Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer

Chapter One

From The World, June 24th, 1923:

KENSINGTON TRIPLE TRAGEDY
Composer Kills His Wife, Another,
Commits Suicide

Opera Will Not Open

A double murder followed by the suicide of the perpetrator has taken place in a cul-de-sac off Kensington High Street. Jealousy is the principal motive for the crime.

The police were summoned at two o’clock yesterday morning, when witnesses at Cadogan Mansions in Drapery Street were startled by the report of a revolver. Constable Williams, forcing the door open, found the body of the composer Charles Jessold, aged 35 years, holding a bloodstained five-chambered revolver, which he had discharged into his jaw. On the bed lay the bodies of his wife, mezzo-soprano Victoria London, 30, and Edward Manville, 40, a married man. The Jessolds’ two-month-old baby was found asleep in his crib.

Police reported that the administration of fatal doses of arsenic was the cause of death of Miss London and Mr Manville, raising the possibility that Jessold watched their death-agonies before taking his own life, therefore making the tragedy three-fold.

Earlier in the evening, all three had attended the dress rehearsal of the composer’s first opera, Little Musgrave, which was to be given its premiere by the English Opera Company in two days. At the private party that followed, Charles Jessold was seen in heated argument with Mr Manville, who subsequently departed with Miss London for the Jessolds’ Kensington home where they relieved the nurse who was caring for the Jessolds’ infant son.

Jessold had been drinking heavily and numerous witnesses reported that his behaviour was erratic. He told an intimate that his wife had stated her intention to end the marriage, retaining custody of the child.

Regardless of the composer’s death, gruesome parallels between this triple domestic tragedy and Jessold’s opera Little Musgrave, in which Lord Barnard murders his wife and her lover, ensure that the EOC has no choice but to cancel the production. It is expected that The Magic Flute, under the baton of Sir Arnold Bentham, will take its place in the repertory this season.

Charles Jessold was best known for the string quartet composed while he was captive at the Badenstein internment camp. Among his other compositions were The Soda Syphon Symphony, the tone poem Séance, the Folk-Song Oratorio, and his popular suite Shandyisms. In 1918, he was the first recipient of the Composers Guild’s Young Composer of the Year award.

The musical critic of this newspaper, a sometime collaborator of the composer, Leslie Shepherd, blamed Jessold’s alcoholism and obsessive nature, declaring the murders an unnecessary tragedy, one that would inevitably tarnish the composer’s legacy.


As the World noted, I was both witness to the events at the party and Jessold’s collaborator. As such, I gave my statement to the police at Kensington on 26th June. (I had expected to spend that day anticipating the première of Little Musgrave, but I found myself instead in a one-windowed interrogation room.) This brief, uninspiring experience persuaded me to gather my memories of the composer: to flesh him out, as it were, as I knew him.

I was not to become Jessold’s official biographer until many years later, but when the commission came, I was glad of this albeit partial narrative, written when events were fresh in my mind and my memory was at its best. Perhaps if everyone the composer knew had done half as much, we’d have a more complete picture of a man who allowed each of his magic circle access to a mere fragment of him. At the time, however, most people were happy to forget his very existence.

I gave this personal memoir to the police, in case it was of any use. What they made of it I have no idea: perhaps I should have enclosed a stamped addressed envelope so they could notify me of delivery. Perhaps it arrived too late. I now imagine my typed pages at rest in a dusty folder in a far-flung filing cabinet: “Closed Cases Archive—J”.

But I wrote it primarily for myself, to set the record straight, to tell the story I knew, to clear my mind. That I also gave it to the police was certainly to the advantage of all.

I offer it here, as is, without further remark.


Charles Jessold, As I Knew Him

The public must sometimes be imposed upon, for it considers itself the composer’s equal as soon as things are made too easy for it.
Robert Schumann

I met Charles Jessold, the murderer, on May 21st, 1910, the day after King Edward’s funeral. We were guests at a Hatton Manor Saturday-to-Monday, and it was on that very first evening that I had occasion to tell of Carlo Gesualdo, the composer whose story made such a lasting impression.

