Marie Jaëll: Pianist, Composer, Reclusive Workaholic

Pianist, composer, author, and pedagogue Marie Jaëll’s last words were “I still have so much to do!” Although she had spent a lifetime vigorously, obsessively studying music, she was somehow convinced it hadn’t been enough.

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Marie Jaëll was born Marie Trautmann on August 17, 1846, in the tiny town of Steinseltz in Alsace. Marie loved the countryside, and she especially loved the sounds she heard there. She was transfixed by birdsong, leaves rustling in the breeze, brooks babbling, thunder rumbling, church bells pealing. When she heard a piano for the first time, at the age of six, she became obsessed. She convinced her parents to allow her to take lessons. Luckily they were supportive (interestingly, her mother assumed the role of manager and promoter), and soon she was concertizing across Germany and Switzerland.

By the age of seven, she was taking lessons from Ignaz Moscheles, who had also taught Mendelssohn. By ten, she was a pupil of Henri Herz, who was a professor at the Paris Conservatoire. In 1862, the year she turned sixteen, she entered the Conservatoire proper. After a mere four months, she won the First Prize of Piano. Her playing at this time was especially noted for its passion; she played like a woman possessed. One critic from Nuremberg wrote:

She vibrates with enthusiasm for her art. She forgets all her surroundings. She plays only because she is driven by an inner force… Marie Trautmann sweeps us over and stirs us up.

In 1866, the nineteen-year-old piano virtuosa met the thirty-four-year old piano virtuoso Alfred Jaëll. Alfred Jaëll was a cheerful and affable piano star, friends with many of the great musicians of the day. (He was especially close to Liszt. When Marie heard Liszt for the first time in 1868, her life and art were never the same.) Alfred fell in love with Marie and proposed. Apparently Marie was hesitant to accept, but her mother encouraged the match. The wedding was held on August 9, 1866, a week before her twentieth birthday.

Alfred and Marie Jaëll set up a salon in Paris and continued their careers in tandem, often performing four-hand repertoire together, with a special focus on contemporary music. Interestingly, Alfred’s playing was more stereotypically feminine, charming, and elegant, while his wife’s was often considered to be more masculine: a sheer force of nature.

The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 was a shocking and destabilizing event for the Jaëlls, and especially for Marie. By the time the war ended, France had lost Alsace. Marie had made her career playing the works of German composers, but she still felt a burning loyalty to her homeland and to France. (She was tapping into the same defiant spirit of nationalism that would later motivate Debussy.) In 1870, Alfred Jaëll was asked to succeed Moscheles himself in Leipzig at the Conservatory there, as well as to take over the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, the storied music journal begun by Schumann. These were tempting professional opportunities, but due to the war, Alfred turned them down. In 1872, when given the choice between French or German nationality, Alfred and Marie both chose French.

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Like so many other twentysomethings, in the early 1870s, Marie began worrying about her identity:

To feel small in relation to what one wants to be, and to feel too great in relation to what one has achieved, to be torn between these two alternatives, without finding a solution, without finding the means to put an end to this state of struggle, to see always the task unfinished, to feel the soul burn with a fire that consumes it and to find it always unquenched, and to realize the human inability to abate this inner glow, this simmering volcano…

She doesn’t finish the sentence, leaving the reader in breathless anticipation for a thought that remains unsaid. This kind of beautifully described creative restlessness would be at home in the diaries of any of the Romantics.

But on top of the emotional and intellectual difficulties of being a perfectionistic artist, she was also struggling mightily with her identity as a woman. She wrote to a friend:

From a woman, gifted or not, man takes away everything, little by little, and robs her of her creative forces; he takes her life from her. How often I have seen my dreams shattered by this single fact.

And in a follow-up letter:

To tell the truth, I struggle with my body to free myself; I want to be fully and wholly to myself; I must triumph, and I give up the idea of living for someone else. The needs of my art create a life that I ought not to forsake.

Was she speaking generally, or were these indications that her marriage specifically was beginning to crumble?

She buried herself in work, reading obsessively, teaching herself, frantically filling in the gaps of her spotty education:

I always feel the enormous weight of things I do not know. I would like to turn days into years, and work all the time. Time passes, and there seems to be no end to work.

It was during this time of frantic self-discovery that she turned to composition in earnest. She took lessons from César Franck and Camille Saint-Saëns, and sent her early work to Liszt for appraisal. (Once at Bayreuth he and Saint-Saëns played some of her four-hand piano works.) She didn’t stop at chamber pieces, either; she had her sights set higher. She wrote several sonatas and concertos. In 1878 she wrote a “musical drama” titled Runea. She also wrote an opera called Ossiane. Only bits and pieces of each survive today. After a performance of an excerpt from Ossiane, a critic wrote, “She is a woman, it is true; but that fact is not perceived in her music. What rapture, what boldness, what virility! … No woman has ever shown such power, such energy, such willpower.” Interestingly, her works were played all over…including in Germany.

