Cellist Margaret Moncrieff (Helen Margaret Moncrieff Kelly) (6 February 1921 – 12 November 2008) would have been 100 years old last month. We are featuring this multi-talented artist as a tribute to her in the 100th year after her birth and as part of Women’s History Month.
Although unknown today, in her own time she was a distinguished soloist, chamber musician, and cello professor. She was also an accomplished pianist and author. She even appeared in several theater productions. Her teachers included Pierre Fournier, Ivor James, Fernand Pollain, and Ruth Waddell.
What’s in a name?
A woman of many talents, Margaret Moncrieff is sometimes known by different names. Even today, women who take their husband’s names run into difficulties with names, but she had a clever way of using her fore- and surnames to distinguish different aspects of her life. She wrote in her memoir that
“there are advantages in having different names for the different sides of one’s life.” – Worlds Apart: Memoirs of Margaret Moncrieff Kelly (Helen McClelland), p. 235.
She went by
- Margaret Kelly or Margaret Moncrieff Kelly – for personal or family affairs
- Mrs. H. M. Kelly – business matters
- Margaret Moncrieff – music, either teaching or performing
- Helen McClelland – writing and book friends
Using this system, she could sort her mail at a glance.
Early Training in Edinburgh
Moncrieff grew up in Edinburgh and started her music studies before the age of five, beginning with music classes from Miss Marian P. Gibb in the Chassevant method. She also had piano lessons. By age 5 she could read music fluently, even though she could not yet read English. She said that although she could read the music, when her early classes concluded with singing a song:
“I always, to my extreme embarrassment, had to be taught the words of the songs beforehand.” – Worlds Apart, p. 27.
“An Immensely Serious Business”
Early on, she knew she wanted to play the cello.
“For a long time – in childhood terms – I had yearned to start the cello. Why particularly the cello, I don’t know.” –Worlds Apart, p. 82.
She was not able to persuade her father to allow her to start lessons until the age of 10. She described the setting of her first lesson as follows:
“I can still . . . recall so many details about it. The setting was a studio in Castle Terrace, in Edinburgh’s old Synod Hall . . . the studio formed part of The Waddell School of Music . . . In a phrase beloved of Victorian novelists, little could anyone have realised at the time that this particular room, with its brown paintwork, its tiny high platform where families of cellos of all sizes roosted side by side, its signed photographs of former pupils, and its lofty windows dominated by a splendid view of Edinburgh Castle, was to play such a significant part in my life during so many years to come.” – Worlds Apart, p. 83.
Her first lessons were with Dr. Ruth Waddell, daughter of the founder of The Waddell School of Music. Of the lesson itself, she wrote:
“To this day I could give an exact account of my first cello lesson; and would pay tribute to the excellent counsels I was given about some of the basics of bowing and left-hand technique. From the beginning it was clear that playing the cello was an immensely serious business . . .” – Worlds Apart, p. 83.
Waddell was a student of the famous Guilhermina Suggia (27 June 1885 – 30 July 1950), who had a strong influence on her playing and teaching. Contrary to what one might expect from having such a lineage, this is one area that Moncrieff did not find helpful in Waddell’s teaching. She said of Suggia:
“she had some idiosyncratic ideas about cello technique.” – Worlds Apart, p. 84.
These idiosyncrasies included emphasizing a straight bow arm and rigidly angled right hand and fingers, both of which you can see in Augustus John’s portrait of Suggia (above).
Waddell’s own ideas, however, made her a beloved teacher who later became a dear friend to Moncrieff. She described Waddell as:
” a wonderful teacher, capable of kindling in her pupils a love of music and of the cello that would endure for a lifetime. I shall always be grateful to her, knowing that anything I have ever achieved as a cellist, either performer or teacher, I owe to her.” – Worlds Apart, p. 84.
Moncrieff also said of Waddell that she:
“had the . . . knack of being able to suddenly, by some turn of phrase of unlikely simile, to open doors whose very existence had been unsuspected.” – Worlds Apart, p. 87
In addition to cello lessons at The Waddell School of Music, Moncrieff cites the string orchestras as being “crucially important” in her development as a cellist and overall musician. (Worlds Apart, p. 86.) Even though the rehearsals were held on Saturday mornings, Moncrieff wrote that
“the Waddell Orchestra’s rehearsals were for many years the highpoint of the week for me.” – Worlds Apart, p. 87.
By age 12 she was serious about her music studies and by age 14 or 15 she was anxious to begin “serious musical studies.” (Worlds Apart, p. 37.)
Growing up in Edinburgh and its musical scene undoubtedly influenced Moncrieff in numerous ways but two stand out in particular.
1. The Fiddle Tradition of Niel Gow
One was that by studying at The Waddell School of Music, Moncrieff was part of the direct lineage of the great fiddler, Neil Gow.
