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The Juliet Letters

Elvis Costello & The Brodsky Quartet

The Amadeus Centre, London W9

1 July 1992

This is inspired by reading Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, Elvis Costello’s recently published autobiography

imageExactly a year after the Hammersmith Odeon gigs, where Elvis Costello was overweight, bearded and apparently angry, what a transformation…

The Amadeus Centre could scarcely be a more different venue.  It was originally a Welsh Presbyterian chapel, and has been converted into an arts centre (and, apparently, a wedding venue).  The main space was set out with tables and chairs (with food and drink being served), and many of the guests were Costello’s friends and relatives.  I was in the cheap seats upstairs, and for the interval we repaired to the pub across the road for refreshments.

Elvis Costello looked much happier, minus the beard and the excess weight of a year earlier, but I had no idea what to expect – would it be his songs played with a string quartet? 

1992-07-01_LondonsetlistNo.  He had written 20 or so songs with different members of the Brodsky Quartet (Michael Thomas and his sister Jacqueline, Ian Belton, and Paul Cassidy).  The idea came from a newspaper article about a Veronese professor who decided to answer all the letters addressed to Juliet Capulet. The five of them worked together to develop ideas for letters, which were then set to music.

Once we had a title and had settled on the letter as our lyrical form, the variations came to us very easily: a child’s note, a postcard from a regretful lover, the reply of an eccentric aunt to a begging letter from scheming relations.

Everything about it was astonishing.  Costello’s vocal performance, the lyrics, the musical accompaniment, the venue, the atmosphere.  Costello was clearly reinvigorated by working in a totally different medium (and having to learn to write four-part musical scores).  Fortunately this was just one of many collaborations over the coming years.

Apparently the “classical” critics were rather unenthusiastic at the time, but subsequently it has been performed and recorded by other string quartets, and adapted for other mediums including a jazz quartet and a dance performance.

For me, of course, it will always be about that first performance in London nearly 25 years ago.

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