Paris, 1906. A young singer from Guelph has traveled to Paris, fresh from a highly-praised series of performances in Chicago. At the home of his friend Harry Higinbotham, the singer meets an older woman. She is Portuguese, estranged from her wealthy family and a talented musician herself, although her own dreams of a singing career have been ended by illness and misfortune.
The singer is Edward Johnson, who achieved great success as a tenor, performing in both Europe and North America; the woman is Beatriz d’Arneiro, who later became his wife.
Jump forward more than a century, and U of G graduate Gloria Dent has volunteered to help the Edward Johnson Music Foundation sort through their archives, which are held at the University of Guelph Library. “A collection of letters between Edward and Beatriz caught my attention, so I started to organize them,” says Dent, who earned a master’s degree in history in 1991.
Edward’s letters were easy to read; he had been taught the standard Ontario school cursive style. The ones from Beatriz, who had been educated by a series of governesses, were more challenging. It took Dent nearly two years to transcribe the more than 300 letters, but by then, she says, “the letters had begun to fascinate me.”
Dent realized that this was a story worth sharing and has published the letters, with some editing for length, and many explanatory notes as At My Sweet Recall.
The letters are vivid, interesting and often very personal. “Beatriz wrote a lot about her feelings and her life in Paris,” Dent says. “Edward’s letters are short at first, and he doesn’t say much about what he’s thinking or feeling. But as you continue to read them, you see them falling in love.”
In the summer of 1907, Edward returned to Paris and his “Bebe” (as he called Beatriz). By fall, when he crossed the ocean once more and landed in New York, he and Beatriz had begun to think of a future together. Dent points out: “Now his letters are longer, and he expresses more feelings. He also writes more about his concert experiences and the challenges of train travel in North America in the early 1900’s.”
Beatriz, unable to fulfill her own ambitions as a musician and singer, devoted herself to helping Edward achieve his. “Her father had been a composer and conductor, her whole family very musical. Beatriz was well informed about music and the musical world, and she knew the pitfalls,” says Dent. “Edward became her life’s purpose. She was never afraid to challenge him, to criticize him, when she thought he needed it, but she always believed in him.”
Some of the letters, Dent adds, are quite funny. Beatriz writes in 1906:
“It will be detrimental to get mixed up with the Metropolitan Italian gang. They are a pack of hounds. The moment they spy a competitor in you, they will be anything but friends…Just answer that you haven’t made up your mind and don’t give an inch… Don’t accuse me of being suspicious and unkindly, I am not.”
This love story does have a happy ending. Edward and Beatriz married in August 1909 and had a daughter, Fiorenza, a year later. Fiorenza grew up to marry George Drew, who became premier of Ontario. Their daughter, named Alexandra Beatrice, married Sir David Scholey of England.
Dent was able to meet with Lady Scholey at her home in England. “Meeting Lady Scholey was a great pleasure,” says Dent. “She’s clever and intellectual, and graciously lent me some of Beatriz’s diaries and letters to Fiorenza that helped me add important details to the book.” Lady Scholey also helped with the translation of some letters Beatriz had written in French and Italian.
The book’s title is taken from a poem Dent found in the University of Toronto music library archives. The copy had belonged to Edward, but Beatriz had written in the English translation:
“As May comes for the roses
And roses come for love
As perfume comes from the mimosa
As the bee goes to the kiss of the flowers
Thus you’ll come to me serenely
At my sweet recall and little by little
You shall give me your soul, your mind
And your heart pure as fire.”
Beatriz believed she was destined to die young, and often mentioned this in her letters. Her premonition came true. Only ten years after she and “Boysey” (as she affectionately refers to Edward) were married, she passed away. Edward never remarried, but did go on to achieve fame at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, first as a leading tenor and later as general manager. On his retirement in 1950, he returned to Guelph where he set up a fund for the teaching of music in the schools; his work is continued by the Edward Johnson Music Foundation.
Dent has been promoting the book and sharing this love story by giving talks and presentations locally. “It’s easy to give talks with such great material to work from,” she says.