Harold Taylor (1925-2014)

Author of the classic book “The Pianist’s Talent” who articulated the secrets of his art with rare clarity and whose bold vision created a musical utopia in a Midland town

Harold Taylor will best be remembered as the author of The Pianist’s Talent, a classic volume in which the mysteries of piano playing and teaching are elucidated with remarkable clarity and insight. The book ran into numerous reprints in several languages, and won Taylor a legendary status in the field of piano pedagogy, but his wisdom was by no means reserved solely for his readers. A generous spirit, and a musician of rare intelligence and broad culture, Taylor’s influence spread far and wide in a long and diverse career as performer, teacher and, notably, as Artistic Director of the Bromsgrove Festival, where his innovative and courageous programming attracted national and international acclaim. Under Taylor’s charismatic leadership, the North Worcestershire town rose to be one of the chief provincial glories on the British musical map of the 1960s and 70s.

Harold James Taylor was born in Macclesfield, Cheshire, on 26th November, 1925, the son of a dairy farmer. At the Royal Manchester College of Music (now the RNCM) he studied with the Russian virtuoso Iso Elinson and the legendary piano teacher Gordon Green, whose most famous pupil, John Ogdon, became a close lifelong friend. Taylor graduated with diplomas in performing and teaching and continued his studies at the Institut Pedagogique in Paris with Raymond Thiberge, and privately in Paris with the great Franco-Swiss pianist Alfred Cortot, who remained a potent source of inspiration and a tangible influence on Taylor’s later playing and teaching.

Returning to England, Taylor established a career as soloist and chamber musician,  becoming known as one of his generation’s most insightful and entertaining lecture recitalists and a sought-after and inspiring teacher. In 1965 he was appointed Director of Music at Bromsgrove College of Further Education and became Artistic Director of the Bromsgrove Festival, then a small annual event in its fifth year. Taylor was the right man at the right time and, under his inspired guidance and enlightened judgement, coupled with a doughty capacity for taking bold artistic risks, the Festival flourished and grew. Taylor’s discriminating mind, wealth of contacts, lively imagination and nose for a successful event brought many leading artists to Bromsgrove in programmes whose scope and breadth was rarely matched outside London and the bigger musical centres. In 1967, at the height of the Cold War, Taylor boldly arranged and oversaw the Western European premiere of Shostakovich’s String Quartet no.11 at Bromsgrove. The work, recently completed and still in manuscript, had previously been heard only in Leningrad and Moscow, but today it is a cornerstone of the chamber music repertoire. Making a compelling case to the Soviet Composers’ Union that Bromsgrove was the ideal cultural centre for this auspicious occasion, Taylor successfully negotiated the delivery of the work’s manuscript parts to his Bromsgrove home, where his postman stuffed them half in- and half outside his letterbox. Had it been a rainy day, as Harold Taylor himself remarked with characteristically droll observation, the broken package could have been unusable and things could have turned out very differently. As it was, thanks to the weather – and, moreover, to Taylor’s foresight and persistence - Bromsgrove achieved a small place in Russian musical history.

For some years Taylor had been fascinated by the teachings of F. Matthias Alexander. Alexander was an Australian-born actor and elocutionist who devised, in Taylor’s own words, a “unique method of co-ordinating mind and body”, enabling optimal artistic function unhampered by physical malcoordination or strain. The Alexander Technique is widely practised worldwide, but Taylor realised that his own teacher, Raymond Thiberge, had drawn similar conclusions specifically relating to piano playing. Thiberge had published three books before the Second World War and, though his teaching and influence had failed to make as wide an international impact as that of Alexander, Taylor considered his thinking uniquely enlightened and revolutionary. Harold Taylor set out to rationalise and articulate the work of both figures and thereby to produce a definitive textbook deconstructing many aspects of piano technique. By examining hidden “success-factors” in the performance of innately talented pianists and analysing the physical, mental and co-ordinative processes which lay behind them, Taylor offered a uniquely practical and succinct insight into an elusive art which many have tried, but few have succeeded, to successfully describe. The Pianist’s Talent was published by Kahn and Averill in 1969 and quickly won Taylor widespread gratitude. It has been a must-have on the bookshelves of libraries and music teachers ever since and, within the past decade, has been published for the first time in German, by Vienna University Press. Harold Taylor was also the editor of two further books: Kentner: A Symposium, published in 1987 with a preface by Yehudi Menuhin, and Ravel According to Ravel.

Taylor retired from the North Worcestershire College (as Bromsgrove College of Further Education had become) in 1982, but his intellectual curiosity remained undimmed and in retirement from full-time lecturing he took a B.Mus degree at Goldsmith’s College, London. He also intensified his own performing activities, devising an illuminating series of lecture recitals telling the stories of a range of composers and highlighting aspects of their personalities. Chopin and the Feminine Influence, charting the Polish composer’s romantic history and its impact on his music, was a particularly popular example, and was delivered with Taylor’s customary wry humour. A warm and witty companion and a forceful and articulate personality, Taylor could captivate an audience either as lecturer or performer and his piano playing preserved, for a new generation of audiences, the flexibility, fluidity and magical voice-leading of those artists of yesteryear, such as Cortot, with whom he had been so closely associated. Throughout his eighties Taylor continued to enjoy driving around Britain to pursue his concert career and until his last few months he was a frequent and popular recitalist and lecture recitalist in places as diverse as Weymouth, Shrewsbury and Edinburgh. In 2010 he gave a special piano recital in Bromsgrove to celebrate the golden jubilee of the Festival he had worked so tirelessly to put on the map, whilst his most famous book remains required reading for piano students worldwide.

Harold Taylor married Joan Parton in 1957 and, although the marriage was later dissolved, the pair remained close friends. Taylor’s partner for 30 years, until her death in 2005, was Gillian Halse Noel, founder of the Rehearsal Orchestra and the author of Keeping Out of the Rain: An Orchestral Story. Taylor is survived by his two daughters, one of whom, Marie-Louise Taylor, is herself a distinguished pianist and a Piano Tutor at Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester.

Duncan Honeybourne

Harold Taylor, pianist, writer, lecturer and Artistic Director of the Bromsgrove Festival, 1965-80, was born in Macclesfield on 26th November 1925. He died in Redditch on 24th January 2014, aged 88.

The Times, London, 25th March 2014