Autobiographies by Pianists Ivor Newton and Dennis Matthews

By: Rosalyn Tureck

From the Rosalyn Tureck Collection,
Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University


[Editor's note: I was unable to discern which Dennis Matthews book Dr. Tureck is discussing, but the Ivor Newton book is entitled "At the piano—Ivor Newton: the world of an accompanist".]

Two autobiographies by Ivor Newton and Dennis Matthews respectively have been published recently which add to the contemporary chronicle of concert performers. Both are so well known and admired, particularly in England, that they need no prefatory remarks from me. Each relates the tale of a man fulfilled, in the work which drew him as a magnet, demanding and developing his finest capacities. Perhaps the most entertaining aspect of reviewing these two books together is illustrated by the story told by Dennis Matthews about Harold Craxton, who objected to the casual treatment given to accompanists. He summed this up in the phrase "at the piano". "Imagine," said Craxton, "a singer being billed 'at the glottis'". Having read the latter first, Ivor Newton's title, inevitable as it is, provoked a special chuckle.

It is interesting to see the similarity of background as expressed in the tastes of the parents of both autobiographers. Their parents were not particularly gifted in music, although each reports a certain liking for it. However the level of their musical preferences was hardly that of their respective sons who developed such excellent careers in music of real value. Of the two, Ivor Newton's book is the more colorful. I sometimes think that the talent for a sense of humor is inborn in accompanists, or perhaps, necessity sharpens this quality. Newton seconds Gerald Moore not only with his book about accompanying, but with a humor which appears on the opening page with a quotation from Ernest Newman — "Piano playing is not a very elevated walk of life." The color in Newton's book begins with the revelation that he was born in Limehouse, and the description of his early days.

From the account of his early beginnings, Ivor Newton was a much younger prodigy than Matthews. Professional work begun before the age of ten is a typical tale of the musical prodigy, but Newton's early years of trial and error are unusually grim. He is a 'self-made' man by reason of having to overcome and surmount a passive family background and comparatively little encouragement from his teachers. He fumbled his way into a distinguished career, due to his own passion for music. His knocking about from music halls to various orchestras in all sorts of unlikely places and engagements, would hardly be considered a model example of how to become an accompanist in the repertoire of the concert world. However, his studies led to self-development due solely to his inner drive and practical necessity — a combination which often forms the most solid of foundations.

When he says that at the age of fifteen, "I could not at that time transpose and seemed to spend all my leisure time writing out everything I had to play in the keys in which the singers wanted it," he was unknowingly working out the best kind of exercises possible to equip himself for the work of later years. This activity contained the urgency of immediate, live performance, so different from academic requirements based on texts and grades which he would have had in a more normal life. Despite the fact that living was much harder and learning took place in dreary music halls rather than in the charming atmosphere of higher place of learning, the grind of producing results under perhaps the worst of conditions formed an effective course of training. At seventeen, an engagement with the violinist, de Groot, at the Picadilly Hotel set him on a course which brought him into a fashionable world more close to that to which his own tastes attracted him, but years were still to pass until he reached the goal of accompanying the great opera and concert artists. Towards the end of his book Ivor Newton writes an open letter for aspiring accompanists which makes good reading for professionals and laymen alike.

Dennis Matthews combines an autobiography concerned with his personal and professional life with hints on musical style and performance, ways of practising and general musical talk. He tells us that his initial moment of musical identification occurred at the age of twelve, actually rather a late age for the performing musician.

I was struck by the attitude expressed in an amusing remark made by his schoolmaster who, on learning that he had decided to become a musician, said to him, "What are you doing with the rest of your time?" How different in quality was the comment made to me by a schoolmaster in the Russian milieu in which I grew up. He said, "One must be prepared to go through fire and water for one's music lessons."

Matthews's general development follows a good pattern of serious study and excellent teaching. The trials of forging a career were not spared him, however, and this sort of experience is more in the usual pattern of the performing musician's life than otherwise. His accounts of experiences on tour are entertaining and classical. I smiled with sympathetic amusement at Mr. Matthews description of the touring artist's troubles with British Railways; and agreed with his remarks about difficulties with pianos on tour.

His general musicianship is, of course, excellent. Sometimes, detailed approaches are a bit confused. In speaking of style, he says it is "controversial because no two musicians agree, for instance, over Bach's notation (a dotted note might mean a double-dotted one or a triplet according to the piece in question)". Actually the rules are clear on these points and disagreement can be due solely to illiteracy and inexperience in reading a score of Bach's time. Mr. Matthews's own seriousness of purpose as a musician and as a person shines through all of his discourse, however, and his modesty is refreshing.