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Commonwealth Avenue’s Musical History


As location is to real estate, so provenance is to objects. Think Einstein’s violin, “no Stradivarius” according to Strings Magazine, which sold at auction in 2018 for $516,500. But what if you combine location and provenance, applied to, say, certain brick mansions lining Commonwealth Avenue in the Back Bay. Their appearance may be strangely unprepossessing, even reticent in an Old Boston kind of way, yet their value is incalculable.

On a recent unseasonably warm day I found myself going for a stroll scoping out a few specific residences, suggested by David Feltner, a resident of Comm Ave., who very much enhances the musical life of Boston, first as a violist performing with Boston’s elite groups, such as the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra, Emmanuel Music, the Boston Lyric Opera and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and also as a composer and the conductor of the Chamber Orchestra of Boston, an organization he founded. I had told him about a virtually unheard of piano teacher, Madame Margaret Chaloff (more about her later) who had lived and taught for many years at 249 Comm Ave, and he mentioned to me homes marked by historic plaques that had been the residences of BSO founder Major Henry Lee Higginson and the composer/pianist Amy Beach. Quite a tone-y neighborhood, I thought.

A short while later and quite by chance, I located a remarkable website,, established and carefully tended by Tom High and his wife. They describe all the layers of history for each address on each street: who built the home, who lived there over the course of years, what they did in their lives. According to High, the site “attempst to provide a genealogical history of the houses.” He quickly provided me with several other relevant names of those who had called Comm Ave home. As he did so, I began to glimpse the fundamental elements needed to sustain Boston’s musical life.

Early on in its history Boston seemed to have designated music as the bedrock of its claim to an educated and civilized society. Shortly after the Civil War, both the New England Conservatory and Boston Conservatory were founded in 1867, just as the country was trying to regain its bearings after the Civil War. New York City in contrast had to wait until the early years of the 20thcentury before it could turn to the resources of the Juilliard School of Music or the Mannes School of Music founded in 1905 and 1915 respectively.

Music had established itself as a fundamental nutrient for Boston; and less than 15 years after the founding of the conservatories, Major Henry Lee Higginson (1834—1919), seriously wounded during the Civil War, stepped up to found the Boston Symphony Orchestra. At the time (and for the rest of his life), he lived at 191 Comm Ave with his wife Ida Olympe Agassiz, the daughter of the renowned naturalist Louis Agassiz. Benevolence, one of the keywords of the 19th century, often resulted in superb contributions from the private sector, and Major Higginson had very clear ideas in mind about what he was doing and why. In a passage drawn from DeWolfe Howe’s biography, Higginson stated his desire to create a permanent orchestra that could give:       

 …concerts of the best attainable character and quality at a price which should admit any one and everyone likely to care for such things – my hope was to draw by degrees a larger andless-educated class of society – I had meant to engage an orchestra to be at my beck and call because this only could I ask and get practice sufficient in amount to reach the playing of the great German orchestras.

Higginson sounded two important themes here: a desire to improve the lives of the lower classes through music, along with an equally strong desire to compete successfully with European orchestras, in particular those German orchestras.

The latter goal seems somewhat at odds with Higginson’s first inclination: to hire only Boston musicians. He soon learned that more proficient players were to be found in Europe and he imported such men of “high technical accomplishment, upon whose loyalty he could count.” The same seemed to be true of conductors, though he pronounced he would have little to do with “[Bruno] Walter or [Willem] Mengelberg” and their penchant for programming modern music, or “crazy music,” as he termed it. As far as making concerts accessible to the less-well heeled, he remained true to his word. In its first season, a series ticket could be had for $5 or $10, while single concert admission cost 75 or 25 cents. Yes, cents. Of course, the BSO did not make enough money to sustain itself; orchestras rarely do. To put good faith behind his exercise of benevolence, Higginson supported the orchestra through his own funds, donating as much as $52,000 annually to cover any deficit. That practice ended in 1918, a full 37 years after the orchestra’s founding, when Higginson could no longer carry such a heavy financial burden. The BSO then assumed the form of an incorporated institution with its own board of trustees to manage its affairs—and finances. The following year in 1919 just before his death, he stepped down from his post as trustee of the New England Conservatory of Music, a position he had held since 1892. He simply never stopped trying to bolster and develop Boston’s musical life.

The house at 211 Commonwealth Avenue with Rotch’s music room sold in 2014 for $12 million

Virtually a stone’s throw from the Higginson/Agassiz home (or “hotel”) stands the home of William Powell Mason, Jr. and his wife Fanny (Peabody) Mason located at 211 Comm Ave. The already elegant home became even more elegant in 1891 with the addition of a music room designed by Arthur Rotch, the original architect of the home itself. The noted composer and pianist, Ferruccio Busoni (1866—1924) presented the inaugural concert. Humankind, after all, cannot satisfy its musical palate on symphonies alone, and this new addition graciously (read, sumptuously) provided the setting for solo artists and chamber groups.

