Alan Rowlands, pianist, musician, teacher and friend of the school, taught piano and music at Brockwood Park from its inception and for over 30 years, inspiring generations of music students as well as countless others who delighted in his extraordinary playing and cherished him as a friend.
Alan was born in Swansea to a musical family, and very early on acquired a love for music and the piano. His other interest was science, which took him all the way to Oxford University, where he completed a Bachelor’s Degree in Chemistry and stayed for 7 years. It was, however, through participating in the University’s rich and vibrant musical life that he decided to heed the call of his first love and talent. Alan soon won a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music and there pursued his piano studies under Angus Morrison and later, Maria Donska.
These two teachers embodied the strands which run deep in Alan’s musical life: his profound feel for early 20th Century English Music and a deep, lifelong love for Schubert, about whom, in Alan’s own words, he was nothing less than ‘over the moon’. It was Angus Morrison who first introduced Alan to the English composer John Ireland, and the two soon formed a significant musical connection. Alan went on to record Ireland’s complete piano works at the request of the composer himself. With Maria Donska, Alan furthered his love for and understanding of Schubert, and the two also performed in duet many times sharing, aside from a love and passion for the same music, a very similar sense of humour.
Alan continued his involvement with the Royal College of Music for over 35 years, teaching piano to pupils from all over the world. In the early 1960s, following a friend’s suggestion, Alan began to attend Krishnamurti’s meetings in London. For several years he had been finding himself at an impasse in his life and was now experiencing a troubling time full of personal difficulties. Alan often recounted how, after having heard K speak for the first time, he remembered walking the London streets back to his home as if on a cloud, his mind completely transfixed and, perhaps for the first time, deeply at peace.
Dorothy Simmons, Brockwood’s first principal, had a hunch that Alan would benefit greatly from being involved with this new school–which was little more, at the time, than a very ambitious project—and that, likewise, those at Brockwood would profit greatly from having Alan there. It was for many generations of Brockwood piano pupils, enthusiastic choir members, music lovers and friends to discover how right she had been.
By the time I joined Brockwood in 1992, Alan’s legendary status as brilliant musician and music teacher was firmly established. Having firmly been told that music was to be my focus and passion, and tactfully ignoring my insistence that I wanted to spend most of said passion by learning how to play the drums, Colin Foster suggested that I should join the Brockwood Choir. I understood little to no English at the time and didn’t know what the word ‘Choir’ meant, but the degree of reverence and excitement with which everyone spoke it convinced me that ‘Choir’ could only have referred to a very important person. Eventually, upon meeting Alan for the first time, I realised that it was.
It was remarkable the way Alan stood out. In an international community of awkward, rebellious teenagers and adults who pursued an alternative way of life (or, at least, who dressed as though they did) Alan represented a flashback to a dreamy and poetic old England that was no more. Immaculately dressed, extremely well-spoken and with a natural ease for witty, understated humour, he was for me immensely charming and utterly scary. At that time, Alan would grace us, every Saturday night, with an impromptu concert in the Sitting Room, where he would run effortlessly and beautifully through Schubert, Delius, Beethoven or Debussy. On Sunday Mornings he would play a short piece for the Morning Meeting and, that same night, conduct a Choir Rehearsal. Each Monday, after a few more piano lessons, he would return to London, leaving many of us bewitched with that remarkable, timeless quality through which he brought music to life. For everything Alan played on the piano was conveyed with a quiet elegance and a feel for that profound silence in which he let the music speak. Alan played music without ever getting in the way of it as an interpreter, yet his profoundly graceful touch was unmistakeable. The energy that moved in his playing was born out of a deep listening to the pieces as well as to the quality of attention present in the room. The result was often truly magical, and many of us who bore witness to it felt touched by an ineffable, yet vibrant, sense of peaceful joy.
So many of us benefited from his attentive, patient and wonderfully inspiring teaching. Knowing that my interest lay with composition, he would play works by Delius or Ravel, Beethoven or Debussy, stopping and starting and taking the music apart to focus on particular ideas, concepts and movements within the music, always illustrating his thoughts—just as he did in many of his recitals—with perceptive remarks and humorous anecdotes. He always seemed so alive to things and his enthusiasm for music and life appeared boundless. His naturally effervescent and charming personality also spilled into the Choir rehearsals, where he conducted an oftentimes appallingly out of tune bunch (in which I include myself) with calm, patience and a barely disguised half-smile on his lips. Only occasionally did some of us spot the more melancholy moods into which Alan would quietly slip. During such times, the conversation might turn to more fundamental questions, and Alan would speak of his quest for peace and harmony, and his deep interest in Krishnamurti, as well as Douglas Harding and Ramana Maharshi. Alan pursued these questions with curiosity and interest until the end of his life.
Alan eventually retired from the RCM and, some years later, from teaching at Brockwood. Many of his former students took great delight in meeting him in London. I remember how extraordinarily energetic he always seemed to be, despite his advancing years—he regularly and half-jokingly complained that, since he had retired, he had never been so busy. Inevitably we would hear of new piano arrangements of orchestral pieces, performances all over Europe, pupils coming over, piano duets being undertaken, interviews, active participations in numerous music societies, Alexander Technique teaching and trips to India. Then Alan would, with a twinkle in his eye, tell us an old joke, speak of a meeting with Krishnamurti, comment on what it was like to work with John Ireland, then step over to the piano and deliver some blissfully inspiring rendition of a Schubert Impromptu to a few friends in his Sitting Room. Alan remained joyfully and constantly active until a few weeks before his passing, when his cancer took hold and began to affect him seriously. By that time, it seemed to him, he had done enough in his life and was ready to go; and shortly after, he did.
It is difficult to sum up the degree of affection so many of us had for Alan. To many, he was a brilliant musician, a unique interpreter and a truly wonderful and inspiring teacher. To others, he was also a great and deeply cherished friend. I am immensely thankful to be able to say that he was both to me.
All of us at Brockwood remember Alan with joy, friendship and gratitude. His music and presence at the school will never be forgotten.
by Valentin Gerlier, former student and current staff.