Monthly Archives: May 2011

Wilma Norman-Neruda And A Short History of Female Violinists

This is the first essay I wrote about female violinists, and the beginning of my addiction. It appeared here on violinist.com in June of 2010. I’ve edited it a bit and added some more stuff that’s popped up online in the last year or so.

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Here’s a little quiz for those of you who consider yourself somewhat knowledgeable about the history of violin-playing.

Have you ever heard of Ysaÿe? Joachim? Tartini? Sarasate? Kreisler? Of course.

But how about Sacchi? Norman-Neruda? Urso? Hall? Parlow? Jackson? Soldat? Tua? Saenger-Sethe?

The first list contains the names of men; the second, of women. Due to a sad twist of fate, the manifold accomplishments of female violin virtuosas from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries have largely slipped from our collective consciousness. In an era when an ever-increasing percentage of our great violinists are women, it is worth taking a step back and recognizing that just a few generations ago, violin-playing was considered to be not just unladylike, but indecent. This review of a concert by violinist Elise Mayer Filipowicz, dating from 1834, is a typical one: although her playing “[gave] our ears great pleasure,…our eyes told us that the instrument is not one for ladies to attempt.” Louis Spohr, according to Paula Gillett in her book Musical Women in England, 1870-1914, believed that women were guilty “of mishandling the violin and lowering performance standards.” A woman named Blanche Lindsay wrote in 1880 that she had “known girls of whom it was darkly hinted that they played the violin, as it might be said that they smoked big cigars, or enjoyed the sport of rat-catching.”

Why did women violinists excite such an acute antipathy? As with so many other deeply entrenched societal attitudes, it seems that there was not one simple explanation, but rather a series of interrelating ones. First and foremost, the violin did not have a particularly wholesome reputation in the early part of the nineteenth century. Although the violin has been associated with Satan for hundreds of years (a belief that first gained traction when portable stringed instruments were played during dances, gatherings which the Catholic Church looked down upon), the connection was solidified in the popular imagination by the performances of Nicolò Paganini (1782-1840), a violinist who looked so macabre and played so brilliantly he was widely assumed to be in league with the devil. Paradoxically, women in the Victorian era were considered to be both spiritually weaker and purer than men, and while it was believed that they needed to be protected from spiritually corrosive forces, they were also expected to set a spiritual and moral example to society as a whole. Playing an instrument so long and so closely associated with the devil was deemed to be incompatible with such a lofty goal.

Other more insidious reasons came into play. In the gender-obsessed Victorian era, men and women alike were all too aware of the aesthetic similarities between a violin and a woman’s body. As if to underscore these similarities, violins and human beings even share many of the names of their parts (the belly, the ribs, the neck, etc.). Not to mention that the range of the violin is almost identical to that of a soprano – a uniquely womanly range. Most people believed that such an obviously feminine instrument required a masculine player – a “master” – to play and dominate it, as they felt that women needed to be “played” and dominated by men. A woman playing the violin was faintly suggestive of lesbianism or self-love. Even Yehudi Menuhin, born in 1916, long after the Victorian era had come to a close, subscribed to a form of this view, writing:

I have often wondered whether psychologically there is a basic difference between the woman’s relationship to the violin and the man’s… Does the woman violinist consider the violin more as her own voice than the voice of one she loves? Is there an element of narcissism in the woman’s relation to the violin, and is she, in fact, in a curious way, better matched for the cello? The handling and playing of a violin is a process of caress and evocation, of drawing out a sound which awaits the hands of the master.

As if these reasons were not vague or bizarre enough, Victorian reviewers often even objected to the way that women looked when playing the violin. The standing, the clamping down of the chin, and quick energetic bowing in presto passages were all deemed to be aesthetically unpleasing and inherently unfeminine motions, verging on un-chaste. Ladies were encouraged to stick to instruments that were thought to be more passive and domestic, such as the piano or the harp, where the fingers moved more than the arms.

Whatever its precise causes, prejudice against female violinists was rampant throughout Europe until the mid-Victorian era. Despite this, a few exceptional female players still made their way into the music history books. Mozart wrote his b-flat minor violin sonata, K. 454, at the request of a female violinist named Regina Strinasacchi Schlick, about whom he declared, “No human being can play with more feeling.” Viotti taught at least two women, one of whom tutored Empress Josephine’s son. Paganini is reputed to have given lessons to a talented youngster from his hometown of Genoa, Italy, named Caterina Calgano. The “sisters Milanollo” – two sisters named Teresa (1827-1904) and Maria (1832-1848) – were prodigies who played the violin together all over Europe in the 1840s. When Maria died at the age of sixteen, the grief-stricken Teresa continued her career as a solo violinist. Still, despite these and other contributions by female string players, it was generally considered strange for a woman to play the violin, and there were no women virtuosos to speak of who could stand in comparison with the best of men.

Into this prejudiced musical climate, a little girl named Wilhelmine Maria Franziska Neruda was born in Brno, now in the Czech Republic, sometime between 1838 and 1840 (as with many prodigies, there are conflicting reports over the year of her birth). Music surrounded little Wilma from the beginning; her father Josef was the organist at the Brno cathedral, and her ancestors had a local reputation of being exceptionally musical. At least five of her siblings showed extraordinary musical promise from a very early age: all were prodigies, and all went on to become professional musicians – Olga and Amalie on the piano, Viktor and Franz on the cello, and Marie on the violin.

Shortly before her fourth birthday, Wilma began to show an interest in the violin. Her father, alarmed at her preference for such an unfeminine instrument, directed her to the piano instead. But, as one 1899 article in a Toronto newspaper delicately put it, “She had a most cordial dislike for the piano, regarding it as an instrument of limitations.” Josef had been teaching one of his sons to play the violin, and one day Wilma got a hold of it. She began playing in secret, resolving that if nobody was going to teach her how to play, she would just do it herself. When she was discovered, instead of disciplining her, Josef relented and began to give his persistent daughter lessons. Much to his astonishment, she caught on more quickly than her brother. By the time she was six, Josef sent Wilma to Vienna, where she studied under Leopold Jansa, a famous Bohemian violinist. Wilma Neruda proved to be one of his two most famous pupils; the other was the violinist and composer Karl Goldmark.

In 1846 Wilma Neruda made her public debut in Vienna, accompanied by her pianist sister Amalie. Shortly afterward their father took them on a concert tour across Europe, along with their cellist brother Viktor. Wilma quickly emerged as the star. In April of 1849 the family gave their London debut. Wilma playing Vieuxtemps’s Arpeggio and Ernst’s Carnival of Venice variations, with Amalie and Viktor accompanying. (Little did she know that when she grew up she would play Ernst’s Stradivari.) Their two concerts were so successful that the family was re-engaged for sixteen more. At these later concerts she played a de Bériot concerto and Vieuxtemps’s Yankee Doodle Variations, as well as a composition entitled “God Save the Queen” – as composed by herself! The critics raved over her intonation and bowing; her up and down bow staccato were said to be some of the cleanest the London critics had heard.

In June of that year she gave yet another concert in England, playing another de Bériot concerto. A Mr. Chorley, from the Athenaeum magazine, wrote in a lukewarm review:

Mdlle. Wilhlemine Neruda – whom we may name since there is small chance of our remarks reaching her painfully – has been capitally trained – and may, in time, emulate those more distinguished girl-violinists, the sisters Milanollo; but childish curiosity and indulgent applause – were they not destructive to their victim – are not the emotions to excite which the Philharmonic Concerts were founded.

Chorley ostensibly claimed to object to Wilma’s appearance because she was a flashy prodigy as opposed to than a full-fledged performing artist, but he was concealing the fact that he was one of the many people who were hostile to the idea of women performers. A few decades later, after Wilma had established a commanding international career, and other women were following suit, he famously complained in the press that “The fair sex are encroaching on all men’s privileges.” Thankfully, as Wilma grew up, such views slowly but surely became more and more unfashionable. Wilma Neruda – along with the Milanollo sisters and another female violinist named Camilla Urso (1842-1902) – were gradually helping to reshape ideas about the appropriateness of the violin for ladies. Although audiences were skeptical at the idea at first, the more they saw women violinists perform, the less threatening they became. It seemed to them that women who had devoted their lives to the violin were not any less feminine than those who hadn’t. It was an uphill struggle, but the battle against prejudice had begun.

In 1852 Wilma and her family arrived in Moscow to give a series of concerts. For one of them, she played in the same concert with the seventeen-year-old prodigy Henryk Wieniawski. After Wilma’s performance, Henri Vieuxtemps came onstage to present her with a bouquet of flowers while the enthusiastic audience gave her a standing ovation. Wieniawski became jealous of Wilma’s great triumph and elbowed his way back onstage, loudly insisting that he was the better violinist and offering to prove it. Outraged audience members clambered up onto the stage to quiet him, but this only angered him more. When a Russian general came to reason with him, Wieniawski prodded him with his bow and ordered him to be quiet. Harassing a member of the military in such a fashion was no small offense in Imperial Russia, and Wieniawski was ordered to leave Moscow within twenty-four hours. His punishment could easily have been much worse. It is strange to think that Wieniawski may have been injured or killed, and his subsequent contributions to violin music lost, over such a trivial scuffle. Despite the insult Wieniawski had paid her, Wilma played his compositions throughout her life. One wonders if every time she pulled out the sheet music she remembered the commotion she had set off in Moscow.

In 1859, at the age of twenty, Wilma became the first violinist in a group known as the Neruda Quartet, comprised of various Neruda children. While touring together, Wilma and her sister Maria met a wide variety of famous Europeans, including Hans Christian Andersen in Denmark in 1862. Sometime during her travels, Wilma met a Swede named Frederick Wilhlem Ludwig Norman. He was a conductor and composer, remembered today as one of the great Swedish symphonists of the late nineteenth century. He had known Robert Schumann during his student days in Leipzig and was now a teacher at the Royal Music Academy in Stockholm. Wilma and Ludwig fell in love and married in 1864. Their first child, Ludwig, was born in November 1864, and their second, Felix, was born in May of 1866.

