Classical pianist Vera Bradford was not only the first to play contemporary compositions of her era on the Australian concert circuit, she also changed the way that piano music was taught in this country. Her personality, and playing style, was dynamic, her views on equal pay contentious and she deserves much more recognition than she receives today.

The young Vera Bradford

Vera Florence Bradford’s playing was admired for its depth, tone, classical unity and power. She continually remained unintimidated by technically difficult piano repertoire and forging new pathways for female concert musicians throughout her career.  Bradford was ahead of her time within the Australian classical music scene and became an early adopter of the Russian school of piano playing, inspired by an early performance by the great Russian pianist Benno Moiseivitsch.

Born in 1904 in Frankston, Victoria, there was already strong musical ties in her family. She started to learn piano at the age of seven and graduated from the Melbourne University Conservatorium with first class honours in 1925, at the age of 21. Bradford played regularly, including concertos with the University Orchestra, and was already well known to the Melbourne audience.

Bradford won a 12-month scholarship to study with Percy Grainger in 1928 at the Chicago Musical College in the United States, living in the International House in the University of Chicago. During this time, she became close friends with Percy and Ella Grainger- they always stayed with her when they came to Australia. The scholarship, and Grainger’s popularity and connections, allowed Bradford to increase her repertoire of contemporary composers, including Grieg, Bartok, Debussy and Gershwin. These connections meant that she was often the first to perform contemporary compositions on her return to Australia, including Debussy’s ‘Fireworks’, as well as Gershwin’s ‘Piano Concerto in F’.

Grainger was not her only teacher, in fact, their performance style was not entirely compatible. Bradford also studied with Ruldolph Ganz and Alexander Raab, the latter introduced her to the ‘arm weight’ technique indicative of the Russian school of playing, which she first experienced with the Moiseivitsch performance. Both Raab and Moiseivitsch studied under Russian teacher Theodore Leschetizky. This technique was very different to the high finger action of the English school of playing and allowed Vera to achieve the big tone and control that were a feature of her performances. In order to achieve this, Raab insisted she unlearn her previous techniques, cease performing for 12 months and would only allow her to practise piano with the lid down for a year.

Bradford lived in Chicago for six years, four of which were spent studying with Raab. After the completion of her studies, her teachers and contemporaries strongly advised her not to return to the ‘cultural desert’ of Australia if she wanted to pursue an international career as a concert pianist. Ignoring this, Bradford did return in 1934 due to her mother’s ill health, and the events of the Second World War made it difficult for her to achieve the same level of international acclaim as her contemporaries. Although she did tour internationally throughout her career, she never fully returned to the international circuit.

Bradford never went back to the US, but did make several British tours after the end of the war and into the 1960’s and was applauded for her strength of playing. This, coupled with a connection from her days in Chicago, led Bradford to represent Australia at the 2nd Korean International Music Festival in Seoul in 1963. However, in Australia she struggled with the perception of the robustness of female performers, often encountering difficulties with  conductors, both nationally and internationally, who said that they would not work with her as she was considered too weak to perform the challenging technical passages. Bradford continually refused to be intimidated or supplanted and achieved great critical acclaim, while supporting other female musicians and artists during her long career.Bradford was the first pianist to perform on a televised recital for the Australian Broadcasting Corporations (ABC). However, there arose an extensive correspondence with the General Manager at the time, Sir Charles Moses, regarding a pay structure that Bradford deemed too insubstantial for the skill level required. Although Bradford had been involved with the ABC orchestras prior to WWII, this issue led to her exclusion from performances, as well as her recording being banned from airing.

Bradford with Dr Graham Trevaskis, principal, State College of Victoria

For the most part, Bradford earned her living from teaching, either at the University of Melbourne or from her home in Frankston. She was well loved by her students, but her colleagues at the University maligned her teaching the arm weight technique that made her performances so popular. However, these students became teachers themselves and slowly the technique overtook the other forms in popularity and it is now the predominant style.

The Peninsula Library at Monash University’s campus in Frankston (formerly the Frankston Teachers’ College/State College of Victoria) houses Bradford’s sheet music collection, which has been used extensively through her teaching and performing career.  In 1967, Bradford banded together with friends to establish a local symphony orchestra, known as the Frankston Musical Society. Bradford occasionally performed with and arranged compositions for this orchestra and personalised notations throughout the collection showcase her ability to understand and translate these pieces for both the professional and the enthusiastic amateur. The collection also contains personal items, such as telegrams, performance ticket stubs and signed photographs from fellow performers and friends – mementos of mutual adoration and respect in her creative community.

Bradford committed herself to her musical career. She was tenacious and confident of her ability to perform throughout her life – a televised performance of Bradford at 76 shows her playing with enduring strength and feeling.  In her retirement, she enjoyed playing ‘miniatures’ of Debussy and Grainger to her fellow residents at Tanderra Lodge in Camberwell. Her last impromptu concert was two months before she passed away in January  2004, eight months shy of her 100th birthday.

 

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Monash University Library has commenced a large-scale digitisation project to make valuable items in the Vera Bradford Music Collection available to the wider research community and general public. The growing digital collection can be accessed through Monash Collections Online, the home of the Library’s digitised Special Collections.

Writer Clare Presser is a staff member within the Digitisation and Research Repository team at Monash University Library.