Obituary: William Pleeth
Wednesday 07 April 1999
Pleeth was born in 1916 in London into a Polish emigre family from Warsaw, several generations of which had been professional musicians. At the age of seven he heard the cello being played by a cafe musician who proceeded to give him some lessons. After a short time his obvious talent made it clear he should have some serious tuition and he attended the London Academy, and at 10 entered the London Cello School as a pupil of Herbert Walenn.
When he was 13 Pleeth won a scholarship to go to Leipzig to study with the great Julius Klengel at the Conservatoire, the youngest person ever to be admitted. Undaunted, he managed to keep up with the older students and in two years had learnt all the Bach Solo Suites, all the Piatti Caprices and 32 concertos, 24 of which he knew from memory.
Pleeth remained grateful to Klengel his entire life. He told me:
He was a wonderful teacher because he allowed you to be yourself. He hated it if someone copied him. He wanted us to develop our own musicality - and we did, and we're all different after all. Emanuel Feuermann and Gregor Piatigorsky were both Klengel pupils and they were totally different in their style of playing. Klengel himself was a very simple, unsophisticated man whose integrity was unquestionable. He was always honest and I loved him for it.
Pleeth was 15 when he performed the Dvork Concerto at his first concert at the Conservatoire and shortly after made his debut at the Gewandhaus playing the Haydn D major concerto. The German press were enthusiastic and predicted a bright future; but on his return to London music was at a low ebb and foreign musicians were much preferred - with the result that many British artists added a "vitch" or a "ski" to their names. Pleeth, whose family had taken British citizenship and anglicised their name, refused to revert to the Polish form to satisfy what he called inverted snobbery.
When he was 17 Pleeth gave some broadcasts from the BBC and a debut recital at the old Aeolian Hall in Bond Street, which brought him his first important orchestral engagement playing the Dvork Concerto with the City of Birmingham Orchestra under Leslie Heward, for the magnificent fee of two guineas. From this point his career gained momentum and in 1940 he was engaged for his first solo broadcast playing the Schumann Concerto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult.
Pleeth's career was then interrupted by five years of army service, but this also had its compensations. Also serving in the same regiment was the composer Edmund Rubbra and they became lifelong friends. Rubbra dedicated his Sonata for Cello and Piano to Pleeth and his wife, the pianist Margaret Good, whom he married in 1942. Rubbra's Soliloquy for Cello was also written for him. Other composers who later wrote for him included Franz Reizenstein, Gordon Jacob, Mtys Seiber and Benjamin Frankel.
After the war Pleeth's solo career and his recitals with Margaret Good reached international status. He had been a member of the Blech String Quartet from 1936 to 1941 and in the early Fifties he formed the original Allegri String Quartet with Eli Goren and James Barton, violins, and Patrick Ireland on viola. He finally decided that, for him, chamber music was the most satisfying form of music-making. He told me:
Chamber music has always been a passion with me, and I return to it more and more. Not only is the concert itself an exciting experience but it is the satisfaction of working out a piece of music with three other human beings for whom you have affection. In many ways, a solo career is, for me, unsatisfying. I don't care for the solitary travelling, and like even less the isolation of being con-
fronted by a large orchestra and an "eminent" conductor.
He and his wife continued to give recitals for over 40 years and Pleeth would also join the Amadeus and other well-known quartets for the Schubert Quintet in C Op. 54. But when he retired from the concert platform, teaching occupied most of his time right up to his death, and he put into practice with his own students what he had learnt from Klengel so long before. I once asked him about his methods and he looked aghast:
Methods! You can't have methods when you're dealing with human beings who are all different. You have to treat them all differently. If you have methods you encourage copying and I don't believe that a teacher should allow his pupils to copy anything. It was the greatest quality in Klengel, which is almost a negative thing. He had no gimmicks. I had my last lesson with him when I was 16 and I've never had a lesson since. I've had to grow out of myself, and I'm eternally grateful that I'm not a copy of anybody.
Pleeth was a professor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama from 1948 to 1978 and a visiting teacher at the Menuhin School from 1977. Of his many British pupils, two outstanding examples are his son, Anthony - who has achieved considerable success in the baroque field - and the unforgettable Jacqueline du Pre who described him as "a wonderful teacher who knew exactly how to guide one or correct a mistake with kindness and understanding".
On Pleeth's 80th birthday in 1996, the long-term affection of his friends and students was much in evidence at a celebration concert in a packed Wigmore Hall. The Brindisi String Quartet, Trevor Pinnock - on this occasion deserting the harpsichord for the piano - and Anthony Pleeth all gave superb performances in a programme of music by Haydn, Mozart and Schubert. All proceeds were donated to the Jacqueline du Pre Multiple Sclerosis Research Fund.
William Pleeth was an exuberant, warm and generous human being, extremely well-read and one of the most articulate people I have ever met. He could talk on almost any subject, but was also a good listener who made one feel one had his undivided attention. He was appointed OBE in 1989.
William Pleeth, cellist: born London 12 January 1916; OBE 1989; married 1942 Margaret Good (one son, one daughter); died London 6 April 1999.
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