Claus Moser, 1922-2015. A refugee, public servant. And pianist

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12 September 2015

My friend Claus Moser died on September 4. Many obituaries and tributes have tried to do justice to a remarkable life. He arrived as a refugee - fleeing persecution - in this country in 1936. He rewarded this giving  of sanctuary wth a career of extraordinary public service to the UK. What irony in the timing of his death, with the current British Government so stubbornly mean-minded in giving refuge to the Claus Mosers of today.

Claus was a wonderful amateur pianist, taking lessons and playing well beyond his 90th birthday. In 2010 I interviewed him for my book about amateur music-making, Play it Again. He sat in his upstairs sitting room in Camden, recalling the German tradition of hausmusik which had been such a natural part of his childhood. Across the room was the Bechstein his father rescued from Hitler: "It’s not fantastic but I can’t get rid of it, it’s too emotional."

The following is a transcript of our conversation, including his account of lessons with Louis Kentner, Imogen Cooper  and Graham Johnson​

(the transcriber did not include my questions!... there maybe one or two mishearings in the transcription)

CM: I was going to refer to Germany because hausmusik, as we call it, is absolutely the centre of life in the sort of home in which I grew up.  That isn’t just that one wants to be a professional musician but one isn’t good enough and therefore one becomes an amateur.  That’s a different route, that one is hoping to be a professional musician.  What I can describe about amateur music as hausmusik, I think even Hitler couldn’t disturb.  I think it’s as much there now as it was when I was a kid.  Not only does that mean that unless there are arguments against it any middle class family, not to mention upper class family which I suppose we were, but middle class family, I don’t know so much about working class families, the chances are nine out of ten that somebody in the family plays something.  I mean, it’s just more natural than not.  It would be sort of very unusual if a Berlin family didn’t have anybody who played and that can be a piano or it can be any other instrument. 

My family, which wasn’t … well, they were musical, but no more than I’m describing.  My father played, my mother played, my brother played, I played.  My brother was a violinist, the others were all pianists.  It would be absolutely normal and expected that, I can’t be precise about the frequency but certainly once a month, but probably more, there would be a chamber music evening in the house.  I think that goes back to Bach and Handel and so on, I mean hausmusik is just part of life, much more common than going out to supper or having dinner parties. 

And the other thing which I have to admit that, talking of my Berlin life, and I left, the family left for England in 1936.  Hitler came to power in 33.  The other thing to be mentioned is that in school, and by that I mean every school, music would rank equal with physics or maths or history or any other subject.  So that it was absolutely natural that, probably something like once every month or two, my brother and I would play in school in some school concert.  Of course that happens in lots of English schools.  All I’m saying is that it is absolutely normal.

So the passion for making music was something one grew up with and if the family was well off enough, as happily we were in Germany, then amateurs would be joined by professionals.  That’s the other point.  It wasn’t just amateurs, it wasn’t just family making music.  It was quite common that we’d have first rate professionals making music with us and we’d practise like mad.  So amateurs grew up really, amateurs like me grew up trying to be as good as the professionals in a way.  Not that we were but we were never a separate clique in that sense.  So high standards were aimed at, were there, from the beginning and it was all enriched in those years until Hitler came to power.  It was all enriched by lots of concert going.  My parents would regard it as an absolute duty, as well as pleasure, that if Fischer or Schnabel or Gieseking or Backhaus were playing in Berlin, that we would go to it, from sort of 5 onwards in my days.  So I was enjoying being an amateur. 

Two nights ago we had dinner with the friends who used to run (interference) and the Haitinks were there.  They’re old friends.  And I got Bernard to talk a bit about amateur music when he was a kid in Holland and it was very similar.  I think it’s the continent really.  

When my parents used to take me to hear Furtwangler or Klemperer, or one of these pianists, or Menuhin, or whatever, they had a wonderful trick which was I was never allowed to stay beyond the interval.  So I always wanted more.  It really worked.

Then when Hitler came to power in 33 - this is not really relevant, but I’ll do it quickly.  From 34 onwards, he instructed Goebbels to get the Jews out of the Berlin Philharmonic.  Goebbels tried in late 33, I think, and Furtwangler refused.  Then he tried again in 1934, by which time the Nazis were tougher, and Furtwangler gave in.  Goebbels wrote in his biography ‘surprising how easy it is to persuade people in the arts to do what one wants them to do’.   I always thought that was a terrible, terrible sentence. 