I had just entered the room, a quick inventory of which revealed: three composers (one of note, two of naught), a conductor, and a miscellany of vicars, musical scholars and enthusiasts; not to mention Cedric Mount (our most esteemed member) and of course Antic Jackson who, despite arriving on the same late train from town, had managed to beat me downstairs. I was, as ever, the token musical critic.

The only stranger was the young man standing over the piano. In impeccably creased grey flannels and gaudily striped tie, he was our junior by some years. His face, a pick-and-mix assortment, conformed to no classical ideal. His forehead was too broad and his lips too mean for his fleshy cheeks, although the ever-glimmering smile at their left corner gave an impression of geniality. His thick black hair was slicked lavishly with pomade.

His eyes, later described as devilish, were nothing of the kind; rather they were beady, though being a lucid emerald green, not unattractively so. In conversation, they spoke directly to you, a somewhat unnerving compliment that turned a stranger into a confidant whether he cared to be or not. When it was his turn to listen, those eyes never strayed from yours. To avoid his gaze, one sought refuge in the perfectly straight line from the top of his nose to the cusp of the chin that he was later to disguise with a goatee (interpreted as Mephistophelean, of course). Above his eyes, that pale billboard of forehead advertised his every flicker of emotion.

This newcomer leant in rapt attention, back arched to a stylized forty-five degrees, his elbow on the lid of the piano, hand to his chin, thumb tucked under: a remarkably self-conscious pose. I found myself wondering whether he was perhaps used to being observed. He certainly ‘lit up’ a room. Any producer worth his salt would have plucked him from a crowd.

I realized that someone was playing the piano only when he stopped. The pianist, Mark Wallington, rose and with a sweep of the hand surrendered his stool to the young man, whose mask of deliberation disappeared into a broad smile that bared unruly teeth dominated by handsomely vampirical incisors. He raised his hands, as if to demonstrate that there was nothing up his sleeves, and played what he had just heard to an astonishing degree of accuracy. The performance, brought off with some relish, was greeted by applause from a group by the fireside.

“The arrangement and harmonisations to boot!” proclaimed St John Smith à la ringmaster. “Will anyone else try to stump him?” The young man bowed. Not so self-conscious after all; just youthful, serious, in the spotlight.

I called casually to our host, the fifteenth Viscount Hatton, who met my eyes with a raised finger implying that I was far more interesting than whatever minor obstacles stood in his path. He was known as “Sandy” for his sun-freckled, desert complexion, though all he knew of the Sahara was a bunker at Sunningdale.

“You’re like a German verb, Leslie,” he said when he finally materialised. A calculated insult. “Always last.”

“But just on time, and like a French adjective, agreeable.” I waved a vague finger towards the young man: “Who’s the performing seal?”

“Now, now.”

“Can he balance a red ball on his nose?”

“Probably.” Sandy surveyed his domain with satisfaction. Jackson and I were the last pieces in his weekend’s jigsaw. “A pleasure, Leslie.” I bowed. “Ah,” he said with an approving smile at the cabal in question. “A reprise of the star turn.”

Again a somewhat tuneless original was rendered; again the young man duplicated it, as though the first player had printed a piano roll and he merely pedalled it through. It seemed the Memory Man had reached the climax of his act.

“I didn’t know there was to be a music hall turn in addition to our fishing expedition,” I said pianissimo as we broadcasted smiles about us.

“A mere trifle. The pièce de résistance is yet to come.”

“Oh I am disappointed.”

“I believe he was something of an … infant prodigy.” He savoured the words for my benefit.

“Played Three Blind Mice in all keys by the age of four. Wrote his first sonata in utero.

“Very possibly. But his days of prodigiousness are done. He is unhappily studying composition under Kemp at St Christopher’s, Cambridge…”

Kemp’s was a name I was known to pooh-pooh at every opportunity, so I instead indicated the wunderkind’s tie. “Are those Kit’s colours?”

