by Rachel Segal
Author: Beth Dzwil
by Mimi Morris Kim
The first time I performed the Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847) String Quartet in Eb with the Fairmount String Quartet, we performed it alongside her more famous brother Felix’s brilliant quartet in D major. I was a little worried that Hensel’s quartet would suffer by comparison. Felix’s is a virtuosic romp. The writing is facile and flashy and very idiomatic to the instruments, so easier to play than it sounds. Fanny’s is weirder. Emotionally fraught and almost grotesque at times it can seem unwieldy as a performer in both its emotional directness and its technical demands. Yet after the performance, audience member after audience member told us how they were affected by it, how it spoke to them.
Mendelssohn Hensel’s music was generally not written for publication. That would have been unseemly for a woman of her social stature. This quartet received only one performance in her lifetime in a private family salon concert. Unlike her brother, she was not writing for the musical world. She was not writing for the academy. Instead, this work is a more personal and direct expression of a remarkable woman. As I performed and recorded it, I could sense the volatile emotions that must have been very close to the surface in a woman whose monumental talent was always pushed aside in favor of her little brother. Fanny did not have to write to the tastes of the public. She wrote for herself and we, nearly 200 years later are the lucky beneficiaries of her expression. Interestingly, both of the Mendelssohns described their fascination with the late Beethoven quartets and cite them as the inspiration for their quartet writing. At least to me, it seems that Fanny gets closer to the interior and forceful world of Beethoven. But maybe we shouldn’t compare her to any male composers. She was enough. More than enough.
Singer, composer, pianist, mother to five children with three different men; wife to four husbands, two of whom were brothers; lived in New York, Paris, Coswig, Germany, and Caracas; performed for two Presidents at the White House; has a book written about her. Meet Teresa Carreño, international superstar and absolute legend of the 19th century.
Born on this day in 1853 to a father from a musical family and a mother whose cousin was the wife of Simón Bolivar, María Teresa Gertrudis de Jesús Carreño García was an internationally recognized pianist, soprano, composer, and conductor. Over the course of her 54-year concert career, she became an internationally renowned virtuoso pianist and was often referred to as the “Valkyrie of the Piano”.
Her family was exiled and moved to NYC in 1862, where she soon made her debut on piano at age 8. Soon she was performing all over the east coast and performed for Abraham Lincoln at the White House.
In 1966 the family moved again, to Paris, where she studied voice with Rossini and began to perform in operas. She returned to NYC again with a performance troupe to perform the role of Zerlina in Don Giovanni. In this troupe she met and fell in love with Emile Sauret, a violinist, and the first of her four husbands. They had one daughter, Emilita, who they quickly turned over to a friend so that they could continue performing. The daughter was eventually adopted by the friend.
After divorcing Sauret, she became the common-law wife of Giovanni Tagliapietra. They had three children, two of which became musicians. She kept performing and showcasing her own works and works of her peers, which was common practice at that time. In 1885 she returned to Caracas with the intention of establishing a music conservatory and an opera company. But political unrest, unreliable musicians, and other factors got in the way.
In 1889, she debuted with the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Gustav F. Kogel at the Singakademie, performing Edvard Grieg‘s Piano Concerto, Schumann’s Symphonic Studies, Op. 13, and Weber’s Polonaise brillante (arr. Franz Liszt). Around 1890, Carreño met Scottish-born German pianist and composer Eugen d’Albert. Their musical friendship turned romantic and by late 1891 they moved into a home, which they named Villa Teresa in Coswig. They were married on July 27, 1892, and had two daughters. They often appeared on the same program and Carreño began performing works by d’Albert, including his Piano Concerto no. 2, Op. 12. D’Albert’s controlling nature eventually was too much for Carreño, and they divorced in 1895. Two years later she was reunited with Arturo Tagliapietra, the brother of her second husband, whom she married in 1902.
Carreño returned to the United States in 1897 to an adoring public. She performed all over the East Coast as a solo artist and with orchestra under the batons of Edvard Greig and Gustav Mahler, among others. The Hartford Courant wrote of her: “Teresa Carreno the piano virtuoso, made her first appearance today at the Philharmonic Concert, Carnegie Hall, under the baton of Anton Seidl. Her magnificent technique displayed to the highest degree the marvelous sonority of the Knabe piano, upon which she played, and she received one of the greatest ovations of the season.”
