The forgotten harpsichord teacher of Christopher Hogwood & Colin Tilney


Mary Potts and her beloved Shudi harpsichord in about 1950                © Estate of Mary Potts 2012

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!

F.J. Haydn – Sonata in F Hob. XVI: 29, Adagio

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.

By comparison, Christopher Hogwood had many thousands on Google and the Polish harpsichordist, Wanda Landowska (1879–1959), currently scores 287,000.

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:

Radio announcement from 1966

Henry Purcell – Suite No. 2 in G minor, Corant (sic)

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.”

Radio announcement 1969

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].







10 comments to The forgotten harpsichord teacher of Christopher Hogwood & Colin Tilney

  • I had the great privilege of studying with Mary in the 1970’s after Dartington and after learning harpsichord with Chris Hogwood and Roy Truby. I remember Colin Tilney cooking potatoes as I received a lesson and the various cats presiding from the the top of the Shudi Broadwood [harpsichord]- I am sure they were trained to operate the Venetian Swell!

    Best Wishes,
    ARne Richards

  • Edward Cooper

    Now that Chris Hogwood has died, there is no longer anyone with the clout, the resources or the motivation to do anything about this. The fact that nobody has commented on this blog for more than two years is symptomatic of the uninterest. As a former lodger at 54 Bateman Street and under/post-graduate of Queens’ College, I brought the matter to the attention of the president of Queens’ College in 2011. The person delegated to liaise with me gave me the brush-off. I am not a musician, but I at least have not forgotten what I owe her, and declare this at any appropriate opportunity.

  • Max Schmeder

    Her melange of rhythms in the Purcell courante is bewitching. 1966? [Yes] Few harpsichordists could pull that off today. What a pity her BBC broadcasts have disappeared.

  • Susi Luss

    In the last chapter (12) of Lucy M Boston’s book “Memory in a House” there are several references to Mary Potts, whom Lucy had heard play in the Edes’ house, Kettle Yard. “It is from my friendship with Mary that this chapter stems. We listened to Brendel together whenever we could. She took to the Manor instantly and began to devise ways to bring the tomb-like non-music of the so-called music room back to life. She took me home with her and played to me on her exquisite Tschudi (sic). Christopher Hogwood came here and suggested bringing a portable harpsichord to play for me, but before he could do so, Mary had somehow, in a conversation in Edinburgh, persuaded Colin Tilney to come and sample the acoustics of my room.” After which there is a fascinating description of Hilary and Colin Tilney, plus their baby, visiting the Manor and Colin playing Frescobaldi for over 3 hours. And bringing music back into the house.

  • Anastasia Saward (nee Hall)

    I learnt harpsichord with Mrs Potts at the Perse girls’. Cambridge is full of extraordinary people to an extent that one forgets to appreciate it. From a comment on ‘the curtains coming down’ sometimes when she played, I got the impression that, though communicating music was more than important, some performances at least were stressful.
    By the time I learnt, she was living in Melbourne Place with a pot for the front door knocker.

  • Charlie Crichton

    I am Mary’s nephew. I have a cassette recording of Mary at the BBC. What led me to this was sorting photos from her sister Margaret. Colin Tilney was a friend of all the sisters. Finding photos of Colin led me to this site. She was great fun, but steel in her eyes, a remarkable lady.

  • Liz Davis

    I was talking today to a friend who is a local historian and, for some unknown reason, the expression “Mrs Potts’s Harpsichord” came into my mind! Later I realized that it was because I had been thinking about my father who was the foreman at Finbow’s Removals and Storage Company in Sun Street in the Old Tabernacle, and apparently he was the only person entrusted with the moving of that instrument for concerts etc. She was one of his favourite customers and it was one of his favourite jobs but, as a child, it was just an expression to me … So today I Googled her and, to my amazement, found all these interesting comments, so thank you very much for filling in the details.

  • Jeremy Rayner

    I have a cutting “Mrs Mary Potts” from a local paper (Cambridge Evening News? January 1983?)

    Professor Peter Dickinson writes:

    The revival of early music in this country, and several generations of musicians trained in cambridge, owe much to Mary Potts, who died after some months of illness on Christmas Day.

    She was a student of Dolmetsch and later on, as a performer and teacher of the harpsichord, she influenced Colin Tilney, Christpoher Hogwood and the late David Munrow at a crucial stage in their development. These distinguished musicians were not only pupils but lodgers in her house, where Trevor Beckerleg was also in residence buidling harpsichords.

    For many years Mary Potts was so generous in her support of Cambridge concerts that May Week was a hectic season for her, as she took her precious late Shudi harpsichord from one college to another. It is less well known that she took an interest in new music for her instrument and gave a number of first performances of works by Cambridge composers, some specially written for her.

    She had special connections with Queens’ College, where her husband – the literary critic L. J. Potts, who died some twenty-five years ago – was a Fellow, and she took pupils for many years at the Cambridge College of Arts and the Perse School.

  • Jeremy Rayner

    I also have a programme from a Concert in honour of Mary Potts, April 16th 1983 in the Mumford Theatre, Cambridgeshire College of Arts amd Technology. The concert concluded with the Concerto in A Minor for 4 Harpsichords directed by Christopher Hogwood.

    Mary Potts (nee Crichton) was born and went to school in Wallasey. After studying piano at the R.C.M. she went to teach at Priorsfield, Godalming, and met the Dolmetsch Family. The chance to study with Arnold Dolmetsch (and later with his son Rudolph) came, as she used to say, just at the right moment, for she had wanted for a long time to play the Clavier works of Bach on the instruments for which they were written.

    In 1930 she married L.J. Potts, Fellow and Tutor of Queen’s College, and settled in Cambrdidge, where their son and two daughters were born. She became much in demand as soloist, continuo player and later as teacher. Her knowledge of repertoire and its performance conventions, and her own playing, all were an inspiration to the many pupils and colleagues who came from far and wide to consult her. She had a long association with both the Perse School for Girls and C.C.A.T. where she took pupils.

    Her house was always full of those who came to share not only her music, but her warmth, wit and the sense of inner peace which she generated to the very end of her illness.

  • Jeremy Rayner

    I was a bit too hasty in skipping the main contents of this page. The obituary that I quote is obviously from The Times, not a local paper. I can tell from the London-focused text on the reverse side, and the font is a giveaway.

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