Paul Hamburger

Inspired vocal coach, accompanist and BBC music producer
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The pianist, vocal coach and writer Paul Hamburger was one of many Austrian musicians to find refuge in Britain after the events of 1938, so enriching the country's musical life for the next half-century.



Paul Philip Hamburger, pianist, accompanist, vocal coach and teacher: born Vienna 3 September 1920; married 1948 Esther Salaman (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1968 Clare Walmesley (died 1987); died Yeovil, Somerset 11 April 2004.



The pianist, vocal coach and writer Paul Hamburger was one of many Austrian musicians to find refuge in Britain after the events of 1938, so enriching the country's musical life for the next half-century.

Alongside established figures like the composer-scholar Hans Gal and the conductor Karl Rankl, some were students in their late teens with their education still to complete, such as the three upper members of the later Amadeus Quartet, or the musical analyst and polymath Hans Keller. Hamburger was not the least among them.

The son of a shoemaker and a bank clerk, he was born in Vienna in 1920 and began musical studies at the Vienna Hochschule with Berta Jahn-Bear. Once he was in England the obligatory spell in an internment camp (which eye-witnesses remembered his enjoying to the point of refusing to leave) was followed by studies at the Royal College of Music with the pianist Frank Merrick and with Ralph Vaughan Williams. Like his fellows, he had by an early stage a rock-solid technical and philosophical basis for life in music at the highest level. He profited similarly from work with major singing teachers, acquiring a comprehensive knowledge of the physiology of the voice.

Hamburger became known as an inspired coach, working with the English Opera Group and broadcasting as accompanist on BBC Radio. In the 1950s he was on the music staff at Glyndebourne and made a reputation as a vocal consultant whose advice world-ranking singers were not too proud to seek. He worked with artists of the calibre of Elisabeth Søderstrøm, Janet Baker and Heather Harper, and often with the baritone Thomas Hemsley, sometimes in costume as Schubert (which was Nature's typecasting), Hemsley embodying the composer's singer friend Vogl.

He had a number of regular musical partners. With the singer and folk-song collector Esther Salaman he toured to the Forces, Austria and South Africa; they were married in 1948. With the pianist Helen Pyke, and after her death with Lisa Fuchsova, he performed four-hand piano duets. Other partners were the violinist Suzanne Rozsa and the cellist Eleanor Warren, and in the Benvenuto Duo the soprano Clare Walmesley (his second wife, originally met at Glyndebourne) and mezzo-soprano Laura Sarti.

He worked with an immense range of artists. Not all of them, he felt, knew what they were about; these he learned "to soft-soap", though he once told me, during his BBC time, that he'd spent much of a recording with a greatly overrated singer writing his resignation letter. Like others of its kind, it remained unposted. When a partner wanted to learn, he was an unfailing fount of wisdom, laying great stress on character and drama.

In the early 1960s the BBC made him one of a new group of its staff accompanists. When Eleanor Warren became a music producer she persuaded her employer that Hamburger had it in him to follow suit: unconventionally, his revised contract allowed him to go on broadcasting. He brought to that Byzantine labyrinth a judgement based on a phenomenal ear and long experience of the best; there as elsewhere, he was scornful of froth and cliché, appreciative of genuine achievement and independent thought. Succeeding Warren as Chief Producer, Artists, he continued for a little longer her custom of making it clear to performers that, whatever the corporation's immediate view of their offerings, it was on their side and wished them well.

In his final years he overcame a long-standing fear of flying, and rediscovered his affection for Vienna, finding new friends and pupils after decades of viewing "that DUMP" with contempt. Despite ill-health he continued to coach young singers and pianists at courses and summer schools, and was still teaching at the Guildhall School of Music in London a few months before his death. After his wife Clare died in 1987, he was given a home in Somerset by her sister Cecily Shouldham, who lovingly cared for him in his last years.

Hamburger's scholarly contributions include chapters on Britten's operas in a 1952 symposium ( Benjamin Britten), and later on Mozart songs ( Twenty-One Songs, 1992) and Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn, in The Mahler Companion (1999) edited by Donald Mitchell and Andrew Nicholson.

