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Teresa Carreño: Walküre of the Piano

Teresa Carreño A Biographical Sketch

Brian Mann, Associate Professor of Music

Teresa Carreño was born in Caracas, Venezuela, on 22 December, 1853. Her father Manuel Antonio (1813-1874) was a prominent politician (and amateur pianist); her grandfather Caetano Carreño (1774-1836) was a distinguished Venezuelan composer. With her father as her principal teacher, Teresa showed extraordinary musical promise at an early age. Her earliest compositions, short piano pieces, date from her sixth year. The brilliance of her piano playing soon provided the decisive impetus for her family's decision to leave Venezuela, in order both to bring her to broader attention, and to complete her musical education. For the next ten years or so, her father was also effectively her manager.

In the summer of 1862, the family traveled to the United States, settling in New York City. Teresa made her debut in New York's Irving Hall on 25 November 1862. During these first months in New York, she met the New Orleans-born pianist-composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869), who spoke highly of her playing, and gave her a handful of lessons. In January 1863, she performed for the first time in Boston, and her first published composition, entitled "Gottschalk Waltz" and dedicated to the composer, appeared in Boston later in the year. In March she traveled with her family to Cuba, where she continued to meet with great success. In the fall of this same year, she performed for Abraham Lincoln in the White House.

In March 1866 the family sailed for Europe, and after a brief stay in England, proceeded to Paris, where they settled. Within days of her arrival there, she had performed for Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868), then one of Paris's most prominent musical citizens, and Franz Liszt (1811-1886). During her period of residence in Paris, she became acquainted with other famous pianists and composers on the Parisian scene, Charles Gounod (1818-1893) and Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) among them. A brief trip to England during the summer brought her to the attention of London audiences. Her mother died suddenly in the fall of 1866, a victim of cholera. After a period of mourning, Teresa and her father traveled to Spain, where she gave concerts in Madrid and Zaragoza. She was particularly productive as a composer during these years, and the majority of her surviving piano works were published in Paris in the late 1860s and early 1870s—well before her twentieth birthday.

The early 1870s were eventful years for Teresa. No longer a prodigy, she continued to tour and compose—and to assert her independence. In 1873, she made the first of her four marriages, to Emile Sauret (1852-1920), a violinist and composer. In March 1874, then living in London, she gave birth to her first child, Emilita. (Several years later, she made a fateful—and irreversible—decision to give the child up for adoption.) Her father died later this year, in Paris. In the fall, she and Sauret left for the United States, and Carreño remained in the Americas until 1889. After a few years of hectic touring, mostly in the United States, her marriage to Sauret collapsed.

Throughout the later 1870s and 1880s Carreño continued to concertize indefatigably. In an attempt to escape the tyranny of the keyboard, she pursued a career (briefly but with some success) as an opera singer, and in January 1876 she made her debut in New York City as Zerlina in Mozart's Don Giovanni. Such aspirations no doubt drew her to her second husband, Giovanni Tagliapietra, an Italian-born baritone (1846-1921) then active in the United States. (Their common-law marriage produced two surviving children, Teresita and Giovanni.) During these years she also made the acquaintance of the young Edward MacDowell (1860-1908), a highly gifted pianist whose youthful compositions she began to champion as early as 1883.

A distinctive interlude in her career comes in 1885-86, when she returned—for the first and only time—to Venezuela. There she concertized, composed a patriotic chorus in honor of Simón Bolívar's birth, managed an opera company, and helped formulate plans for a conservatory of music, all in a matter of months.

An entirely new phase of her career began in 1889, when she returned decisively to Europe, in order to reinvigorate her career and her playing. After a summer spent in Paris, she settled in Berlin, where on 18 November she performed for the first time with the Berlin Philharmonic, in a performance of Grieg's Piano Concerto. In 1891, her second marriage now over, she met pianist-composer Eugen d'Albert (1864-1932), perhaps the most distinguished of her four husbands. Their marriage, in 1892, produced two daughters, Eugenia and Hertha. The demise of this marriage in 1895 led Carreño to seek solace in composition, and during her summer holidays she wrote a string quartet (published in the following year), as well as an unpublished serenade for string orchestra.

During the many years in which Berlin served as her home base, her career reached new heights of exposure and acclaim. She was sought out as a teacher. She performed regularly with major European orchestras, in a repertoire that included many of the standard late Romantic concertos, as well as lesser known works. MacDowell's Second Piano Concerto, which he had dedicated to her, became one of the works with which she was most closely associated. In 1902 she entered upon a lasting marriage to Arturo Tagliapietra, her second husband's brother.

As the twentieth century unfolded, Teresa continued to expand her sphere of action, making two world tours, the first in 1907-08, the second in 1909-11. Both trips took her to Australia and New Zealand; the second added South Africa to the itinerary. In November 1912 she marked her fiftieth anniversary as a concert artist in an elaborate celebration in Berlin. She remained in Europe during the first two years of World War I, though touring became more and more perilous. Finally, in September 1916, she abandoned Berlin, and traveled, for the last time, to the United States. After tours in the fall and winter, she traveled in the spring of 1917 to Cuba, where she fell ill. Returning to New York, she died there on 12 June, at the age of sixty-four. In 1919 her only book, Possibilities of Tone Color by Artistic Use of Pedals, was published; she had evidently been working on it at the time of her death.

Teresa Carreño was one of the most accomplished pianists of her day, and the recordings that she left give eloquent testimony to the elegance and refinement of her playing. The enviable brilliance and élan of her youthful piano pieces makes her later neglect of composing particularly regrettable. Her nickname, the "Walküre of the Piano," encapsulates something of the high energy that she brought not only to her playing and composing but to life itself. Pianist Claudio Arrau (1903-91)—another South American-born child prodigy—heard her perform in Berlin in 1916. Recalling her playing later in life, he said, simply: "Oh! She was a goddess!"