Emma Abbott: Soprano and Impresario

Emma Abbott was perhaps the closest thing that nineteenth-century America had to an operatic superhero. Her biography boasts an O. Henry-esque rags-to-riches trajectory. She ran her own grand opera company alongside her beloved husband, spending the modern equivalent of millions of dollars per season on costumes alone. She knew how to fence, how to row, how to ride horses, and even how to drum. She visited the poor, the sick, the hospitalized, and the imprisoned. She also reportedly saved two people from dying: one a girl who fell through thin ice while skating, the other a woman struggling while swimming.

And yet despite her dazzling accomplishments both professional and personal, Emma Abbott remains an enigma. Critics often derided her work or her approach to the art. Little modern research has been done on her. And yet her persistence and her personality altered the American operatic scene forever.

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Emma Abbott

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The Blog’s Seventh Birthday

Song of the Lark turns seven years old today!

To celebrate, I decided to choose a favorite entry from each of the past seven years, going from my least favorite favorite (lol) to my favorite favorite. I also included the most viewed entry (i.e., your favorite) for each year. Have I said the word favorite enough yet? Good.

Let the countdown commence!

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Mary Cardwell Dawson: Singer, Activist, Impresario

In the 1920s, a young opera singer by the name of Mary Cardwell came face-to-face with a hard truth: the color of her skin would dictate the outcome of her career.

A National Negro Opera Company souvenir brochure from 1957 describes her realization:

During intermission, she often went back stage to really observe for herself, hoping eventually to find one of her people there. Actually, she was only to be discouraged, disappointed and finally made to wonder why the omission of her people… She thus began to wonder why even she had chosen this field for her life’s work. She found the same type of exclusion existing in the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which she often attended on Fridays, as well as operas in other cities from coast to coast. Everywhere, and in every respect, she found complete discrimination or exclusion. This weighed heavily upon that young student of the Conservatory. (link)

Racism has cost classical music countless stars. Many great musicians left the field altogether, and for good reason. But Mary Cardwell Dawson chose another path. She attempted to remake the art from the inside.

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Mary Cardwell was the second of six children born to a farming family in Madison, North Carolina. Sources differ as to exactly when; some say 1894, while others indicate 1896. Around 1900, her father J.A. and her uncle moved to Pittsburgh to work at a brickyard in Homestead. In 1901, after the brothers had finally saved enough money, they sent for the rest of their family. In Mary’s new neighborhood, recently relocated African-Americans lived next door to white European immigrants. Growing up in such a place had a profound effect on her worldview.

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Theodora Cormontan: Composer, Pianist, Publisher

In 2009, a restoration in St. Anne, Illinois, took an unexpected turn when manuscripts composed by Florence Price turned up in one of the few rooms that hadn’t been ransacked by vandals or crushed by falling trees. Turns out the house had once been Price’s summer home. Remarkably, two violin concertos discovered in that fateful renovation have since been recorded.

It’s uncomfortable to think of important musical history being forgotten in attics. But it has certainly, silently happened. In fact, an eerily similar fate nearly befell works by another trailblazing composer named Theodora Cormontan.

Throughout the course of her decades-long life in music, Theodora Cormontan dealt with challenges presented by sexism (of course), emigration, geographic isolation, economic insecurity, and disability. Despite those challenges, she never stopped composing. Her persistence is awe-inspiring. But it’s only due to a series of coincidences – and some passionate advocacy – that much of her work survives today.

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Zitkála-Šá: Musician, Author, Activist

Quaker missionaries lured the little Sioux girl with tales of orchards. Come with us, they said, and we’ll bring you to school.

Her widowed mother protested. She’d lost a son to white missionaries before. But her little girl begged and begged, eager to escape to a faraway place where she might pursue knowledge and eat red apples.

Finally her mother relented. The seven-year-old boarded a train and journeyed seven hundred miles. When she arrived at the school, it was February. The air was cold and the branches of the apple trees were bare. She immediately burst into tears.

