England’s Piano Sage - The Life and Teachings of Tobias Matthay
by Stephen Siek
Scarecrow Press Inc. 2012
Many years ago I discovered a copy of Tobias Matthay’s The Act of Touch in all its Diversity (London, 1903) and his Relaxation Studies … in Pianoforte Playing (London, 1908) in a second-hand bookshop. I recall flicking through these books looking for some inspiration to help me improve my piano playing. I was disappointed. It seemed to be all words and little music. I resolved to return to my Smallwood Tutor and whatever exercises and studies my teacher deemed necessary to my ‘progress’. I never thought about Matthay again until I discovered his bewitching piano solo On Surrey Hills. It had exactly the kind of title that appeals to me, so I hunted around the ‘net to find out if Matthay had written any more pieces in this genre. There were a few - A Summer Day-Dream, Elves, Summer Twilights and A Mood Fantasy (In Late Summer at Marley). I was lucky enough to find a ‘hard’ copy of this last piece. It all seems very promising.
In the last couple of years I have had pleasure in reviewing a number of CDs from APR Records. These are explorations of the recorded legacy of pianists from ‘The Matthay School’ featuring Myra Hess, Harriet Cohen and Moura Lympany. Other CDs in this series include Irene Sharrer, Eileen Joyce, Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson. As part of those reviews, I explored some of the available literature and was surprised to find a whole stable of pianists that had studied with Matthay - York Bowen, Sir Clifford Curzon, Vivian Langrish and Eunice Norton. My original view that Tobias Matthay’s books were merely ‘verbose psychologising’ probably needed revising.
A few biographical notes about Tobias Matthay may be of interest. He was born on 19 February 1858 to German parents; however he became a naturalised British citizen. In 1871 Matthay entered the Royal Academy of Music to study with William Sterndale Bennett, Ebenezer Prout, Arthur Sullivan and George Macfarren. Five years later, he was appointed sub-professor and then from 1880 full professor of advanced piano at the Academy. As well as teaching he was also a recitalist. In 1893 Matthay married Jessie Kennedy, who was sister of the great Scottish singer and composer Marjory Kennedy-Fraser. He opened his own private school in 1900 where he was able to teach his performance theories as explained in his The Act of Touch and other volumes. Branches of the Matthay School were established in many towns in Britain and in other countries including the United States. Mid-century, there were a number of challenges to Matthay’s pedagogic ideas, especially from his one-time pupil James Ching. However, whatever one’s views were of these technical matters, the proof of his success lies in the number of pupils that went on to become celebrated pianists. It is probably fair to suggest that he communicated his ideas on a one-to-one basis rather more effectively than in his books. Tobias Matthay died at his beautiful house, High Marley Manor in 1945, aged 87.
England’s Piano Sage: The Life and Teachings of Tobias Matthay by Stephen Siek represents the first comprehensive study of the teacher/composer. There is very little available information about Matthay. In 1945 The Life and Works of Tobias Matthay by his wife, Jessie Henderson Matthay, was published. This book had been largely completed in 1937 shortly before she died: it is more of an ‘affectionate family chronicle’ rather than a scholarly analysis of his life, teachings and musical compositions. Other notices are more fleeting. Grove manages less than 250 words. There is no entry in the Dictionary of National Biography. Most references to Matthay would appear to be oblique ones in the biographies and autobiographies of his students such as that by Moura Lympany or Harriet Cohen’s A Bundle of Time. A major source of information is included in exhaustive liner-notes to the above mentioned CDs all written by Siek: so there is no probably better person to have written the present volume than him.
Stephen Siek is professor of piano and music history at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. His career has included regular appearances as a recitalist, a chamber musician and a lecturer on music in the United Kingdom and the States. He has contributed many articles to respected journals such as the American Music Teacher, the Piano Quarterly and American Music. He has written a number of entries for the Revised New Grove. Siek is currently President of the American Matthay Association which is a flourishing organisation. Of particular interest is the author’s period of piano studies with Frank Mannheimer, who was a ‘favored’ pupil of Matthay, and also a 15-year period, with Denise Lassimonne, who was Matthay's adopted daughter.
Stephen Siek’s massive book is a largely chronological study of Tobias Matthay’s life and achievement. Each chapter advances the story towards the rather sad ending when, after his death, the premises of the Matthay School were sold off.
A considerable part of the text is dedicated to expounding the ‘Matthay Method’. The author has set this ‘method’ in the context of contemporary piano ‘pedagogy’ in England and abroad. This is quite difficult stuff for the reader to get to grips with: I am not sure I have succeeded. However a number of markers can be set down to help the reader. Firstly, Myra Hess has stated that there was no ‘method’ as such. Secondly, it is helpful to approach the ‘teaching’ by examining its antithesis: Paderewski once wrote that ‘the fingers must be worked until they are cramped and exhausted and started again when they have rested.’ This idea of virtue in painful practice was one of the mores that Matthay was working against. Hess wrote that ‘the whole plan (of Matthay’s teaching), which reverses that of the conventional ‘piano tutor’ is based on the aim to make music, that is, to produce the right sound; before the … mind is diverted to tackle other intellectual problems.’ It was necessary to ‘stimulate … the innate feeling for rhythmical contrasts and accentuation.’ The old idea that finger and wrist gymnastics were the be-all-and-end-all of technique was to be abandoned. New ideas of ‘muscular relaxation and elasticity, utilisation of arm weight, rotary movement of the forearm’ were to be used.’ Unfortunately sentences from Matthay’s works have tended to obscure rather than help the student: - ‘the action and freedom of forearm rotation’ and more enigmatically, ‘the instantaneous relaxation of superfluous pressure.’ I guess that one needs a teacher to expound these: they do not make much sense just reading them.
