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Famous cellist was abusive monster, says former pupil

Maurice Gendron, who taught at the Yehudi Menuhin School, was allegedly a sadist who abused his young students

One of the greatest cellists of the 20th century was a sadistic teacher who quizzed his pupils about their sexual habits and regularly subjected them to humiliation, a former pupil has said.

Maurice Gendron, a cello professor at Yehudi Menuhin School (YMS) in Cobham, Surrey, from 1968 to 1977, subjected children to cruelty and reduced them to tears so he could stroke and comfort them, according to Michal Kaznowski, a leading cellist and teacher himself.

He spoke out about sustained abuse at the music school, where he studied between 1968 and 1971. Gendron, a French cellist and teacher who played with Benjamin Britten and Rudolf Serkin, died aged 69 in 1990.

"When Gendron was around it was like Saddam Hussein had come to town," Mr Kaznowski told The Independent. "You are talking about sadistic control freakery. He would wait until the weekly cello teacher had left the room, then ask me about my masturbation habits and about my sex life. I was 14."

Mr Kaznowski, originally from Norfolk, remembered crying in every lesson bar a handful, once a month over a three-year period. He added: "The education at Yehudi Menuhin was full of cruelty and public humiliation. He knocked my bow out of my hands."

Mr Kaznowski was regularly told by Gendron that his father, who had recently died at the age of 47 leaving his mum to raise six children, would be disappointed in him, knowing that his father had been a professional cellist, Gulag survivor and war hero.

The YMS enjoyed the attraction of royalty and camera crews. Pupils even regularly appeared on Jimmy Savile's Jim'll Fix It show. Mr Kaznowski said, like others, he did not speak out at the time. "There was no forum for speaking out, so there was never any redress."

Mr Kaznowski, 59, said the only positive to emerge from "a miserable time" was how it showed him the way instrumental teaching should not be done. He is also speaking out in the hope that major reform of pastoral care at music schools will take place as more people go on the record about historical abuse. He said: "Specialist music schools are like a fiefdom. Each musical department is run by the head of department who does what they want. There were some wonderful teachers there but [also] some monsters. They ran their classes like they were in the army. The attitude was: they were in control and you will obey."

Mr Kaznowksi, a former principal cellist with the City of Birmingham Orchestra under Simon Rattle, combines playing in The Maggini Quartet with teaching. He said: "It was assumed that if you speak out about this the sky will fall on your head. At the time not a single incident was ever made public. If any other teacher complained about Gendron they would have been out the door before the end of the day."

Colin Carr, international violinist and Mr Kaznowski's contemporary, has spoken in the past about Gendron's classes. In an interview with the Internet Cello Society, Mr Carr said: "Gendron was a terrifying and tyrannical teacher. He was extremely demanding, impatient, intolerant, and not used to dealing with children. I was 10 years old. He would often yell, raising his voice to a pitch that was quite scary for a child, and he was physically violent at times. I remember him deliberately knocking the bow out of my hand with his bow. Although Gendron was a wonderful cellist, he was not suited to teach young children. They phased him out." After leaving YMS in 1977, Gendron returned "about once a year" until 1983.

Mr Carr declined to comment further when approached.

The series of allegations follow violinist Nigel Kennedy's claim that former YMS teacher, Marcel Gazelle, who died in 1969, sexually abused girls in his bedroom in the 1960s. Mr Kennedy was also Mr Kaznowski's contemporary and a pupil at YMS between 1964 and 1974.

Mr Kaznowski said the size of YMS – 32 pupils then, more than 60 now – contributed to the climate, adding that institutional failings were to blame for abuse that he suffered: "If the standards in the state sector were applied in private schools, such as specialist music schools, then the chance of these incidents happening would be far lower," he said.

There was no response from Gendron's son, François-Eric, who The Independent tried to contact through his website.

Richard Hillier, headmaster at YMS, said he was aware of Mr Kaznowski's allegations but that according to school documents, no concerns were raised about Gendron's behaviour.

Dr Hillier encouraged any former pupils to report such allegations to the school so it could pass them to police. He added: "The YMS of today considers the safety, welfare and protection of its pupils to be the highest priority." The most recent inspection judged the school's welfare as "outstanding".