They are seven outrageously gifted musical siblings. They have been called the Von Trapps of Britain. They performed on primetime television on Britain’s Got Talent and Simon Cowell pronounced them “the most talented family in the world”. One of them, Sheku, played at a royal wedding and suddenly became a household name. Yet if the poster boy for the Nottingham-raised Kanneh-Mason clan is that cellist with the big grin and the Afro, it was his elder sister who was the first of the bunch to sit at a piano, the first to get sucked into music and to point the way ahead.
This is 23-year-old Isata Kanneh-Mason, who is sitting in front of me in the headquarters of her record label in King’s Cross, central London, cool as a cucumber. Like Sheku, she is a veteran of the BBC Young Musician competition. Unlike Sheku, she had to settle for reaching her category final — after which she says she felt like a failure. She went on to study for an undergraduate degree at the Royal Academy of Music, her fees paid for by a RAM graduate named Elton John. Now she’s a postgraduate with one more year to go.
A Muse Called Clara
When destiny called — or rather Decca, the label that has already snapped up Sheku — it was the little-known music of Clara Schumann, the wife and muse to Robert Schumann, that Isata wanted to champion. “It wasn’t just: ‘I’m going to make an album, what should it be?’ ” she says. “It was very much, ‘What can we do with Clara?’ ” She had come to her music about 18 months previously, enthused by the volatile Scherzo No 2, Op 14, which one of her friends had shown her. “I was impressed by how fiery it was, how full of passion, and having stumbled across it I started listening to more and playing more.” The resulting album, Romance, is an effective tribute to the versatility and energy of a composer who should be better known.
Clara Schumann, née Wieck, whose 200th anniversary is being marked this year, was a prodigious talent. She made her public debut at the age of 11, wrote a concerto as a teenager, toured the salons and concert halls of Europe and took her piano-teacher father to court so that she could elope with one of his pupils, finally marrying him at the age of 20. She went on to bring up eight children. Tragedy ended her marriage and many of the children suffered terrible fates. Now Isata has emerged to prominence to shine a spotlight on “the other” Schumann.
It’s really been a matter of when, not if, one of the other six Kanneh-Mason siblings jumped into the music world in their own right. There are similarities, of course, between Isata and her cellist brother. They share the same preternatural calm. Yet Isata, whose career, unlike Sheku’s, has been launched well out of her teen years, is more reflective about her chosen business and, perhaps inevitably as the eldest sibling, better able to dissect her family dynamic.
The family dynamic, in fact, was one connection that drew her to Clara Schumann. “I love the fact that she had eight children. I really related to that, coming from a big family. And the fact that she had to deal with this overbearing father, that she had to be on concert tours from the age of eight. I mean, I didn’t relate to that directly because my parents were always supportive — I never had intensive concert tours — but I was inspired by her strength.”
Certainly the young Clara Wieck had plenty going on from a very young age. Robert Schumann, who had moved into Clara’s family home when she was 11 to take lessons with her father, proposed to her when she reached 18. Once the pair had managed to marry, they set up as something of a power couple, she concentrating on performing, he on composing. Yet their shared diary recorded how they would write music for each other and candidly comment on each other’s work, influencing each other’s styles in the process.
Clara lacked confidence in her own composition, though. She wrote in a letter: “A woman must not wish to compose, there never was one able to do it. Am I intended to be the one? It would be arrogant to believe that.” For Kanneh-Mason this is “quite tragic. It really sums up how she felt about composing. So it’s hard to know whether she didn’t compose [more] because she felt she couldn’t, or she really wanted to but just sort of held back. But what she did compose is very beautiful, and there’s still a large amount there.”
Robert Schumann died at the age of 46, having spent his final years in a mental asylum. Clara abandoned composition and devoted the rest of her life to guarding her husband’s legacy. She outlived four of her children. “There was one instance,” Kanneh-Mason says, “where a child died and she did a concert the same day. I think music was always her escape. She kept it going no matter what.”
Kanneh-Mason cannot imagine a life in which she is not making music and believes her two brothers and four sisters are the same. Perhaps it’s this romantic drive that the siblings share — the way that music spills over into family life and vice versa — that fires her connection with Clara Schumann.
“There was one instance,”
Kanneh-Mason says, “where a child died and she did a concert the same day.”
So now that she has a platform, does she want to set the record straight about anything Sheku has said about the family? She is annoyingly loyal. “He has always been very honest. We are reluctant to be seen as ‘this talented family’. To us we’re just a family who loves music, and what we want to show is that anyone can be a musician if they want to be. Sheku has always been very good at portraying that.”
