Memories and recollections of Jane Cowan by John Gwilt
I am writing my memories and recollections of Jane Cowan in my 85th year. There may well be inaccuracies and there are certainly many gaps. I am not pretending to be a historian and am happy to be corrected for any errors inadvertently included. I have written about the International Cello Centre for the Casals School newsletter which I am sending along with this. Also there is an article by me entitled "Ask the teacher" in the October 2013 edition of the Strad. So I thought it would be interesting to write about the twenty four years in which I knew Jane before the ICC time. This does turn out to be a bit autobiographical but that seemed the clearest way to share my memories of Jane.
Jane grew up in Edinburgh and studied cello at the Waddell School. Her mother sent her to a school which did not allow homework to be done outside school hours, thus leaving time for development in other ways. When there was a notable artistic event, such as the dancer Pavlova coming to perform, her mother would keep her home from school during the day so that she would be fresh in the evening to get the most out of that event. This wasn't just for one night, but Jane was taken to every performance during the week! She was also taken out of school to play in Sir Donald Tovey's classes at the university - all of this contributing to her developing an independent mind. She later went on to study with Feuermann in Austria, eventually becoming a pupil teacher for him as well as starting a performing career. In 1935 Feuermann was in London to do a recording of Haydn's D major concerto with Malcolm Sargent and Jane was assisting him. They turned up at the recording studio and the session duly began, but at the end of the orchestra tutti Feuermann did not play, saying, "Mr Sargent, I will play when the orchestra starts playing in tune". He then demonstrated by playing a perfect 4 octave D major scale, and said he would step aside until the intonation problem was put right. Jane told him that Sargent was a prickly man and liked to be addressed as Dr, so Feuermann turned to Sargent and said, "Mr Doctor Sargent I will be ready when you are". Needless to say the atmosphere was distinctly frosty, but the recording did take place, demonstrating Feuermann's brilliant dexterity and style, albeit with an undistinguished orchestral contribution.
While in Austria Jane became great friends with the Austrian composer, Theodor Berger. Had the war not intervened I would not have been surprised if she had married him and made a wonderful life for herself in Austria. But it was not to be and she had to return home, leaving all that behind when war broke out. Also, she was informed that he was killed in the war, only later finding out that he was still alive. So ended a chapter in her life but a new one opened up when she married Christopher Cowan and made her life with him.
When I went to Sedbergh School in 1943, Christopher was Director of Music, and I learned much from him as my choirmaster and piano teacher. I decided to learn to play the cello and found that the teacher was Jane Cowan. Little did I know it but this decision was to change my life. I soon fell under the spell of this wonderful warm-hearted and generous teacher and by the time I left Sedbergh I longed to make cello playing and music making my career, all thanks to Jane's inspiration. At Sedbergh we had seven houses which competed annually in chamber music and choral singing and even though Jane had no official connection with our house, by some serendipity she was our coach. Needless to say we won the cups most years! (Much to the annoyance of the headmaster, whose house almost always came second). Even then Jane was showing the seeds of what she was to become. With her broad range of musical understanding she inspired us to musical heights. On one of these occasions we were playing a 3 part Fantasia by Orlando Gibbons and Jane invited us to tea one Sunday to learn more about Gibbons and his background. She brought the man and his music to life in her inimitable way, and Orlando Gibbons has been one of my favourite composers ever since then. Jane was so much more than just a teacher of the cello.
There was a concert series at the school; some featuring visiting artists and some put on by the music staff. I remember a superb recital that Jane and Christopher gave of Beethoven's A major sonata. I wasn't aware until much later that they often gave recitals in the nearby towns and villages as part of the war effort. Also I knew of a time when Jane went to Edinburgh to perform with Hans Gal. In 1943 Francis was three years old, Maeve was a babe in arms and Lucy had not yet been born. For a short time I was taught by Carl Fuchs, who filled in for Jane while she was away giving birth to Lucy.
At the end of one Summer Term Jane arranged for my brother David and me to stay on for a few days in order to play Schubert's string quintet. Her sister, Margaret (Cuddy), was 1st violin, the violin teacher, Kenneth Anderson, was 2nd violin, David on the viola and Jane and I, cellos. It was a wonderful gesture for her to give up some of her hard earned holiday time in order to introduce us to this great work. That was Jane to a fault, generously giving of her time to a inspire others. At this time I was unaware of the exceptional nature of Jane's teaching as I just thought this must be what all cello teachers were like!
