I was recently interviewed by Martin Cullingford of Gramophone magazine. While I do like Michael Bublé as much as the next woman (whaddya mean, you’re disappointed in me? He really is a lovely young man.) I have spent really quite a lot of my life playing the piano. As you’ll read here, should you be interested…
Gramophone magazine, November 2012
The historian writer and chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces on how carefully researched music can bring history to life
‘I first encountered classical music when my granddad gave us a piano and I started to have lessons when I was four. I didn’t realise it was classical music then. I live in a flat now but if I visit somebody who has a piano I fall on it like a ravening beast. If you had lessons for 15 years, as I did – I did all my grades – it’s bound to have a really deep effect on your life.
My piano teacher Miss Beaumont taught me for those 15 years. At the time I was terrified of her but in retrospect she gave me a great gift of self-discipline and self-reliance. She made me strive for excellence and work hard. To help somebody to get better and really to challenge them, that’s a rare and valuable thing. That’s true of music and performance but also of any other part of life, really.
My piano-playing came to a sad end. This was the worst day of my life so far – and I’m afraid that tells you an awful lot about me. It was the day in 1992 when Labour lost the election and I was devastated by this. Secondly, the pupil lost the pupils versus teachers quiz at our school, and I really thought we were going to win. And thirdly, the news came that I had failed by Trinity College piano diploma, which I had thought I was going to pass. It all happened on the same day. It was the perfect storm of bad news for me, aged 18 or whatever I was, when nothing really bad had yet happened to me. That was the end of my officially competitive, serious piano playing. After that I did go on for a while by myself playing things I really wanted to play and hadn’t been allowed to before, because when I was having my lessons I always had to play light and girlish Mozart – so I played Chopin and Liszt, and that sort of thing.
The reason I stopped playing at university was that I couldn’t afford lessons any more, and, to play, we had to go to the porter’s lodge and get a special key, so that was an obstacle. I went to New College, Oxford – I remember once trying to persuade Edward Higginbottom that when he took the choristers on a tour of Australia he really needed to take some nannies, which was going to be me and my friends, but incomprehensibly he said no.
I also play the clarinet – that’s my second instrument. My third instrument is the tenor saxophone and I used to play in the big band when I was at school. The reason I went for that one is that I felt I’d become chained to the printed page of my piano music. I’ve never been very good at improvisation but it forced me to do it.
We haven’t succeeded in doing this yet but we want to get someone to do a PhD in the music played in all the different rooms at different times at Kensington Palace and Hampton Court Palace. We’re looking for funding – it’s just such a perfect project for somebody – and then we could play the music in the rooms for visitors. We recently had a big conference at Kensington Palace, and Oliver Davies, a retired professor from the Royal College of Music, put together a special concert programme to entertain us in the evening. It was all music that had either been written for, or dedicated to, or had been played by all the people who lived at Kensington Palace. To hear the music that the young Victoria could well have played, in the very rooms where she might have played it, was remarkable. To my mind, it brought this romantic, rebellious but rather repressed teenager to life.
Queen Victoria’s mother, Queen Victoria and Albert and their daughters had very high standards and they were very, very good amateur musicians – I suppose they could afford good lessons and spent their time playing with professional musicians, and of course music was much more part of the fabric, the warp and weft of daily life then. Even though she was running the country to a certain extent, practically every day Queen Victoria would set aside half an hour and she and Albert would play together. When he died, one of the signifiers that she wasn’t well, that she was in mourning, was that she stopped playing. And one of the signs that she was coming back to life again, 10 years or so later, was that she started playing and listening to music once again.’