Kitty Parker (1886-1971)
Katharine (Kitty) Parker, pianist and composer, was born on 28th March 1886 at Parknook, Cressy, in Tasmania. Her birth documents register her as Catherine and she was the third of seven children. Her father Erskine James Rainy Parker was a sheep farmer, and from her mother, Florence Agnes, née Leary, Katherine inherited musical talent. Like many Tasmanians, Kitty was enticed to Melbourne to study at the University Conservatorium from 1904, after winning a scholarship of 90 pounds graduating with a Diploma in Music in 1906. In 1903, she was awarded a silver medal by the Associated Board of the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music. In 1907 she was awarded a gold medal, for a composition “written for 'Piano Solo over 20', at the Australian Exhibition of Women's Work in Melbourne.” This exhibition also saw the first performance of The Northern Ballade composed by Mona McBurney and an ode by Florence Donaldson. She performed piano recitals in Hobart in 1907 and in December 1907 began a concert tour with the Llewellyn-Jordan Opera Company as their pianist.
Early in 1909, following a farewell concert in Tasmania, Kitty Parker travelled to London to study with Percy Grainger. At the time she intended to establish herself as a concert pianist and her aim had always been to approach Grainger for lessons. In her Memories of Rose and Percy Grainger Kitty writes that she had always been “terribly shy and nervousness had always been a problem.” She described her meeting with Grainger: “Grainger looked like ‘a young Apollo.’” At the audition Kitty played the Ballade in G minor by Chopin and Grainger reciprocated by playing for her Jeux d'Eau by Ravel. At this time, she said the music of Debussy and Ravel and the modern French school was unknown to her.
She was completely enamoured with Grainger and spent many hours with him and his mother. Kitty said she learned so much just from listening to him because he was such a good musician. Grainger never tried to mould his students into himself but allowed their individuality to blossom. Percy's mother was a huge support to him and Percy was a great supporter of Kitty. She had lessons once or twice a week. The entire world of art and literature was to be found at the Grainger house. Regular visitors included Roger Quilter, Cyril Scott, Gervaise, Sargeant, and many others. Balfour Gardiner introduced a series of concerts at the Queen's Hall, London, mostly for the premiering of young British composers. It was here that the world first heard the folk-song arrangements and songs reminiscent of folk songs which became extremely popular and which became Grainger’s trademark such as Molly on the Shore, Country Gardens, Handel on the Strand and Mock Morris.
Kitty’s reputation became established through Grainger’s fostering. He said of Parker “She is the most gifted piano pupil I have ever had.” Due to her contact with Grainger and the musical scene in London, she met the English tenor, Hubert Mortimer Eisdell. They married in June 1910, at St Mark's Church, Hamilton Terrace, London.
Parker made her London debut as a concert artist in 1911 with a recital at the Aeolian Hall in London and had some early success in composition. Her first works were published in 1913. Her first and only child, Michael, was born 26th October, 1912. Eisdell and Parker performed together, embarking on an Australian concert tour in 1920.
Hubert Eisdell’s career as a singer was more successful than Parker’s career as a pianist but reviews of their tour to Australia noted: “their talents combining to be 'one in perfect harmony with the other.'” The two had separated by 1932 when Eisdell immigrated to Canada where he remarried. In 1930 Parker sent Percy Grainger a copy of her newly-composed Four Musical Sketches for piano. These four short works were published under her maiden name by the publishing company Augener while other works were published by Boosey & Hawkes. The Four Sketches include the work for which she is now most known, Down Longford Way (1928) which was a short musical sketch later orchestrated by Grainger and which has been published separately in several publications. Down Longford Way is probably the piece that more than any other of her compositions shows the strong influence of Percy Grainger’s style. In 1935 Kitty resumed her occupation as an accompanist, touring firstly to Las Palmas and Tenerife in the Canary Islands in 1935 and to Berlin, Germany, in 1936 and 1937.
During the Second World War, Kitty Parker volunteered as an ambulance driver in London and lost contact with her musical colleagues. Her son Michael had returned to Australia in 1935 and during the war he served in the Australian Imperial Force and was wounded in Tobruk, Libya. He later received a posting to Port Moresby where in 1944 he worked as a radio broadcaster as part of the army. This was a depressing time for Parker and she suffered from ill health, including contracting tuberculosis.
Returning to Australia after the war in 1947, Kitty sought to find a dry climate where she might recover from her illness settling firstly in Sydney, later in Melbourne and Launceston. Her son was at the time working as an announcer with the Australian Broadcasting Commission in Sydney. Parker also spent time working as a radio announcer in Sydney for the Australian Broadcasting Commission and a radio station in Launceston, also performing broadcasts as a recitalist in both cities. She continued to take piano pupils and had a large teaching studio in Launceston but had discontinued her composing and performing. In a letter to Kitty from Percy Grainger, written in 1958, he laments the fact that Kitty found it difficult to continue performing: “I have never found anyone in a million places who plays with the charm, empathy, skill, and sweet feeling that you always had in your superb playing.”
In 1960 Kitty returned to Sydney because of the damp and cold in Tasmania, where she had suffered a lot of ill health including regular bouts of colitis, not always related to the weather. In Sydney she was fortunate to be able to live with her sister Rieke, also a pianist. Kitty Parker died in 1971 in Sydney, her son and his family surviving her.
(Extracts taken from biographical notes by Jeanell Carrigan. See The Composers’ Series)