Phyllis Sellick 1911-2007
27 May 2007
Phyllis Sellick OBE
Distinguished British Pianist
Phyllis Doreen Sellick (Smith), pianist; born Ilford, Essex 16 June 1911; married Cyril Smith 1937; died Kingston-upon-Thames 26 May 2007.
With the passing of Phyllis Sellick, an important link with the musical life of Britain from the middle decades of the twentieth century has been broken. A woman who combined profound musical gifts with charismatic beauty, indomitable strength and a selfless attitude with regards to her career, Phyllis Sellick embodied the qualities of professionalism, taste and patrician mastery associated with a golden age in British musical life. Her legacy is passed on in her recordings, the musical compositions that she inspired and pioneered - and in the work of her students spread around the world.
Born into a middle-class family in the London suburb of Ilford in 1911, Phyllis started to play the piano by ear at the age of three and had her first music lesson on her fifth birthday. Four years later she won the Daily Mirror “Pip, Squeak and Wilfred” contest for young musicians and was awarded two years` private tuition with Cuthbert Whitemore, subsequently winning an open scholarship to continue her study with him at the Royal Academy of Music.
Professor Whitemore and his wife Freda exerted a considerable influence on their young pupil: after her husband’s death in 1927, Mrs Whitemore organised for Phyllis to travel to Paris for study with Isidore Philipp. In addition to piano tuition, the Whitemores introduced her to operas, recitals and the Royal Philharmonic Society Concert’s at the Queen’s Hall - it was at one of these events that the “dazzlingly pretty girl, aged about fifteen, tall and slim, with a halo of golden hair” drew the eye of Cyril Smith, another prodigiously talented pianist.
A few years later, Cyril Smith and Phyllis Sellick took part in a national piano competition and Cyril, emboldened by his triumph in the open grade, wrote to her with the proposal that it might be “a good thing for young pianists to develop their abilities together” and suggesting that they play on two pianos. The reply was “prompt, polite and disconcertingly to the point. She said `No`; she did not think it a good idea.”
Despite this unpromising start, Phyllis eventually said `Yes! ' (this time on a bus travelling along the Mile End Road) and the couple were married in 1937. The ensuing years were described in glowing terms by Cyril Smith in his autobiography Duet For Three Hands: the young couple, possessed of film star looks and burgeoning virtuoso careers, progressed from idyllic cycling holidays to creating a beautiful home next to Richmond park, enjoying their holiday retreat in Cornwall and learning to sail their own yacht (an activity that drew newspaper coverage when the couple capsized outside Falmouth and were rescued by a passing submarine).
The Smiths worked and socialised with a galaxy of famous names such as Benno Moiseiwitsch, Kathleen Ferrier, Sir Adrian Boult, Sir Malcom Sargent and Sir Henry Wood. Under the firm guidance of Emmie Tillett, their individual careers developed to the point that they, seemingly, only met on railway platforms travelling to their next engagements around the United Kingdom.
Phyllis Sellick as a performer was a model of clarity and ease, absorbing new scores quickly and presenting them to their best advantage. Though equally at home in classic and romantic repertoires, her studies with Philipp in Paris (and occasional meetings with Maurice Ravel) provided a special affinity with French repertoire. These same attributes (plus, in some cases no doubt, her great beauty) made her a firm favourite of several British composers: she enjoyed regular visits to Claridges with `Uncle` Ralph Vaughan-Williams, whose incidental music she performed for the film The 49th Parallel; her premiere of Sir Michael Tippet’s First Piano Sonata (and subsequent recording) did much to raise his profile and he subsequently dedicated his Fantasia on a Theme of Handel to her; she recorded Walton’s Symphonie Concertante with the composer on the podium; and concert programmes show that she was regularly performing music by Sir Lennox Berkeley, Sir Arthur Bliss, Alan Rawsthorne, Gordon Jacob and Malcolm Arnold. She often expressed the desire to perform more chamber music - most of her collaborations in this field were limited to her appearances at the lunchtime concerts instigated by Dame Myra Hess at the National Gallery.
