Obituary: Mary Firth, 92

Mary Firth was a passionate teacher and performer. Picture: contributed
Mary Firth was a passionate teacher and performer. Picture: contributed
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Tributes have been paid to a music lover and gifted teacher, who has died at the age of 92.

Mary Firth, a dedicated pianist, was born in Cullingworth, near Keighley in West Yorkshire, in October 1920.

She spent her childhood there, undertaking a scholarship at a grammar school, which afforded her the opportunity to move to the Capital in 1939, where she studied music at Edinburgh University.

She completed her postgraduate studies in Oxford.

While studying in Edinburgh, she met two people who proved to play pivotal roles in her future – composer and musical scholar Donald Francis Tovey, and 
George Firth, who taught her music and who would later become her husband.

She married George – a soldier, scientist and singer who became the first chairman of the Scottish Arts Council – in 1947 and the couple were keen participants in Edinburgh’s vibrant post-war cultural scene.

Mary played a supporting role in the formation of the Edinburgh Festival and later, the Edinburgh Symphony Orchestra.

They socialised with many people – with Mary’s sharp memory for names coming to George’s rescue on many occasions.

Mary’s career saw her record for BBC radio, perform solo and chamber recitals and teach at adult education colleges.

Throughout her life, Mary was a passionate teacher – friends said she was a natural, “glowing with interest in her subject, highly articulate and sensitive to the student’s needs and talents”.

She offered lessons on a one-to-one basis at her Newington home and saw scores of children, teenagers and adults learn key skills on her “beloved” Steinway piano. As well as being a performer, Mary was a prolific writer about music, and never shied away from large and complicated works.

She penned essays studying the careers of everyone from Monteverdi to Wagner.

She also developed and published her own range of exercises for piano-playing techniques and edited her husband’s manuscript on Tovey.

Many of her papers now take pride of place in Edinburgh University’s archive.

Mary met many celebrated musicians and composers of the 20th century – sharing stories of many big names in the music world.

Friends said they “hung on her words, linking us to a vanished world”.

In the 1980s, Mary began studying modern Greek and after George’s death she travelled several times to Greece and Turkey, developing a strong interest in archaeological sites.

She even read a Greek language version of a Harry Potter novel.

Mary died at Chamberlain Nursing Home, in Chamberlain Road, Merchiston, in September.