This not entirely relatable story begins on the island of Antigua, in the early 2000s. Isata had her first bash on a piano at her grandparents’ house while on holiday. She was five years old. “I remember composing a piece in thirds, and I was really enjoying it; that’s one of my earliest memories.” She began lessons back home in Nottingham the next year. At eight Isata asked her parents: “Where is the best place in the world to study the piano?” She snorts. “I always laugh when I hear it, but this is completely true. My mum told me that I said it. That’s when I auditioned for the Royal Academy of Music.” She is specifically referring to the junior academy that all her siblings, barring the youngest, Mariatu, have either come through or are going through, which comprises weekend tuition alongside regular schooling.
Isata’s parents, Stuart and Kadie, were not professional musicians, although both had played instruments up to the age of 18. They didn’t know what Isata’s chances were of getting into the RAM. “I wasn’t confident at the time,” she says. “I would cry in my practice room every day because I didn’t think I was going to get in. My parents were as new to it as I was. None of us had any idea of the standard, so when I got in it was an amazing surprise for all of us.” Did she feel like an outsider when she started there? “I actually felt more at home there than I did at school.”
In 2014, at 17 years old, she entered BBC Young Musician, the competition that would launch Sheku’s career two years later. The contest had a totemic status for her and her family. “We grew up watching it. It’s hard to know how to make it in the music world, and when we were children we thought that was the way to make it.”
She made it to the piano final and won a bursary for the most promising musician. “I was devastated. It’s a hard concept to grasp when you’re younger that you can work that hard and then still fail.”
She now calls the experience “character building”, but it didn’t just build her character, it built Sheku’s too. “I don’t want to say it’s because I didn’t win that Sheku won, but when you have a failure you have a tendency to work extra hard afterwards. So when Sheku entered the competition, we thought: ‘OK, Isata entered, she did all this, she didn’t win. So you have to work double that.’ And that’s how it happened.”
So she told Sheku: “You’ve just got to work harder”? “Yeah — harder than I did. So he did. But he wanted to. He had a fierceness about it that perhaps I didn’t have.”
The family is no less close despite Sheku’s stardom. In a way there are now two Kanneh-Mason hubs: one in Nottingham, where 16-year-old Jeneba (piano), 13-year-old Aminata (violin) and 10-year-old Mariatu (cello) live, the other in London, centered around the RAM, where Isata is a postgrad, Braimah (violin) is in his third year, Sheku in his second and Konya (piano) in her first. However, the junior trio arrive on Saturdays for their classes. “So sometimes they stay over and we do something fun.” Perhaps it’s just as well that there is no boyfriend to fit into all this Kanneh-Masonry. Has there been a serious relationship? “Perhaps there will be in the future.”
Hanging out all together en famille has become more fluid. “Even for our family holiday, two weeks in Wales, people are nipping in and out. So we have to fight harder to have family time outside of music.” It has become a family joke that if you try to go anywhere with Sheku it is hard to make progress. “At some point you’ll turn around and he’ll be ten paces behind because he’s been stopped by someone and we always have a laugh about it.”
So far, Sheku and Isata are the only Kanneh-Mason siblings to have managers. Once all seven have fledged, as it were, will they all be able to find a niche if each wants to go professional? “People will always have a tendency to lump us together and I think the bigger challenge for all of us will be finding our own identity. When it comes to my younger sisters, I don’t want people to say, ‘Oh, they’re following in Sheku’s footsteps.’ ”
Also a Muse Called Beyoncé
Isata is working on building a more distinct profile. Yes, she formed a piano trio with Sheku and Braimah (they perform at the Wigmore Hall in December), but when recording the Clara Schumann romances for violin and piano she took the decision to play with the American violinist Elena Urioste, not Braimah. That made Romance a female-centric effort since the orchestra (the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic) is conducted by Holly Mathieson. Deliberate? “Yes, it’s definitely a statement.”
She has her eye on some big beasts of the piano repertoire, including Rachmaninov’s notoriously slippery Third Piano Concerto. She also wants to organise more musical collaborations. She has avoided competitions since BBC Young Musician. “There are so many pianists who play well. The important thing is to be individual, to find your own voice.”
Clara Schumann may be an inspiration, but Isata’s heroine is a more contemporary superwoman, Beyoncé. “I loved her songs as a teenager, of course, but now the appeal is her as a woman because she has this incredible confidence on stage and she says what she wants with her music.” Does she want to emulate Beyoncé’s crusade against racial discrimination? “Yes, although I haven’t completely decided what my role would be yet within that battle.” The ardour of Clara Schumann may live again in this young pianist, but the unapologetic ambition is all Isata’s.