“No, I believe that may be the tie of…” He paused for comic effect… “The Four Towns Music Festival in Kent. There’s a mother, I am told, to whom he is very loyal, and she has him work as accompanist at that august provincial gala. Jessold may not strictly be from the top drawer, dear Shepherd. But I saw a young man of promise.”

You invited him.” I thought we had been speaking of an interloper, an extraneous other making up numbers in the back of someone’s Bentley. Sandy waved away my apology.

“He is going down this year, and when Kemp asked me to speak to the University Madrigal Society I unavoidably met Jessold, its President.” The keen madrigalist was currently attacking a bit of ragtime with venom, pounding the keys into submission.

“What’s he got against the piano?”

“His touch is a little agricultural, probably years of banging out Poor Wandering One for the daughters of the local clergy, but then Jessold has no pretensions to be a concert pianist.”

“Eureka! He has pretensions to be a composer.”

“Yes.”

”He angled for an invitation to mingle with the great and the good.”

“Far from it. Kemp can’t speak highly enough of him. So I convinced Jessold that the one that got away was lurking here in the Lower Thames. And lo! There he sits! The very image of the young composer, earnestly trying to ingratiate himself to the crowd as a child seeks to please his parents. He’ll get over that. I have yet to hear any work.”

St John extricated himself from the knot around the piano. “Racket rather sets my teeth on edge,” he said with a grimace. “It’s so desperately jaunty. Youth must, I dare say.”

Sandy slipped off his signet ring, tinkling the side of his champagne flute. Glasses of Oeil de Perdrix were raised towards him in toast. “Hatton welcomes you. I welcome you. Tomorrow we work; tonight we play. But first, I know Jessold, new of this parish, has been diverting some of you. We’ll let the boy take a breather … but first, I’ll make him sing once more for his supper. Freddie, to the piano.”

Fat Frederic Desalles was so cruelly camouflaged by his jacket that his head appeared to be peeking from behind the cushions of the sofa. He struggled to attention and made his way to the piano. We held our breath nervously on the stool’s behalf. Landing was achieved.

“I am here.” He played a little something that he intended us to imagine effortlessly thrown off, but even this little doodle bore the tragic hallmarks of his many other failures. Some thought Freddie’s sole qualifications to be a composer were that he believed in God and his name sounded foreign; but he could lay claim to Handel a religious theme as well as any man in Britain. “At the ready!”

“Jessold, make yourself scarce,” commanded Sandy.

The butler escorted Jessold from the room. I looked at the young man as he left; he glanced over his shoulder, catching me, as it were, red-handed. A departing star knows there is always someone looking.

“When they are at a suitable distance,” Sandy continued, “I will ask Freddie to play a melody, of say four or five lines, unknown to Jessold. Perhaps one you might like to improvise for us now, maestro; perhaps a little something from your redoubtable arsenal.”

No one could doubt the size of Desalles’ arsenal. Drinks, pale and pink, were replenished as he sketched his rough draft. It was typically Desallesean (there is certainly no such word, nor ever shall be): churchfully plain, easily ignored.

“We shall now bring Jessold back into the room.” Sandy tugged the bell-pull imperiously. “And you Freddie will play him the first half of your melody. But no more than that.”

On his return, the young man again assumed that study of trance-like meditation as he refined the music’s possibilities in his mind. Desalles ended his rendition on a suspended D minor, an appropriately haunting chord for this demonstration of Cecilian clairvoyance. Jessold did not move. He was not yet ready.

“Once more, Freddie, please,” asked Sandy.

This time, when Desalles reached that inconclusive D, Jessold took his place, played the first three lines, and elided effortlessly into the next two, melodically twinned, if not identically harmonised, with Frederic’s originals. We’ve all heard pieces where the composer’s next thought was predictable (and Desalles was not the most unconventional) but this was something quite apart. Jessold, alert to every possible melodic path, had narrowed it down to one: this one. It was more akin to the reduction of a mathematical equation.

