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The University of Southampton

Creating Something Out of Something: The Lady Pianist’s Reworking of Favorite Melodies in England and America, 1790-1840 Seminar

25 March 2014
Room 1083 Building 2 Highfield Campus SO17 1BJ

For more information regarding this seminar, please telephone Hettie Malcomson on 023 8059 4400 or email .

Event details

Part of the Music Research seminar series

Can we apply the word "original" to one of many keyboard pieces built on such meaningful British songs as “Oft in the Stilly Night”? Must an intricate and surprising elaboration on the Irish theatre melody “Pray Goody” be relegated to the ghetto of what Thackeray referred to as “the old clothes men of music?” In The True Rights of Women of 1844, American commentator Park Benjamin, Sr. asserted that compositional genius arises only in “creating something out of nothing,” an ability he claimed women essentially lacked, although he generously argued that they possessed the instinct (or “talent”) to build upon pre-existing material.

This talk will use a compelling selection of four variation sets to reveal what was possible when accomplished women keyboardists, from prodigious “lady organist” Martha Greatorex of Leicester to A Lady of Philadelphia, made inventive use of “favorite airs" and "most popular numbers.” The products, demonstrated with recorded examples played by Dr. Montgomery on early English pianos, provide a valuable showcase for the technical, improvisational, and compositional expertise to be found amidst a mostly female populace of drawing room keyboardists. They further vivify a number of double binds that plagued nineteenth-century domestic music making: such dualities as complex/simple, brilliant/easy, composed/arranged, monumental/diminutive, edifying/entertaining, professional/amateur, cultivated/vernacular, and, for women especially, sanctioned/inappropriate. When considered through these tensions, we see the unique place of the variation genre, an unusual avenue for virtuosic display and invention in the domestic realm.

Speaker information

Vivian Montgomery, Brandeis University. Fulbright Senior Researcher

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