Menu Close

Journeying Through the Inner Life of a Music Teacher: A Eulogy for My Mother

Mary Maudwyn Hermine de Silva-Wijeyeratne, née Abayawickreme, LRAM, ARCM, FTCL, BMus (05-07-1937 – 20-04-2020)

My mother Hermine passed away in a London hospital on 20th April 2020. She was nearly 83, but I thought she had a few more years ahead of her. I want to honour the memory of Hermine and her post-colonial journey. She is mother to my older brother Shervon and myself, loving grandmother to Previn, great-grandmother to Raphael, and mother-in- law to Deepthi, Shervon’s wife. She was also a passionate lover of music and a respected music teacher of many decades.

Hermine was born in 1937 in the rather sleepy seaside town of Negombo, in the Crown Colony of Ceylon. Her parents, Charles and Nita Abayawickreme, were a public servant and teacher (English and Music) respectively – Charles an Anglican from Matara and Nita a Catholic from Negombo. An only child, Hermine grew up with an extended family, her first cousins Carmen, Cynthia, Milroy, Myrnie, and Maureen being at the centre of that wider family. All attended the Ave Maria Convent and were taught by nuns from Ireland. Outside the significant Catholic community of the Jaffna peninsula, Negombo was a key centre of Ceylonese Catholicism. But it was also a multicultural town with significant Burgher, Tamil, and Muslim communities. Hermine’s grandmother was bi-lingual and spoke fluent Tamil – as was often found among the Karava community of the west coast from Negombo to Chilaw at this period. How times have changed! I suspect Hermine herself would find the ethno-Sinhalisation of the Catholic belt of the island alien to her own more ecumenical upbringing.

Music was central to the family. Hermine’s grandfather David Peiris was a prominent baritone. Hermine started to learn piano from her mother at the age of five. She took Hermine up to grade 7, but by then her mother knew that Hermine needed to spread her wings. Charles, her father, heard the young British pianist and recent arrival to Ceylon, Janet Keuneman (sister-in-law to Pieter Keuneman) playing the piano on Radio Ceylon. He instinctively knew that this was the lady who should teach his daughter – and so it came to pass.

As a second instrument Hermine took up the cello and was taught by Louis Moreno, a Spanish émigré who had fled the Nationalist victory in the Spanish civil war. Moreno played in the legendary big band at the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo that also included the clarinettist Reuben Solomon, a Sephardic Jewish refugee who had escaped the Japanese invasion of Burma – Reuben and his brother had escaped Rangoon with their instruments and a few possessions and fled over the Himalayan foothills into India, eventually making their way down to Colombo. Rueben married Charmaine (née Poulier), the famous writer on Sri Lankan cookery and Burgher cuisine.

In Colombo in the 1950s, Janet, Louis, and Reuben would regularly perform as a trio. And somewhat coincidentally, when Janet’s son, Gerald Keuneman (OAM), took up the cello as his first instrument in Melbourne in the early 60s he acquired Louis Mereno’s cello – what a small world! Both Moreno and Solomon would migrate to Australia in the late 50s and early 60s as part of the middle class exodus from Ceylon in the shadow of the Official Language Act 1956.

Most probably early exposure to these divergent strands of influence account for Hermine’s catholic musical tastes, of which more below. The engagement between Janet the teacher, and Hermine the student, led to Hermine studying piano at the Royal Academy of Music in London in the late 50s and early 60s. They enjoyed a close friendship that lasted many decades. To begin with, Hermine was one of three teenage girls (the other two being Daya and Glynis) to start piano lessons with Janet in the same year, 1950 – all three girls forged lifelong friendships. Daya continues to live in Colombo while Glynis passed away a few years ago. Janet, who had married Pieter Keuneman’s younger brother Arthur (a Crown Counsel) became a leading light in the small but influential classical music scene in post-war Ceylon. Janet trained Hermine in the classical repertoire with a focus on Beethoven, Brahms, and Chopin. While the German romantics would become Hermine’s first love (although she did not eschew Schoenberg’s own eschewing of tonality), she remained a devotee of Frederic Chopin’s elegant piano compositions. Janet passed away in Melbourne last year at the age of 98. When, in turn, I informed Janet’s son Gerald of Hermine’s passing, he texted wryly that soon the two of them will be able to play the piano again together – I am sure they are enjoying each other’s company again!

