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GP660 - CARREÑO, T.: Rêverie - Selected Music for Piano (Oehler)
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Teresa Carreño (1853–1917)
Rêverie – Selected Music for Piano


If music were nothing more than a mirror of the soul of its composer, one might have trouble finding something meaningful in any given composition. One might listen to it, revel in it, find it exceedingly beautiful (or indeed not) and marvel at the skill of its composer. Music is, however, much more than just that: music touches us, music keeps us involved. By learning more about a musical composition, we learn more about not just the composer, but also about ourselves. For, on the one hand, we are mistaken in believing that we might learn specific details about the life of a composer by looking solely at his music. On the other hand, it rarely makes sense to interpret music merely biographically. Without a doubt, composers do draw on their own life experiences and their specific cultural environment for their compositions; but it is the hallmark of great art that personal specifics are surmounted by meanings and means of expression which are of a general nature and applicable to anyone, at any time. They can thus also potentially be perceived by anyone, at any time. Not every work of music, however, will touch every human being at any given moment in the same manner or with the same degree of intensity. Our perceptions and our perceptive ability vary to an extent that remains as mysterious as the powers of expression of the music itself. The same musical composition may be perceived as superficial by one person, while another might regard it as astounding and deeply moving; a work that pleases the ear in one moment, might in the next lead the listener into pits of despair, revealing the dark night of the soul.

The fascination of Teresa Carreno’s music lies, ultimately, in how, in one so young, it can reveal both the extraordinary brilliance of the pianist and the astonishing skill of the artistically gifted composer. Above all, there is an emotional depth and an immeasurably rich tonal content to her compositions which it is hard to reconcile with her limited experience of life and her actual cultural environment. She is a young girl, from a relatively sheltered background, knowing little more than the world of the concert platform circus with its lust for child prodigies, but one which, clearly, she conquered with her child-like naïveté and her extraordinary talent. From which world her music comes and in which world we meet it remain a mystery. Let us then just call them “dream worlds” or Rêverie.

Teresa Carreño’s immense musical talent became apparent at an early age. She was born in Caracas; her father Antonio, himself the son of a composer, took great pains to maintain his skills as a pianist besides his main career in politics as Venezuela’s Minister of Finance. He thus became her first teacher, but realised soon enough that he was not able to keep up with his daughter’s rapid progress as a pianist, and also given the fact that Teresa presented her own compositions for piano as early as the age of six. The family showed extraordinary support in furthering the highly gifted Teresa’s musical education, moving even to New York in 1862 (the move was, however, also a result of political changes taking place in Venezuela) in order to enable her to receive both an adequate musical education and pave the way for an international career and to give her the opportunity to perform in renowned concert halls. Teresa’s début at Irving Hall during the same year did not go unnoticed by the great pianist and composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829–1869), who henceforth gave her lessons. Teresa’s first published composition is dedicated to him: The Gottschalk Waltz, Op 1 [10], an upbeat, lively waltz featuring several episodes and a surprisingly long introduction, which at one point appears to be already moving into the waltz proper but then proceeds to a prelude-like pyrotechnical display for the piano. Carreño knows all the typical features of a lively waltz; it hardly surprises, however, that she is familiar with the stylistic features of sophisticated salon music and knows the waltz idiom by heart, given that, as a concert pianist, she was used to playing to the musical tastes of her contemporary audiences. Rêverie-Impromptu Op 3, Caprice-Études Nos 1, Op 4 and 2, Op 6, on the other hand, come as more of a surprise: previously unknown (these are not even mentioned in the list of works referenced in Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart), these compositions not only demand a high level of skill on the part of the performer, they are also perfect examples of Carreño’s own characteristic, melancholy tone. The Rêverie-Impromptu, Op 3 [4], for example, begins with an extended, deeply sad yet stoically forward-moving hymn. Before this song of mourning starts out on a second, even more sorrowful stanza, Teresa Carreño leads the listener, for the duration of a cantabile mid section, into the light dream-world of her wonderfully expansive melodies; it is in these melodies that the repressed emotion of the almost apathetic, resigned hymn finds its release. Such sublimely uplifting moments in the midst of sorrowful melancholia can be found in almost all of Teresa Carreño’s piano music. Another example can be found in the A flat minor Caprice-Étude No 1, Op 4 [2], which makes abundant use of black piano keys before reverting several times to a lighter A flat major tonality. The dark minor tonality, however, is not so easily displaced; it wins out time and again. In this composition, Carreño comes maybe closest to Chopin, with whom she shares more than just a liking for an abundance of flats and sharps. The Caprice-Étude No 2, Op 6 [6] is a virtuoso tour de force. Here Teresa Carreño does not ease up on the pianist: cascades of octaves, thirds, glissandi and arpeggios across the whole keyboard release the tension set up by the dark E minor tonal frame—and again, an indescribable pan towards E major soothes the raging torrent. The following passages come across as variations of this song. They result finally in an Allegretto con brio, which dissolves all suspended notes and chords in pulsating, vibrating repetitions. Finally, the rather innocent Impromptu, Op 5, ‘Une larme’ [9], composed by the nine-year-old Teresa, is again framed by a hymn. The plaintive melodies retain a child-like naïveté and display a natural, subtly sentimental charm.

