Susan’s lifelong journey through 20th century music began during her student years, both in and outside the Royal Academy of Music. Whatever she knew before, it was her friends and teachers at the RAM and, soon after, her growing range of contacts with her contemporaries in Britain and then abroad that set her mind moving and most profoundly shaped her outlook.
Her piano teacher at the Academy was Harold Craxton. It was his approach to Bach that she most often recalled to her own pupils in later years. Her composition teachers were Mátyás Seiber, with whom she studied privately, and Howard Ferguson, who was her RAM professor. From both she learnt scrupulous musical honesty. Seiber encouraged her to take an analytical view, to hone her sense of the right note in the right place. Through him she found herself connected, at least by proxy, to the Eastern European world of Bartók and Kodály. Ferguson was different. Despite his Irish background, his musical roots were English and in the solidly old-fashioned and classical traditions of R.O.Morris and Harold Samuel. Susan was amusing about Howard’s teaching methods. Apparently, when he could think of nothing to tell her or when she turned up unprepared for her lesson, they would pass the time working their way through the piano duet repertory. She remembered those occasions fondly, describing the experience as ‘like being in the workshop of a mediaeval artist’ - one absorbed by example. Oddly it was Ferguson rather than Seiber who, when she found herself creatively blocked, suggested she look at Bartók’s collections of Hungarian tunes. The result was her only published composition, ‘Eight Hungarian Melodies’.
Her friends among her fellow students were even more important to her than her teachers. Chief among them was Richard Rodney Bennett, whom she met towards the end of his time at the RAM. To her younger colleagues and pupils in later life she would happily recall her awe and amazement when she first encountered the scale and breadth of Richard’s talent as a composer and player, younger than her but already knowing so much more about music and having written so much. Richard recalls that in those days – rather improbably - Susan wore plaits. This will remind many of her friends that hair-style remained a curiously enduring and comical problem for Susan. She disapproved of spending money on such a worldly and frivolous luxury as a trip to the hairdresser and was delighted in the 1970s to discover that Boots sold a small plastic comb into which one could insert a razor-blade. With this apparatus she would chop at her hair, pleased at the financial saving. When she washed the results, her hair stood up like an untended piece of undergrowth, a problem she neatly solved by the liberal application of strips of cellotape. This made a startling sight on hairwashing day.
All her life, playing duets and two-piano music was a key way for Susan to engage with those around her. Having explored the literature with Howard Ferguson in her student years, she soon started forming duo teams with her friends, especially Susan McGaw (‘The Two Susans’ is such a wonderful name, like an old and much-loved music-hall act!), and John Streets with whom she had a two-piano partnership that began with a historic student performance at the RAM of Bartok’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion. It seems amazing now, but the piece was so little known in those days that the occasion caused a scandal. Various solemn-faced harmony professors made it clear that they strongly disapproved of their students playing such avant-garde stuff. There was a further problem when it turned out that the RAM did not own a xylophone, but the situation was saved by Howard Ferguson who stepped in and hired one himself. Susan’s partnership with John continued for ten years of concerts before he went to live in France. By that time Susan had another duo-team with Richard Bennett, which began in Paris during the time they were both studying with Boulez and continued for many decades of inspiring concerts, broadcasts and commissions. It was in her French years too that Susan really launched her lifelong work as an accompanist of instrumentalists and singers of every kind. For many years one of her most important musical partners was the flautist William Bennett. It was in France that Susan and Wibb, together with the oboist Philip Jones, formed the Mabillon Trio. Apparently the name came from a favourite Parisian café.
Susan’s interest in new music took her, along with several of her contemporaries, to Darmstadt for the Summer Schools (she had a good anecdote about Cage holding forth in a café at the expense of a lecture Stockhausen had just given). And then came the celebrated post-graduate journey to Paris, when she and Richard Bennett went to study with Pierre Boulez. It was a daring - even shocking - move. And a pioneering one too. Richard and Susan were the first British musicians to engage directly with Boulez, who himself was still a young man, hardly a traditional teacher and with a daunting reputation as the greatest and most intellectually fearsome exponent of European modernism.
From an article by Gereard McBurney - read more