Sophie Menter was a world-renowned pianist who lived in a castle and constructed chicken wire fences around her property to keep her many cats from escaping. If that sentence doesn’t intrigue you, then you’re on the wrong blog.
Sophie Menter was born on July 29, 1846 in Munich. Her father was a cellist named Josef and her mom was a singer named Wilhelmine Diepold, who was so musically talented that the local prince offered to pay for her education (she declined, apparently because she wasn’t interested in pursuing a career).
Josef and Wilhelmine’s life together was a string of tragedies. They had nine kids, and most of them died young, but not before the older sisters had a chance to start teaching little Sophie piano. Sophie in turn taught her younger sibling, Eugenie. Eugenie became an accomplished pianist, as well; sometimes historians don’t know which fabulous Menter sister various old reviews are referring to.
It quickly became obvious that Sophie was incredibly talented, but her musical education was put on the back burner. Josef didn’t want his young daughter studying at a conservatory, and, more pressingly, he was terminally ill. He passed away in April of 1856 at the age of 48, when Sophie was nine. According to legend, he told his wife, “Mind, wife, you look to Sophie. There’s something in that child!” So, y’know, no pressure.
She enrolled in the Munich Conservatory soon after. When she was fifteen, she made her debut in Munich playing the Konzertstück op. 79 by Carl Maria von Weber. She also studied with Carl Tausig, Liszt’s best-known pupil, and Hans von Bülow, Liszt’s son-in-law (well, at least until Cosima divorced Hans in 1870). There are rumors that Tausig fell in love with Sophie, but I also wonder who didn’t. She had brains, beauty, and a killer work ethic; when studying, she’d practice ten to twelve hours a day.
In 1867, when she was working with Tausig, she started a job as court pianist for this prince, the same one who offered to pay for her mother’s education. While performing at court, she met a brilliant cellist named David Popper who had been appointed Chamber Virtuoso. Cello players still perform and complain about his works to this day. In early 1872, Sophie married David; in August of that year, their daughter Celeste was born. During the 1870s they toured all over Europe together, Sophie appearing under the name of Sophie Menter-Popper. But in 1886 they divorced. The contemporary sources I’ve found are surprisingly blasé on the topic, not mentioning Popper at all, or simply observing that Sophie’s marriage was unhappy and that she was separated from him. Contrary to what we might think, leaving one’s husband doesn’t seem to have been an automatic professional death sentence for female soloists (see also the case of violinist Wilhelmina Norman-Neruda).
Sophie Menter met Liszt in Vienna in 1869, where she played his concerto in E-flat, and she quickly became his protégé. The two remained lifelong friends. When she played in Paris, she was actually labeled “l’incarnation de Liszt,” and Liszt himself referred to her as “my only piano daughter.” He also named her favorite cat Klecks, or Spot, for the marking on its nose. A Lisztian shout-out to Klecks even exists in a letter that he wrote to Sophie in December 1880. In the summer of 1886, Sophie showed up to Liszt’s death bed at Bayreuth, divorce lawyer in tow, while wearing a stylish red silk dress. Liszt commented on its fine lace, then asked who her newest worshiper was. She answered that she’d never had any other than this one, and then pointed at the handle of her parasol, which was a carving of a cat.
Sophie racked up professional successes all across Europe. Critic Walter Niemen wrote of her “blend of virtuosity and elegance; a great, round and full Lisztian kind of tone; fiery temperament; a masculine weight on the keys; plasticity; a through-and-through distinguished craft of shape and form; in which soul, spirit and technique are fused in harmony and union.” When she played in Copenhagen, the crowd actually unharnessed her horses and drew the carriage themselves. Pictures of Klecks were sold there, too, and sold well. In May 1874 she was named chamber pianist to the Emperor of Austria. In 1881 she made her British debut, and a mere two years later (along with Dvořák and Sarasate) she was awarded honorary membership in the Royal Philharmonic Society.
The German pianist Wilhelm Kuhe reminisced in his memoirs about how Sophie brought a mysterious basket to one of her British concerts. Backstage she placed it “with much care and tenderness, on one of the chairs.” Everyone who saw her loving treatment of the basket was confused…until it suddenly started meowing: Sophie was touring with one of her cats (maybe Klecks?). (Kuhe also specified in his memoirs that her taste was not so much for the “garden tabby species” but rather “great, big, splendid, soft, purring, cuddlesome Persians, of the pampered and petted variety.” You’re welcome for this important music history.)
