Ms. Martha E. Blackman

  • Born: January 1, 1927
  • Died: November 17, 2021
  • Location: Palo Alto, California

Smart Cremation

Tribute & Message From The Family


Renowned musician and viola da gamba specialist, Martha Elizabeth Blackman passed away on Wednesday, November 17, 2021, after a period of declining health. The daughter of Ethel Gentry Blackman and Alfred Watson Blackman, Martha was born on January 1, 1927, in Dallas, Texas. In her infancy she and her sister Mary Anne were kidnapped by her father and taken to Los Angeles where her father earned a living working in the orange groves. During this time, she was raised by a much loved and caring nanny, "Aunt Mattie" Wallace. After a short time in Los Angeles the family moved to Reno and then to Las Vegas, which was little more than a crossroads during the Depression.

After a few years, when Martha's father remarried, her nanny was dismissed. Aunt Mattie became concerned for the safety of the children formerly in her care and contacted Martha's biological mother who subsequently drove across the country with her partner Marje Hugo. The children were kidnapped once again and taken to Memphis in 1932, where Ethel was employed as the women's basketball coach at West Tennessee State Normal School (now University of Memphis).

Martha's mother provided her with a piano that she "practiced all day" according to her sister. Martha's school band director Gaston Taylor helped her become interested in the cello, and at age 15 she joined the Memphis Sinfonietta, precursor of the Memphis Symphony. Upon graduating from high school, she attended Southwestern (Rhodes College), Peabody, and American Conservatory of Music where she earned a BM, and then attended Northwestern, earning a MM. Throughout her youth, Martha was employed by many organizations (Amro Music Store, Goldsmiths Department Store, Peabody Hotel, various pubs, etc.) to perform all genres on piano, accordion, cello, and virtually any instrument she was requested to play.

After playing professionally with Nashville Symphony and New Orleans Philharmonic, Martha won a Fulbright Award and moved to Europe to study viola da gamba, and then returned to the United States to begin studies for a diploma at Juilliard in New York. She began playing gamba with New York Pro Musica and then became a faculty member of the music department at Yale University. When offered a position at Stanford University she moved to California where she lived for the remainder of her life.

Martha played a foundational role bringing the Early Music movement to the United States. Her research and her teaching provided the foundation for others who followed. She was truly one of the original pioneers and a feisty warrior representing women in the field of music, breaking many glass ceilings that remained barriers during her time. With very little support and a very troubled family background, she relentlessly fought her way forward. Though often misunderstood by some, she had many loyal students that she loved very dearly. She had a big heart and much love for people everywhere and somehow found a way to forgive those who had thrown obstacles in her path. She leaves to cherish her memory her niece Nancy Ditto and husband Adam Alter, great nephew Basil Alter, and great niece Rosemary Alter, several cousins and their children, and her many beloved students and friends. Please remember her battle cry "Onward!!!" as you pursue your goals. Her advice would be to never, ever give up.

For those wishing to send a memorial, please consider Peninsula Bible Church, 3505 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA 94306, c/o Jim Cornett, and United Negro College Fund, ATTN: Denise Scott, Direct Response Programs, 1805 7th Street NW, Washington, DC 20001, or any charity of your choice that supports music students in need. A memorial service will be arranged at a later date.


Condolence & Memory Journal

I first met Martha in 1977, while rehearsing alongside her within the Sinfonia of Northern California, where she was concurrently preparing an Early Music event for Herbst Theater. She agreed to listen to my playing (String Bass) and I did play for her, preparing J.S. Bach Bouree from Cello Suite #3, and also Italo Caimmi Etude #8 from "La tecnica superiore del contrabbasso". Martha was very insightful about pulse-counterpulse in solo Bach, and further remarked that the Caimmi would increasingly mean more to me as I further matured on my instrument.

Posted by Alan Lochhead - San Francisco, CA - Student   December 30, 2021

Martha tried (vainly) to break me of some bad habits in viol technique when I studied with her one summer at Stanford in about 1969. I had taught myself, have small hands, had never played a bowed stringed instrument before, and therefore played in the awkward half position. She did her heroic best with a person who was never anything but a middling musician and I only recently passed on the reams of printed instructions from her to the University of Michigan Early Music Dept. when I sold them my last bass viol.

I was also a Renaissance and Baroque winds player and was taking classes in woodwind technique that summer, as well, which annoyed her plenty. I listened to her exasperated observation that I needed to concentrate on one or the other. "You must decided whether to know less and less about more and more, or more and more about one instrument." Since I didn't take that advice to heart, I have enjoyed fifty years of playing both winds and strings.

She was a truly remarkable person and exquisite musician.

