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Millicent Silver (Harpsichord)

Born: November 17, 1905 - (South) London, England
Died: May 1, 1986 - England

Millicent Irene Silver was an English harpsichordist. Her father, Alfred Silver, had been a boy chorister at St. George's Chapel, Windsor where his singing attracted the attention of Queen Victoria, who had him give special performances for her. He earned his living playing the violin and oboe. His wife Amelia was an accomplished and busy piano teacher. Millicent was the second of their four children, and her musical talent became evident in time-honoured fashion when she was discovered at the age of three picking out on the family's piano the tunes she had heard her elder brother practising.

Eventually Millicent Silver won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London where, as was more common in those days, she studied equally both piano and violin. She was awarded the Chappell Silver Medal for piano playing and, in 1928, the College's Tagore Gold Medal for the best student of her year. As a violinist she was taken under the wing of W.H. Reed, leader of the London Symphony Orchestra and intimate friend of Edward Elgar. She actually earned her first professional fees playing as an extra violinist in the Hallé Orchestra. As a pianist she tackled the big things, such as the Liszt concerto, Brahms D minor, or Emperor concerto (which she performed under the baton of Adrian Boult). After graduating from the RCM, she studied for a further period with the great teacher Tobias Matthay.

The depression years of the early 1930's severely hampered the careers of many musicians, and Millicent and John Francis (whom she married in 1932) were no exception. She taught piano in a girls' school which was so reactionary that staff were not permitted to be married, and she had to keep her marriage a secret. Her husband queued up at stage doors seeking work in London theatre bands. Later in the 1930's things improved. John got increasing amounts of orchestral work in London, particularly with Sir Thomas Beecham, and he began an early collaboration with the young Benjamin Britten (which was resumed after the War and lasted well into the 1950's). At the same time his keen interest in chamber music led him into a serious exploration of the then largely unknown field of Baroque music for small ensembles. He and Millicent became regular broadcasters on BBC radio, both as a duo and in larger ensembles.

At this point, when Millicent Silver like John was well launched as a public performer, World War II further disrupted their careers. John played in dance bands and served as an auxiliary in the Metropolitan Police in London, while she returned to teaching. They both toured widely playing for the troops. The decisive break in Millicent Silver's career came just at the end of the War, when at Dartington Hall in England she was persuaded by the conductor Hans Oppenheim to play the continuo in a performance of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas on a harpsichord. It immediately became obvious to both her and John that their future as chamber musicians had to be built around the harpsichord. The group which they very soon named the London Harpsichord Ensemble gave its first performance in 1945 at one of the last of Dame Myra Hess's legendary lunch-hour concerts at the National Gallery in London.

There had been harpsichord players in Britain before the War - notably Violet Gordon Woodhouse and members of the Dolmetsch family - but the harpsichord was really established in Britain in the two decades following 1945 by three outstanding players, namely George Malcolm, Thurston Dart and Millicent herself. John Francis quickly saw the wider potential for mounting small-scale concerts of Baroque chamber music. Millicent acquired a Kirckman harpsichord, which had been rebuilt by the British instrument maker Henry Tull, and the London Harpsichord Ensemble toured widely and became a prolific broadcaster for the BBC. An early highlight was a programme of ten concerts given at the 1950 Edinburgh Festival to mark the bicentenary of the death of J.S. Bach, when the Ensemble made a great impression through the pioneering lightness and clarity of its playing. By the late 1940's it had become obvious that Millicent's Kirckman harpsichord would not stand up to the amount of touring which it had to do. She persuaded Robert Goble, instrument maker in Oxford, to build for her the magnificent double-manual harpsichord which she received in 1952 and used for the rest of her life.

When the Royal Festival Hall was opened in London in 1951 the London Harpsichord Ensemble began a series of fortnightly concerts in the smaller Recital Room, which lasted for a decade until that hall was closed for concerts in 1961. Two new smaller concert halls were added to the Festival Hall complex in 1967 and from then on the Ensemble played in London every month, as well as continuing to tour extensively. Millicent always performed a substantial solo item in London Harpsichord Ensemble concerts, usually as the second item in the first half. She and John Francis made their last public appearance together (in Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 5) in January 1981, when she was already 75 years old. She played in public just once more in 1982, when she accompanied her daughter the soprano Hannah Francis on the piano in a recital of Russian songs, sailing unperturbed through the terrifying accompaniment to Sergei Rachmaninov's Spring Waters. She died, following several years of declining health, at the age of 80 on May 1, 1986.

Her background and times inevitably made Millicent Silver a late starter on the harpsichord. She made up for it with a 35-year career on the instrument during which she played a very wide solo repertory: not only most of the keyboard works of Bach, including all his concerti, Partitas, English Suites, etc, but also Bach's sons, scores of Scarlatti and Soler sonatas, many of the works of François Couperin and Rameau, the English virginalists, and much 20th century harpsichord music ranging from Falla to Henze and Ligeti. Indeed, Millicent (who had given the first broadcast of B. Britten's Holiday Diary, and the UK première with John Francis of Paul Hindemith's flute sonata) was much more enterprising in terms of repertory than a great many younger harpsichordists. Walter Leigh, Gordon Jacob and Howells wrote for her, and Henze said that she played the harpsichord part in his Apollo et Hyazinthus better than anyone else.

The Goldberg Variations (BWV 988) remained a favourite and featured repeatedly in her recital programmes. She played them from memory, and a performance was always preceded by much soul-searching and several months of intensive practice. Sometimes she would play them as the second half of a concert in whose first part she performed Bach flute sonatas with John Francis. Sometimes she played them as a whole concert, with every repeat even in the final reprise of the Aria, and a pause before the French Overture, Variation 16.

For an artist who was so widely known in her day and is fondly remembered by many, Millicent Silver made disappointingly few recordings. Actually she hated the process of recording. She did however leave an excellent disc of Scarlatti sonatas, made for a short-lived label; a couple of records of Baroque chamber music with the London Harpsichord Ensemble; a Decca/Argo disc of oboe sonatas with her oboist daughter Sarah Francis and the cellist Bernard Richards; and a Saga disc of her own arrangement for seven instruments of Bach's A Musical Offering (BWV 1079) (which was used, movement by movement, by the Argentine novelist Julio Cortázar as the framework for his short story Clone). She recorded the Goldberg Variations (BWV 988) during the 1950's in her own studio in London. It was first issued privately, then in 1957 by Classics Club in Britain, and later by the Saga label. It has now been reissued by the Baroque Music Club.

Millicent Silver taught throughout her life. For over 20 years she was a professor of both piano and harpsichord at the Royal College of Music where she worked, and sometimes fought, tirelessly for her pupils. With very few exceptions they responded with gratitude, respect and enduring affection. They included solo performers as distinguished as Trevor Pinnock; the organist and harpsichordist Christopher Herrick; Melvyn Tan; and the late Christopher Kite. Very many other pupils have made careers in a wide range of musical activities, from successful orchestral conductors to local music teachers.

John Francis and Millicent Silver retired from public performance in January 1981. The London Harpsichord Ensemble continues under the direction of their daughter and distinguished oboist Sarah Francis.

Source: Baroque Music Club Website (from Michael Johnson, husband of Sarah Francis)
Contributed by
Teddy Kaufman (March 2007)

Millicent Silver: Short Biography | Recordings of Instrumental & Vocal Works

Links to other Sites

Millicent Silver, harpsichodist - Biography (BMC)


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