A musical journey through the Surrey hills

Taught in Surrey Hills, the musician Wu Qian recalls why it remains to be such a special place to her

The Surrey Hills have long been a source of inspiration for British composers, perhaps most notably Ralph Vaughan Williams whose 150th anniversary takes place next year. Leading the celebrations will be the Surrey Hills based Investec International Music Festival, whose co-founder Wu Qian invites us on a guided tour of her favourite musical destinations in this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Although I was born in Shanghai, the Surrey Hills have become a second home to me over the years. I was invited to come and study at The Yehudi Menuhin School in Cobham when I was just 13 and when I arrived, with hardly any English at all and only used to living in a big bustling city, I actually thought the taxi driver must have brought me to the wrong place! There were no shops around, and it just looked like a big house in the middle of nowhere... but then I saw that there was a piano in every room and knew I was in the right place! 

The Yehudi Menuhin School

The school's founder and legendary violinist Yehudi Menuhin was still alive then and had a very strong influence on every aspect of school life. We were given an incredibly rich, all-round musical education—not just studying our own solo instrument, but also improvisation, composition, harmony, lots of amazing chamber music.

But he also took great care that we were prepared in more holistic terms for life as a musician. The food was incredibly healthy—fizzy drinks, caffeine, white bread were all banned! And we were all taught Alexander Technique and yoga which we would do in the beautiful grounds of the school, and I remember visiting Indian sitar players performing and teaching us about their own musical tradition.

"The school's founder and legendary violinist Yehudi Menuhin was still alive then and had a very strong influence on every aspect of school life"

But he had lots of practical guidance for us too—he always said to remember that three per cent of being a musician is talent and 97 per cent comes from hard work! And there was one particular bit of advice I now really wish I had listened to—that we should learn all our repertoire before the age of 16, as after that your ability to memorise starts to drop off. It's so true—to this day I can remember every note I learned before I was 15—they’ve just somehow stayed lodged in my fingers and head—but anything I learned after that is much harder to recall. He was so right!

Hatchlands Park

I also had the chance to study harpsichord as a second instrument while at the school and loved learning to perform baroque repertoire on the kind of instrument for which it was actually written. As part of those studies, I visited the amazing Cobbe Collection of historic keyboard instruments which is housed at Hatchlands Park over in East Clandon.

The house and park are stunningly beautiful in themselves of course, but when you go inside, it is the most incredible musical treasure trove—pianos once owned by Haydn, Chopin, Liszt, Elgar… I was amazed to see so many significant instruments all gathered together in one place, and it was wonderful to have the chance to revisit the collection just recently in connection with a special event we had planned for Beethoven's 250th anniversary.

"I was amazed to see so many significant instruments all gathered together in one place"

The original date of course had to be postponed, but we're hoping to reschedule it for this October, and I'm so pleased that it will be my former harpsichord teacher from the Menuhin School, Carole Cerasi, who will be performing, alongside readings by the poet Ruth Padel from her Beethoven Variations collection.

Dorking Halls

During my time at the Menuhin School, I had the chance to get to know the local area really well as we often went out and about to give performances, in some beautiful churches, Dorking Halls (built in 1931 to house the the Leith Hill Music Festival which was founded by Ralph Vaughan Williams' sister) and lots of other venues. I feel as though I really grew up in the Surrey Hills, and it was a desire to try and give something back to the local community that was the motivation for setting up a festival here, back in 2010.

It's been wonderful to see our audience building year by year and to be able to bring so many wonderful musicians to perform for them in such special locations. This year we're very excited to be adding two particularly unique venues to our programme—the exquisite medieval Stone Hall at West Horsley Place where Paula Chateauneuf will give a lute and theorbo recital, and the brand new RHS Hilltop at RHS Garden Wisley where saxophonist Jess Gillam and violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky will perform.

"I feel as though I really grew up in the Surrey Hills"

West Horsley Place

I firmly believe that your physical surroundings can have a huge effect on your personal creativity, and for me, being able to learn and develop as a musician whilst surrounded by so much natural beauty was the most wonderful opportunity.

It's no surprise that the area has been an inspiration for so many creative figures over the years, not least of course the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. You can still visit his childhood home, Leith Hill Place, and look out at the breathtaking views of the Surrey Hills which he would have gazed at as a young boy—and he went on to be educated and take his first steps as a young composer at Charterhouse School in Godalming. We are planning some very special events in both these locations next year as part of the festival’s celebrations of Vaughan Williams’ 150th anniversary and, as well as looking back at his own incredible legacy, I’m hoping that we will discover some wonderful new music inspired by our vibrant county through the new Surrey Hills Young Composer Competition which we have just launched! 

Investec International Music Festival takes place from September 16-25, 2021. To find out more and book tickets, visit their website.

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