I didn’t really know that much about Mrs Mary Potts (1905 – 1982) when she was my harpsichord teacher in Cambridge, so I googled her name (in 2005) expecting to find a complete biography. She had, after all, been a student of Arnold Dolmetsch, in Haslemere, back in the 1920s, and had bought an eighteenth-century harpsichord by Burkat Shudi from him in 1929.
Dolmetsch had said that this would be all right for her until she could afford one of his own iron-framed instruments!
To my surprise, I found very few references to Mary, each of them in the context of one or another of those former students, plus mentions of newly composed music that had been dedicated to her, and that was all.
I then looked for Mary in several musical reference works, including the New Grove, and found nothing. I just couldn’t understand why someone so influential – or so I thought – was simply not remembered. How could she have vanished so completely? She seemed to have been so central to early music circles from the 1950s to the 1970s.
At the centre of the Cambridge music world
Throughout that period Mary gave countless concerts in and around Cambridge and beyond, played regularly with orchestras, sometimes as a soloist, and taught harpsichord, largely to undergraduates, but also to girls from the Perse School.
Although she never made commercial recordings, she gave many broadcast recitals for the BBC. Sadly, however, little remains. Here’s an example:
This shows Mary’s typical swagger, a stylistic feature which some of her students inherited.
It was only later that I unearthed her obituary in The Times and spoke to its author, the composer Professor Peter Dickinson, who had known Mary since he was organ scholar at Queens’ College in the 1950s. He told me there had been a memorial concert on 16 April 1983 (which would have been Mary’s 78th birthday). It was given by well-known former students, colleagues and friends, and had been attended by some 200 people.
The late Trevor Beckerleg, a harpsichord builder who had started making instruments in the basement of Mary’s large house in Bateman Street, subsequently sent me the programme for that concert, which included viola da gamba works by Bach and Marais, a trio sonata by Corelli, Bach’s 2nd orchestral suite and the four-harpsichord concerto. So it sounded as though they had given Mary a good send-off.
But I really couldn’t understand why something more lasting, apart from that concert, hadn’t been organized. I knew that Mary had played in many college chapels and during May Week and was well known in the University, particularly at Queens’. Her husband had been a don there, and she was much involved and had taught Elizabethan dance for productions of Shakespeare’s plays; some of these had been directed by her sometime lodger, Charles Parker, who was later to become famous, with Peggy Seeger, for his radio ballads.
A good friend to many, and a great appreciator
It was Peter Dickinson who described Mary as “a great appreciator” and mentioned a letter she had written to him following a particularly successful organ recital that he’d given. He is one of the composers who wrote harpsichord music specially for her.
Often referred to as “the best harpsichord teacher in Cambridge”, Mary certainly helped along many careers, in subtle ways. For instance, she regularly lent out her harpsichords for concerts and recordings. Apart from the Shudi, she had an octavina spinet made by Arnold Dolmetsch and, periodically, other instruments.
Sir Barry Ife, lately Principal of the Guildhall School of Music, recalled her teaching “as if she was handing down that musical tradition of the past, without the separation of hundreds of years, so completely had she absorbed the values and culture of the times.”
J.C. Bach – Sonata Opus 15 No. 6 for four hands
(Listen out for the crescendo produced by the use of the Venetian swell.)
When Mary wasn’t teaching, playing or entertaining, she always seemed to be going to concerts with the children’s book writer Lucy_Boston, “both elegant in scarves and wraps, suitable for the season”. These concerts often featured recently exhumed Baroque masterpieces, freshly edited and performed by current or former students; she must have had dozens of such students, and many of them became professionals.
During my lessons and practice sessions at Mary’s house, there always seemed to be (often unseen) people rehearsing in other rooms of the house. Mary would kindly leave the keys between bricks by the back door, so that students could come in to practise when she wasn’t there.
The traffic at that house in Melbourne Place, a delightful little pedestrian street leading off Parker’s Piece, was much less, I’m told, than when she lived in the much larger house in Bateman Street, where Hogwood lived for 10 years and David Munrow was a regular lodger who would bring the whole Early Music Consort to practise.
In fact, as I’ve discovered, Mary knew pretty much everyone in the early music world. For example, I had lunch at her house once with the famous baroque violinist Eduard Melkus, who was staying with her. I remember her speaking fondly of the Kuijkens as “the chicken brothers” (which is what their name means in Flemish). Gustav Leonhardt would come periodically to play her Shudi.
Yet, widely loved and appreciated as she was during her lifetime, according to several people I spoke to, Mary was “just not famous enough” outside her own circle. This may well be true, but it doesn’t mean that her life was not well worth remembering.
It also raises questions about the fickleness of fame and its relationship to actual achievements.
Thanks are due to Mary’s daughter, Margaret, and Gerald Gifford for providing recordings and much information.
Please share any memories of Mary [in Comments, below].