Éva Gauthier (1885-1958): Pioneer of 20th Century Music (Part 2)

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Eva Gauthier spent the summers of 1922 and 1923 in Europe, studying voice with Anna Schoen-René in Berlin, renewing her acquaintance with composers and colleagues in Paris and London, and replenishing her library with new scores. When she prepared her annual New York recital for the fall of 1923, she chose an eclectic program which not only ran the gamut of styles from Purcell and Bellini to Schoenberg and Milhaud (with several first performances included), but also featured the first appearance of popular American songs in a recital program.

To accompany her in this last group she engaged the 25-year-old George Gershwin. In 1923 Gershwin was already a hit songwriter on Tin Pan Alley with the highly popular “Swanee” to his credit, but his medium of expression, then called “jazz”, was held in slight contempt by concertgoers of respectable society. On November 1, 1923, the day of the concert, two of Gauthier’s friends somehow got into Aeolian Hall and heard her rehearsing Schoenberg’s “Waldtaube” from the Gurrelieder.

“We sat in the balcony and behind us in a box were Schumann-Heink and Elena Gerhardt — They listened with keen enjoyment until you sang “Stairway to Paradise” and then they laughed — good round Teutonic laughter … my eyes were both on the stage and the box behind me. What a lovely time it was!”

According to Isaac Goldberg, Gershwin’s first biographer, “It was a strange audience that assembled on that Thursday evening; but then, no Gauthier audience was ever commonplace. There was no musical bourgeoisie; all was intelligentsia or musical slum.” As usual Gauthier had given due consideration to her concert attire and was dramatically clothed in a black velvet dress with a long train, black gloves, and enormous green ostrich feather fan and huge paste diamond earrings. She sang her first two groups devoted to “Ancient music and Modern Hungarian and German songs” by Bartok and Hindemith, accompanied by Max Jaffe at the piano. She reappeared with Gershwin, who walked nervously onto the stage carrying his bundle of scores with their garish yellow and red covers, and began her American section with a “straight” rendition of Irving Berlin’s rousing Alexander’s Ragtime Band. By the time she had completed the group with three songs by Gershwin, Innocent Ingenue Baby, Stairway to Paradise and Swanee, the audience was clamouring for more. Gauthier and Gershwin performed his Do It Again and when they had to repeat it, Gershwin almost stole the show when he inserted a quote from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade in his brilliant accompaniment.

Gauthier later recalled that when she started singing the jazz group, “The audience was so grave and so serious … I knew very definitely what I meant when I put those songs on my program, but I didn’t know how my audience would respond. I rather expected … rotten eggs.” After the concert, the throng of visitors backstage included Arthur Bliss, whose Ballads of the Four Seasons had been premiered by Gauthier and Max Jaffe. Little did Bliss realize that he himself was to accompany Gauthier in the same “jazz songs” four months later.

Most of the critics disapproved of the introduction of sophisticated jazz into the concert hall. W.H. Humiston of the Brooklyn Eagle plainly stated that “Aeolian Hall was turned for a time into a cheap vaudeville show.” Nevertheless, the composer-critic Deems Taylor not only gave an enthusiastic review of the concert in the November 2nd edition of the New York World, but wrote an even lengthier feature in the Sunday paper, declaring that “Miss Gauthier did a brave thing when she sang jazz the other night, and a thing that was worth doing.”

In the aftermath of this historic event, the big-band leader Paul Whiteman, who had attended the concert, commissioned Gershwin to write what became Rhapsody in Blue. Several of the composer’s biographers have remarked that the excitement and recognition that Gershwin gathered from Gauthier’s venture most likely contributed to his accepting the challenge to compose his first major work. Not only did Gauthier repeat her concert with Gershwin in Boston in January 1924, but they performed the same group of songs at a concert in London on May 22, 1925. On the same program Gauthier, accompanied by the pianist Ivor Newton, sang the first London performance of The Ballads of the Four Seasons by Arthur Bliss and “l’Air de l’Enfant” from Ravel’s recent opera, L’Enfant et les sortilèges. The English critics were equally adamant about the presence of “jazz” in their hallowed halls, and Gauthier had to appear in eight more London recitals that summer to appease their initial reaction.

At the end of August 1925, Edward Dent invited Gauthier to perform songs by Villa-Lobos at the Festival of the International Society of Contemporary Music, which was being held in Venice in early September. According to César Saerchinger, “Never before, except perhaps at Bayreuth in the good old days, was such an assembly of musical high-steppers seen together at a festival.” Gauthier later wrote that:

“In the Piazza one saw Richard Strauss and his slouch hat, wandering about with Olympian aloofness … Stravinsky, looking very dapper … and Arnold Schoenberg, on his honeymoon with a charming young wife, grumpy and nervous (he had lost his teeth and the new ones were not yet in place) … Toscanini, Bodanzky and countless other celebrities were on view at Florian’s, Quadri, or one of the other cafes that lined the Piazza.”

