Michal Hambourg

Pianist and teacher with direct links to the 19th century
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The Independent Online

The death of Michal Hambourg ruptures the last living link with the pianistic traditions of the 19th century.

Michal Augusta Hambourg, pianist and teacher: born London 9 June 1919; married first Edward Lewis (one son; marriage dissolved), second Ian MacPhail (one son); died London 13 October 2004.

The death of Michal Hambourg ruptures the last living link with the pianistic traditions of the 19th century.

Michal's father (and her first teacher) was the pianist Mark Hambourg (1879-1960); her mother, Dorothea Muir Mackenzie, was good enough a violinist to have studied with Eugène Ysaÿe. Mark's father, meanwhile, was the piano pedagogue Mikhail Hambourg (1855-1916), a student of Nikolai Rubinstein and Sergey Taneyev. Mark himself had studied with his father and - in lessons organised and funded by Paderewski - with the doyen of all piano teachers, the Vienna-based Theodor Leschetizky (1830-1915), who had been a student of Carl Czerny, himself a student of Beethoven.

This was the world into which Michal, the only one of Mark Hambourg's four daughters to study music seriously, was born in 1919. Her obvious musical aptitude was soon reinforced by lessons with her father, who also supervised her practice and monitored her musical diet, playing four-hand arrangements of the Beethoven quartets with her.

The Hambourg household, a generous and lively forum in St John's Wood, London, was a magnet for visiting luminaries, as Michal recalled:

From my earliest memories, our home was full of music and musicians. As the fortunate possessor of an inherited musical talent, imagine the bliss for me! In the evenings, after dinner, everyone played chamber music and I have only to close my eyes to feel the experience of intense life and energy in that musical scene. Many of the great musicians of those days were my parents' friends. Busoni, Paderewski, Rubinstein, Huberman, Piatigorsky, Rachmaninov, Friedman, Moiseiwitsch, and many others all came and made music.

Michal's role in these music parties gradually evolved, from listener to page-turner to participant - with her father quite deliberately dropping her in it, asking her to take over from him in the middle of a Mozart sonata with Carl Flesch.

With typical modesty, she recorded her surprise that these visiting celebrities

actually had time for me! - very small and aspiring, who played Bach and Mozart to them and was showered with advice, criticism and occasionally a word or two of praise . . . Those evenings were vibrant with a special kind of conversation, centred around a great tank of inherited musical ideas, many of which were handed down from artist to artist since the time of Beethoven.

These formative experiences were to become the foundation of her approach to teaching and playing:

This cornucopia of ideas is sometimes called the living link and forms the basis of all my own offerings in music. In getting to know the core of great musical masterpieces, those who preceded us had endless experiences to offer us, and we can learn endlessly from their musical concepts.

Hambourg's musical education proceeded with composition lessons from Clarence Lucas, whom she recalled as

an aged gnome in a homespun brown tweed suit who wrote music. Lucas had been well acquainted with Debussy and had studied with him and knew how the composer played his own piano works.

When she was 12, her father undertook an extended, two-year concert tour around the globe, and so her teaching was entrusted to Katherine Goodson, another Leschetizky acolyte. Upon his return he deemed her playing good enough to withstand public scrutiny, and so at 13 she made her first concert appearances, in duo recitals with her father.

She had been a regular visitor to the recording studios since the age of eight, acting as her father's page-turner and making test-recordings of her own. Now she stepped forward as a musician in her own right, making recordings of the two-piano Schumann Andante and Variations and Liszt Concerto pathétique with her father (they played from memory) which demonstrate that, at only 14, Michal's technique and musicality were a match for Mark's. Indeed, one seasoned observer felt that her playing brought out the best in his.

As the 1930s evolved, so did her career. She toured Britain with singers of the stature of Paul Robeson, Lawrence Tibbett and Richard Tauber. She first appeared at the Proms in 1938, playing Saint-Saëns' Second Piano Concerto under the baton of Sir Henry Wood, and performed in Myra Hess's wartime series of lunchtime recitals in the National Gallery. She was a frequent broadcaster for the BBC, too, sometimes in the company of Dylan Thomas, a personal friend. But she was soon to turn her back on the limelight.

The trigger for her change of direction came during a concert tour of South Africa not long after the Second World War. An Anglican priest asked her to fit in an extra performance for his black parishioners who were barred from concert halls. Never, she said, had she had such an appreciative and attentive audience. From that time on she determined to offer support and help to young musicians in need.

The foundation of the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) gave her a framework for her work as a music counsellor, but, according to her friend and colleague Susan Gomme,

She soon found the need to add a second theme to her work, not only to further the development and careers of gifted younger musicians but also to help gifted young people to find a place for music in their lives. This she saw as an often essential refuge for children beset by all sorts of social or educational pressures.

She would ask them to visit her, bringing a piece they would like to play. Then,

she would choose an appropriate piece from her own repertoire to play for them in return, talking about the need for discipline in practice, the importance of relaxation in playing and above all focusing on what the music was saying, both to the particular performer and in the context of the musical culture of the composer.

These visits would generally be accompanied by a copious lunch or tea ("We all need treats," she would say), which allowed her to enquire about the financial circumstances of the student. The difficulties she discovered led her to establish the Hope Hambourg Musical Trust (initially funded by the sale of a valuable viola that belonged to her cousin Hope) which offered grants to alleviate hardship. She addressed emotional issues, too, being involved in the setting-up of a counselling service for the NAGC.

She took great care in matching young musicians with the most appropriate teacher or most suitable course, and placed especial value on collaborative music-making. The creative musicianship course at Trinity Junior College of Music, now based at Greenwich, met with her deep approval, and her support was recognised with an honorary doctorate from Trinity.

Her own teaching was similarly sympathetic and insightful. Stephen Gutman, a student and then friend, found that her "pianistic ability and musical understanding meant that she would be able with the lightest of touches to guide one in the right direction".

For all her understanding of young musicians' problems, she could be severe where she thought the music being used to show off the performer, and she was dismissive of some of the showier young pianists currently making a noisy career for themselves, with the kind of playing she referred to as "iron knitting". And, although her own taste in music was relatively conservative, she did include music by Lennox Berkeley and Alan Rawsthorne in her repertoire. Yet Gutman found her "keenly interested" whenever he brought new works to play to her and was thrilled when, as she put it, she "began to understand".

Michal Hambourg's first marriage, to the architect Edward Lewis, was annulled as a result of his descent into insanity; their son Gavin is now a Professor of History at John Jay College, City University of New York. Her happy second marriage, which lasted over half a century, was to Ian MacPhail, a founder of the World Wildlife Fund and who, with their son Rob, survives her.

The last few years of her life were marked by an improbable return to international prominence as a player. Allan Evans, whose CD label Arbiter specialises in historical recordings, was putting together a programme of performances by Mark Hambourg and noticed the duo performances with Michal. Was she still alive, he wondered, and if so, where? A letter arrived from Rob MacPhail, announcing that his mother was indeed well, and in fine pianistic form, having maintained a rigorous schedule of domestic practice. Rob arranged for a recording engineer to visit and, over 60 years after those first sessions, Michal Hambourg resumed her recording career.

For Evans, who worked with her for nine years,

her pianism represented a unique synthesis of the late 19th century's use of touch and colour, with a modern heightened understanding of structure and style, making her a unique amalgam of two worlds.

Martin Anderson



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