Obituary: Colin Kingsley, talented pianist and lecturer who influenced genrations of performers

Colin Kingsley, pianist and lecturer. Born: 15 April 1925 in Epsom, Surrey. Died: 4 March 2020 in Edinburgh, aged 94.

Dr Colin Kingsley
Dr Colin Kingsley

Dr Colin Kingsley was a private but worldly man. On the one hand his significant achievements as a skilled pianist, fastidious teacher and erudite lecturer were imparted, by all accounts, with gentlemanly generosity. On the other hand, former pupils speak of his piano lessons as “holistic journeys” that went way beyond the confines of any single piece of music.

Kingsley spent the bulk of his professional life as a senior music lecturer and piano teacher at Edinburgh University. Following a chance meeting in 1964 with the composer Hans Gal, Kingsley had been invited by Gal’s university colleague, Professor Sidney Newman, to join the Edinburgh music faculty, where he was to remain until his retirement in 1992.

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It was a post he threw himself into with typical enthusiasm and tenacity, but which also presented him with opportunities to pursue wider musical ambitions and interests. Between 1964 and 2011 he featured in almost 60 recital programmes at the university’s Reid Concert Hall, the very first being a typically circumspect selection of solo works by Clementi, Beethoven, Shostakovich and Tippett.

He contributed significantly to the life the Edinburgh Society of Musicians, travelled extensively as as recitalist and as an international examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, and served as president of the Scottish Polish Cultural Association, where his perceptive appreciation of Chopin informed the many recitals he gave, some in the very house in Warriston Crescent where Chopin stayed during his 1848 Edinburgh visit.

Kingsley was born in London in 1925. His maternal grandparents were staunch Presbyterian Scots, his uncle – the Rev William Paton – one of the founders of the World Council of Churches. He enjoyed a comfortable childhood, winning a scholarship to Westminster School – alongside such like-minded musical contemporaries as the entertainer Donald Swann and clarinettist Gervase de Peyer – before winning an organ scholarship to Cambridge, graduating BMus in 1947. He was exempt from war service due to childhood asthma.

After further studies at the Royal College of Music (RCM), opportunities for the aspiring young pianist opened up, sometimes in an unplanned way. During a 1948 tour of the West Indies, the singer he was accompanying gave up mid-series, leaving Kingsley to continue with impromptu solo recitals, mostly, he would recollect, “on run-down pianos”.

A promising solo career began to emerge, reflecting his particular interest in 20th-century piano repertoire. Among many BBC broadcasts dating from as early as 1949, he championed the complete piano works of Paul Racine Fricker, and in 1977 broadcast a series of five lecture recitals on early 20th century British music entitled “The English Musical Renaissance”. His freelance work ranged from teaching at the RCM and serving as pianist for the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden and on tour with Ballet Rambert, to accompanying the idiosyncratic harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler on a 1950 tour that ended up with a ticking off. Adler had unexpectedly left the stage mid-act, so Kingsley intuitively kept the audience entertained by fooling around at the piano. Later, backstage, Adler’s petulant rebuke was: “Thank you, but I’ll do the funnies!”

Among other seminal moments in Kingsley’s early career was an encounter with the composer Gian Carlo Menotti while acting as pianist in his opera, The Consul –the association blossomed into a lifelong friendship; and a similarly association with RCM student John White, whose distinctive but obscure piano works Kingsley was to champion both in concert and as part of the small but noteworthy discography he leaves behind.

It was also while teaching at the RCM that Kingsley met his future wife Jean. They were married in 1955, by which time Kingsley had converted to Catholicism, a faith that stayed with him for the remainder of his life.

By 1963, he was installed as a lecturer at the University of Aberystwyth, but his move the following year to Edinburgh – where he gained a D Mus degree – was to be a rich and lasting experience, and one in which he was to make an indelible mark on the many pupils inspired by his broadranging intellectual insight.

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He shaped the lives of a great many fine musicians. “Nominally, the hours spent with Colin Kingsley were piano lessons; but in actual fact they were remarkable, holistic musical journeys delving deep into the composer’s intentions, whether melodic, harmonic structural or even orchestral,” recalls the famed Edinburgh-born conductor and Deutsche Oper music director Donald Runnicles.

“He would urge me to orchestrate the piano work in my head, voice it, conduct it, analyse and master it. These comprehensive skills honed in those incredible hours spent with him ignited my passion as a young conductor and to this day continue to inform my music-making.”

The composer Sir James MacMillan remembers Kingsley as “the perfect gentleman” who interviewed him for a place at Edinburgh University in 1977. “At the time, he seemed very posh, old school, but I liked him. He was a devout Catholic and I felt he took me under his wing a bit when I was an undergraduate.”

Another Edinburgh graduate, Peter Evans, who partnered Kingsley and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos as part of Edinburgh University’s 1983 Quatercentenary Concert, remembers with fondness a piano teacher who “was in some ways rather austere – possibly out of shyness – but his kindness and enthusiasm for helping his students was never in doubt. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the piano repertoire.”

After the death of his wife in 2003, Kingsley preferred to give domestic concerts for charity. Nonetheless, in 2005 his Edinburgh International Festival lecture on Beethoven’s Sources attracted a sell-out audience. And in 2015, aged 90, he was still fit enough to play an entire solo recital at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Kingsley died peacefully in Portobello. He is survived by his four children – Nicky, Veronica, Edward and Philip – and his five grandchildren.




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