Marriage and pregnancy almost always spelled an end to female musicians’ careers in the Victorian era. Wilma’s contemporary, the violinist Camilla Urso, counseled all serious female musicians to never get married because she felt they wouldn’t be able to balance their personal and professional lives. In an age before birth control, when it was common for women to bear over ten children, this was a legitimate concern. However, Clara Schumann, the remarkable concert pianist who had raised eight children while successfully concertizing throughout Europe, had proved to the world that marriage and a career were not necessarily incompatible. Wilma was intimately familiar with her example, as her pianist sister had studied with Clara. Not many women were willing to follow Clara’s lead, but Wilma was one of the few who did. Even after she had her two boys, she kept on playing and touring. The only difference was that now, instead of appearing as the diminutive “Wilma Neruda” she was the commanding “Madame Norman-Neruda.” Interestingly her sons also took her hyphenated name, so that they were known as Felix and Ludwig Norman-Neruda. Whether that was because of a quarrel with their father, to bask in their mother’s professional success, or for another reason altogether, is unknown.

Unfortunately Ludwig and Wilma’s marriage was not a happy one. Although they never divorced (Wilma was Catholic), they did eventually part ways. Wilma did not hide the fact that she was separated from her husband from the press; the fact was often mentioned in contemporary music biographies of her.

Wilma kept up her extraordinary work throughout the 1870s, playing concerti by Mendelssohn, Spohr, Wieniawski, Beethoven, and others, as well as various demanding sonatas and showpieces. She continued to gain the respect of her male colleagues; in the late 1870s, the great Spanish virtuoso Pablo de Sarasate dedicated his Romanza Andaluza and Jota Navarra to Wilma.

Playing the violin, however, was only a small part of her overall workload. It has to be remembered that in those days, there were no travel agents making arrangements for musicians. Virtuosos themselves often communicated directly with orchestras to arrange their programs. And not only did they have to determine their own programs, they also had to know who was playing what concerto in various cities across Europe, so that they would not play a piece that had just been performed. There is a fascinating letter in the UK National Archives written to a concert manager in Holland in which Wilma suggests a program for her upcoming tour there. She gave the manager two programs to choose from: first, the twenty-second concerto of Viotti or the eighth concerto of Spohr, paired with the second two movements of the first Vieuxtemps concerto; or second, the slow movement from Spohr’s ninth concerto or Beethoven’s Romance in F, paired with the Mendelssohn concerto – that is, unless Joachim has recently played the Mendelssohn in Amsterdam, as she knew he had recently visited there. It must have taken extraordinary energy to keep up that kind of correspondence with the concert managers of Europe, as well as keep in shape technically, all while raising her children.

During this busy time she often collaborated with her multiple musical siblings. In one concert program in London in 1875 she played first violin in a trio by Bargiel; two pieces by Schumann rearranged for two violins and cello (with Wilma and her sister Maria, now married and known as “Madame Arlberg-Neruda” on violin, and her brother Franz on cello); and finally, to wrap things up, the Schumann E-flat quintet, with Charles Hallé on the piano and Franz on cello.

Wilma Norman-Neruda with her male colleagues, leading the Monday Popular Concerts string quartet

Wilma was the first woman violinist to play chamber music professionally with men. Vieuxtemps – the same violinist who had given her the bouquet of flowers in Moscow, much to Wieniawski’s dismay – suggested in the early 1870s that she lead the fashionable Monday Popular Concerts quartet in London. She was hesitant to accept the offer, but, encouraged by Vieuxtemps, she finally consented. Her concerts there were great triumphs, at which she played everything from Beethoven to Mozart to Cherubini to the Dvorak Quintet. Elsewhere in London she performed Grieg’s violin sonatas with the composer himself at the piano, and in the 1890s she played the Bach double violin concerto with no less a partner than Joseph Joachim, possibly the greatest violinist of the era. It must have been a thrill for their listeners to see the two on the same stage, as Wilma was often compared to him in the press. He once said, “Mark this, when people have given her a fair hearing, they will think more of her and less of me.”

Hush! The Concert, by James Tissot, 1875. The woman in the picture is widely thought to be Wilma Norman-Neruda.

Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, the stigma attached to female violinists gradually began to fade. In fact, Wilma and Camilla Urso both inspired thousands of young girls to take up the instrument, to the point where it became downright fashionable for a girl to play the violin. The press likened her to a female St. George, slaying the dragon of prejudice. By 1890 she was able to reminisce to Oscar Wilde’s magazine The Woman’s World, “When I first came to London [in 1869], I was surprised to find that it was thought almost improper, certainly unladylike, for a woman to play on the violin. In Germany the thing was quite common and excited no comment. I could not understand – it seemed so absurd – why people thought so differently here. Whenever in society I hear a young lady tuning a violin I think of…the reproachful curiosity with which the people at first regarded my playing.” Male reporters at magazines and newspapers recorded their astonishment at just how many young girls were taking up stringed instruments. In the Contemporary Review, one writer named H.R. Hawes went so far as to say, “A beautiful girl playing on a beautiful violin is the most beautiful thing in the world” and “Surely the violin is made for woman, and woman is made for the violin.” He went on to say:

The barrier which for long, in spite of St. Cecilia and the angels, warned off women from violins, in the name of all that was feminine, no longer exists. Indeed, within the last twenty-five years, we have been afflicted with a girl-violin mania. School misses before they are in their teens clamour to learn the violin. It is a common sight in London to see maidens of all ages laden with fiddles of all sizes, their music rolls strapped tightly to the cases, hurrying to the underground railway, or hailing the omnibus or cab in Oxford Street, Regent Street, and Bond Street. Then the Royal Academy, Royal College, Guildhall class-rooms are choked with violin-girls, and no ladies’ seminary is now complete without the violin tutor. Women have already invaded orchestras, and at least one celebrated amateur society can boast of nothing but lady players, whilst the profession as regards soloists divides its honours pretty equally between male and female virtuosi.

There was also a more practical reason that Hawes never touched upon why the violin was becoming more and more popular among women. Since they were large and relatively expensive, and a family had to have a certain amount of space and money to own them, pianos and harps had become the hallmark of domesticity and the middle-class. But as the middle-class grew, and more and more women began to play the piano, its novelty factor began to wear thin. (In the 1890s the magazine Punch ran a satirical cartoon that depicts a newly hired maid directing movers where to put her piano, while her mistress looks on in dismay.) Thanks to the example of female performers like Wilma and Camilla Urso, and women’s desire to play an instrument that would make them stand out from the crowd, more and more ladies began taking the violin seriously. A sort of snowball effect began taking place, and scores of women became violinists. Wilma was the undisputed queen of them all.

Wilma grew so beloved in Britain that, in 1887, when Arthur Conan Doyle was writing his first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, Wilma’s name was the first violinist’s name to come to mind when he wanted to send Holmes to a violin recital during his investigation. Holmes – a talented violinist himself – came back from the concert and raved over her bow arm. Today, despite all of her other achievements, she is probably most famous for that singular fictional appearance!

In 1885 Ludwig Norman died, leaving his estranged wife a widow. Three years later Wilma married Charles Hallé, who had been widowed himself in 1866. Hallé was a formidable pianist (he was the first pianist to play a complete Beethoven sonata cycle in England) and conductor (he was the founder and first conductor of the famous Hallé Orchestra in Manchester; it is now the fourth oldest orchestra in the world). Wilma and Charles’s paths had crossed for the first time in May of 1849 when the Neruda children had performed at one of Charles Hallé’s Gentleman’s Society concerts; Wilma had been a ten-year-old prodigy and Charles a thirty-year-old conductor. Ever since that first performance they had kept in touch and had often performed with one another. A few months after they were married, Charles was knighted for his musical services to the Empire. Wilma accordingly became Lady Hallé, the name she is most often remembered by today. Together they gave a wide variety of concerts, ranging from chamber music to concerto work. A few years after their marriage, Charles established the Royal Manchester College of Music after decades of dreaming about the project. Although it is unclear if Wilma was on the faculty, her pianist sister Olga was invited to join the staff. Olga worked in Manchester, teaching and performing, until her retirement in 1908.

 Charles Hallé, Wilma’s second husband and lifelong musical partner

In 1890, Wilma and Charles embarked on a tour of Australia, then widely considered by the English to be a wild frontier land. In 1895 they toured South Africa. In his memoirs Charles Hallé recalled one concert where he and Wilma performed the Kreutzer sonata by Beethoven at a municipal concert. There were to be a few numbers both before and after Charles and Wilma took the stage. After they had finished and acknowledged the thunderous applause, a member of the audience came forward and suggested that the rest of the performances be canceled, saying that the Hallés had played so perfectly there was no point in continuing. The rest of the audience quickly acquiesced and the concert was finished. Later, a thousand South African natives assembled to dance war dances and sing in Wilma’s honor.

Tragically, a few weeks after they returned from their monumental South African tour, Charles Hallé died suddenly after an illness of only a few hours. Three years later, Wilma’s son, Ludwig Norman-Neruda, now a famous mountain-climber, died after a fall on a hike in the Alps. Never one to avoid work, even in times of personal turmoil, Wilma embarked on an ambitious tour of the United States and Canada the next year. She ascended each concert podium dressed entirely in black in memory of her son (and perhaps her husband, too).

A Toronto reviewer raved:

The programme she gave last night was an old-fashioned one, with the rarely seen names of Tartini and Spohr upon it; men who were at once brilliant composers, and, the former in the 18th century, the latter in the 19th, exponents of the classic school of violin playing. Lady Hallé, in these days of the strenuous emotionalists, stands almost alone as a representative of the serene and exquisite methods of the old school. Her hand, despite its sixty years, seems as pliant as a girl’s, and sure as clockwork. Her facility is amazing, and her technique beyond what is ordinarily assumed to be perfection. Withal she possesses extraordinary magnetism… Her final numbers were a berceuse of Slavic Colour, composed by her brother Franz, and played with the mute: and a florid number by Bazzini, “La Ronde des lutins.” Technically, this was her crowning number. Her harmonics were as sweet and liquid as a bird’s song: her rapid pizzicati work was amazing, and her staccato passages were marvelously clean. In short, Lady Hallé is an artiste who compels superlatives.

