Wednesday 23 January 2013

Vivian King (1944-96)

A tribute to the passionate cellist Vivian King (1944-96).

Seventeen years ago yesterday, Vivian C. King (Vicki), the vivacious American cellist, loving partner and mother who lived life to the full, died of leukemia, at 51.

Born in Ohio, Vivian was something of a vagabond. She studied with the charismatic cellist Gábor Rejto in Los Angeles and left a good teaching position in Tacoma WN for a sabbatical, to study with the great master Pierre Fournier in Geneva in 1972. Things clicked and she settled in Europe, playing occasionally in the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and for Radio Suisse. Then she met me and we eventually moved to Holland. Until her death, she played in the Netherlands Philharmonic and Chamber Orchestra. Musicians still come up to me and tell me what a wonderful woman she was and how she left her mark.

The seventies. Ah! long hair, turtle-necks, flared jeans!

Vivian had played a lot of experimental and contemporary music on the West Coast, so in Geneva we began to organize performances of kinetic painting, music and dance. Together with Emile Ellberger (Moog synthesizer) and Jane Cottingham (dance) we founded the Groupe MIM (Musique, Images, Mouvements). This group played a role in the film Esquisses, made by Télévision Suisse Romande in 1976, about my work with kinetic painting. We also tried visualizing George Crumb's Sonata for Solo Cello. Later, in the Amsterdam Melkweg, I remember someone wrapping Vivian in toilet paper and carrying her off-stage as she played. She was up for anything and those were the seventies!

Vivian was an ardent feminist and some of the original plans for ISIS, the women’s rights organisation, were discussed with Jane and friends around their kitchen table. I was pretty ignorant about the women’s liberation movement at the time, but my visits to her apartment brought about a swift re-education. Looking for a way to demonstrate my enlightened status as a “liberated man”, I would quietly start to wash the dishes after dinner, only to hear from one of the women: “I suppose you’re trying to get approval”.

Like many of us in the seventies, Vivian too was searching for an alternative life-style, alternative music, art and a new self. At first, to this restrained, serious Englishman, her emotions seemed often to be in turmoil, or “over the top”. But I soon learned a great deal from Vivian’s joie de vivre, her passion for life and warm relationships with her many friends, her professional discipline, her high ideals and especially her love of adventure. Her sense of humour (sorry, humor in American) was infectious, so our family life was full of fun.

Sharing colour, passion, movement in 1975. Just what I needed.

A stuffy cello teacher once tried to put Vivian down with the comment: “You play like a gypsy!” Yeah! She might have replied, I studied with the great Hungarian cellist Gábor Rejto. And I’m proud of it! (…and you can’t play like that).

Then came the 1976 USA Bicentennial year - you could tour any six U.S. cities for something like $300! We seized the opportunity and my eyes were opened to the multi-coloured cultural riches of Vivian’s mother country. Instead of the European greys, I discovered new perspectives with shocking contrasts of light and shadow, colour, climate and temperament. I loved it, I needed it and it helped me to understand the woman who became my partner for twenty-one years. We began to spend our summers at Crooked Lake in northern Michigan - Vivian’s paradise ever since childhood. It was a toss-up whether to settle in San Francisco or Amsterdam. I still have one foot in the States, for performances and portrait commissions. Many of those early contacts in the arts/music world have become dear friends and colleagues.

Chris at four: not surprising that music is in their blood.

In 1995 I was commissioned by Birmingham Symphony Hall to paint the tenor José Carreras in action, for a concert in aid of his International Leukemia Foundation. He is one of the “lucky few”, as he described it, who survived leukemia and returned to the stage. Uncanny timing. In 1992, when our boys were 6 and 13, Vivian was diagnosed with acute leukemia. She managed to stretch out the prospects for four years, taking her cello to hospital to play the Bach Suites or to run through the Dvorák cello concerto. She fought bravely through one complication after another, an inspiration to me and to anyone faced with this awful challenge. But eventually her body just wore out. On the eve of 1996, there was no way we could even whisper “Happy New Year”. We strewed her ashes in that little Michigan lake, her Paradise, but her music will always fill our lives.

One last happy Christmas together, with Alex and Chris, 1994.


  1. Thank you for sharing this story, Norman. Those who left us will always be here.


  2. Lovely tribute, Norman.
    with fond memories, Angela D.

  3. Norman, I was a cello student of Vivian's for several years in the 1960s and 70s at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. I was 12 years old when I started studying with her and she was a complete role model for me. I was a natural on the cello at a very young age and she encouraged my career completely. Vivian knew that I came from a poor family so she always negotiated a fee for lessons that my parents could afford. She was a loving teacher - I knew she cared about me very much. She nurtured my talent without reserve. She was more than a teacher - she was my mentor. Vivian wore tall boots and had long beautiful red hair - she was a real hippy! She drove a cute VW bug. I loved studying with her. She was so musical and passionate. I remember one day her car was towed because she parked it in a no-parking zone. She laughed about it! I thought it would have ruined her day, but she said that she wasn't going to let anything ruin her day. That was a wonderful lesson. She enjoyed every day to the hilt. Vivian was fearless and of course when she decided to leave for Europe I was heartbroken. She brought Gabor Rejto up from L.A. to give a master class and through that I met my next major cello teacher, Eva Heinitz. Vivian wrote to me for a few years and sent beautiful cards that featured drawings you made of her beautiful babies. I was so happy for her that she found love and had children. It was everything for her. I am now playing again at the age of 63, having recently retired from my work as an educational administrator. I will be thinking of her every time I perform and thank her for sharing her life and talents with me. I will be forever grateful to her for that. I'm so sorry she had to leave this world at such a young age. I'm sure she must have tried to stay as long as possible especially for her children. I wish you and your children all the best. I'm proud that you write about Vivian because her memory deserves mention in this world. She was wonderful.

    1. Dear Pamela, My warmest thanks for this tribute to Vivian, of Dec.10 2018. I had somehow missed it back then, but I shall now pass it on to our boys (now 34 and 41). Her passing was the greatest loss of my life. Every time the date of her death comes around (22 January 1996) I marvel at this amazing woman. I can't reach your email address, but if you mail me at, I would like share other memories.