The school was White’s Manual Labor Institute in Wabash, Indiana, and the little girl’s experiences there read like the early chapters of an American Jane Eyre. Teachers beat students. Young friends died from neglect and malnutrition. Students were forced to rise early in the day to study and do hard labor. The girl’s long black braids were forcibly cut. White’s Institute was part of an entire culture that sought to suffocate her very identity.

But she emerged clutching that identity more tightly than ever.

Gertrude Simmons, later known as Zitkála-Šá (“Red Bird”) is best known today for her activism and writing. And for good reason, too: the brutal, poetic honesty of her essays can take your breath away. But Zitkála-Šá was also renowned for her mastery of the violin, the piano, and the voice. Western art music was a tool that she used to cope with abuse, garner praise and respect, and shatter stereotypes of Native people.

In 1913 she collaborated on a groundbreaking work, The Sun Dance Opera. It is the first opera written by a Native American, and it employed elements of Native folk music. Unsurprisingly, her white male collaborator took more credit than he was likely due. He copyrighted the score under his name alone, despite citing Zitkála-Šá as a creative partner in his memoir. We don’t have any first-person account of its composition from Zitkála-Šá, and so we are forced to squint between the lines and fill in the blanks ourselves.

Doing so is worthwhile. For those interested in Western art music, the story of Zitkála-Šá is uniquely challenging and rewarding. It raises a variety of questions we still struggle with today. Is Western art music really a universal language? Might it bridge cultural chasms, or does it cause them? How might it oppress, and might it give the voiceless a voice?

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Emma Steiner: Conductor, Composer, Miner

In mid-February the Metropolitan Opera announced its 2018/19 season. None of the programmed works are by women, and every conductor will be a man.

Met Opera graph

Graph courtesy of MusicTheoryExamplesbyWomen.com, aka MTEW_com on Twitter. (Also, sad lol at the asterisk: “These are pie charts“)

Therefore, I figured it was worth casting an eye back to a more progressive time – the 1920s – to resurrect the remarkable story of Emma Steiner, who conducted her own operatic compositions at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1925.

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Emma Steiner was born on 26 February 1856 in Baltimore. Her paternal line was chock-full of military men, and her father Colonel Frederick Birely Steiner had served with distinction in the Mexican-American War. After his retirement from the military, he worked (quite successfully) as an importer of fruit.

Emma’s invalid mother Catharine was a gifted amateur pianist, and she would often prop her young daughter up in a chair to play for her. Emma grew to become an unusually quiet and observant child who never cried, mesmerized by music.

Emma later claimed that the entirety of her musical training consisted of Catharine showing her where middle C was on the keyboard. But she quickly learned to teach herself, assigning every key on the piano a number.

By seven she was composing. By nine she wrote a piano duet. And by eleven she had composed a grand opera called Aminaide. “Her father was opposed to opera on principle and refused to look at the score,” a newspaper later reported. “A musical friend, however, pronounced it correctly written.” (x) A scene from Aminaide was actually produced at the Peabody Conservatory and garnered praise from the school director. Dazzled Baltimoreans urged Frederick to send Emma to Europe to study, but he refused.

Emma chafed at his disapproval. In a 1926 interview with the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, she recalls defying him as a teenager, leaving the house while he was away to conduct an opera in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, at the behest of a family friend who knew of her musical ability and therefore had recommended her for the job. Frederick was mortified and forbid her to perform in public again. Needless to say, she didn’t listen.

emma steiner

Emma Steiner

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Nora Douglas Holt: Composer, Critic, Bombshell

A mere quarter of a century after the close of the Civil War, a little girl named Lena Douglas was born to an African Methodist Episcopal Church minister and his wife in Kansas City, Kansas. The little girl was destined for dynamism. Over the course of her life she became a composer, pianist, singer, musicologist, sex symbol, club act, radio woman, and even a highly respected New York critic.

