Music in my family

Recently I’ve been delving into my family history. And finding some musical connections! There was an old, very out of tune piano at my paternal grandmother’s house and I vaguely knew that my granddad had taught piano, but he’d died before I was born. I also knew that my maternal grand-uncle had composed a hymn, and that he was the leader of the bell ringers at a local church. So, last Spring when my mother passed away, I found some old family photographs and memorabilia and this enabled me to visit some of the places connected with these family members.

The Dentons

The Dentons

Samuel Denton, my great, great grandfather, (1842-1921) with wife, Johanna (1839-1910) and children. Center back is my great grandfather, Frank Henry Denton (1862-1930).One of the ladies seated must be his wife, Esther Priscilla who ran a music shop. I wonder what special occasion this photograph depicts.

Samuel moved with his family from Southern England, close to the Welsh border, to Lancashire, my home county. Aged 29, on the 1871 census, he gives his profession as professor of music. He and his wife, Joanna ,had eleven children. His son, Frank Henry, also states his profession as Professor of Music.

Frank Henry Harry Norman

Frank Henry was organist and choir master at a church in Bolton for 35 years. He looks quite formidable in this portrait! His son, Harry Norman (1893-1930) was my grandfather, pictured here with my grandmother, Florence(1896 – 1981). The baby is either my father or his elder brother. One story that I had from a family member who witnessed the event was that one day the piano fell through the floor of their small 2 bedroomed terraced house where Frank and his wife lived with their 7 children. Frank Henry was well known in the local community and when he died a stained glass window was placed in the church in his honor. Update: In June, 2011 I was given permission to play the organ that my great grandfather had performed on. Amazingly enough I found a cupboard in the organ loft containing some of his organ music.

The house where the piano fell through the the floor
St Pauls church
St Paul’s where my great grandfather was organist and choir master for 35 years
St Cecilia
Stained glass window of St. Cecilia, patron saint of music, dedicated to my great grandfather

I still have quite a lot of music dating from the time that my granddad was teaching piano, some method book (Smallwood’s) and several pieces have dates penciled in when they were assigned to students, many of them in the 1920’s. He taught his daughter, Elsie (my dad’s sister) but not my dad though my dad enjoyed classical music, had a great collection of 78 records, and attended many concerts. I came across a concert program, dated 1944, in which R. F. Cutbush performed the Warsaw Concerto in Bolton , during World War ll. In pencil, written on the program in my dad’s writing it states: ‘ R. F. Cutbush stayed at 12 Thorns Road (his family home in Astley Bridge) during 43 or/44 as an R. A.F (Royal Air Force) officer and played the Warsaw concerto in the front room during the blackout many times for this particular concert. He was music master at Ackworth Grammar school in Yorkshire. He autographed this copy for me.’ The piano at Thorns Road was the one I remember – hadn’t been tuned in decades!

Miss Mallison was a well known lady of Bolton who had a piano competition at Bolton School (Girls’ Division) named in her honor. I attended the school from age 11-18. I don’t know her connection with the school. There were two divisions of the competition and I won both the Junior Mallison (1968, awarded by Sir Arthur Smith, K.B)) and the Senior Mallison (1973, awarded by Mrs Lawrence Cadbury – of the famous chocolate family). One of my responsibilities was to play a piano in the senior concert, July 1973. I played de Falla’s ‘Cubana.’ After winning the junior prize I received a letter from Miss Mallison, then 90 years old, congratulating me on my win and mentioning that she knew my grandmother, Florence who lived on Seymour Road. There was a small cash prize and I can remember vividly going down to the local music store in Bolton and selecting a book of Chopin, not because I wanted to play Chopin’s pieces, but because it was a lovely maroon leather bound edition. Imagine my disappointment, however, when my order came and it was a paperback edition!

Visiting the house in Seymour Road, 2010, I was interested to see that the adjoining street is named Mallison Street. I wonder if she lived close to there. The wrought iron gates of St Paul’s church contain an elaborate ‘M’ for Mallison.

The Hills

Emily, my maternal grandmother, was a Hill. There was an old piano in her home, though I don’t remember it. Her uncle, James, composed a hymn that was published and performed in the town. He, and his three brothers were bell ringers at a local church (about 3 miles away from the church connected with with my father’s family). Last Spring I went to visit the church. It’s a massive structure, now standing in the midst of a Muslim community. Plans are to convert the building into a multi denominational community center. The project was award a grant from the government and this was to be celebrated by a festival in which the bells, still hanging in the tall tower, would be played first the first time in more than 40 years. I contacted the renovation committee and they promised to send me a video of the festival. However, due to budget cuts the funding was withdrawn and the bells remain silent. Update: In July 2011 I returned to All Souls and, with special permission, was able to ascend the dark, windswept spiral staircase to see the bells for myself. All eight bells are in full working order and a troupe of bell ringers had recently put them to use.

All Souls Plaque
Hymn composed by John Hill’s brother, James, who was the leader of the bell ringers at All Soul’s church
John Hill
My great grandfather, John Hill (1841-1897), and his wife, Maria (1868?-1902). They owned a piano.

I grew up way out on the moorlands above the town of Bolton where the Hills and the Dentons had lived. Bolton was built around cotton manufacturing and my mother worked in the cotton mill as had at least 4 generations before her. However, she and my father, a house painter at the time, bought an isolated cabin on an exposed hilltop and I was born there, living in the cabin until I left for college, the first child in my family to go to a university. Life in the cabin was tough – no running water, just a well, no indoor plumbing, so no bathroom, but we did have electricity. There was no road to the house, just a footpath, so we didn’t have a car, or telephone. The views were magnificent! I attended the village school, walking through 3 fields full of cows to get there. It was a two room school, 30 students in total, so it was a tremendous shock to my system to be accepted into Bolton School at age 11, after a rigorous entrance examination including two personal interviews. The new school had 750 students aged 11-18, and it had an adjoining preparatory department where students from the age of 3 were educated. At the age of 8 my school teacher, who had taught me recorder, told my parents that I showed some musical aptitude and suggested I took up piano lessons. This was kept secret from me, until the day the piano arrived when I was taken to one of the old ladies in the nearby village to be’ baby sat’ – a novel experience for me! How the truck got down the fields along the farmer’s tractor track I can’t imagine. But it did. And I began to take lessons. I still have my first lesson books and my assignment books. Each day I wrote down how much I practiced, and it was often an hour or more. I had nothing else to distract me! No siblings, no television, no phone, and friends were quite a hike away. So, progress was rapid. The rest, as they say, is history!

Me and Dad
Me and my dad – you can see my school in the background
Mom in Snow
My mom digging out in the winter of 1954

My daughter Sarah carries on the family tradition, too. She was a music major (flute) and now teaches and performs in the Santa Cruz area, a far cry from her parents’ roots in England. Her flute playing has enabled her to travel extensively – to Hawaii, Japan, Korea, New Zealand and Australia, and we have performed together at many venues, often playing pieces that I have composed especially for her. Sarah’s a 6th generation music teacher!

After a performance in Korea,2007
Playing one of my compositions at the San Francisco Contemporary Music Festival, 2009