Teresa Carreño followed up the successful series of New York concerts with twelve sold-out performances in Boston in the following year. Enchanted critics celebrated the nine-year-old girl, who had trouble climbing onto the piano stool but then brilliantly performed compositions by both her teacher and Franz Liszt, surpassing the virtuoso-composers themselves. Her first public performance with an orchestra, for which she was awarded the renowned medal of the Philharmonic Society, occurred only hours after a solo recital. Another highlight of her early career was a performance for Abraham Lincoln at the White House, which vividly stayed in her memory: “The president and his family received us so informally and were so nice to me that I almost forgot to be cranky”—in spite of quite adverse circumstances: “the stool was unsuitable, the pedals were beyond reach, and when I had run my fingers over the keyboard, the action was too hard.” When, additionally, her father suggested she play a Bach invention, she rebelled. Even the titles of the works she played—Marche de Nuit, The Dying Poet and The Last Hope—give us a sense of how she must have driven her father into the utmost despair with her choice of gloomy music. Still, she managed to earn the praise of Lincoln, with whose request to perform a series of variations she complied with frightening intensity. The anecdote reveals something, perhaps, of the character and disposition of the artist and is at the same time a testament to her predilection for for a melancholic, tragic tone.

In rapid succession Teresa Carreño conquered the concert halls of Havana, London and Paris. She travelled extensively, and her life at this point must have been full of exciting experiences and adventure: crossing the Atlantic Ocean, Teresa and her parents narrowly escaped a naval accident. The family finally settled in Paris, an ideal environment for the aspiring pianist. Unable to enter the Conservatoire, she was able never-the-less to study with Georges Matthias, a Chopin student. She performed for both Gioachino Rossini and Franz Liszt; she met with eminent musicians such as Charles Gounod and Camille Saint-Saëns, and Anton Rubinstein himself insisted on giving her lessons, and even later on he was to hold her in high regard. Her repertoire by this point included works by Beethoven and Chopin; apart from that she mainly performed opera paraphrases, as was customary for a pianist of her time. She also presented her own compositions in many concerts, which appear very sophisticated considering her young age. A considerable number of her compositions date from this incredibly productive, incredibly busy period of her life, and were consequently published in the late 1860s and early 1870s, even before her twentieth birthday. It does not come as a surprise that these early compositions all require a highly skilled performer, given Teresa Carreño’s own considerable technical skills. The emotional depth of her compositions, however, manages to surprise time and again: It almost appears as if the life experiences of the following, turbulent years already resonate in these piano compositions; as if her music already foreshadows the tragic loss of her father, the premature death of her children and her failed marriages.

In 1873 Teresa Carreño married her chamber music partner, the violinist Émile Sauret and in the following year gave birth to her daughter Emilia. She dedicated the Nocturne, Op 10, “Souvenirs de mon pays” [1] to her beloved daughter. The Nocturne is characterized by a simple, moving melody in C minor, which reappears in constant metamorphosis. This is typical of her work: very often, the melodies start out with one idea, digress from it, return to it, elaborate it, add diverse accompaniments, clothe it in different harmonies or move it to distant tonalities. The musical setting will reach out and become richer; often, one has trouble figuring out which parts best to follow in listening. All of this is not an artificial counterpoint, but a fascinating game with the possibilities the piano has to offer as regards the unfolding of rich chord and linear progressions.

Sauret left his wife only a year later; Teresa gave her daughter into the care of a London friend, a decision she was later to regret deeply, and married the second of her four husbands, the Italian baritone (and womaniser) Giovanni Tagliapietra. They probably met as a consequence of her short, but very successful career as an opera singer—she did, after all, appear as Zerbinetta in Mozart’s Don Giovanni in New York in 1876. Some of her charming, bel canto-style melodies reveal the opera singer, and her elaborate ornamentations are sometimes reminiscent of aria coloraturas. The last of the Six Mélodies pour le Pianoforte: ‘Plaintes au bord d’une tombe’, Op 22 [8] even features a duet between the tenor and soprano part; this duet is accompanied by insistent funeral march rhythms and sinister bass trills reminiscent of rolls on a kettledrum. The sound of the kettledrum is not the only orchestral sound evoked by Carreño’s colourful piano music. The movement starts out with harp imitations (Preludiando ed imitando il arpa), and one is inclined to make out sorrowful bassoon sounds as well as an emotive brass hymn (‘religioso’). This frighteningly depressing movement is twice held together by the thread of only a single note, before the final chord in D minor immerses us in fathomless depths.

