Katharine Parker (1886-1971)

Tasmanian pianist & composer

 

Dear golden days...

When first I wandered in those garden dreams with you

How I remember as you stood with the broom in your hand

And your pink sun bonnet, too...

 

Just brushing up the leaves

I saw you brushing and sweeping away

Swirling, twirling around your pretty head

And then I knew that you, with just a little hesitation,

 

Might consent to stay, while the time away,

Heedless of those falling leaves

Then somebody came and took you away

And left me to my garden dreams

(converted MIDI file)

Fox-trot song "Brushing up the leaves" (c.1930)

words & music by Kitty Parker

 

Catherine Parker, as she was registered at birth, was born on the 28th March 1886 to Florence Agnes Parker (née Leary) and her husband Erskine James Rainey Parker, Gentleman Sheep Farmer on the property 'Parknook' at Lake River near Longford in Tasmania. She was the third of their at least seven daughters - there is no record of any sons (save for Erskine Tasman, born to Erskine and one Agnes Sampson on 15/7/1881; the illiterate mother registered the birth herself). By her own account, Kitty (as she was known throughout her life) spent her early years in Tasmania until she went to Melbourne to study at the Conservatorium.

In Melbourne, Kitty studied for her Diploma of Music from 1904-6, gaining Honours in her Chief Study and Second Study in her first and third years. At the first Australian Exhibition of Women's Work, a grand undertaking held in November 1907 in the Exhibition Buildings, she won the Gold Medal for the 'Highest Award for Piano Solo over 20'. Soon afterwards, she headed to London with the intention of being introduced to and studying with Percy Grainger.

I had just arrived in London from Tasmania, the place of my birth, and where I spent the greater part of my childhood, to continue my piano studies and become a solo pianist. I had made up my mind to study with Percy Grainger if he could take me, as I had the greatest admiration for him... A few weeks later I was lunching with Mr and Mrs Theodore Byard, to whom I had a letter of introduction... During luncheon they asked me about my future plans and whether I intended studying in England or abroad. I then told them how very anxious I was to meet Percy Grainger, and that I had always hoped there might be a chance of his being able to take me as a pupil. Mr Byard said he knew him very well and would write to him about me. A few days later I had a letter from Mrs Grainger, Percy's mother, arranging an appointment. Percy was going to hear me play. He and his mother were then living in Sloane Square. They had a very attractive house with a beautiful studio. In fear and trepidation I sallied forth - I was terribly shy and nervous in those days (unfortunately I still am). I arrived at their house and was shown upstairs to the studio where I was greeted by Percy in the most charming and friendly way...

[An excerpt from Memories of Rose and Percy Grainger by Kitty Eisdell (1936), Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne]

They were mutually enchanted. Small (in later years, in illness, she weighed as little as 6 stone), attractively naïve and inexperienced but also keen, lively and vivacious, she soon became part of Percy's coterie. By her own admission,

I idolised you [Percy] in my childish way and used to have your photo beside my bed everywhere I went!!!

Percy Grainger, for his part, thought highly of her pianistic abilities, as he was later to admire her creative talent.

...one of the best, when it comes to the point. She is very nice, very young and I believe she may possibly go far. I hope she'll do one good as a teacher.

She was a frequent visitor to the Grainger home at 31a King's Road, London, and a regular member of the group that formed the quorum of the soirées held there. She came to know the composers Cyril Scott, Roger Quilter and Balfour Gardiner, keeping in touch with them for many years afterwards. It was here, too, that she met the English lyric tenor Hubert Eisdell, whom she married in 1912.

Shortly after their marriage, Kitty was enjoying considerable success as an accompanist and began to find publishers for her songs and piano compositions. In 1913 five songs were published in London. Boosey & Co. published My Wish and The Sweetest Face and three were published by Augener: Love in the Valley, The Music and the Words and As a Star. During the 'teens she and Hubert formed a successful duo partnership, although Hubert claimed the greater kudos and made numerous gramophone recordings, included in which were some of Kitty's songs.

In 1920, Kitty and Hubert travelled to Australia for a concert tour. In July they appeared at the Town Hall in Hobart. Songs, including Hubert's A little wooing and Kitty's The moon is alone in the sky (which remains untraced) were interspersed according to custom with piano solos, in this instance by Chopin, Ravel, Palmgren, Debussy and Cyril Scott, a demanding and unusual choice which showed the influence of Grainger's taste and example. Whether this tour was merely an adjunct to a visit to Kitty's family and friends, as the Australian Musical News suggested (rather flippantly and with a slant many would now find offensive) or whether it had the additional purpose of reviving Hubert's flagging career is a matter of conjecture. But by October 1923, the date of Kitty's earliest surviving letter to Percy Grainger, she is asking Percy for assistance in finding a job for Hubert. A subsequent letter thanks him for his efforts - "...just ripping of you!"

