Professional violin lessons at last - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Professional violin lessons at last

There were all manner of domestic shortages, especially food and the means of heating the home, at the start of 1951, made worse by the very poor weather. Wartime rationing was largely just a bad memory but now the problem was availability of fuel and food. Imagine: two shillings worth of meat (10p in decimal without taking into account inflation) to feed a growing family of four. 'Fenners', mentioned in my diary below, was a privately-owned bakery in Timperley, about 12 miles from where we lived, where Mum worked several days a week to supplement the family income. My professional violin lessons were soon to make a sizeable hole in the family income.

Below: My diary entry for 5 January 1951

I know that neither parents nor their off-spring could in those days simply ring up a professional music teacher and ask to sign on: you had to be recommended by someone appropriate. My occasional violin lessons with Mr Huddard had petered out, probably because he simply could not afford to keep on giving me free lessons on an ad hoc basis. One of the last things Mr Taylor did for me before his retirement must have been to recommend me to Mr Cunliffe, another viola player in the Hallé Orchestra. I am sure Mr Taylor must first have discussed the arrangements with my parents but it came as a great surprise to me. I never thought that my parents had initiated the idea because, as it turned out, my weekly 30-minute lessons with Mr Cunliffe were going to cost my parents half a guinea each (roughly 55p in decimal equivalent). That was a considerable sum at the time for my parents to find but, in conversation with my school friends in the orchestra, I learned that it was quite a bit less than the going rate.

On 8 June 1951 I had my first professional violin lesson after six years of teaching myself. It took me at least 45 minutes to get to Mr Cunliffe's smart semi in leafy Lancaster Road in Irlams o' th'Height: two bus rides and then a lengthy walk, and another 45 minutes to get back home afterwards. It would have been quicker to go by bicycle but I didn't like the idea of carrying the violin strapped to my back.

I know I was full of confidence when I arrived for that first lesson. Mr Cunliffe had asked me to take my own music, plus piano parts, with me so that he could assess my standard and then fashion his lessons accordingly. He had already been briefed that I was self-taught so he expressed mild surprise when I showed him what I was going to play: the first two studies in Book 2 of Adam Carse but, before those, my pièce de résistance: the first movement of Handel's Violin Sonata in F Major. I had never heard a performance of that, or any other, Handel sonata so the way I played it was based entirely on my own reading of the score. Mr Cunliffe prepared to accompany me on his viola, playing from sight a reduced version of the piano part.

I launched off with great gusto. Those who are familiar with this sonata will know that it starts off with a downward F major arpeggio: 3 mezzo-forte crotchets for the solo violin: F, C, A, followed by a long F on the D string. I played in the first position, as I had always done, not knowing any better. Mr Cunliffe stopped me, aghast, after I reached the low F. I could tell that something had upset him. To this day I can still hear his words: "Tony, do you always play the A on the open string?" "Yes," I replied, rather miffed at the interruption and keen to get on and show him how well I could play the rapid section that followed. "That sounded awful," continued Mr Cunliffe grimly. "I can see we have a lot of work to do."

He then put down his viola, took my violin from my hands and played the opening notes as they should be played - in the second position: the first F with his fourth finger on the A string; the C with his first finger on the A string; the A, not with the open, unstopped string but with his third finger on the D string; and the low F with the first finger on the D string. "Now doesn't that sound much better?" he asked, returning my violin. I realised, suddenly, that it was the very first time that I had heard my violin being played anyone but me and I was surprised at how well it sounded! My proper tuition started from that point - but not with the Handel sonatas! The first four notes I had played for Mr Cunliffe had already justified the half guinea the first lesson had cost my parents. A few weeks later I played the second movement from that same Handel sonata, a fast allegro, at a school concert. I played it from memory and I seem to recall it went very well.


Above: That's me practising the Handel sonata at home before the concert.

The school's new Music Teacher at the start of the Autumn 1951 Term was Dr Llifon Hughes Jones. He told us he had flown in Lancaster bombers during the war and had studied composition under Ralph Vaughan Williams after the war. He and I hit it off from our very first meeting and it was also the beginning of my lifelong love of RVW's music.

I seem to recall that the first recording he played for us was Vaughan Williams' Tallis Fantasia. Had the word existed in 1951, I would have recorded in my diary that I was "gob-smacked"! I found the modal harmonies beguiling - I had heard nothing like them before. The Tallis Fantasia came on several 78rpm discs, which was fine for teaching purposes but very frustrating when I wanted to hear the piece in full from start to finish. From those very first hearings, and encouraged by Dr Jones, I became fascinated by the way Vaughan Williams made use of the ancient modes and I started tentatively composing short pieces myself in the Dorian Mode, the scale you get if you play eight consecutive white notes on a piano, upwards or downwards, starting and ending on the note D. It wasn't until years later that I discovered that both the intensely moving Et incarnatus est section of the Credo in Beethoven's Missa Solemnis and the famous Beatles' song Eleanor Rigby use the Dorian Mode.

One day Dr Jones taught us about Perfect Pitch, also known as Absolute Pitch, the ability to recognise exactly the pitch of a musical note without the need for any artificial aid. I well remember how jealous I was, and how disappointed Dr Jones was for me, when we discovered that one of the other half-dozen students in my music class, Eddie Foulkes, had perfect pitch and I and everyone else, including Dr Jones himself, had not. For days afterwards I tried in vain to memorise the exact sound of 440 Hertz, the 'correct' tuning of the violin open A string. (I put 'correct' in inverted commas because nowadays many slightly different tunings are considered correct for different artistic reasons.)

Eventually I had to accept that you cannot learn perfect pitch: you either have it or you don't - and I didn't. It didn't occur to me until many years later that in centuries gone by there had been no digital means of checking the exact pitch of any particular note. It must have been very confusing and irritating for those who had perfect pitch. The only thing they could do, presumably, was to ensure that all the instruments in an orchestra were tuned to the same pitch, 440 Hertz or not. That, of course, was much the same way as I had taught myself to tune my violin when I had only the dodgy tuning whistle that came with it.

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