A Great Man’s Weakness: Lord Balfour’s Concertina

The Catholic Press – 31 July 1930

A Great Man’s Weakness: Lord Balfour’s Concertina

    It was with a little surprise that many people learned from Mrs. Drew’s diary, which was published recently, that in his early life Lord Balfour was an enthusiastic and expert player on the concertina.
    The concertina has gone out of fashion like the Jew’s harp, the banjo and the bones; and we think of it now chiefly as an instrument of torture that heralded the coming of still more instruments of torture.
    Yet what middle-aged man can look back on his childhood without recalling how he once envied the man who could squeeze more than a wail out of that noble bellows and who could set it caterwauling to the tune of “Maggie Murphy’s Home?” I myself used to get an infinite satisfaction from staring into the window of one of those small shops where the entire stock consisted of toys and all those musical instruments which musical people did not play—Jew’s harps, mouth organs, penny whistles, trumpets, drums and banjos. I longed to play each one of them as a starving man longs for food, and, if I had had money, I should have bought them all and turned my home into a pandemonium.

    As it was, I did play on a drum with considerable vigour, and I almost blew my eyes out trying to play the tin whistle. I also made the lives of others miserable by playing tunes that did not quite become tunes on the mouth organ, and I made myself ecstatically happy by twanging “The Protestant Boys” on the Jew’s harp. Is the Jew’s harp ever played nowadays, or is the love of music dead among the younger generation? I confess when I see my nephews growing up with as little knowledge of that sweet confection of metal as of Sanskrit, I cannot believe that the world has changed for the better.

    A concertina, unfortunately, never came into my possession, nor did its poor relations, the accordion and the melodeon. I often held other people’s concertinas in my hands, however, tremulous with anticipation of the tune that would come. But no tune ever did come, for I trusted entirely to inspiration, and I would hand the instrument sadly back to its possessor so that he might ravish my soul with “The Orange Lily” or “My Nellie’s Blue Eyes.”
    Among all the instruments that in those days filled the air with music, the only one that seems to have more than held its own is the mouth-organ. There is, I believe, a Mouth-Organ Championship of the World, for which men compete as desperately as for the boxing championship. There are said to be 50,000,000 mouth-organs sold every year, and I could imagine no more soul-stirring event than we should witness if all the millions of mouth-organs players in the world were to march through the streets of a great city with banners flying, every man of them playing his instrument.

    But where are all these millions of people who play mouth-organs? There must be thousands of people playing secretly or, at least, in the privacy of their homes besides those who perform on the instrument so acceptably in the streets. Will it be revealed, I wonder, in a diary published 50 years hence that Mr. Baldwin was never so happy as when playing “The Kreutzer Sonata” on the mouth-organ to the accompaniment of a piano? Will it be discovered that Mr. Ramsay MacDonald, by his rendering of “Ye Banks and Braes” on the same instrument was the life and soul of every party he attended?
    One could almost swear that Mr. Winston Churchill is as good a mouth-organist as he is a painter or a bricklayer. He certainly might be worse employed. When you come to think of it, he often is.

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