Monday, June 17, 2013

Elizabeth Cowling: Cellist, Musicologist, Teacher

Elizabeth Cowling, Early 1940s
In the culture of classical music, instruments are more than objects that produce sound. Instruments have names, personalities, and even gender. Within the family of stringed instruments, the relationship between the performer and the violoncello infers an even more romantic dynamic. The curves of the instrument combined with the straddling poise of the musician in performance suggests an intimate relationship between the cellist and cello in which the cellist is typecast as the masculine partner. Certainly, it is not until the 20th century that the status of the woman cellist transitions from performing oddity to acknowledged musician, although it is not until the 1950s and 1960s in which women were accepted as concert performers and soloists. Considering the distinctive masculine tradition of the cellist, it is fascinating to note that the archive with the single largest holding of cello music related material in the world began at the Women’s College with a female cellist by the name of Elizabeth Cowling.

Elizabeth Cowling (1910-1997) accepted the position of assistant professor in the School of Music in August of 1945 with a salary of $2500 for nine months of instruction. She came to the Women’s College after earning a Master’s degree in Economics from Columbia University as well as a Master’s degree in Cello Performance at Northwestern University (she received her PhD in Music History and Literature from Northwestern in 1960). As a faculty member, Cowling earned a reputation as a demanding instructor, challenging her students with lessons described as “bone-chillingly frightening.” As one of Cowling’s former students remembers her,

“She simply demanded our best… always…and all us little Southern girls, in starched cotton dresses, had never met anyone quite like her. We all agree now that she was the one who made is aware of our minds…and forced us to use them.”

The intimidating standard of industry Elizabeth Cowling expected from her students applied to her own efforts. The course load Cowling maintained as a professor required the hiring of three full time professors in Music History within four years of her retirement.

As was required of Woman’s College School of Music faculty, Cowling regularly performed in concerts locally, though her legacy is as a researcher and author of music history. Her passion of music history, specifically the history of the cello, led her to Luigi Silva, the acclaimed cellist and musicologist whose collection is the foundation of the UNCG Cello Music Collections. Her correspondence with Silva began in 1946, and the support of Silva as a mentor (and later, a colleague), combined with Cowling’s exhaustive research, would lead to the publishing of The Cello, the most comprehensive biography of the instrument to have ever been written in English at that time. The acclaimed work is still standard reading for music history and has, since its publication in 1975, been revised and published in Japanese.

Dedication of the Luigi Silva Library, 1964
(from left to  right: Janos Scholz,
Mrs. Brett Armfield,
Elizabeth Cowling, and Charles M. Adams)
The research materials for The Cello were derived from Cowling’s research trips to music archives in Europe, but also, in part, from the impressive library of Luigi Silva. When Silva’s widow made the library available for sale after his death in 1961, Elizabeth Cowling urged the Library to consider the investment. With the blessing of Charles M. Adams, the University Librarian, the Friends of the Library purchased the Luigi Silva Cello Music Collection in 1963, with the official dedication of the collection in 1964. Given the value and rarity of items in the Silva Collection, and since there was no separate music library or music librarian at the time, the Silva Library was initially housed in its own room in the Library under the care of Special Collections and University Archives.

The School of Music and the University Library collaborated in a Luigi Silva tribute event in 1964, publicizing the acquisition of the collection. Immediately, the Library received letters inquiring about research access and the content of the collection, questions that were generally forwarded to Elizabeth Cowling. The Silva Library remained the only cello music collection until 1977, when Cowling donated her personal score collection to the Library. With the combined cello music collections of Silva and Cowling, the Library could claim an archive of nearly 2450 scores, predominantly featuring the cello.

Elizabeth Cowling’s influence does not end with the donation of her collection in 1977. Her professional acquaintances and friendships with cellists around the world, combined with the prestige of sharing an archive with Luigi Silva, encouraged established cellists to donate their collections with the result that the Rudolf Matz Cello Music Collection was donated in 1986. By the time of Elizabeth Cowling’s death, Special Collections and University Archives housed the collections of Luigi Silva (1963), Elizabeth Cowling (1977), Rudolf Matz (1986), Maurice Eisenberg (1989), and Janos Scholz (1994).

Elizabeth Cowling died February 18, 1997, leaving a $190,000 gift to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, $20,000 of which was dedicated to the Library for the processing and cataloging of the collections into the OCLC online database, making the Cello Music Collections more accessible to cellists and music researchers worldwide.

Luigi Silva Collection Cataloging Project Completion
Celebration, 2001 (Left: Sarah Dorsey, Music Librarian;
Right: Joan Staples, Cello Music Cataloger)
October 23rd of this year marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the UNCG Cello Music Collection, beginning with the acquisition of the Luigi Silva Collection in 1963. Presently, the Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections & University Archives boasts the collections of ten cellists: Luigi Silva, Elizabeth Cowling, Rudolf Matz, Maurice Eisenberg, Janos Scholz, Fritz Magg, Bernard Greenhouse, Laszlo Varga, Lev Aronson, and Lubomir Georgiev.

Although Elizabeth Cowling’s impact on the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and music research is substantial, perhaps one of her former students articulated her legacy best when they wrote, “this woman exudes the mystique of music from her very being. Its joy and beauty permeate her soul, and are reflected back to those around. She is a pied piper for music students, luring them into the adventure of musicianship.”

1 comment:

  1. Elizabeth Cowling was our most intimidating instructor, and we adored her, which amused her greatly. When we gave a surprise birthday party for her, she growled at us, then said, " We may as well eat the cake". Later, she laughed about us in the Teacher's Lounge, with tears. Such a really soft heart. When I returned as an instructor, she informed me that I might call her " Betty", but I never could. I was the only keyboard major to give a cello recital. Neither of us could believe it, so I think she was pleased. Wonderful memories; wonderful book.

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