for any court at this time. Much of the music of the period seemed, and still seems to me, to be divinely inspired.

Suddenly, I knew that I had to become a Catholic. The feeling would not leave me, even when I tried to ignore it or fight it. I was received into the Church, after a year of instruction, during the Easter Vigil of 1992.

Shortly after this we moved down the road to Roos Hall, just outside Beccles. It should have been a happy time as we had a beautiful house, plenty of work, and a lovely daughter. Sadly, in the following years our marriage began to fail. In 1997 my mother died and in 1998 after 25 years of marriage, we parted. This was obviously a very sad time for all of us. I ended up by myself, in a cottage in Beccles. Soon after moving there I fell and broke my leg. This didn’t do much for my income, and I remember struggling down to Bath, in a wheelchair, in order to conduct a playing weekend and earn some money.

Moving to Bungay

After two years of living in rented accommodation, we sold the family home, and each bought a smaller house. My husband stayed in Beccles, I found a house in Bungay. It was in terrible condition, but I fell in love with it, and here I am. It is walking distance from the town and the Catholic church, has a stream running at the bottom of the garden, and overlooks water meadows and the setting sun. I have been here for 17 years. At first I was lonely, knowing nobody in Bungay. It was strange having to start a new life. Most of my nieces and nephews were the children of my husband’s brothers and sisters, so I lost touch with them, although I tried not to. I missed my in-laws, and, of course, my husband. My daughter was very brave, and was a great support, and I had St. Edmund’s, although I knew nobody. I began to get the house sorted out, and to get some work again.

In 2001 the terrible 9/11 event happened, and one of the knock-on effects was that flying with a musical instrument became virtually impossible. Luckily I was able sing, so did more of that than I had ever planned. It just happened that people began to book me as a singer. One recent booking was the Requiem for Richard III in Leicester Cathedral, which was recorded.

I enjoy living in Bungay. I have lovely local friends and neighbours, as well as friends further afield. I am happy in the parish. My daughter, sister and brother live reasonably close. Music is still a passion. The people who have been the greatest influence on me are my mother, and a 14th-century poet, musician, diplomat, medic and mathematician called Guillaume de Machaut. Plans for the future? I don’t make plans.