 

Katharine Parker and husband Hubert Eisdell on their Australian tour 1920

Things were considerably worse by late 1929 when Hubert wrote plaintively to Grainger that "...things are thoroughly bad...", and asked for help with finding work in the United States. The strain seems to have been too much for the marriage and by early 1930 the couple were separated. They appear to have attempted a reconciliation and discussed emigrating to Canada.

You perhaps heard of Kitty's and my estrangement... all coming right again... life would be better in another country... trying US or Canada. Going to Ontario.

Hubert travelled, however, without Kitty and arrived in April 1932. He obtained a position at the Toronto Conservatorium, remarried in early 1934 and later became Director of Music at a boys' school in Ontario. Kitty and Hubert appear to have remained on good terms and kept in touch for the rest of their lives. Kitty never remarried.

In May 1935 Kitty's son Michael, her only child, went to Tasmania to work on the sheep and cattle farm owned by friends of hers. He had hated the idea of office life in England but quickly became disenchanted with the dirty chores he was asked to do, catching a bus to Launceston where he auditioned for a news-reading job at the local ABC radio station. By 1937 he had moved to Sydney where he worked as an announcer. He joined up in 1940 and was severely wounded at Tobruk in August 1943. Well-known for his appearances as a 'straight man' with comedians such as Spike Milligan and Dick Bentley, he married, had three children and died in 1986.

Meanwhile, Kitty had sent Percy Grainger her Four Musical Sketches for piano in 1930 and he suggested she orchestrate the fourth piece, Down Longford Way. She tried, but

...made so many mistakes that I couldn't send it to you...

It was not until 1935 that Grainger himself got around to orchestrating it. Kitty was gushing and effusive in her thanks:

You have been just too wonderful for words. I am completely spellbound by your wonderful letter about 'Down Longford Way' and the fact of your having taken the trouble to orchestrate it is such a complete joy to me.

She went to see Leslie Boosey that afternoon (June 2nd), who greeted her with enthusiasm. By that time, Boosey's had taken over Hawkes & Son and Winthrop Rogers and Boosey indicated that if Kitty could put together the orchestral parts as soon as possible he would publish it in Britain and the United States, allocating a share of royalties between the two composers. She took the opportunity to play her new "ballet waltz" Arc-en-ciel to Boosey, who "...asked for it as soon as it is ready." She sent it to Grainger, querying his

...opinion on its merits and whether it [is] worthy of your orchestration. We could share the royalties if you would care to do it for me.

Grainger appears gently but firmly to have declined the offer of further collaboration. It may be that he found the piece less to his taste than Down Longford Way (or "DLW", as they nicknamed it), but it is more likely that he considered Kitty more than capable of orchestrating her own work and that she ought to be pushed to do so. In her next letter, she is back-pedalling awkwardly:

...of course I understand about the orchestration - I only meant to send the Ballet Waltz so you might play it.

The piece was published the following year by Augener, who had already published the piano pieces Nocturne and A Water Colour in 1925 and the three songs of 1913 mentioned earlier.

Arc-en-ciel (live recording)

 

The mid 1930s saw her accompanying Dora Labette ('Liza Perli') and Dino Borgioli, touring to Las Palmas and Tenerife in 1935 and Berlin in '36 and '37. Although Grainger's interest and encouragement with DLW had galvanized Kitty into composition after a considerable hiatus (the events of the recent past had

"...hurt me terribly and made me give up everything"), the only mention in her correspondence with PG of further compositions besides Arc-en-ciel is of a Coronation Song in 1938 (for Edward VIII)

...which Lesley Boosey seemed to think a lot of and we spent weeks over it. Firstly the words had to be scrapped on account of the abdication of Edward. Cyril [Scott] had a shot, but it was no good.

The war years had been particularly grey and depressing for her, it seems. She spent most of the time "doing war work" in London (working night-shifts in an ambulance station) and Southampton, lost touch with many of her musical contacts and did not have any opportunities to hear concerts, being in a 'banned area'. Her health was poor and she contracted tuberculosis, which hardly helped her brooding depression; all incentive to produce music seems to have left her during this time and her questions and reflections in the letters to Percy Grainger reveal a sadly shallow (not to mention anti-semitic) way of thinking. In a letter of July 1945 she asks him for his

...view on Religion and things of that sort and why we are here etc. and if we make our own lives, or are they already mapped out before our birth?

