Viola Tucker was a remarkable woman who gave her life towards helping others to make the most of their musical talents, especially in the field of chamber music. As a pianist and cellist, she held many important posts as a teacher, but will be best remembered for the rescue and subsequent running of the Grittleton Chamber Music Course for 35 years.
She showed an early talent for music, was given piano lessons as a very young child and rapidly became proficient. Educated at St Paul's Girls' School in London, she entered the Royal College of Music at 16, studying both piano and cello. Then in 1940, when she was 19, she volunteered for the WAAF and rose to a sergeant. Her later ability to organise large groups of people must have stemmed from her experience during the Second World War.
Her first peacetime appointment was in 1946 when she taught piano at the Sloane Grammar School for Boys in Chelsea, where she stayed until 1962; from 1950 to 1960 she also taught at Putney High School. In 1950, too, she joined the Junior Department at the Royal College of Music, becoming a member of the Administrative Staff in 1960 and staying until 1983. Here she ran the External Engagements Office, a service which allowed the student musicians to perform at a range of events off-campus, gaining valuable experience and a useful fee. Students might find themselves augmenting an orchestra for a concert, stepping into the shoes of a professional soloist who was suddenly indisposed, teaching at a summer course or providing music for Christmas shopping at Harrods. This service, which had existed since 1926, went from strength to strength in Tucker's capable hands. It provided the backbone to the RCM's internationally renowned Woodhouse Centre, which opened in 1999 offering advice, support, work and contacts to the RCM musicians while they are students and for five years after graduation. This is managed today by one of Tucker's ex-students, Susan Sturrock.
In 1967 Tucker learned that the summer course at Grittleton that she had attended for many years was about to close as the founder, Anatole Malzak, was due to retire. When there appeared to be nobody willing to replace him, Tucker decided that she - single-handed - would take it over. The course flourished, quadrupled in size and became so popular that the same members came back year after year bringing their children and friends.
Viola Tucker demanded that standards were kept at a high level so that only those who received a personal invitation could attend, and anyone who behaved in a way that jeopardised the enjoyment of others would not be invited again. These two-week sessions would begin at 8am and did not stop until well after 10.30pm. Regular concerts were given, performed by the coaches, juniors and seniors, and on the final night there was often a superb cabaret where talents extended to comedians and impressive jazzers.
Sometimes a venue at which the course had been held would be unavailable the following year. Tucker would travel the length and breadth of the country to find a substitute. She needed single rooms rather than dormitories, married accommodation, good pianos, suitable acoustics for the many teaching rooms and a concert hall. She also liked to have a swimming pool and preferred an attractive countryside setting. All this was provided for a very low charge. She wasted not a penny on advertising. Once they had seen the hive of industry and enjoyment her courses created, many a stalwart bursar was known to bend his normally strict rules to accommodate Viola Tucker's demands, since he realised that for her only the best would be acceptable.
A particularly moving example of Tucker's love of her country and ceremony was shown when the course was held in Malvern Girls' College. In the beautiful grounds there is a copper beech tree, planted in 1924 by the then Duchess of York, later the Queen Mother and President of Tucker's Alma Mater, the Royal College of Music. Realising that many of the members and coaches had connections with the RCM, Tucker organised a mass group photograph under its spreading boughs. This mushroomed into a splendid party with many members sharing anecdotes and memories of their own college days. A copy of the photograph was duly sent to the Queen Mother who was both delighted and surprised to see what her planting had achieved. The letter she received from Queen Elizabeth was one of Tucker's prized possessions.
There was a strict code of behaviour at Grittleton. A rule that everyone attended performances in formal wear was always obeyed and ties had to be found for the men. If the females turned up in trousers they were sent back to change. One of her coaches, the viola player Elizabeth Watson, remembers:
Viola would never spend time and money listening to snatches of music on answering machines. Any member who parked a car more than two feet from the next one was firmly ticked off; and woe betide those who forgot their colour-coded parking permit. Like a sparky shepherdess she made sure the course ran smoothly and happily.
One of the regular visitors was the publisher Livia Gollancz. She wrote:
To an amateur musician [she played the French horn], a week or two playing chamber music is a refreshment to mind and spirit. People from all walks of life, many of them distinguished in their own right, benefited in their careers and their personal lives from the opportunity to use holiday time in this way - and all down to the ability and dedication of one woman.
The Grittleton course is today one of the most successful and attracts instrumentalists from all walks of life - medics, magistrates, businessmen, barristers, accountants, architects, physiotherapists, photographers, luthiers and steel workers, as well as professional teachers and players.
Viola Tucker was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer; they offered her chemotherapy, but she refused. "I am 84," she told me:
I've had a wonderful life of music and I've made many friendships on the way. I'm not going to endure treatment of any kind. When it's my time to go, I'll go.
Margaret CampbellReuse content