At the age of sixty, Wilma announced her retirement and intention to teach music in Berlin. Although the majority of her performing career was over, she was still greatly beloved by the public. In 1901, in recognition of her many achievements in music, Queen Alexandra bestowed upon her the honorary title of “Violinist to the Queen.” A coalition of royal families came together – among them the royal families of England, Sweden, and Denmark – and presented her with the keys to a palazzo outside of Venice. In 1907 she played at the memorial concert after the death of Joseph Joachim, the violinist to whom she had been so often compared throughout her lifetime.

Wilhelmina Norman-Neruda, later Lady Hallé

Wilma died of pneumonia in Berlin in 1911. She was seventy-two. Although musicians mourned her loss, they also celebrated her extraordinary life and achievements. Thanks in large part to her example, women across the world began to take up the violin in ever-increasing numbers. The next generation of violin virtuosos had a much higher percentage of women, all of whom accomplished amazing things in their own right: Marie Soldat (1863/4 – 1955), a protégé of Brahms and a fierce exponent of his violin concerto; Gabriele Wietrowitz (1866 – ?), one of Joachim’s most distinguished students and founder of a widely acclaimed ladies string quartet (few know that Brahms’s violin concerto came to prominence largely because of the championing Soldat and Wietrowitz did of it); Maud Powell (1867 – 1920), who was not just the first great female violinist from America, but the first great violinist from America, period; Teresina Tua (1867 – 1955/56), who drew audiences to concerts by wearing diamonds and jewels on her extravagant gowns; Irma Saenger-Sethe (1876 – 1958), a student of Ysaye’s who served as his substitute at the Brussels Conservatory when he was away traveling; Leonora Jackson (1879 – 1969), an American violinist whose patroness was First Lady Frances Cleveland; Marie Hall (1884 – 1956), the dedicatee of Vaughan Williams’s Lark Ascending and the first person to ever record the Elgar concerto; Kathleen Parlow (1890 – 1963), one of the first great instrumentalists from Canada and one of Auer’s first North American students; Jelly d’Aranyi (1895 – 1966), the dedicatee of Tzigane and the two sonatas of Bartók…

And the list goes on and on.

It’s tragic that historians have largely forgotten the tremendous contributions of Wilma Norman-Neruda and the women who followed in her footsteps. Without their hard work, we modern-day listeners would regard the playing of such phenomenally talented women like Hilary Hahn, Sarah Chang, and Julia Fischer in a very different way. Not to mention the many women – soloists, orchestral players, chamber players, and amateurs – who might not have taken up the violin if there had been an “unfeminine” stigma associated with it. Perhaps a day is coming when these extraordinary women who trail-blazed for the rest of us can be properly remembered, honored, and celebrated by a wider audience of music-lovers.

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Filed under My Writing, Women Violinists

Musician & Muse: A Short Life of Violinist Stefi Geyer

Finally, some of the stuff that I really love to write. Reviews are great fun, too, of course, but essays on the great female violinists are my favorite. I hope you enjoy.

This was originally published on violinist.com in August 2010. Link here.

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Preface

Last year I heard that violinist James Ehnes was going to be performing the Chausson Poème and first (posthumous) violin concerto of Béla Bartók in Door County, Wisconsin, in August of 2010. As I read about the program, I immediately became intrigued by the virtuosa violinist Stefi Geyer, the woman who had inspired Bartók to write his concerto. The story is fit for a novel, and the First Concerto, if it does not reach the musical heights of the Second, is nonetheless incredibly beautiful and personal and heartfelt. It deserves to be heard more often than it is. Thanks to James Ehnes and conductor Victor Yampolsky for programming this relative rarity, and for bringing my attention to Stefi Geyer, who, as I write in the essay, is an extraordinary musical figure and worth remembering even aside from her association with Bartók.

If you have anything to share about Stefi Geyer, please write me. Thank you to all of the people who I wrote to who contributed their knowledge and expertise on the subject.

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In early 1908, violin virtuosa Stefi Geyer received a letter from an old school friend. In a previous note she had told him that, despite his intense passion for her, she could never entertain the idea of ever marrying him. This letter would contain his response. She no doubt felt some trepidation as she opened the envelope.

“I have begun a quartet,” he wrote. “The first theme is the theme of the second movement: this is my funeral dirge.”

Stefi Geyer knew full well what this cryptic message meant. In happier times her friend had written her a violin concerto as a testament of his love for her; now, he was appropriating one of the themes from it for a string quartet and twisting it into a bitter song of death.

Incidentally, this quartet was the first in a series of six that turned out to be the most important string quartet cycle of the twentieth century. For this was no ordinary school friend: this was Béla Bartók.

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Stefi Geyer was born into a middle-class Catholic family on June 28, 1888 in Budapest. At the end of the nineteenth century, Budapest was one of the most beautiful cities in the world, with a colorful history stretching back nearly two thousand years. In 1849 the two cities of Buda and Pest, separated by the Danube River, had been joined by the elegant and technologically groundbreaking Chain Bridge, sparking an economic revolution between the two cities. As a result there was an explosion of growth throughout the last half of the nineteenth century – musically, intellectually, and architecturally. Budapest’s magnificent opera house was finished the year of Stefi’s birth, and the grand Parliament building, begun in 1885, was finished the year she turned sixteen. The boulevards were wide; there were charming cafes on every street corner; and the music scene could stand comparison with Vienna’s. The conservatory in Budapest had been founded by none other than Franz Liszt, and over time boasted such students as Ernst von Dohnányi, Jenő Hubay, Zoltán Kodály, David Popper, Fritz Reiner, and Georg Solti.

Stefi was the daughter of a member of the Budapest police force who was an amateur violinist himself. She began her music studies at the age of three and immediately showed extraordinary promise, such that she gave her first public concert at the age of seven in 1895. She was accepted into the studio of Jenő Hubay, a teacher at the Budapest conservatory. Hubay, today perhaps most famous for his compositions for the violin, had studied under Joachim and was friends with such luminaries as Vieuxtemps and Liszt. Stefi’s fellow students included Josef Szigeti (1892-1973); Jelly d’Aranyi (1893-1966), the inspiration for Ravel’s Tzigane; and Franz von Vecsey (1893-1935), who became the second dedicatee of Sibelius’s violin concerto at the age of thirteen. Like many of Hubay’s most talented students, Stefi performed for appreciative audiences all across Europe throughout her childhood, even garnering a mention in the New York Times for her successes in Austria and Italy in 1902.

Obviously there was a great deal of talent at the conservatory. That talent attracted an eighteen-year-old pianist from the tiny town of Nagyszentmiklós named Béla Bartók. Bartók had also been accepted at the perhaps more prestigious Vienna Conservatory, but, fatefully, he followed his friend Ernst von Dohnányi to Budapest instead to study under a student of Liszt. Bartók had dreams of becoming an internationally acclaimed piano virtuoso, but unfortunately his health did not cooperate. He came down with a case of pneumonia so severe that the doctors gave up on his life. A long rest in the pure air of the mountains, combined with the attention of his beloved mother, were the only things that saved him from a premature death.

It is unclear when and where Stefi and Bartók met for the first time. It seems likely, given their mutual association with the Budapest conservatory, that they had at least heard of one another before meeting. In a later letter Bartok called Stefi a “14-year-old elfish little girl, whom I met in Jászberény.” If he was remembering correctly, that would place their first meeting sometime around 1902. Stefi had relatives in the Hungarian town of Jászberény and would often go there to visit. Perhaps the twenty-one year old Bartók had been among the classmates invited to join her.

In 1903 Bartók ended his studies at the conservatory and embarked on his career as a concert pianist. That same year he wrote a symphonic poem called Kossuth, an homage to the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, and a sign of Bartók’s – and the region’s – ever-increasing feelings of nationalism. In 1904, while on vacation in Slovakia, he famously overheard a Transylvanian nanny singing folk songs to her charges, an encounter that would spark a lifelong passion for folk music. It wasn’t long before he was getting together with a friend, a fellow composer named Zoltán Kodály, and going out to rural communities to document the region’s musical heritage. In 1905 he was offered a job at his alma mater as a piano professor. He accepted.

Stefi Geyer playing Reger’s “Air.”

Once again Bartók and Stefi’s paths must have crossed. It is uncertain exactly when, where, and how, but they eventually became good friends. By early 1907, when Bartok was twenty-six and Stefi nineteen, they were meeting one another to play through the violin and piano works of German composer Max Reger. That summer, Stefi and her brother went to Jászberény to visit their aunt. Bartok came along, ostensibly to gather folk song.

The nineteen-year-old Stefi Geyer was an extraordinary person and violinist. Even in a studio as crowded with talent as Hubay’s, she stood out as one of the conservatory’s most exceptional students. She had already played a wide variety of repertoire throughout Europe, and had even recorded in 1906, back in the days when recording consisted of playing an unedited take into a giant horn. She was very pretty, with blue eyes and blonde hair that she wore in two small buns on either side of her head. That beauty, combined with her grace, cleverness, and talent, proved alluring. On June or July 1, 1907 (depending on what source you read), Bartók began to write a violin concerto with Stefi in mind. He left Jászberény to continue gathering folk song in Transylvania, but the concerto – and the girl – was always in the back of his mind, as evidenced by the letters he wrote to Stefi that summer.

