Last month, we explored the lives and renaissance of two 19th-century composers, Fanny Hensel and Clara Schumann (‘Reputation’). With International Women’s Day just around the corner, we continue this fascinating journey into women’s musical history, this time putting the spotlight back on one of Clara’s most successful students, Adelina de Lara (1872–1961). While Adelina was considered by her contemporaries to be among the finest English pianists of her generation, her skills as a composer are only now coming to light.
Adelina de Lara, born Lottie Adeline Preston, adopted her performance name after the proprietor of a music shop declared Preston “too English”. She was a child prodigy, giving her first public performance at the age of six, and continuing to perform in the UK until the age of 12. Adelina’s talents caught the eye of the renowned pianist Fanny Davies who, after one year’s teaching, sent her to The Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt to have lessons with Clara Schumann. Adelina described her six years of study in Germany as the happiest and most peaceful time in her life, and Clara regarded her as one of her best pupils. On her return to the UK in 1891 and still only 19 years old, Adelina made her debut at St James’s Hall, London, where she performed in the last concert of the season on the recommendation of Clara Schumann. This was the beginning of a distinguished career spanning over sixty years. Adelina performed for many esteemed musicians, including Dame Myra Hess and Sir Adrian Boult, and counted the late Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother as one of her admirers. Adelina remained an ambassador for Clara’s teachings throughout her life, through performance, tuition, broadcasts and talks.
One such broadcast can be heard in a fantastic audio recording, in which Adelina reflects on Clara Schumann’s tutelage, discussing the tradition in which her method was grounded and recounting techniques of pedalling and fingering that are still circulating among teachers today. She also describes the atmosphere of excitement at the Schumanns’ home during Brahms’s frequent visits. Adelina was one of the few favoured pupils allowed to play for him; he would sit in on music lessons and listen as she played through his works, offering tips and praise as appropriate. The recording offers an invaluable insight into 19th-century performance practice (and is a good point of entry to a YouTube wormhole!).
As a composer, Adelina de Lara wrote many ballads and song-cycles, as well as larger-scale works for piano and orchestra. In her memoirs, Finale (Burke, 1955), Adelina discusses several of her compositions and their subsequent performances, and notes that she received guidance and advice from her friend Dame Ethel Smyth. Into the Forest¸ a five-movement suite for strings dating from 1949, had its first performance in Surrey, where Adelina was then living, but was subsequently lost for many years to the archives of history. Adelina’s great-grandchildren revived the work for performance in 2005, and the full perusal score can now be viewed on our website.
Symphonic Dance Fantasy, her second piano concerto and the second of her works to be published by Stainer & Bell, was conducted at its first performance by Kathleen Riddick, herself an important female figure in British music history. Riddick was the first woman to conduct a concert at the Royal Festival Hall, and her accepted professional status can be considered a turning point for female musicians. She championed women’s rights to play in any orchestra, advocating that the selection of performers should be based on merit, not gender. Interestingly, she also conducted the first performance of Gordon Jacob’s Horn Concerto (Stainer & Bell, 1951), with Denis Brain as soloist.
Into the Forest and Symphonic Dance Fantasy are just two examples of wonderful pieces of music from a legendary pianist. With the 150th anniversary of Adelina de Lara’s birth approaching in 2022, it is high time to explore the life and legacy of this celebrated English musician.
Alicia Coulthurst, Stainer & Bell