The room is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. I was exceedingly lucky when out on my stroll to be staring up at number 211 just as the owner came by having fetched her daughters from school, I presume, and asked me why I was there. I explained I was just gathering information about some of the homes on Comm Ave connected with music and musicians. Out of the blue, she invited me in to see the music room, expansive beyond what one would ever imagine to be in a private home, with rows of rounded arches on all four sides of the room reaching from floor to ceiling, the arches all in white like a recreated vision of the Alhambra, the coffered ceiling above looking like a suspended jewelry box of a queen. The room contained a piano in the far-right-hand corner, but the seating with its comfortable chairs surrounding circular tables looked appropriate for conversation and social gatherings.

For a few moments, not wishing to infringe on the kindness and privacy of this generous person’s time, I gazed and gaped, half imagining the rustle of silk dresses and the click of polished leather shoes as the patrons filed in to hear the chosen artist of the evening. Unfortunately, the first Fanny Peabody Mason passed away in 1895, a scant four years after the room’s completion. Her daughter, also Fanny Peabody Mason, took up the charge to continue on with the home concerts, some of which took place in Boston, while others were held at her residences in Beverly, Massachusetts, Walpole, New Hampshire, and in Paris. The concert roster is impressive with appearances by Ignatz Paderewski, Arthur Rubenstein, the Alfred Cortot-Jacques Thibaud-Pablo Casals Trio, and the Nadia Boulanger Chamber Ensemble, among others. In 1944 Fanny Mason commissioned Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu’s Second Quintet for Piano and Strings. This new work played in the celebrated music room in 1945 with the composer present.

Paul Doguereau, an exceptionally fine pianist in his own right, often performed in and assisted Fanny Mason in organizing the concerts. After her death in 1948, Mason’s will named Doguereau as the overseer of a trust fund to continue the mission of presenting both established and young artists to Boston audiences without charge. The names on the stellar roster include pianists Glenn Gould, Mauricio Pollini, Alicia de Larrocha, and Andre Watts; soprano Phyllis Curtain performing the lead in Purcell’s The Fairy Queen conducted by Daniel Pinkham; guitarist Julian Bream, flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal, and the Juilliard String Quartet. The audiences for these concerts exceeded accommodation in a private home and soon moved to Jordan Hall, Paine Hall and Sanders Theater. A virtual sibling to Celebrity Series, these concerts reached out and incorporated the musical richness of the world at large, while marking Boston as a significant venue of concert activity. Following Doguereau’s death in 2000 at the age of 91, Dr. Harrison Slater, Doguereau’s adopted son, continued to honor the tradition of the Peabody Mason concerts by presenting concerts in his home at 192 Commonwealth Avenue.

Not far away for anyone out on a stroll is the home of Amy Beach, a self-taught composer who in the 21st century is once again getting her due. Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (1867—1944) narrowly escaped from becoming in Jamesian terms “a portrait of a lady.” At the tender age of 18, she married the 42-year-old surgeon Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach in 1885 and settled into his residence at 28 Comm Ave. A veritable child prodigy (she memorized 40 songs at the age of one, began composing at four and performing at seven), she soon discovered that marriage even further curtailed her musical education and development more so than had the inadequate lessons in piano and composition she had received as a child.  Adrienne Fried Block’s 1998) explains that as a condition of her marriage to the good doctor, Amy Beach had “to live according to his status, that is, function as a society matron and patron of the arts.” Furthermore, her husband did not allow her to teach piano or perform more than two recitals a year, so she had to devote herself more to composing than performing, even though working with a tutor in composition was also off limits. Like a great oak with its roots seeking out needed water, genius always manages to find a way, and certainly that was true of Amy Beach.

Amy Beach, who signed herself on concert programs and published compositions as Mrs. H. H. A. Beach, had already made a name for herself as a concert pianist in Boston, including a highly acclaimed performance of Chopin’s Concerto in F Minor given when she was 18 with the BSO in its 1884-1885 season. Compositional recognition soon followed. In 1892, the Handel and Haydn Society performed her Mass in E-flat Major to great acclaim. Four years later in 1896, the BSO premiered her most well-known work, the Gaelic Symphony in E Minor, again with resounding acceptance.

