Rosemarie Wright

A personal appreciation by her former student Duncan Honeybourne

Rosemarie Wright came into my life when I was 12 years old. She was announced as an adjudicator for the Weymouth Music Festival and, shortly afterwards, unwell and away from school one Thursday morning in November 1989, I excitedly spotted her name in the Radio Times and listened to her giving a recital of Russian piano music on the radio. I loved the playing, and looked forward to meeting her the following March. To my disappointment, pianists in my age group were assigned to a different adjudicator, but I discovered Rosemarie was giving a masterclass during the afternoon of the Festival. I signed up, and played the Brahms G minor Rhapsody, op.79 no.2.

I immediately took Rosemarie to my heart. She was warm, encouraging and said “I wish I’d had you in my class this morning!” She said I produced a good range of dynamics and encouraged me to intensify the drama in my playing. I remember her making me play the ending - which dissolves into a whisper only to be punctured by a brutal loud chord - and encouraging me to shake the listeners from their seats in surprise and alarm! Then she jumped backwards as I played the chord with the required force. “There, you can do it!!” she smiled. After the class, she wished me well, and I hoped I’d see her again.

A year or so later, I took my Grade 8, with a prize for gaining the highest marks in the country that session. My local teacher in Dorset thought the time had come for me to go on to a more advanced teacher, and Rosemarie Wright was the clear choice. My teacher, the late Jennifer Sanders, wrote to Rosemarie, who said she remembered me well and would love to take me on. I was thrilled, and my journey towards being a professional musician began. Rosemarie suggested I come to see her on Saturdays at the Royal Academy of Music. For the next five years, Saturdays were a time of heady inspiration. I would leave Weymouth on an early train and my lesson with Rosemarie would last at least two hours. Exhausted and invigorated, I’d get home in time for bed.

Rosemarie suggested I would benefit from the additional opportunities offered by the RAM’s Junior Academy: chamber music and other supporting classes. I won a scholarship and duly started attending for the full day. During my teens I gave recitals all over the south of England, lunchtime concerts at many London churches, and played several concertos under Rosemarie’s supervision, starting with my lifelong favourite, the Schumann, with the local orchestra at home in Weymouth. Rosemarie herself had played the Schumann Piano Concerto as a student at the Academy, and had studied it with Harold Craxton, doyen of the London piano teachers of his day. She often referred to him when we were learning it, and imparted to me a treasury of insights which I still draw upon regularly in my own teaching. We went on to study the Beethoven 1st and 3rd concertos, the Rachmaninov 2nd, and the Franck Variations Symphoniques. Rosemarie’s first hand experience of playing the works we learned, with many of Europe’s most distinguished orchestras and conductors, made for a heady and vocation-affirming apprenticeship.

Rosemarie was a mentor as well as teacher; not for her was my supervision “just a job”, or a task to be taken lightly. For her, playing the piano and making music was a precious and privileged calling, carrying a vast responsibility to the great music and the composers to whose profound utterances she had devoted her life. Nothing was about the glory or glamour of the performer, all that mattered was honest and humble fidelity to musical truth. For me, that is what is so special about Rosemarie’s own artistry.

During RAM holidays, Rosemarie would give me extra lessons, lasting hours, in London studios, firmly refusing to accept any more money than the hire charge incurred by the venue. When on tour in the Far East she would write to me once or twice each week, telling me all about her examining assignments and the sights, sounds and tastes of distant lands, and enquiring with interest and concern about my progress at school and, most importantly of all, my practice regime. I would send her a report of each concert I gave, and I would send recordings where possible. Almost always by return of post, her lengthy “Kritische Bericht” would arrive, giving me a frank assessment of how I had acquitted myself. Rosemarie guided my programming, but she always gave me space to be myself and to explore my own paths. She was a kindly, firm adviser, but she was never dictatorial, and she sought never to stifle my own wayward creative flame. That, to me, is great teaching.

Rosemarie knew I had my own voice and a strong personality, and she also knew that I would make plenty of errors of judgement along the road to find my own way. She had the wisdom, and the faith, to guide and support me while I ploughed my own furrow, gently suggesting and probing, but always quietly knowing that I was a determined figure who would get there in the end and that my playing would speak for itself. She never attempted to smother or control me, and she took warm and reassuring care of me when things didn’t work out quite as I’d hoped. And she always believed in me, which was a lifeline.

What Rosemarie didn’t know, and nor at the time did I, was that I was autistic. She knew I struggled, but she listened, she never judged and she always found time for me. My learning methods and behaviour patterns were unorthodox and they baffled and infuriated many of my teachers, but Rosemarie met me on my own terms. I found big social environments overwhelming and unsettling and, in trying to rise to them, I often struggled to cope and found myself burning out my limited capacity to function happily and effectively. Rosemarie wasn’t an effusive or overly social person, she was quiet, measured and constant, and all this made her the perfect levelling factor in my turbulent pianistic apprenticeship.

I started with Rosemarie a gifted but undisciplined pianist. She built my technique, guided me towards musical maturity and helped me to work extremely hard and in a highly structured way. She influenced me enormously in repertoire building, and she played a big role in shaping my musical tastes and aesthetics. My own teaching has evolved with her inspiring and insightful example constantly in mind. And Rosemarie showed me a potent, tangible example of the inner humility and discipline that is a requisite for any quest towards truth in art. Without a doubt, she made me the pianist and teacher I am today. I have enjoyed a deeply fulfilling career for twenty years, and Rosemarie has been the biggest single influence on that. I always say that thanks to her I know my job, and can independently solve most challenges thrown at me, whether as a player or in my cherished role as a teacher.

Rosemarie frequently made reference to her own teachers and when I left her, at the age of almost 19, she announced she had a present for me. It was a first edition of that wonderful collection of essays by her own beloved teacher, the legendary Swiss pianist Edwin Fischer: Reflections on Music. It is inscribed, in her distinctive hand: “A few thoughts to accompany you on your musical journey. With my warmest wishes for your artistic fulfilment.” The book is among my most closely treasured possessions.

I don’t think Rosemarie entirely agreed with all the choices I took as my career developed, but she respected and trusted that I was an individual, and that I had the vision and the strength of character to find my own route. That is not only great teaching, but it is also great friendship, and Rosemarie was ever loyal and supportive. What is more, I am glad she lived long enough to see how things worked out for me in the end. I followed in her footsteps teaching at the University of Southampton, and she was always interested to hear about my work there.

A year or so before she died, I sent Rosemarie a postcard from the Yorkshire Dales to let her know I was playing on the radio. I received a card in reply:

“I managed to catch your BBC broadcasts and I thought you played very well. And it was good to see you in the Radio Times.”

It made me smile as I cast my mind back 30 years, to the times when I’d spot Rosemarie in the Radio Times and make time in my childhood week to listen to her.

Rosemarie will be greatly missed, and I can’t quite think of her not being around somewhere. Her spirit most assuredly is, and her legacy lives on in the many students she taught, in the memories of her marvellous playing and in the recordings she has left. For me, as long as I am still playing and teaching, Rosemarie Wright will be looking over my shoulder, helping me to play right through a phrase or, as she sometimes encouraged me, “play it with a smile”.


This article was first published on the MusicWeb International website in June 2020.