Story of Lilian Niblette (1903-1969), pianist and professor at the Birmingham School of Music
An article for the Birmingham Conservatoire magazine on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of Niblette’s death
In 1966 the distinguished pianist, composer and Head of Music at the BBC Midland region Patrick Piggott described Lilian Niblette as “a pianist of great experience and authority. Her Schumann playing in particular is excellent”. Piggott’s words come from a recommendation to the BBC headquarters that Niblette be re-engaged to broadcast from London. Piggott was unsuccessful in his mission on her behalf, and this doyenne of Midland pianists was henceforth restricted to the Birmingham studios. This deflating postscript underlines a melancholy subtext to Niblette’s whole career, for she had struggled since the thirties to rise out of provincial obscurity and establish herself as a soloist of national renown. But many doors beyond her native Midlands remained closed to her, causing her frustration and disappointment. Throughout the Midland counties she was revered: a performer of fire and personality, and a uniquely charismatic teacher renowned as much for her obsessive chain-smoking during lessons as for her tough attitude towards recalcitrant students.
Not without reason did Piggott cite Schumann as a favourite composer, for Niblette’s BBC file opens in 1930 with a warm letter of recommendation from her teacher Fanny Davies, herself a star pupil of Clara Schumann and a veritable keeper of the Schumannesque flame and performing tradition . The young Lilian, wrote Davies to Sir Adrian Boult, “has been my only first rate pianiste (sic) pupil for quite a long time and will go on.....She is “big”! Feels the long lines and not only feels ‘em but does ‘em”. Listening today to Niblette’s surviving recordings, all taken from recitals transmitted in the 1950s and 60s from the BBC’s Midland studios, what is striking is the integrity, honesty and sheer musicianship of the playing. Here certainly is a player with a natural and flexible technique, but what is more remarkable is the sense of style and breadth of vision, an absence of flashiness but a sane intensity which recalls the playing of other Clara Schumann pupils and grand-pupils. Who was this remarkable artist and teacher whose work has been largely forgotten?
Lilian’s great-grandfather, Thomas Niblett (she herself added the final “e” later), was born in 1798 in the Gloucestershire village of Tirley, where he later plied his trade as a boatman on the Severn. His son Frederick, Lilian’s grandfather, came to the Black Country and established himself as a grocer and horse driver, first in Bilston and then in Darlaston. Lilian’s mother also came from an old Darlaston family, and her great-grandmother, Maria Hartless, is recorded in 1851 as a “pikelet maker”, presumably purveying this regional delicacy from her Darlaston kitchen. Lilian’s genealogy encompassed the local industrial heritage too: her ancestor James Hartless of Bilston Street, Darlaston, was a “Screw Manufacturer employing 2 lads and 4 women”, and his widow Zipporah continued as a “Nut and Bolt Manufacturer” after his death and into old age. Lilian’s parents, Alfred Niblett and Emily Drayton, married in 1901 and set up house in the Yorkshire spa town of Harrogate, where Alfred was working as a manager for a Grocery and Dairy company. It was in Harrogate that their only child, Lilian, was born, at their home in Dragon Road on 13 May 1903.
The Nibletts soon returned to the Black Country, settling initially at 32 Cook Street, Wednesbury before moving to 11 Brunswick Park Road, Lilian’s home until the end of her life. Lilian took piano lessons from the age of five and subsequently attended Queen Mary’s High School in Walsall, going on to study the piano with George Manton at the Birmingham School of Music where she appeared frequently in students’ concerts during the early 1920s. In 1924 Lilian was awarded the Chappell Gold Medal at the BSM, the “First Prize Open” at the Birmingham Competitive Festival and the Associate Diploma of the BSM. The Dutch cellist Johan Hock, who had settled in Birmingham, took a great interest in Lilian’s gifts and offered her opportunities for chamber music making. Her early forays into broadcasting included outside broadcasts from a Birmingham Midday Concert in 1932 and from Walsall Central Hall in November 1933, and she gave a recital on the BBC Midland Regional wavelength in January 1934. Later in 1934 she gave two recitals at London’s Grotrian Hall and appeared as soloist with the Torquay Municipal Orchestra. The “municipal orchestra” was still the glory of many an English seaside resort, and the following year Lilian played the Franck Variations Symphoniques with Eldridge Newman’s Folkestone orchestra, plus the Bach D minor Concerto with the Birmingham Philharmonic. By this time, her list of teachers had included not only Fanny Davies and Solomon, but also Paul Wittgenstein, with whom she had undertaken an extended period of study in Vienna.
