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.

Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under Women In Music

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)

Continue reading

2 Comments

Filed under Women In Music

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.

*

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.

20180128_141549

Continue reading

7 Comments

Filed under Minnesota Orchestra

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.

blizzard2

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!

*

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!

6 Comments

Filed under Minnesota Orchestra

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.

*

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.”

Continue reading

2 Comments

Filed under Women In Music

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.

Continue reading

16 Comments

Filed under Labor Disputes

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.

Wilhelmine_Schröder-Devrient_AEhrlichSängerinnen1895

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.

Continue reading

2 Comments

Filed under Women In Music

Song of the Lark 2017 Advent Calendar!

Longtime readers know I have a thing for Advent calendars. I’m not sure why. I like the ideas of winter introspecting and daily chocolate, I guess.

Anyway, the blog’s first Advent calendar was a weird lockout-related joke / year-end retrospective in December 2012. I also assembled virtual calendars in 2013, 2014, and 2015, featuring Youtube links to some of my favorite holiday pieces in all of them. I didn’t do one last year, and I missed doing it, so…

The online Advent calendar is back for 2017! But it’s at a new address and with a new twist. Instead of my favorite holiday music (because after four years of holiday music videos, I was really starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel), every day between now and Christmas Eve, I’m spotlighting a piece of music written by a woman! You can follow along at songofthelarkadventcalendar.tumblr.com. I’ll also be Tweeting the links; you can find me on Twitter here. I’ve already included pieces by Emilie Mayer, Rebecca Clarke, Lili Boulanger, and more, and there are still sixteen days left to go!

In many Christian traditions, Advent is a time of reflection, meant to prepare folks for the good that is to come. The good that I hope is to come (should we choose to reflect on it together…) is a promotion of the unjustly neglected work of women. The time feels right for their arrival in listeners’, musicians’, and music lovers’ lives.

Wishing you all a blessed winter full of unexpected beauty.

Triptic_of_candles

Also, just a head’s up, I’m taking December off from my blog series on women. Readership tends to dip at this time of year anyway, and, to be totally honest, after the extravaganza of original research that occurred for the last entry, I fell behind on some other projects I want to get a handle on! So expect new entries on women starting January 3rd (I’m pretty sure we’re going to kick things off with a woman who was, along with Schoen-René, a student of Viardot), and hopefully this calendar helps tide you over in the meantime. xo

2 Comments

Filed under Blog Stuff, Women In Music

How Anna Schoen-René Nearly Founded the Minnesota Orchestra

If you want to learn about the early life of Anna Schoen-René, check out this entry.

*

In her 1941 memoir, America’s Musical Inheritance: Memories and Reminiscences, soprano Anna Schoen-René claims she originated the idea of the Minnesota Orchestra.

The orchestra was to be called the Northwestern Symphony Orchestra, and was to serve Minneapolis, St. Paul, and the surrounding cities, thereby appeasing the rivalry which traditionally existed between the first two named.

She writes she went so far as to raise $30,000 (the rough equivalent to $800k today), arranging players’ contracts and even hiring conductor Walter Rothwell (who went on to become the first music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic).

But she faced, in her words, “a good deal of opposition.” While she took her annual trip to Europe, shadowy unnamed forces conspired to raise $60,000 and poach her players. “A wealthy citizen of Minneapolis had been persuaded to give that city its own orchestra, which was not to be shared with other places,” she writes. Presumably she’s referring to Elbert L. Carpenter, the Minneapolis lumberman who organized the Minneapolis Symphony and who bestowed its first music directorship upon local conductor Emil Oberhoffer. Her insinuation here is clear: she saw herself as champion of an egalitarian ensemble belonging to all Minnesotans, in contrast to the unnamed “wealthy citizen” who saw the orchestra as a tool to advance the interests of a particular set of people.

How did a young female immigrant come so close to founding one of America’s great orchestras? Why did her efforts to do so excite such intense antipathy? And how on earth have we forgotten her so utterly? Much of the story remains buried in the archives; it will take months, if not years, of work to interpret in all its nuance. But thanks to the Minnesota Historical Society’s online newspaper archives, portions of the history are in plain sight, provided you have the interest and the time to chase them down.

Continue reading

2 Comments

Filed under Minnesota Orchestra, Women In Music

Anna Schoen-René: Soprano, Conductor, Minnesota Pioneer

Anna Schoen-René – singer, conductor, entrepreneur, author, teacher, and the godmother of the present-day Minnesota Orchestra – is like a character from a feminist fairy tale. Walter Damrosch once asked her, “Haven’t they erected a monument to you in Minneapolis yet?” That monument remains conspicuously unbuilt.

In 1941, at the age of seventy-seven, Schoen-René published a book called America’s Musical Inheritance: Memories and Reminiscences. (It’s available to read in its entirety for free here.) Because so little research has been done on her life and career, we have to listen carefully to everything she says, while simultaneously remembering that not all of it has been verified.

This is the first paragraph:

I received my first singing lessons at the age of four – odd little lessons – from our household orderly, Matinetti. He was an all-round fine fellow, always ready to help us children out of our troubles. In his room behind the kitchen, my brother Otto and I used to sit on little stools, watching while he cleaned the uniforms, shoes, and other personal equipment of our large household, and listening to his fairy tales and songs. Matinetti was of Italian descent, though a native of Coblenz, and had a great store of both Italian and German folk-songs. Under his instruction, we not only learned many of these by heart, but acted them out dramatically. After the lessons, the doors to the kitchen would be thrown open, and we would give a performance before an almost tearfully admiring domestic staff. All this was carried on with utmost secrecy – no one in the front of the house was aware of this initiation into the world of make-believe. I have always felt that this marked the beginning of my great desire for a public career as a singer. I began about that time to develop a lively imagination; and as I walked in the forests I would sing to myself and build dream castles by the hundreds – always of future triumphs as a singer.

*

Anna Eugénie Schoen was born in 1864, the youngest of eight children, in Koblenz, Germany. According to her book, her father was “Royal Master of Forestry and Agriculture in the Province of the Rhineland and a Councillor at the Court of Wilhelm I, Emperor of Germany, and also an officer of the Reserve in the Honorary Battalion of the Guards.” The family was wealthy, sophisticated, and well-positioned, frequently rubbing elbows with empresses and czarinas. But her father had a strong egalitarian streak, and he insisted that his children spend at least two years in public school in order to become acquainted with children of every class.

Anna’s passion for music was obvious from the start. At an early age, she heard that singing in a choir could potentially harm the voice, so at her school chorus auditions, she “just barked, so to speak.” She succeeded in tricking the chorusmaster, but couldn’t resist singing in front of her friends. Ultimately, word of her deception got back to school officials, and to discipline her, they forced her to sing in front of all her classmates and teachers. Of course, that punishment had the exact opposite of its intended effect: “My longing for a career took a firmer hold than ever.”

Continue reading

Leave a comment

Filed under Minnesota Orchestra, Women In Music