One of the sections of the book that deeply interested me was the informed discussion about the rivalry between Myra Hess and Harriet Cohen (two of my greatest musical heroines). Some of this I have already come across, such as Arnold Bax’s duplicity in dedicating works to ‘Tania’ (Cohen) but having the premieres given by Hess. Another interesting line of exploration is Denise Lassimonne. Lassimonne was born in Camberley, Surrey in 1903 of French parents. She studied piano with Matthay at the Royal Academy of Music. After the death of her father she was adopted by the Matthay family. Denise Lassimonne seems to have left precious few recordings of her piano playing, however, there are some compositions and several books including the tribute volume Myra Hess by her friends (1965) and a short study of Tobias Matthay’s teaching methods, Opening the Shutters (1961). Other musicians beside Matthay’s pupils that are examined in some detail include Frederick Corder, Alexander Mackenzie and John Blackwood McEwen. Importantly, the book details Matthay’s ‘fall from grace’, his arguments with McEwen and his eventual departure from the Royal Academy of Music.
Scarecrow Press have produced an impressive volume. I could argue that the font size is just a little small for older eyes; however I guess that it was a trade-off between the number of pages and the text size. The author has chosen to use chapter endnotes which are fine; however there are a considerable number so the reader needs to keep a finger or a marker in place as they read. For example, Chapter 5 ‘… Scottish Interlude’ has some 123 notes over six pages. An essential list of abbreviations is provided at the start of the book which typically refers to a wide range of primary sources including Matthay’s key texts. There are some 30 photographs included in the text as opposed to plates. This has led to a certain diminution of quality and sharpness, however I imagine it would have made the book much more expensive. Whatever the case, these photographs are of considerable historical interest and help the reader situate Matthay in his artistic milieu. I was particularly interested in the photo of Matthay’s gorgeous house at High Marley Rest. Included in these photographs are a number of the teacher’s protégés. A few diagrams have been included representing some of Matthay’s ‘scientific’ concepts for improving the ‘Art of Touch’. Interestingly there are more than fifty musical examples given in the text, many from Matthay’s pedagogic works as well as his recital pieces.
I was surprised to find that the list of Tobias Matthay’s works - both literary and musical was only ‘selective’. As a neophyte in Matthay studies it would have been helpful to have had a near-complete listing. I do not know whether these represent the vast majority of his work or whether there are reams of undiscovered material. I am guessing that ‘selective’ is used simply as a means of avoiding criticism if something worthy was to turn up in the future. Was there enough information available to have provided a discography? I know of a handful of recordings of Matthay’s playing: there may be more. An appendix including the text of Matthay’s brief ‘The Nine Steps towards Finger Individualization through Forearm Rotation’ is printed. This is a ‘distillation’ of his teaching. There is an excellent ‘selective’ bibliography of secondary sources which includes many of the autobiographies and biographies of his pupils and associates. A good index rounds off the ‘tools’ part of this book.
I enjoyed reading and perusing this book. If I am honest, I found the ‘pedagogical’ part of this text very hard going - to the point where I largely gave up. However, I am not an aspiring concert pianist and the study of music teaching is not something that I wish to specialise in.
This book is not going to inspire me to read Matthay’s treatises, however it will encourage me to explore the legacy of his pupils with greater interest and understanding. For someone who majors in performance technique this book is a treasure trove. There is also much to interest the specialist of English music: Matthay’s compositions for piano and orchestra are explored in some depth. The other day I leafed through many of his piano works at the Royal College of Music: I was surprised just how interesting they look. I do hope that someone will want to explore them in the near future.
Looking at the achievements of Matthay's pupils, and their affection and respect for their teacher, this volume is essential for all musical historians to understand what personality traits and pedagogical accomplishments this admiration is based on. I guess that most readers will use this as a ‘source’ book whilst investigating one or other of Tobias Matthay’s many pupils: it will certainly be my main use of it.
Perhaps the most telling sentence in this book is when Stephen Siek describes the enthusiastic support given to him by a member of staff at the Royal Academy of Music, but who then warned, ‘unfortunately most of our students would know the name ‘Matthay’ only because of a classroom in our building which bears his name.’ It is a sad commentary, however Siek has done much to situate Matthay back into the fabric of 20th century British musical history. He allows the reader to feel immense warmth and sympathy for a man who many have never heard of, or, like myself imagined as a frosty pedagogue in his ivory tower. People may disagree with, or criticise Matthay’s achievements, however, due to the many historical recordings of Cohen, Hess and Curzon, his legacy is there for all to hear. For me, Matthay’s achievement is summed up by Myra Hess who wrote that before she had lessons with Matthay she had ‘just played. Now she began to think.’
The last word must go to Matthay himself: when he was with one of his pupils in the dressing room prior to a recital, his single sentence of encouragement was quite simply ‘Enjoy the Music’.
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