Bantock introduced Lilian to Sir Henry Wood, who encouraged her to apply to the BBC in London for broadcasting opportunities there. She did this, and unwittingly found herself embroiled in internal BBC intrigues regarding her truthfulness over her address. By this time she was spending much of the week at New Malden, Surrey, returning to Wednesbury to teach at weekends, and not unnaturally used her Surrey address for communications with London BBC officials. Her application to broadcast from London was dated 13th December 1934 and countersigned by Wood and Bantock. On 6th February 1935 she was heard in audition at Broadcasting House and found to be “Excellent in practically every way. Valuable addition to our list”. On Sunday 9th June 1935 she received seven guineas for her first broadcast on the London National wavelength, for which a Bluthner piano was sent to Broadcasting House at Lilian’s expense, in preference to the Challen instrument with which the studio was equipped. She performed a programme of Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin and Debussy and received a favourable report from BBC officials. But ire was being raised in the corridors of the Corporation, for Niblette was known to be a Midland resident and to have previously broadcast from her local studios. “It is most unfortunate that this artist should have got in (to London) by the back door”, wrote a Midland Regional Executive on 3 May 1935, “but I am thoroughly in agreement that her playing is worth the fee you are offering her for June 9th, and it again brings forward the old argument that Regional artists should be paid an equal fee to those in London if graded in the same class of performance”. Lilian later wrote to the London BBC, having been challenged about the discrepancy, that “I do hope I’ve not done anything to spoil my chances and when the opportunity occurs I will be allowed to play again. Mr Casey is giving me a larger fee in Birmingham but frankly that doesn’t interest me at the moment, that will come later when I’ve achieved something. I hope I’ve not caused any unnecessary trouble.”
But on subsequent occasions Lilian was required to play from the Birmingham studios, writing to BBC London executive Arthur Wynn just before the outbreak of war in 1939 that “Birmingham has developed into a “concentration camp” for me”. And in March 1940 Niblette pleaded with Sir Adrian Boult :
“I am writing to ask if there is any hope for musicians who are unfortunate enough to live in Birmingham.....Some years ago...I broadcast from Broadcasting House, then I discovered that would be the end, as I was a Birmingham artist.......I had my eyes on a Prom like lots of other young artists, we’ve received good notices from the best critics, but it’s all useless, we live outside London.”
She goes on to make an impassioned attack on British attitudes:
“It’s a bitter thought at this particular moment to think that the time I spent in Germany was much happier for my musical life, my music was encouraged and given some recognition, although I was unknown. But in England, I am a British pianist and nobody wants to hear me.”
She concluded her letter to Boult:
“Please don’t think I want success in war-time. No! – but I feel it will all be the same after, and I’m not only speaking for myself. It hurts me to hear a fine pianist say to me “I’ve given up hoping, it’s useless”. I hope you will understand this letter.
“Yours faithfully, Lilian Niblette.”
Despite her misgivings about her professional future, Niblette’s career continued to gather respectable momentum. In the autumn of 1941 she appeared as soloist under Boult’s direction with the London Philharmonic Orchestra at a concert in Walsall and wrote to the conductor afterwards (October 4th 1941):
“May I thank you for giving me a very happy day last Thursday in Walsall. It’s a great honour to play such a beautiful work.....(and) added to this was the honour of playing for you and the LPO, all this had given me some anxious days, which ended the moment I started to play for you at my rehearsal.”
