Magdalena Roux’s eternal love affair with the cello

Magdalena Roux’s eternal love affair with the cello

Magdalena Roux, until recently senior cello lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch, retired after a long and successful career. During her years at the Conservatoire, she taught countless cellists who now have thriving careers in South Africa as well as abroad. In celebration of her life and success, as well as her 60th birthday on 29 January, former pupil and friend Berthine van Schoor interviewed her about her life as a cellist.

Why and when did you start to play the cello and who was your first teacher?

MR: My mother was a music teacher – she played both the violin and the piano. All I knew was that I did not want to play either instrument. We tried piano lessons, but it was a total disaster! My mother played the violin in a piano trio with two friends from time to time. I think she must have complained to them about me when the cellist reacted by suggesting that I maybe should learn the cello –  I was then about 12. When the possibility was put to me, I reacted positively and my mother was so relieved that within a week she had found an instrument and had arranged a teacher for me. I fell in love with the sound of a cello – a love that has lasted for just under 50 years…

My first teacher was Mr Granville Britton. He was a retired principal cellist of the Cape Town Orchestra (Kaapse Stadsorkes) as it was then called. I sadly only studied with him for about 18 months before he passed away. After that, I was a part time student at the SA College of Music where I had a different teacher almost every year until I finished school. My main reason for studying BMus in Pretoria was that it was then the only university in SA with a full time cello teacher – Mr Gerhard van de Geest. There was thus at least the possibility of studying with one teacher for the duration of my BMus studies.

Who were your greatest influences in South Africa?

MR: Definitely my parents. They taught me by example the values I came to admire most in other people, seek for in musicians and strive for in my own life:-  Simplicity, honesty and integrity. I do not think I realized it to this extent at the time, nor did I have a particular appreciation for it as a youngster. I am sorry I lost my parents before expressing to them this particular appreciation. It was only later in my life that I understood what I had been given by them to build my life on and to guide me, not only as a person, but also as a musician. Whenever I was particularly moved by a piece of music or touched when interacting with another human being – be it my totally illiterate Xhosa gardener or by the writings of a renowned author or the music making of a fellow musician -  it always came down to these three elements:- Simplicity, honesty and Integrity.

How did it happen that you went to study in Europe?

MR: I was awarded a UNISA Licentiate overseas scholarship in 1976 (the year after I finished BMus and while I was a member of the then SABC Orchestra in Johannesburg). I was still a pupil of Gerhard van de Geest at the time and he wanted me to go to Buffalo in America to study where he knew some people, but it luckily did not work out. In the end,  I contacted Angela Paynter, whom I knew from our mutual part-time cello lessons in Cape Town when we were still at school. She was awarded the same overseas scholarship the year before me and I found out from her mother that she was in Salzburg studying with Heidi Litschauer at the Mozarteum. Angela put the two of us in contact and that is how I ended up in Europe.

You studied in Salzburg with Prof Heidi Litschauer. Tell us a little about your time there.

MR: Initially it was very difficult. Since I had not had a very structured cello education, due to so many changes of teacher during the first few years, I still had some rather basic technical problems to solve. Heidi Litschauer was then not yet the very experienced teacher she became later and her solution to the problem was a bit like a surgeon performing a very necessary operation on a patient without any anaesthetic. She basically told me to forget everything I ever learnt about the cello so that we could start from the beginning! Then, on top of that, she told me the instrument I had was not good enough - she could not teach me on it. Needless to say it was a big shock to me and had I not been so motivated (pig headed?), I probably would have given up and come home. Buying a cello with my total scholarship taught me to live on virtually no money, so even that was a valuable lesson for me in itself!

Although our relationship started off rather strained, it developed, and eventually turned into a deep respect and appreciation for her as a musician and as a cellist and subsequently into a friendship that has stood the test of time. Now, almost 40 years later, I still regard her as my closest friend and also the single person, apart from my parents, who has had the biggest influence on my development as a cellist, musician and most of all as a human being. I loved my time in Salzburg. I made many friends with whom I have kept contact over the years. I listened to live world-class concerts and also to fellow students who inspired me musically. I am eternally grateful for the opportunity I had to study there. (1977-1980)

Where did you go after finishing your studies in Austria?

MR: I played an audition for Professor Guy Fallot at the Geneva Conservatoire to join his post graduate class and was offered a scholarship. I commenced my studies there in 1981.

What made you return to SA?

MR: My father passed away in 1981 and when I was offered the job at Stellenbosch, I decided it was time to come home so that I could also be a support for my mother. I started teaching here in July 1982.

During your time as cello lecturer you had many great students. You must feel very proud of them?

MR: Oh, I am! I was privileged to work with so many highly talented students over the last three decades. I think any dedicated teacher will agree with me that one learns about as much from and through teaching one’s students than they learn from you.

What were some of the highlights of your career?

MR: The act of teaching has been a highlight throughout my career – up to the very last lesson I gave in December 2013. Every time I saw/heard an improvement in a student as a result of a suggestion of mine it was a highlight. I have always loved teaching – all 32 years of it! 

You must have met many interesting people during your career as a musician. Could you name a few who stand out?

MR: I have certainly met some very interesting people, but the ones that made the biggest impression on me were not necessarily musicians. The musicians that have inspired me most I have not met personally, like the pianist Radu Lupu. The first time I heard a recording of his Brahms Intermezzi I was bowled over by the profound depth of expression in his playing. Later I heard him live with Beethoven’s 4th piano concerto in Salzburg and the effect was the same. The singer Jessie Norman’s rendition of Strauss’ 4 Last Songs is another such recording which showed me just how profoundly moving a musical interpretation could be.

The young Mischa Maisky opened my ears to the limitless possibilities of sound colour on the cello. Lately I am inspired by the art of the singer Cecilia Bartoli. For me she is the personification of what Guy Fallot used to tell us: you must “become” the musician order to touch the soul of your listener.

You have many other interests. Now that you are retired from active teaching, what are you planning to do now?

MR: I love to be physically active. I hike, I garden and I also started to do archery a few years ago. I love the challenge it offers me and the similarities I discover, again and again between playing the cello and shooting arrows, never stop fascinating me! I have always had a keen interest in physics – especially regarding the universe, its history and the laws that govern it. I get excited reading about all the new scientific discoveries and the promise of much, much more once the SKA project is fully underway. I keep on reading and I hope that the more I read the more I will understand about the amazing universe in which we inhabit one very tiny planet.

I also intend to be more involved in the community life of Franschhoek, the town I have been living in for the last 13 years, which I have been unable to do up to now due to a lack of time. At my house I run guest accommodation and I really enjoy meeting new people who visit, not only from other parts of South Africa, but coming from all over the world.

Looking back, what would your advice be to others?

MR: Do not take yourself too seriously. Do what you do with passion and commitment whilst knowing that some will play well despite you and others will play badly, also despite you!

Published 3 February 2014

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