Like many of us, Christine McCarthy is a very proud nan. But her pride for grandson Nicholas is extra special because he defied all odds to become a professional concert pianist, despite being born without a right hand. Christine (68) has travelled the UK to watch her grandson play, from church hall recitals to his gig alongside Coldplay at London’s Paralympic Games.
“I go to as many performances as I can,” Christine says. “I tried to book plane tickets to America when we found out Nick was playing there, but he told me it was too far for just one evening!”
But Nicholas (25) never took Christine’s support for granted. “I used to do a lot of lunchtime concerts,” he says, “and Nan would always come. We’d have lunch and she’d give me an honest de-brief. She definitely keeps me grounded.”
Nicholas has had a whirlwind few years. He made history in 2012 as the first one-handed pianist ever to graduate from the Royal College of Music and was soon playing to crowds in Malta, Kazakhstan and America. He lives in Essex with his Pomeranian puppy Binnie (pictured above), but recently turned to London-born Christine in a bid to understand his past.
'I felt ashamed that I knew practically nothing about Nan's parents'
His search began when he started to work on his own Music In Remembrance Tour for last year, to honour the sacrifices made in the First World War. He began by transcribing popular music from the period, including Edward Elgar’s Nimrod, for Left Hand Alone playing. Much of today’s music for left-handed pianists was created after the 1914-1918 conflict, when musician soldiers had returned home with life-changing injuries. “Many pieces written for Left Hand Alone (as the genre is known) are indebted to Paul Wittgenstein, a wealthy Austrian concert pianist who lost his right arm in battle,” explains Nicholas. “He was determined to perform after 1918, so paid the greatest composers of the time to write concertos for Left Hand Alone. “Paul’s story is fascinating,” Nicholas continues. “His commitment to his dream, despite many setbacks, helped me to believe in myself.
“Then I realised – I knew lots about Paul’s history but so little of my own. Which was where Nan came in. She could teach me about my family, during the war.”
Christine was happy to help. She told Nicholas everything she knew about her parents, Annie and George – his great-grandparents. “My father served in the First World War and was injured in France,” says Christine. “But I wish I knew more about what mum was up to then.She was 14, so must have left school. All I know is that when she met dad after the war they both worked in a pie and mash shop.”
Nicholas is grateful to Christine for sharing her memories. “I felt ashamed that I knew practically nothing about Nan’s parents,” he says. “Thankfully, music encouraged me to find out more. And Nan has so many wonderful photos.”
The pictures that touched Nicholas most were of Annie on Armistice Day 1918, dressed up for a celebratory photo, and one of Christine’s brother Charlie, who was killed in the Blitz.
“I never even knew Nan had a brother,” he says. “Annie put on the back of the photo: ‘killed in enemy action’. Writing those words about her own son must have been incredibly emotional.”
“But she was very stiff-upper-lip,” says Christine of her mum. “You had to get on with life. Mum and dad survived the Spanish ‘Flu, the Second World War, everything. They were used to hard work.”
In terms of musical history, the only other musical McCarthy was Christine’s late husband, Nicholas’s granddad. “On Sunday afternoons Jerry would always get his accordion out and the family would sing along,” says Christine. Years later, this scene was echoed when Nicholas used to show Christine what he’d learnt on his keyboard when she came over for Sunday lunch.
Despite Nicholas’s continued achievements, Christine remains level-headed about his success. “Nick’s always been determined,” she says. “If you don’t let a child try something, you just don’t know what they’re capable of.”
The family history had a huge impact on Nicholas’s Remembrance Tour last year, which in turn affected his audience, too. “Many people came up afterward to tell me their own family stories. One lady recalled how her father played Left Hand Alone, and that my concert brought those memories back. It was an incredible privilege and a very emotional tour. I get teary whenever I play Nimrod, now I know what my family went through.”
Christine agrees the performance was even more meaningful after her conversations with Nicholas. “Listening to Nick play the music associated with those tough times, you can’t describe the feeling. It’s so moving. I have to really try not to cry.”
The experience of finding out more about his family will forever influence Nicholas’s future work. He’s off to South Korea soon, but first plays at London’s Southbank Centre. Does he have a favourite piece? “Scriabin’s Nocturne,” he smiles. “I play it at almost every recital. Scriabin was such a fantastic composer for Left Hand Alone and it’s beautiful.”
Christine nods in agreement, and Nicholas rolls his eyes jokingly. “I could have been playing Baa Baa Black Sheep and you would have said it was wonderful, Nan,” he says. And they laugh, Nan and grandson together.
For more about Nicholas, visit his website.
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