Another side of Jane was the seventh sight which she inherited from her mother. Christopher had invited Jelly d'Aranyi to give a recital at the school. (Jelly was a great friend of Jane and indeed in Jane's final days she kept a picture of Jelly at her bedside). When the time came for Jelly to return to London Jane asked her to stay on for a few days. Jelly demurred saying she had to get back but Jane said "What if you broke your ankle, you wouldn't be able to go". Shortly after they went for a walk, Jelly stumbled and broke her ankle!
After I left Sedbergh I was called up to do National Service in the army for two years and then went on to study at the Royal College of Music for another two years. During that time Christopher and Jane had moved to Uppingham School and carried on their work there. When Jane first arrived there were four cellists but by the time they left for Winchester after three years this had increased to over forty. Her reputation meantime was spreading. For instance, Benjamin Zander's parents were very keen to get the best for their son. They had come to know Benjamin Britten well at Aldeburgh, and such was the friendship that they were known as big Ben and little Ben. When the Zanders asked Britten's advice about who was the best cello teacher for little Ben to study with, he replied that he must go to study with Jane at Uppingham.
After two years at the RCM I was feeling frustrated that I wasn't getting what I needed. The conventional Music College institutional atmosphere was far from what I remembered of my inspirational lessons with Jane, so I asked if I could come and continue studying with her. She agreed and I stayed in Uppingham with James Peschek, (Christopher's assistant) and as well as studying with Jane I also did some cello teaching and performing during the latter part of their stay at Uppingham.
When Jane and Christopher moved to Winchester I moved with them and continued studying with Jane during term times, living as a lodger, my brother David joining us later. At this time Francis was a chorister at St George's, Windsor Castle. He later went to Winchester College as a boarder and I taught him the cello during his time there. Jane wanted a different sort of education for her daughters, so she sent the two girls to a Quaker school at Ackworth near Pontefract in Yorkshire. I remember sometimes riding Lucy on the back of Christopher's bicycle up to her prep school in the morning in the days before she joined Maeve at Ackworth. Christopher asked me to teach the cello at Winchester College as Jane was busy with family and other commitments. Jane continued to be the main influence on my playing and teaching style, and now I was passing on what I had learned from her. It is interesting that a number of my students from those days went on to become performers in the baroque field (for instance Charles Medlam and Timothy Mason) - a trend that continued at the ICC. In the Winchester town orchestra which Christopher conducted I led the cellos and Jane played the Double Bass! She was always happy to play the bassline, and would often be outspoken about musical matters from that position. I also was given the opportunity to play concertos with the orchestra and on those occasions Jane would lead the cellos. I have fond memories of her joining me in the cello duet in the slow movement of the Schumann. Around that time Princess Dadiani, a great friend of Jane's, asked her if she could bring up her two young nieces and nephew as their mother and father had just died. Being Jane she readily agreed and eventually adopted them officially. They were the Zarbs. She wanted them to go to a good prep school in Winchester, but as it was the middle of the school year and the school was full up she had a problem. A solution was reached when the Headmistress agreed to take on the Zarb children if Jane would coach the choir, as she had been unable to fill that position. This Jane willingly agreed to do, to everyone's benefit.
Jane always spoke her mind, and this worked in my favour when I was looking around to upgrade my cello. I had heard from the local luthier, Albert Cooper, that there was a man in Bournemouth who played cello on the Cunard liners by the name of Harry Stott. He had a collection of instruments inherited from his father who had been a dealer in Liverpool, and amongst these was this cello. Lots of people had seen it but Harry Stott would not let anyone take it away on approval as he did not trust what they might do. This sounded interesting so Jane and I went to see him and his cello (which he kept in a bank for safe keeping). I could see immediately that this cello had great potential even though it was poorly set up. When I said I would like to have it on approval to get to know it better, sure enough he came out with his objections to it leaving his sight. He said even if you swear on the Bible I will not believe you that you would take it off for some other dealer to look at. At this point Jane said "I am a Quaker and Quakers do not swear on the Bible. Their word is enough". Immediately his attitude changed and he said that as she was a Quaker he would trust her and we were able to take the cello away. Shortly after that I played on this cello at a chamber music concert to which he came. He liked my playing and eventually agreed to let me buy it. I still play on it every day and it is much loved. At the same time Jane bought a beautiful Italian double bass from him for Francis.
