Colin Spencer  wrote:

 

I'm honoured [that you let me read the following], dear John, a shatteringly beautiful account. You've touched on something so profoundly mysterious, that dynamic creative energy that floods us and binds us, which few of us dare even to begin to describe. I can't thank you enough for describing it all so well. And the violin is beautiful, it's so good to be able to hear her.

 

Colin

 

PS Perhaps I'm being unfair in not confessing that your experience echoes one of mine and a recent one, for my Sophie was the stimulus which made me get back to painting and as Diderot said, well... I do each painting for her.

 

 


 

        The Ultimate

      Letter to Sophie

                      August 1978

          A woman took me by surprise

          Laughing through a maiden’s eyes

          I said, “What aged you so within

          This nubile body’s ageless skin?”

 

          She smiled at me and shook her head.

          “Let me ask of you instead,

          Poor child, what folly’s kept you green

          Through all the ripening years you’ve seen?”

 

My Dear Sophie --

 

This is more than just the tale of a beautiful love affair. As our story unfolds, it will become apparent that it is also, as Colin Spencer affirms, a glimpse of "that dynamic creative energy that floods us and binds us", and of the mysterious process whereby channels of creative force are transmitted from generation to generation. I've written you a public thank-you letter on this very subject, and also to Henri Pousseur, citing specific instances, but this is the complete letter I really wanted to write to you. Much of it is extremely intimate, but without that intimacy, an utterly essential ingredient would be missing. It is also very detailed, and not just from third-of-a-century-old memories. I sensed immediately that we would be very important to each other, and so I began to keep a day-to-day diary of what was happening between us. I also kept copies of our prolific correspondence (mostly from me until you went to Juilliard), which brings back our closeness of communication with an extraordinary vividness. I’d never done this with any relationship before, nor have I since. Someday, I thought, if I try to understand and appreciate it, I won’t have to rely merely on an old and unreliable brain. And so what follows is taken from both these immediately contemporary sources.

 


We met at 7 p.m. the evening of March 23rd, 1978. When you appeared at the top of the stairs leading down to my studio it was as though a brick had hit me between the eyes! Whistles blew and bells rang - you were quite simply the most stunningly beautiful creature I had ever seen. As the night wore on, both of us would begin to realize that there was something mysterious and compelling that went beyond mere physical attraction, and in the coming weeks there would be times when we would even find it frightening.

 

There was a recording session to get through somehow. You played like an angel, which only multiplied the attraction. Later you would give me a cassette of a heaven-bourne (both figutatively and literally) Vaughn William's The Lark Ascending that you had performed the previous year-- aged eighteen! You played it simply and unpretentiously, without the all-too-usual expressive exaggeration (not so much a lark as a peacock), and the work greatly benefitted.

 

  

 

Afterwards over a late night meal at Diwan-I-Am we talked continuously, eyeball-to-eyeball, most of the time ignoring our companions. At one point we were standing close together against a wall away from the others, faces inches apart, our conversation flowing like water. The twenty-eight-year disparity in our ages had totally vanished. We told each other our life stories. Your father had fought in the Spanish Civil War, and your parents had met by accident on the train from Stretham to Victoria and ended up spending the day together. Jean, you said, was nineteen, the same age as you, and John was thirteen years older. When they met again two weeks later, you said, he proposed. The parallel to our own fortuitous meeting did not escape my notice, nor did you seem to be unaware of it. I thought, if I were uncommitted I wouldn’t wait even a single night!

 

Chachi, who knew us intimately, saw immediately what had happened. When we met at the studio the next day, I asked her helplessly what I should do. She promptly became our Pandarus: "Go on, ask her out – she'll accept. Take her to see Star Wars [which had just come out] – she hasn't seen it yet and she wants to."

 

A couple of days later I saw you somewhere (location not noted) and asked the crucial question. Two days after that, on March 27th, we saw Star Wars at the Odeon, Holloway Road, and then went to dinner at La Lupa, Connaught Street , where I had reserved a table for two, romantically tucked away in a little vine-covered grotto. Our conversation continued to flow, an endless bubbling fountain. I told you that I thought we could have something very special in the few months before you went off to study in America . You smiled but made no verbal answer. We went back to your bed-sitter, up to the lounge on the top floor, and settled on the sofa.

 

At this point our bodies took over. Quite independently of our brains, they started conversing intimately like old friends who had known each other since time immemorial. There was an intensity, an immediacy, a totality between us that I found utterly breath-taking — not of violent passion but the intimate closeness of soul-to-soul communication. I thought, if this continues, we'll soon be going downstairs and straight to bed. It felt too rushed — the next morning, would you write me off as just a clever seducer? How you felt about me was already much more important to me than mere carnal satisfaction. Reluctantly I kissed you goodnight and went home. My body wasn’t at all happy.

