In 1909, the author, Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, uttered the oft-quoted remark, "I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it." Twain made good on this promise, dying the next year of a heart attack on April 21st, 1910, twenty-four hours after the Comet's closest approach to Earth.
One hundred years to the day since Twain's passing comes the release of Halley's Comet: Around the Piano with Mark Twain and John Davis. Its title a reference to Twain's famous vow, this new recording honors not just the centennial of Twain's death, but the 175th anniversary of the his birth and the 125th anniversary of the publication of his most widely-read and influential book, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, all being celebrated in 2010. More personally, Halley's Comet pays musical tribute to an author whose lifelong relationship to the piano may have been fraught with ambivalence, but whose writings nevertheless have had a profound influence on my life and career as an American pianist on the cusp between classical music and African American culture of the Deep South.
No writer has more perceptively captured the uneasy interplay between black and white culture and high and low culture in American society than has Twain. Before him, rural black and white dialects were commonly employed by post-Civil War authors as nostalgic tools for romanticizing the fading order of the old South. In Twain's hands, such controversial use of vernacular language became something else: a means for addressing a complex range of issues ignored by his literary contemporaries.
In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a novel primarily about conscience, the country dialects of Huck and his traveling companion, a runaway slave named Jim, are a poetic vehicle for Twain's own racial awakening. Over the course of their raft trip along the Mississippi River, Huck and Jim grow unexpectedly fond of each other. Huck, as his affection for Jim increases, begins to question the attitudes about race instilled in him by a society that treats Jim, and all other enslaved blacks, as mere property. Huck's loyalty to his best friend ultimately wins out, but not without a great deal of soul searching and scheming to protect Jim and himself from the inevitable repercussions of their friendship.
Twain's later novel, The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson, uses white and black dialect to even more pointed effect. In it, Roxy, a slave mother from Dawson's Landing, Missouri, looking to improve the lot of her newborn son Chambers, surreptitiously exchanges her light-skinned baby with Tom, the toddler of her inattentive master. Chambers is reared as white, able to enjoy all the social and economic privileges that come with his newfound station. As he develops, Chambers even assumes the patronizing airs and refined linguistic patterns of his white guardians. At the same time, Tom, brought up as black, is relegated to the lowly status of his slave "brethren." The harsher conditions under which he is forced to live and the denial to him of a formalized education are embodied in the cruder black dialect patterns Twain assigns to him. Upon being granted her freedom, Roxy leaves town to work on riverboats. After she discovers, in retirement, that all her money has been lost to a failed bank, Roxy begs her son to bail her out. But Chambers, by now utterly spoiled, dissolute, and plagued with gambling debts, callously turns down his mother's request. He does come to her aid eventually, but only after Roxy hilariously threatens to expose his black ancestry, and have him "sold down the river." In Pudd'nhead Wilson, then, the linguistic patterns of Southern blacks and whites become a platform for Twain's social commentary on racial identity and politics.
As remarkably as these works are in capturing the offsetting cultural forces at play in 19th-century America, Twain, in his own life, often struggled to reconcile his sophisticated intellectual and artistic instincts with his populist leanings. This conflict is particularly evident in the author's relationship to music and, more specifically, the piano. Twain, on numerous occasions, publicly stated his distaste for the piano, claiming to prefer the lowly banjo, accordion, orchestrelle (a self-playing reed organ that could simulate the instruments of the orchestra), and the human voice, over a keyboard instrument he associated with the moneyed classes and the cult of the virtuoso. It is possible that these negative pronouncements toward the piano may have been merely another effort by the author at being provocative. But, there is no doubt that Twain, largely self educated, never could rid himself completely of his lifelong bias against an instrument whose repertoire required years of study to master.
Privately, however, the story was quite different. Clemens was involved with the piano and pianists virtually his entire life. At home, Twain regularly played the piano, often to accompany (crudely, by all accounts) his singing of his beloved negro spirituals and minstrel tunes. In later life, he became fond of a number of established solo piano works from the classical repertoire. And from early childhood until his death, numerous pianists were part of his inner circle. His older sister, Pamela, taught piano, and presumably taught Twain how to play. His daughter, Clara [1874-1962], was a trained pianist and professional singer who studied in Vienna with the renowned piano pedagogue, Theodor Leschetizky, a former pupil of Beethoven's student, Carl Czerny, and the teacher of legendary pianists as diverse in style as Ignaz Friedman, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Ignacy Paderewski, Artur Schnabel, Alexander Brailowsky, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, and Meiczyslaw Horszowski. While in Vienna, Twain befriended Leschetizky, Paderewski, and Gabrilowitsch. Gabrilowitsch [1878-1936] would become even closer to Twain after the pianist's marriage to Clara.
Reports, then, of Twain's dislike for the piano appear to have been greatly exaggerated. Music, no doubt, was an integral part of his daily life, and his varied musical preferences extended from homespun Americana to some of the most refined works of the European-based piano repertoire. Halley's Comet honors Twain's far-reaching musical tastes via my performances of a series of piano works that have some connection to the author, each introduced by an often hilarious, sometimes appalling, but always fascinating Twain-related quote read by me.
The CD opens with the Mark Twain Mazurka, an obscure salon piece by Felix Kraemer, preceded by a pained statement from Twain expressing his disdain for pianists. Dedicated by its composer to Edward Ascherman & Co., the Milwaukee manufacturer of the Mark Twain Cigar, the Mazurka pays homage to the writer's penchant for smoking cigars (Twain has often been quoted as saying, "If there are no cigars in Heaven, I shall not go.").