Mrs. Elizabeth Coolidge, the American patroness of chamber music, whom Gauthier had first met when she sang at the second Berkshire Festival in 1917, also attended the Venice festival, which, according to the official program, was “Under the Patronage of His Excellency, Benito Mussolini.” The performing musicians rehearsed at the Conservatory, and Gauthier recalled an incident in which Schoenberg, having been asked to terminate his rehearsal in order that the other composers be given a chance, turned around and screamed: “There are no other composers!” As Ursula Greville, the editor of the Sackbut later reported, “I am told that the divergence of opinion on the subject between Mr. Dent, the president of the association, and Mr. Schönberg is likely to become historic.”

The two major works of the Festival were Schoenberg’s Serenade for chamber orchestra and voice and Stravinsky’s Piano Sonata (1924). Gauthier sang the Epigramas Irônicos e Sentimentais and “Jouis sans retard, car vite s’écoule la vie” from Historietas by Villa-Lobos, accompanied by Alfredo Casella at the piano. César Saerchinger commented that “The Epigrams of Heitor Villa-Lobos, though only one of them was entitled Epigramme Inutil, were all that and worse.” Gauthier later recalled that “I liked them when I did them at the festival, in spite of the audience booing and showing in no uncertain manner their dislike of the compositions. However, they made me come back repeatedly to let me know they liked me.” At the close of the Festival, Toscanini was heard to remark, “Thank God it’s over! Now we can disinfect the theatre.”

After the Festival, Gauthier sang for the first time in Berlin and in Vienna. She heeded Ivor Newton’s warning not to sing her “jazz songs”: “For if you do you will be panned as sure as you love long earrings,” and chose instead a program from the Baroque and Classical repertoire, a group of Ravel songs, and contemporary vocal chamber music. She was greatly admired by many of the local critics, a number of whom remarked that her recital provided an auspicious opening to the musical season.

During the 1920s Gauthier performed in as many as 35 concerts per year, a number of which were given in collaboration with such artists as Pablo Casals, Alfred Cortot and Wanda Landowska. She also sang modern repertoire with some of the leading orchestras in the United States, under the batons of Pierre Monteux, Fritz Reiner, Alfred Hertz and Leopold Stokowski. While the composers Arthur Bliss and Colin McPhee accompanied Gauthier on her West Coast tours, her regular pianist from 1925 to 1937 was the American composer Celius Dougherty. He joined Gauthier at one of the rare concerts she gave in Canada, when she sang for the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto in 1926. Lawrence Mason of The Globe reported that her concert:

“must be described as a perfect concert. Her voice has that smoothly rounded tone in all registers … This is the sort of program for which this reviewer has been waiting and hoping; nothing trite, hackneyed, banal, but everything fresh, alive, intensely interesting and immensely worth while — a typical Gauthier program.”

When Maurice Ravel came to America in 1928, Gauthier and the French composer visited the home of Edgar Allan Poe, attended performances at the Metropolitan Opera House, and saw Gershwin’s Funny Face on Broadway starring Fred and Adele Astaire. She organized a dinner party for Ravel on March 7, to celebrate his 53rd birthday. She also invited Gershwin, whom Ravel wanted to meet. After dinner, she remembered:

“Gershwin played the Rhapsody and his entire repertoire, and fairly outdid himself … Gershwin was very anxious to work with Ravel but his answer was that it would probably cause him to write “bad Ravel” and lose his great gift of melody. I had to act as interpreter in their conversation, a most interesting task.”

Gauthier’s career had successfully progressed despite recurring financial setbacks. During the summer and fall of 1928, she made one last grand European tour, singing her classic and modern repertoire in ten major cities from Paris to Madrid. An explanation for this extravagant gesture is offered by her accompanist Celius Dougherty, who remembers that one of Gauthier’s patrons had given her a considerable amount of money to pay off her debts, which she then used for the more significant purpose of concertizing.

Accumulated fatigue and illness forced Gauthier to retire from the concert stage for a period of two years, spent mainly in Paris. When she resumed her performing career in 1931, it was intermittent and combined, out of necessity, with other remunerative activities such as teaching and broadcasting.

Throughout her career, Eva Gauthier’s annual vocal recital in New York was consistently cited as one of the most interesting of the season, at times, the only one. This was invariably due to her intelligent interpretation, refined taste, and choice of repertoire. Until her death in 1958, Eva Gauthier continued to promote the works of living composers and taught the art of programming to several generations of singers.

Ned Rorem, who accompanied her classes after the war, remembers that “Jennie Tourel would not give a concert without consulting Gauthier, not only on her repertory but also her wardrobe.” As a rule, Gauthier attended all her students’ recitals and went to concerts every night. In fact, for many New York concertgoers of the 1940s and 1950s, Eva Gauthier will always remain the legendary tiny white-haired lady with sensational hats, who regularly held court at Town Hall.

Nadia Turbide, a musicologist in Montreal, is currently writing a biography of Eva Gauthier. This article was originally published in the October 1985 issue of Music Magazine.

Read part 1 here.

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