 

The next day we spoke on the phone. We were both very busy and didn’t get together again until 4 Apr, the day of your Shell audition. Afterwards we went with friends to the Spaghetti House for a meal.

 

 

Two days later (6 Apr) was the Shell adjudication and by 9 p.m. we were at my studio. Immediately we became involved in a very long and intricate kiss, in the course of which I started to hear the adagio of the Schubert C Major Quintet in my head. The tempo and formal structure of the kiss and the music gradually locked together – it was uncanny, even surreal!. They ended together and you said,“I’d like to listen to the slow movement of the Schubert String Quintet.”

 

“My God!” I exclaimed. “We’ve just performed it!” I put on the Hollywood Quartet recording, after which I unrolled a sleeping bag on the floor behind the mixer. We undressed and got inside. No words were spoken or needed.

 

As I held you I thought, nothing has been said about contraception. There was protection within reach – what should I do? A voice softly broke the silence: “You can come inside – it’s perfectly safe.” Your exact words – they still sound in my ears. What composure! What savoir faire! You were like a warm-hearted hostess greeting an honoured guest. I accepted your gracious invitation and entered into paradise.

 

Our bodies gratefully resumed their conversation, so inconsiderately interrupted a few nights before – once again, our conscious minds were mere spectators. Again, the difference in our ages melted away; we were Adam and Eve in a prelapsarian Garden of Eden. It wasn't remotely like what I had expected with someone so young — you were the most spontaneously perfect lover I had ever had. Beyond mere technique, there was a maturity, a dignity, a confidence, a gentleness, a tenderness, a directness, a simplicity about you that made me feel as though we were joined together as contemporaries in a timeless infinity. From the very beginning, you made love as totally and as beautifully as you made music. No one was in charge – we were performing a glorious two-part invention whose formal structure determined of itself which voice should lead, for what duration and at what tempo and relative dynamic.

 

I delayed climax as long as I could but ultimately came alone. In a perfectly matter-of-fact voice you said – again, your exact words – “I’ve never had an orgasm.” I laughed and said, “We’ve only just met and we already have a project!" It would reach fruition two months later when you phoned me late at night and opened up to me your innermost reservations about totally giving yourself in love. You were as open and as trusting as a believer to a priest or a patient to a psychiatrist. After an hour-long conversation, I immediately wrote you a letter that included passages from Wilhelm Reich’s The Function of the Orgasm which later gave you the impetus to go past the barriers in your own head that kept you from the total loving surrender that profound orgasm demands. When the magic moment came, you told me with wonder in your voice that you had been floating in empty space above the bed. On another occasion I also had an out-of-body experience in which I watched us making love. We were sublime – together, we had reinvented it!

 

 

But back to April: After making love for the first time, we spoke the next day on the phone but didn’t see each other until five days later (11 April) when you were playing in a string quartet at Pizza Express in Coptic Street near the British Museum . Your father, you had told me, would also be there. What would he think of his younger daughter’s new lover – bearded, married and exactly as old as his wife? In the event we hit it off immediately. Like you and me, we looked each other straight in the eye and trusted what we saw. I thought, I could be acquiring a whole new family. Little did I know!

 

Four more days went by and you phoned me at the studio from home in Hemel Hempstead at 1 a.m. (As so often, I was working late.) You were very agitated and said that I must come to your room the next night (16 Apr). We met at midnight after a Lontano rehearsal. There was fear, even terror, in your eyes and in your voice. You told me that we must stop seeing each other – your exam recital was coming up and you were so distracted that you couldn’t work, you couldn’t practice. I was devastated, but there was no question of what we should do. Your music had become as important to me as it was to you — I was already convinced that you were probably one of the greatest violinists of your generation. I fought back the tears and said, “What a shame! We could have had such a beautiful few months together.”

 

And then you did something that I had only read about in Victorian novels. You flung yourself headlong on the floor, sobbing, “I don’t want something for just a few months!” At the time it made no sense to me but it would emerge later that while I was merely falling in love, you were choosing me as your life’s companion and the father of your children. More than once in the following months you were to tell me that I would make a wonderful father and that, if only you were ten years older, you would think about me in a totally different way. In other words, you would have accepted an eighteen-year gap in our ages, even with our family still to come, if only we could have started immediately!

 

I thought long and hard about it. Nothing would have given me more joy than spending the rest of my life with you. Even raising a family (not previously a priority) began to look appealing. But you quite wisely wanted to establish your career for a decade or so before having children. By the time they were independent, I would be into my eighties. Out of the question! — I loved you too much to saddle you with the care both of a growing family and an aged and possibly infirm husband. And yet, here I am, in my eightieth year and in better physical shape and feeling younger than I've felt in years. If I had known then what I know now . . .

