Bach in Neon

I just love discovering the new twists people put on the familiar. In today’s case, visual artist Alan Warburton has taken J.S. Bach’s “Prelude and Fugue in C Major” from The Well Tempered Clavier and has reproduced it…in neon.

In this video, Warburton uses a different way of writing music from the standard called graphical notation, which got its start in the 1950s. It allows him to show off Bach’s music in a way that makes it easy to see the structure of the pieces and turn them into something that’s not only beautiful to listen to, but beautiful to watch as well.

I hope he plans on doing more of these in the future, because watching more classical music laid out like this would be a real delight!

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Teresa Carreño

History Hunt: Teresa Carreño

This week we’re heading fifty years into the future and halfway across the world to meet our next featured artist: Teresa Carreño!

Teresa Carreño (full name: María Teresa Carreño García de Sena) was born on December 22, 1853 in Caracas, Venezuela.

Venezuela

Venezuela, birthplace of Teresa Carreño.

Her family was a musical one–not only did her father play the piano in his spare time, but her grandfather was a well-known composer. Almost right away, Carreño’s family noticed her musical talents, but they decided to wait until she was six to start piano lessons. And as soon as she did, she began composing.

When Carreño was eight years old, her family moved from Venezuela to New York City. The situation in Venezuela were becoming unstable, and her family felt Carreño would have more chances to become famous in such a large city. A few months later, Carreño gave her first public performance at Irving Hall (which unfortunately no longer exists). It was a huge success and led to four repeat performances.

Teresa Carreño

Teresa Carreño as a girl.

Thanks to her concerts, Carreño met the most famous pianist in America at the time, Louis Moreau Gottschalk. He was so impressed with her incredible piano playing that he taught her for a while and gave her a great deal of publicity. In return, Carreño named her first published piece, when she was nine, the “Gottschalk Waltz.”

Shortly after, Carreño went on tour throughout the Eastern United States and to Cuba. In the fall, she gave a private concert to American president Abraham Lincoln in the White House!

By the time she was twelve, Carreño had a solid reputation as a brilliant pianist–something many adults would be envious of. But instead of coasting on her success, she and her family moved to Paris: now it was time to conquer Europe.

And conquer Europe she did. Within two months of arriving in Paris, Carreño became a favourite of famous musicians, received lessons from some of the best teachers of her time, composed a large number of pieces, and began touring throughout Europe. But when the Franco-Prussian War began four years after she arrived, Carreño and her family moved to London.

She also started an opera career in the most sink-or-swim way possible. While she was on tour, a mezzo-soprano who was to perform the role of the Queen in Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots became too sick to sing. Without a single rehearsal, Carreño took her place–and was a success!

When Carreño was twenty-one, she returned to the United States to pick up her performing career there, now as an adult and not a child prodigy. She also conducted, which was quite rare for a woman of her time.

By now, she had earned her nickname, “The Valkyrie of the Piano.” She had become famous for her passionate, energetic playing…and also for changing around musical directions in the piano pieces by different composers that were part of her concerts. It was a brave move that allowed her personality to shine through her performances–even if sometimes she annoyed composers doing it!

In 1876, Carreño launched her opera career in the more traditional way. She played the role of Zerlina in Don Giovanni, by W.A. Mozart, debuting in New York City. Even if she was an opera singer only briefly, her career was considered a success all the same.

Carreño took a break from touring throughout the United States and Canada when she was thirty-one: for the first time since she was eight years old, she returned to Venezuela. Although she stayed for less than a year, she still gave concerts, composed, started an opera troupe (which unfortunately didn’t last), and helped plan the creation of a Venezuelan conservatory of music.

A few years later, it was back to Europe for Carreño. This time, she moved to Berlin and made her German debut as a guest soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. She was just as popular in Germany as she had been elsewhere, leading her to become “the leading female pianist of the period” (ANBO). She toured not only throughout Europe, but in Australia, New Zealand, South America, and the United States. She continued to compose, became a sought-after teacher, and even wrote a treatise, or long essay, called “Possibilities of Tone Color by Artistic Use of Pedals.”

After World War I broke out and later worsened, it became too dangerous for Carreño to tour. She returned to the United States to stay, and for the rest of her life, continued to tour throughout America and Cuba. Though she isn’t as well-known nowadays as she ought to be, she’s still remembered. She has a youth orchestra named after her, the most important theatre in Venezuela (and the second-largest in South America!) is called the Teresa Carreño Cultural Complex, and there’s even a crater on Venus named after her!