Another example of Jane speaking her mind was later when we lived in London, and Jane and I went to the cinema to watch a film called The Killing of Sister George. This film contained an explicit scene between two lesbians (I remember a breast was exposed. In the 1960s this was way out). At this point the film which had had a musical background suddenly stopped the soundtrack to heighten the drama. In the middle of the silence Jane got up noisily from her seat, making a commotion, and saying 'sorry I have to leave NOW". Of course I was duty bound to follow in her wake. She was morally outraged and those who knew her strong sense of right or wrong would not have been surprised by her reaction.
Jane was a very complex character. (I remember teaching a Jungian psychologist who said he would love to have Jane as a client). One time Jane heard Maeve listening to some French chansons on her radio and told her to turn it off and not to listen to such decadent music. Much later she embellished this incident for dramatic effect, recounting with relish to the ICC students the story of the time her daughter was listening to some ‘pop music’ in her room. Jane said she seized the offending record and threw it across the room saying she would not allow Maeve to listen to such decadent, ‘sexually arousing’ music. She believed that young women should behave with modesty and decorum at all times, for example she hated the fashion of wearing tight-fitting jerseys. There was a time at Winchester when I invited a female friend to come and stay for the weekend. She was the daughter of a patron of Eisenberg's and I had met her on several occasions and we were just getting to know one another. All was well until one morning Jane stormed into my room in an agitated state. It seems my friend had retired to bed and left her door ajar, and Jane took this to be an invitation for me to go and sleep with her. Jane told me in no uncertain terms that I had no time for such distractions if I was to pursue my goal of becoming a solo cellist. Jane's extreme reaction was typical, but while I knew her reaction was over the top, I could also see her point about focussing my energies. I was in my mid- twenties and still impressionable, and I wanted to perform above all else, so I took her advice on board and did not pursue that relationship. After that it seemed that I was destined to lead a bachelor's life but that all changed when I met Dawn.
Jane had an unworldly character and was not very interested in the day to day running of things. She took driving lessons, but one day when a policeman signalled for her to stop she did not register this in time and bumped into him. That was the end of any desire to drive a car. Another time she was on her way to rehearse for a concert with Adila in the Wigmore Hall where Adila was playing a Bach concerto, and she left her cello behind on the station platform. Also at a course she was running at Bedale school she left her bow on the top of a piano and one of the participants took it by mistake. Jane never got it back. One of the reasons that Jane and I made such a good team at the ICC was that I have a very practical nature, and therefore was able to look after that side of things and make sure the whole operation ran smoothly.
Over the seventeen years we were at Winchester the dynamics between Jane and me shifted considerably from a student/teacher relationship to becoming colleagues. As David and my performing career took off together with our concerts with the Fachiri trio (see next paragraph) we were frequently away on tour, but in between Jane continued to coach us and give her invaluable advice. In retrospect I realise that it was remarkable that Jane would give so much of her time to teaching me and also to coaching us. We studied most of the major classical works for cello and piano with her, notably the Beethoven and Brahms sonatas. These were analysed in depth by Jane giving us the benefit of her impressive knowledge.
So many interesting people came through the doors of 9 Kingsgate Street, their house in Winchester. Christopher put on three concerts a year with the town orchestra, (two of them being choral), and he also ran a chamber music society. In this way many soloists, singers and ensembles would visit and come for lunch with the Cowans. Among many musical visitors were Isobel Baillie, the wonderful Wilfred Brown, Peter Wallfisch and his wife Anita, Jelly d'Aranyi and her sister Adila Fachiri (David and I spent seven very enjoyable years playing in the Fachiri Trio), Olive Zorian (with whom I played the Brahms Double), Maurice Eisenberg (there was an occasion when he conducted massed cellos in Winchester Cathedral), Bernard Michelin, Maria Kareska, (a great Brazilian singer), Bruno Hoffmann, the glass harmonica player (it was quite an experience playing Mozart's work with him - coming in on down beats was a huge problem as the glass harmonica does not have a precise start to its notes. Bruno Hoffmann would start his fingers moving and there was a moment of silence before the momentum of the note built up. We were often in near hysterics at the rehearsals! ), Gerald Moore and the ever popular James Blades (the percussionist in Thomas Beecham's orchestra) to name but a few.