Ruth Waddell’s father, William Waddell, learned in the school of Gow, who taught the tradition to both Ruth and her sister Maimie, who directed the orchestras. As a result, the students all learned traditional Scottish music as part of their regular training.
“All these tunes we learnt, not from music but aurally, and our rehearsals always finished with about ten minutes during which we played by ear a splendid variety of traditional songs and dances and were encouraged to add harmonies and descants of our own.” – Worlds Apart, p. 88.
This was part of the students’ ear training that complemented their sight-reading of great orchestral works. During their summer terms, after their concert obligations, the student orchestra would read through standard orchestral repertoire, with Ruth Waddell filling in the wind and brass parts that were not covered by the string orchestra.
2. Successful Women Musicians as Role Models
The second notable influence of the Edinburgh musical scene on Moncrieff’s career was the many women in top musical positions in that city. She wrote:
“Looking back to those days it strikes me as noticeable that musical life in Edinburgh was strongly dominated by women. Nor was this only the result of wartime conditions, for many of the important women in Edinburgh music had already been established well before the war.” – Worlds Apart, p. 93.
In addition to Dr.s Ruth and Maimie Waddell, Moncrieff cited the following prominent women musicians in Edinburgh:
- Dr. Mary Grierson – a concert pianist, a student of Sir Donald Tovey, Dean at Edinburgh University, lectured in harmony, music history, score-reading, orchestration, and formal analysis, conducted the Reid Orchestra, studied with Fanny Davies (a pupil of Clara Schumann)
- Peggie Sampson – cellist (student of Ruth Waddell, Diran Alexanian, Guilhermina Suggia, Pablo Casals, and Emanuel Feuermann), viola da gambist, also a student of Nadia Boulanger, taught counterpoint at Edinburgh University
- Jean Rennie – leader of the Scottish Orchestra (now known as the Royal Scottish National Orchestra)
- The Reid Orchestra – principal players of the second violins, violas, and cellos, were all women at the time. (The principal cellist was Ruth Waddell.)
- Marie Dare – cellist, composer, original cellist of the Scottish Piano Trio, principal cellist in the Reid Orchestra after the retirement of Ruth Waddell
The leadership roles played by women in music in Edinburgh had a profound influence on Moncrieff, and likely on her peers. She stated:
“There can be no doubt that I . . . must have been influenced by growing up in a world where so many women were able to achieve successful careers . . . The climate of opinion in musical Edinburgh did not seem to discriminate against women; and . . . it was quite a shock to me when I arrived in London in the late 1940s to discover the degree of male chauvinist prejudice that existed there in the orchestral world.” – Worlds Apart, p. 96.
Moncrieff studied in Edinburgh until the late summer of 1946, earning scholarships for further study. As Europe was still in bad shape after World War II, she decided to spend a year in London. She studied cello with Ivor James at the Royal College of Music. She wrote of James, known as “Jimmy” by his friends and students:
“All round Jimmy was an outstanding musician with a wide knowledge, especially in the field of chamber music. As a teacher he did not aim to develop a virtuoso technique in his students, but I am grateful that from him my playing acquired a sound foundation, both musical and technical. And I always remember with affection his quietly humorous comments and his deep resonant speaking voice, both of which used to put me in mind of Winnie-the-Pooh.” – Worlds Apart, p. 119.
While in London, she was able to live with her sister in Lytton Grove. She was able to concentrate on her cello studies, only hindered by the icy January of 1947. She was so cold in her attic room on the top floor that:
“The only way I could manage to get my fingers to move at all at the beginning of my practice was to don my wartime siren-suit (what we nowadays call a cat-suit), zip a hot-water-bottle into the front, put on all the jerseys I possessed . . . and begin by playing at full speed through several continuous passages of semiquavers.” – Worlds Apart, pp. 118-19.
In October of 1947, Moncrieff set off for Paris to study with the great Pierre Fournier. However, at the time Fournier was on tour in the USA, and so she worked with cellist Fernand Pollain for her first two terms. He was extremely generous with his lesson time, sometimes working with her for up to five hours!
Unfortunately, he had been shot in his left shoulder during the liberation of France:
“which had damaged the muscles and tendons . . . making it impossible for him to raise his arm to the level of the fingerboard. Undaunted, he had devised a kind of pulley with which his arm could be first hauled into playing position . . .” – Worlds Apart, p. 127.
Moncrieff studied with him until the summer of 1948. He demanded a lot of her, making her:
“produce a new concerto, sonata or other major work at least every fortnight.” – Worlds Apart, p. 128.
He taught her
“the vital importance of putting the music across to the listener.” – Worlds Apart, p. 128.