One treasured his profound, original reflections on his subjects, his intimate grasp of every detail, and his mastery of the English language, for he knew words most of us have forgotten if we ever learned them. His broadcast talks were equally imaginative. Chess and crosswords fascinated him, as did the remoter recesses of Austrian literature; he was one of the first people in Britain to draw attention to the genius of the major modern novelist Heimito von Doderer.

Leo Black

It is impossible to overestimate the influence of Paul Hamburger on the musical life of Britain, writes Roger Vignoles. In opera and oratorio scores, in countless volumes of German Lieder, French melodies and English and other recital songs, plus a whole breadth of chamber music - on the shelves of virtually every singer or ensemble pianist in the country - can be found the evidence of his incomparable gifts as a teacher and coach.

Fingerings, phrasings, technical suggestions and uniquely pertinent marginal notes spring from the page, all inscribed with the sharpest of pencils and in a handwriting that is as immediately recognisable as the thick Viennese accent it instantly recalls.

When I first went to study with Hamburger he was still active as a staff accompanist at the BBC. The last of a dying breed, he would be summoned to the studio almost weekly to accompany this or that visiting singer or instrumentalist. As a result, his experience of the repertoire was immense, and he had his own private catalogue of the scores in the BBC Library in which he had marked his own fingerings. When I studied Bloch's Suite for Viola with him - a famously difficult piano score - he first sent me in to the BBC to copy his fingerings, a process that in itself taught me an enormous amount about fingering, a subject on which he was passionate.

But studying with Paul was revelatory about every aspect of the accompanist's art. Not ideally built for the business of piano-playing - he had a short back and small hands - his technical command was the result of long and hard work rather than inborn flair. As a result he was a far better teacher of technique than many a fine, but more naturally gifted soloist. Not only that, but he taught the essential truth that technique was not just something you wheeled out when the going got tough, but was at the heart of playing even the simplest piano part - Schubert's " An die Musik", for instance.

And the process was never purely mechanical: one made technical decisions in order to achieve a desired musical result, whether it be to create a certain colour, produce a certain rhythmic inflection or to imitate orchestral sonorities (a favourite device of Paul's and essential to the player of songs from Schubert onwards). Though rightly authoritative, he was never ultimately dogmatic. So he would frequently be heard to remark, after minute dissection of the rubato required to accommodate a certain vocal phrase: "It reeks of coaching. Now forget what I told you and make it your own!"

As a vocal coach he was second to none, with not just the usual bag of tricks, but an impressive ability to diagnose problems and devise solutions for them. His knowledge and understanding of the whole range of different voice types and methods of voice production was outstanding, while given that he had absolutely no singing voice to speak of, his ability to convey precisely how a certain passage should be sung was nothing short of miraculous.

He also had an unerring sense of musical style. Before I met Paul I tended to play everything in rather the same, well-behaved way, like most young accompanists. So it was a revelation to hear him explain the precise way in which one's playing of Schubert should differ from that of Schumann, Wolf or Strauss, or Fauré from Debussy, Ravel and Poulenc, let alone from English, Spanish, Russian or even - (in Bloch, again) - Jewish music.

His knowledge and understanding of poetry extended far beyond his Austro-German heritage. Not only could he expound at length on Verlaine, Baudelaire and many a lesser French poet, but to hear his explanation of the poetry of W.H. Auden or Thomas Hardy (as in Benjamin Britten's On This Island and Winter Words, respectively) was an illuminating experience - and all the more humbling for being delivered in the enchanting Viennese accent that never left him.

Hans Keller, Paul's fellow refugee and musical eminence at the BBC, once famously remarked, "The principal aim of any teacher should be to make himself dispensable." Paul Hamburger fulfilled this dictum to perfection. Unfailingly generous with his time and enthusiasm, he delighted in his pupils' successes. No matter how well you thought you could play or sing what you brought to him, you always left able to do it even better, and with your eyes and ears opened to new possibilities. He treated you not just as a student, but as a junior colleague; he gave you the tools for the job; and he showed how they could be used in other circumstances.

A naturally modest man, he would always express embarrassment when I told him - as I always tell anyone who asks me - that he had taught me the basis of everything I know. But it is true, and not just of myself, but of so many others in the music profession.

Comments