<< -- 2 -- Adrian Williams JOHN RUSSELL FRCM (1916-1990)
John didn't seem to understand why I wanted to study with him after having studied with Lill for two years, and neither could many others at the college whose tongues wagged about it. But as I told John who quoted me often, I didn't want to study with anyone who would tell me 'to put my fourth finger on C sharp'. Not that John Lill had ever told me to do such a thing, although I remember the bleak days of my first term at the RCM in 1974 when John Lill was on tour and his replacement Neil Immelman told me many times to use certain fingerings; Neil was charming, sophisticated and kind but I was so bored with the technical pianism which seemed to obsess him and often left the lesson holding back homesick tears. Lill wasn't technical with me, it was always a matter of demonstration and style, and in that respect he had a lot of influence on me. The trouble with pianists was that so few of them appreciated or even knew of much English music. Most of the music I loved hadn't been written for the piano, so pianists' discussions about other pianists, famous recordings of the great piano classics and piano repertoire left me cold. John Russell, though on the RCM professors list as a 'second study' piano teacher, was more appealing to me than many of the other distinguished piano professors because I sensed he would feed that strong desire within me to be close to the English musical scene of the past, the time I never knew yet felt nostalgic about, and would understand fully when I said to him 'John, I often feel I was born fifty years too late'.
Once it was ascertained that I really was sure I wanted to study with him, John accepted and thus began a friendship of fourteen years, until his death in 1990. Well, John was more than friend, he was like a father. In fact he referred to himself as my 'mentor'. Only in name was he my piano teacher. He himself said in a letter: I don't teach so much as hold court. People come in and out or stay -- it's just my style. It was a treat just to be able to spend an hour drinking milk or scotch, smoking cigarettes, chatting about everything and anything, but always learning some new story or anecdote about his great friend Gerald Finzi, or other assorted immortals from the past world of English music's heyday. Every lesson John would allow me to pianistically wallow, perhaps in my favourite Elgar, busking big chunks of Gerontius, until I couldn't remember the next bit, at which point he'd slip to the keyboard, cigarette hanging from his lips, and with tears in his eyes busk a similarly big chunk of The Apostles, exploding with exasperation, whale-like, through his breathing hole at any mistakes, saying afterwards how it was 'the greatest of the three'. Sometimes I'd run through something I'd been learning (usually English) to which John would give me one or two general comments and that would be enough; such as of John Ireland's Amberley Wild Brooks 'you play it like one big wank' ... Thereafter my rendition became more paced.
Russell in jovial mood
Thus he took me through my final two years at the RCM, inspiring a new self-confidence in my
ability as a pianist and composer. 'You horrid boy, I can't teach you anything'. He would
introduce me to other colleagues at the RCM as his 'enfant terrible', and they would smile or
laugh and marvel at our special friendship. His first letter to me, a very typical example of
his style, began: My dear Adrian, Your letter has given your elderly dumb friend more pleasure
than he can express. As you can well understand, it is easy to become possessive of a
rare talent such as yours, and that I have always been determined not to indulge in. But
I need not say that I'll be around for just as long as I can be of any use to you as
mentor (look it up in the dictionary) and for ever as a friend. So shut up.
Copyright © 14 September 2003
Adrian Williams, Herefordshire UK