Obituaries: Susan Bradshaw
Pianist, champion of modern music and `conscience of composers'
Tuesday 01 February 2005
This phrase neatly conjures up Bradshaw's curious and influential position in British musical life over the last half-century or so, a position considerably more important than might be suggested simply by her impressive professional achievements.
Bradshaw worked in many musical fields, as a pianist, teacher, writer about music, translator and critic (of the higher kind, never in newspapers). She was also, in her youth, a promising composer who, surveying her own music with the same fierce standards she brought to every crotchet and quaver she ever looked at by another composer, decided "I really wasn't good enough" and gave up. In more abrasive moments in later years, she could sometimes be heard to mutter that it would have been a good thing if others had done the same.
Susan Bradshaw was born in 1931, into an army family. Her sense of her childhood was of a somewhat restless time, cut off from a more stable existence. After what she described as a conventional and uninteresting schooling (and even, to her later amusement, an unlikely social sortie as a debutante), she entered the Royal Academy of Music in London. There she studied piano with Harold Craxton and composition with Matyas Seiber and Howard Ferguson. All were teachers of the old school and communicated a seriousness which affected her for the rest of her life. She was inspired by Seiber's un-English and Middle European view of music history and his tough approach to analysis, and retained warm memories of learning Bach with Craxton and exploring the piano-duet repertoire with Ferguson.
Shy, socially awkward, and demure in temperament, Bradshaw struck some fellow pupils as odd, the more so when, to the consternation of the professorial common room, she started to take a passionate interest in the kind of European "modern music" then little known in the UK. She became friends with the most adventurous of her fellow students, like the composers Richard Rodney Bennett and Cornelius Cardew, and together with three class-mates caused a sensation with a performance of Bartk's Sonata for 2 pianos and percussion, a work then considered daunting.
This was a time when news was filtering through to more curious-minded English music students of her generation of great things happening among the young European avant-garde, especially in the hothouse of the famous summer school at Darmstadt, Germany. There, the likes of Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and others were setting a rebellious agenda for the future. Bradshaw enjoyed the critical approach and fondly recalled from her trips to Germany a splendid scene in a Darmstadt cafe where the great John Cage poured uproarious scorn on the grandiose theorising they had all just heard in a lecture by Stockhausen.
After the academy, Bradshaw went to Paris on a French government scholarship where, along with Richard Rodney Bennett, she studied with Boulez, then himself only in his early thirties, but already world-famous. Paris sealed her commitment to the new and the European, but stopped the springs of her desire to be a composer. She returned to London in the late 1950s determined to earn her living as a freelance pianist specialising in the kind of modern music then unknown on this island.
Soon she was working with a variety of the most talented young players of the time, including the flautist William Bennett, with whom she founded the Mabillon Trio (named after a favourite haunt in Paris). By the early 1960s she was the pianist of choice for anyone promoting the avant-garde or, even more important, the great 20th-century masters who were then hardly known, whether the Second Viennese school, Stravinsky or Bartk.
From the beginning of her career Bradshaw devoted enormous energy to organisations promoting the music she cared about. With John Woolf, she was a founding member of the Park Lane Group, an organisation now celebrating its 49th season, which exists to bring young musicians together with 20th- century music and its composers. She was an early participant in William Glock's Dartington Summer Schools and at Dartington, in 1965, with Glock's encouragement, she co-founded, with the brilliant soprano Jane Manning and others, the Vesuvius Ensemble, a pioneering group in its time.
The Vesuvius began with the specific purpose of giving performances of Arnold Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, but broadened into an adaptable collective that toured for 10 years with concerts of every kind of modern music in almost every corner of the UK.
In later years, Bradshaw withdrew from performing - she had always suffered intense concert nerves - and spent more and more time teaching and writing. In the 1980s she began teaching at Goldsmiths College, London, where generations of students from many different countries came to admire and depend on her. She developed a particular affinity with her Greek pupils, and it was her Greek friends who were especially supportive in the last few years of her life, when she was miserably dogged by respiratory and circulatory disease (probably the result of an earlier and voracious habit for cigarillos).