Listen below to one of Carreño’s piano compositions, the Kleiner Walzer, dedicated to her daughter Teresita, who became a well-known pianist in her own right.

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
Carreño, Teresa at the American National Bibliography Online site
Teresa Carreño: A Biographical Sketch by Brian Mann via the Wayback Machine
Profile of Teresa Carreño at About EducationIrving Place Theatre at Wikipedia.org
Teresa Carreño at Wikipedia.org
Teresa Carreño at Wikipedia.org (German)
Kleiner Walzer (Carreño, Teresa) at the International Music Score Library Project
Image source for young Carreño: Tamarackideafactory.com

A Musical Blast From the Past!

This week’s celebration of human creativity is dedicated to people of my generation and older, who remember when Windows 98 and XP were new! Everyone else: here’s a piece of history for you, in the form of music made from sound effects of Windows editions from bygone days.

I love music made from old technology, so don’t be surprised when another musical blast from the past turns up in a couple of months…!

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel

History Hunt: Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel

This week, it’s time for another History Hunt success story! Our featured composer was forgotten for nearly a hundred and fifty years, but recently, dedicated History Hunters have started bringing her to public notice at long last.

Fanny Cäcilie Mendelssohn Hensel (birth name: Fanny Cäcilie Mendelssohn) was born in Hamburg, Germany, on November 14, 1805. Her mother, Lea, was a pianist and singer and her father was a banker. When Hensel was born, her father wrote a letter to his mother-in-law, saying that he thought his new daughter had a pianist’s fingers–and he turned out to be right.

Hensel’s first music teacher was her mother, who had studied with one of famous composer J.S. Bach’s own students. She was a good teacher, making sure that she never pushed her little daughter past her ability to concentrate, but after a while, she began looking for other teachers to help Hensel grow.

The first music teacher Hensel had who wasn’t her mother was Marie Bigot, who had met both Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven. Hensel studied with her when she was eleven and living in Paris for a few months. Later, when the family had moved to Berlin, her new teachers were former students of still more famous composers–Hensel’s family wanted nothing but the best education for their children.

In a way, it was strange that Hensel and her younger sister received the same education as her two little brothers. Their father believed that women had no business doing anything but taking care of the house and their husband and children when they married. However, even though he discouraged Hensel from taking her musical talents seriously, he still wanted her to have a good education.

In 1816, a few years earlier, Hensel and her siblings were all baptised in a Christian church and her father changed the family name to Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Though both sides of her family were Jewish, prejudice against Jewish people was even stronger in the 1800s. Her father wanted to protect his children from antisemitism by hiding their heritage.

As she grew, it became clear that Hensel was a brilliant student of music. By the time she was thirteen, she had memorised and performed all twenty-four preludes from J.S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier in front of an audience as a surprise for her father. Unfortunately, the next year, when Hensel was fourteen, her father was already discouraging her from making a career as a composer or performer. Even so, Hensel’s first composition, which she wrote later that year, was in honour of her father’s birthday. And in spite of his sexism, she kept on writing music at a terrific rate. She also played the piano at the musical parties her parents hosted, which started when she was about seventeen.

When it came to bringing her compositions to the world, Hensel received some help from her younger brother, Felix. In 1827, he was publishing some of his own compositions–but he agreed to include some of his sister’s to get around their father’s restrictions, because their father didn’t want Hensel to publish a single note. He did it again three years later in another collection.

However, this sometimes got a bit awkward for Felix. When he was visiting Queen Victoria of England, he asked if the queen, who was a talented singer, would perform one of his pieces for him. She was happy to do so, and selected her favourite–which was written by Hensel! It was a credit to Felix’s honesty that he confessed he hadn’t actually written the piece the queen had sung. He then asked if she’d be willing to perform something he’d actually written himself!

Hensel married a court painter when she was twenty-four, and she actually wrote her own processional for the wedding (a piece to be played when the wedding party enters the church). However, there was a bit of a problem with the recessional–her brother was meant to have written the piece for when she left the church, but he ran out of time. When Hensel heard at the wedding rehearsal the day before that he wasn’t going to be able to finish the music, she promptly sat down, ignored her family and friends, and dashed off a piece in three-and-a-half hours!

