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

Robespierre – the face of the Terror

Max Gallo: L’homme Robespierre. Histoire d’une solitude. ISBN 978-2-262-02863-3 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️Maximilien de Robespierre is one of the great names linked to the French Revolution. His name stands for demagogic speeches and bloodshed; already shortly before his own execution, he had become a scapegoat for the indiscriminate violence accompanying the revolt against the nobility and the fight against anyone deemed opposed to the revolution – the Terror. And that is what Robespierre’s name stands for until today.

The brilliant French writer and historian Max Gallo traces a portrait of the man Robespierre behind the politician Robespierre – at times ironic, but usually well researched. Robespierre appears as a man constantly looking to bolster his ego, nothing seems more important than the recognition by his peers. Gallo defines the disappearance of Robespierre’s father as the source of the man’s emotional vulnerability and his vanity. At the same time Robespierre is convinced of the rightness of his principles and ideas – a dangerous mix leading to the catastrophic “collateral damages” of the French Revolution.

Now, if Gallo’s typology reminds you of the current US president, you would do Robespierre unjustice. Robespierre, a well-read man, had consistent political ideas, a strict sense of duty and was called “The Incorruptible”. Mastering the challenge to rise from being an unknown provincial lawyer to becoming the head and face of the French Revolution fueled his arrogance, no doubt, but at the same time it was a great personal achievement. Trump, the son of a rich father, did nothing of that sort and his vanity is self-serving. Trump has no other policy than promoting Trump. Robespierre was an idealist politician, a relentless agitator ready to sacrifice himself to empower ordinary people. Trump is a salesman for his own interests, ready to sacrifice anyone else for his personal desire for power. Trumpesque.

The French Revolution and later European revolutions around 1848 had lasting impressions on artists in Germany, France and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. In this context I would like to point you to a piano cycle named “Hexaméron” and composed by Franz Liszt, a sympathizer of German and Italian revolutionaries, a musical genius and at times a very arrogant man:

Liszt gives the “Young Italians” a voice

Liszt – Pathfinder in the post-Romantic era

Michael Stegemann: Franz Liszt – Genie im Abseits. ISBN 978-3-492-05429-4 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ What a man! What a book! This biography presents the life and works of the composer Franz Liszt in many fascinating details and highlights the avantgardistic ideas he had about music. The number of enemies he made and the (flimsy) aesthetic arguments his enemies put forward to discredit Liszt’s music is a solid testimony of the composer’s forsight about the post-Romantic development of music. Arguments one hears again a century and a half later about the Neue Musik, classical compositions of the 20th and 21st century. Most interesting is also the description of Liszt’s ambivalent relationship to his son-in-law, Richard Wagner, and the fact that he supported many young composers and pianists with sound advice, with money and with opportunities to perform and thus forge a reputation of their own. Highly recommended reading for anyone interested in music history!

A symphonic poem written by Franz Liszt that I truly love despite the ambivalent feelings it triggers is Les Préludes:

How  a Romantic composer got hijacked by the Nazis

Dealing with Liszt’s genius and his critics

Jacques Drillon: Liszt transcripteur – Schubert et l’infini.
ISBN 978-2742-5463-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ A book for music enthusiasts only, very focused, well researched and extremely well written about Liszt’s excellence in transforming orchestral or chamber music into pieces for the piano and Schubert’s many unfinished works. Grillon is not afraid of stepping on the toes of world-class musicians, music critics and musicologists where they deserve it. He is French, after all!

One of Franz Liszt’s masterworks is the piano cycle “Années de Pélerinage:

Pilgrimage to Switzerland and Italy

Franz Schubert wrote a magnificent quartet called “Death and the Maiden”:

Composing while death is knocking on the door