A few years prior to leaving for London on what was a three-week journey by ship, Hermine married Rienzi de Silva-Wijeyeratne, a lawyer from Colombo. They married in Negombo at St Mary’s, a church that dates back to the Portuguese period. Her first son, Shervon, was born in 1954, and four years later Hermine, dad, Nita, and Shervon embarked for London. Her father, Charles, had passed away in the early 1950s. Our grandmother, Nita, was designated child minder for Shervon. Hermine thus took her place as part of the second generation of post-colonial women from Ceylon to set sail to London for the completion of their education. The glamour of London was fully embraced by mum and dad.

The family settled in Paddington, which made for an easy journey to and from the Royal Academy in Marylebone. While Shervon started his schooling, dad set to work in the Patent Office on Chancery Lane. At the Royal Academy Hermine was influenced by Professors Guy Jonson and Harold Craxton – Jonson memorably told Hermine that she ought to remain under his tutelage so that he could fashion her into a concert pianist. Alas, mum, much younger than dad, was unable to convince him to remain in London for her to fulfil that potential – in this too, sharing the thwarted ambition of so many middle class women of her generation.

At the Royal Academy Hermine also carried on with the cello as her second instrument. Later, she would relate comical stories of young men volunteering to carry her cello on and off buses on the way back and forth from the Academy! This short, joyful sojourn in London did not prevent Hermine from achieving the highest grades at piano for someone enrolled in her programme of study.
With her studies completed, the family returned to Ceylon. They settled in Colombo and lived a relatively comfortable life during the 1960s, with Hermine building a stable of private piano students that included cousins and the children of notable politicians (of all stripes). Radio Ceylon’s English Language service offered Hermine a vehicle to perform her classical piano repertoire to a wider audience. Needless to say, her distinctive light touch shone through in her performances. But there was another side to Hermine’s musical passions.

While those who knew Hermine think of her accomplishments and love of classical music, not many people beyond her extended family will be aware of her predilection for American country and western music. We recall her stories of listening to Gene Autry and Roy Rogers on the radio in the 1940s. Not surprisingly Jim Reeves occupied a special place in her heart – but even fewer know that she struck up a correspondence with Mary Reeves, his widow. The story, as mum told it, was that she wrote to Chet Atkins in New York who then passed on her letter to Mary Reeves. This exchange of letters continued into the early 1970s. All in all, what is most memorable about the house in Colombo was the tumult of music of all sorts of genres being played. While country music complemented classical, Shervon was at this stage immersing himself in a small R & B combo that he and his friends had got going. Hermine would assist the boys master tricky chord progressions in the music they were covering. Deep Purple, The Who, and Hendrix were usually on the boys’ menu.

We suspect that the letters from Mary Reeves got lost as the next significant journey in Hermine’s life began. By the end of the 1960s she had an addition to the family, me. Owing to political instability in the early 1970s, as the island transitioned from Crown Dominion to Republic, mum and dad decided that leaving Ceylon was in the best interests of their children. Our grandmother Nita had passed away in 1972. Shervon was a teenager at this point and I was just four. Drawing on family friends, Hermine secured a teaching post in, of all places, Gibraltar, on the southern tip of Spain.

In Gibraltar Hermine taught music in two schools and dad worked in the Inland Revenue while Shervon also worked in the public service. I in turn started my schooling and, in order to adapt to the bi-lingual nature of Gibraltarian society, Hermine and Shervon set out to learn Spanish.

Dad however was not well. Indeed, he had been unwell for a considerable period of time before we left Ceylon in December 1973. In February 1975 he had a fatal heart attack. With Hermine widowed at a young age, she and Shervon decided that the family should relocate to London. By the end of 1975 the three of us were staying with dad’s sister in south London – Aunt Cleta’s family had also migrated to London in the early 70s. And so London would become Hermine’s final home.

When the family moved to West Hampstead in north London, Hermine returned to studying both music and literature for her ‘A’ levels, while Shervon started work and I began schooling in Kilburn. Then, moving back to south London in 1978, Hermine undertook paid employment – after a short spell in retail, she worked in the area of music copyright and eventually settled into a teaching career in 1980. She spent the next 23 years teaching music and piano in schools in south London. But it was teaching piano at home – which she began as soon as she acquired her Broadwood upright in 1979 – where she truly came into her own. Meticulous about detail, she pushed her students to perform to their full ability.

