BEGIN THE BEGUINE – ON THE MUSICAL SAW & CHRISTMAS CAKE AT COVENT GARDEN…

remembering my great-uncle sid

Great-Uncle Sid Marcus, in a publicity photo taken at the outset of his career, around 1936.

My mother’s uncle, Sidney Marcus was a gifted musician and an accomplished violinist, and like many gifted people, he was also slightly eccentric. Occasionally, his eccentricity and his musicianship would overlap, such as when he led the band at my mother’s wedding; not with his fiddle, but on the musical saw! To this day I’ve yet to learn of another wedding, or function of any kind, where the opening dance was Begin the Beguine, to the eerie strains of a vibrating hand saw. And then there was the incident at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, with Sid and the Christmas Cake…

However, before I relate this tale I should perhaps provide some illuminating context: Firstly, we’re going back to the late 1960’s, around the time Sid rose to be first violin of the Royal Opera House Orchestra; Secondly, the fact that this elevation coincided with my mother and her brother Sidney’s (my family went for a narrow range of names back in the day) infatuation with grand Italian opera; Thirdly, that Sid became a source of complementary tickets for productions of those very works; And finally, that Sid’s non-Jewish wife Edie provided us with a fabulous Christmas cake every December. Thus, the scene is set…

It’s a late December evening, shortly before Christmas at the Royal Opera House, ten-minutes before the curtain is due to rise on a production of Aida, or Tosca, or something along those lines. My mother and Sidney have just settled down into their fifth-row stalls seats, eagerly anticipating the approaching performance when they spy uncle Sid peering over at them from the orchestra pit, presumably from the conductor’s rostrum. As soon as Sid sees they have spotted him, he firmly beckons Sidney to come to him, which he dutifully does. Sid then produces a large box, tied with a ribbon, and hands it over to Sidney. The box turns out not only to be very large, but also very heavy. “It’s from Edie” says Sid to Sidney, “Keep it this way up, it’s a Christmas cake…” and then, without further ado, about turns and disappears into the bowels of the orchestra pit, leaving his suddenly-burdened nephew to negotiate his way back to his seat past a host of bemused fellow opera-goers.

The box was too large to put on the floor, and thus poor, red-faced Sidney had no choice but to sit with it on his lap throughout the evening. By the time opera was finished, his legs had gone to sleep and he could barely stagger to Covent Garden Tube to get the train home. Fortunately, he did get it home though, and in one piece, for Edie’s cake was as delicious as it was enormous.

On a more serious note, it would be remis of me not to mention, that in addition to being an exceptional violinist, and an eccentric, great-uncle Sid was one of the gentlest, kindest and most generous people one could hope to meet.

6 thoughts on “BEGIN THE BEGUINE – ON THE MUSICAL SAW & CHRISTMAS CAKE AT COVENT GARDEN…

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