Marguerite Wolff: Pianist acclaimed for her interpretations of Chopin and Liszt
Wednesday 29 June 2011
Marguerite Wolff was one of the most distinguished concertpianists of her generation. She was best known for her elegant interpretations of Chopin and Liszt over the courseof a glittering career that spanned eight decades.
A life in music seemed inevitable almost from the moment Wolff could climb on to a piano stool. From the age of five, she was taught by her mother, but the family eventually scraped together enough money to employ a formal teacher, who after just three lessons proclaimed: "Marguerite will be a concert pianist."
She gave her first recital at the Wigmore Hall at the age of 10, and made her orchestral debut under Sir John Barbirolli five years later. She studied at the Royal Academy of Music and then Trinity College of Music, where she was appointed as music professor at the age of 21, the youngest person to hold the post. As a teenager, she began working under the guidance of the great Hungarian pianist Louis Kentner, who remained her mentor until his death in 1987.
Marguerite Wolff was born inLondon in 1919. She was already considered to be one of Britain's mostgifted concert pianists when the Second World War was declared. Working with Walter Legge, director of HMV, she joined Ensa (the Entertainments National Service Association), an organisation devoted to bringing entertainment, classical music included, to troops and workers in venues which ranged from Army bases to munitions factories.
She performed more than 1,000 concerts during the war as she travelled up and down the country in the royal railway coach with her piano safely stored in the back of the train. Although the concerts were sometimes interrupted when bombs hit the buildings she was performing in, Wolff's only concern was the quality of the music: "The conditions we were playing in were sometimes dreadful," she later recalled, "but we were making music, and the only thing that really mattered was a wrong note."
She was well-known for her glamorous collection of concert gowns,the first of which was created forher by Norman Hartnell, who wenton to design the Queen's dress forthe Coronation in 1953. Displayingthe indomitability that ran through every part of her life, Wolff visitedHartnell before her international début with a few pounds in her purseand asked him to create the perfect gown from a length of material she had brought with her in a brown paper bag.
She went on to appear in 57 countries and played with many of the world's most important orchestras. She toured Africa and the Far East 12 times and visited South America 14 times, and although she made her name performing the works of Chopin and Liszt, she continually added to her eclectic repertoire.
Despite the fact that her principal teacher at Trinity, Gertrude Azulay, had told her in no uncertain terms that she would have to live the life of "a musical nun" if she wanted a career as a concert pianist, she married a property developer, Derrick Moss, in 1949. She eventually stopped performing in public, having reluctantly come to the conclusion that "true love is when your piano comes second." After 15 years of marriage, her husband died of a heart attack, leaving behind two young daughters, and she soon returned to the concert stage.
Wolff's graceful romantic playing style inspired Sir Arthur Bliss, Master of the Queen's Music, to write two compositions for her. She made the first recording of Bliss's Piano Sonata and gave the world premiere of his Wedding Suite in 1974 during a tour of the US. Bliss's successor as Master of the Queen's Music, Malcolm William-son, also wrote a piano concerto for her, which was completed in 1994.
She was vice-president of the Chopin Society and served on the council of the Liszt Society for many years. In 1999 she was made an Honorary Fellow of Trinity College of Music and received the UK Award for Music from the Festival of Europe in Italy. In 2006 she was made Freeman of the City of London, and two years later a conservatoire was named after her in Asunción, the capital of Paraguay, a country she had performed in many times.
Marguerite Wolff earned numerous honours, most notably the OBE in 2002 for "services to music worldwide". When she joined the distinguished list of castaways on Desert Island Discs and was asked what she would take with her on that desert island, she chose her beloved Steinway grand piano, which she said was "both a luxury and a necessity".
Her lifelong discipline as amusician was intense; she practiced for eight hours every day, oftenworking for as long as 15 hours inthe immediate build-up to a concert. She continued to perform publicly until last year, when she slipped and broke her hip on stage during a concert in Ontario.
She never managed to fully recover the physical strength requiredto play the piano at the highest level: "If your life is structured around aspecific activity such as the performance of music," she told me on myfinal visit to her, "what is left of the person without it? If I cannot get back to playing the piano again, I wouldn't want to carry on living." Marguerite Wolff's music was her life, and her life was her music.
Marguerite Wolff, concert pianist: born London 17 February 1919; married 1949 Derrick Moss (deceased; two daughters); OBE 2002; died London 26 May 2011.
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