Due to their busy schedules, Phyllis and Cyril resisted offers to work together until 1941 when Sir Henry Wood made them an offer they could hardly refuse: to appear together at two pianos at the first concert of the Prom’s season, in its new location of the Royal Albert Hall. The pairing was a huge success, both artistically and commercially - and also at the service of the Entertainments National Service Association, for whom they performed in tours of Portugal, Belgium, France and India.
With the arrival of two children (Graham in 1947 and Claire in 1949) it was soon apparent that the couple would have to modify their hectic lifestyles. In 19955 and 1956, however, a more permanent restraint was imposed when Cyril suffered two strokes, the second of which left him without the use of his left hand. Phyllis was faced with the task of providing support in the face of this catastrophe, both privately within the family and later in a more public fashion.
The many influential contacts that the couple had accrued - and their assured place in the public’s hearts - hastened the successful development and performances of a repertoire for three hands, which involved the arrangement of works formerly for two or four hands and major new compositions from Gordon Jacob and Malcolm Arnold. It was a human triumph that continues to inspire: to hear Phyllis and Cyril in the recording studio, performing Franck’s Prelude, Choral and Fugue only one month before Cyril died in 1974, is a moving testament to their unique partnership.
Phyllis Sellick continued a long and successful career as a teacher, pledging her loyalty to the Royal College of Music who had re-employed her husband after his thrombosis. Students repeatedly stress the huge range of her musical interests and how she continued to develop by learning from people that she had made contact with or counted amongst her friends: Rosalyn Tureck, Sir Clifford Curzon, Solomon Cutner, Louis Kentner and many more, provided inspiration and substance for further thought.
Her respect for the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff (and, to some extent, his pianistic heir Vladimir Horowitz) was without question and she taught and demonstrated an understanding of his music at the highest level. A fine example of this is her recording with her husband of the Second Suite, inspiring one critic to comment "if the playing here is any indication, Smith and Sellick must have had one heck of a marriage.
Cyril Smith documented his wife’s special gifts of empathy and patience with respect to his personal physical and psychological difficulties during the difficult years of his illness - associated qualities were given full reign in her teaching of students of widely ranging abilities. She was an exponent of the true Chopin tradition (through Philipp, she was a `great grand pupil` of the Polish composer) and emphasised that sound, mental preparation, physical flexibility and avoidance of false sentiment were the priorities necessary for a worthwhile development in music.
Former students continually relate how her pragmatic and positive approach to problem solving remains with them in their daily lives. Her ability to demonstrate the simplest and most potent interpretation of any phrase was infallible and her emphasis was always on providing the pupil with the means to continue independent development. In addition to her ability to articulate what would be of most use to the student, she remained an example in her impeccable playing and in the way that she conducted her life.
Phyllis continued to work into her tenth decade, unbowed by personal difficulties such as the death of her son Graham to thrombosis in 1988, a severe loss of sight and the cruel, ironic loss of pianistic ability in her left hand due to a simple fracture sustained while chasing her dog.
Her poise never left her, as was evident in her 2002 interview with Sue Lawley for Desert Island Discs. Her choice of Rachmaninoff`s Paganini Rhapsody was introduced with the simple, heart-stopping statement “and I would like Cyril to play it.”
Her final and over-riding choice was of Sir Henry Wood conducting Vaughan-Williams Serenade to Music - she recalled that she had seen this at a Promenade concert and that, highly visible to the audience, Sergei Rachmaninoff had become overwhelmed with emotion and had had to leave the auditorium to recover. It was a recollection that spoke volumes for her significance and for what we have now lost.
She is survived by her daughter, the photographer Claire Sellick.
James Lisney June 2007
This obituary appeared in the Independent on 2nd June.
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