Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 7, K 271, performed by Helen Airoiff and
conductor Kurt Wöss.
cover of an early edition of R-199-46.
World Violinists Links
name of violinist Helen Airoff is known by just a few, mostly colleagues
and pupils, and a sporadic collector of rare violin recordings. But
even then, why is there so little known about violinist Helen Airoff,
except for the fact that she traveled to America on the same boat
- Ile de France - as Dame Myra Hess did, on December 16, 1949, returning
to the USA? And that she made recordings for the Remington label?
information is scarce because most colleagues, friends and pupils
did take her advice for granted. They considered her stimulating instruction
and her drive to organize whatever was beneficial for them, more or
less a normalcy. She was a caring person. It is known that she cared
for ill violoncellist Maurice Gendron at the end of his life.
are the data and there are no recollections of live performances known
The liner notes on Remington 199-95 tell that Helen Airoff
made her debut as a child prodigy at the age of nine, in San Francisco.
She studied under Adolph Busch and
Georges Enesco in Europe. She made
many successful appearances as a solo violinist, and during World
War II she volunteered her services for GI concerts in Africa, Europe
and the Middle East. And that is where the short biography ends.
the violin, that is what she mainly did. In many instances this automatically
meant giving lessons in life also, guiding the talents and prepare
them for a career as a soloist, a musician or a teacher. But above
all Helen Airoff made an imprint as a human being. It is true that
people easily herald a king and a queen, but forget about the advocate
and the role of the dedicated servant. On many occasions she must
have been exactly right.
was Helen Airoff who suggested to producer Don Gabor and violinist
Georges Enesco to do the recordings of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas,
despite the Romanian maestro's age and state of health. She was the
instigator of the valuable legacy issued on the Continental
early picture of Helen Airoff in the mid nineteen fifties. (Private
picture, courtesy Dr. Marco J. de Vries).
Airoff's two Remington recordings are the only known recordings that
witness her talent as a performer:
Beethoven's Sonata for Piano and Violin No. 8, performed with
pianist Céliny Chailley-Richez on R-199-95, released
in 1952 and coupled with Sonata No. 2 performed by Walter Schneiderhan
- brother of famous Wolfgang- with pianist Erich Berg;
Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 7, KV 271, performed with the
Orchestra of the Viennese Symphonic Society (Austrian Symphony Orchestra)
and conductor Kurt Wöss on R-199-46, released in 1953
but recorded much earlier; coupled with orchestral pieces (Two Minuets
could be that there are radio recordings or private recordings hidden
in a vault and nobody knows about their existence.
But the known Remingtons are a posthumous illustration of Airoff's
possibilities and insight. The Beethoven Sonata is rather well recorded
considering that the recordings were made without the extra care of
a producer who wanted to make a high quality recording.
Remington productions were recorded in a few takes with hardly any
splicing, because the budgets were very limited. Naturally critic
Warren de Motte wrote about the Beethoven Sonata: "Airoff and
Chailley-Richez lack the polish of their fellow artists." Nevertheless
Helen Airoff does not fail to communicate with her vivid playing.
The recording also gives proof of the artistry of
whose phrasing and subtle dynamics are simply wonderful. Helen Airoff
was about 36 years of age when the recording was made and Céliny
Chailley-Richez some 20 years her elder. It sounds like mother and
daughter are making music together, the piano taking the lead at times
and providing the fundament for the violin to play - after all, it
is a Sonata for Piano and Violin, and not the other way around.
