Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Marylou Speaker Churchill

I've been meaning to write a few words about Marylou Speaker Churchill ever since I found out about her death on November 11, the day after she passed away. I didn't know Mrs. Churchill well, but I studied with her for three weeks at a summer festival several years ago, and she was the kind of person who left an impression, no matter how briefly you knew her.

She was a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for 30 years, and principal second for 23 of those years.

I have a spiral bound collection of music she gave me that summer, with a yellow cover bearing the title "Basics, Opus 2" and her name at the bottom. The title and her name are printed, but the rest of the front cover is covered in words, too - her own writing. A few phrases stand out to me each time I look at this little booklet, but especially the words written across the top of the page: "Start with JOY!" You didn't have to know Mrs. Churchill long, or very well at all, to realize that that was how she approached not just the violin, but all of life - with joy.

Inside the front cover are about 15 pages of exercises excerpted from various violin methods - Schradieck, Korguoff, Dounis, Yost, Galamian, and a little Simon Fischer. There's also a page of charts covering frequencies, ratios, cents, decimals, etc. for complete chromatic scales in Pythagorean, Just, Mean-tone, and Equal-tempered systems of intonation. (It's quite complex and gives me a headache just to look at that page.) Every page in the book, every exercise, is the sort of thing that can kick your butt whether you're mediocre or excellent (actually, I don't know anything about being excellent, but I can imagine).

There's an excerpt from a presentation she gave to young musicians once that seems to sum up her personality and beliefs well - her deep faith, her personal conviction in all that she did, and her vibrant love of music and of people:

"It appears that the greatest concern of the young musician seeking an orchestral position is the belief in stage-fright or nerves. Assuming proper preparation and a good attitude (I have nothing to lose, I don't have the job so I can't lose it), the manifestation of a loss of control is simply fear; fear of not doing as well as you can. There is a law of this universe which is so simple and so powerful and it literally wipes this fear out of your being, and it is this... "perfect love casts out fear." If you are actively engaged in loving your instrument, loving the music, loving the audience, loving the committee, loving your enemies, then there is simply no room for fear of any kind, and you will find yourself playing better than you expected. To love is to live, and breathe, and sing, and play. Love then."

The New England Conservatory, where Mrs. Churchill taught, has a nice tribute to her life and work on their website, which you can read here.

Midway through that yellow-covered collection of music is the last movement from Messiaen's "Quartet for the End of Time." This movement, "Louange à l'Immortalité de Jésus," or "Praise to the Immortality of Jesus," is only for violin and piano, and she included it in a book otherwise consisting of exercises as an opportunity to focus on tone, bow distribution, vibrato, phrasing... well, there are endless things to think about with this piece. But I think she also just loved the piece and wanted to share her copy of the music with her students. [Edit to add: you can read Michael's musings on an impromptu collaboration with Mrs. Churchill on this very piece at his blog.]

At the top of the Messiaen, penciled in just below the title are two words written in large cursive: "all love."

You can listen to a recording of Mrs. Churchill playing this movement with pianist Veronica Jochum here. It's an incredibly moving performance that vividly demonstrates that love - of music, of people, of life - that she spoke about.

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