Of course there were many other characters who came and stayed over the years. A lovely girl, Elke, a niece of Theodor Berger's wife, came to study English. I remember her asking if someone was a human being, would a dead person be a human was-ing? Also Andrea Valka, an irrepressible Hungarian refugee from the 1956 Hungarian uprising came and stayed for some time, learning cello with Jane and eventually marrying Richard Watson, principal double bass in the BBC Concert Orchestra. She has made a very successful career as a cello teacher including teaching at Eton. I recall a remarkable surgeon, Meave Kenny, who worked with Jane's step-father who was the Head of the Gynaecological Department at Hammersmith Hospital and delivered all of Jane's children. She had a severe alcohol problem but such was her reputation and her control of her symptoms that she was considered to be a better surgeon than anyone else, even when seriously drunk, and all her fellow doctors would choose her when their wives were giving birth. From time to time Jane's step-father asked her if Meave could stay at Winchester to recover from her excesses. She was incredibly cunning in being able to conceal her addiction, and Jane was one of the few people who could match her level of cunning. She had a daughter, Patsy, who also came to stay and became yet another of Jane's "adoptees". Jane had a seemingly limitless capacity to work for others, sometimes at the expense of her exhausting herself. I remember one time when Jane reckoned Meave was fit enough to return to London and it was arranged that I would drive her to the train and see her off back to London. This I duly did, waiting till the train left the platform to make sure she was well and truly underway. Arriving back at 9 Kingsgate Street to announce her departure I was astounded to find Meave had got there before me. To this day I have no idea how she did it!
Finally there was the indomitable Anna Volny, the Silesian housekeeper who was immensely strong and cleaned the entire house before anyone got up as well as cooking irresistible meals. I am sorry to say I gained a lot of weight which I subsequently had trouble getting rid of. She loved playing her version of croquet with David and me, taking delight in hitting our balls out of play and shouting "Hou im nach Huxtebude" which was the Silesian equivalent of "hit him for six". She was also an avid watcher of wrestling on her TV (the only one in the house). Christopher would sometimes take her to live wrestling shows when they were on in the town. Everyone says they remember where they were on the day that President Kennedy was assassinated and I am no exception. One evening Anna called down from her room to tell us we must come up because the news was being broadcast on her TV.
One of the visitors had a big impact on my life and career. This was Maurice Eisenberg who ran the ICC in London expressly at the wish of Casals who was an old friend and also his former teacher. As Jane had never studied Bach's 6th Suite she suggested that I should study this with Eisenberg. This grew into a friendship and I assisted him one year at the Cascais Summer Music School in Portugal where he gave master classes along with the Hungarian violinist, Sandor Vegh.
Maurice invited me to teach at the ICC in London, and during this time I also played at master classes given by Casals in Zermatt, Switzerland. It may surprise people to know that when Eisenberg's health deteriorated, both he and Milly Stanfield (who ran the ICC when Eisenberg was in America) asked me if I would take over the running of the ICC owing to my association with Eisenberg and Casals, and the fact that I was an up and coming performer. People assume, quite understandably, that the ICC was offered to Jane. But in 1967 their offer came to me out of the blue. It was a great opportunity but I knew I could not do this on my own so my first thought was to ask Jane if we could take on the ICC together. At this point my career as a performer was growing, but I believed so much in Jane's ideas that I felt ready to devote my energies to developing the ICC with her. I knew that the two of us could make something remarkable happen, and she instantly agreed to my proposal.
Unfortunately when I told Eisenberg of this idea he was doubtful. Much as he admired Jane he was concerned that she had learnt with Feuermann and did not have a direct connection with Casals. Maurice and Milly asked Casals about Jane's suitability, and he remembered accompanying her in Sir Donald Tovey's class at Edinburgh University in the 1930s. (This was the famous occasion when she turned to him at the end of a movement and said "Gosh, you are musical"). Casals gave the go-ahead, and thus started a new chapter in the history of the ICC. Up until this point Jane had devoted her energies to supporting Christopher in his musical career and bringing up her family (including many "adoptees"). Now that Christopher was about to retire and her children were grown up, for the first time she was free to design her own course and integrate all the elements that she felt essential to becoming a well -rounded musician and human being.
I feel blessed to have been part of this enterprise; enabling Jane to develop and communicate her vision and reach so many people. Of course with her temperament there were difficulties especially towards the end of my time at the ICC, but she was such a vibrant personality and there was so much that was good that my abiding memories of her enthusiasms and her whole musical ethos will stay with me. It was a wonderful journey.