Category Archives: Women In Music

Geraldine Farrar: Opera Diva, Actress, Movie Star: Part 1

In 1898 a sixteen-year-old soprano named Geraldine Farrar auditioned for Maurice Grau, manager at the Metropolitan Opera. Dissatisfied with the provided pianist, she promptly fired him on the spot and then took to the bench to accompany herself. “What my emotions were when I passed in through the stage door I cannot describe,” she later wrote. “I sang as I believe I had never sung before.”

Although Grau was duly impressed, he also thought that Farrar could benefit from European training before a debut. But as a consolation prize, he offered her a slot singing at one of the Met’s Sunday night concerts.

“No, thank you, Mr. Grau,” I replied. (No tame concert appearances after my imagination had been dazzled by a possible début in opera!)

“But it might be valuable to you to have your name on the billboards of the Metropolitan Opera House,” he urged good-naturedly.

“You will see it there some day,” I replied with firm conviction.

Farrar’s unflappable (some would say unfeminine) self-confidence must have been a sight to behold, even in an art form famous for its egos. But that confidence wasn’t misplaced. Geraldine Farrar was exactly right: not only would she soon see her name on the Met’s billboards, she would eventually become one of the greatest operatic performers of her age.

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Geraldine Farrar was born in Melrose, Massachusetts, on 28 February 1882, a year after her parents’ wedding. Her father Sidney was a haberdashery store-owner and later the first baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies, and her eighteen-year-old mother Henrietta was the musically inclined daughter of a violin teacher. Both Farrars sang in the choir of the First Universalist Church of Melrose. So it was only natural that their only child would develop an interest in music. As a toddler, little Geraldine banged on piano keys and sang barrel organ airs. At three she sang at her first concert at church. When she finished, she walked to the edge of the platform and asked her mother, “Did I do it well, mamma?” Her audience was entranced by her moxie.

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Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield: Pioneering Singer and “Black Swan”

The year was 1851, and new voices were ascendant in America. The first edition of the New York Times was printed that September. In November, Melville published Moby-Dick. Stephen Foster wrote the minstrel song “Old Folks at Home,” in which a fictional black narrator longs for a mythical “old plantation.” Actual former slave Sojourner Truth delivered a brilliant extemporaneous speech at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio; it entered history as “Ain’t I A Woman?”

Into this swirl of change stepped a singer named Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield. In October 1851 she gave a performance in Buffalo, New York, and it caused a massive stir: she was the first black woman to ever appear there in concert. In a twist on Jenny Lind’s nickname the Swedish Nightingale, a reporter from the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser dubbed Greenfield the “Black Swan.” Greenfield carried that epithet to her grave. Then as now, her musical and professional identity would be irrevocably, indelibly linked with the color of her skin.

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Frances Boardman: Music Critic, Lecturer, Promoter

Nowadays in America, if you are a professional classical music critic who is also a woman, your name is probably Anne Midgette. Despite the important work done by women like Midgette, Claudia Cassidy, Nora Douglas Holt, Olga Samaroff, and others, classical music criticism in this country has traditionally been dominated by the voices of men.

St. Paul journalist Frances Corning Boardman was one of the exceptions. She stumbled into criticism – indeed, journalism itself – by accident, and relatively late in her life. To the best of my knowledge, there hasn’t been any kind of systematic assessment of her thirty years’ worth of contributions to the St. Paul Dispatch, much less a full biography. But the relatively little we do know about her paints a striking portrait.

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Olga Samaroff: Pianist, Educator, Advocate

In the spring of 1905, pianist Olga Samaroff was set to make her long-awaited European debut in London. The morning of the concert, she received a terrifying warning by telephone: her abusive ex-husband was in town, and he was threatening to kill her. “I had two Scotland Yard men stationed in the audience,” she wrote later, “and they watched my husband during the recital and were prepared to interpose in case he should try to do anything.” At the concert, he sat in the front row. Nevertheless she took to the stage and triumphed. From that moment, her European success was ensured.

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The pianist who became international sensation and pedagogical force-of-nature Olga Samaroff was actually born Lucy Jane Olga Agnes Hickenlooper in San Antonio, Texas, on 8 August 1880.

Olga’s family life was dominated by strong women. Her maternal grandmother and namesake Lucy Palmer Loening Grunewald (affectionately known as Mawmaw) was born in 1841 and raised on a Louisiana plantation. Lucy Palmer was a fabulously talented young musician, and when she was fifteen, she performed a Beethoven piano concerto with the French Opera orchestra in New Orleans. However, any professional ambitions she held were suppressed, and the following year, she married a wealthy German immigrant twice her age. Within the span of a few years, she gave birth to both a son and a daughter. That daughter was named Jane, and she became a talented pianist herself.