After her return from her Easter holidays, Moncrieff started lessons with Fournier. Although she was nervous at first, he set her at ease:
“Pierre Fournier was a man of extraordinary charm; he had the great gift of being able to treat a young player as a colleague, not as an inferior, and when . . . he said, ‘When you play to me, I want you to feel just as though you were in your own home,’ it was so clear he really meant this that my nerves miraculously vanished and I was able to play well.” – Worlds Apart, p. 133.
Unlike her lessons with Pollain, these lessons did not run long, but she accomplished a lot.
“I learnt an enormous amount from him on both technical and musical matters. Always Fournier’s approach, in teaching as in playing, was straight to the heart of the music.” – Worlds Apart, p. 133.
He was organized not only in how he taught but how he instructed her to practice.
“He maintained . . . that four hours a day of organised, concentrated practice was quite sufficient, and that to do more could be counter-productive and lead to the work becoming slipshod. In fact I seldom managed to complete everything in much under five hours – and sometimes felt guilty about this.” – Worlds Apart, p. 135.
Moncrieff was dedicated. In the summer of 1949 there was a heatwave, with temperatures in the 90s F. She lived on the 6th floor, and
“in order to practise the cello wihtout danger of melting, I had first to close the shutters in my room and throw the windows open wide, then to remove all my garments apart from a bra and pants.” – Worlds Apart, p. 143.
Moncrieff completed her studies in Paris in the summer of 1949 and returned to England to start her career.
After Paris, Moncrieff moved to London. By 1952 she performed regularly with a piano trio. Fortunately, when the pianist left the trio in 1955 to take another job, they found a Scottish pianist – Alexander Kelly – who later became her husband. She recalled that
“Alex used often to say that rehearsing and performing with ensembles was an excellent training for marriage, because concert conditions tended to bring out the worst in people!” – Worlds Apart, p. 164.
It would be difficult to give a detailed account of Moncrieff’s concert career or that of her husband’s as from the point of their marriage, they were entwined in their professional as well as their personal lives. They both worked as soloists and chamber musicians:
“touring widely in the British Isles . . . covering between us literally from Cornwall to the Outer Hebrides and from the Channel Islands and the Kent coast to Orkney and Shetland; and we also took part in “numerous London recitals” and gave “regular broadcasts of solo and chamber music” with various different ensembles. We were lucky too in getting a number of concert opportunities. . . ” – Worlds Apart, p. 181.
In her memoirs, she wrote about her decision to play chamber music rather than focus on a solo or orchestral career. She soloed with orchestras in many concerts, but for practical reasons, she and her husband chose to concentrate on chamber music. In addition to all of her other recitals, trio, and other chamber ensemble performances, she took part in five Wigmore Hall recitals.
She and her husband also toured abroad in Romania, Bulgaria, Malaysia, and Hong Hong. She remembered:
“a moment in Penang, in an open air setting when I was playing the Prelude to Bach’s First Suite for unaccompanied cello, and saw inexorably moving towards me across the floor the most enormous spider to ever have come my way – it looked bigger than the palm of my hand. Most forunately something deflected it before it actually reached me . . . ” – Worlds Apart, p. 195.
Both Moncrieff and her husband were gifted and sought-after teachers. She taught at the following:
- Royal College of Music
- Wells Cathedral Specialist Music School
- Royal Northern College of Music
- Colchester Technical College
- St. Mary’s School, Ascot
Although she had already decided to be a professional cellist at the age of 13, Moncrieff made some time to perform in the theater – both as an actress and as a theater musician. She even played the part of Algernon Moncrieff in an all-female production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.
However, the demands of being a professional cellist didn’t allow much time for this pursuit. In one instance, she had to get a substitute to cover for her during one run so that she could play a recital and then a performance of the Dvořák concerto. Even so, she did meet Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in her theater work.
Toward the end of her life, Moncrieff wrote her memoirs – which was her seventh published book! She also wrote a biography of Elinor Brent-Dyer. Her period novel, Breath of Autumn, remains unpublished. Here is a partial list of her published works:
- 1981 – Behind the Chalet School: A Biography of Elinor M. Brent-Dyer
- 1994 – The Chalet School Companion
- 2000 – Joey and Patricia: A Reunion in Guernsey
- 2001 – Time and Again
- 2003 – Worlds Apart: Memoir of Margaret Moncrieff Kelly
- 2004 – Visitors for the Chalet School
- 2006 – Summer’s Ending
Many thanks to the daughters of Helen Margaret Moncrieff Kelly, Catriona and Alison, for their help in gathering these materials, one of the photographs here, and permission to use the photographs from their mother’s memoirs.
Do you have any memories of Helen Margaret Moncrieff Kelly or any of the other musicians mentioned here? If so, please share them in the comments.