Portrait of an Unknown Composer and Pianist

Cora Irsen: Die charmante Unbekannte – Marie Jaëll. ISBN 978-3-7374-0241-5. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Those of you who follow my music blog are aware of the fact that I am currently promoting female composers to do justice to their undeniable talent and to reflect a more accurate picture of music history. The dominance of male composers from the 17th century until today may reflect men’s dominance in society, but intellectual integrity commands me to present the other facet of the creative process in music.

The German pianist Cora Irsen (born in 1974) has championed the cause of the French pianist and composer Marie Jaëll. She has recorded all of Jaëll’s piano works and through arduous research work compiled a small, but highly instructive biography. Let me just sketch a few highlight’s of Jaëll’s life: She was born in eastern France (Alsace), a region traditionally bilingual (French/German). She was a child prodigy and performed as a young girl works by Ludwig van Beethoven and Robert Schumann. Later she became acquainted with Franz Liszt and Camille de Saint-Saëns, two composers that encouraged her to become a professional composer.

As long as Marie was married to Albert Jaëll, a virtuosic pianist and a friend of both Liszt and Saint-Saëns, she would however stick to her pianist career; husband and wife would often perform together. The French-Prussian war in 1870/71, the loss of Alsace to Germany and the humiliation of France put Marie Jaëll at the centre of a personal dilemma: Can you love German music when German troops occupy your home country? She would stay away from Germany from some time, but another dilemma occupied her mind: Performing with her husband kept her from composing.

After the death of her husband, Marie Jaëll was free to embark on a new life and I will stop here, otherwise you will have no reason to read the book or to follow my posts about Marie Jaëll on my music blog. What is remarkable about Jaëll is her passion, the courage she mustered to pursue her dream in a society that frowned upon the strange relationship between Marie and Albert, an intellectual and an emotional one, and who must have frowned even more upon the liberty Marie claimed for herself to associate with other male composers and the intimate friendship she developed with some like Liszt, who not only was a composer and star pianist, but also an ordained priest.

Cora Irsen has rendered musicologists and music students a great service in digging through Marie Jaëll’s correspondence and diaries to investigate the life of an exceptional woman. A woman celebrated at her time, but quickly forgotten after her death. One of Jaëll’s masterworks is a piano cycle inspired from Dante Alighieri’s “Divina Commedia”:

Piano music from paradise, written by a woman

2 thoughts on “Portrait of an Unknown Composer and Pianist”

  1. Well, I’d like to know that myself… You can blame the EU for a lot of thinks, but in this case I believe she’s innocent! 😊

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