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Napoleon's Guitar-a celebration of music and serendipity
The Balcombe family, original owners of The Briars at Mt Martha, has a longstanding, rather obscure and utterly fascinating connection with Napoleon Bonaparte dating back to his time in exile. Young Betsy Balcombe was a fourteen-year-old French speaker and amateur singer whose family was called upon to play host to a newly-arrived Napoleon when he landed on the shores of St Helena.
While awaiting completion of his home away from home, he spent many a happy musical evening in the drawing room of the Balcombe family home in St Helena (the original 'Briars') playing his beloved guitar and being entertained by young Betsy. So close did he become to the family that he a) gave his guitar to Betsy and b) created such unease back at HQ in England that the Balcombe family was recalled from their island posting in order to put paid to any undesirable Napoleonic influence. A number of years later, Betsy's family washed up on Australian shores and created a second incarnation of the Briars wherein was housed the celebrated guitar, where it remains on display to this day.
Napoleon Bonaparte and Betsy Balcombe at St Helena's
One of the many appealing qualities of the Peninsula Summer Music Festival is the serendipitous alignment of performer, programme and setting. Napoleon's Guitar is a shining example of this: the duo of Melbourne-born guitarist Geoffrey Morris and English-based tenor Tyrone Landau performing songs of the Napoleonic era in the living room of the Balcombe family home accompanied by a classical-romantic guitar is unlikely to ever be repeated.
In a salon-like atmosphere such as might have prevailed all those years ago in St Helena, the distinctive sound of a classical-romantic guitar accompanied a solo singer in the performance of songs from the period of Napoleon's reign. The repertoire included works by composers as disparate as Fernando Sor, Hortense de Beauharnais (Napoleon's step-daughter) and Napoléon Coste, one of many children of the era named after the erstwhile 'saviour' of la patrie française. The only difference was the replacement of the sweet but untrained voice of a Betsy Balcombe by the confident tenor of Tyrone Landau, who punctuated each group of songs with snippets of captivating gossip about the various players in the soap opera that was unfolding before the eyes and ears of the audience.
Napoleon's Guitar played to not one but two sold-out sessions of the festival in the presence of a highly-appreciative audience of music-lovers, francophiles and regular punters: another tribute to the imagination and resourcefulness of the festival organizing committee.