(Released in November 1952)
is reported that Helen Airoff always questioned her profession, her
artistry and the meaning of her existence. And she never failed to
impress, even at the end of her life when she was severely ill with
cancer. It was then that psycho-oncologist Professor Marco J. de
Vries from the Netherlands was asked by cardiologist Peter
Nixon, from Great Britain, to visit her in her apartment in London.
they met, the professor noticed in an adjacent room, lying on a piano,
a violin. It was her Guarneri violin, which obviously had not
been touched for a long time because the musician was no longer able
to move her right arm. De Vries talked intensively for an hour and
a half with Helen who questioned the meaning of her life and said
that she had only played the violin. But when Dr. Marco de Vries asked
her about her students, she admitted that she always cared about the
pupils she had and that many of them had won international prizes
and were well known. She often let a room to a promising student for
some time. And when the student was practicing in the room on another
floor, she would listen while going about her own business, and she
would give advice, even by shouting from the floor below.
conversation with Dr. Marco de Vries showed that her self-esteem was
rather low, an idea that she already had from her early youth on.
That is why she did not fully recognize the significance of having
taught so many pupils.
Marco de Vries
later wrote: "When I left her London apartment, I was however
so impressed by her, that at the front door I decided that, if I ever
was going to found an institute of my own, I would name it after her."
Three weeks later Helen Airoff had died. (Her husband, Alan Dowling,
had predeceased her by four years.)
July 15th, 1987, Yehudi Menuhin wrote a letter to The Times
"I write these words to
evoke the memory of a great soul and a remarkable woman, who,
in her passing, has left an irredeemable void, as much in the
hearts of her varied friends as she has in the work and the
musical legacy to which she still had so much to contribute.
Helen Airoff, born like me a Russian Jewish violinist, paralleled
in an uncanny way my own life. We shared three great masters,
Louis Persinger, the American, Georges Enesco, the Rumanian,
and Adolf Busch, the German.(...) Certainly no one living today
understands the spirit of Enesco's marvelous music, his opera
Oedipus, his symphonies, chamber music, songs, etc. or knew
them as deeply as Helen. In this respect alone her departing
is tragic. (...) Far from being mourned as a public figure,
she will be profoundly missed by teachers and students and individuals
whose lives were expanded and enriched by her presence, not
least at my school." - Yehudi Menuhin (1987).
Menuhin's letter to The Times, July 15th, 1987.
Airoff in the 1970s.
(Picture, courtesy Dr. Marco J. de Vries).
Trachier - member of the orchestre regional de Basse Normandie - studied
with Helen Airoff. She remembers the significance of Helen Airoff
as a teacher and as a human being:
"I was one of the last students
of Mrs. Dowling and I remember in June 1987 I was studying the
Berg Concerto "in the memory of an angel", and her
sister, Mrs. Gregory, was there. Helen wanted me to play this
concerto for her and I went to her flat, a doctor was with Helen
in the bedroom, and I was not allowed to see her. I played the
concerto in the living-room for Mrs. Gregory and the door of
the bedroom was opened. After Mrs. Dowling's death, her sister
told me that she was proud of my work and that she wanted to
listen to me for the last time. Every day I think of Mrs. D.
and if I have any doubt about the violin or about my life, I
know she is still around and things become more clear."
- Francine Trachier
1988 Professor Dr. Marco J. de Vries founded the Helen Dowling
Institute in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Aim initially was the
research of psychological factors that could possibly play a role
in the onset and the development of cancer. Yehudi Menuhin
came to Rotterdam to perform with other musicians in memory of Helen
Dowling-Airoff in De Doelen Concert Hall, to the benefit of
the newly founded institute. The institute is subsidized by the Dutch
born in 1916 in Russia (some sources mention New York City as place
of birth), died on July 12, 1987, in London.
and text Rudolf A. Bruil. Page first published on June 3, 2005.
of Helen Airoff, of Yehudi Menuhin's letter, the details about the
visit of Prof. Dr. Marco J. de Vries to London courtesy
Professor Dr. Marco J. de Vries (1927-2009).
The Helen Dowling Institute has since left its initial theoritical
basis and objective and now focuses on psychological care for cancer
patients. See the Dutch website of the
Dowling devised together with Yehudi Menuhin the Menuhin-Dowling Music
Program which is part of the education at
Nueva School in Hillsborough, California, which has established
the Yehudi Menuhin-Helen Dowling Competition for Young Musicians.