Program Notes: Concert 6

Mary Anthony Cox’s Musical Heritage

Mary Anthony Cox Rowell was influenced by two distinct pedagogical heritages in her extraordinary musical career and life.  The first was the piano lineage; the thread of artists who taught other artists through several generations leading to the individuals who directly formed her as a pianist.  The other heritage is the deep understanding of the language of music as a master of the French system of Solfeggio.  These two threads defined her as a pianist, piano pedagogue, and the profoundly influential ear training teacher of generations of Juilliard students.

Her piano playing legacy traces back to Ludwig van Beethoven like this:  Beethoven taught Carl Czerny.  Czerny taught Franz Liszt.  Liszt taught Giovanni Sgambati in Rome.  Sgambati in turn taught Giuseppe Ferrata who immigrated to the US in 1892 and in 1902 became the first professor of piano at Newcomb College, now part of Tulane University in New Orleans.  Mary Anthony’s mother, Nora Ella Fly Cox, was a student of both Sgambati and Ferrata.  She passed on this training to her exceptionally talented young daughter.  Both mother and daughter began an association with Robert and Gaby Casadesus attending classes at the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau in its wartime location in Great Barrington, Massachusetts beginning in the early 1940’s.  This new branch of the pedagogical tree led to Mary Anthony moving to Paris at age 16 where she enrolled in the Conservatoire National de Musique.  She studied piano with both Robert and Gaby Casadesus, Isadore Phillipp, and Alice Gaultier-Leon.  After returning to the States, she continued her studies receiving both her Bachelors of Music and Masters of Music degrees in piano as a student of Rosina Lhévinne and Jeaneane Dowis at the Juilliard School.

It was in Paris that the connection to the second musical lineage was forged when she began intensive study of the theoretical elements of music with Nadia Boulanger.   Teaching these would eventually become her life’s work. This journey was beautifully described by Juilliard Ear Training Department Chair Dr. Wayne Oquin in a memorial tribute.

In the late 1940s, Mary Anthony studied in France with the world-renowned Nadia Boulanger at Fontainebleau. How unlikely that a 16-year-old Alabama girl would find herself in Paris, methodically working through hundreds of examples from Théodore Dubois’ Treatise on Harmony with arguably the foremost music teacher of the 20th century. Mary Anthony brought this back to the U.S., and for 50 years taught so rigorously that it is no exaggeration to claim that a portion of a truly great lineage of music pedagogy would not have flourished without her efforts.

In her time at Juilliard Mary Anthony Cox developed a unique and elegant ear-training curriculum, very much her own, so watertight in its comprehensive approach that students would leave her class transformed, able to aurally perceive what had previously been for them impossible. The core of her teaching was rooted in tradition: the connection between performance and intense listening, between recitation and dictation. But her unique exercises and drills gradually leading students to become fluent in intervals, scale degrees, keys, and clefs were hers alone.

Mary Anthony’s approach as the Music Director of the Craftsbury Chamber Players was a convergence of these two worlds.  She filled concerts with masterworks of the chamber music repertoire rooted in the European traditions in which she was steeped with a special affinity for French Romantics.  But the teacher in her also challenged her listener with the unusual, the unfamiliar, and music venturing into new atonal harmonic languages.   

Tonight we begin with Ludwig van Beethoven and another of the three Piano Trios opus 1 with which we began this season.  The program note for that concert explained how Beethoven elevated what had been considered a minor ensemble to a place of greater prominence in the musical world.  If he created a mold with Trios 1 and 2, he was already breaking it with the third.

For the Trio opus 1, no. 3, Beethoven chose the key of c minor.  The significance of this key was huge to him. He consistently used it when expressing his deepest existential anxiety and resistance to the curse of fate.  The first movement Allegro con brio is full of sudden dramatic surges and momentary respites of calm.  Notable is the stark expression created by launching the first subject with the instruments in unison as opposed to a rich counterpoint.  All of the angst of this movement is set aside by the calmness of the Andante cantabile theme in the relative key of E-flat Major.  This theme is followed by five elegiac variations of varying intensities.  The Minuet returns to c minor and an increased level of angst.  The final Prestissimo begins with an eruption, once more a unison declaration from the three instruments. The turbulent drama of the movement evaporates quietly in the final measures of the piece.

There is a legend that Haydn, as much as he admired the trios upon hearing them, cautioned Beethoven against publishing this one.  Beethoven’s friend Franz Ries was present for the premier and later recalled, “Haydn advised Beethoven not to publish it. This greatly surprised Beethoven, since he considered this trio to be the best of the three, and also the one that produces the greatest effect.” Haydn later told Ries that his concern was that the target market for the published manuscript, amateur players, would find the piece far too difficult.  Haydn would later acknowledge that he had been very wrong.

We next hear three very short pieces by Nadia Boulanger.  This is a woman who literally taught EVERYBODY.   She began teaching at age twenty out of necessity to support her family and stopped shortly before her death in 1979 at age ninety-two.  There is no actual record of every student she worked with nor any way to determine exactly what aspect of music a student might have been working on with her.  Aaron Copland recalled, Nadia Boulanger knew everything there was to know about music; she knew the oldest and the latest music, pre-Bach and post-Stravinsky. All technical know-how was at her fingertips: harmonic transposition, the figured bass, score reading, organ registration, instrumental techniques, structural analyses, the school fugue and the free fugue, the Greek modes and Gregorian chant.

