Silva Anniversary

By Whitehouse, Brooks | Strings, August/September 2004 | Go to article overview

Silva Anniversary

Whitehouse, Brooks, Strings

Remembering LUIGI SILVA, a titan of cello pedagogy

my first visit two years ago to the legendary Cello Music Collection at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro's Jackson Library led me to a folder of photographs held there in the Suva Collection. Luigi Suva (1903-1961) taught two of my former teachers, so as his "grandstudent" I was fascinated by the many faces of this famous cellist, scholar, and pedagogue.

Who was this man whose transcriptions of Paganini and Piatti I had studied? The pictures suggest a rich and varied life.

There is Silva as a Bologna Conservatory student in the '20s, a Milan native and moptopped young man with a clear-eyed and precocious confidence. There is Suva as the debonair young performing artist of the '30s at the time of his tenure with the Quartetto di Roma; pensive with chin in hand, he looks like a fine-tuned European version of Charlie Sheen. There is Suva during the '40s and '50s, now an American citizen and the handsome cellist of the Mannes-Gimpel-Silva Trio. There is Silva as the distinguished soloist serenely tightening the hair of his bow. And Silva as the bespectacled, bow-tied Yale professor making an enthusiastic point at a blackboard-this was the scholarly Silva who was then working simultaneously on two encyclopedic projects: La Tecnica Violoncellistica, translated by Margery Enix under the title A History of LeftHand Technique on the Violoncello, and the Vademecum, a comprehensive handbook of cello technique for left and right hands. This was the man who spoke six languages and who in 1956 taught at no fewer than five conservatories and universities: Yale, Juilliard, Mannes, Peabody, and Hartt.

The Silva Collection at UNCG bristles with the endeavors of this Renaissance man.

For example, there are four published volumes of etudes, two of which are transcribed from other instruments; 23 published concert transcriptions and nearly twice as many more, either unpublished or incomplete; and eight keyboard realizations of Boccherini sonatas. His papers reveal ambitious plans for an Encyclopedia of Bowed Stringed Instruments, and mention the then-pending publication of his own edition of the Bach Suites, a manuscript thought lost, but recently discovered among family archives. There are also tapes of a recital and a concerto appearance, as well as three commercial recordings.

Silva's playing is not widely known today, as these major recordings are now out of print. The LPs in the UNCG collection reveal a shimmering, transparent sound, brilliantly articulate off-the-string playing, and a remarkable ease with double-stops and harmonics. Those who heard him play attest to his virtuosity at the instrument. "He was a technical wizard and in the course of a lesson would toss off a Paganini Caprice with extraordinary ease and fluency," says Gordon Epperson, emeritus professor at the University of Arizona. "His playing was not only a virtuosic tour de force, however. He had a beautiful legato, singing sound, flexibility, and warmth. His style was one of exquisite precision and detail."

Silva is best remembered, however, for his outstanding teaching. He understood the mechanics of cello playing inside and out and was passionate about teaching it. Whether he was dealing with a beginner or an advanced player, Silva was able to see exactly where a student needed to go next, and could lead the student there in clear, decisive, and achievable steps. "It was impossible not to learn from him," says Epperson.

Clearly, Silva's great legacy as a teacher lives on in his students. One-time Silva student Elizabeth Cowling is author of The Cello and a former UNCG cello professor. She was also responsible for bringing the Silva Collection to UNCG following Silva's death. A survey by Cowling in 1980 found 20 Suva students teaching at universities throughout the United States and Canada. Many of these cellists remain important figures in the music world, and several participated this past March in the UNCG School of Music's Suva Centennial Celebration, a three-day festival of concerts, master classes, and pedagogy workshops dedicated to the legacy of this remarkable man.

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