Posted by Katie Green - Plain, WI - Student   December 29, 2021

A tribute to Martha Blackman from a lute player
by Catherine Liddell
Why, you might ask, is a lute player writing a tribute in memory and appreciation of a gamba player? Unusual circumstances give rise to this, starting with myself as an 8th-grader. That's when my family met Martha Blackman (it's a long story!). At that time, at the Neighborhood Music School in New Haven, CT, my parents were both taking lessons from her, and they roped in any of their offspring who were willing. That included me. Picture, in the early-mid 60s, an 8th grader playing the tenor viola da gamba.
It didn't go as well as it might have because I never could make friends with the bow. Not only did it feel awkward, I could not make happen what Martha wanted. Try as I might to get the short note between two long ones not to be loud and fat, couldn't do it. And Martha was not going to let up. So committed she was to each note playing its part in the shape of a line, she could not bring herself to let this pass.
(Omitting more long story) By 10th grade I had switched instruments but not teacher, and Martha became my lute teacher. At that point she became primarily a music teacher, calling on colleagues from the New York Pro Musica for advice specific to the mechanics of playing lute. She was a musician on any instrument she ever picked up, and even if her technique on that instrument was not fully developed, she was instantly drawn to the instrument's expressive capabilities. No reading down the page for her. The piece had to dance if it was one; it had to be expressive. No strings of pitches of equal value, each note with the same intensity as the one before. Make music, not just notes.
In my teaching now, I don't wait until the student has reached a more advanced level before talking about expression. I give them from the very beginning the wherewithal to make expression possible and slowly we work that into the piece at hand. I credit Martha for this approach.
She gave me countless hours of time teaching me other skills a lute player would need. She gave me my first lessons in ear training; realizing a figured bass; my first experience playing the lute in the St. John Passion; my first experience teaching an instrument I don't play (comes in handy now coaching ensembles); my first ensemble experiences; reading alto clef; reading two lines of staff notation at the same time; learning about German lute tablature. There was instruction in all of this at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis where I went after college, but none of it was new to me because of Martha. Gratitude doesn't even begin to cover all that.
OK, maybe my actual technique needed considerable rehab mid-career, and I was fortunate that Pat O'Brien could take that on with me, but I have never wished my initial training to be anything other than what it was. It's easy to get so mesmerized by the mechanics of playing that we lose track of what the mechanics are for, even while knowing that all the technique in the world is no substitute for expressive playing. Martha opened my ears to this at a very young age. It might have been confusing, even a little frustrating then, but over the years, her insistence that the music be expressive has become the gift that keeps on giving. I consider myself most fortunate to have had her as a teacher and mentor. Thank you, Martha! Rest in peace.

Posted by Catherine Liddell - Natick, MA - student   November 28, 2021

Trust thyself. Every heart vibrates to that iron string, said Emerson, and that is exactly what Martha Blackman did for the entirety of her life. I met that fascinating person in the mid-1980s and quickly learned to value her independent spirit, ingeniousness and exceptional knowledge of music and life itself. I am honored to have been her friend for decades and would like to imagine she now rests in peace. I do wonder, however, if in the Universe Beyond she has not already embarked on a myriad of new projects with the same degree of resourcefulness and dedication she untiringly applied to all her endeavors here with us. To Martha: You are with me always in my heart, Anna (McSherry) of the Green Shoes.

Posted by Anna McSherry - Kehl, CA - Friend   November 28, 2021

Martha was one of the most remarkable people I've ever known. The first professional performer on the viola da gamba of the modern age, she was an amazing teacher and a remarkable scholar, with a musical aesthetic that she pursued with a Zen-like directness. Over a friendship of nearly 50 years she deeply enriched my life.

Posted by Martin Lodahl - Auburn, CA - friend   November 27, 2021

Martha was my gamba teacher from 1972-1975, while she was at Stanford University. I had originally wanted to take cello lessons from her, but I came early to my first lesson and listened outside the door while she was practicing. As I listened to her play, I found myself loving the sound she made on an instrument I had never knew existed. And so the gamba entered my life. She told me during my lessons to “make each note count.” It was one of the biggest gift she gave to me: the quality of the sound was the most important part of playing. She taught me to play from different tablatures first, and that, too, made a big difference. One time, I had my lesson directly before she was giving a concert, and she asked if I wanted to stay and listen to her rehearse the concert pieces. So I sat side-by-side with her as she played through those pieces. What a tremendous learning experience that was!

The second gift happened when I was leaving Stanford to go to New Haven, CT. Martha said the ONLY person I should take lessons from was Grace Feldman. Grace, when she was a graduate student at Yale School of Music, had been Martha’s student when Martha was teaching there, and my good fortune was that I had the same influence for the next 40 years. I have tried to pass this legacy on to my students, and so Martha’s legacy lives on.
Carol Pollard

Posted by Carol Pollard - Boca Raton, FL - student   November 27, 2021