Never too late to tell the truth – Change and decay revisited

Or is it?

This is an update to a recent post where I mentioned the passing of New-Zealand-born pianist, Tessa Birnie.  I’ve updated the original post, but that seems too an obscure spot for the following.

[as I was saying]…She was 73, which is actually a bit younger than I had thought – though to be fair that is based on a view formed in about 1972 or 1973!

Postscript on age:

I wasn’t so wide of the mark after all. It turns out that for years Tessa Birnie had put her age down by a decade – probably to account for the delay which WWII must have caused her career, and to make more youthful her Paris debut in 1960. The obituary in the SMH puts the record straight with the rather lame apology as follows: “Her autobiography, I’m Going To Be A Pianist, was published in 1997. Although Birnie had claimed she was born in 1934, the book shows 1924 as the real year.”

Still, it casts a certain ironic shadow over this paragraph, from earlier in the same piece [emphasis added]:

“Tessa Daphne Birnie, who has died aged 83, was born in Ashburton, near Christchurch, and first heard the sound of a piano, in the local hall, when she was three or four. She never forgot the moment, claiming later that she was so entranced by the sound that she knew her destiny before she knew her age.” 

That makes me more curious about the mysteries and complications which presumably lie behind the following other details revealed in the obituary:

  • At 10 she had her first formal piano lessons after her mother had taken her to the North Island to find a teacher, leaving her father, William, behind.
  • She toured New Zealand at 14, before heading to Europe with her mother. After interludes in Paris and London, Birnie and her mother settled near Lake Como in Italy, where for three seasons she studied with Schnabel’s son, Karl.
  • Having spent her growing years confronting 88 ebony and ivory keys, she had not experienced normal adolescent relationships.
  • In her 20s, [or was that her 30s?]  in Italy, she was among young musicians, great music and great art. She later referred to these as her happiest years.
  • After returning from her initial studies in Europe, Birnie had again met her father, a World War I veteran who had been working in an engineer’s office. [Some very vague chronology here, probably because of the fudged decade.]  The family moved to Sydney in the 1960s and built a house in Middle Cove. 
  • After both parents had died, she shared her house with other musicians.  [Now that has really got me curious.  With whom exactly?]

I’m not dancing on her grave, but such posthumously revealed dodginess has tantalizingly excited my suspicion and curiosity.  And yes, one fib makes me suspicious for more, even if that is really just a question of unravelling tangled webs.

One Response to “Never too late to tell the truth – Change and decay revisited”

  1. Corin Fairburn Says:

    I can help correct certain errors in Tessa Birnie’s biography. I studied with her in 1947 when I was 14. She was 8 years older than
    I was and I knew her very well.

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