The birth of three children (in 1878, 1882 and 1885) did not deter Teresa Carreño from actively supporting the establishment of a music conservatory in her home country; she furthermore headed an opera company, worked as a substitute conductor and performed piano music in between acts; and she was asked to compose a patriotic choral work for Simón Bolívar (which was to have its première, however, not at his centenary but two years later, re-dedicated to President Joaquín Crespo). Her ambitious activities in Venezuela—and the capricious lifestyle of her husband—caused Teresa great financial difficulties, and after her return to the United States and Europe, she was not to revisit her home town of Caracas ever again. A move to Berlin proved to be advantageous to her career; here, she made her début at the Singakademie in 1889. Apart from going on concert tours through Germany and Russia, she was now again able to dedicate herself to her own piano and composition practice. Here she met the only one of her husbands who proved to be her equal. After her divorce from Tagliapietra in 1891, she married the renowned pianist and composer Eugène d’Albert (who was himself married six times) in 1892, and lived with him in the Villa Teresa in Kötitz, Saxony (now Coswig), where she gave birth to two daughters. In 1895, when this marriage also failed, she went on a solitary retreat for one whole summer. The String Quartet in B minor, perhaps Teresa Carreño’s most sophisticated work, was to be one result of this reclusive period. Undoubtedly she would have had the capability to leave behind a much greater musical legacy, yet, as a nineteenth-century female composer, she faced certain restrictions as to the musical genres she was able to compose in. Apart from this one exception, and a serenade for strings which has, however, been lost, her legacy must thus consist of her performances, her compositions and her other musical activities. The string quartet was published in the following year and first performed at the Leipzig Neue Gewandhaus in 1884. She herself was present at this memorable concert on 18 December 1897, supporting the Brodsky-Quartet at the Bechstein grand piano in their performance of Sinding’s Piano Quintet in E minor, Op 5. The building in which Teresa performed burned down in February 1944 as a consequence of the World War Two bombings, but the present recording from the Mendelssohn-Saal of the present Gewandhaus, which was opened in 1981 as the only newly erected concert hall of the GDR, achieves the closest possible proximity to the same esteemed institution which allowed Teresa Carreño one of the most important, if not the most important, public appearance of her career as a composer. One can even draw a connection between Carreño and Mendelssohn himself, the patron and most important of the early Gewandhaus Kapellmeisters. The tone of some of her compositions is reminiscent of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, the Elégie in F sharp major [7] being a case in point, in which song melodies meander through all parts of the fascinatingly multi-layered musical setting. As a virtuoso pianist accompanied by orchestra, Carreño had had phenomenal success with Mendelssohn’s Capriccio brillant (and her first husband Émile Sauret based his early success on a performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in Berlin).

By now Teresa Carreño’s repertoire consisted of numerous works by Edward MacDowell and Eugène d’Albert as well as the great concertos by Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Beethoven, Grieg, Saint-Saëns and Rubinstein; her world-wide concert tours led her as far as Australia and New Zealand. In 1902 she married once more—the younger brother of her second husband, Arturo Tagliapietra (who had been part of her household with Giovanni since 1888). The outbreak of World War One forced her to move to the United States in 1916. In the same year she was invited to the White House for a second time to give a Christmas concert for Woodrow Wilson. Until her death at the age of 64 following a short period of illness, Teresa Carreño worked on her only book project, which was published posthumously in 1919, a study on the Possibilities of Tone Colour by Artistic Use of Pedals. Indeed, all of her works feature detailed annotations as regards a very differentiated use of both pedals. Other carefully laid-out performance instructions include: the distribution of hands, dynamics, articulation and ornamentation, retardation (rubato) and acceleration. Carreño’s scores are especially full of character notes: the smallest figures, and seemingly secondary phrases are marked by expressions such as ‘espressivo’, ‘leggierissimo’ or ‘con grazia’, and there is hardly a melody that is not further specified by a ‘dolce e ben sentito’, ‘cantando’ or ‘misterioso’. It appears as if she is deeply concerned about achieving an emotionally charged performance—this may indeed also have been one of her own strengths as a pianist. Critics remarked favourably not just on her virtuosity but characterized her as playing ‘with true expression’, even calling her ‘a talking player’, and her recordings from 1905 on the Welte-Mignon Piano corroborate this admirably.

Teresa Carreño’s life story offered many reasons for wanting to leave reality behind and escape into a world of dreams. Rêverie is for her surely more than a merely accidental title, promising soundscapes that are not of this world or that serve as a means of escape from this world. The atmosphere of her dream worlds may be generally dark, but every now and then, an uplifting ray of light enters. Speculation that the Marche funèbre, Op 11 [5] might be connected to her father’s death in August 1874, or as to which friend may have been accompanied into death with her Prière, Op 12, ‘improvisée [auprès les] derniers moments d’un ami’ (Andante religioso) [3] is pointless. Both pieces open with the same fateful funeral march rhythm. While the prayer soon moves into a consoling song, perhaps indulging—elegy-like—in happy memories, the Marche funèbre by contrast returns—after mystically elevated passages reaching out as far as a distant B major, and a short metamorphosis of the march theme into a triumphal march—to the gloomy chords of the beginning. If, at the end of this Marche funèbre, ‘Fine’ is marked in Teresa Carreño’s careful handwriting, one cannot help but surmise a metaphorical as well as a literal meaning.

Ann-Katrin Zimmermann
English Translation by Susanne Jung

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