In 1976, pianoforte Richard Burnett, who died at the age of 90, opened the Finchcocks Living Music Museum in Goudhurst, Kent. For the next four decades, it housed more than 100 old keyboard instruments and their music, performed by established performers – or anyone who showed up. It was unheard of before. Other museums disapproved, although some eventually copied the idea, and Melvyn Tan was among the pianists who took direct inspiration from Dick’s pioneering philosophy for the course of their careers.
He and his wife, writer Katrina Hendrey, had bought Finchcocks, a 13-acre former Georgian mansion, in 1970 and run it together. It was in shocking condition then, but provided workshops for Adlam Burnett, the business Dick ran with Derek Adlam, building replicas and restoring instruments with a team of gifted craftsmen until 1980.
When the house was opened as a museum, it provided the perfect setting for the instruments to sound in the kind of mood they were intended for. There was always a full schedule of events throughout the open season, culminating each September with formal concerts involving well-known artists who loved to go there.
But it was the open house afternoons that originally surprised and delighted visitors, at the peak of 20,000 a year, for whom the instruments were a novelty, and the informality of the hosts provided an unparalleled experience. Visitors were captivated by Dick’s enthusiasm and humorous way of conveying information. They were also surprised by the quality of its services: he got early pianos, and not just his own, to be sparkling in the treble, nobly thundering in the bass, with every shimmering variation in between and the witty use of pedal and toggle devices.
His economy of movement was pronounced: his arms and hands barely moved, and there was something fascinating about the way his fingers connected to the keys with deft, unapparent vigor. When demonstrating instruments, Dick liked to tell the story of Muzio Clementi, “father of the modern fortepiano”, passed down through Clementi’s grandson, of being shown into his grandfather’s study and finding the a tall man dramatically playing something of his own composition, on a piano of his own making, while reading a volume, not of music, but of Thucydides. As a performer, Dick was the opposite, holding delighted audiences, but with a lack of drama that made him seem almost absent from the proceedings. Once, I asked him afterwards what he had thought: he answered me with “jokes”, and indeed his could be very funny and well put together.
He tried to match each composer with the right instrument and was careful not to come between the listener and the music. Among his many recordings on the Amon Ra label are The Romantic Fortepiano – works by Hummel, Czerny, Schubert, Chopin and Schumann on his 1826 Viennese instrument by Conrad Graf – and pieces by the American Louis Moreau Gottschalk, on pianos from Broadwood and Erard as well as the Graf. With his great friend the violinist Ralph Holmes, he recorded Beethoven sonatas, and with another, Alan Hacker, a collection for clarinet.
An Evening with Queen Victoria was crafted by Katrina from letters and diaries for Prunella Scales, who excelled at comically fleshing out Victoria’s character, faced with the magnitude of her position as a girl, gaining confidence and finally reaching a problematic old age. Dick’s musical selection for tenor Ian Partridge and he himself understood works by Mendelssohn; the queen’s husband, Prince Albert; Gilbert and Sullivan’s account of a republican monarchy in The Gondoliers; and a Fugue in E by JS Bach.
For three decades, it ran for 400 performances. The original piano for the show was a circa 1840s marquetry Collard & Collard, the scaly appearance of which gave it an unpromising resemblance to a giant lizard. Typically without resonance of its day, it flourished under Dick’s thoughtful hugs, as noted by Irving Wardle in his review of the first performance at London’s Old Vic in 1980, which led to performances around the world whole and was shown on BBC TV.
I witnessed the whole adventure of Finchcocks Museum, from acting as a teenage car park assistant when it opened to sourcing and acquiring many instruments, furniture and paintings. Dick was a real collector and liked to buy things he thought the public would like.
Born in Stratton, a former Georgian farm in Godstone, Surrey, he was the fifth child of Joan (née Humphery) and Sir Leslie Burnett. His parents were wealthy because they were two of the owners of Hay Quay, a warehouse on the River Thames in London. Nevertheless, the family home had one bathroom and no central heating, as Dick’s father had had it removed.
At Cheam School in Hampshire, the matron taught Dick how to juggle, a skill later supplanted by tightrope walking and unicycling. From Eton he went to the Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music in London (1951-52), then to take a degree (1957) in economics and modern languages - Danish, Swedish and Norwegian – at King’s College of Cambridge. . There, in front of an expectant audience, after being given the wrong kind of rope, he theatrically fell into the Cam. Later he studied German, Dutch and Japanese.
By nature, Dick was contradictory: kind, energetic, generous, and brilliant, but sometimes disconcerted. He needed space to experiment and cared a lot about his house and what could fit into it. In 2008 he was appointed MBE.
He married Katrina in 1969, and in 1984 they formed the Finchcocks Charity for music education. They maintained their long-term commitment to Finchcocks until the flow of visitors dwindled and the necessary repairs to the collection and the house became too extensive. In 2016, I participated in the organization of the auction of most of its contents, and 14 historical instruments, covering the entire repertoire, found refuge at a new center in Tunbridge Wells.
Katrina survives him.