Lena Douglas (she’d later adopt the name Nora) was born in 1885 or 1890 to Rev. Calvin Douglas and his wife Gracie Brown Douglas. Like many others in the A.M.E. Church, Rev. and Mrs. Douglas were passionate about education, and African-American education in particular. Both were closely involved with the Western University of Quindaro, which had been founded in 1865 as the first all-black school west of the Mississippi.

Consequently Nora received a first-rate education. She started taking piano lessons at the age of four and later played organ in the family church. Even as a young woman, she showed an interest in composing, writing the music to the Western University school song in 1907. (Her father provided the lyrics.)

She continued her collegiate music studies at Western, which, lucky for her, boasted one of the best music schools in America. Nora distinguished herself while studying criticism and composition, graduating at the top of her class.

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Johanna Kinkel: Composer, Author, Revolutionary

Poet and playwright Emanuel Geibel wrote of Johanna Kinkel, “Generally, boundlessness is her failing, for she is so endowed with talent that she is not a genius in any one area.”

Johanna was born in Bonn on 8 July 1810 to Peter Joseph Mockel and his wife Marianna. Much to their alarm, their daughter proved to be exceptionally intelligent and musical.

She began studying under Franz Anton Ries, a violinist who had tutored Beethoven a few decades earlier. Ries’s pupils formed a group known as the Singkränzchen, or the Singers’ Circle. Johanna must have demonstrated great character and ability, because she assumed leadership of the Singkränzchen when she was just a teenager. She mined her experiences as a choral director for her op. 1, “The Birds’ Garden for Five Voices with Piano Accompaniment: A Musical Joke,” in which five birds hold a rehearsal and argue with one another over who has more talent. (A modern edition of the piece is available here.)

In 1831, Johanna met a pious Catholic bookseller and music merchant named Johann Paul Mathieux. Desperate to escape the oppressive home of her parents, she agreed to marry him. Almost instantly, she realized she’d made a terrible mistake. Mathieux had been faking his religiosity and he abused his wife. Six months after the wedding, she moved back into her parents’ house and filed for a divorce (which Mathieux refused to grant). The town gossips blamed the failure of the marriage on Johanna’s un-feminine nature. Her doctor diagnosed her with a “nervous breakdown with emaciation fever” brought on by the “abuses conveyed by [the] selected torments” of her ex. (x)

She only began to recover in the mid-1830s. To earn her keep, she taught piano and also returned as director of the Singkränzchen. She even presented and directed entire operatic acts in the musical homes of Bonn.

In 1836, she secured an introduction to Felix Mendelssohn via his spirited, strong-willed aunt, author Dorothea von Schlegel. He pronounced Johanna talented and encouraged her to move to Berlin. There she studied piano with Wilhelm Taubert and composition with Karl Böhmer, earning her living by teaching and composing.

In 1838 she published her op. 7, a volume of songs. Critic Oswalk Lorenz, writing for Robert Schumann’s Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, labeled the work “ladylike.” She wasn’t happy being pigeonholed based on her gender. To protest, when Schumann himself wrote Kinkel and asked for another of her compositions, she mailed him “my wildest drinking song for a male choir.” (x)

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Behind the Scenes with the Minnesota Orchestra in Chicago

I can recommend crashing a Minnesota Orchestra tour rehearsal if you ever get the chance.

My fellow fangirl Aly and I were eating lunch on Michigan Avenue this Sunday when we texted a musician to see if crashing was an option.

It was, if we could get there in five minutes.

We ran.

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Somehow I’ve ended up backstage at several of the world’s great halls. The ceilings are always low; the corridors narrow. Musicians and staff – the invisible superheroes of every tour – shoot quick smiles and turn their hips sideways to squeeze past each other. We went down and up stairs. For a split second I wondered why the railings were wrapped in a cushy rubbery covering, but then I realized: of course, it’s to protect the precious instruments carried up and down these storied dingy staircases every night.