This was followed by a further engagement to broadcast with Boult from the BBC’s wartime home in Bedford. On Monday 2nd February 1942 she played the Haydn D major Concerto on the Home Service, for a fee of seven guineas plus expenses, her total receipts coming to £4.18s. Boult praised her “very good, charming playing...I should say she will always do more than adequately anything that she is asked to do.” Lilian had taken a break from her war service – nursing in Wednesbury – to appear, but told Arthur Wynn at the BBC: “I’m allowed plenty of freedom for my music. They seem to understand at the hospital.” Niblette wrote later of her wartime nursing experiences: “I met some very good surgeons and doctors who were interested in music; this helped me over the worst of that period.”
Lilian collaborated on several occasions with the legendary English violinist Albert Sammons. In March 1942 they played the Beethoven “Spring” and Franck Sonatas at a recital in Birmingham where, according to Post critic Eric Blom, “both interpretations showed a fine musicianly preoccupation with style”. Sammons was a source of support and counsel when in 1942 wartime conditions threatened to take Lilian away from music completely. A Mrs Fraser-Wood, of Walsall, informed Sir Adrian Boult that “the official mind of our local Labour Exchange has decided that she will be more use making munitions that working for music in a war-torn world”. Sammons suggested that Niblette should try obtaining a post on the music staff of the BBC, but to no avail, for Boult explained “the Corporation can do very little in the matter”. Niblette wrote that Sammons shared the concern that she might “spoil her hands”, but the final outcome of her tribunal hearing is unclear.
Various supporters in the Midlands continued to lobby the musical establishment in the hope of securing important engagements for Lilian. Cameron T. Wattis, father of Wednesbury-born actor Richard Wattis, exhorted Lady Violet Bonham Carter to “assist....in the struggle of a provincial artiste”. Clearly a “Prom” date was top of Lilian’s wish-list, and in 1948 Baroness Ravensdale contacted the BBC asking for a Prom audition: “I hope the result will bring about her heart’s desire”. Ironically, when an audition date eventually came her way, in 1951, she was unable to travel to London due to illness, and she was never to play at a Promenade Concert.
Yet Lilian Niblette maintained a strong provincial profile in a drastically transformed postwar climate. She appeared twice with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Sargent, playing the Schumann Concerto in April 1949. Her career as a broadcasting artist in the Midlands was now at its zenith and in 1946 she had joined the piano staff at the BSM, finding a new fulfilment in teaching and relishing the challenges of inspiring a new generation through her unique gifts as a communicator. In later years she herself took lessons with Benno Moiseiwitsch, and a signed photograph of the Russian maestro, inscribed “to sympathetic Lilian Niblette”, adorned her teaching room at the BSM. Always alive to new challenges, she continued to practise for seven hours each day and became increasingly fascinated by the piano music of Debussy, programming the complete Etudes long before these uniquely challenging works had become widely played. Her pupil Michael Young, now a professor at the Royal Academy of Music, recalls her “clarity of thought, an intellectual rather than overtly emotional approach.”
Lilian Niblette was awarded an Honorary Fellowship of the BSM upon her retirement in 1968. One of her last recitals, a broadcast of the Brahms-Handel Variations recorded at Oakengates Town Hall in the autumn of 1968, was transmitted a few months later by which time cancer had ended Niblette’s career. She died at West Bromwich and District General Hospital on 11 March 1969. Lilian’s mother, Emily, outlived her daughter by five years; she died in 1974, in her 97th year.
Bibliography and Acknowledgements
I should like to record my thanks to Erin O’Neill and the staff of the BBC Written Archives Centre for their help in the research for this article.
This article first appeared in the Birmingham Conservatoire Association Magazine, Autumn 2009