The happy pianist and assorted oddities

Kate has been working recently on a selection of books that were donated initially to the Pendlebury Library. Not quite suitable for their collection, they came over here to the Pen’s sister library, the UL’s Music Department.

One of the items – Commonsense in Pianoforte Playing by Cuthbert Whitemore – was a real find. It had never arrived under the Legal Deposit Act, and so filled a gap in our collections, joining other music literature published in 1926 after a long delay. Many of the other items in the donation had been published abroad so were also new additions to the UL. There were a few duplicates, but leafing through these proved to be a source of delight and surprise to the Anderson Room staff, revealing as much about the spirit of the age in which they were written, as they did about music education.

So courtesy of MusiCB3, meet the happy pianist, the commonsense musician, and the young person about to go to their very first concert.

Enid Grundy’s The happy pianist fills me with joy. A brief foreword recommends a selection of serious tomes on piano playing, before adding that her book is aimed specifically at the “Amateur-with-little-time”. There is a delightful explanation of the title:

Although it is now untrue that English people take their pleasures sadly, it is certainly true that they practise music sadly. A fixed idea that all pleasure in music must be paid for in advance by hours of “drudgery” deters many who “learned music” in their school-days from even making a beginning as amateurs. The more serious undertake their studies in a spirit of penitential devotion, befitting martyrs. This is wrong. Music study should be joy, right from the beginning, and the amateur should live up to his true title of lover.

The happy pianist / Enid Grundy.
London : Oxford University Press, 1927.
(1933.7.3341 – Order in West Room)

It may be old, and have the odd bit of peculiar advice, such as some rather eccentric fingering for minor scales…

Spot the eccentric fingering…

…but there is an enormous amount of helpful advice in this little book – “LISTEN to your practice…”, when accompanying “Make the very best of him [i.e. person being accompanied]. Cover his faults and enhance his good points”, or on self-studying piano “To begin with, fix your aim. It is to be enjoyment. Work to that end.”

I don’t know if the pianist felt happy when finishing this book (I suspect they did), I certainly found it a great delight. Enid was brought up in Manchester, and attended what was then the Royal Manchester College of Music, studying composition under Walter Carroll, who had taught at the RNCM (as it became) since its inception.

Cuthbert Whitemore’s Commonsense in pianoforte playing sounds rather more serious than The Happy Pianist, though the publicity blurb, written by another writer on piano technique eager to enhance the sale of his own books, makes it sound rather more exciting to 21st century ears – “I feel that this delightfully racy little work should greatly help to stimulate the study of my textbooks…”

Whitemore’s fellow writer was Tobias Matthay, Cuthbert’s own teacher at the Royal Academy, where Whitemore would later become a Professor. Matthay’s enthusiasm for his own works is understandable, as the roll call of pianistic talent that he nurtured tells its own story – Dame Myra Hess, Harriet Cohen, Clifford Curzon, Dame Moura Lympany, Eileen Joyce, Vivian Langrish, and many more.

The text of Commonsense in pianoforte playing can sound rather less than commonsensical. The middle of “Three important headings” states that the pianist should know “What state we should be in muscularly, in order to do that work in the easiest manner”, while reminding the student that lifting a tea-cup carelessly will result in spilling our tea.

And yet there is a great deal of (as you would expect) commonsense in this book both when dealing with aspects of physicality that impact on performance, and in encouraging good technique but not to the detriment of musicality.

You may have noticed that The Happy Pianist though written by a woman consistently refers to the musician as him, and Cuthbert Whitemore also uses the masculine pronoun. It’s slightly disappointing considering the number of talented female pianists (Dame Myra Hess, Harriet Cohen, Irene Scharrer etc.) around in the 1920s, but not unexpected for the era.

We hoped for better from Lionel Salter‘s Going to a concert (1950.7.1672. Order in West Room), part of the “Excursions” series for young people. It manages to be completely of its period (published 1950), and sometimes, courtesy of the passage of time, unintentionally funny.

Packed with photographs, we had a happy time in the Anderson Room Office playing “Spot the female instrumentalist” (there aren’t many of them – not, I must add, the author’s fault, but more an indication of the state of the music industry at the time – even the Executive Committee of the Musicians Union would remain resolutely male until well into the 1960s). While there are three chapters dedicated to “The men who wrote the music.” Women (hoorah!) can be found in the harp chapter – “I should hate to be a harpist: not only is the instrument a perpetual nuisance to move from place to place, but any harpist will tell you that she (it usually is a she) spends as much time tuning it and mending strings as playing it“.

Susi, Kate, and I, particularly loved the section titles with such delights as: The viola: not just a big violin, The flutes are blown sideways, and The trumpet’s exuberance must be curbed.

There are also firm instructions on how to be a responsible audience member. Bouquets are to be avoided: “It’s silly really… as it’s perfectly obvious that the flowers are sent in by friends or, in the case of young artists, by proud relatives, it deceives nobody into thinking any the more of a performance“. While applause has to be carefully measured (especially if you’re English):

In England, such are our curious ideas of sportsmanship, we are often misled into being too kind. Many people applaud an artist for “a brave try”, as it were, and there have been innumerable instances of performers who have unblushingly tackled music obviously far beyond their powers, in some cases actually coming to grief during the performance…A musician who is not up to performing a certain work, by reason of his lack either of technique or of understanding, is ruining the music by “having a smack at it” in public, and should be not praised, but blamed, for an artistic crime.

If you have to talk during a concert, Salter advises talking quietly, not whispering:

You may have heard that an important recording….of a public concert was utterly ruined because during a momentary pause in the music the sensitive microphone picked up a woman in the hall whispering to her neighbour, “Of course, we always fry ours in dripping!”

Lionel Salter was a graduate of St. John’s College, where he read Music and Modern Languages, studying under Edward Dent and Boris Ord. He went on to work at Denham Studios, where he edited Sir Arthur Bliss’ score for The shape of things to come, before joining the BBC where he eventually became Assistant Controller, Music, under William Glock.

Going to a concert is certainly idiosyncratic. Although time has not been kind to it, it was a best-seller when first published, and I can imagine that many new concertgoers would have found it both accessible and useful. Salter’s enthusiasm for his subject is clear, and although the book sometimes made me chuckle, Salter’s attempts to demystify classical music, and to promote concerts as something for everyone, not just for a musical elite, are to be applauded (unlike his artistic criminal).

Where Salter does shine, is in breaking down some of the mysteries that surround classical music, and turning them into more manageable portions, so that an individual embarking on their first concert can feel comfortable with their current level of knowledge about music, and enthusiastically build on that; rather than feeling that they are too lacking in musical knowledge to even think of attending a performance.

Spanning the period between the end of the First World War and a post-Second World War world, all three books have this in common – they provide encouraging, open-hearted, pathways to music for everyone, irrespective of musical background, or level of education. The audiences and performers at the famous National Gallery concerts during the Second World War (celebrating their 80th anniversary this October) would certainly have approved.


About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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