On the death of Stephen Cave: a friend remembered

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Stephen Roy Cave, 30th March 1953 – 30th June 2020

Last Wednesday, thirty of us – friend and stranger – gathered at Basildon and District Crematorium to pay our last respects to Stephen Cave. A huge influence on each of us, everyone there had their own memories of Stephen, whether as teaching colleague, accompanist for the Basildon Choral Society, piano teacher, neighbour, or simply a friend met over dinner.

Thirty minutes is not enough time to remember someone who affected us all so profoundly. Still, we managed to share many memories and play some of the music that most seemed to encapsulate him: the second movement of Shostakovich’s 2nd piano concerto, Puccini’s O Mio Babbino Caro (sung by Monserrat Caballé), and Nessun Dorma (sung by Luciano Pavarotti). We also listened to a recording of him playing Walking in the Air, a version of which he extemporised each Christmas. The video from which it was taken is at the end.

Dad organised the remembrance, Mum, Seth and I shared memories of his friendship and inspiration, and Ellie read one of the poems that he learned by heart and recited on many occasions after dinner and more than a few glasses of wine (Roald Dahl’s Three Little Pigs from his Horrible Rhymes). Other friends and colleagues offered words of remembrance for the order of service.

Stephen had been family to us. He was my confidante and friend.

It is so hard to believe he is gone.

He will be terribly, terribly missed.


Seth’s words remembering Stephen

It seems entirely appropriate to be more or less lost for words when talking about Stephen. Someone who brought so much joy to others through his gifts as a musician and teacher.

You have heard from others their fond reflections on Stephen as friend and frankly as family. We all loved Stephen and we will all continue to mourn and to miss him.

Stephen was an exceptional musician. He was an exceptional teacher. In fact, I could draw you a direct line across eight individual pianists that starts with Stephen and ends with Beethoven himself. Genuinely – a profound musical heritage. Stephen was taught by Alexander Kelly at the Royal Academy of Music – one of Stephen’s contemporary fellow pupils now runs the Piano Accompaniment Department at the Academy and became one of my teachers when I studied there. He remembered Stephen.

Others of Stephen’s pupils have gone on to pursue highly successful music careers and all of us realise the great musical debt we owe Stephen.

Stephen leaves a huge gap for many of us and I feel privileged to have known him as a friend and teacher. Huge swathes of my piano music collection is littered with Stephen’s handwriting and I shall cherish the thousands of hours spent playing, listening to and discussing music with the him – whether the high art of Puccini, Chopin or Rachmaninov, through to the rye humour of parlour songs such as ‘Could I but express in song’ or as Stephen regularly coined it ‘The Kodaly Buttocks Pressing Song’.

There’s really only one thing to say which is appropriate, if inadequate. Thank you, Stephen.

As Stephen would have said – and did in every text and email he signed off – ‘un abbraccione a tutti’.


My words remembering Stephen

Dilegua, o notte!
Tramontate, stelle!
Tramontate, stelle!
All’alba vincerò!
vincerò, vincerò!

Giacomo Puccini, from Nessun Dorma


It is impossible to begin to describe the immense hole that Stephen’s passing leaves in the lives of those of us who knew him and loved him. It is difficult to believe we will never again hear that deep, rich belly laugh, or hear that booming baritone voice proclaim in perfectly enunciated, self-taught Italian on the beautiful evening he had just spent with his friends.

Intelligent and gentle, self-effacing and yet a consummate performer who secretly loved the attention he garnered whenever he played or sang, Stephen was as complex as he was fiercely private. His friendship was one of my deepest and most valued.  Forged through childhood piano lessons, countless bottles of wine over many years of lengthy Sunday evening dinners, intense singing lessons and, latterly, his steadfast support in my move north and subsequent telephone reminiscences on times past, he was a reassuring constant in my life. His was the kind of friendship by which those darker moments that challenge and distress could be navigated, his measured reassurance and black humour offering the promise of brighter days ahead.

