Saturday, 24 April 2010
My dear, inspiring, vivacious, combative and energetic friend Noelle Mann, doyenne of Prokofiev events and studies in recent years, died peacefully at home yesterday with her husband Chris holding her hand. There they are above. Astonishingly, I took that photo only two months ago, when Noelle was already in extreme pain from the cancer she'd borne unknowingly for about eight years and with honesty during the shorter time she had to consciously manage it.
We realised I might not see her again, though I very much wanted to; despite her fatigue, she talked with her usual clarity and determination about tying up Prokofievian loose ends, trying to think of anyone she hadn't contacted on the organisational front, and very much wanting to know what was going on in the world. Frankly, I was expecting to be upset by how she'd changed, but she looked very much her old animated self, and the eyes had all their characteristic inquisitive sparkle. It was, paradoxically, an inspiring visit.
I first met Noelle when I was about to embark on at least the background work for my book and she had just launched the Prokofiev Archive at Goldsmiths College (don't ask me which year that was). I liked her directness and her immediately engaging warmth - though I have to say that there were times in the early stages, as in any passionate friendship, where we might have hit a reef, since she could certainly give offence, and I was all too ready to take it. Once we'd overcome that, she enriched my life in so many ways: as conductor of the Kalina Choir, which I promptly joined and where I also met my Russian teacher, Joan Smith; as instigator of great confluences like the massive anniversary celebrations in Manchester in 2003; as editor of Three Oranges, a composer journal way above the usual standards, invaluable in the furthering of Prokofiev studies; and simply as a good friend, keeping me company during my big year of research at the Archive, coming to dine here with the ever-supportive and involved Chris and holding two big summery birthday parties in the garden of her son's house near Blackheath.
Later gatherings were rather valedictory, as she retired from Goldsmiths College, where she loved her students and they her, and withdrew from the Archive, handing over to the dependable and immensely likeable Fiona McKnight (it says much for Noelle that she won undying loyalty from the people she needed around her). The gathering before the Barbican premiere of the Mark Morris/Simon Morrison 'original' Romeo and Juliet was huge fun, but retrospectively tinged with sadness: not only Noelle but also her close friends Ted and Joan Downes, whose assisted suicide came as such a cruel shock to her, are no longer with us. But here she is on that occasion, beaming as ever with the invite for this Serge Prokofiev Foundation 25th anniversary bash, designed by the also-pictured Serge Junior, son of Sviatoslav and grandson of the composer.
As I told Chris this morning and seemed to startle him in what seemed to be a positive way, she came into my mind several times yesterday because it was - officially at least, though room for doubt exists - Prokofiev's birthday. Knowing that the end was close, I was thinking it would be rather grand if she could manage to take her leave on 23 April. And she did. Life without such a huge personality won't be the same, but now I just have to make more headway with that second volume, which will of course be dedicated to Noelle.
I should have added when I first wrote this that my thoughts go not only to Chris but also to Julia and Tom and their families, who brought Noelle a lot of joy in recent years. There's a photo Noelle showed me on our last visit of her with little Lina which is one of the loveliest I've ever seen.
Finally, an optional homage, encouraged by Serge's poetry below. I'd been sending Noelle and Chris CDs of music I thought might provide some gentle support, and that helped me rediscover the wonderful Poulenc songs disc which I excerpted some way below. I think our grande dame bien-aimee would like the bittersweet levity of another great lady, Felicity Lott, in 'Les chemins d'amour'. Yours to take or leave, as you wish (though if you take it, it's best viewed fullscreen by clicking and going to the YouTube format). It's helped me to shed a few fond tears.