Anyway so music, music, music was the centre of our German life.  What’s interesting, when I was beginning to think about it a bit, is I think this country could equal that in relation to singing.  Isn’t that true?  Doesn’t that go back some time?


CM:  And brass bands, yes, but not so much chamber music or..?   No. 

I think you have to go back to schools to understand it because the fact that music was so absolutely central, and concerts, and performing as an amateur, obviously as a kid, in Berlin, fed into one’s life at home and made one grown ups who just thought that playing a musical instrument was the most important thing in one’s life really.

Now jumping around like mad and leaving Berlin for the time being, I asked my eldest daughter, Cath, she’s a very keen cellist and she plays… I wonder how much this is known in the musical world.  She plays in a thing called CoMA.  CoMA stands for … I can’t work it all out but it’s an orchestra of amateurs, many of them not very good, who only play contemporary music.  Now, this was not true in growing up times in Berlin.  We were very traditional.  I think this is quite an interesting point because we really were absolutely fully in Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann etc.  I’m quite sure that we never, as amateur youngsters either in school or at home, played modern or contemporary music.  We were very traditional.  We were steeped in German and Austrian tradition above all, which I had no complaints about at all, but I think is one of the reasons why I’ve certainly grown up too conventional really.  I mean Benjamin Britten is fine but I find contemporary music quite tricky, which is what Cath spends all her time playing in this amateur orchestra. 

She has a view that it’s actually more educational and more interesting in a way.  I mean, they do occasionally play a bit of classical music but it’s mainly composers who are still teaching at the Royal College or Royal Academy.  The chap who set this up is a very interesting man, a scientist.  She had coffee here this morning and she said if, by any chance, you want to go into that, he’s a very nice man, she will put him in touch with you.  He’s called Chris and he was scientist, he’s retired.  He was always passionate about contemporary music and he took the view that, from the point of view of getting amateur musicians excited in music, that was a better way than Beethoven and Mozart etc.  We go to a lot of her concerts out of loyalty to our daughter.  They are often conducted by contemporary composers.  

I think it is incredible what they manage to play, much more difficult, in a different sort of way, than the ordinary classic stuff.  I think that might be worth pursuing because I think that what is really interesting about being an amateur pianist, like you and me, is to what extent…  I mean, on the one hand, to what extent one learns to play but, on the other hand, to what extent one learns about music beyond what one plays.

I have no doubt that, in my own life, the fact that, from the age of 5, I was having music lessons, piano lessons, but all very traditional classical music, is one of the reasons why I was so slow in getting more widely interested.  That was helped really in the end by Covent Garden, and other jobs I did, but that wasn’t helped by the way I grew up because also those concerts that I’ve described - Schnabel, Edwin Fischer and so on, they were all very traditional pianists.  Edwin Fischer mainly Bach, Schnabel mainly Beethoven, Gieseking a bit more, Gieseking used to play Debussy, Backhaus rather Beethoven centred, and the concerts that the Berlin Philharmonic gave in those days were also quite traditional. 

So I didn’t become…  I think this is a criticism in a way of becoming an amateur musician.  If one perhaps gets too hooked on what one can possibly play.  I mean, Imogen has tried quite often to… she wanted me to get some Debussy played and I just couldn’t sort of get into it really.  So I think that is a bit of a problem.  Cath says that there are… she now plays in three or four amateur orchestras which are totally created to help mainly string players of course to play in chamber music and orchestras.  Some of them are traditional classical music and CoMA is the outstanding one which does perform a lot, I mean it’s quite distinguished, and they perform abroad too, which is entirely contemporary.

The next question is how does one get better.  What I learnt, my first English teacher in this country, when I left university in 1943 when I went into the war, and then I started having lessons with someone who was very famous at the time, Angus Morrison.  He taught me for a year or two until I was, something like, 23, 24.  Then I made the terrible mistake of stopping lessons.  I played a lot.  I played a lot of chamber music with quartets and trios and sonatas.  I played more than ever until one day I was playing with – I’ve forgotten her name too, she’s a rather fine violinist - and we played the ? Quintet.  She said to me that she thought I ought to have lessons again.  Did I understand that if one didn’t have lessons one inevitably gets worse, one actually doesn’t just get better, one actually gets worse, because you cannot listen to yourself as other people would listen to you.  So she introduced me to Louis Kentner and he took me as a pupil. 

When I went to see him I was terrified, rightly terrified, because he was a terrifying sort of person.  Did you know him?  He was a great Liszt pianist above all and he was Menuhin’s brother-in-law.  He was very well known but he wasn‘t the success he thought he ought to be.  But anyway, he asked me to play to him and I said “I can’t play to you”.  This is relevant to our conversation because I said “I’m sorry Mr Kentner but I’m too nervous to play to you” and he said “If you’re too nervous to play to me, you’re not really a pianist, you can’t be that nervous, that’s got to stop.  I mean, you’re not playing at the Albert Hall, you’re playing to me.”  He was very, very angry with me for being nervous about playing to him, but I wasn’t prepared to play to him.  I’d sort of assumed that he would have two pianos and he did.  So I said “Mr Kentner, could we possibly play the Mozart two piano Sonata together?” and he said “I’ve never been asked by an amateur pianist to play that with him”.  He said “That’s not really nerve racking, I mean, that’s not a nervous person speaking.”  He was quite angry about that, but he had to agree because there was no choice. We played the first movement and he got up. 

He said “Not very satisfactory really.”  He said “Have you had any lessons recently?” 

I said “No” and he said “Well there are so many things wrong.  Let me just tell ten of the things that are wrong.”  So he told me ten things that were wrong.  He then said “Now let’s try again.”  So we played it again and when we finished he got up and he said “Of course I’ll teach you.”  

He was suddenly very pleased.  Then he said “I think I want you to learn the Cesar Franck Prelude.”  What’s the ? movement called, Prelude, something and fugue?  

I said “That’s too difficult for me, Mr Kentner.”   He said “I am going to judge what is too difficult for you, not you.”  He was a terrifying chap really, a real Hungarian.  And he said “Now the…” and this is all about being an amateur pianist, he said “I’ll probably want you to work on this work for about five weeks, weekly lessons,” and he said “When…” - I think this is the most interesting point I can make to you – “…when you’ve played it for about five weeks,” a work, by the way, which I’d often wanted to play and I could never get anywhere, he said “when I’ve taught you for five weeks you will find it very easy to play.  At that point, I will start to see whether you can make music out of it.”  And I’ve never forgotten that set of remarks because it was incredible.

By teaching me the pedalling, all his teaching related to pedalling, to fingering and to certain bits of technique, in the first phase of a work.  And believe it or not…   I now can’t play it, I tried the other day.  I now can’t play it, I’ve gone backwards.  I haven’t tried it with Imogen but I don’t know whether that would work…but it is honestly true that that too difficult work, and the same happened, incidentally, with one or two of the Chopin ballads, which I couldn’t now begin to touch, which he taught me, so that I found them technically easy, most remarkable.  I don’t know how it’s done except that it’s largely fingering, a lot of it is fingering, a lot of it is pedalling, and so on.  Then when he finally said “I’m now happy with the fact that you can play it.  Now can we make music out of it?” that’s when the real lessons began. 

What became clear to me then, learning with Kentner, was that, all those years when I’d not had lessons, I knew enough about how to practise the technical side of a work but it wasn‘t very good music-making.  I never really understood the magic of that but it was absolutely true. 

We then did a lot of… we did some Liszt, because he was a great Liszt pianist, and he said “Of course, Liszt is much easier than Chopin.”  He said “Chopin is the most difficult piano composer, Liszt is, Liszt is ..”  And I said “I don’t understand that, Liszt sounds so difficult,” He said “Yes, but it’s only technically difficult, it’s not musically difficult.”  So that makes it relatively easy, whereas Chopin is both, it’s technically difficult and musically difficult.   Then we did a lot of Beethoven sonatas.  He had a very big room, I mean, bigger than this room but all one and Griselda, his lovely wife who he was married to, who was the sister of Menuhin’s wife, she used to call it the torture chamber. When she opened the door to me she said “Now go up to the torture chamber.”  He would sit, Kentner would sit certainly as far as those books right at the end by the windows, further, a bit further.  He would hardly ever get close to the piano. 

He knew when I was playing something wrong and he would stop me and interrupt me and criticise me and tell me why I haven’t practised.  He was very tough.  There was one occasion when I came for a work, one of the Beethoven sonatas, by that time we were friends, and I said “Lou, I’ve really been practising.” because he was always very critical if I didn’t practise.  “I’ve really been practising.”  He was in one of his most shitty, critical moods.  He stopped me every few moments and criticised.  At the end he said “I think it might be better if you don’t practise,” and I cried.  I actually cried.  I left his room crying because he so upset me.  Then he sometimes would say “Well, you’re left hand hasn’t been practising,” or he would say, “your left hand… Why do you play the wrong note all the time? The right note is next door.”  Plenty of all that.  But what he was really doing was to listen to what I was doing with the music.

AR:  ..job?

CM:  I was at Rothschilds as a banker and then I’d started at Wadham.  (AR: When/ practising?)  Yes (early in the morning), but not enough.  You see, what he expected, practising, is, first of all, he expected me to do some churney exercises.  I do do that now, I‘ve started doing that again, but I wasn’t very, very regular and I think the real problem with practising…   I think at that time, especially when I was at Wadham, I did practice fairly regularly before going up for the lessons.  The difficult thing is listening to oneself.  I don’t think I was ever quite good enough at really hearing what music I was making which is why he, so often, could express himself more or less satisfied.  "Satisfied" didn’t come too easy with him, but more or less satisfied that I’d mastered the technique, the technical side of one of the Beethoven sonatas, say, or one of the Chopin Ballades.  I did quite a lot of the Nocturnes.  But that’s a million miles away from playing it beautifully.  I don’t think I had anybody in my life then, I mean, dear Mary, much as I love her, isn’t strong enough musically to say to me “Look, in that bar, dddddm….”  It’s not her world. 

I would hardly play to anybody else to be criticised and, I think, I got too casual in being satisfied with my technical command of a particular work without really asking myself “Am I playing this the way I would like to hear it being played?”  That’s what he was about.  He was a most wonderful pianist especially Liszt, Chopin, Beethoven.  Wonderful!  Whenever he did play in a concert, especially his finale, final concert, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, he was quite wonderful.  He was wonderful.  He was a really good accompanist with Menuhin but he had a difficult relationship.

Now, Imogen, I’ve been playing a lot of Bach with her, my choice, simply because I just can’t get away from playing Bach, I so love it.  This is a very different process.  First of all, if it’s one of the Partitas, say, I’ve done several of them by now, she would not allow me to start practising until she’s written down the fingering.  I mean, that’s an absolute rule.  ....  It was an enormous help.  On these more major of these, there’s that one Bach Fugue, the third one, I think, which Kentner introduced me to.  I’ll show it to you.  Now Kentner said, he was not religious at all, Kentner wasn’t.  He said “Well, I’m not religious.  I don’t believe in God or anything close to it but, if I did, that fugue would get me as close as I could be.  It is probably the most awkward too of all the Fugues and she simply wouldn’t let me start on it until she’d fingered it.  So by the time I’d played something to her she…, much more, there’s quite a lot…, it’s unfair, there’s quite a lot of teaching on the pedalling.  I mean, to Kentner, pedalling was the essence of playing the piano, really, but, in her case, there’s quite a lot on that and a lot on fingering, but it’s basically about the music I’m making.  In other words, interpretation and … 

I’ll tell you something now, you’ll probably run out of your machine.  Being an amateur pianist, whatever pleasure one gets out of it oneself, what one does with it is 180% dependent on the teacher because…  I wasn’t going to talk any more about Kentner.  I could, but I won’t, or about Imogen, but, I think, with great respect to both of them, how lucky I’ve been.  I’m learning more about playing the piano from Graham Johnson.  When I leave a lesson with Graham - I’ve got one on Monday - and Mary would confirm this, she usually comes along just to listen to some of it.  Do you know him?  I’d love you to meet him and vice versa.  He is. amongst other things, a devoted Guardian reader.  It’s worth trying to… I mean, there’s no doubt in my mind, that becoming a more satisfactory amateur pianist owes more to Graham than to anybody else.  (I’ve been going to him) for about two years.

It’s worth trying to explain why this is so special.  We go along to his house somewhere in Kilburn.  He’s gay.  He’s married, I think, to his partner who was a baritone but has now decided he needs to earn more money so he’s now doing other work.  You must have heard... I hope you came to my 85th birthday?   So you’ve heard him play and you’ve heard…  Well, he’s, undoubtedly, been one of the great accompanists of our time.  Gerald Moore’s pupil.  He succeeded Gerald Moore really.  Now there are lots of young ones, Julius Drake and many others.  He’s probably still number one but he’s just 60 and ....he is just as much a fantastic scholar.  Over there is a box he gave me which contains recordings of all Schubert songs, all accompanied by him with different singers, 600 songs.  Over there, somewhere, is his latest book on Faure'’s songs.   He’s just finished a four volume book describing and analysing all Schubert’s songs which will come out next year.  He writes beautifully.  He’s also very funny.

What happens when we go along is, for the first hour probably, it‘s just talk.  He’s a tremendous talker.  Some people find him almost too much of a great talker, but he’s a tremendous talker.  The subject matter can be anything about the latest edition of The Guardian to how Cameron’s doing or, if I choose it, about his work with Benjamin Britten, or whatever.  It can really be anything but it’s usually music related and about some of the musicians he’s accompanied, singers he’s accompanied, worked with, and so on.  Then when the dreaded moment comes when he says “Now Claus, go to the piano.”  He will have instructed me to work on four songs or… I’ve done the whole of the Winterreise with him.  I’ve done the whole of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.  I’ve done Dichteliebe.  I’m now doing 6 or 8 separate Schubert songs.  He terribly wants me to do some Faure and some Hugo Wolf.  I haven’t got into it yet. 

The point is that when somebody who is basically an accompanist talks about a piece of music, he talks about it via the words.  So when I’ve played him An Die Musik, or anything equally known, he says “Well, look, in the second verse, what Goethe is saying…”  then he’ll probably talk about Goethe for half an hour, “…is so and so.  Try to reflect that on the piano.”  In the very first lesson when I was starting on Winterreise, in the first verse the lover boy, who then walks the long way having been kicked out by his girl, says to her “I don’t want to disturb you in your dream but…”   I said to Graham I… yes, that’s right.  He said “So he’s being sarcastic”, because, of course, he wants to disturb her.  I said “I don’t know how to play sarcastic.”  He said “That’s not my point.  My point is that, unless you are thinking sarcastic, it won’t be right.”  He then played it to me and it’s magic.  I know it’s helped by the leader but it means that, as an amateur pianist, I’m learning to do something with what I’m playing on the piano which is way beyond what I would do if I was playing a Chopin Nocturnal or something. 

So it goes incredibly deep and he’s so good at it.  I mean, he’s a professor, at Guildhall, I think, where youngsters learn all this sort of stuff from him.  So from the point of view of teaching, because what happens is, he asks me to play the songs that I’ve been practising and he criticises fingering, and pedalling, and what it does in relation to the work, before he calls in his partner, if he’s around, he’s not always there, to sing.  All I’m saying is that it’s introduced into my limited pianistic life a new level of how to listen to myself.  That’s really what it’s done because the only time when he gets impatient, he’s very patient and very loving really, to both Mary and me, is when he feels I haven’t been conscious of the words when playing the piano. 

I would now recommend anybody to have that additional experience, it’s so extraordinary.  And all the talking.  I mean, at the last lesson, I said to Graham, now he’s the world’s leading Schubert scholar, so I said “How did he and Goethe really get on? and he said “They didn‘t.  They couldn’t bear to see anybody.”  He then talked absolutely non stop for about half-an-hour about the failure of the relationship between those two giants, except that Schubert wrote songs to Goethe’s words.  Most extraordinary!  He’s not a rich man but he’s put every bit of his wealth into first editions, Goethe, Schubert, Schiller, unbelievable, so all this.  I think you must meet him.

AR: experience as you get older?

CM:  Thank you for the question.  It’s not on the whole good news.  My fingers are not… I’ve had four operations, dupuytren, you know, two on each hand, over the years, and my fingers are now straight.  I honestly cannot pretend that my fingers are getting less subtle or anything like that, so that’s the fingers, no reason for, no excuse really. 

Memory?  Appalling in every sphere and is one of the reasons why Imogen’s attempt to make me play more by heart has not worked.  I mean, she’s quite right, especially with some of the Bach, that I should play by heart.  I’m not sure that I’ve given myself enough chance but…  Memory is much worse.   I don’t think that’s a major problem (longer to learn a piece).  No, that’s not a major problem.  What is a major problem, and I don’t understand why…   I do quite a lot of duets with Humphrey Burton, we sort of get together, and sight reading has become much more difficult.  I used to be rather good at sight reading so something is just slower.  So, on the whole, it’s not good news, but it’s not very bad news, the ageing.   I should but I don’t (still play every day).  That has more to do with… I’ve been quite depressed in various ways, partly work and partly not work, and I’ve been ill for weeks and weeks over the summer, so not really every day but I’m absolutely determined to get back to regular practising because I’m definitely getting worse, simply because I’m not working at it enough.

AR:  importance of piano

CM:  Well, I recently did these interviews for the British Library, you know the People in Public Life, perhaps you’ve been down?  Well, you won’t be able to escape it.  Anyway, I was interviewed three hours eight times so lots of stuff.  Jennifer Wingate, Roger Wingate’s wife, she does this for the British Library.  Her final question was What’s most important in your life? and she listed various things I’ve done: statistics, Lords, and so on.  I said, without hesitation, “Playing the piano”, so that’s the answer.  I mean, what I didn’t say, but it was fairly obvious in my original answers, I was absolutely determined when I was five to become the world’s greatest pianist. 

Then when I came to England, in ’36, went to Frensham Heights school, had a very nice piano teacher who I was devoted to.  When I was leaving school, I said…  Yes, I should have said this right at the beginning.  When I was leaving school, I said “Mr Rice, I’m going to become a pianist.” and he said “Well, don’t.”   He said “I’ve enjoyed teaching you for four years.  I think you’re talented.  You‘re not talented enough to become one of the great pianists and, if you’re not one of the great pianists, it’s a lousy life.  Much better” he said “to be an amateur pianist and earn your money doing something else.”  That’s what he said.  That changed my career because I thought I was all.. I did then, later on, ask him “Why were you so clear that I couldn’t make it?”   He said “Well…  Yes, I should have said this right at the beginning.  He said “You probably could have mastered the techniques necessary because it’s not all that difficult and there are dozens of great technical pianists but,” he said “to be one of the great pianists, you’ve got to have the sort of personality confidence to be up on the platform for two-and-a-half hours and just be so lost in your music that it’s not a problem.  Technique is not the problem and” he said “I don’t think you’ve got the nerves.”  And he was dead right because I’ve always been, whenever I’ve played in concerts, I’ve been so nervous for months beforehand that it practically killed me. 

So he judged my nature, rightly, and he judged rightly that, unless one had all that, as well as the ability to play the fast stuff, and so on, you’re not going to be one of the great.  To me, my model pianist in the world, happily, because he’s a close friend, is Murray Perahia.  I love his playing more than anybody else’s, I think, and it’s because we know them quite well.  Do you know them?  And he has the nature of being so totally relaxed about it all and so totally in the music, and happy with it all.  That’s why he, apart from the fact that he has fantastic technique and so on, but many others have fantastic technique, but they don’t come across, to me, as Murray does. 

So my teacher was dead right and I took his advice absolutely immediately and I had a different career.  He also said “You will have much more joy.” and when I think… Another thing I didn’t say but it’s obvious is, when I go to amateur concerts, like my daughter’s and so on, not just my daughter’s but amateurs playing at Oxford, or wherever I am, they can make music without worrying about those bloody critics.  The Chamber Music Festival in Oxford has just had its tenth year.  I started it ten years ago and, now, most of them are tremendous professionals, like Claire Mitchell.  Imogen has played with them but some of them are top, top amateurs but they know that there are no critics, and they can make music….

I look forward to what you write.

AR: piano followed from Berlin?

CM: Yes absolutely.  It’s a Bechstein.  It’s not fantastic but I can’t get rid of it, it’s too emotional.  It’s pretty good and Imogen doesn’t mind it.  It’s a Bechstein, and when my father was a banker, owned a place called Fornberg, because he bought it from Fornberg, he owned the bank and was taken over by Hitler and the person who helped Hitler take it over, because he was on the Deutschebank board was Frau Bechstein, which is part of the family……