In 1910 upon the death of her husband, Beach resumed her performance career and continued to compose at a fairly prolific rate. She is credited with more than 150 works, from art songs to extended works for solo, chamber, and orchestral ensembles. Currently, she appears to be enjoying a quiet renaissance, especially locally. In 2017 the Commonwealth Chorale under the direction of David Carrier in collaboration with the New England Philharmonic conducted by Richard Pittman presented her Mass in E-Flat, and last summer the Mercury Orchestra and Conductor Channing Yu performed the Gaelic Symphony at Jordan Hall. These concerts did much to reveal the intelligent and well-thought-out structures within her work. Like Higginson, Amy Beach also strengthened the offerings of the New England Conservatory of Music in the early decades of the 20th century by serving on its Board of Councilors helping to advise and coach young composers and musicians.

As Boston, continued to provide fine and fertile ground for a musical culture, addresses along Comm Ave once again filled the need to provide music education for any number of students. The first was the relatively short-lived Malkin Conservatory, which Joseph Malkin (1879—1969) established in 1933. Malkin had left his post as principal cellist of the BSO and would keep the school in operation for about a decade. Located for a brief period at 267 Comm Ave, the school’s main claim to fame was that it hired Arnold Schoenberg to serve on its faculty. Schoenberg had emigrated to the United States from Germany, knowing full well that as a Jew and a composer of what was called “degenerate” music, his life was at risk. But he left Boston after only six months at the poorly attended and ill-equipped school and moved to Los Angeles where he taught at UCLA and played tennis with George Gershwin. About a decade later, Malkin himself quit his day job and resumed his orchestral career as a cellist with the New York Philharmonic.

The second and far more successful school was the Phil Saltman Studios of Music (later known as the Phil Saltman School of Modern Music) founded in 1938 and existing for 50 years at 284 Comm Ave. Saltman, known around town as a jazz pianist, (hence the “modern music” in the school’s name), was first and foremost a businessman bent on growing the school and establishing name recognition. In its first four years, enrollment grew from 65 to 350 students per week. Saltman also set up satellite studios in Worcester, Wellesley, Providence, and Hartford, to name only a few, and hosted a weekly broadcast from a Boston station called “Piano Club on the Air.” He even published a series of method books, once again adding to his name recognition.

About 85 percent of the school’s students studied piano, while the other 15 percent studied voice. Both his first and second wife, Babette Saltman and Ruth Bensusan, taught, and the first Mrs. Saltman remained a teacher at the school and resided at 250 Comm Ave. In 1953, the Phil Saltman Studio underwent a further expansion so that 284 Comm Ave became not just a teaching space, but also included performance halls and dormitories. After a highly successful run, the school closed in 1987. Today 284 Commonwealth Avenue stands as a fashionable long-term residence hotel.

The sound of piano notes must have laced the air and competed with the birds along this stretch of Comm Ave. Around the corner, so to speak, on Newbury Street, Julius Chaloff (1892—1979), who had taught piano for 30 years at New England Conservatory, retired at the time of his divorce and set up his own school of music. At the same time, his wife, Margaret Stedman Chaloff (1896—1977), better known as Madame Chaloff, set up informal shop as a piano teacher in her apartment at 249 Comm Ave. Fortunately, for all those pianists-in-the-making, the Steinert family had already established its Boston Steinway piano sales institution; the Steinerts resided at 401 Comm Ave beginning in 1907.

Madame Chaloff achievements through her students makes for a compelling tale, though largely unknown one, and I can touch here on only its broadest contours. She was a mid-western girl born in Elgin, Illinois who in her teens flirted with the idea of becoming an actress and set off for Hollywood. She returned, though, to her first love, music and the piano. Eventually she found herself in Boston studying at NEC and taking lessons with Julius Chaloff. Like Amy Beach, she would feel the constraints of marriage but managed somehow to make her mark in the world, even though she studied at NEC for barely two years. Professor and student fell in love, married each other, and moved to a home in Newton where they had two sons, Richard and Serge. Margaret taught from her Newton home, and even then, the roster was impressive: George Wein, Fred Taylor, and Leonard Bernstein, to name a few students who continued to remember her with a passion and clarity that defied the decades. After 25 years, the Chaloffs divorced, and Madame Chaloff took a formative step that changed her as a pianist and provided her with a style of playing that would become her signature calling card. She went to Philadelphia, rented a room in a home near the Curtis Institute, and studied privately with the awe and fear inspiring Russian pianist Isabella Vengerova. From her Madame Chaloff learned “the Russian method,” a way of pressing each piano key so that the key never quite touches its lowest position but still retains its resonance through to the next note. The piano speaks with a singing tone, and this approach to the piano is instantly recognizable in all of her students I have heard perform.

