Monday, November 20, 2017

Born Today in 1922: Concert Pianist Noel Mewton-Wood

Noel Mewton-Wood was born today, November 20, in 1922. He was an Australian-born concert pianist who achieved international fame on the basis of many distinguished concerto recordings during his short life. Mewton-Wood committed suicide at 31, soon after his lover's death.

Born in Melbourne, he studied with Waldemar Seidel at the Melbourne Conservatorium until the age of 14. After further study at London's Royal Academy of Music, he took private lessons from Artur Schnabel in Italy.

In March 1940, he returned to London for his debut performance at Queen's Hall, performing Beethoven's third piano concerto with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Thomas Beecham. He then went on tour in the UK as assisting artist accompanying Viennese tenor Richard Tauber, and later performed in France, Germany, South Africa, Poland, Turkey and Australia.

Mewton-Wood's obituary of  described his debut performance:

“At once his remarkable control and his musicianship were apparent: the ascending scales in octaves, with which the pianist first enters, thundered out with whirlwind power, but he could summon beautiful cantabile tone for the slow movement and the phrasing of the rondo theme was admirably neat for all the rapidity of the tempo; a true understanding of the relationship in concerto between soloist and orchestra, and of the soloist's part in ensemble, betokened the musician, the potential chamber performer."
Mewton-Wood was a close friend of Benjamin Britten. In 1952-53, while Britten was busy composing his opera Gloriana, he deputized Mewton-Wood to accompany tenor Peter Pears, his partner.

Mewton-Wood committed suicide on December 5, 1953, by drinking hydrogen cyanid. He apparently blamed himself for the death of his lover William Fedrick (from a ruptured appendix), feeling he had overlooked the early symptoms. The notes written by a friend of Mewton-Wood, John Amis, for the reissue of the Bliss Concerto recording, confirmed that Mewton-Wood was gay and the reason for his suicide was that he was distraught at his lover's tragic death.

Benjamin Britten wrote "Canticle III: Still Falls the Rain" for a concert in Mewton-Wood's memory.

In addition to Beethoven, Mewton-Wood's repertoire included:

  • Sir Arthur Bliss's Piano Concerto (Bliss was so impressed with Mewton-Wood's many performances and his recording of the work that he wrote his Piano Sonata for him)
  • Busoni's Fantasia contrappuntistica and Piano Concerto (a 1948 recording with Sir Thomas Beecham is the earliest complete recording of the Busoni concerto known to survive)
  • Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor
  • Hindemith's Ludus Tonalis
  • Tchaikovsky's three piano concertos, Concert Fantasia and G major sonata
  • Tippett's song cycle The Heart's Assurance
  • Works by Bartók, Britten (Mewton-Wood gave the world premiere of the revised version of Britten's Piano Concerto), Liszt, Schubert, Mahler and Schumann.
He also composed chamber music, a piano concerto, ballet music, and music for the films Tawny Pipit (1944) and Chance of a Lifetime (1950).

A character based on Mewton-Wood was featured in Sonia Orchard's 2009 novel, The Virtuoso. The book is narrated by a fictional obsessive admirer and sometime lover of the Mewton-Wood character. Orchard had a background as a pianist, and she interviewed many of Mewton-Wood's friends and contemporaries to write the book.

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