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Helen Airoff - Dowling (1916-1987)

 

W.A. Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 7, K 271, performed by Helen Airoiff and conductor Kurt Wöss.


 
 

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The cover of an early edition of R-199-46.



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The 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?

 

Maybe 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.

Scarce are the data and there are no recollections of live performances known to me.
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.

Teaching 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. It 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 label.

An early picture of Helen Airoff in the mid nineteen fifties. (Private picture, courtesy Dr. Marco J. de Vries).

Helen 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 and Gavotte).

It 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.

Most 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 Céliny Chailley-Richez, 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.

R-199-95 (Released in November 1952)

It 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.

When they met, the professor noticed in an adjacent room, lying on a piano, a Guarneri violin, which obviously had not been touched for a long time because the musician was no longer able to move her right arm. They talked intensively for an hour and a half. Helen 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. The 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.)

On July 15th, 1987, Yehudi Menuhin wrote a letter to The Times in London:


"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.
Yehudi Menuhin's letter to The Times, July 15th, 1987.

Helen Airoff in the 1970s.
(Picture, courtesy Dr. Marco J. de Vries).

Francine 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

In 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 government and is now located in the city of Utrecht.

Helen Airoff, born in 1916 in Russia (some sources mention New York City as place of birth), died on July 12, 1987, in London.

Research and text Rudolf A. Bruil. Page first published on June 3, 2005.

Images 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. The website of the Helen Dowling Institute.

Helen Dowling devised together with Yehudi Menuhin the Menuhin-Dowling Music Program which is part of the education at The Nueva School in Hillsborough, California, which has established the Yehudi Menuhin-Helen Dowling Competition for Young Musicians.

Francine Trachier would like to meet some of her fellow students who studied with Helen Dowling-Airoff.


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