Armed with this technique and a way of transmitting it, Madame Chaloff deeply influenced a number of individuals, even entire music institutions. Herbie Hancock came by each day for about a week for a lesson. British-born blind pianist George Shearing did the same when he was in town playing a gig around Kendall Square. He wanted to learn “that magic touch” and took lessons with her between midnight and 3 am for a week. Others came around as well, some briefly, others for the long haul. Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea stopped by, as did the late Al Vega, Ran Blake, Donal Fox, Kenny Werner, and Sumi Tonooka. A few students, notably Ken Girard, Bill Banchs, Steve Kuhn, and Kathy Rubbicco worked with her for upwards of a decade. Virtually all of the names mentioned here are jazz pianists, and it is one of life’s little ironies that Phil Saltman, the jazz pianist, taught a more traditional curriculum, while Madame Chaloff, the classically trained pianist, had jazz stars, or, at least, ones in the making, flocking to her door. Her son, Serge Chaloff, was perhaps the best jazz baritone sax player of his time, and that could explain how Madame Chaloff’s name circulated among jazz musicians.

Aside from her shaping of several jazz musicians (and not necessarily limited to jazz pianists), Madame Chaloff also exerted an important influence on Berklee and NEC’s jazz programs. For six years near the end of her life, she taught Stephanie Tiernan, who would go on to become the Chair of the Piano Department at Berklee for many years. As a way of sustaining Madame Chaloff’s approach to the piano, Tiernan authored a book, “Contemporary Piano Technique,” as a means of codifying some of Madame Chaloff’s teaching principles.

About a decade before her death in 1977, Madame Chaloff set up one of her former students, Alan Dexter Kemler (1930—2004), who chose to go by the name Avram David, to teach composition, counterpoint, and related topics in the first floor apartment below hers. Students would usually come to her first for a piano lesson, often lasting two hours, then go downstairs to study with him. Around the same time, Gunther Schuller (1925—2015), at the time President of NEC, created a new department at the school called the Third Stream (now the Contemporary Improvisation Department) to acknowledge the fusion taking place between jazz idioms and contemporary composition. As it worked out, Madame Chaloff and Avram David in their conservatory of two were educating many of the students who wanted to enroll in the Third Stream program. Several people I spoke with, including Ran Blake, Hankus Netsky, and Ken Girard praised the quality of instruction and the discipline they acquired at 249 Comm Ave, and it was that sort of rigor that helped launch the fledgling department.

Other names of Comm Ave residents could be added to this short list, and Tom High provided me with some. For the time being, these must suffice, as we conclude our stroll musical along Comm Ave.

Louise Myers is a Professor Emeritus of Mass College of Art & Design where she taught courses in American Literature.   She plays violin in the New England Philharmonic and viola in the Rivers Symphony Orchestra.


9 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Thank you for this fascinating informative article. It makes the era and the street come alive. Vivid imagery and story telling, – and beautiful photos, too.

    Comment by Tanya B. — April 3, 2020 at 8:53 pm

  2. What a charming write up of Commonwealth Avenue’s illustrious past- Myers did her homework and the Women’s Heritage Trail has provided plaques all over the city, for notable women. When we got one for Beach’s home at 28 Comm Ave we ran into difficulties, preserving bricks, promising not to injure them- feat to attach heavy plaque to wall but we did it. Kahlil Gibran created a magnificent bas relief of Beach and you can see it on the wall even if some of the residents objected, at the time.

    Comment by virginia eskin — April 4, 2020 at 9:59 am

  3. 211 Comm. Ave, I know it well and for many years maintained the Steinway model B piano there in the Great Room along with other pianos the family owned in their Cohasset homes.

    Comment by Martin Snow — April 4, 2020 at 5:09 pm

  4. What a wonderful, informative and well researched article. I enjoyed reading this with interest, and hoping for more articles to come.

    Comment by Kathleen Mary Chane — April 6, 2020 at 1:33 pm

  5. This is a great well written story about the people who made and make music and Boston history.

    Comment by Patricia A. Petow — April 7, 2020 at 2:48 pm

  6. Great Story! Please provide us with the sequel(s).

    Comment by Rob Leith — April 7, 2020 at 3:52 pm

  7. I missed this recent online presentation, but supposedly it was recorded; will track that.

    Comment by David Moran — April 7, 2020 at 4:03 pm

  8. Thanks for the wonderfully informative musical stroll down Commonwealth Avenue over the past 150 years! I hadn’t realized that Higginson was married to an Agassiz daughter, and wonder whether his musical interests were shaped in part by Louis Agassiz.

    Comment by Martha Reardon Bewick — April 16, 2020 at 4:57 pm

  9. One more thing Boston can be proud of. We have such rich history in our city.

    Comment by Bill sano — April 16, 2020 at 8:41 pm

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