#40 Reminiscences of Madame Sidney Pratten – #5

(Continue from Reminiscences of Madame Sidney Pratten – #4)


Madame Pratten came from a musical family, with her dad Ferdinard Pelzer being a renowned teacher and sister Giulia also a child prodigy (the Los Romeros of 19th century England?). Why didn’t she use her family name? I wondered about why did she keep the name “Madame Sidney Pratten” throughout her life. Out of devotion to her husband? The Archlute.com gave a different perspective:

“…The denigration of the guitar by 19th Century writers and music critics is well known. Often the denigration appears as a form of backhanded flattery to the artist. To wit, artists such as Regondi, Ferranti, Giuliani, and Sor were often held to be the greatest of virtuosi but then it is speculated such a pity that they play the guitar and not some instrument of higher regard…

…Catharina Pratten would have been well aware of this negative attitude some had toward the guitar. Her father worked hard to champion and disseminate the music of Giuliani and had his fair share of critical reception both as a guitarist and a publisher. During her lifetime the prevailing attitude changed only slightly. Using her husband’s name served the dual purpose of legitimizing the guitar and more importantly his fame would help in extending the audience exposed to the music…”

Going sidetrack, I recall reading something about the different names of the American composer Amy Beach (1867-1944). A quick internet search jogged my memory of yet another story about female musicians (or whatever profession?) who had to change names to gain recognition: born as Amy Cheney, the marriage to Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach in 1885 gave her the name “Mrs. H.H.A. Beach”. Discouraged to be a performing artist, she shifted gears to compositions (would she have composed as many great pieces if it wasn’t for her marriage?). After the husband’s passing in 1910, she toured Europe, and began using the name Amy Beach there, but

“…returned to using Mrs. H. H. A. Beach when she discovered that she already had some recognition for her compositions published under that name. She was once asked in Europe, when still using the name Amy Beach, whether she was the daughter of Mrs. H. H. A. Beach.” (from Thought Co.)

In the last section her essay, To the Girl Who Wants to Compose, published in the Etude Magazine in November 1918, Amy Beach wrote,

“Just one point more. I believe it was Rubinstein who said, “To compose is a pleasure—to publish is a responsibility.” When we think of the tons of music which have been already issued in print, perhaps it is as well for us to pause and remember Rubinstein’s remark before rushing our compositions out to the public. Still, “there is always room at the top,” and always a place for good music in any form or of any kind. Keep on writing, young people, as much as you like, so long as you realize both “the responsibility” and “the pleasure,” and so long as you are willing to give only of your best in every respect.”

As a [forever] music student, this excerpt resonates with me much, especially when one replaces “compose” and “publish” with “play” and “perform” respectively. Too often are we tempted to perform a piece that needs much more polishing, but we can’t hold back our desire to perform a master work before it is ready. But, when is a piece ever ready?

Amy Beach’s change from a performing pianist to a composer reminded me of a similar narrative, Robert Schumann was set to be a pianist, but rumor has it that he messed up his hand by training with a finger-strengthening device. Schumann therefore shifted his energy to composing. These hand strengthening devices reminded me of torture devices… No pain, no gain, right?

Here is a picture of one such device, from an issue of Etude Magazine from 1897 :

This conveniently ties me back to the excerpt above, where Madame Pratten recounted the story of a young singer who paid her hard work and earned her credentials, but failed to gain the approval of the press. Such a telling paragraph. It’s hard to be a musician, who puts immense amount of time and resources into training, and still could not deliver a pleasing result, either to oneself or the audience. Be nice to artists, okay?

(continue to Reminscences of Madame Sidney Pratten – #6)

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