OBITUARY : Maria Donska
Monday 06 January 1997
She was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1912 and was already performing at the age of seven. She made her concerto debut in 1923 and three years later went to study with the celebrated Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel in Berlin. There too she met her lifelong friend Leonora ("Baba") Speyer.
Baba came from a musical family. Her mother was a violinist who recorded for HMV. It was at the Speyer home in Grosvenor Street, London, that composers such as Debussy and Grieg performed at soirees in the early years of the century.
Maria Donska continued studying with Schnabel until 1933 and made her Berlin debut during this period playing Weber's Konzertstuck. In 1932 she participated in the Chopin competition in Warsaw and was awarded a Diploma of Honour. Earlier Schnabel had taken her to London, where he played in the Courtauld Concerts. It was to London that she eventually returned in 1934 and successfully applied for British citizenship. Baba Speyer and she set up home together.
Donska entered the Royal College of Music as a student in 1936. There she was awarded several medals, including the Hopkinson Medal and the Chappell Gold Medal (1937). In those days, when most British students wanted to finish their training abroad and very few foreign students came to study in London, this must have seemed a strange thing to do. Even stranger was her choice of professor, Arthur Alexander, who had been a pupil of Tobias Matthay, whereas Schnabel had studied with Theodor Leschetizky, who was viewed with some suspicion by Matthay pupils.
One thing that Schnabel and Alexander had in common was a quick wit and sense of fun. With Alexander, Maria Donska did study some works other than the standard classical repertoire, but never played them later on. This became a point of disagreement with her agent, who would have found it easier to promote an artist who played concertos by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov (whose music Donska hated) as well as those by Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms. As with so many artists of her generation the Second World War did stop any international blossoming of her career. One wonders, if she had been born 10 years earlier and managed to establish a career in America before the outbreak of war, whether she would have made a success such as Myra Hess, after all, did with the same kind of repertoire.
During the war Maria Donska played at the National Gallery Concerts, toured in recital and, what must have been quite exhausting, even for someone with her vigour, gave several performances of Brahms' second concerto on tour. Her career was interrupted when she suffered a nervous breakdown, which she thought could have been brought on by worry about her relatives in Poland.
By 1943 she had recovered and was playing for the BBC and that year started three years of teaching at the Royal College of Music. In the 1950s and 1960s she gave two complete cycles of 32 Beethoven sonatas on the South Bank and at the Wigmore Hall. The BBC continued to broadcast recitals, both live and recorded, and she also formed a debut partnership with the pianist Alan Rowlands. At the Proms she gave an impressive account of the Brahms second concerto. In 1960 she returned to teach at the Royal College of Music, staying until 1980. Some of her last concerts were four recitals given for Kent Opera.
Maria Donska was a great reader (Shakespeare was a particular love) and she was also very interested in the graphic arts. A bust was made of her by Jacob Epstein, inspired by her playing of Beethoven.
As a pianist, Donska had some of the hallmarks of Schnabel (although not what she called his "scurryings", which she disliked), but her own strong personality was always evident in her interpretations. Fortunately, she left some commercial recordings, made in the 1960s. For those who can find them, there is a particularly fine recording of Chopin's second and third sonatas. Considering that she was as critical of her own playing as anyone else's (Arthur Rubinstein was one of the few to be praised), it says much of these performances that she said she quite liked them.
Maria Donska, pianist: born Lodz, Poland 3 September 1912; died 20 December 1996.
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