Obituary: Susi Jeans
Thursday 14 January 1993
SUSI JEANS was an influential organist, harpsichordist, clavichordist, musicologist and teacher. Through her many broadcasts and concerts from the mid-1930s, she introduced a clarity and new life into British organ- playing, specialising in the music of Bach and his predecessors, Reger and the modern Austrian school and, after the war, introduced English 17th- and 18th-century keyboard music to a much wider audience.
Many of her pupils were amongst the best players of the next generation and her published researches and 40 years of public concerts in her home introduced a wealth of unknown and several specially commissioned new works to a wide audience.
She was born Susanne Hock in Vienna in 1911, the daughter of Oscar and Jekaterina Hock. Her father, who came from Bohemia, was the director of a paper manufactory and her mother was the daughter of an army officer of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. The eldest child of four, she was considered delicate and was taught cross-country skiing by her father at the age of four and skiing was to remain one of her main relaxations until quite late in life. She grew up in a striking Grecian house, designed by the noted architect Strnad, in the Viennese suburb of Grinzing, set amongst hills covered in vineyards.
At first, she was trained as a ballet dancer by the famous modernist teacher Gertrud Bodenwieser (who was honoured with an exhibition in the Royal Festival Hall a few years ago) but, growing rather rapidly, she changed to piano. She was a pupil at the Vienna Akademie fur Musik und Darstellende Kunst from 1925 to 1933. She was taught by the eminent composer Franz Schmidt (1874-1939) for piano and theory (he taught counterpoint based on the teaching of JJ Fux and her original class notes have been kept) and later changed to organ which she was taught by Franz Schutz. Schutz, besides being a brilliant executant, was a forceful character and bullied Schmidt into writing him many organ pieces. This was fortunate as they are fine attractive pieces, growing rapidly in popularity, although some are of very considerable difficulty. She was very proud to have been awarded the prestigious and rarely awarded Diploma. Her debut in Vienna was in 1929. A colleague there was the composer Walter Pach.
In 1931 she played in Paris and met and charmed the very elderly Charles-Marie Widor (of 'Toccata' fame) and he invited her to have lessons with him as he thought her playing not legato enough.
From 1933 to 1935, she was in Leipzig studying at the Kirchenmusikalisches Institut under Bach's successor Karl Straube (whose mother was English) and stayed for a time in the flat of Gunther Ramin, organist of the Thomaskirche.
The organs on which she had learnt in Vienna had pneumatic and electric actions and these she always described as horrible. In the early 1930s she met the tracker action organs of Gottfried Silbermann in Freiberg, Saxony, and was immediately 'converted' by their beautiful sound and musicality of touch.
In 1934 she made a concert tour in England. She was instantly popular, made many friends. London, has many churches dedicated to the same saint and they are ofter distinguished by adding another word such as St Martin-in-the-Fields, St Andrew Undershaft, etc, and this led to a charming and far-reaching incident. The young conductor Peter Sanger-Davies arranged for her to play the organ at what she thought was 'St James Jeans', presumably a church. When she arrived, to her surprise, it was not a church but the beautiful house in Surrey of Sir James Jeans OM, the brilliant author of books on thermodynamics and applied mathematics and popular broadcaster on astronomy. He was a very competent organist, playing mainly Bach and the 19th-century composers, and had a two-manual organ in his home. They fell in love and were married in 1935 in Vienna. Cleveland Lodge became her home and the centre of the most varied music-making for the rest of her life.
As wedding presents he gave her a two- manual neo-baroque tracker action organ designed by Johann Nepomuk David and with pipework made and voiced by Fritz Abend, and a two-manual and pedal harpsichord by Maendler-Schramm of Munich voices by Adam Muller. Her many broadcasts and concerts on these two instruments were to have a powerful influence on the next generation. So that Sir James could continue his writing and playing without them disturbing each other, he built an extra music room on the house separated by a corridor with three well-fitting doors.
That room was destined to become the venue for her annual festival, held in late May or early June when the rhododendrons in the garden were at their best. In 1951 she gave a concert performing a discovery of hers, the Haydn Double Concerto in F for violin and harpsichord, and a mass by John Dunstable, but the Festival really started in 1954 as the Mickleham and West Humble. The name was changed to the Box Hill Festival in 1966.
One subject dear to her heart was the preservation of the few remaining unaltered 18th- and 19th- century organs in Britain. Even as late as the Fifties and Sixties, these were often ruined by 'modernisation'. She showed great courage in the face of entrenched opposition and in 1969 founded a society for the preservation of old organs. Time, of course, proved her right. She initiated the careful restoration of the 18th-century organs at Oakes Park, Sheffield; Carlton Towers, Yorkshire, and at Betchworth House, Surrey, and her house provided a home for several early 19th-century chamber organs.
In 1978 she started an annual summer school in her home devoted to research lectures and master classes by such eminent organists as Gillian Weir. She was made an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Organists in 1966. The following year she was visiting lecturer at the State University of Colorado in Boulder: in 1970, organ and harpsichord soloist at the Perth Festival in Australia and in 1972 she was invited to Cornell University. Her pupils included Peter Hurford, Sir David Lumsden, David Sanger, George Guest, Christopher Kent and Peter Dickinson.
Shortly before her death she was honoured with the publication by the Positif Press, Oxford, of Aspects of Keyboard Music, a series of chapters by her colleagues on organs, organ music, its performance, organ builders, etc and a bibliography of her research articles and editions of early music.
She was the kindest of friends and had a delightful sense of humour. Besides skiing, her relaxations included gardening and mountaineering. She climbed the Matterhorn twice.
She leaves two sons, Michael and Christopher, and a daughter, Katharine, who has followed her in a distinguished and successful musical career.
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