Jeanne Chalifoux, 1929–2018

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Remembering Jeanne Chalifoux

–by Rebecca Anstine Smith

My first encounter with Jeanne Chalifoux was at the Salzedo Summer Harp Colony in Camden, Maine, where she gave lessons while her aunt, the legendary Alice Chalifoux, played at the Blossom Music Festival.  To this day, I recall feeling that I had met one of the most beautiful and elegant of ladies, and little did I know, that this would be the start of a lifelong friendship.

A glance through early photos of Camden, during Carlos Salzedo’s tenure there, shows photos of a very young Jeanne, on the beach at a lobster bake or in one of the now famous group photos.  Jeanne studied in her hometown of Richmond, Virginia, but also spent time in Cleveland studying with her aunt.  Upon graduation from high school at 16, she moved to Philadelphia to study with Mr. Salzedo at the Curtis Institute of Music.  As her career blossomed, she performed with both the harp ensemble The Angelaires and the Salzedo Concert Ensemble.  Many times, Jeanne would recount the perilous drives in snowstorms, behind the wheel of a huge station wagon that carried her harp and other performers. On at least one tour, she played the Ravel Introduction and Allegro with Carlos Salzedo accompanying her on the piano every night for over a month.

Following her marriage to Wellington Goddin, Jeanne moved to Alexandria, Virginia, and began teaching at several prestigious universities including the Catholic University of America, American University, the University of Mary Washington, George Mason University, and the Peabody Conservatory of the Johns Hopkins University.  She often played second harp with Sylvia Meyer and later, Ann Hobson Pilot, in the National Symphony Orchestra.  One of her most poignant stories from that time was of moving her harp in the wee hours to Constitution Hall, as the NSO had been asked to play La Mer after the tragic death of President Kennedy in 1963.

Jeanne had three sons, Wells, Harvie, and John O, and as they grew, she tailored her performing career around their schedules.  For many years, she served as principal harpist for the National Gallery of Art Orchestra, conducted by her good friend and neighbor, Richard Bales.  When her sons attended Episcopal High School, Mr. Bales featured her there as soloist with the National Gallery Strings, in Debussy’s Danses.  I have come across old printed programs, one of which lists Jeanne performing nearly a full recital during the first half, and then Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols in the second half.

Jeanne maintained a close working and familial relationship with her Aunt Alice, her cousin Alyce Rideout, and also with good friends, fellow harpist and neighbor Martha Dalton and her husband George.  (Martha played for many years as second harpist with the Cleveland Orchestra.)  At the invitation of the Chinese Government, Jeanne accompanied her Aunt Alice on a tour to China, and they later took trips to Thailand and France.  In addition to teaching together, they attended concerts, weddings, flea markets, lobster bakes, pancake breakfasts, and dinners.

As I reflect back on her days as my instructor, Jeanne would refer often to Mr. Salzedo at lessons.  She herself had an incredibly rich and colorful sound, solid technique, and understanding of his method.  One time she said she never wanted to change any of Salzedo’s fingerings. Often when she was practicing at his New York studio, he would interrupt her to consult about a fingering for a passage.  He could spend 30 minutes debating what worked best, and given such meticulous thought, she said she could not dream of making any changes in his choices.

As her health declined and she moved from her house, I maintained an email contact list of former students to whom I posted periodic updates.  The replies to my email about her passing moved me.  One former student wrote that Jeanne “was a bulwark of strength to me as a personality.  One always looked up to her or straight at her.  She was a presence not to be missed.” One of my friends and colleagues felt that we were all so lucky to have had her as our teacher, as she gave us a wonderful technique and understanding of playing the harp.  A former NSO colleague described Jeanne as “such an elegant lady, dear person, and wonderful musician.”  Another referred to her as “a dynamite lady,” and yet another felt he owed Miss Chalifoux “everything.”

Her passing truly marks the end of an era; however, reading all the superlatives about her as a person, teacher and friend, gives me comfort.  And thanks to the generosity of Lynnelle Ediger and HARPS Foundation, all of Miss Chalifoux’s music with original markings have been scanned and put in a Dropbox link as a resource for all.

In collaboration with Paula Page, her personal memorabilia, including letters from Salzedo, are housed at the Fondren Library at Rice University. The beautiful and elegant teacher will be missed, as her students, now teachers themselves, say encouragingly to pupils in Jeanne’s Southern drawl, “My dear…”, we can all rest assured that her legacy continues.

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