Martha Blackman (1927–2021)

Wednesday, November 17th marked the passing of the renowned viola da gamba performer and teacher Martha Blackman at the age of 94. Martha was a pioneer in the early music movement in the U.S. and is best known as the first full-time viola da gambist with the New York Pro Musica under Noah Greenberg. A longtime lecturer at Stanford, Blackman was an expert in French ornamentation in Baroque string music, the lyra viol, the composer Tobias Hume, and the clàrsach and its repertoire.

Her longtime friend and colleague, SFEMS board member and former president Joyce Johnson Hamilton, has this remembrance to share:

“I met Martha over 50 years ago when she arrived at Stanford in 1969 as the newest member of the music faculty. I was just beginning doctoral studies in early music performance with a specialty in baroque trumpet and cornetto. Stanford offered no applied lessons on my instruments. My advisor George Houle urged me to study the viola da gamba with Martha. I did as he suggested not knowing what a fantastic influence the experience would have in my musical life.

While at Juilliard, Martha was a student of Leonard Rose who was the teacher of most of the great cellists, including Yo-Yo Ma, who was his last student. While her studies with Leonard Rose would have been a huge boost to a career as a professional cellist, Martha was drawn to the intimacy of musical detail and expression that the viola da gamba offered. Her gift to her students was in focusing their attention on the power of the musical line and how to be guided by text and other rhetorical devices to keep the music alive and filled with intent.

A friendship that covers many decades has its starts and stops as well as high points and low. I am reminded of the Thanksgiving at our home when Martha—well into her 80’s—joined us. There were several other musicians who all happened to be pianists. We adjourned to the piano studio after dinner where one person played a little Beethoven, another Chopin, another performed her own composition, and then Martha slowly made her way to the piano and began to pound out the wildest honky-tonk I had ever had the hilarious pleasure of hearing! She had apparently been playing bar room piano from a very young age in Memphis and later to help pay college expenses while earning her master’s degree at Northwestern.

Two years ago Martha was stricken with a stroke which left her with profound aphasia. She was unable to speak although she retained her alertness and ability to gesture and indicate “yes” and “no”. A group of former students and colleagues from all over the country and even in Germany have gathered every Sunday for a Zoom session with Martha, which was a happy experience for her. If there was ever a group of loving individuals who pooled so much effort and offered so many expressions of care and love, it was the folks who have attended the Sunday Zoom sessions.  A unique experience for all of us in this digital age and one of the very best uses of the Zoom technology, as it allowed us to support Martha in the final 18 months of her life.”

EDIT 11/29: We also received this lovely remembrance from Martha and Joyce’s friend,  J. Robert Flexer: “Many thanks, Joyce, for your thoughtful remembrance of Martha. I’ve been in France for ten years, and now I understand why I could not communicate with her in the recent years. Very sorry, for fifty years Martha has been one of my dearest friends, she taught me baroque violin, I stayed quite powerless through her long work with her life’s recordings and her collaboration with John Barson, we played together one of her last gigs on 04.14.2007 (not quite honky-tonk) at a wedding.
I particularly admired Martha’s technique for emptying her house every ten years before the house insurance people’s check-up visits, filling a large U-Haul, and returning her stuff to the house after each visit. Aside from the fiddle, she was a joy for me to visit with her and talk for hours about personal matters.
Joyce, it’s with emotion that I recall, in addition to your performances on the trumpet, that you’ve been the piano teacher in the 70s for my kids Marie and Michel Flexer on Matadero Ave. just across from Martha’s place over El Camino. I loved you very much. When I asked you what made you learn and play the trumpet, you replied: ‘But it’s evident… it’s the world’s most beautiful instrument!’ Till then I was mistakenly thinking that it was the violin.”

SFEMS is deeply saddened to learn of Ms. Blackman’s passing and sends our condolences to her family and friends.

If you have remembrances to share, please post them here, or send to communications manager Heidi Waterman at [email protected].

Written by Heidi Waterman