In the late 90s she undertook her Bachelor of Music at Kingston University, fulfilling an ambition dating back to 1960, and in 2003 she acquired her pride and joy, her Bluthner grand piano. 2003 also marked both the year of her retirement and the award of her degree in music. I played a minor role in her music degree. I had, thanks to my doctoral supervisor at the University of Kent, the late Professor Peter Fitzpatrick, introduced Hermine to Theodor Adorno’s essays on music – far from easy going! Undaunted, she proceeded to write an undergraduate dissertation on Adorno.

In the meantime, Shervon had married Deepthi in 1982, and I went to Brisbane in 2001. When Shervon and Deepthi’s son Previn was born in 1984 in London, Hermine happily took on the role of designated babysitter and piano teacher to her grandson. She maintained her close friendship with her piano teacher Janet in Australia and made frequent trips to Melbourne to visit Janet and her husband Arthur. Of course, Hermine had another reason for visiting Australia, to spend time with me in Brisbane. On one trip to Brisbane in 2010, Hermine’s friend Pam Adams (who worked with me at Griffith University) took her to Newstead House, an old colonial residence where a grand piano was on display. Encouraged by Pam, Hermine gave a short impromptu performance. Pam recalls her “abiding memory of Hermine … taking to the piano at Newstead House – without [sheet] music – and playing so beautifully. That lovely music rippled throughout the house.”

Retirement for Hermine did not mean the end of her teaching from home. On the contrary, she carried on teaching till pretty much the end, or at least until our public health emergency intervened this year. In 2010 Hermine was diagnosed with vascular disease and thus began a struggle against a health condition that would impact on her throughout her remaining years. No matter how much pain she was in, she sustained a determined streak that would not let her be bowed down by pain. Shervon returned from Sri Lanka to spend a significant period of time with Hermine and manage her care at home. I would regularly return from Brisbane to enjoy her company and offer support in the long university break every Christmas and New Year.

In 2014, in a period of good health, Hermine persuaded Deepthi and Shervon to visit Vienna where she fulfilled her desire to spend time at Beethoven’s Pasqualati House. The dream trip was capped by an evening at the Vienna Concert Hall.

Hermine was a woman of strong will – don’t her sons know it! Once she made up her mind there was no change of tack. Faced with adversity, her sense of self-will enabled her to confront that adversity with an extraordinary optimism. She was stoical in the face of daily discomfort and, even after her first minor stroke in October last year, she carried on teaching. Dr Karen Kee, her stroke consultant at Croydon General Hospital, recalls testing Hermine’s cognitive functions by taking her to play on the hospital upright. The video footage reveals a small crowd gathering to the sounds of Christmas carols and a few old classics like the Isle of Capri. Dr Kee added that Hermine was soon telling her off for getting her timing wrong as they attempted a duet! When Hermine was readmitted to the stroke unit at Croydon General in April, the entire staff showed such love as they took care of her in her last week.

It is fitting that almost the last words here should come from some of Hermine’s students, two of whom were about to restart their lessons once we came out of the coronavirus lockdown. When Naseem Crawford, who was about to start grade 7 with Hermine, heard that his teacher had passed away, he recalled how, “We would play the piano and laugh together, she was a special lady with special gifts and she will be dearly missed”. Linda Jimenez and her daughters, Natalia and Rebecca, both Hermine’s students, spoke of Hermine as “an extraordinary piano teacher and a person who had a witty and caring personality. Hermine inspired a passion in us to play the piano. She was also a great mentor as well as a teacher. May you rest in peace and we will never forget you.”

Well, mum, you will forever be in the hearts of your family and friends wherever they are, in London, Sri Lanka, Australia, and the United States. When the time is right Hermine’s ashes will be returned to her home town Negombo, where she will be laid to rest with her parents, Charles and Nita. Her parents would be extremely proud of the legacy their daughter leaves behind. And her sons, Deepthi, and our families, are immensely proud of the love and care this sparkling and elegant woman brought out in others. She was ‘old Ceylon’ embodied.

Dr Roshan de Silva-Wijeyeratne is a Member of the Advisory Board, Centre on Human Rights in Conflict, University of East London, and a Member of the Edinburgh Centre for Constitutional Law, University of Edinburgh. This eulogy was delivered at the South London Crematorium, Streatham, London SW16 5JG, on 19th May 2020

%d bloggers like this: