In memoriam Judy Hyatt, 1933-2015

Judith Hyatt with Miranda Wilson, August 2010
Judith Hyatt with Miranda Wilson, Khandallah, August 2010

Judith Hyatt, who died on July 22, was my first cello teacher, and the first person to inspire me to pursue a career in music.

The first time I came to Judy’s splendid Victorian house for a lesson, I was a skinny nine-year-old, all eyes and teeth and elbows, and I was so anxious on the doorstep that my knees shook. Judy’s warm greeting (“Hello, dear!”) dispelled my fear, and from that minute on, I adored her.

With her little dog Bilbo, a King Charles spaniel, trotting at her heels, Judy ushered me into her music room. A nineteenth-century upright piano with built-in candle-holders stood in the corner, alongside an antique writing desk and music cabinet. A glamorous studio portrait of Judy’s own first teacher, Greta Ostova, took pride of place on the wall. Bilbo, accustomed to being present at lessons, curled up in a corner on top of a pile of scores and fell asleep, waking only occasionally to wash his silky paws. A large mirror was propped against the wall so that students could examine their posture and bow-holds, but Judy angled it so you couldn’t see your face. (Later, she explained “I don’t like to see my face in mirrors, because I usually think I’m about seventeen, and then I get a fright when I see my reflection and remember how old I am!”) I came to know that room extremely well over the next seven years, as Judy’s meticulous teaching took me from the easiest scales and etudes to the Bach suites, Beethoven sonatas, and Romantic concertos.

Judy had the kindest heart of anyone alive, but as a teacher she was strict about technique and practice. I often quote her expressions to my own students: she called large shifts “half-moon shifts” because of the trajectory of your arm in the air, and when discussing bow distribution, she recommended what she called the “bite-and-fly” stroke to traverse a large amount of bow-hair in a short space of time. And she definitely loved her technique books! I still use the copy of W. E. Whitehouse and R. V. Tabb’s Scale and Arpeggio Albuthat she gave me, which is covered with instructions in her distinctive slanted handwriting. She had no truck with three-octave scales, although Mr. Whitehouse offered this option in his notated fingerings. “Four octaves would be better, dear,” she insisted, grinning. She also piled on the technical etudes: Cossmann, Dotzauer, Grützmacher, Merk, Lee, Franchomme, Piatti, Servais…we covered them all. Popper’s High School of Cello Playing bored her, but that was all right—my future teachers were all obsessed with that one, so I didn’t miss out.

Judy instilled high standards and work ethics in her students, and set a marvellous example herself. Woe betide you if you didn’t meet Judy’s expectations: she would call your mother and say that if you didn’t want to practise, another teacher with lower standards could be found for you. To my shame, this happened more than once, but by the time I was thirteen or fourteen I would not have dreamed of showing up unprepared. I worshipped Judy; all her students did. When I was eleven or twelve, she told me that I had better practise three hours a day if I wanted to be any good, “but four is best.” Then, with her gleeful laugh, she added: “When I was a student in Italy, I practised eight hours a day, and I felt as if I could play anything!” And she could. Her gorgeously warm tone and instinctive sense of cantabile phrasing were perfect for the Brahms cello sonatas, which she’d recorded for the radio; the rapid virtuosity of her fingers and bow-strokes made her interpretations of Bach’s Sixth Suite and Schubert’s Arpeggione sonata exquisite.

In my mind, Judy is powerfully associated with that Khandallah house, with its high ceilings, dark carpets, generous bookshelves and sash windows. Any of the cupboards seemed as if they could transport you to Narnia; you might imagine you’d seen the ghost of Katherine Mansfield flitting through the hallways in a white lace dress. It smelled of books and coffee (and the occasional cigarette, as Judy was an irrepressible, unrepentant smoker). In the late nineties, Judy had a turret built in the roof of the house, because she’d always dreamed of having one. I instantly longed for a turret of my own, in which I could sit picturesquely, writing poems and eating strawberries. Everything Judy said and did was magically exciting to me.

Judy and her husband, John, with whom she shared a chair in the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, were terribly kind to me. After my lesson, while we waited for my mother to pick me up, they brought me into their living room and let me drink grown-up coffee with them. On warm days, we sat in their beautiful garden that they had tended with love and care all their lives. John and Judy talked all the time about music and art and literature, and were endlessly excited about all of them. I adored this, drinking in information, trying to remember the books they told me I should read and the CDs I should check out from the Wellington Public Library. Judy and John talked to me as though I were an adult instead of a gawky teenager, asked my opinions, and took me seriously. I didn’t know any adults like them, and I thought they were the most wonderful people in the world.

Judy had an unrivalled capacity for storytelling, and I begged her for repeats of her favourite anecdotes. She could do a hilarious impression of her teacher in Italy, Enrico Mainardi, but she revered his musicianship. (To this day, Mainardi’s two analytical performance editions of the Bach suites, which Judy gave me, are my go-to for ideas about voicing and phrasing.) She had met dozens of famous performers and composers, including Benjamin Britten, whom she hadn’t liked much, and Jacques Ibert, whom she offended by asking him if he played an instrument. On another occasion, a mentor had set up an audition for her with Sir John Barbirolli, but, she recalled through gales of laughter, wiping her eyes, “he kept grabbing my cello to demonstrate how he thought the Schumann concerto should be played!”

Long after I’d left Judy, and New Zealand, I kept coming back to visit her every time I was home. After John’s death, she stopped playing the cello (“I tire of it,” she said regretfully), but she encouraged me to borrow her cellos so that they could be played. She loyally came to my concerts, but confessed that being in the audience made her restless. “I would much rather be up on the stage myself, dear!” She gave me armfuls of scores she didn’t want any more, the cello parts covered in her own inspired fingerings and bowings, and smelling faintly of her house. I treasure them now. At the end of the visits, knowing my driving well, she always offered to back my parents’ car out of her typically Wellingtonian driveway (steep and narrow, with a sharp corner) so that I wouldn’t break the tail-lights on the garden wall. “I won’t tell your mother I did it for you,” she said with her twinkling smile as she pulled up the handbrake. “We’ll let her think you did it yourself.”

The last time I saw Judy, I asked her if she’d consider writing her memoirs. “Oh, no,” she replied. “My memory’s shot, dear. I can’t remember anything.” And so it’s up to those of us who were privileged to know her to share her stories now. I hope to pass on her legacy to my own students, whom I cheerfully torment with four-octave scales and half-moon shifts, just as Judy tormented me. “My first teacher made me practise four hours a day when I was only twelve,” I inform them, enjoying the horror in their eighteen-year-old faces.

Judy died while I was visiting New Zealand, but I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. Thankfully, I was able to go to her funeral on the morning of my departure for America. The little church in Khandallah, right down the street from Judy’s house, was packed with her relatives, friends and orchestra colleagues. The NZSO cellist Robert Ibell, a former student whom Judy considered a musical son, played pieces by Tchaikovsky and Maria Theresia von Paradis that Judy herself had played so beautifully. As her coffin was carried out, a recording of the second movement of the Schumann concerto came on the church loudspeakers. The point in the score where the principal cellist from the orchestra joins the solo cellist in a duet perfectly summed up my memories of Judy and John, who had so loved the cello, and life, and art, and each other. May we all live our lives as joyfully and generously as they lived theirs.


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