Maria Curcio remembered

Matthew Schellhorn recalls his teacher, the extraordinary pedagogue Maria Curcio.
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Most professional musicians cringe when they contemplate themselves as a youngster attempting to play music they now perform regularly – and I am no exception. But many musicians often also say they would like to be able to experience their lessons again.

I have recently had a remarkable experience, brought about through the process of participating in a research project at the Royal Academy of Music, This project attempted to document the recollections and experiences of the pupils of the remarkable piano pedagogue, Maria Curcio, who died in 2009. During an interview, I recalled that one of the masterclasses I took part in at Chetham’s before I started having regular private lessons with Maria was recorded – an unusual state of affairs given the intensely private nature of my former teacher.

After some searching through my belongings I found this recording, made on an old tape cassette which I lacked the equipment to hear. And so through technology that is actually rather commonplace nowadays I was able to transfer this tape cassette onto computer and hear myself – and Maria Curcio – twenty-three years on.

As far as is known, this recording made on 10th March 1993 (when I was 16 and she was 76) – which can be heard below – is the only audio footage of Maria’s teaching excepting a documentary produced by BBC Scotland (called Fulfilling a Legacy) in 2009. Two commercial recordings of her performances are in existence. There are plenty of written hagiographies, but (as Jack has found) primary sources are rare in the extreme.

My relationship with this tape is rather complex, and having now heard its contents I am not surprised.

First of all, any reluctance to hear this tape was caused, so I thought, by potential embarrassment at my own playing; in fact, the recording is an extremely valuable document of Maria’s teaching and the fact that I was not entirely on top of the music makes for an important opportunity to hear her views about how to improve that performance.

Secondly, the recording gives a very poignant chance to consider how one’s own teaching methods have been formed by those of others.

Finally, the masterclass shows how ‘intense’ lessons with Maria could be (and, as research bears out, my experience was not unique), which in turn calls into question what methodologies are suitable to be employed, and to be endorsed by educational establishments, for different age groups.

Thankfully, moreover, the tape also documents Maria’s own playing, showing what an extraordinarily crystalline and scintillating piano tone she could produce.

I am putting this recording online so that others may hear in detail how Maria Curcio taught and how this extraordinary pupil of Artur Schnabel and of Nadia Boulanger conveyed her musicianship to others.

And, for all the negative feelings I had over that intense public lesson, now that I have aired the tape perhaps I might be able to perform Beethoven’s Opus 54 in public again.