Stephen loved our regular Sunday evening gatherings. Christened DoS – Dinner on Sunday – they started early and finished late, with far too much wine drunk and cheese eaten, listening to Puccini or Rachmaninov or Elgar or Finzi, Stephen a font of knowledge regarding the various singers or conductors or pianists. Pavarotti was his favourite, and he loved Callas, too, but he seemed to know them all, enjoying challenging us to play an aria at random so he could identify – correctly – the singer. Sometimes, he recounted stories from his younger days at Bretton Hall, or when he would go to the opera in London,  or teaching in Grays, or being left at the side of the road on a Basildon Choral Society trip to the continent, or musical adventures he got up to with those he quietly wished he’d been among more regularly. He also regularly claimed to be distantly related to Cliff Richard and to Captain Webb, the first person to swim the English Channel.

If we were lucky, after coffee, and after he had recited a humorous verse from memory, we might persuade him to play the piano and whichever recording was playing in the next room would be surrendered for brilliant and moving interpretations of Chopin or Kabalevsky or Debussy. He was a sublime pianist who taught us all so much about music and how to listen to it and even when his hands failed him in later years, he was still better than most. Afterwards, he would drop me home and we would often pull up and talk awhile, ruminating on the evening just spent, or the meaning of life, or the professional challenges of the week ahead.

He found endless amusement in little things. At our last meal together in Essex, a week or so before I moved north,  Stephen, with tears of laughter in his eyes, recalled one particularly funny occasion when a bemused Japanese embassy official had joined us many years before at Hillcroft to experience a traditional English Sunday roast dinner. What Nobi made of Stephen and a dinner about as far from normal as you could imagine we never knew. His humour was grounded in the gentle absurdity of it all, never mocking. He could not abide cruelty or bullying. He always offered a warm and gracious welcome to the various people who joined our gatherings over the years, putting them at their ease and greeting them as if Hillcroft were his own home. Which in many ways it was.

Stephen was an eternal source of curious information and he would often punctuate the fierce debates about politics, music, education and religion that usually raged around the dining table with choice facts he had learned in the week before. He loved puzzles, particularly maths ones, and learned origami as well as Italian, sometimes leaving a little swan or a flower where he had sat for dinner. He loved Star Wars, too, the original films, not the sequels, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blackadder and the X-Files. Somehow, this all seemed both utterly incongruous and entirely in keeping.

For a good number of years, he and I took singing lessons together. He would drive us – first to Surrey and later to Littlehampton – so we could learn with a teacher, Liz Pearson, who was as brilliant a voice teacher as she was knowingly hopeless a pianist. As we sang, one after the other, him baritone, me tenor, she would punch us in the stomach to get us to use our diaphragms better. On one occasion, we pitched up with the Pearl Fishers duet and we sang our hearts out together as if we were in Covent Garden. Towards the end, we could not continue for laughing. It was dire and beautiful, but it was also just so much glorious fun. On the way home, we would listen to Classic FM and I would read the road signs out loud until it drove him to distraction and he would swear very loudly and threaten to pull over and make me walk the rest of the way.

The last time I saw Stephen was in November 2018, when he was in Basildon hospital. I drove down to see him, and we spent a couple of hours talking. He had nothing but praise for the nursing staff and had been charming and funny with them, even though fearful and experiencing considerable discomfort. Despite his illness, I had always assumed there would be another chance to sit and talk, to laugh about the world and simply enjoy each other’s company. We texted and emailed and phoned in the eighteen months after, his texts always accompanied by a little waving emoji. We would talk about health and politics, missing the old days and those weekly gatherings that anchored our lives. In our last exchange, he bemoaned the state of the world in general, and Trump in particular, his humour as dry as ever, and I smiled imagining him saying it all over dinner. It never occurred for a moment that they would be his last words to me.

Now, I simply miss my warm giant of a friend.

Sleep gently, Stephen.

Or, as you might say in that unique and comforting baritone, and with a twinkle in your eye – dormi dolcemente.


Walking in the Air, played by Stephen Cave at Hillcroft, 18th December 2011