Piano music from paradise, written by a woman

Peaceful night, peaceful dreams. © Charles Thibo

Night has fallen. Does it get dark in paradise? I wonder. I haven’t come across a writer who has reflected the daily business of life in paradise. Does it ever get dark? Do people sleep occasionally? Do they have to get up early? Perhaps for one more tedious lyra lesson?

The French composer Marie Jaëll imagined what Dante Alighieri might have heard long ago in paradise: a solo pianist playing six miniatures expressing appeasement, heavenly voices, a hymn, solemn silence, recollection, contemplation. These six pieces are part of a cycle of 18 pieces reflecting the music in hell, in the purgatory and in heaven as Dante has imagined it. The last set of six pieces are heavenly music no doubt, and it has become most urgent that I present this remarkable composer to you. Here is an impromptu or a nocturne, whatever may suit you better, inspired by this wonderful composer.

Working with Liszt

Marie Jaëll lived between 1846 and 1925. She was a respected French pianist, composer and teacher; she wrote pieces for piano, concertos and quartets. And if I had not read a review about Corsa Irsen’s project to record all of Jaëll’s piano works – it would have been a shame. The six pieces are very lyrical, and if these are representative of her style… well, I hear an echo of Franz Schubert’s Lieder in her piano pieces, or rather an echo of Franz Liszt’s transcriptions of Schubert’s Lieder. Jaëll’s maiden name was Trautmann, so she must have had German-speaking ancestors. Lets see…

As a matter of fact Jaëll’s father was the mayor of an Alsacian town, and young Marie studied the piano with Ignaz Moscheles in Stuttgart. At the age of eight, she gave her first concerts in Germany and Switzerland. Two years later, she began to study with the piano teacher Heinrich Herz at the Paris Conservatory. In 1868 Jaëll met the composer and pianist Franz Liszt. “[She] has the brains of a philosopher and the fingers of an artist”, he wrote in an article. I take that as a compliment. From 1882 on Jaëll would spent several weeks each year at Weimar, where she performed at his “Musicales” and did secretarial work.

While Jaëll has entered the books of music history for her systematic study of piano teaching and her pedagogical innovations based on the physiology of the hand, her compositions are worth to be rediscovered. The 18-pieces-cycle is an exceptional work, and Marie Jaëll a pathfinder for impressionist composers like Claude Debussy. Behind every ingenous man there is an ingenious woman.

© Charles Thibo

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