The letters are long, passionate, and wide-ranging: they are Bartók at his most open and unguarded. Sadly, however, we have lost Stefi’s replies, so it is a one-sided conversation. At the beginning of their relationship, Bartók wrote mainly of music – Wagner, snippets of the concerto in-progress, the characteristics of the folksong he was studying – but by late summer, he had moved beyond music to speak of his own personal beliefs about religion and society. “The middle class, which stands between the highest people and the peasant class, is, owing to its stupidity, actually unenjoyable. We like the childlike naivety of the peasants, which manifests itself in everything often with primitive strength; the intellectual strength of the highest people is impressive, but the idiocy of the middle class – including most of the ‘gentry’ – which lacks natural naivety, is insufferable,” he wrote. This was probably not the wisest thing to write to a middle-class girl he wished to woo.

He also encouraged her to break the bounds of tradition – “As regards tradition, it’s but holy gospel for average people. And the Stefi Geyers are born to eschew its yoke… I think that everyone, man and woman, if it is in one’s power, must fight against the bonds of tradition. This fight is actually but a striving for autonomy, to be independent of everyone or of everything, as well as to be in control of ourselves…”

In another exchange, they spoke of the morality of suicide. “I do not see why you should condemn suicide as such a cowardly act!” he wrote. “It’s quite the contrary… As long as my mother is alive, and as long as I have some interest in the world, I will not commit suicide. But beyond that? Once I have no responsibility toward any living person, once I live all by myself (never ‘wavering’ even then) – why should suicide be a cowardly act? It’s true, of course, that it would not be a deed of great daring, but it could not be dismissed as an act of cowardly indifference.”

All of this may have been totally honest on Bartók’s part – if less than tactful – but when he began complaining about, and almost mocking, Stefi’s treasured Catholic beliefs, it precluded any possibility of a romantic relationship. “If I ever crossed myself, it would signify ’In the name of Nature, Art and Science…’ Isn’t that enough?! Must you have the promised ’hereafter’ as well? That’s something I can’t understand.” And then, rather condescendingly – “Will you allow me to supply you with reading matter from time to time?…You needn’t be afraid that reading will blight your youth; even if it were to shorten it, you would be amply compensated by all the pleasure you would get from it.” And then, a few days later: “Why are you such a very weak person, and why are you afraid of reading and learning?! This is what drives me to despair… Would you still refuse to accept books from me even if I only gave you books in which there is merely a total lack of reference to god – or at least only pious reference?!” Finally, perhaps realizing that they both were both holding stubborn in their own beliefs, he wrote, “I would never attempt to talk you out of your faith, distressed though I am by your present state of mind. Move the first moment of crisis, you would relapse, I am sure — Yes, let us drop the subject; we may discuss it again – at some later date, maybe, but not now.” He signed one of these letters, “Greetings from AN UNBELIEVER (who is more honest than a great many believers).”

Some historians, if they mention Geyer at all, imply that she toyed with Bartók. Sentences like “Violinist Stefi Geyer, whom friends remember as a dark, rapt beauty, a trifle spoiled by her early musical success, and more interested in her career than in young Bartok” are not uncommon (although, thankfully, that is an extreme example). But without having Stefi’s side of the story in writing, there is insufficient information to make such claims. The side of the correspondence that we do have – Bartók’s – makes it clear that their relationship was likely doomed from the beginning, thanks to fundamental differences in worldviews.

These fundamental differences didn’t matter to Bartók: despite them, he had fallen very deeply in love, although he surely sensed Stefi‘s hesitancy. “I have a sad misgiving that I shall never find any consolation in life save in music. For some time, I have been in a very strange mood, going from one extreme to the other. One letter from you, a line, even a word – and I am in a transport of joy, the next brings me almost to tears, it hurts so. What is to be the end of it all? And when? It is as if I am in a state of spiritual intoxication all the time.”

Throughout his turmoil, Bartók continued writing the concerto. The first movement was to be a portrait of Stefi Geyer as person and woman – “the idealized Stefi, celestial and inward,” Bartók wrote. Stefi herself later described it as a portrait of “the young girl he loved.” The movement is lush and romantic, with touches of Wagner. The gentle opening theme is pianissimo, and stated alone by the solo violin.

David Oistrakh in the first movement of the concerto.

This first movement makes it clear that in Bartók’s ideal world, Stefi Geyer would be a gentle, acquiescent figure. One cannot help but think of the widely cited Victorian ideal of womanhood: the gentle, unassuming “angel of the house.” Unfortunately for Bartók, Stefi Geyer had already defied that stereotype from an early age, simply by taking her violin studies seriously, and taking Europe by storm as a prodigy.

The second movement was to represent Stefi Geyer as the elfish, witty, sparkling virtuoso violinist. “Cheerful, witty, and amusing,” Bartók called it. Stefi referred to the movement as a tribute to “the violinist he admired.” Its main theme is actually the theme of the first movement, only slightly tweaked and turned around. Once again, the violin enters by itself, but this time it is a brash forte, totally different in character from the theme of the innocent angelic girl.

In other words (or notes) –

Notice the similarity to the first movement theme.

David Oistrakh in the second movement of the concerto.

Was Bartók making a statement here, even subconsciously, that two parts of Stefi Geyer – her womanhood and her career – were diametrically opposed? Interestingly, after a variety of virtuoso fireworks, the last phrase the violin plays in the entire concerto is a return to that lush, romantic “idealized” theme of the first movement.

David Oistrakh in the end of the second movement of the concerto. (Listen to 6:00 to the end to hear the phrases I’m referring to.)

Is this Bartók indulging in one last vain hope that the independent virtuoso violinist might succumb to the gentle, acquiescent, ideal girl? It is impossible to know.

As the autumn progressed, the strains in their relationship became more and more obvious. Bartók wrote in late November 1907, after working on the first two movements, that “Now, I should compose a picture of the indifferent, cool, silent St. G. But this would be hateful music.” Ten days later he wrote, “You are a dear, a good, a fairy-like, an enchanting girl! who has only to draw a few lines to chase the dark, grimly swirling clouds from the sky and makes the bright sun shine on me. – You are a taciturn, a bad, a cruel, a miserly girl! to begrudge me your powers of enchantment!” Finally he came to the conclusion – no doubt to Stefi’s relief – that he was not going to write the intended final “hateful” movement.

But this decision didn’t keep Bartók from composing something to express his feelings over the failed relationship. The last of his Fourteen Bagatelles for piano is a bitter waltz that employs the theme from the violin concerto. He later orchestrated this and used it as the second movement – “Grotesque” – in the Two Portraits. (The First Portrait is basically the first movement of the violin concerto, so he was certainly thinking of Stefi as he wrote.) Some have even theorized that this “Grotesque” movement was originally conceived as the third movement to the concerto.

Two Portraits, Op. 5. At 10:25, the second movement, “Grotesque,” begins. You’ll notice the first movement is basically the first movement of the violin concerto. 

Things only got worse between the two of them. In early February, Bartók finally finished the violin concerto. On the same day, Stefi Geyer wrote him that she could not consider courting or marrying him. He wrote, “I finished the score of the violin concerto on the 5th of February, the very day you were writing my death sentence… I locked it in my desk, I don’t know whether to destroy it or to keep it locked away until it is found after I die and the whole pile of papers, my declaration of love, your concerto, my best work are thrown out.” But thankfully for us, instead of destroying the work, he mailed the manuscript – the only copy he had – to Stefi, inscribed with a line of poetry from Béla Balázs: “No two stars are as far apart as two human souls.” Bartók would employ the poetry of Balázs in later compositions, including Bluebeard’s Castle and The Wooden Prince.

Around this time, Bartók began writing his first string quartet. True to his word, in the first movement he employed Stefi’s “virtuosic” theme and turned it into a mournful dirge.

The first movement of the first string quartet – the movement Bartok referred to as his funeral dirge.

As no one but the two of them had seen the score to the violin concerto, audiences listening to the quartet were unaware of the significance of this first theme. They would, however, have recognized a quotation in the third movement of a popular art song called “Just A Fair Girl.” Some historians have interpreted this as a defiant “toss of the head” to Stefi.

The following year, in 1909, Bartók went on a walk with a teenaged girl named Márta Ziegler, one of his piano students at the conservatory. He had met Márta, the daughter of a member of the Budapest police force, at the age of fourteen. The similarities to Stefi are striking. After they returned from the walk, Bartok’s mother asked if sixteen-year-old Márta was staying for dinner. He answered that they had just gotten married. Bartók later dedicated the opera “Bluebeard’s Castle” to Márta. Even in this opera, there were traces of the “Stefi Geyer” theme, but by now it reminded him of more than just his first love: it served as a compositional shorthand for many complex emotions.

As for Stefi, she kept the score to the violin concerto locked away among her papers, and although she occasionally spoke of it, she never performed it. In fact, there are indications it may have been sold at the end of her life to pay for her medical expenses.

Béla Bartók was not the first composer to come under Stefi Geyer’s spell. Swiss composer Othmar Schoeck (1886-1957) was also afflicted with a deep, passionate love for the virtuosa violinist that lasted for years. Schoeck had first heard her perform in 1905, when she was seventeen. “She thrilled me to the depths of my being,” he said. Their paths crossed again in 1907 when she performed in Leipzig while he was studying with Max Reger (the same composer whose works Stefi and Bartok had played together in Budapest). “My heartthrob, the lovely Stefi Geyer, was here recently; she played wonderfully and enchanted me more than ever,” he wrote to his parents. Even toward the end of his life he sighed, “She knew how to move so beautifully and to walk so beautifully.”

A few months after breaking things off with Bartók, Stefi finally met her long-time admirer in July 1908. Immediately Schoeck began to write for her. First came a tiny Albumblatt, then a full-length Violin Sonata, and then an actual Violin Concerto. All three were dedicated to Stefi. He continued in his attempts to woo her throughout 1908, later claiming they wrote passionate love letters to each other. If they did – and historians are skeptical on the point – they were later burned by his wife. Adding weight to that skepticism is the fact that Schoeck complained to others that all the physical contact he had been able to wring out of Stefi was a chaste kiss, and that Stefi was his only female friend that had not at some point made a pass at him.