Henry Wood wrote that “It is difficult to express adequately what all musicians felt about this great woman who looked like a queen among pianists – and played like a goddess. The instant she walked onto the platform her steady dignity held her audience who watched with riveted attention while she arranged the long train she habitually wore. Her masculine vigour [sic.] of tone and touch and her marvelous precision on executing octave passages carried everyone completely away.” It is worth mentioning that in 1897 it was a compliment to describe a woman as having “masculine vigor.” Luckily, that practice has ended.
She spent the remainder of her career performing across Europe and the US, and finally performed again at the White House for Woodrow Wilson. She became ill and passed away at age 63 in NYC at 740 West End Ave, where there is a plaque commemorating her.
She composed approximately 75 works for piano, voice and piano, choir and orchestra, chamber music, and several merengues, incorporating the form as an interlude in some of her pieces (for example, in her piece entitled Un Bal en Rêve), and recorded over 40 works for the “reproducing piano” or player piano.
There is a children’s book about her called “Dancing Hands, how Teresa Carreno played the piano for Abraham Lincoln” by Margarita Engle that won the Pura Belpre award in 2020.
It is hard to imagine a life lived so fully in a time that so strictly controlled women. Teresa Carreño’s grit, determination, and belief in herself are inspiring, and come across in her music. The String Quartet in b minor, which will be on the Fairmount String Quartet’s upcoming album, is a work every bit as intense and passionate as she was.
Happy Birthday to The Valkyrie of the Piano.
Composed in 1896, the Fantasiestücke of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, composed when he was just 21, is both an homage to Schumann and a heralding of the prodigious talents of the young composer. Coleridge-Taylor was of mixed race, born to an Englishwoman and a West African father. He had a conventional British music education and was mentored by Charles Villiers Stanford and promoted by Edward Elgar. He was fascinated by the United States since his father was descended by slaves freed by the British during the American revolution, who returned to Africa. Coleridge-Taylor attended the first pan -African conference in London where he met W.E.B. DuBois, and he toured the US on multiple occasions and was hosted at the White House by Teddy Roosevelt. His musical interests thus extended to 3 continents and he strove to musically bring together the various threads of his heritage. His music was popular and frequently performed in his lifetime, but his untimely death, at the age of 37, perhaps kept it from staying in the mainstream repertoire.
The Fairmount String Quartet will perform Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s “Fantasiestücke” on February 26 and February 27, 2022.
“The Lark” quartet by Franz Joseph Haydn was one of the ﬁrst string quartets I studied as a music student. In 2009, I was commissioned by Jeanne Ruddy Dance to write an electronic piece loosely based on this quartet. I was excited to pay homage to my classical training as well as interpret this masterpiece through the lens of my musical language. This reimagining would also allow the dancers do the same. We had a wonderful run of performances at the Performance Garage in Philadelphia, and I had the intention of returning to the electronic score to make a version for string quartet but never did. With the pandemic of 2020-21, I, like many people, felt depleted as I wrestled with the shutdown. It was a perfect time to reﬂect on my past and revive this work for string quartet.
When composing the electronic version, I was working with students on a remix project that would become the accompaniment for a digital projection. I took the same remix approach and listened for short mannerisms or phrases from the Haydn which could be reinterpreted. You will hear the “lark” theme but may have to study the score to ﬁnd other references. For example, the harmonic progression of the original “Adagio Cantabile” movement has been stretched over time to explore the complexities of each note of the harmony and the “Minuet and Trio” form was loosely interpreted with an asymmetrical meter in a jazz style. In all, the string quartet version is yet another version of this piece since some electronic sounds originally used were not possible on strings and all tracks had to be distilled down to four voices. As we near the spring of 2021 and the possibility of vaccines, this second reimagining has been a positive companion during a time of uncertainty, and the original string quartet remains a reminder of beauty and grace in our changing world.
Note: The Fairmount String Quartet will be performing the first and last movements of “Lark Dances” on June 16th and 26th, 2021.
Photo by Julia Lehman