As a teacher at New England Conservatory and a historian of dance music, Julia Sutton introduced students to her unabashed love for dances created centuries ago.
For many years, Dr. Sutton taught performance of early music, and she directed the Collegium Terpsichore, which performed Renaissance and Baroque dance.
“Julia could be exacting and exasperating, and not everyone wanted to adhere to her high standards, particularly when they thought practicing a concerto was more important than music history,” said Wendy Heller, a former student who is a music professor at Princeton University. “However, her passion for music and music scholarship impacted generations of conservatory students.”
Dr. Sutton, who was formerly chairwoman of New England Conservatory’s music history and musicology department, died of complications of dementia July 1 in Belmont Manor nursing home in Belmont. She was 83 and had lived in Brookline.
Along with teaching various kinds of dance, Dr. Sutton published numerous scholarly articles. A member of the American Musicological Society and the Society of Dance History Scholars, she lectured widely and ran workshops in the United States and Europe on Renaissance dance and music.
‘She was a glorious mix of a sincere, driven, and brilliant woman combined with a mother instinct.’
“Julia was my mentor in both musicology and historical dance,” said Anthony Glise, a classical guitarist who is on the faculty at the University of Missouri. “She was a glorious mix of a sincere, driven, and brilliant woman combined with a mother instinct that could be as loving as it was severe. Even if she came down on you, there was a little glint in her eyes that let you know how much she truly cared.”
What made Dr. Sutton’s teaching style unique, Glise and other former students said, was her concern for scholarship, the arts, and her students, whom she affectionately called “her kids.”
“Every single aspect of my scholarship, and frankly my success in musical research, was because of Julia,” Glise said.
Dr. Sutton, who also wrote scholarly books, “was uncompromising in many respects,” said Heller, director of Princeton’s Italian studies program.
Though Dr. Sutton “could appear somewhat old-fashioned to students,” Heller said that she “had a quite clever sense of humor underneath the surface.”
Heller was working on her bachelor’s in vocal performance at New England Conservatory when she first encountered Dr. Sutton in 1974.
“At that time she was one of the first serious music scholars I’d ever met, and I certainly had no idea that music scholarship might include dance and other aspects of social context,” said Heller. “Over the years, I’ve come to recognize the seriousness and importance of Julia’s research and the impact she had on scholars, both in musicology and in the world of dance history.”
Born in Toronto, Dr. Sutton moved with family to New York City in the 1930s. Her mother taught classical piano, and her father taught the literature of theater.
Dr. Sutton attended the High School of Music and Art in New York City. In 1949, she graduated from Cornell University with a bachelor’s degree in music. She received a master’s in musicology from Colorado College in 1952 and a doctorate in musicology a decade later from the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music.
Her sister, Alma Leona Richter, a retired violist who lives in Israel, said their mother “gave us the love of music.”
“Julia was into music as a child,” Richter said, “and she got into dance in college.”
Dr. Sutton also was devoted to her family. Her sister vividly recalled that Dr. Sutton was determined to attend a nephew’s wedding in Jerusalem not long after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Richter suggested that Dr. Sutton send an e-mail explaining the situation to El Al Airlines, which made room for her on its first flight to Israel after the attacks.
“By taxi, she made it to the ceremony just in time,” Richter said. “It was a grand performance.”
Although they lived on separate continents, Dr. Sutton and her sister remained very close. When they were together, Dr. Sutton sometimes played piano to accompany her sister.
“At Eastman, where I studied, she sort of kept an eye on me,” Richter said. “Later on through the decades we talked about everything. We saw each other about once a year, but we talked all the time on the phone, as neither of us liked e-mail. And she loved our three children and our eight grandchildren.”
The family plans to hold a service in Jerusalem. Friends and former colleagues want to establish a conference and concert in Dr. Sutton’s honor at New England Conservatory.
Louise Kittredge of Newton, who cared for Dr. Sutton in her later years, described her as intelligent, delighted by the arts, and devoted to research.
Rachelle Palnick Tsachor, who teaches at the University of Iowa, helps run a dance group and praised Dr. Sutton’s generosity.
“Dr. Sutton donated many old costumes to us, with the gracious help of Louise Kittredge, who packed and mailed the boxes,” Tsachor said. “Dr. Sutton often opened up her home to young scholars who wanted to consult with her on projects, housing us in a guest bedroom, and feeding us whatever fare she was making for herself.”
Tsachor said Dr. Sutton “opened up the world of the past through its details.”
“She challenged her students to closely read the primary sources and integrate details from music and dance with clues imbedded in the text about the history of the society, culture, manners, and politics of the times, to go beyond recreating the steps and rhythms of a dance so as to breathe accurate intention and behavior to the style.”