Sometime around 1910, Stefi Geyer became engaged to Viennese lawyer Erwin Jung. Predictably, Schoeck referred to him as a “Viennese ponce” – or a person who fakes having class or culture. During her engagement, she invited Shoeck to come to visit her and her family in Budapest. He accepted the invitation, went to Budapest, wrote an unconvincing postcard to his friends that he had gotten over her, came home, and then promptly began writing a violin concerto for her. While he was writing the piece, he began rooming with a Russian medical student named Bertha Liebert. She soon became pregnant, but the baby died the same day it was born. He nonetheless continued to sleep with Bertha while hoping against hope that he could seduce Stefi.

The violin concerto that Schoeck wrote for Stefi.

To Schoeck’s dismay, Stefi married in 1911 and relocated to Vienna, where she took the name Stefi Geyer-Jung and taught. Unfortunately her marriage with Jung was not a happy one, and he eventually began drinking heavily. Throughout this turbulent time Stefi continued with her career, touring throughout Europe and even playing a concerto in Budapest that her old teacher Jenő Hubay had written for her.

Hubay’s fourth violin concerto, which was dedicated to Stefi.

During the late teens, perhaps spurred in part by the war and her unhappy marriage, Stefi seems to have reconsidered the direction of her career. She began studying with violinist Adolf Busch in Budapest, learning new repertoire and new styles of playing. In the process she switched the emphasis of her repertoire from virtuosic Romantic pieces to more restrained Classical ones.

Then, in 1918, catastrophe. Between a hundred fifty and two hundred million people around the world – three percent of the population – died of the infamous “flu.” Otherwise healthy young adults were the primary victims. During this terrifying epidemic, coming straight on the heels of the First World War, Stefi’s husband died. Two years later, in 1920, she married a man named Walter Schulthess, who was a pianist, composer, and concert agent (and, incidentally, a friend of both Schoeck and Jung). Although they both traveled a great deal, they moved their home base to Switzerland, where, in 1923, Stefi began teaching at the Zurich Conservatoire. (She taught violinist Aida Stucki, who became Anne Sophie Mutter’s mentor.)

Her pace of touring did not diminish throughout the twenties. In fact, she gave more than a hundred concerts in Scandinavia in the 1922-23 season alone. In 1924 she traveled to America, but reviews of her performances there have not surfaced. She performed many concertos with all of the major Swiss orchestras, and even performed the violin concerto Schoeck had written for her with Schoeck at the podium. During the thirties she recorded a good deal, and today we have records of her interpretations of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, and even Schoeck. They are difficult to find on disc, but well worth scouting out.

Stefi Geyer playing Kreisler’s arrangement of Tartini’s A-major Fugue

Although Stefi and Bartók had parted fifteen years or so ago under less than amicable circumstances, they apparently somehow reconciled in the teens or twenties. In fact, by 1928, Bartók, Stefi, and her husband were all writing friendly letters to one another. Schulthess and Stefi often played his compositions, and in 1929 Stefi performed in a recital that consisted of all Bartók’s music. In 1940, she even helped Bartók and his second wife Ditta emigrate to America to escape the turmoil enveloping Europe, and she would often introduce her students to this extraordinary man and composer.

Stefi Geyer died in December of 1956 in Zurich. Somehow after her death her friend and fellow musician Paul Sacher retrieved the manuscript and the letters from Bartók that she had kept locked away for so many years. Sacher was the conductor at the world premiere of the piece in Switzerland in 1958, and in the spring of 1961 Isaac Stern gave its American premiere at Carnegie Hall. Although it is not heard as often as the Second Violin Concerto, it is still occasionally revived today.

Much about Stefi’s career remains shrouded in silence. Because more research has been done on men like Schoeck and Bartók than on Geyer, it is tempting to identify and remember her solely as a muse – in other words, as someone only worth remembering because of the extraordinary inspiration she was to others. But Stefi Geyer’s accomplishments as a violinist are just as important and unique in their own way as the pieces that she inspired. To remember her solely as Bartók’s early love does her a great disservice; despite the fact that we do not know a tremendous amount about her life, it is clear, as Paul Sacher said, that “She was a superb violinist, a major soloist and an excellent musician.”

***

Sources

(Note: I wrote this particular essay without sourcing, as I intended it to be a primer on Geyer’s life, rather than an authoritative scholarly essay. So don’t use anything in this essay for scholarly purposes yourself unless you can source specific facts for yourself. I’ll update the essay when new information comes to light and note it here. In the future I will source better. Promise. Nonetheless, below are some of the books and websites I found helpful while writing this piece.)

Books

Musical Symbolism in the Operas of Debussy and Bartók: Trauma, Gender, and the Unfolding of the Unconscious; by Elliott Antokoletz; 2004

Bartók and the Grotesque: Studies in Modernity, The Body, and Contradiction in Music; by Julie Brown; 2007

“Bartók’s Fourteen Bagatelles op. 6 for piano: Toward Performance Authenticity”, by Victoria Fisher; from the book Bartók Perspectives: Man, Composer, and Ethnomusicologist; 2000

Bartók’s Chamber Music; by János Kárṕati; 1976

Béla Bartók: Composition, Concepts, and Autograph Sources; by László Somfai; 1996

Websites

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stefi_Geyer

http://www.bartoknewseries.com/en/bartok-new-series-13-14

http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,874348,00.html

http://www25.uua.org/uuhs/duub/articles/belabartok.html

http://www.seattlesymphony.org/symphony/buy/single/programnotes.aspx?id=4972&src=t&dateid=4972&detect=yes

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Minnesota Orchestra, July 2010

This was an important review for me. It originally appeared on violinist.com here.

***

So yesterday I went to the last performance of the Minnesota Beethoven Festival featuring the Minnesota Orchestra. After hearing extraordinary concerts by the Miró Quartet and Midori, I confess I didn’t know if the standard of music-making could get much higher.

Well, it did.

Some of you may not be familiar with the Minnesota Orchestra’s work. They don’t get as much buzz as the Chicago Symphony or the California orchestras or the eastern symphonies (New York, Boston, Philadelphia, etc.), but that certainly doesn’t mean they can’t stand comparison with them. Some people consider the Midwest to be an intellectual fly-over zone, where nothing of cultural note or import could possibly happen. Happily the Minnesota Orchestra is proving this perception wrong, and with a vengeance. Over the last few years, especially since Finnish conductor Osmo Vanksä took the podium in 2003, they’ve been stealthily ascending the ranks. They were very good before (I first heard them in the summer of 2003), but something has happened since to make them great. It’s silly to call one orchestra “the greatest in the world” – any number of orchestras in the world could take the prize at any number of concerts, depending on the repertoire, audience, hall, conductor, etc. – but I am happy to say that given the right circumstances, the Minnesota Orchestra has a definite shot at the title. When they appeared at Carnegie Hall in March, there had been a series of concerts there featuring the orchestras of Chicago, Boston, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, New York, Leipzig, Amsterdam, and St. Petersburg – in short, a pretty good sampling of the international orchestral scene. Alex Ross of The New Yorker (author of the can’t-be-missed The Rest Is Noise) wrote of the Minnesota Orchestra’s show that it was “a performance of uncanny, wrenching power, the kind you hear once or twice a decade.” And then, at the end of the review: “For the duration of the evening of March 1st, the Minnesota Orchestra sounded, to my ears, like the greatest orchestra in the world.”

I will shamelessly steal from Mr. Ross and say, for the duration of the afternoon of July 18th, the Minnesota Orchestra sounded, to my ears, like the greatest orchestra in the world.

The program was Beethoven’s fourth and seventh symphonies. The moment they began, I actually remember thinking, well, there goes my review. I knew there would be no way I could write objectively about what I was hearing. If a certain phrase was accented in a way that I particularly liked, or the voices were gorgeously balanced in the last movement, or a brass player had a couple of muddy notes in one measure – who the hell cares about such trivial details in the face of such charismatic, youthful, invigorating music-making? I fought it – trust me, I did – but it only took about twenty seconds to feel the tears dripping down my face. I couldn’t help it. The energy of all those musicians who had worked so hard for all of their lives, all coming together – how many years of study do they share between them? Say there’s a hundred orchestra members, and each has played an average of thirty years. That’s three thousand years of practice at the highest possible level. That’s extraordinary. In what other genre of music do you get to hear three thousand years of practice come to fruition?

I’ll try to remember little bits and pieces to give a vague idea of what it was like, but honestly I was rendered rather speechless. There was power suffused with delicacy – extraordinary dynamic range – palpable commitment on the part of everyone onstage, from the strings to the brass to the woodwinds to Maestro Vanskä – elegance – earthiness – charm – passion. Passion above all else. These musicians were so excited to share their love of the music with us, and the electricity in the hall proved that the audience was just as excited to hear it as the orchestra was to play it. It was such a special feeling to communicate with these extraordinary virtuosos in that intensely personal way. I wish I could tell you more than that – give you more details about what exactly I loved – but I really can’t. I was too carried away by the joy and power of the sound. There is nothing to say except this is the pinnacle of our art. This is why I love music. This is one of the greatest experiences a human being can have.

When the Seventh ended, of course there was an immediate standing ovation, the most raucous of the entire season. The Orchestra actually had to leave the stage to make us shut up. I haven’t seen a full symphony orchestra ever have to do that – chamber orchestras, yes; full symphonies, no.

