Theodora Cormontan: Composer, Pianist, Publisher

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

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

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

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Zitkála-Šá: Musician, Author, Activist

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

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

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

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

But she emerged clutching that identity more tightly than ever.

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

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

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

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Emma Steiner: Conductor, Composer, Miner

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

Met Opera graph

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

emma steiner

Emma Steiner

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Nora Douglas Holt: Composer, Critic, Bombshell

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

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

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

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

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Johanna Kinkel: Composer, Author, Revolutionary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Behind the Scenes with the Minnesota Orchestra in Chicago

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

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

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

We ran.

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

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A BLIZZARD TO WISH THE MINNEAPOLIS SYMPHONY “GOOD LUCK”

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

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

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

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

From the Musical Courier, February 1st, 1917:

A BLIZZARD TO WISH THE MINNEAPOLIS SYMPHONY “GOOD LUCK”

Organization Starts Its Western Trip Under Difficulties

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

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

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

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

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

Wishing safe travels for everyone associated with our orchestra!

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

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Ingeborg von Bronsart: Opera Composer

Her great presence of mind as an artist was shown a little later in a concert incident, which happened in her fourteenth year, in the Michael [sic] Theater. She played the Chopin E minor concerto, with orchestra, from memory, of course – her musical memory always wonderful – when suddenly a string in the piano broke and fell upon the others, which, by their unwilling vibration, tried to defend themselves from this attack. In spite of the alarming jar, no one thought of hastening to her relief by removing the cause of the disturbance, which so distressed the continuation with the improvised accompaniment of the jarring strings; so with her energetic little right hand, the young player pulled out the “corpus delicti” with a quick jerk and threw it on the floor, without at all interrupting her left hand, and then, unhindered, continued bravely with the playing. But then the audience broke in with enthusiastic cheers, for the brave self-defence, and at the end a profusion of flowers fell at her feet. The most brilliant performance could not have been more admired than was this little incident.

That sketch of quick-thinking pianist Ingeborg von Bronsart comes from nineteenth-century author Elise Polko. An 1898 translation of Polko’s essay is one of the few English-language biographies of Ingeborg available today. It’s an unabashedly romanticized portrait, with lots of unverifiable details. But although the portrait may be incomplete, its brilliant subject is still worth studying.

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Ingeborg Lena Starck was born on 24 August 1840 in St. Petersburg. Her father Wilhelm was Swedish. He spent over four decades working in Russia, but never relinquished his Swedish citizenship. Her mother Margarethe was also Scandinavian (although sources differ as to whether her ancestry was Swedish or Finnish). Both husband and wife were amateur musicians. He played the flute and she played the violin (albeit solely by ear), and members of the household, including the help, frequently performed Swedish folksongs together.

Ingeborg had an older sister named Olivia. When Olivia began piano lessons at the age of nine, Ingeborg became desperately jealous. As Polko describes it:

And, when later, Olivia took piano lessons, Ingeborg, with tears in her big, longing eyes, stood by and begged that she might take at the same time, and her wish was granted, although unwillingly, on account of her extreme youth.

Within a matter of months, Ingeborg’s pianistic abilities had surpassed her older sister’s, and within a year, she was beginning to compose. In 1850, none other than Anton Rubinstein (who later taught Tchaikovsky) told a ten-year-old Ingeborg, “You, indeed, play very beautifully, but what especially interests me is your talent for composing.”

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Bugging the San Antonio Symphony

In March 2000, a hundred guests gathered for a birthday party at the expansive Tobin estate in San Antonio, Texas. The honoree, colorful sixty-six-year-old philanthropist Robert L. B. Tobin, was battling cancer. Tobin was too ill to attend a traditional party, so guests were shuttled through the property one-by-one to speak with the bedridden benefactor. He passed away on April 26th. (x)

A few years later, the Boston Globe began publishing a series of articles entitled Charity Begins at Home, investigating abuses by officers of charitable organizations. On 17 December 2003, an article appeared in the Globe, squarely taking aim at the management of the Tobin estate: “Trustees’ fees are talk of San Antonio’s elite.” (x)

Two lawyers were in charge of dealing with Tobin’s assets. One was Leroy G. Denman, Jr., who passed away in 2015 at the age of 97 (x). The other was a man named J. Bruce Bugg, Jr.

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Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient: Soprano and Erotic Memoirist (?)

I have long maintained that the best way to ring in a new year is by profiling a female opera pioneer who rubbed shoulders with the great composers, inspired Wagner, and (allegedly) wrote a sexually explicit memoir.

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Ladies and gentlemen, meet Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient.

Wilhelmine Schröder was born into a theatrical family in Hamburg, Germany, on December 6th, 1804. Her father Friedrich Schröder was a singer, while her mother Sophie was later dubbed “one of Germany’s greatest tragic actresses, so far as declamation and expression are concerned.” The family moved frequently during the tumultuous Napoleonic era, but eventually they settled in Vienna, where her parents got jobs at the Burgtheater. Wilhelmine followed in their footsteps and appeared onstage for the first time at the age of five.

Her debut as an actress occurred at fifteen, when she appeared as Aricia in Schiller’s translation of Racine’s Phèdre. But even as a teenager she was creatively restless: she had her eye on mastering another art form altogether. On January 20th, 1821, she played Pamina in a Vienna Court Opera production of The Magic Flute. Her operatic debut marked the ignition of a revolutionary and uniquely Romantic career, which occurred adjacent to the greatest male composers of the mid-nineteenth-century.

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