After her marriage, it became very hard for Hensel to find time to compose and practice her music. Although her husband was supportive of her–even making sure she had time to play the piano at least a little every day–there was simply too many expectations for women of that time for her to manage. Still, she did her best to keep music in her life: she started up the musical parties her parents had hosted in her own home. She organised which music would be played when for them, composed music of her own, performed, and conducted. She also started a choir to perform during the gatherings, which she conducted and accompanied on the piano. Hensel’s musical gatherings became extremely popular and attracted more than a few famous composers looking for an invitation–including previously featured composer Clara Schumann!

In 1839, Hensel got the chance to fulfill one of her biggest dreams: she and her family spent the entire year travelling throughout Italy. And while she was there, she finally was able to perform for other famous musicians of her day and receive the respect she deserved.

Though Hensel experienced a fairly strong case of composer’s block when she was in her late twenties, by the time she was thirty, her confidence had come back enough to consider publishing some of her music. Unfortunately, her younger brother Felix, who had helped her when they were both younger, had let society and his father’s opinions shape his ideas about the role of women in music. Instead of helping her again, he was against Hensel sharing her music with the world. Fortunately for the world, Hensel ignored him and published some of her music, which became so popular that Felix was forced to admit he was wrong.

Hensel never did get the opportunity to publish all the music she had written–and she had written a lot: over 450 works! But more and more people have heard of her these days, and music by her is being discovered all the time. I can only hope that one day, all of Hensel’s music will be easy to find and her name will be well known by all fans of classical music, not just History Hunters.

Here’s “September: At the River” from Hensel’s Das Jahr (The Year), considered her “most important piano work” (FannyHensel.de):

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel: A Life of Music within Domestic Limits by Eugene Gates
Fanny Hensel born Mendelssohn at FannyHensel.de
Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel at The Library of Congress’ Performing Arts Encyclopedia
Fanny Mendelssohn at the Encyclopædia Britannica
Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel at Naxos.com
Image source: Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel – Nocturne en sol mineur

Music for the Road

I love human ingenuity. Seeing people be creative is a 100% guaranteed way to make me happy. And if people are being creative and musical at the same time? All the better!

While I definitely need to stick a “Kids (and adults!), don’t try this at home” advisory on this video, I still can’t help but be delighted by the idea of a mobile rock band! Now if only they were wearing helmets….

Mary Travers Bolduc

History Hunt: Mary Travers Bolduc

This week’s featured musician on History Hunt was actually suggested by my mother! Since it was her birthday yesterday (Happy birthday, Mom!), I thought that sharing her idea today would be a good idea.

Incidentally, if you have an artist you’d like to see featured and you’re not my mother, Patrons who pledge at least $3 per History Hunt post can submit an artist for me to research and write about. Check out the above link for more information!

And now here’s our artist of the week, who, like Chiquinha Gonzaga, is not as well known in the English-speaking world as she ought to be.

Mary Rose Anne Travers Bolduc (known as Mary Travers at birth) was born June 4, 1894 in the small Québec village of Newport. Her mother was French-Canadian and her father was Irish-Canadian, and so she grew up immersed in both cultures.

Her family was very poor, not the least because she lived with five siblings and six half-siblings. Her parents couldn’t afford music lessons, but luckily, her father knew how to play many of the traditional instruments of Québec: the fiddle, accordion, harmonica, jaw harp–and spoons! As Bolduc’s first and only music teacher, he shared all he knew. She also learned to sing, including in a particular style known as turlutage, or “mouth music.” Nonsense words are used as part of the song being sung, a bit like scat singing in jazz. Turlutage later became Bolduc’s trademark–but not at this point in her life!

Bolduc only went to school long enough to learn to read and write in French and to study some of the basics of her Catholic faith. Soon enough, she needed to leave school to help her parents with their chores. She also helped out in a different way–by the time she was twelve, she was not only cooking at her father’s lumberjack camp, but she was playing the accordion in the evenings to help keep everyone’s spirits up.

Not long after that, though, Bolduc needed to follow in the footsteps of her older siblings. Twelve children were far too many for her parents to feed, and so as each child reached their teenaged years, they would leave home and take a job somewhere else to support themselves. Bolduc was only thirteen when her older half-sister, Mary-Ann, found Bolduc a job as a maid in the big city of Montréal.