I went to freshen up in the restroom afterward (even though I hadn’t done anything except sit in my seat and listen, I felt totally disheveled). I felt like the portrait of Beethoven on the cover of the festival program. And while in the restroom I saw – gasp – musicians. With violin cases. And much to my astonishment, these virtuosos looked like – gasp again – normal people. I was too starstruck to say anything to them, which is silly. I actually found myself squealing when a violinist walked by on the way out to the car. I seriously sounded like a preteen girl watching Justin Bieber go by. I know that I can talk to them; they’re not going to bite. But I would have had no idea what to say. “You were really good”? Um, no. Not nearly enough. “This performance is one of the greatest concerts I’ve ever been to in my life and you have totally reinvigorated and affirmed my love of classical music?” No, too coherent; I’d never be able to think of that in time. “Ahhhhggghh”? No, I think we’d all agree that screaming in delight at orchestra musicians is verging on creepy. Well, I’ll have to resort to thanking them online. Hopefully some member of the orchestra will read it and understand the profound awe and gratitude I’m trying to convey. [ Editor’s note: :) ]

You know how some people idealize baseball players? And root for their favorite team? And know all the members of the team by heart, and their stats? Yeah. I may live in Wisconsin, but the Minnesota Orchestra is my home team.

It was, needless to say, a perfect closer to the Minnesota Beethoven Festival. Next year for the season finale they’re playing Beethoven’s Ninth. I almost fear going. If I go out of orbit for the Fourth and the Seventh, what am I going to do for the Ninth? Well, I can’t help it. I love this music and I feel an intense bond with the players who bring it so magnificently to life for me. If I decompose and melt into a puddle on the floor they will just have to mop me up. Three cheers for the un-friggin’-believable Minnesota Orchestra. If they ever come to your neck of the woods, I have nothing to say to you except: GO.

I have learned more from these three concerts I attended this summer at the Beethoven Festival than I have in a very long time. My love of music is more passionate than ever. Here’s to world-class music making at a world-class festival in a world-class state. Words can’t describe how much I’m looking forward to the years of happy music-making ahead of us.

Postscript – At least one reviewer agrees me! Here’s the review of the concert from the LaCrosse Tribune, in which the writer claims this is one of the greatest orchestral concerts he has ever heard.

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Midori, July 2010

Here’s another review from last summer that was originally published on violinist.com in July of 2010: Midori at the Minnesota Beethoven Festival. Here’s the link to the first part and the second part. (I split it in half because it ended up being so long. Oy!)

***

Tuesday afternoon I made the ninety-minute drive to the Minnesota Beethoven Festival in Winona, Minnesota, to see Midori in recital.

I remember the first time I ever heard Midori, many years ago. I was watching the Arts Channel – a collection of classical music videos pumped through a local television station over lunch – and saw this.

Needless to say, I stopped chewing. This is still one of my favorite performances of all time. I eventually found the disc of the rest of the concert at a second-hand shop. It was my first introduction to the lovely ebullient Strauss sonata, Debussy’s dreamy Beau soir, and Ernst’s wildly difficult Last Rose of Summer. These performances alone made me a big fan. But over the years, as I heard more and more snippets of Midori’s biography, I became even more impressed. She is a UN Messenger of Peace, she is passionate about many other things outside of music (she has a master’s degree in psychology), and she is committed to playing for audiences in smaller towns that might not otherwise have had the chance to see an artist of her caliber. Ever since writing an essay on the history of female violinists and the life of the first great female violinist, Wilma Norman-Neruda (shameless self-promotion; click here to read it), I have been thinking about the role that women have played in our beloved art, especially over the last hundred years since Wilma’s death. To me, seeing a woman like Midori – who is both a tremendous artist and a well-rounded human being – is more than just seeing a great musician; it is seeing a fulfillment of what those women a hundred years ago aspired to. Midori is taken seriously not as a woman violinist, but as a violinist, period, and she can do it all while pursuing the things that fulfill her not just as a musician, but as a human being. We’ve come a long way.

The concert was held in the 900-seat Somsen Auditorium at Winona State University, a surprisingly intimate hall from 1924. After some remarks from the artistic director, the stage door opened and out came Midori. She is a very tiny, very delicate looking woman – I read after the concert that she is four-eleven, and that sounds about right – but despite her size, she was clearly in charge from the minute she walked out onto the stage. She flashed a warm, welcoming smile at the audience before raising her del Gesu to her chin and beginning the fourth sonata of Beethoven.

She plays in a way that I would never advise a beginning violin student to emulate – she scrunches her shoulders for emphasis, and her scroll is usually pointing to the floor. I have always wondered how she and others who play in such an unnatural position (like Bell, Vengerov, Chang, etc.) don’t hurt themselves; it seems as if practicing that way for hours a day for years on end would take a great physical toll. But it obviously works for her, so I’m not criticizing. Her sound – at least as I heard it from the front row of the balcony – was clear, classic, elegant, beautiful, but maybe a bit small, and focused at the center of the hall, as opposed to extending out to the sides. It may have been the repertoire, or the acoustic of this particular stage, or my seat in the balcony, or that I am used to an unnatural violin-piano balance on recordings, or any other number of things; I don’t know. But even if it wasn’t a particularly large sound, it was always an exceptionally beautiful one. She brought a great deal of detail and character to the Beethoven, alternating between elegance and passion and fury, especially in the last movement with all of its rapid shifts in character. She was warmly applauded, and the buzz of the crowd below the balcony stepped up a pitch after she was finished.

The next piece on the program was the Ravel sonata. I have loved it for many years and I consider it to be a very dear musical friend. (Isn’t it funny how we often feel as affectionate toward beloved pieces of music as we do people?) I’ve never heard it live before. As we were waiting for Midori to return to the stage, I had a fleeting thought of how unnatural it is to know a work solely from recordings. Don’t get me wrong, I love recordings – without them, I’d never know the Ravel sonata, period – but I wonder what Ravel would have thought of me loving this work so dearly for so many years, without ever having heard it live. About the time that Ravel composed this piece, he was becoming very interested in the possibilities presented by recordings, so perhaps he wouldn’t think it strange or odd at all, but I never feel as if I really know a piece until I can be in the same room in which it’s being brought alive. Living in a place where I can see relatively few live performances of classical violin music, it’s so vital for me to stay connected with the performance side of the art, both as a listener and as a violinist. Analysis of the score – comparing recordings – reading biographies of the great composers: those things will only get you so far. A vital portion of the appreciation of these great works has to be done in a concert hall, in hearing them as they were originally intended to be experienced.

Midori wrote the program notes for the Ravel. Apparently this sonata was written for Hélène Jourdan-Morhange, a highly-regarded French violinist born in 1892. She asked for a concerto but got this sonata instead. (A Ravel violin concerto! Can you imagine?) I had always heard that Ravel was never one for romantic attachments, but, Googling about a bit, it seems that he may possibly (emphasis on the possibly) have had unrequited feelings for Hélène. There are even rumors that he once asked her to marry him, and she turned him down. At the very least, they were extremely close friends – they shared many interests, including a deep mutual affection for cats – and although she was not able to premiere the sonata due to arthritis, it was written for and dedicated to her. (Ravel seems to have been inspired by female violinists; Hélène also premiered his violin/cello duo and his lovely little violin and piano piece Berceuse sur le nom de Gabriel Faure – and of course Jelly d’Aranyi was the inspiration for Tzigane.) So even seventy miles away home and from my project of researching the great female violinists, I was given a new lead to follow up. Who exactly was this Hélène Jourdan-Morhange? What was she like? Who did she study with? What violin did she play? What kind of relationship did she really have with Ravel? Why when I Google her does her name appear to have been lost to history, even though she is the dedicatee of a major piece that most every violinist knows and loves? How could we as a community of violin-lovers have possibly forgotten her?

Midori’s performance of the first movement kept reminding me of water – water in a brook, ripples in a pond, rain trickling from eaves, puddles, waves, lakes… I’m not one for seeing visual imagery when I listen to music, so it was a very strange, very magical experience. There wasn’t much vibrato, and the shifts were clean and lean. If you have heard Midori’s Carnegie Hall recording (I’m thinking of the shifts in The Last Rose of Summer, and Milstein’s Chopin transcription in particular), you’ll know right away what I’m talking about. Once and a while she would really dig into a slide, anticipating that second blues movement. And as it should, everything felt like it was leading up to that glorious endless bow at the end of the movement. As the piano quietly wrapped up the theme beneath her, you could feel the audience collectively leaning forward. Even after the sound had died away, she stood motionless and left her bow on the string, giving us permission to linger in that achingly gorgeous sound-world for just a few more precious seconds. Funnily enough, it turned out that one of my favorite parts of this concert were the silences – the parts of the performance where the sound slowly died away and my attention was drawn out of the music toward the awed, appreciative reaction of the other concertgoers.

Then came the blues in the Ravel’s sexy, sexy second movement. Is there a more blatantly erotic movement in the violin-piano literature? If there is I’ve yet to hear it. Now that I have read that Ravel may have had some kind of attraction to its dedicatee, this movement…takes on a new significance, shall we say? I had never thought of this sonata as a love-story before, but dayum when I listen to it now… What a dialogue between the violin and the piano. All of those lilting arco lines on the fiddle – the slow slides – those gutsy, suggestively strumming pizzicatos… And then that blazing third movement, a meshing of violin and piano, ending in a brilliant unified ecstasy… There is that famous quote by Ravel that basically says that in this sonata he wanted to explore the differences between a violin and a piano, rather than minimizing them as other composers had in their violin-piano sonatas. I highly doubt he was also thinking of emphasizing the fundamental differences between men and women, but oh, it would have been so interesting if he had. It quickly becomes tempting to imagine this as a composer’s naughty daydream, with Ravel on the piano and Hélène on the violin.

Midori really sunk her teeth into the blues. Lots of slides, lots of swing in the snappy pizzicato parts. It was just delicious to hear. And she simply took everybody’s breath away in the third movement’s perpetual motion. Every single one of the flurry of the notes came clear and strong and graceful, even toward the end when the low notes on the G-string start coming into the picture, where some performers have a tendency to start blurring the sound. During the last few measures it sounded as if her del Gesù was about to go up in flames. Apparently during the sonata’s lengthy gestation, Ravel wrote to Hélène that he didn’t think it would tire her hand too much. Hopefully that was before this last movement came into being, because looking at the score, I can’t imagine a much more demanding exercise for the left and right hands alike. The audience loved it, and a few people even gave a standing ovation.

