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A personal memoir of a friend and teacher,
with reference to his friendship with Gerald Finzi,


The sweltering summer of 1976, sprawled solitary in London's Hyde Park with iced coke and secret Consulate menthol cigarettes, end of term in sight, filling a battered diary with minuscule writing; naive, voluptuous entries sentimentalising about unsentimentalisable things. It was a time when everything was going my way, my uncle was giving me regular money, the powers-that-be in the Royal College of Music were starting to take notice of me, and most days it looked like tomorrow might not come. A double piano and composition scholar, I was in a little cosy world quite unaware of the opportunities that would present themselves in the near future. After an uncertain start, RCM life had become more enjoyable, I'd spent a year as a resident of More House along Cromwell Road, made some good friends, and I had completed the orchestration of my piano-duet work Nine Pins, reborn as Symphonic Studies, which was taken on board by the director himself, David Willcocks, and conducted by him that autumn.

The author, around the time of his first meeting with Russell
The author, around the time of his first meeting with Russell

But before that, and to my astonishment, and also indifference in many ways, I managed to win the 'Grade IV' prize for piano, awarded for the best examination performance of a student in attaining the top RCM level of 'V'. John Lill, my retiring teacher, told me above the pub noise of the Queens Arms (known as the 99 by RCM students) on the day I won 'You have one over me, I never won that prize when I was a student'.

Could it really have only been the way I tripped over my umbrella as I entered the examination room and showered the three bemused examiners with scores of my compositions? Certainly John Russell never forgot that moment, 'we thought "we've got a right one here"'. The Brahms Handel Variations had already become one of 'my' pieces, and together with Chopin's B minor scherzo and something else which I forget, managed to convince John, 'Eddy' Kendal Taylor and I believe it was Alan Richardson, that I should win that year's prize. (Despite memory lapse.)

Russell at the piano
Russell at the piano

From the moment I entered the room that early-summer day I was aware of a truly benevolent aura, and felt drawn to it. Not to mention John's frequent blowing through the hole in his throat, a constant reminder of his presence. I remember reading John's article about his operation for throat cancer 'starting from scratch', and how 'scratch' had been the first word he'd had to practise saying over and over after the removal of his voice box. His disability was obviously irksome to him, but he coped well, and for me, who'd never known his much-loved radio voice, his burped speech only added to his stature and I clung onto his every laboured and precious word.

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Copyright © 14 September 2003 Adrian Williams, Herefordshire UK


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