 

All of the subsequent turmoil that our affair would cause us both arose from trying to accept as temporary a relationship that we so desperately wanted to last forever. And so on that terrible night we lay on the floor, clinging to one another like shipwrecked sailors. It was, without any question whatsoever, the most desperately unhappy moment of my life, and so it has remained.

 

 

What I wanted most in all the world was to win you back again, somehow, and on terms that would be reassuring and supportive to you rather than threatening. I began writing letters to you and posting them through your door at night on the way home – not sad missives from a love-sick suitor pining away in lonely sorrow, but mostly just affectionate, chatty notes about what I had been thinking and doing. I also went on making you cassette copies of records that I was sure would interest you, including chamber music repertoire that you might choose to learn and to perform, some of which indeed you did. This continued for over three weeks. Once, as I was riding away on my motorbike, you came to the door and called out to me, but I made a snap decision – it was too soon, I should give you more time to recover.

 

On May 10th, three and a half weeks after our separation, we were both involved in a Lontano concert at the Wigmore Hall. As I was packing up my sound equipment you came over to where I was working. It was just in front of the first row, audience right – the scene is indelibly in my mind. You said casually, “If you’re not doing anything later tonight, I’m not busy.” Again, your exact words. Somehow I stopped myself from shouting to the rafters and asked, in an equally casual voice, “What time?” “Oh, about midnight.” You wandered back stage and left me ecstatic, my hopes reborn.

 

After I’d finished packing up, I had an hour to kill. I went back to the studio and paced back and forth. “This,” I said over and over to myself, sometimes out loud, “is the happiest moment of my life!” And, as I wrote to you the following day, so it proved to be.

 

From that moment on there were two glorious months spent getting to know each other. There was no talk of what would happen when it was over, only a continuing timeless present moment. We were both so busy that days would go by with only a telephone conversation, and sometimes you simply needed time away from the intensity of our relationship to give yourself a respite. But for the last month we saw each other almost every day and on June 30th we recorded the Bach sonata, working until 3 a.m. In Aristotle’s evocative words, we had become “a single soul dwelling in two bodies”. The inscribed editing copy of the score that you gave me is one of my most precious momentos.

 

The night of your farewell party I appointed myself the official photographer. It was not just to document the event but to give myself something to do to keep me from following you helplessly from room to room. I kept catching your eye and snapping those glances of surprise or conspiracy or affection which, within a few days, would be all that I would see of you.

 

A single moment of repose gave me that magical image whose pensive beauty rivals the Botticelli Venus. Hers is the classic Renaissance face of a beautiful woman chosen for the total possession of her body, mind and spirit. Whether reclining on a bed or perched on a scallop shell, she is a costly and prestigious accessory whose primary purpose, aside from erotic gratification, is to serve as a symbol of her owner’s wealth and status.

 

The eyes of Botticelli’s Venus are looking wistfully downward with an expression suggesting that her mind, if any, is elsewhere. But the eyes of my own contemporary goddess, fully as beautiful as her classic predecessor, met mine directly, face to face, and as an equal. I can never forget them – no more wonderful image exists anywhere in the world!

 

Just before you left for America, I dropped a final letter through your door in which I attempted to thank you for all that you had done for me. Once settled in New York, for two months you wrote me affectionate letters beginning, "Dearest John", and there were long phone calls in both directions. But of course it could go nowhere and you had your whole life still ahead of you. You finally asked that we break it off, explaining sadly that you were beginning to feel like a "fictional character". Years of deep friendship would follow. but our love affair would become only a happy life-long memory.

    

 

I recently talked my way through all of this with Jean in an incredible five-hour conversation. Jean probably knows more about the inside of my head than any other person, living or dead.

 

Thirty years ago I gave you a bound set of photocopies of all the letters I had written to you, labeled on the cover, Letters to Sophie. (You can read them HERE.) The core consisted of those written immediately after your desperate termination of our barely-begun love affair. Their purpose was to win you back again on your own terms, whatever they might prove to be, and to my everlasting delight, they had succeeded.

 

I would be surprised if you had kept them – they’re not the sort of baggage a young woman just starting out on life’s journey would choose to weigh herself down with. You will probably never read them again, but if you did, you would discover that they are a heartfelt tribute to a remarkable person and a superb musician. For me, they also narrate a total relationship with the most delicately sensuous woman I have ever known, with whom I could communicate on every level, from the carnal to the sublime. Making love with you was as it must be in Plato’s heaven.

 

But these letters were not the only record of who and what you were. Even more essential are the recordings – hours and hours of them – which prove beyond a doubt that my memory of your musicianship is not merely a figment of my sentimental imagination. (A favorite of mine is of one of your regular encores, the Monti Czardas, which includes the so-well-remembered sound of your voice as well as your virtuosic playing, recorded at the ripe old age of 23.) When you played you became, not an interpreter of Bach or Beethoven or Brahms, but a channel through whom they spoke directly, in their own voices, across the centuries. It was this that prepared me for what would soon be my own experience of putting together the pre-recorded tape for Henri Pousseur’s Tales and Songs from the Bible of Hellat the time I wrote to you about it in detail. As Henri later confirmed, both he and I had become channels for the same force that had flowed through Dowland and Blake.