Bradshaw's literary work covered innumerable book reviews, articles, chapters in anthologies and translations. With Richard Rodney Bennett she made a celebrated English version of Boulez's influential theoretical and aesthetic treatise Penser la Musique Aujourd'hui (as Boulez on Music Today, 1971), although she later delighted in unmasking one of its most baffling musical examples as an incomprehensible bluff. She also translated Dominique Jameux's Pierre Boulez (1991).
Her own writings about her erstwhile mentor included a lucidly written chapter on the Frenchman's vocal and instrumental music in William Glock's 1986 anthology Pierre Boulez: a symposium. In magazines such as The Musical Times and Tempo she often appeared, commenting sometimes sceptically on the latest fashions in jargon-ridden analysis or greeting warmly the music of some little-known composer from the old Soviet Union. To reread her articles over many years is to meet a mind intent on fostering the highest standards of civilised taste and robust good sense, not to mention clear and attractive English.
Bradshaw championed a swathe of composers from the recent past, some famous, some unknown and even of a most unexpected kind. She was one of the first to take part in the revival of interest in Lord Berners (the English Satie), spent many years promoting the music of Schoenberg's Spanish pupil Roberto Gerhard and, at a time when it was unfashionable to play such music, was a daring performer of the piano music of Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton von Webern.
Many were and are the composers and musicians who owed to her their first support and collegial friendship, from Richard Rodney Bennett and others of the same generation including Hugh Wood and Thea Musgrave, to countless younger figures of whom the most distinguished are Giles Swayne, Brian Elias and Robert Saxton. She also had close friendships with colleagues who, like her, were essentially the animateurs, stirrers and critical dissenters of our musical culture, including William Glock and, especially, Hans Keller. When Keller died in 1985 she wrote movingly that "he was the only person I ever met to whom everything (particularly, of course, musical things) really mattered: I miss him for this above all".
It is a sentiment that her own friends might well echo about her, though, unlike Keller, she was someone who in fact placed strict and sometimes even restrictive limits on what she was prepared to be interested in. If something struck her as beyond the pale, she would dismiss it as "just silly!"
Susan Bradshaw was a surprisingly, though quietly, political person - befriending Soviet composers such as Alfred Schnittke and Edison Denisov, Dmitri Smirnov and Elena Firsova, and being an early supporter of the Social Democrats. Never married and childless, she loved children (in small doses, at any rate) and even became a governor of her local primary school.
Two stories may serve to sum up her character, at once warm and withdrawn, ferocious and shy. They also embody her dislike of pretension and pomposity.
In 1961 she and Keller, enraged by what they saw as the rising tide of unmusical nonsense perpetrated by some composers and the way in which it was uncritically received, went into a BBC studio and "improvised" a piece of "cutting-edge" modern music, banging on any old object that came within range and putting out the result as a fascinating new composition called Mobile, by a certain (non-existent) Piotr Zak. This they interpolated into the middle of a broadcast of music by the Italian composer and conductor Bruno Maderna. The resulting scandal, when the hoax was exposed, was noisy and, to their satisfaction, earned both Keller and Bradshaw the lasting distrust of some of their colleagues.
Some years later, at a concert in London, Cornelius Cardew gave what was probably the British premiere of a "work" by the American composer LaMonte Young, called 42 for Henry Flynt. In this piece a single sound is repeated. The title varies according to the number of repetitions. Cardew, playing the piano, perpetrated a version called 292 for Henry Flynt, where the chosen sound was created by crashing the whole forearm down on the keyboard. As the crashes continued relentlessly, a slight female figure in the front row could bear it no longer. To the applause of the audience, she sprang on to the platform and physically dragged her old fellow student away from the instrument.
The slight female was Susan Bradshaw.
Susan Mary Bradshaw, pianist, teacher and writer: born St Mellons, Monmouthshire 8 September 1931; died London 30 January 2005.
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