A sassy waltz by Sophie Menter
In 1884, she bought Schloss Itter, an actual fricking castle in Austria, to spend her summers in, because when you’re Sophie Menter, piano queen, why not? Here she hosted a variety of great musicians (and also let her cats run free).
Two of those great musicians were Liszt and Tchaikovsky, and both of them figure in one of the great mysteries of Menter’s career, a fifteen minute showpiece called Ungarische Zigeunerweisen (Hungarian Gypsy Melodies). In 1892, during a visit with Tchaikovsky at Itter Castle, Sophie presented a score that she wanted him to arrange for piano and orchestra, which he promptly did. But even today scholars are still squabbling over where this material came from:
- Did Liszt write it? Pros for this position: In 1885, Liszt wrote Sophie, “The Sophie Menter Concerto is begun and will be completely written in Itter.” Cons: None of the material in this piece is found in Liszt’s own works, Liszt was in exceedingly poor health at the time, and that visit only lasted two days.
- Did Liszt and Sophie somehow collaborate on it during the visit? Did Sophie and Tchaikovsky?
- Did Sophie write it all by herself? Pros for this position: She ultimately published it under her own name in 1909. Cons: Sophie was a lady.
There’s a theory that Sophie presented the work to Tchaikovsky as her own because she knew he didn’t like Liszt’s music, and she feared he wouldn’t follow through unless he thought the work was hers. But Tchaikovsky orchestrated Liszt’s song Der König in Thule, so…
It’s fascinating to think about what this obscure musicological conundrum says about Sophie. Because either she’s a self-doubting composer who wrote a work of such quality that some scholars are convinced Liszt wrote it, or she was a selfish glory-hogger who stole her master’s work and signed her name to it. Either way: impressive.
(If you want to dig into this debate yourself, the most complete discussion of the question I’ve found is here.)
In any case, regardless of where the material originated, Tchaikovsky did indeed orchestrate it at the castle (manuscript scan available here!) in the autumn of 1892. Tchaikovsky and Menter teamed up to perform the piece in 1893. Even after Tchaikovsky’s untimely and unexpected death, she continued to tour with it, presenting it as far afield as London.
Who wrote this? You be the judge.
Sophie ultimately sold her castle and settled in a country house in Stockdorf, Germany, near Munich, where she had a large area fenced off with chicken wire for the benefit of her cats. It was known in the region as “Katzenvilla.”
Pianist Claudio Arrau paints a remarkable picture of Sophie Menter’s dotage:
And then there was Sophie Menter, who was a very close friend of Martin Krause’s. He took me to visit her once. She lived outside of Munich with fifty cats. She hated human beings, and she hated her daughter. I remember she had a huge garden surrounded by chicken wire, to keep the cats in. Anyway, she was a very impressive lady, still gorgeously beautiful. And still very elegant, with lots of marvelous jewelry. She told us that the jewels were given to her in Russia by royalty – while she was playing, people would rip off their jewels and throw them on the stage, at her feet. Krause asked her, “Please play something so that this boy can hear you.” At first she resisted. Then she played excerpts from the A-major Liszt Concerto. She complained, “I don’t play anymore, I don’t practice.” But it was very beautiful. She must have been about seventy.
After reading about Sophie Menter – discovering that she might be the author of a showpiece sometimes attributed to Liszt – learning about how she enthralled concert audiences across Europe – and reading about her castle and her oh-so-relatable cat obsession – I find myself asking yet again:
How the f*ck did I not know this woman?
One intriguing source for this article was the work of a nineteenth-century writer named Marie Lipsius, whose nom de plume was La Mara. That discovery went like a bit this:
ME: *wrinkles brow* *Googles “La Mara”* *sees nothing except articles about a street gang from San Salvador* *Googles “La Mara music” instead* *finds out La Mara was a pen name for an astonishingly accomplished woman named Marie Lipsius* *sighs* *slaps La Mara’s name on a Post-It for part 8 / ???,???*
So as always, come back in two weeks (on October 18th) for the next installment of the series: in this case, a look at the career of author and music historian Marie Lipsius, also known as La Mara.
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