Another reading from Twain about his preference for the banjo over the keyboard music of Louis Moreau Gottschalk [1829-1869] of New Orleans, the first internationally renowned pianist from the New World, leads to a performance of Gottschalk's The Banjo. Subtitled Grotesque Fantasie and sporting one of the most spectacularly engraved covers in all of American sheet music, The Banjo is perhaps the most famous of a series of piano pieces Gottschalk wrote in the 1840s and 1850s widely considered to be the first concert works inspired by African American culture and important building blocks in the development of 20th-century rhythm & blues, jazz, and rock 'n roll. Paralleling Twain's interest in vernacular language and minstrel tunes are the numerous references heard in The Banjo to Camptown Races, the black dialect song written for Christy's Minstrels by Stephen Foster.
A quote follows from Twain's daughter, Clara, describing the nurturing musical atmosphere at home and her father's piano accompaniments to his impassioned singing of spirituals and minstrel songs. This reading is paired with a performance of Petite Serenade, a charming work by Clara's eventual husband, Ossip Gabrilowitsch. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Gabrilowitsch settled with Clara in the United States. There, he maintained a successful concert career as a pianist, composed a number of short keyboard pieces, and became the founding conductor of the Detroit Symphony. Upon his death in 1936, Gabrilowitsch was buried next to Twain in Elmira, New York. Clara would join them after her passing in 1962.
Twain was a champion of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the choir of former slaves from Fisk University in Nashville that, over the course of several highly-publicized tours of North America and Europe in the early 1870s, first exposed the world to the profound beauty of African American folk music. In an 1873 letter to Tom Hood, Twain recommends that the public attend the singing group's concerts scheduled for London that year.
On the CD, a quoted excerpt from the letter leads into my rendition of John William "Blind" Boone's virtuoso arrangement of the quasi spiritual, Nearer My God to Thee. Blind Boone [1864-1927] was a sightless black pianist from Missouri who modeled his early career on that of Blind Tom, the celebrated Georgia slave pianist heard from later on this CD. Primarily a classical pianist and composer of music that merged Lisztian pyrotechnics with the strains of rural black folk music, Boone would become one of the seminal figures in the ragtime movement at the turn of the 20th century, and his music would influence the development of the Kansas City big band style in the 1920s. Never published in sheet music form, Boone's arrangement of Nearer My God to Thee was transcribed by me from a piano roll Boone recorded for the QRS Company in 1912, thereby becoming the first African American ever to make a piano roll.
According to various scholarly sources, Twain was increasingly drawn to classical music in later life. Among his favorites pieces apparently was Beethoven's Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67. The pianistic equivalent of that supremely dramatic orchestral work is the Piano Sonata, Op. 13 ("Pathetique"), an early piece of Beethoven [1770-1827] also in C minor in which the composer's signature fervent style first reaches full flowering. Enormously popular during the 19th century, the Pathetique was regularly performed by both Blind Tom and Blind Boone, and likely would have been attempted by Twain himself on the piano at home. The Sonata appears here on this CD, preceded by a quote from Twain about his ambivalence toward the higher arts and classical music in particular.
This brings us to Blind Tom [1849-1908], a subject of intense fascination for Twain. Born Thomas Wiggins in Columbus, Georgia, Blind Tom sustained an enormously successful career shrewdly designed by his handlers to fan the fire of prevailing racial attitudes and the public's seemingly endless fascination with the freak show during a period when American society was just beginning to come to grips with slavery and its aftermath. Wiggins won consistent praise for his technically-assured and subtly-expressive performances of the European-based classical repertoire, as well as for his renditions of his own accomplished piano works. But Tom--sightless, uneducated except in music, and perhaps autistic--became even more notorious for a series of keyboard and extra-musical stunts: in-concert feats of the ear and memory, renditions of complex classical compositions with his back to the piano, the elocution of well-known political speeches of the era in their original cadence and intonation, and convincing recitations of texts in foreign languages he could not even speak, all purportedly accompanied by bestial grunts and the most horrible facial and bodily contortions. These histrionics, instead of marginalizing his act, fueled a fifty-year career that would not end until 1904, just four years before his death in Hoboken, New Jersey at age 59. By then, Wiggins had become the first African American to play for the President at the White House, and had performed throughout the United States many times over as well as in France and Great Britain. During the flushest periods, he earned his owner and career architect, James Neil Bethune, himself one of the leading anti-abolitionist and pro-secessionist newspaper publishers in the antebellum South, close to $100,000 a year, an astounding sum equivalent today to $1.5 million dollars annually. In short, Blind Tom had become a phenomenon, the first black superstar performer in America.
According to the publisher, Henry Holt, Twain became a Blind Tom fanatic the moment he first cross paths with the pianist on an Illinois train in 1869. Twain, in fact, would write about this and subsequent brushes with Wiggins in an extended article published that year in an issue of the Alta California newspaper. Interspersed among the three Blind Tom works included on this CD--The Rainstorm, purportedly written when Wiggins was just five years old; Cyclone Galop, in which some of the stylistic elements of ragtime and stride piano are anticipated; and Wiggins' most popular piece, Battle of Manassas, a musical recreation of the Confederacy's first significant victory in the Civil War--is the quote from Holt as well as a reading of the Alta California article by Twain in its entirety.
In deference to the 100th anniversary of Twain's death, the CD ends elegiacally. The final work on the recording is the Impromptu in A-flat Major, Op. 142, No. 2, by Franz Schubert [1797-1828], a favorite piece of Twain according to the author's friend and authorized biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine.
Here's to Mark Twain, still, in 2010, the quintessentially American artist and the literary conscience of the United States!
© John Davis 2012