Regrettably, Percy's reply is not extant.

Her doctors advised that Kitty should seek a dry climate for the TB and so, in any case feeling homesick, she applied at Australia House for a passage home in September 1944. It would be over two years before she would be able to obtain one. In the meantime, back in London after the armistice her spirits revived a little and she made efforts to get back into music, auditioning for a musical in Drury Lane and writing out parts for the musical score by Christian Darnton for the film The Antwerp Story.

On 14th January 1947 she arrived in Melbourne, then went to stay with her son and family in Sydney. After some time in Melbourne and Tasmania, where she broadcast and played the piano on ABC radio in Hobart, she returned to Sydney in 1948. It was hard to find a flat - the place was "choc-a-bloc with DPs" - but she found one, and some pupils. Eugene Goossens, then Director at the Sydney Conservatorium, said he wanted to put her on the teaching staff but appears to have strung her along. When she was offered a job at 7LA community radio in Launceston in 1950, she took it.

Her health was much improved and she had a good many pupils both in town and, for two days a week, in the surrounding country.

One pupil from Campbelltown remembers her as "...a very old lady, somewhat formidable - she was unable to continue lessons in Campbell Town but took pupils at her home in High Street, Launceston, and I went there for a time." She also gave monthly recitals for 7NT, the ABC station in Launceston.

In 1953 her health took a turn for the worse and goitre was eventually diagnosed. Even after it had been operated on, she was no longer able to continue her country teaching. She had, however, a great many pupils in Launceston and kept teaching throughout the '50s, doing "scarcely any composing - just a few scrappy things."

Her last letter to Percy Grainger is dated October 31st 1960. She advises him that she intends to move to Sydney on December 14th to live with her sister there, where she will rest and do less teaching. She writes that she had sent a song to London but

I never heard from Lesley Boosey (even to say he had received the song I told you about). I used to know him quite well. The words I thought were lovely - I'll write them down on the back of this - yours affectionately, Kitty

She did make the move to Sydney, dying there in 1971. There is no Probate or Administration for Kitty in NSW or Tasmania and all that Michael Eisdell had of his mother's music was lodged with either the Grainger Museum in Melbourne or the ABC Music Library in Sydney. Her sister Reike, a musician who settled in Queensland, may have been given some documents, as might a Mrs Macnamara of Launceston who shared Kitty's love of gramophone records and the radiogram. Perhaps even Hubert held some of the manuscripts in Canada and it is just conceivable that some of his own songs were, in fact, written by his first wife.

It may be that Kitty Parker really did not write very much music at all and that the bulk of her composing was done before 1930 and the break-up of her marriage.

When her heart ceased to sing, so did her muse. Forgive the winsome sentiment, but I feel it quite apt to an essentially simple soul.

In the words of Percy Grainger:

It is a crying shame you do not compose more. 'Down Longford Way' is full of sheer genius - especially that genius I feel counts most: a sense of largeness in form and the ability to unfold naturally. You are one of the few who could write large works (such as symphonies) without seeming (what is called here) "too hot for your pants". Australia needs great (not merely slick) musicians such as you are. How I wish you could settle down to a life of composing great works to the glory of our darling country.

And in Kitty's own:

...all incentive seems to have left me - am a person who wants stimulating as I have never felt I was any good at anything. I can only hope to push others on and that seems to have been all I have done for years. Whenever I am with musicians I want creep into a shell or hide myself in a farthermost corner and yet I feel that I had something in me to have done so much more than I have done in every way.

What is clear, though, is that this greatly under-nourished talent was valued by Grainger as something very special and its lack of fulfilment except for a few charming piano pieces and songs is something of a tragedy. Down Longford Way has a spark of genius in it which, understandably, appealed to Grainger, given its harmonic language which borrowed discreetly from his own yet exhibited a sure and individual voice. Songs like the six of 1928, in particular I am disquieted, have a quality difficult to define but rare in their mysterious sensibilty. It is no surprise that a woman composer of a very few small pieces should have been forgotten but a shame, nonetheless, considering the worth of the compositions themselves and the unusual place their composer occupied in Australian music. It is worth considering, too, that her work was published by no fewer than six companies: Winthrop Rogers, Chappell, Cary, Francis Day & Hunter, Newman and Augener (all in London). This fact alone should have ensured that her music enjoy more attention than it has.

©Christopher & Ian Munro 2000

With grateful acknowledgement of the assistance given by the staff of the Grainger Museum, the University of Melbourne

•list of works

•CD recording of Down Longford Way

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