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A BLIZZARD TO WISH THE MINNEAPOLIS SYMPHONY “GOOD LUCK”

Today – January 22nd, 2018 – the Minnesota Orchestra was supposed to leave for a regional Midwestern tour.

They are scheduled to perform tomorrow night at Indiana University, Thursday night at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Sunday afternoon in Chicago at Orchestra Hall.

I heard that only a handful of musicians got out of town today before the Twin Cities got hit by a snowstorm. As I type, some areas of the metro have gotten twelve inches, and we’re not done yet. As you can imagine, musicians and management have been dealing with a very stressful situation trying to get everybody down south in time to play the show and work with students!

Turns out, we’re just re-living history 101 years later, almost to the day.

From the Musical Courier, February 1st, 1917:

A BLIZZARD TO WISH THE MINNEAPOLIS SYMPHONY “GOOD LUCK”

Organization Starts Its Western Trip Under Difficulties

The beginning of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra’s midwinter tour was attended with features almost tragic. The organization was to leave Minneapolis at 6:45 on Sunday evening, January 21st, after the regular Sunday afternoon Popular Concert. When Sunday morning dawned, however, Minneapolis found itself in the grasp of the worst blizzard in the history of the city. In the early afternoon it was still possible to reach the center of the city if one took many and devious routes and allowed plenty of time. The Auditorium had been sold out for the concert, but at 3:00, the advertised time for the program to begin, not over fifty per cent of the audience had been able to reach the hall. The concert was given in its entirety, however, the members of the orchestra having all managed to get there by almost superhuman efforts. In some cases the men living in the outskirts had left home at 10 in the morning and walked many miles.

By 3 o’ clock the street car traffic was completely tied up, and at 6 o’ clock the officials of the railroad that was to take the orchestra out of town notified the orchestra management that it was a human impossibility to make the trip. The orchestra was, nevertheless, ordered to report to their chartered sleepers at the depot, and after some hurried conferences between the railroad officials and Managers Heighton and Stein of the orchestra, it was decided to pull the train out just as soon as it was at all possible to do so. Meanwhile every train out of Minneapolis for that night was annulled and not another wheel moved. At 2 o’ clock two engines tried to pull the orchestra special out of the depot, but the train was frozen to the track. However, shortly before 9 a majestic train of [?] engines and four cars teamed out into the blinding snow storm behind a snow plow, everything covered from roof to wheel with ice and tons of snow – the only train that left Minneapolis that night. Some delay was encountered in getting through the St. Paul yards, but after leaving there very good time was made and the “North Pole” special arrived in Urbana, Ill, the first stop at 6:30 p.m. on Monday.

Meanwhile the audience at the University of Illinois that had been gathered in the Auditorium for the advertised matinee, were being held and entertained by an impromptu program given by the faculty. A combination of the afternoon and evening program was given at 8:15 and the orchestra pulled out at midnight for Memphis, Tenn.

Since leaving Urbana, the orchestra is not liable to run into the sort of weather that delayed its start as the tour this year takes it to California by way of New Orleans, through Texas, and back via Salt Lake and Denver. The regular season will be resumed in Minneapolis on Friday evening, February 23rd, with Jacques Thibaud as soloist.

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It’s a funny thing how history repeats itself…and also oddly heartwarming. The tales echo through the decades: this is an orchestra that is willing to go the distance to tour, whether it’s in 1917 or 2018. Call me a sap, but that spirit of service moves me. It moves me especially deeply because I don’t need to make the concert tomorrow night, and can admire the modern-day “superhuman efforts” from my safe cozy house, lol.

Wishing safe travels for everyone associated with our orchestra!

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Also, wish me safe travels! I’ll be in Chicago this weekend to cheer the orchestra on (a few patrons will be, actually), and also provide as many social media updates as I can! This was a bit of an impulse decision… A generous anonymous gift from a reader helped pay for my coverage. I couldn’t be more grateful. So keep an eye out here on the blog, and especially on Twitter and Instagram. And if you’re interested in making a day trip yourself, there are still tickets available!

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