 

I have gradually come to the conclusion that what brought us so inexorably together from the instant we met could well have been a timeless energetic force such as that which I sensed in your playing and then felt in myself, first in Tales and Songs, and later in certain performances of which I was a part. Was there, between us, one of art's eternally regenerating creative channels? I would call this extravagantly mystical and far-fetched, except that such forces have long been a part of my observation and experience. We rarely discussed our relationship – it would have been like pinning a butterfly – but the fear that you felt in our early days together suggests to me that you too sensed something so strong as to be profoundly unsettling.

 

Coming up to the present, there was the fright that I suddenly and shockingly felt when, after years without any direct contact, I learned that your domestic and economic survival was threatened – it was as if I myself were under attack. I wrote you a couple of friendly but cautious emails, which you answered with a sad confession of unhappiness and helplessness. I responded with heartfelt sympany and support, only to receive a desperate cry from the depths of hell, to which I replied with equally strong emotion. All this proved to be at a level of intensity that you just couldn’t cope with and you asked me to stop writing to you, even brief words of encouragement – in your own words, you just hadn’t the capacity.

 

There was an inexplicable mystery that still united us – we were hard-wired together in an indissoluble  bond more profound than merely “being in love”. The old Hollywood cliché – “This is bigger than you and me – this is bigger than both of us!” – seemed to take on a literal meaning. Are we getting into Jungian archetypes of unus mundus?

 

 

I have no rational explanation for what followed. Word reached me that you were trying to get back into serious playing again, applying for a position as leader with several major chamber orchestras, something you were fully capable of. But you were out of practice. A third of a century before when we temporarily split up because you were too distracted to work, there nevertheless remained a channel between us through which we were able somehow to feed strength to each other and summon it up within ourselves. By way of Chachi you sent me a lovely old harbour photo and a passage from Dosteyevski, together with word that you were once more getting in eight good hours of practice a day, and I wrote to you that the opera libretto I was trying to write was unblocked and flowing again. I thought, this time, without saying anything to you about it, was there a discipline that I could impose on myself that might in some way offer you support?

Over the years since we were together my body had accumulated twenty-plus kilos, the result of eating as a sex substitute but also a means of making myself sexually unattrative so as to avoid the temptation of subsequent further invoIvements. (A classic syndrome — one of my most beautiful lovers had, from a similar motive, coverted herself into a simulacrum of Gertrude Stein.) I'd tried several times to get myself back into a reasonable shape, but with only partial and temporary success. And so I "tuned in" and began. This time it was effortless — no temptation whatsoever to overeat or to snack between meals. From February to July I took off about two-thirds of it and it's still going. Meanwhile, I hear that you've been working really hard and getting in hours of productive practice every day, starting early in the morning. Is there any connection? I have no idea — I only record events as they occur.

 

 

Finally, what I prized most of all about our four months together was that they brought out the best in us. I genuinely believe that at the end we were better people and better artists than when we began. I sensed a joy in each other, in ourselves and in our work which, in my own case, would carry through my whole career. My ears told me that your playing was becoming more assured, more authoritative, more inspired and above all, more joyous with every successive performance. I deeply believe that we had become — inexorably, profoundly, permanently — a part of each other.

 

Your ultimate gift, paradoxically, was the survival of my marriage. When we met, I was seeing a marriage counselor whose help, at my request, had turned into consultation on how to terminate it rather than continue it. At the end of our incomparable love affair, I realized that no other, either inside or outside of marriage, could ever approach it — there was no point in trying to start over again with someone else. And so, dear Sophie, as I recently wrote to you,

Before it was too late, I learned that a love based on companionship, shared enthusiasms and genuine affection can be more durable than the merely carnal variety.

But I can never forget what we so briefly but beautifully shared. In my more fanciful moments I imagine a parallel universe in which we meet in the same way and at the same time, but in which I am years younger and unattached. After our recording session, followed by that late night meal that we spend wrapped in a voco-visual embrace, I propose to you before the sun comes up, and to our mutual astonishment you hear yourself accepting on the spot.

 

Your musical career holds infinite promise – far beyond my own – and so, as well as partner, friend and lover, I become your agent and manager. My boundless faith in your gift and its infinite potential makes me a persuasive representative. And thus it happens that in that other world there is no sound designer named John Whiting, but the great violinist Sophie Langdon is a household name. Somewhere, just a time slip away, it could all be taking place at this very moment!

 

Yours, with a love undiminished by years of separation,

Letters to Sophie, April-July 1978

Correspondence with Sophie, July 1978-November 1981