The Craxton Family

Harold Craxton

by Denis Matthews

Harold Craxton died on 30th March 1971. Although he was nearly 86 and had led a full life, rich in music and friendship, the news still came as a shock and sorrow to all those who knew him, and who know his remarkable family'. Up to the end of his life he remained a keen concertgoer and a wise counsellor. One quiet word from him was often worth bookfuls of academic knowledge. Much of his wide musical experience dated back to his travels as the accompanist of Melba, Clara Butt, Gerhardt, and other world-famous names. He will long be remembered, too, for his sense of humour. His wit, which was often at the service of some more serious purpose, illuminated his lectures and his teaching.

He was born in London in 1885, lived for a time at Devizes in Wiltshire, became a devoted pupil of Tobias Matthay, and taught at the Matthay School before becoming the most respected and sought-after piano professor at the R.A.M. He was admired in turn as pianist, lecturer, accompanist, editor, adjudicator, and teacher. With Tovey he collaborated in the Associated Board edition of the Beethoven piano sonatas, and he was a pioneer in promoting the love of early keyboard music, especially the English Elizabethans. He continued to give private lessons long after his official retirement from the Academy, and until only two years ago his devoted pupils, friends and colleagues would flock to the annual Music Teachers' Association course at Matlock, where he directed the piano week.

On the occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday, 500 people attended a dinner given in his honour at the Connaught Rooms. Among the many spoken tributes, Sir Thomas Armstrong reflected Harold Craxton's own attitude to teaching when he said that 'the teacher's first responsibility is to turn his pupils into the way of finding those things that their instinct leads them to seek'. The present writer, asked to say something on behalf of his many students, quoted Harold's own remark that the role of the teacher should not be to dominate or dictate but 'to persuade, coax, and cajole'. Not all famous teachers have been blessed with modesty, yet he would give all the credit to a talented pupil and say, 'Alii can do is to offer the loan of a willing and experienced ear'. Nor did he dogmatise about Matthay's theories, though he sometimes regretted that they had led to exaggeration and misunderstanding. Matthay's great achievement had been to analyse and tabulate basic principles of technique that many gifted performers observed instinctively. The devotion Harold's pupils felt towards him was inspired because he always told them 'why' as well as 'how' and encouraged them to respond to the music in their own way.

Harold Craxton's name has long been renowned throughout the world, and it is virtually impossible to travel to any musical centre without meeting one of his pupils or his pupils' pupils. In 1955 and 1960 he served on the international jury of the Chopin competitions in Warsaw, and when distinguished foreign colleagues visited London they never forgot the warm hospitality of the Craxton household. For half a century the family has been loved and talked about, though only one of Harold's six children became a professional musician: Janet Craxton is one of the finest oboists of her generation.

To become a Craxton pupil was in fact to become a friend, and moreover a friend of the whole family. In this respect my own good fortune was remarkable. When I came to London before the war to study with Harold at the Royal Academy of Music, his wife Essie invited me to stay with them in St John's Wood until I found a place of my own. No one asked me to leave: I stayed for four years. During the blitz their house narrowly escaped a direct hit. The family was uprooted, but not for long, and the centre of the universe (for so many friends and pupils) moved further north to Hampstead. The same feeling of welcome, and of being home again, remained. As for Harold, his personality and his spirit will continue to live on in the minds and hearts of all who knew him.