Memories of Jane - April 2015, by Dawn Gwilt
I first met Jane Cowan in 1978 when I came to study at the International Cello Centre. I had studied for two years at Oberlin with Richard Kapuscinski, and while playing in Steven Isserlis’ Nifty Cello Quartet I heard his tales of this magical place in the borders of Scotland, to which we had an open invitation from Jane to study with her. My plan was to study for one year at the ICC, and then return to Oberlin to finish my degree.
From the moment I arrived at Edrom I knew I was somewhere special. My first vivid memory (bear in mind this is going back 37 years!) was of the evening playing class on the night I arrived. I can picture the music room, with its wooden floor, rococo decoration and beautiful artwork. There was probably a fire crackling next door in the choir room. All of this created an ambience that was anything but institutional. Nick Jones and Andrew Wardale both played, an Adagio by Tartini and a Serenade by Poulenc, I believe. This was a style of playing I hadn’t heard before. The sound of pure gut strings, the line and sense of phrase, and the simplicity and directness of approach all moved me deeply.
When I discussed with Mr. Kapuscinski my idea of taking a year out to study at the ICC he said, “You know, not everyone can be a Steven Isserlis.” How very true! However, when I heard the playing that first night I realised that the ICC wasn’t just about producing one or two exceptional cellists; this was a style of playing that was accessible to anyone. I knew I had come to the right place.
My first impressions of Jane were of her warmth and gregariousness, with big hugs all around. I immediately felt welcomed into the ICC ‘family’. Her lively eyes could twinkle with laughter, or in a short space of time become very serious and passionate. She dressed plainly but she had a natural beauty and a lively charismatic energy that made her seem ageless. I had never met someone so dramatic, passionate and insightful, and she would often talk at length on a topic of vital importance to her, captivating her audience, whatever their age or background. She was down-to-earth and loved to share a good joke, and yet her sense of urgency was never very far away and her mood could change quickly. Above all I was aware of the impact Jane had on others. Most of the other students had studied here previously, and I sensed their great respect or even awe for Jane. They seemed to understand her idiosyncratic ways. The atmosphere was one of excitement, tinged with wariness in anticipation of Jane’s volatile moods.
We didn’t necessarily have regular lessons with Jane. Instead, what often happened was we would spend our mornings practising, while Jane swept the carpets on the stairs outside of our rooms. When she heard something that caught her interest, (or more likely something that she didn’t approve of), she would come bursting in, often resulting in a lesson of two hours or longer. I remember one time working on a duet with Michael Martin which involved some octave shifts that were proving problematic. Jane came bursting in, “Now listen!” (slapping the side of her thigh and pointing her finger for effect). “There is no reason to miss a shift like that – EVER – if you’ve done your Wilkomirski” (an exercise in octave shifts and descending scales). As I hadn’t learned the Wilkomirski I got off lightly – Jane demonstrated the exercise and then left us to get on with it. She was right! Doing this exercise with the correct posture, bowstroke, and use of counterbalance made for very secure shifts. Our daily warm-up exercises were designed to cover most areas of technique, and Jane also had a knack for designing an exercise to suit any particular technical difficulty encountered in a piece. John also has this ability, and I like to think that some of their influence has rubbed off on me.
What I remember most about individual lessons with Jane was her patiently playing a phrase to me, saying, “Like this”. I would then try to emulate her, and we would go back and forth a dozen times or more – until eventually I heard what she was coaxing me to hear – some subtle phrasing that eluded me initially. This wasn’t about imitating parrot-fashion, but patiently and persistently deepening my ability to hear greater subtlety and nuance.
When I think back to the other students, we shared a distinct style of playing, but had individual voices. There was something about the ethos of classical containment - (Jane often spoke of the ‘classical unities’ of one time, one place, and one action) –that gave us very strict boundaries to push against expressively. From Jane we learned that expression without containment was mere indulgence, and containment without expression was boring. The first commandment of the cello centre was ‘Thou shalt not bore!’ It was the creative conflict between these two opposing forces that produced playing with the power to move.
I found one-to-one lessons with Jane pretty intense, and in fact I learned more from watching her coach others, later trying out new ideas in my own time. This communal style of learning was very different from my previous training, where the system was a weekly lesson, followed by private practice. Often we all studied a particular work together, which seemed to accelerate both the speed and the depth at which we learned. As well as Playing classes, Popper study classes, French, German and History, we also had weekly choir practice with Francis. This opened up a whole new sound-world for me as we studied madrigals and Renaissance songs. We spent ages getting the right stylistic sound for this period of music, such as ‘gonging’ the beginning of a note and then lightening the sound to allow other voices to sound through.
I also had the good fortune to have a week of chamber music with Lucy at Eastfield. Lynn Brubaker, Christopher da Graal (then Lublinski), and I went to Lucy’s to study the Haydn Emperor Quartet. This was very different to the hour-long weekly chamber music lessons I’d had at Oberlin. With Lucy we had long extended rehearsals, learning so much from playing alongside her. (I also remember her homemade wine, damson jam, and her special way of preparing liver!)
Jane’s serious side came out most in history class – first thing every Monday morning. This aspect of our education was very serious to her, and some days it seemed our lack of knowledge and understanding could only disappoint her. As I think back, maybe this reflected her terrible disappointment at the depths of thoughtlessness and cruelty in the world. She would often seek to shock us by saying something outrageous, following it up with reasoning that made the outrageous seem plausible. I think her underlying intention was to shake us out of apathy and indifference and get us to think. Her desire was for us to take seriously the importance of music as a powerful force for good in the world.
She sometimes welcomed dissent, and I remember the lively debating between her and David Black. On the other hand, I remember Jonathan Stallick coming up against a different side of Jane when he identified a Sinfonia by W.F. Bach as a slow movement of a Vivaldi Concerto. Jane had very strong views on Vivaldi – that he was a showman and composer of lightweight music, whose popularity unjustly eclipsed that of Corelli, whom she considered to be the father of classical containment in string playing; a style of expressive playing without vanity. Jonathan mentioned his discovery, and Jane stated that Vivaldi was incapable of writing such a beautiful piece of music. When Jonathan challenged this, she started beating the piano keys violently and shouting to make her point. Jonathan felt sure of his facts, but he discovered that some things were non-negotiable, and he had no choice but to back down and put the incident behind him. Jane’s passionately held views sometimes left no room for dissent, and I wonder at what personal cost to her?
After my first year at the ICC under Jane and John, I decided I had to continue with this way of learning music. I returned for a second year, and in my third year I returned as an assistant-student. Alongside this change of status came a change in my relationship with John, eventually leading to us getting married. This proved to be a difficult transition for Jane and for John, and it was also difficult for me. They had a complex long-term relationship, and perhaps Jane had counted on him always being there for her. John had hoped to play his part in shaping the future of the ICC, but this wasn’t to be, and in the end it seemed best for all concerned to make a complete break. That was all a long time ago, and this isn’t the place to go into more detail. From this perspective I feel huge appreciation for Jane’s tremendous genius, inspiration and generosity, and also for John’s supporting role in making the ICC so successful for so many years.
It is hard to sum up Jane’s impact in a few sentences, but I will try! Jane brought to life whatever music we were studying through her vivid stories, capturing the essence of the composer’s life and personality. Her passion was contagious, and music making became a joy, an adventure and a revelation. On a personal level, I credit Jane with helping me to find my musical voice, as well as giving me the tools to go on developing that voice – what a tremendous gift that has been, and I sometimes wonder if she had any idea of the extent of her impact. She shook us out of our apathy and got us to wake up and care – about music and the world around us. She was so determined that we would feel deeply, and I think this was her biggest gift.