Boulanger believed each student needed to be approached individually and chose methods best suited for that person.   She is said to have counseled, “When you are writing music of your own, never strain to avoid the obvious.  You need an established language and then, within that established language, the liberty to be yourself. It’s always necessary to be yourself – that is a mark of genius in itself.”

The bulk of Boulanger’s oeuvre is vocal music.  These wonderful nuggets for cello and piano were composed in 1914 just four years before she gave up composing entirely in favor of her other endeavors.  The first is in an arch form.  It begins with a lyric cello melody floating over a gentle piano line.  After a passionate outburst, the music returns to the opening mood before drifting quietly away.  The second is in a simple folk style.  The very energetic third piece strikes a more even balance between the two instruments.  Also in an arch form, it moves into a quirky middle section in 5/4 time before returning to the initial music and ending with a flourish.

Robert Casadesus was from a musical Parisian family.  He entered the Paris Conservatory at age 13 and was a brilliant student.  He married his wife Gaby in 1921, and the two toured extensively together.  Robert had a close connection with Maurice Ravel.  In 1922 they worked together to create piano rolls of Ravel’s music and appeared together in a number of concerts.  Thirty years later, Robert would record the complete solo works of Ravel on three LPs for Columbia records.

Another close musical partner of his was the virtuoso violinist Zino Francescatti.  The two met and began playing duos together while both were in exile in America during WWII.  Robert explained, “I can tell you we played the seventeen Mozart sonatas, the ten Beethovens, the three Brahms and all the French sonatas during the summers I was teaching at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau-which during the War was transported to America.”  

The Hommage á Chausson was dedicated to Francescatti, and he and Robert premiered and recorded it. The piece pays tribute to the French Romantic composer Ernest Chausson (1855-1899) using a fascinating method of encrypting a name into a musical melody. Beginning in the 9th century, Western music theorists assigned letter names to notes.  In the Baroque period reversing this and assigning notes to spell the letters of names became a recognized (and fun) compositional technique.  J. S. B-A-C-H famously used his name to spell out a motif for a fugue subject. (B-flat-A natural C natural-B natural).  Robert Schumann used a four-note motif to represent an abbreviated version of his name in his piano work Carnaval  (The letters S-C-H-A equals the notes E flat-C natural-B natural-A natural).

French composers were especially fond of using musical cryptograms to pay tribute to individuals.  Casadesus’ Hommage is certainly in this tradition.  The spelling of the honoree’s name comes in the opening notes of the muted violin.  Here C-H-A-U-S-S-O-N is sung as C-B-A-E-C-C-G-F in a gentle, lilting melody.  The piece is in two sections.  The first is wistful and sad.  This music quietly floats upward to come to a close before launching into the second part, a rollicking Scherzo.  Chausson’s melodic name is used once again as a second contrasting theme and played in succession by both the violin and piano.

We end this evening and the season with the glorious piano quintet of Robert Schumann.  Schumann is not a figure in Mary Anthony’s direct piano pedagogical lineage, but his music and this piece were dear to her.  The Players have played the quintet six times over the past fifty-two years.  Mary Anthony was the pianist for four of those performances starting in 1968.   Three of the string players on stage tonight performed the work with her multiple times over the years: Mary, Carol, and Fran.

1842 is referred to as Schumann’s “Chamber Music Year”.  Up until then he had written just one piece of chamber music.  That year he immersed himself in writing for the string quartet, an ensemble that had come to be regarded as one of the most eloquent.  The results were his three quartets, opus 41.  Fresh from this foray into the string world, he came back to the piano, the instrument he had primarily composed for, and paired it with his new discovery.  Advancements in piano design and construction had greatly increased its resonance and dynamic possibilities.  Combining this new generation piano with two violins, a viola, and a cello established a dynamic new ensemble.  Although this was the moment in time where chamber music was moving beyond private salons and into concert halls, Clara Schumann always felt the piece was best served in smaller intimate spaces where the extremes of sonic color could be best explored.  Schumann’s new lineup was certainly capable of both intimate expression and a near symphonic impact.

The piece was dedicated to his wife, Clara, who was scheduled to play the first performance at a private concert.  When she fell ill, Felix Mendelssohn stepped in, sight reading the performance.  He subsequently made a few suggestions which resulted in Robert revising the inner movements.  The biggest change was the addition of a second trio to the Scherzo.  Clara gave the first public performance of the revised work in 1843 and declared the piece “splendid, full of vigor and freshness.” 

The first music of the Allegro brilliante is both bold and effervescent.  It is contrasted by a lovely quiet duet between the viola and cello.  These two ideas are treated to some extensive fragmenting and harmonic modulations as the movement proceeds.  The second movement, In modo d’una Marcia, begins as a funeral march.  The dark mood is lifted by the contrasting material at the center of the movement before the return of the initial sobbing march.  The Scherzo is pure unbridled exuberance propelled by a series of rippling scales.  The two trio sections offer extreme contrast. The first is a canon utilizing a lyrical melody, and the second sounds like gypsy music.  The final Allegro: ma non troppo is a tour de force in which Schumann shows off his great mastery of the most diabolical musical constructions.  He artfully blends canon, fugue and lyric melodies in the body of the movement.  The concluding Coda is a double fugue in which he combines melodies from both the first and final movements.