Here’s Marie’s second piano concerto, which according to IMSLP dates from 1884.

Just as her compositional star was beginning to rise, Alfred’s health started to fail. He had developed diabetes. Sometimes he was so exhausted, he had to stop playing in the middle of his concerts. He died in February 1882, leaving Marie a thirty-five-year-old widow. Her mother, too, had just passed away.

I must admit it was night, and without illusions, plunged into darkness, and gazing into nothingness.

As she would throughout her life, she found peace in isolation. She returned to her hometown to work and to think. Her father built her a cabin and furnished it with a table and chairs and a piano. There she threw herself into study, and was rewarded for it. In 1887, Camille Saint-Saëns and Gabriel Fauré nominated Marie to the prestigious Société des Compositeurs de Musique. She was one of the first women to be admitted.

As she read and worked ever more frenetically, she kept thinking about Liszt and his playing. In the last years of the master’s life (he died in the summer of 1886), Marie actually traveled to Weimar as he “held court.” The environment in Weimar was (paradoxically) both invigorating and exhausting; Liszt’s students still surrounded him, and along with their brilliance, they brought copious amounts of drama. But Marie knew she could be useful to him as proofreader, secretary, and even co-performer at private house concerts, and more importantly, she felt that she had more to learn from him. After he finally died, Marie realized that her newly absorbed knowledge would change the course of her life:

It is not what I am accomplishing that absorbs my passion. It is the feeling that I have discovered Liszt’s spirit in me, and that it could be transmitted to future generations.

The 1890s brought a particular interest in performance, as well as the physics of playing the piano. She gave two incredibly demanding and legendary sets of concerts: one in which she played the complete piano works of Liszt (Saint-Saëns reacted, “There is only one person who can play Liszt, and that is Marie Jaëll”), and another where she played all thirty-two Beethoven sonatas (one critic wrote, “Mme. Jaëll is the artist of bold initiatives”).

After these massive projects, she stopped playing, composing, and even appearing in public. She was ready to focus on the project that would take up the last decades of her life: creating and refining the piano method known as “The Touch” or the Jaëll Method. It would explain and synthesize all that she had learned.

It is difficult to understand the Method by simply reading about it; clearly, its intricacies can only be understood by someone who has put copious amounts of time and effort into studying it and the instrument. The ultimate goal of the method is to create a conscious connection between player and piano. The way the pianist touches the keys is of extreme importance.

Marie employed surprisingly scientific methods in crafting her pedagogical ideas. She took photographs of piano hammers in an attempt to better analyze the action of the instrument. She fixed cards on the keys, blackened pianists’ fingertips with ink, and studied the resulting fingerprints, determining the amount and type of pressure needed to create a singing tone. She partnered with Charles Féré, chief medical officer at the Hospice Bicêtre, in studying the physiology of the hand (they even co-authored articles in scientific journals together). Soon she began publishing books.

Outsiders may not have guessed it, but Marie seems to have found fulfillment living alone and solely for her art. She wrote toward the end of her life:

My art, which is a science, has come to life as the full flowering of all the struggles of my past life. I would like to cry, cry all day in thanksgiving for having been guided by a true blessing till the end of my work. And it seems to me that I could never cry enough to express the full measure of the gratitude that I bear in all my being.

Marie Jaëll died on February 4, 1925. Before her body was taken from her apartment, her students wrapped it in the French flag.

After reading about Marie Jaëll – discovering her passionate, restless compositions that were appreciated and played by Liszt and Saint-Saëns – reading a small, small amount of her gripping writing – and appreciating her passion for her piano method and the surprisingly scientific methods she used to arrive at it – I find myself asking yet again:

How the f*ck did I not know this woman?

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For every previous woman in this series, I’ve always, somewhere in the course of researching, come across another name for the next week’s entry. For whatever reason, I didn’t with Marie Jaëll. But never fear, all five people who read this series! I’m going to use this dead end as an excuse to cover a woman who I’ve wanted to write about for a long time. Her name is Anna Schoen-René. In two weeks, on November 15th, you’ll find out why we ought to have a statue of her in Minneapolis’s Orchestra Hall.

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1 Comment

Filed under Women In Music

One response to “Marie Jaëll: Pianist, Composer, Reclusive Workaholic

  1. Lisa Renee Ragsdale

    Here I am, applauding your (?) massive amount of work to come up with all this information and your writing is both excellent and thrilling. The vast majority of what you have published is that of a scholar and one who is clearly “occupied” by the passion of concert music. There is a great deal more I could write. But it cannot be displayed here. Later. Somewhere. Keep up the “good work.”

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