When Jane also married young and gave birth to Olga, and Olga began showing musical promise, Mawmaw was immediately at hand to teach her granddaughter everything she knew. Perhaps she sensed the newfound opportunities opening up for women musicians. In the late 1880s Mawmaw actually brought Olga to New York so that she might play for William Steinway himself. Steinway was so impressed with Olga that he offered to pay for her European training, but the Hickenlooper family was hesitant to upend Olga’s life at such a young age, and so grandmother and granddaughter returned to Texas. In 1890 Mawmaw brought Olga on yet another networking trip, this time to meet composer Edward MacDowell in Detroit at the Music Teacher’s National Association convention. He too recommended a European course of study.

By the time she was fifteen, Olga’s grandmother and mother were pushing hard for Olga to go to Europe. “I was brought up with the idea that I should fit myself for a public career,” Olga later wrote, “but only undertake it ‘if I had to.’ This meant in plain English that if no stalwart male were at hand to relieve me of the necessity to making my living I might play in concerts and should be thoroughly prepared to do so, but there would be no question if I had the choice between matrimony and a career – I should marry!”

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Chiquinha Gonzaga: Composer, Pianist, Conductor

The history of music is filled with the stories of women who fought tooth and nail to be there. Many musical women struggled with economic insecurity, the disapproval and dismissal of their society and families, and worse. But despite the difficulties, many still stubbornly found a way to make a life practicing the art they loved.

Composer, pianist, and conductor Chiquinha Gonzaga was one such woman. She overcame all the typical obstacles and more. Sadly, she paid a steep price for doing so: her pursuit of a career cost her not only her reputation, but her family. And yet despite her losses, she was convinced that a life in music would ultimately prove worthwhile. Music could be a tool to lead her – and others – to a kind of freedom and even (eventually) legitimacy.

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Francisca Edwiges Neves Gonzaga was born in Rio de Janeiro on 17 October 1847. Her nineteen-year-old mother, Maria Rosa de Lima, was the unmarried daughter of a slave. (Slavery was not abolished in Brazil until 1888.) Gonzaga’s father was José Neves Gonzaga Basileu, a military officer from a wealthy noble family. Said family was horrified by his relationship and new daughter, but over their objections, he married Maria Rosa de Lima and acknowledged Francisca as his own.

Chiquinha, as the little girl became known, received a good education for a woman of the era; it was hoped this would attract a suitable husband and prepare her to serve the imperial family. A priest taught her the basics – reading, writing, arithmetic, and languages – while an uncle and a local conductor were in charge of her musical education. She had a great affinity for music; she composed her first piece at eleven.

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Elsa Barraine: Composer and French Resistance Leader

Racism, economic stagnation, and political polarization have gripped the continent. Elections have been manipulated, false promises made, scapegoats blamed. Government-run facilities are built to punish, deter, and house specific groups of people; there is chillingly little transparency regarding what occurs within. The passivity of citizens in the face of cruelty is duly noted. There is a sense that something grave and irrevocable is about to happen.

The year is 1938, and events are escalating in Europe. The Anschluss comes in March, the Munich Agreement in September. Construction at Dachau is completed in mid-August. Kristallnacht occurs on November 9th and 10th. In the words of Hermann Göring, “The Jewish problem will reach its solution if, in anytime soon, we will be drawn into war beyond our border – then it is obvious that we will have to manage a final account with the Jews.”

Elsa Barraine, a twenty-eight-year-old composer with a passion for politics, watches anxiously from France. She is devastated by what is unfolding. She is Jewish on her father’s side. Her reaction to Hitler was to join the French Communist Party. She has even penned a symphonic poem protesting fascism: 1933’s Pogromes. Its inspiration was a poem by Jewish poet André Spire. The first part of the poem encourages Jews to fight back against their enemies. But the second – and the only portion of the text that Barraine chooses to treat – chronicles the perspective of Jewish elders, who counsel acceptance of fate when confronted by inescapable destruction.

In 1938, as Nazism creeps closer to her doorstep and a global conflagration becomes inevitable, Elsa Barraine writes her second symphony. It is a work of majestic dread and determination, seasoned by hard jolts of violence and sarcasm. She entitles the work “Voina”: the Russian word for war.

France surrenders to the Nazis in June of 1940. On 7 December 1941 Adolf Hitler issues what becomes known as the Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog) directive, targeting activists. That same day Heinrich Himmler issues clarifying instructions to the Gestapo:

After lengthy consideration, it is the will of the Führer that the measures taken against those who are guilty of offenses against the Reich or against the occupation forces in occupied areas should be altered. The Führer is of the opinion that in such cases penal servitude or even a hard labor sentence for life will be regarded as a sign of weakness. An effective and lasting deterrent can be achieved only by the death penalty or by taking measures which will leave the family and the population uncertain as to the fate of the offender. Deportation to Germany serves this purpose.