At intermission, I eavesdropped in the women’s bathroom – the best place for any classical music critic to get an unbiased review – and heard someone say, “She’s so good, she tires me out!” While waiting for me, my companion at the concert overheard another woman saying, “I sure wasn’t expecting that blues movement – but I loved it!” Indeed.

After intermission came Mario Davidovsky’s Duo Capriccioso. Before the performers came onstage, the resident piano lackey came out and disassembled the part of the piano underneath the music stand. So it was clear from the beginning that this was not your typical violin-piano duet. The piece was filled with a variety of novel violin and piano techniques, including – you guessed it – pizzicato inside the piano. It was interesting, to be sure, but at times I felt as if it was just a series of tricks. Gripping and atmospheric tricks, to be sure; but tricks nonetheless. I need to find a recording of the piece and listen to it a few times before passing final judgment; works that I’m not thrilled about at first hearing often later reveal previously unheard depths once I become more familiar with the score. Once again, Midori was committed to her performance a hundred percent. This music was obviously close to her heart and she was thrilled to share it with us, and that alone made me want to work as hard as I could to understand and appreciate it.

The last piece on the program, the Brahms third sonata, was actually the reason I wanted tickets for this concert in the first place. I instantly connected with this piece the first time I heard it, and to this day it’s still my favorite Brahms sonata – although, once again, like with the Ravel, I have never heard it performed live. The first recording I ever heard of it was David Oistrakh’s, with Vladimir Yampolsky on the piano. For some pieces, I don’t have a favorite recording; I’m happy with a wide variety of interpretations. With others, I find a recording that I fall in love with, and all subsequent versions feel a bit…wrong in comparison. The Oistrakh Brahms third is one of those recordings that I have completely and totally fallen in love with, and no other performance of the Brahms third satisfies me in quite the same way. Oistrakh’s warmth and sincerity fits in so perfectly with this intensely personal piece, and the slightly muffled sound quality of the older recording is just the icing on the cake.

No performance was going to live up to that one of Oistrakh’s for me, but Midori’s rendition was still very, very special nonetheless. In the first movement she brought a searing tone and a real rhythmic pulse, especially on those string-crossing passages that Oistrakh tended to linger over. Unfortunately there were moments, especially in the lower register, when her sound seemed to disappear into the piano texture. But this is nit-picking. It was extraordinarily beautiful and masterful playing.

The second movement was a real highlight of the entire concert. Finally hearing it live convinced me it must be one of the most beautiful things ever written for the violin. Midori left more space in between the notes than Oistrakh, to beautiful effect. Those yearning upward stretches in the violin – the whispered double-stopped thirds at the very end… As the music came to a gentle close, one could feel the silence just throbbing in the hall. And amazingly enough, that feeling didn’t release even after she finally took the bow off the strings; it lasted as she went into the third movement presto. That was pretty special. I’m quickly learning how an audience’s response is just as much of a part of the performance as what an artist does onstage. In a great performance, it really is a conversation without words.

Midori exploded through the double-stops in the last movement. Her sound, although always pretty and striking, remained a little bit small for my tastes, but once again, this is a nitpick. She obviously felt this music very deeply, and by the time that glorious F-sharp toward the end of the final movement – one of my favorite single notes in classical music – any reservations I might have had over a small tone were forgotten. I felt giddy with the beauty of Brahms, and that’s the definition of a great performance, right there.

There was a lengthy standing ovation. Finally she came, set the music-stand aside, and re-tuned. The del Gesù was being a tad picky and the crowd began to giggle. Finally she was satisfied and turned back to the audience. “We will play Souvenir of Moscow by Wieniawski,” she said. I wasn’t familiar with the Souvenir but the glorious thing about Wieniawski and Sarasate and Vieuxtemps is that you don’t really need to be familiar with them to fall in love with them. All those pyrotechnics – all that character – all the slides and various bow strokes… Talk about pieces that were written to be performed, as opposed to recorded! When she set the music stand aside and launched into those opening chords from memory, her sound totally changed. For the first time that night, I could firmly identify that instrument as a del Gesù, without a doubt. The sound just screamed stereotypical del Gesù – rich, throaty, a tad gritty, especially in the lower half. None of those characteristics were traits that I associated with Midori’s playing before, either in her recordings or during the rest of the recital. Was it the flashier repertoire, or the fact she was now playing from memory, or another reason altogether? I don’t know, but I heard a definite difference. As her fingers flashed up and down the fingerboard, I couldn’t suppress a wry smile as I remembered that Wieniawski had played a concert with Wilma Norman-Neruda in Moscow, and, after picking a fight with a general when he tried to convince the audience he was the better player, was ordered out of the city. I haven’t been able to find when the Souvenir was written, but it has an early opus number (6), and I wonder if it was after this little altercation?

In my twelve years of playing, I had never heard a great violinist take on one of the great showpieces live. Let me tell you, the difference between a live performance of Wieniawski and a recorded performance is the difference between fried chicken and tofu. There is an element of spice, personality – even danger – that is totally absent from a recording. One knows that in a recording, the strings will never break, and the performer will never have a memory lapse, and they will always hit each and every note each and every time – that kind of thing. But there are no such assurances for live performances. The audience teams up psychologically with the player in the hopes that he or she will make it through the piece unscathed. That bond is an incredibly powerful one, and for the first time I really began to understand emotionally what made these traveling Victorian virtuosi so beloved by their audiences. Nowadays these “parlor pieces” are considered light fare, musically suspect, not serious enough, but they are such an important part of our art, and they are received so enthusiastically by audiences, that I personally don’t think a recital program is complete without one. I would have been delighted to see one in the main body of the program.

As you can imagine, the subsequent applause and whoops and hollers just about brought the house down. She came out to bow again and again, ever gracious. She was greeting people in the lobby afterward, and I got her autograph and a picture. Her writing was just as bold and confident as her onstage manner.

Now whenever I listen to that beautiful recording of the Chopin Nocturne from Carnegie Hall, I will remember the sweetness and delicacy and beauty of everything I heard Tuesday night. There is simply nothing else in life like seeing a great violinist play a live concert. Absolutely nothing at all.

Except…maybe seeing one of the greatest orchestras of our time playing two Beethoven symphonies. Which is what I get to see tomorrow, when the Minnesota Orchestra takes on the fourth and the seventh in the closing concert of the 2010 Minnesota Beethoven Festival.

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Miró Quartet, July 2010

Just because I like to have everything in one place, I’m going to post a series of reviews I wrote last year.

This is a review I wrote in July 2010 for violinist.com after I attended a concert of the Miró Quartet at the Minnesota Beethoven Festival in Winona, Minnesota. The original review can be read here.

***

Some violinists dream of debuting at Carnegie Hall. My wildly improbable violin-dream consists of organizing The Greatest Summer Music Festival of All Time ©. Whenever I’m stressed out and in need of distraction, I throw wild impractical idea upon wild impractical idea until I have my own personal Tanglewood or Ravinia or Aspen going on in the back of my brain.

I had the basics of my fantasy worked out by the age of thirteen. I would place my festival south of the Twin Cities in one of the charming rivertowns along the Mississippi River. All of these towns – Hastings, Red Wing, Maiden Rock, Stockholm, Lake City, Wabasha, Alma, Winona – are gorgeous little undiscovered gems along the necklace of the river, crammed bluff to bluff with stately old houses and shady streets. They would be the perfect spot for a summer festival, right between Minneapolis and Chicago. (The Minnesota Orchestra once contemplated building a summer home south of the metro before Sommerfest came into existence, so it’s not a new idea.) I would set it in July, smack-dab in the middle of the summer, and it would last for at least two weeks, with three concerts a week. I’d have at least one concert free and outdoors and open to the public. The rates otherwise would be awesomely reasonable. I’d scout out the greatest venues, acoustically and aesthetically. The festival would feature primarily chamber music, but I’d bring in the Minnesota Orchestra for the festival opener or closer; I haven’t decided yet which. (Um, Osmo Vänskä and I are still talking it over…in my mind.) And this is the best part – I will somehow gain access to the greatest classical artists of our time, and for some reason, they will come. They will love my festival. They will clamber to be a part of it. So to sum up this strange dream, I want to be the sober person dressed in black who comes up to the microphone before every performance, politely reminds people to turn off their cell phones, and points out errors in the program notes before ceding the stage. It’s a pretty strange dream to have. Especially for a thirteen-year-old.

So you can imagine my total shock when I heard about the Minnesota Beethoven Festival in Winona, Minnesota. It goes from the tail end of June to the middle of July. Each concert is held in a lovely venue, ranging in size from a tiny 1912 high school concert hall to modern middle school or college auditoriums. It lasts for a little over two weeks, with three concerts a week. The tickets are $25 a concert for an adult, $17 for a student. There is one orchestral pops concert outdoors, free of charge. All concerts are in beautiful Winona, two and a half hours south of the Twin Cities. The Minnesota Orchestra closes every season. And the greatest classical artists of our time clamber to come to it. This year alone they are featuring Midori, the Miró Quartet, and Yo-Yo Ma, among others. And they only began in 2007. The only problem is, I’m not the sober person dressed in black who politely reminds people to turn off their cell phones. Well, maybe I can still start my own festival someday. In the meantime I’m more than happy to take the two hour drive to Winona to see some world-class music.

I went to my first concert of the season on July eighth – the Miró Quartet playing three Beethoven quartets, the last of which was the 13th quartet, which features the massive Grosse Fugue. (Several months ago, the day single tickets came on sale, I tried to get tickets to see Yo-Yo Ma, but their website crashed thirty seconds into the ordering process. I barely got tickets for the Miró and the Minnesota Orchestra. Such is the price of having such a great festival: audience demand is huge.) The concert was held in the lovely St. Cecilia Theater, which is a high school auditorium from 1912 that seats maybe 150 people. I was high in the balcony in the back and I only had a partial view, so my tickets ended up being half-price ($8.50 for a student). Thankfully some of the people who had bought tickets never showed up, so right before the concert started the audience shifted toward the center of the balcony so we could see better. By the time the concert started, I had a wonderful view of the cellist and violist, and if I craned my neck I could see the violinists.