Though Bolduc was used to working hard, that didn’t mean her new life was easy. She worked very long hours for very little money. After a while, she left her job and found another one in a textile factory. Her new job was no easier than the last, but here she made four times her previous salary–which unfortunately still wasn’t much money at all.

When she was twenty, Bolduc married Édouard Bolduc, a plumber who played the violin. Over the next fifteen years, Bolduc was kept busy with caring for the children they had together, though she never forgot her music. When she could, she would entertain them with the music she had learned as a girl–and at least two of them must have been paying attention, because her daughters Denise and Lucienne later became musicians as well.

She and her husband also hosted get-togethers where she and her friends would all play music together. It was thanks to one of these evenings that Bolduc had her first big break. When a fiddle-player in the show Veillées du bon vieux temps (An Evening With the Good Old Days) couldn’t make it, Bolduc was asked to fill in. She was so popular that she soon was playing regularly for the show, not only on fiddle, but on the jaw harp and even as an actor!

Mary Bolduc and her fiddle

Mary Bolduc and her fiddle, courtesy of Gérard Dicks Pellerin.

The next year, she had her first radio appearance, singing folk songs with the Monument-National orchestra. She was so popular, the audience asked for multiple encores, and after that, in 1929, she made her very first record with the song “Y’a longtemps que je couche par terre” (“I’ve Been Sleeping on the Ground For a Long Time”) on one side and a dance on the other.

Unfortunately, this record wasn’t a success, but Bolduc didn’t give up. She wrote a comic song called “La cuisinière” (“The Cook”), and with it, she became a star. She sold 12 000 copies of the record in Québec alone! It might not sound like much by today’s standards, but this was a tremendous achievement, as this was during the Great Depression, when poverty had hit many people hard. Bolduc’s music let people laugh and forget for a little while all the hardship in their lives, and so it seems many people put together what money they could to share in Bolduc’s music.

Suddenly, for the first time in her life, Bolduc had enough money–more than enough money! Below is a dramatisation of what that meant for her, produced as part of the CBC’s Heritage Minutes series:

After the success of “La cuisinière,” Bolduc’s record company expected her to produce a record every month. That meant she needed to write a song every two weeks! But Bolduc was more than up to the challenge: she wrote about all kinds of subjects that ordinary citizens could identify with. She also wrote about the politics of her day and about her own opinions, which included the subject of women’s rights. Strangely, for such an independent and determined woman, she seemed to believe that a woman’s place was in the home, and she wasn’t shy about telling people what they should do!

Her first concert where she received top billing was in November 1930, and not long after that, she went on tour throughout Québec, Ontario, and even the United States! She travelled with a group that included not only another musician but comedians as well, and was very popular. It was at this time she earned the nickname “La Bolduc” (“The Bolduc”). While nowadays it’s used as a term of respect, it was seen as only partially complimentary in her time. Mary Bolduc actually hated the nickname and even wrote a song about how displeased she was by it.

As the 1930s went on and jazz and pop replaced folk music as public favourites, Bolduc’s popularity began to fade. She still was able to make a good living touring, though, and now she’s very highly regarded as either the first or one of the first of Québec’s chansonnières (singer-songwriters). Many folksingers have credited her with influencing their style, and even with creating this entire variety of Québec folk music. I very much doubt Bolduc would have expected that!

Here’s one of the songs she wrote to encourage people during the Great Depression, “Ça va venir découragez-vous pas” (more or less, “It’s Going To Happen; Don’t Be Discouraged”). In it, she talks about all the things that are going wrong in her life, but adds that she’s still happy anyway.

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
Madame Édouard Bolduc (Mary Rose Anne Travers) on Library and Archives Canada
Madame Mary Travers Bolduc at the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame
Mme Ed. Bolduc at Québec Info Musique.com (Site in French)
La Bolduc at Historica Canada (Note: References to sexism in link.)
La Bolduc at Wikipedia.org

Musical Birds and Beasts: Elephant Edition!

As I’d already discovered, it isn’t only humans who love music: birds and animals love it, too! Last time, we looked at small fans of music. This time, here’s a pair of very large music-lovers!

Eleanor Bartsch was warming up for a concert at the Circus World Museum in Wisconsin. While she was playing Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor, she noticed that she had acquired a rather unusual audience…one that wasn’t shy about dancing in public, either!

It’s so great to make a connection with others through music, whether they’re human or not. I hope to be able to feature more of these delightful moments on my blog in the future!