Published in The Strad Magazine Vol.95 No. 1129 May l984
‘In addition to sonatas and a host of small pieces Miss Kersey’s repertory includes 25 concertos among which are those of Sibelius, Elgar, Delius, Dohnanyi and Vaughan Williams. This is indeed a remarkable achievement for any artist - more so for a young woman not yet thirty years of age who has worked up these long and difficult compositions entirely on her own initiative.’ This notice appeared in THE STRAD, October l931, and was written by Ralph Hill, the critic of musicologist. A reappraisal of this immensely gifted violinist is long overdue. Eda Kersey was without doubt among the finest violinists Britain had produced by 1940.
Born in Goodmayes, Essex on 16 May 1904, Eda Kersey started her instrumental studies on the piano at four years old and then turned to the violin at six. At eight her marks for the Trinity College of Music exams read more like those of a champion darts player than anything else. With a few lessons from Edgar Mouncher, a pupil of Sevcik, she was prepared for a performance of the first movement from Wieniawski’s Violin Concerto in D Minor in Southampton. A standing ovation welcomed this ten-and-a-half-year-old, with the Hampshire Chronicle reporting:
“Miss Eda Kersey, a little girl, not yet in her teens, created nothing short of a sensation by her electrifying performance.” This youthful violinist has already a technique which is usually attained only after years of hard study and great praise is undeniably due in this case to master and pupil alike’.
At thirteen Kersey went to learn with Margaret Holloway who had just returned from two years’ study with Leopold Auer. Holloway was Kersey’s last formal teacher. For the rest she relied on inspiration from the great players of the day, ‘I heard Fritz Kreisler and have been inspired by his great gifts form that day onwards’. Kersey mad her London debut at the Aeolian Hall at sixteen and then gave several concerts in Portsmouth accompanied by the Royal Marine Band (an excellent string section was customary then). By 1925 she had secured engagements with the BBC playing the Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Elgar Concertos live from Bournemouth and, under the baton of Joseph Lewis, she gave the first broadcast of Dohnanyi’s Concerto. During the 1930 Proms Kersey made her debut in the old Queen’s Hall under Henry Wood, with a performance of the Beethoven Concerto. The triumphs were repeated in successive years with the Brahms and Bach A minor Concertos. By 1932 she had also joined forces with Gerald Moore (piano) and Cedric Sharpe (cello) to form the ‘Trio Players’ and she also played duos at the South Place concerts and in many London recital rooms. She gave a tour of Holland in 1931, prompting a Dutch critic to write; ‘she must come back soon, Eda Kersey deserves a full house everywhere.’ The system for the advancement of her art - hearing all the great players of her day and up to seven hours’ practice a day - was indeed paying dividends.
At the outbreak of the Second World War Eda Kersey became part of CEMA, giving numerous concerts to troops and others through the country. The National Gallery concerts figured significantly in her routine; Kathleen Long was her duo partner for these and many other recitals. She had a vast experience in this field, having worked with Casals, Suggia, Sammons, Brosa and so on. At this time Albert Sammons was particularly important as a guiding influence. Here I must declare a personal interest: a mutual friend, Frederick Alcock, the previous owner of my house, arranged many musical soirees at this location throughout the l920s. At one of these Kersey met Sammons for the first time. Alcock’s musical instinct would not allow him to miss an opportunity of this kind - I am sure he deliberately engineered the whole enterprise. This was an important milestone in Kersey’s career. It is certain that through this friendship, insight and musical perception were eagerly absorbed and subsequently reflected in her performance. Musicians contemporary with Kersey remember vividly different aspects of her technique. These range from rock-like control and variety of nuances in her bowing to the electric effort of her trills, security in double stopping and a clarity in passage work. Neil Sanders, the eminent horn player, vividly recalls Kersey’s ‘presence and composure’ and the lyrical qualities of her playing. It has been observed that she was the ‘Kathleen Ferrier of the violin’. Kersey was entrusted with many first performances including the Bax concerto in 1943. Bax was inspired to complete his concerto after many years on hearing Kersey play his sonatas. Other firsts include the UK premiere of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto in 1943 at a Prom.
The early 78-rpm recordings of Kersey endorse the above observations. From listening to the discs Kersey’s arm vibrato may be detected (Kersey’s sister, Rosalie, informs me that the vibrato and its correct application were a significant part of her technique). She played on a variety of instruments: in her early playing days it was a Nicolas Amati c. 1650, then until 1942, when she acquired a del Gesu from Alfred de Reyghere, most of her work was accomplished on a J. B. Vuillaume.
Within a month of her June appearance at the 1944 National Gallery Concerts, Eda Kersey suddenly died. By this time preparation to record many of the classical concertos was well advanced and never reached completion. An Eda Kersey Memorial Exhibition was established in 1947 (the trustees are the Royal Academy of Music). Designed to assist a gifted young violinist each year, this award still continues to operate. Of the 23 recipients who have benefited two names stand out: the first exhibitioner in 1947 was the late Ivor McMahon, at one time leader of the Reginald Jacques Orchestra, a founder member of the English Chamber Orchestra and a member of the Melos Ensemble; in 1956 the prize went to Kenneth Sillito, who, in addition to his recordings as a soloist, is leader of the Gabrieli String Quartet.
By interest and indefatigable industry Eda Kersey contributed greatly to the art of music. The epitaph on the memorial plaque in the Golders Green crematorium aptly sums up the part that all musicians play: ‘They will maintain the fabric of the world.’
The author is grateful to Rosalie Kersey for summoning recollections of more than six decades ago.