The Craxton Family

Janet Craxton

by Denis Matthews

I last saw Janet at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, half-an-hour before a performance of Tristan. Needless to say she had been the first of the orchestra to take her place and was diligently practising her exquisite traceries of quavers from the introduction to the second act. It was typical of her devotion to her art that she should have returned to orchestral playing in order to complete her experience in the world of opera - and has one ever heard the many expressive oboe phrases in Tristan so perfectly and sensitively shaped? Yet a much earlier impression of her comes to mind again and again, conjuring up the whole picture of the extraordinary Craxton household at their pre-war home in St John's Wood. My first memory is of a seven-year-old tomboy with pigtails, whose musical leanings were satisfied by asking her father to explain the difference between upright and 'downright' pianos. No-one dreamt that she would have been the only one of the six children to become a professional musician. She was the youngest of Harold and Essie Craxton's family, and the only girl. Harold, the most sought-after piano teacher at the Royal Academy of Music, had described her arrival, with his inimitable wit, as 'a full close with a feminine ending'.

By the mid-1930s the Craxtons had become the most talked-about (and the most loved) family in musical London. At the centre reigned Essie, whose saintly concern for others impressed even those meeting her casually; though with the modesty of the truly great she would blush at the slightest hint of praise. 'No.8' Grove End Road was famous for its Bohemian atmosphere and its hospitality, and the same could be said later of the Craxtons' post-war home in Kidderpore Avenue in Hampstead. Meanwhile Janet had applied herself to music, soon forsaking the inevitable and ubiquitous piano for the oboe and, with typical thoroughness, continuing her studies by entering the Paris Conservatoire in 1948 to enrich her command of styles and techniques. I remember her, before this time, gaining experience in the London Senior Orchestra under Ernest Read; and it says much for her prowess and progress that on her return from Paris she was at once engaged as first oboe with the Hallé.

In those days the Hallé and Barbirolli undertook the most strenuous schedule imaginable, including many tours abroad. Yet I can never recall Janet's playing, of the whole exacting repertory, falling short of the high standard she set herself. The same held good when she moved to the BBC Symphony, to one of the most coveted and responsible posts in the country. During all this time she earned the growing admiration and affection of colleagues, and - surely the greatest of all tributes - the praise of her fellow oboists. Michael Dobson wrote recently that 'the lovely sound that she produced was a reflection of the naturalness and warmth of her own personality'. Her staunchest admirers included Lady Barbirolli, a world-famous oboist in her own right, who knew Janet's playing well from her time with the Hallé onwards. It was she who remarked that despite the attractions of the solo and chamber-music repertory the real glories for the woodwind came in the symphony orchestra. I can add a personal note here. In 1957 I was on a tour of Canada with Léon Goossens and we chanced to overhear a broadcast recording of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, not knowing what orchestra was playing. Suddenly Léon said: 'It must be the BBC from home - only Janet can play like that' - and so it turned out to be.

Her unmistakable artistry, as all her friends knew, was matched by her zeal for work, the rare dedication without which the most promising talents will founder. From her early days she attended to technical problems with infmite patience, practising exercises until she had mastered them and gradually increasing the metronome mark. Her musical tastes were wide, and though she had firm opinions she never caused offence by parading them. When she left the BBC to devote herself to chamber music, teaching and free-lance work, she played a good deal of contemporary music especially with the London Sinfonietta. She can hardly have been in sympathy with everything she was called upon to play but she never betrayed the fact. She had the integrity of the true artist with none of the apparent failings and excesses that are sometimes excused as part of the artistic temperament. Janet's interests outside music were wide too: the visual arts, food and wine, ceramics, antique glass, a love of animals, of the simplicities of rural life, and of the colour and excitement of foreign travel. She married Alan Richardson, pianist and composer, who was twenty-five years her senior and who had lodged with the Craxton family when she was a child. Their musical worlds were complementary , ideally so in fact, and Alan's death shocked those of us who had admired his fortitude and good humour following a serious operation some years before. Harold and Essie Craxton are alas no longer with us, and it is an ironic fate that has deprived us of their musical legacy so soon. Yet the memory of those Tristan phrases lives on, and Janet's countless friends, pupils, and admirers will always recall her with gratitude and affection.

Denis Matthews