His final flourish was a plagal chord of amen that parodied Desalles’ Messiah complex. No one clapped more enthusiastically than Freddie himself. I willingly joined in, delighted that the boy had none of the fear of self-expression endemic in those schooled in composition. One marvelled at the strength of character that had escaped unscathed from Kemp’s clutches!

“Rather better than the prototype,” I muttered.

“Ask him how he does it,” said Sandy, as the bell rang for dinner.

The first toast was to the departed king; the second, to the new George. I had feared that the funeral and its surrounding sea of dark blue serge mourning might spell the postponement of our weekend’s pleasure, but our party was of sterner stuff.

My reward for years of uninterrupted friendship with our host was a seat next to man of the moment who boasted the unseasonable glow of a cross-country runner on a freezing December morning, with babyish skin that seemed ruddy with overly zealous shaving. A tureen hovered to my left as a ghostly consommé, complete with ectoplasm, was ladled into my bowl. I introduced myself to Jessold by name.

“Of The World?” he asked without a semiquaver rest.

I nodded, flattered. “I know you only as Jessold.”

Charles Jessold.”

A smile, perhaps a little reptilian, slid across my face. “Charles Jessold?”

“I hope you are not going to ask me if I am the Charles Jessold, for I am almost certainly not.” There was a forthrightness about him: nothing ungracious or rudely done, but he spoke his mind. “I am a composer, but I have yet to trouble the critics with anything worth their ink.”

“I look forward to the imposition. Does anyone remark on your name?”

“Never. Jessold is rare, apparently, almost extinct in Britain except in parts of Suffolk.”

“No. It is the two names in tandem … not merely Jessold.” He looked at me uncomprehending. “Together they put me in mind of a composer. You have perhaps never heard of Carlo Gesualdo?” His expression did not change. “Being the president of a madrigal society, and being a Charles Jessold, you ought.”

“Well, I already feel an etymological kinship with him.”

“Ha! Have a care, Jessold. His is not a name to take in vain.”

As I installed myself to tell Gesualdo’s remarkable story, I uttered the composer’s name as a bold headline.

“Carlo Gesualdo!” hooted Forbes, our pet literarian, eavesdropping. Forbes and I enjoyed a cantankerous relationship, taking nothing personally: we were used to riding against one another. “Carlo Gesualdo! Beware of the Shepherd, young Jessold. Behind his public face, that of an unassuming, if violently nationalist, musical scribe, lurks a ridiculous antiquarian. Inky-fingered goeth he, under a layer of dust, slicing through the musty cobwebs of our musical history as he may.” All good-natured, no doubt, but I did not care to be the butt of his chaffing when I had such a story to tell. I turned back to my food, mindful not to give an impression of pique. On blundered Forbes, undaunted: “Whatever made you think of that ghoulish character, Shepherd? The vaguest coincidence of two names? Please spare our young friend that Halloween horror. At least while he’s eating.”

I had barely noticed the arrival of the chaud-froid, a Hatton favourite. The promise of conversation had withered like Klingsor’s garden so I took a momentary, dignified vow of silence, content to postpone my revelations. Sandy had referred to Jessold’s promise. I had scoffed, but I could feel it too.

Talk fell to the next day’s expedition. It might have seemed to the unenlightened ear that, with our boasts of previous successes and our territorial disputes, we were preparing for a day’s foxhunting. The drawing of straws followed, and, as if by providence (I assume no human agency would answer to it) I was paired with Jessold. My partner said he hoped our excursion might provide the opportunity to hear more of his namesake. Gratifyingly, Sandy had overheard.

“No-one,” roared our host, “will be kept from telling a story at Hatton, particularly one with as much potential as Gesualdo’s. Not even by a naysayer of your stature, Forbes!” Forbes raised a hand of apologetic submission. “We shall take our port next to a roaring fire and Leslie Shepherd will tell his tale. And if the story isn’t up to snuff, we shall burn him.”