Obituary for Richard Burnett, M.B.E. (June 23rd 1932 -July 8th 2022)
Many have described Richard Burnett’s passing away as the end of an era. Professional pianist, composer and collector of early pianos, Richard left the piano world a tremendous legacy by raising awareness in the importance of playing early piano music on contemporary instruments.
In the 60s and 70s, when the booming early music movement was focused on the re-discovery of all sorts of instruments -some of them really exotic- the piano, possibly because it was ubiquitous and familiar, was not given the same attention as the harpsichord and escaped the revival period that affected the harpsichord. But it turned out that the first pianos were very different from the modern piano, and Richard started a crusade. As a collector, he showed people the wide variety of design, but more importantly, he demonstrated how they sound in performance. His motto was that pianos were meant to be played, not to remain mute behind glass. His mentors at Eton and Cambridge, had guided him towards a career in economics, but he refused that fate and continued to follow his passion: the piano.
After first venturing on a couple of music-related businesses, it became clear that Richard would devote himself to the historical piano. He started a collection and when more space was needed to house it, he and his wife Katrina bought ‘Finchcocks’, a Georgian manor house, and went on to found The Finchcocks Charity, to promote its activities. Richard partnered with Derek Adlam and founded the Adlam-Burnett workshop, to build replicas and restore early pianos and harpsichords. The best craftsmen in the country, as well as some from Europe and America, joined in and Finchcocks was a thriving place. Fairs, hot-air balloons, period costume parties and concerts were all used to showcase the work and Richard was always at the centre of the activities. Finchcocks soon became a landmark. Coachloads of visitors arrived from throughout Europe and many future pianists had their first contact with early pianos at Finchcocks.
Richard’s extensive researches also resulted in a book. In Company of Pianos, includes full descriptions of the best instruments in the collection and has a section on period performance practice and examples recorded on an accompanying CD. The book was a catalyst for him being appointed Member of the British Empire (MBE).
In 2016, after more than 30 years devote to this work, Richard and Katrina decided to downsize, as the pace of life had become too hectic. They sold the house and auctioned most of the instruments but kept fourteen of the best keyboards and the charity, which is now located at their house in Tunbridge Wells, Kent. This part of the original collection now is called The Richard Burnett Heritage Collection, and is on permanent loan to the Finchcocks Charity. Its activities are centred on the training of early piano technicians and on concerts and research. Katrina still leads the charity and manages the wonderful legacy Richard has left. Those who benefit from its charity activities, as I do, will always be grateful to Richard.
Richard made more than fifty recordings. Hearing problems gradually brought his performing career to a close, but that did not stop him from welcoming guests and playing pieces on some of the instruments, and this lasted until the beginning of this year. He managed to play duets until a few months ago.
Text and photo by C. Hernandez, edited by Ian Murray