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Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor is a lifelong pianist. This weekend he performs in a festival at Kings Place in London marking the 200th anniversary of Schumann’s birth


ow far does a high-profile, demanding public life prevent you from pursuing your own interests? And if they are squeezed out, are

you not in some way impoverished? The ques- tions came to mind during an interview with Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Archbishop Emeritus of Westminster, who is due to take part this morning (Saturday) in a festival at Kings Place in London to mark the 200th anniversary of Schumann’s birth. Along with 12 other amateur pianists, he will perform Kinderszenen, those seemingly artless pieces that the composer dashed off in 1838. The cardinal has been at the keyboard for more than 70 years. His mother played and was keen that her children should do the same. “I was the only one who took the bait,” her son recalls. His first teacher was Belinda Heather, a music tutor at Reading University and a patient of his doctor father. The young Cormac was inspired both by her and by the lunchtime concerts given during the Second World War by Myra Hess, Moura Lympany and Louis Kentner. He even thought of becoming a con- cert pianist.

At the age of 13 he moved from Reading to

Prior Park College in Bath. He kept up his playing but made little progress. He found the Associated Board exams tedious and reflects that the teaching of music at inde- pendent schools in those days was very bad. He compares it with the situation at the college today, where, under the headmastership of his nephew, James, there is a flourishing music department. Secondary school was followed by seven years studying for the priesthood at the English College and the Gregorian University in Rome. He remembers evenings singing round the piano, and in particular a perform- ance of The Pirates of Penzance at Palazzola, the seminarians’ summer retreat overlooking Lake Albano. “The page-turner gave me some white wine

before we began,” he says, “and I changed to red at supper halfway through. I began the second half with a crashing discord.”

The lapse was noted in a review by Venerabile, the college magazine.

Once ordained, his first appointment was in Ports - mouth, where a parishioner gave him a piano that he could only get into his room through the window. However, the instrument was claimed by woodworm after only two months and he was without a piano of his own for a decade, though he had the use of one at the convent where he lived after being transferred to Fareham. In 1966, he became private secretary and chaplain to Bishop Derek Worlock of Portsmouth. The bishop persuaded him he didn’t need a car, so he sold it for £250 and bought an Eavestaff mini-piano with the pro- ceeds. He still has it today. That piano accompanied him to Rome when he was appointed rector of the English College. Again he remembers musical evenings with the students. Returning to England six years later to become Bishop of Arundel and Brighton, he found the new job left him no time for playing. However, he was invited to take part in two orchestral concerts organised at Worth by Nicholas Robinson, then a housemaster at the school, now head- master of the King’s College School in Cambridge.

“It was a daunting challenge,” he says, adding, with a smile, “But at least it was only the slow movements.” These were of Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto and Mozart’s 21st, better known, since the Bo Widerberg film, as the Elvira Madigan con- certo. “I didn’t play the Mozart well,” he says. “The performance was outside and my hands got cold.” As Archbishop of Westminster, he hardly touched his piano but, as at Arundel, was stimulated to practise by an invitation, this time to perform Schubert’s Marche Militaire duet with Lucy Parham, a professional pianist who is directing the current Schumann Festival. The concert was in aid of The Passage, which runs a day centre for homeless and vulnerable people.

Last-minute practice. Photo: Simon Scott Plummer

Today, the cardinal will play the opening

piece of Kinderszenen, “Von fremden Ländern und Menschen”, at Kings Place. Among those following him are the actor Edward Fox, Oliver Condy, editor of BBC Music Magazine, who is taking on the pyrotechnics of “Hasche- Mann”, Katie Derham, the BBC presenter, who has to carry off “Träumerei”, a piece which can sound as hackneyed as Beethoven’s Für Elise, the Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, and Richard Ingrams, editor of The Oldie magazine. The challenge for the cardinal seems to me

every bit as daunting as playing part of a piano concerto. He is first on, and has only about a minute and a half to make an impression. He is apprehensive at having to switch from his mini-piano at his Chiswick home in west London to the Steinway concert grand at Kings Place. Nevertheless, he welcomes the invitation

to take part as a stimulus to make more time for piano playing. Even in retirement, he seems as busy as ever, having been appointed by the Pope to the Congregations for Bishops and for the Evangelisation of Peoples, and also to head an Apostolic Visitation to the Diocese of Armagh following the sex-abuse scandals that have rocked the Church in Ireland. Inevitably, the demands of office have increasingly squeezed music-making out of his life, and that is something which he regrets. Naturally, our conversation turns to the recent papal visit to Britain. The cardinal says he would have liked to put on a performance of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius in London’s Royal Albert Hall for the Pope. He also reveals he suggested to the Vatican that he and Benedict should play a duet during the visit. Now that really would have been something.

2 October 2010 | THE TABLET | 29

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