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Carmen Barradas: Composer, Innovator, and Noise-Maniac

In 1922 composer and self-described “noise-maniac” Carmen Barradas gave a groundbreaking piano recital in Madrid. There she performed her elegant, unsettling piano miniature Esperando el coche (Waiting for the car), which called for a small bell to be tied around the wrist of the performer. Her request was strikingly similar to the prepared piano techniques that John Cage would make famous a generation later.

Barradas was also fascinated by the idea of graphic notation, an interest spurred by her long collaboration with her artist brother Rafael Barradas. Her work with graphic notation pre-dates Morton Feldman’s Projection 1 by nearly thirty years.

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You’d think someone who had explored these ideas so early in the century would be well-known and fêted. You’d be wrong. Scholarship on Carmen Barradas is relatively scarce, and almost none has appeared in English. (Accordingly, take everything in this entry with a grain of salt; I’m no great Spanish speaker.) Despite the dearth of information, one thing is clear: this impoverished Latin American daughter of immigrants was a strikingly original musical pioneer, and her ideas deserve a closer look.

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Adela Maddison: Forgotten Composer and Fauré’s Mistress (?)

To modern readers, the ambiguity of historical queer relationships can be frustrating. We know that same-sex relationships have occurred over the centuries, but of course details about many are scarce, and vacuums are often ripe environments for controversy. Add in the fact that many labels we take for granted today only came into broad use a generation or two ago, and it becomes extremely difficult to define historical figures’ sexualities in modern terms.

Composer Adela Maddison is one of the women who resides in the center of a diagnostic Venn diagram, crunched between circles that modern people label “straight” and “gay” and “bi” and any other number of descriptors. Observers of her life question her sexuality, but no broad consensus has been found. In 1898, one friend insisted to her diary that Adela was having an affair with a man. Fauré biographers Jean-Michel Nectoux and Robert Orledge are quite clear that they believe Adela was a bit of a lovesick hanger-on. (Nectoux went so far as to say of her, “We may imagine that Fauré found somewhat embarrassing the attentions of this ‘pupil.’” Quotation marks in the original, or at least the English translation.) Sophie Fuller in her chapter “Devoted Attention: Looking for Lesbian Musicians in Fin de Siècle Britain” in Queer Episodes in Music and Modern Identity clearly thinks of Adela as lesbian. (Interestingly, no historian I read entertained the idea that she might have been bisexual.)

To a modern person reading Adela’s life story and Adela’s own words, it seems clear that she was in a long-term relationship with another woman, likely marking her as, in some way, queer. As to what exactly that should mean when choosing a modern label to describe her, who knows. (It may be worth being open to an ambiguous answer.) Regardless of what labels we settle on, Adela Maddison’s willingness to follow her heart – personally and professionally – is fascinating history. Her fearless independence and her musical accomplishments ought to be celebrated.

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Maud Cuney-Hare: Musicologist and Black Activist

When she was born in Galveston in 1874, musician and musicologist Maud Cuney-Hare inherited a legacy that was rich, horrifying, and uniquely American.

Her paternal grandfather had been one of the largest slaveholders in Texas. He was a delegate to the 1848 Democratic National Convention, where he advocated for the preservation of slavery.

Her paternal grandmother was, for all intents and purposes, his concubine, and she bore her owner eight mixed-race children. Maud’s father Wright Cuney grew up in a household teeming with both full siblings and “legitimate” half-siblings. The former were slaves; the latter were free.

We have no record why (guilt? love? ego? paternalism?), but in the end, her grandfather decided to free his mixed-raced children and send them to Pittsburgh to be educated.

Despite the prejudice caused by his dark complexion, Wright Cuney grew up to become a successful entrepreneur, politician, and activist. According to Wikipedia, he secured the “highest-ranking appointed position of any African American in the late 19th-century South” when he was appointed United States Collector of Customs in Galveston in 1889.

When he was twenty-five, Wright married a gray-eyed sixteen-year-old beauty named Adelina. She too was the daughter of a white planter father and his concubine slave. She sang, played the piano, and was an activist in her church and community. Over the course of their marriage, Wright and Adelina had two children: Lloyd (named after abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison) and Maud.

Maud Cuney’s cultural inheritance was no doubt a bewildering one to come to terms with. It consisted of rape, poverty, and oppression, as well as self-determination, wealth, and privilege. Ultimately Maud Cuney chose to use that legacy, and the advantages it offered her, to promote the achievements of African musicians.

Despite a lifetime of devotion to that cause, she is almost entirely forgotten today.

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Emma Abbott: Soprano and Impresario

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

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

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Emma Abbott

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