Maria Curcio (1918- 2009) was
born in Naples. She was a classical pianist and best
remembered as a much sought-after teacher. Her students included Barry
Douglas, Martha Argerich, Evelyne Brancart, Radu
Lupu... it's a very
long list. She, herself, was the last student of the
great Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel. In classical
music she was, in the words of a journalist in The
Independent (in 2001) "a tutelary goddess
second to none.“
It's hard to say what makes one great
musician more a teacher and another a performer. World events, certainly, home
life, personality, many things. Maria's father was
Italian and her mother was from Brazil, was Jewish and was also a pianist.
Somewhere in all that Maria got a strong
stubborn streak. She was playing by age three. At age seven they took her
to Rome to play for Benito Mussolini. She abruptly
refused to do so, saying she didn't
want to play for a man "who is ruining our nation."
(Prescient of her. Benito was just getting started.)
She did not have a happy childhood,.
She was pushed into too many engagements too soon,
and there was no time to
play or have friends. She entered the Naples
Conservatory at age nine and had her degree by 14.
Her mother arranged for her
to study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and with
Artur Schnabel, himself, from age 15. He did not take young pupils, but his son asked him
to take a listen. When he did so, he said Maria was
"one of the greatest talents I have ever met"
She made her London debut in 1939. At
the outbreak of World War II, she was in Amsterdam,
having followed Schnabel's
secretary Peter Diamand, and where she often played.
However, during the German occupation of the Netherlands from 1940, when Jews were
banned from playing in public, she turned down all
offers of engagements in protest
(Diamand was Jewish). Diamand spent some time in a
Dutch concentration camp but escaped. Husband and
wife then had to hide from
the Nazis, in attics and other cramped places, with
inadequate food. Maria became malnourished. She got tuberculosis. She could no longer walk
properly, let alone play. Her performing career was
over. She married Diamand in
1948, but it took years of therapy to restore
strength to her legs, arms and fingers. She finally got her strength back and returned to
playing. She played with such artists as Benjamin
Britten, Otto Klemperer, Josef
Krips, Pierre Monteux and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Her
last performance was in 1963. She then turned to
teaching and giving master
Her husband, Peter Diamand, had become
director of the Edinburgh Festival and they moved to
the UK. She became Visiting
Professor at the Royal Academy of Music, University
of London. She played privately with Sir Clifford
Curzon, Benjamin Britten,
Peter Pears and their circle in 1947. In her private
life, she and her husband divorced in 1971 after he had an affair with Marlene Dietrich.
Maria spent her last few years in Porto, Portugal.
She died there in March 2009 at
the age of 90. In spite of everything she was a
softie and worried if her students could afford to
pay. She'd often say, "Don't
worry about it." I look at her photo, her eyes, her
smile -- well, that's one story I can believe.
BBC Scotland made two films about
Maria Curcio in the 1980s: Music in Camera:
Maria Curcio - Fulfilling a Legacy and Maria Curcio - Piano Teacher. A
documentary of her life, Music Beyond Sound,
was made by her student Douglas Ashley
in 1993. He also wrote a book of the