In 1995, Dutch pianist Caecilia Andriessen came to Jackdaws in Somerset with a new idea for a music course. A piano ensemble course. Maureen Lehane, Jackdaws founder and then Artistic Director, was intrigued to find out exactly what she meant.
Caecilia Andriessen is known in her native Netherlands for her unusual brand of piano ensembles – that is, multiple people at multiple pianos playing together in the same way that string or wind players might. She didn’t invent the genre – with composers such as Liszt also writing for groups of pianists – but Caecilia Andriessen is known worldwide for being one of the largest advocates of this type of pianism. Her arrangements and publications, not to mention performances, are praised for their style, charm and individual ambition; one book of arrangements Spelen met Liszt “Playing with Liszt” is for 5 pianos played by 15 pianists (or multiples thereof)!
Back in 1995, Caecilia Andriessen arrived at Jackdaws, bringing a few Dutch friends and pupils with her, with the remainder of the course places taken by musicians from the local area. They played music by Bach, Mendelssohn and others… all with the little twist that she had arranged all the music herself for multiple pianos playing simultaneously.
The course sees pianists playing in ensembles just like string or wind players might. This does not mean four players at one piano, it means four players at four pianos – each pianist with their own full part. They play music from the 17th to the 21st centuries, either composed or arranged for piano ensemble by the tutor. The course in 1995 was a huge success and Maureen Lehane had invited the new tutor back the following year before she had even left.
Jackdaws has developed a great deal since 1995; it now approaches its 25th anniversary and is under the direction of Saffron van Zwanenberg, but the Piano Ensemble course still runs every year.
On Friday 27 May, Caecilia Andriessen will begin her Pianos for All weekend for the 21st and final time. Starting the course with her will be one particular participant, her student Paul Kocken, who has made the trip over from The Hague to Great Elm with her every year since 1995. He says,
“Caecilia is a wonderful teacher with a lot of experience teaching groups of twelve people playing four pianos together. You can imagine that this asks a lot of her teaching skills to have four pianists playing one piece. She arranges existing music for pianos or even string quartets for a combination of two or three pianos. We practice mostly at home a modern piece and an older one that Caecilia has arranged that year. For example, a piece of Lutosławski and Bach. By doing so we can play difficult pieces.
“She likes to tell little anecdotes and stories she has experienced in her musical life. All course members like the relaxed atmosphere of Jackdaws; the hospitality of the Great Elm community that gives the music students a warm welcome every year is heart warming.”
Over the 20 years, Caecilia Andriessen and Jackdaws have got the course just right. It has become an institution and the attendees have become friends outside the course as well. In 2015, when regular participant Tanya had to break the sad news that Irene Hessel – another of the regulars who made the annual trip to Somerset from The Hague – had passed away from cancer at the age of 45, the news affected everyone. Tanya and Caecilia were at the funeral and said their farewell by playing four-hand piano music just as they had done with Irene.
On Pianos for All this year, we plan a celebration to mark over 20 years of joyous music making at Jackdaws. An occasion to reflect on the power of the music, and the friendships which have developed as a result.