From the very first downbeat, I was reminded all over again of the most important facet of performing with others: communication, communication, communication. Watching the Miró was just a master class in communication. They were all extremely comfortable with the repertoire, and so they were free to watch each other just as much as they were watching the notes on their stand. A quick breath – a lift of the eyebrows – a gentle sway or bow – an almost imperceptible turn toward the audience – all of the subtle little actions that help an ensemble stay in tune and in time.

Their Beethoven was warm and intense, smooth and golden, with just a bit of welcome grit in the lower strings. The sound came in waves, especially in the second quartet on the program, the Serioso, with each dynamic marking beautifully and exactly followed, so that nothing was flat or featureless. I am a firm believer that one of the first things that separates a professional sound from an amateur one – aside from good intonation – is dedicated observation of dynamics. And the Miró is sure dedicated to their dynamics. Their fortes came clear up to the top of the balcony, and their pianissimos made everyone lean forward and hold their breath. By the time each movement ended, the whole hall went up in a sound of rustles and coughs; everyone had been dead silent through the performance, and we all felt pinned to our seats, unable to move, until their bows came off their strings. That is always the sign of a great performance – when nobody dares cough or shift position or even breathe, for fear of disturbing that sacred connection between performers and their audiences.

Ten or fifteen years ago, when I knew nothing about the violin, I bought a random CD with a string quartet on the front, because I thought string quartets were pretty and would be nice background music (!). Just to serve me right, the cosmos decided to grant me a disc of Beethoven’s opus 130 (!!). Although it has its pretty moments, the opus 130 quartet is decidedly not background music. After I bought the disc I listened to it a few times but when the track came to the Grosse Fugue, I pressed the back button. I just could not handle it. Thankfully I’ve learned more about music since then, and I’m to the point now where I love violent cacophony, especially in chamber music. So I was eager to really experience and appreciate this piece in-person, after snubbing it so many years ago. I was not disappointed. The opening to the Fugue – those wrenching chords and rhythms that sound just as shocking and contemporary as anything Shostakovich or Prokofiev ever wrote – were delivered by the Miró with all the intense honest drama they deserve, with no hint of showiness or melodrama. As I was sitting there listening to this enormous masterpiece being so splendidly and beautifully interpreted, I got the clichéd “Beethoven chills” that every music-lover gets at some point in their listening career. It was just so incredibly moving to think of him writing out this tangled beast of a score, even though he would never hear it. Did he have any inkling that two hundred – and probably three hundred, and four hundred, and five hundred – years down the line, people would come together at concerts like this one and hear it? And more than hear it, love it? Because surely he knew that it would take many years for this to be fully appreciated, if it would ever be appreciated at all. I am well aware this is not a new or remotely original thought, but it still retains its power, and I know it always will.

It was one of those performances where a few minutes before the end, you could see women across the audience slowly set their purses down on the floor and tuck their programs into the side of the chair. Everyone was just waiting for that final note to erupt so they could jump to their feet, and they didn’t want their purses or programs to be in the way. And jump to our feet we did. I doubt that hundred-year-old auditorium has heard a more enthusiastic ovation. The quartet returned to the stage again and again, all smiles, and as an encore we heard the slow movement from the last piece that Beethoven ever wrote – the string quartet op 135. Which of course got me to having chills all over again. It was just the perfect counterpoint to the fugue, and a wonderful way to end a concert.

I came out into the warm night air totally invigorated and inspired, overwhelmed with gratitude to the Miró and Beethoven and the Minnesota Beethoven Festival. As I got into the car, I thought about how excited I was to rush home and experiment with dynamics. I think that may be the definition of a great performance: one that makes you want to rush home and experiment with dynamics.

I don’t have much time, though, because Tuesday night I’m heading out to see Midori! I’m counting down the days.

So if you live in the upper Midwest – Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, Minneapolis, St. Paul – next year, you might want to consider coming to Winona. This is a festival that is on its way up in the world, and I can definitely see it taking its rightful place with the great American chamber music festivals. I feel so privileged to watch it take shape. It’s chamber music at the highest possible level – and isn’t that what summer is really all about?

***
The Miró Quartet kindly mentioned this review on their own blog on 13 July. Read that here.

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Indulgent Claptrap; or how this blog came to be

I have always wanted to be a writer. My earliest memory is of seeing a no-smoking sign and being incensed that I couldn’t read it. I had a gut instinct that if I could learn how to read, I would gain the capability to open doors I didn’t even know existed – and I was right. Thankfully my mom took pity on my frustration and became my own private tutor, teaching me phonics, basically letting me live at the library, and reading and occasionally editing my incomprehensible marker-squiggle stories. In first grade I wrote in my school journal that “I can’t wait untill I can have a puplished Book.” Writing was everything. When I was nine, I decided I was old enough to start working on that goal of getting puplished, and a few years of effort and ten rejections later came a cover story for the thirtieth anniversary issue of the children’s magazine Stone Soup. After that came a spate of ambitious novels, none of which were ever finished.

***

I have always wanted to be a musician. My mother is a composer and has taught piano, and I can’t imagine a house without music. She played Mozart recordings for me way back before all that Mozart Effect shit became fashionable, and I loved it. It got to the point where she wrote in a note to my kindergarten teacher that one of my strengths was my “ability to identify Mozart.” I started playing piano at five. Unfortunately, I was bad at it. I had a sad tendency to gravitate toward the treble clef and to ignore the bass entirely. (Foreshadowing, anyone?)

When I was about nine, my mom gave me a book for young musicians. It was split into quarters: trumpet, flute, piano, and violin. I’m nearly certain she meant for me to read the piano part, but I found myself lingering in the violin section instead. Something about the instrument fascinated me. Violins were small and portable – had strings you actually touched – were beautiful, and so much more unique than pianos – could be played in so many different contexts – and you only had to read one clef. I was sold.

My family had no money for a violin, and so to make my point, I took some cardboard, brandished a blunt tip scissor, and created this.

Emilia Hogstadus, fece in Wisconsin, ca 1998. A prime example from the height of the maker’s “cardboard period.”

I have no memory of this. But I do remember going to my first violin shop after my family relented, and having my breath taken away by the rows and rows of curvy golden brown fiddles. Something deep within me felt as if it was coming home. I took a rental home and began to play, convinced that my first note would be beautiful, thanks to all I had learned on my cardboard violin.

Naturally I made the most hideous screech imaginable.

***

I have always wanted to be a historian. I’m most interested in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. In fourth grade I decided that when I became an adult, I’d never drive a car; I’d use a horse and carriage instead. In fifth grade I read my first Sherlock Holmes story. It felt like I’d found a literary soul mate.

In 1999, while at a local antique shop, I bought several letters dating from the 1880s that were addressed to a Miss Nellie Pringle of Hastings, Minnesota. I obviously didn’t know it at the time, but finding those few dusty letters would turn into a truly massive research project that has lasted for twelve years. Over the course of it, I have made some of the greatest friends imaginable, both living and dead, and discovered how truly deep and nerdy a passion I have for research and primary sources. Few things are more thrilling to me than combing through brittle yellowed old letters that haven’t been opened for a hundred years. There are always surprising secrets waiting to be uncovered, and I know from experience that those secrets have the capability to change how you think about history, and in turn how you think about yourself.

***

I have a tendency to obsess.

***

I once had a teacher tell me, “You must be having difficulty deciding what you want to go into, since you have so many interests.” Until then, I hadn’t really thought of the decision in those terms, and the realization that there would ultimately have to be a decision paralyzed me. Which is it? What do you want to give up? The way time melts away when you’re writing something particularly absorbing? The comfort that comes from practicing a passage on the violin over and over and over again until the intonation rings perfectly true? The exhilaration of combing through old papers and finally latching upon something that sheds light on mysteries you’ve pondered for years? What will you give up? What will you choose?

In 2005, my high school AP US History exam fell on the same day as a solo ensemble audition. For a variety of reasons I ended up participating in neither. But beforehand I wrote in a journal entry about the dilemma:

I have to decide between my two passions – history and writing, or musical performance. Of course it’s silly to think about it. I don’t know if I’ll finish my course in time to take that silly test anyway, and who knows, maybe my wrist will flare up again in the spring, preventing my playing, but this conflict is symptomatic of a larger problem – sometimes you have to choose between things you love. And I don’t like that. At all.

I’ve only recently come to the realization that maybe I was wrong. Maybe I don’t need to choose. I’ve become more and more fascinated with writing musical non-fiction, and I’ve discovered a brand new passion (read: obsession) for researching female Victorian violinists, and those two things draw neatly on all three disciplines. Maybe – just maybe – the three can interlock with and inspire the others.

Lady Speyer, by John Singer Sargent, 1907

The first person to play the Elgar violin concerto was an extraordinary, now largely forgotten, woman named Leonora von Stosch (later Lady Speyer). She was a much more accomplished woman than I’ll ever be, but she too struggled with competing passions: she was an internationally renowned violin virtuosa who in 1927 won a Pulitzer Prize for her book Fiddler’s Farewell. In 1919 she remarked to an interviewer from the magazine The Bellman, “The bird, the wind, the sea, the heart of man, all sing: the musician writes down the melody, the poet the words; the song is God’s. If you have a message and can give it, and can reach another soul with your singing, then all is indeed right with the world.” The song is God’s… Her philosophy is heartening, especially since she obviously knew what she was talking about.

This blog is an attempt to chronicle my efforts to marry all three of my passions, and to live happily ever after with them in a blissful state of intellectual polygamy. The site will, in time, contain music reviews, essays on various historical musical pieces and personages, interviews…possibly even the occasional snippet of musical fiction. (Possibly.) It would be an honor and a privilege and a joy to have y’all along for the ride. And I promise things won’t be so egocentric from here on out.

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