John Vallier

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John Vallier
John Vallier 03.png
Born 01 Oct, 1920
London, England
Died 11 Jun, 1991
Occupation Concert Pianist
Known for Authenticity in interpretation, especially Chopin & Schumann
Parent(s)
Relatives Aunt: Mathilde Verne

John Vallier (1920 – 1991) was an English classical pianist and composer who could trace his musical ancestry in an eminently distinguished line back to the Romantic Era of the 19th Century. He was born in 1920 and was only 4 years old when he appeared in public for the first time, at London’s Wigmore Hall. He was especially admired for his interpretations and performances of Chopin and Schumann. His last solo recital at London’s Royal Festival Hall was attended by HM The Queen Mother.

Musical Education[edit]

Vallier’s mother was Adela Verne, the finest woman pianist of her time and herself a pupil and even rival of Paderewski, whose teacher Leschetizky was a pupil of Czerny who taught Liszt. Vallier’s aunt was Mathilde Verne, through whose famous piano school in London passed the young Vallier as well as the pianists Solomon and Moura Lympany, and even socialite Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (later Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother. Mathilde Verne was herself the finest pupil of Clara Schumann, from whom she inherited a direct insight into her husband Robert Schumann’s music and their friends and colleagues Mendelssohn, Chopin and Brahms.[1] Vallier’s father was Jean Vallier, a distinguished operatic Bass.

Vallier was immersed from his first years in the purest traditions of piano playing embellished with authenticity of interpretation.

Vallier gave his first solo concert at 8, and was something of a child prodigy giving recitals in the South of France.[2] He was heard by Moritz Rosenthal (Liszt’s pupil) whom he much impressed. However his Aunt wisely held back developing the young talent too early. Vallier was sent to study in Vienna for 3 years with Walter Kerschbaumer, a pupil of Busoni. Alfred Cortot proclaimed him a brilliant musician; later he worked with Edwin Fischer.

Early career[edit]

He returned from Vienna in 1939 and was about to embark on a tour of the USA but the War intervened.[3] Unlike many of his contemporaries, and much to the chagrin of his parents and aunt, Vallier served directly in the war years and was a crack shot with a rifle. He was demobilised with the rank of Captain.

He resumed his performing career. Vallier toured extensively in the 1940s and 1950s for the WEA, playing recitals at schools and church halls throughout the UK, and doing valuable work in bringing classical music to parts of the country where live performances were rare. His amiable personality helped immeasurably in this task. He also concertized extensively. He was one of the last who, as an encore, would request the name of a composer and tune from audience members, and improvise works in the style of the composer suggested; and he would also improvise the cadenza to a concerto, particularly Beethoven. With his mother he gave the first televised performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto for Two Pianos, and the first performance in the UK of Dohnányi’s Second Piano Concerto with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. There were some notable recitals in London and the UK and some in Europe. However his career did not take off in the way his pre-war years had predicted.

Musicology[edit]

He turned to teaching and musicological research. He taught in London, at the London College of Music. Over many years he became an international authority on Chopin. He was a lifelong friend of Chopin expert Arthur Hedley and gave several first performances of then recently discovered Chopin works. These and some of Vallier’s detailed writings appeared in his Oxford University Press Chopin Edition (1986).[4]

Later career[edit]

Vallier returned to concertizing at the end of the 1970s with immense success. The start of his South Bank Concert with the Paderewski Piano Sonata in E Flat Minor was delayed by 20 minutes because of box-office queues. He followed in his mother’s footsteps with touring successes particularly in Latin-America. He was acclaimed internationally for his virtuosity and stylistic insight. A Chopin Recital at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1983 was particularly well received, and Vallier was to return to tour the States the next year.

Illness and Death[edit]

Vallier returned to CBS Studios in London for recordings, but noticed something wrong with his breathing. He was diagnosed with lung cancer. In 1984 he had a lung removed resulting in a 22” scar on his back, and subsequently also contracted pleuritic ‘flu, prostatitis and shingles. He was thereafter on painkillers, taking 3,000 pills a year. Despite all odds, he returned again to the concert platform, in a solo recital in 1986 at London’s Royal Festival Hall, attended by HM The Queen Mother. Although cleared for 5 years of the cancer, a second primary (a rarity) unfortunately occurred in his other lung. Vallier died in June, 1991, aged 71.[5]

Musical Style[edit]

Vallier inherited the family music tradition as well as music scores annotated with technical and interpretative markings by Paderewski and Clara Schumann. Perhaps not surprisingly given his musical pedigree Vallier was particularly at home with the music of the Romantics. He had a strong orchestral approach to performance, with wide range of dynamics, excitement, subtle pedal technique, all embellished in a singing legato sound (a principal characteristic of Clara Schumann’s teachings). He possessed a formidable technique, yet was a man of small stature and despite considerable power in performance maintained a restrained position at the keyboard.[6]

Composer[edit]

Vallier’s output was modest as a composer,[7] and primarily his works were finely-crafted miniatures for the piano. His Toccatina[8] won especial popularity and was first recorded by Benno Moiseiwitsch[9] and later by Marc-André Hamelin (2001).[10] Witches’ Ride (depicting the Witches of Zennor, Cornwall) was also popular and often featured in his own encores. However his last work was a large-scale, his Piano Concerto in A Minor, a commission from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He completed it two days before he died.

Personal life[edit]

Vallier’s fiancé was killed in the war, and despite several close relationships later he did not marry. He had a love for speed and for many years rode a Norton bike. He was a considerable athlete, a good runner and cricketer. He was an aristocratic entertainer, with a myriad of anecdotes, most of them based on truth, many handed down from his family. To this he brought a gentle temperament and his self-effacing natural modesty that endeared him to many.

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