In March, I am writing about some Cranky Ladies of History across my Kitty, Mortal Words and Adventurous Hearts blogs, in honour and support of the Cranky Ladies of History anthology Pozible campaign. The contents of the book haven’t been finalised, but the anthology has submissions from amazing writers like Karen Healey, Jane Yolen, Rob Shearman, Foz Meadows, Kirstyn McDermott, Garth Nix and Deborah Biancotti!
Like countless children before me (and no doubt, after) one of the first things I learned to do on a piano keyboard were the simple (and simply irritating) notes of the tune called Chopsticks. The first few bars of it, at least
At the time, I had no idea there was any more of the thing. In fact, as far as I knew, that particular collection of notes was all there was, and had existed for all of time (or at least, throughout the existence of pianos). But of course, unless you’re talking quantum physics, or how cats apparate in and out of rooms, nothing ever springs from nothing.
In the course of my internet wanderings, I came across a reference to one Euphemia Allen, a British woman credited as the composer of the ‘Celebrated Chop Sticks Waltz’. She wrote it when she was 16 and it was published in 1877 by her brother, Mozart Allen (yes, really – his brothers were named Haydn and Handel). The work was published under the name Arthur de Lulli and she is not known to have written or published anything after. She lived until 1949, however, so who knew what she got up to in her free time.
To tell the truth, I don’t know if she was a particularly cranky lady of history, but in my investigations I was intrigued by a 1932 article by Alfred V Frankenstein (again – yes, really) in The American Mercury, called “Chopsticks – A Musicological Mystery.”
Frankenstein writes unflatteringly of swathes of bad music written to be easy for amateurs to play, and categorizes the Chopsticks waltz as more a parlor trick than a piece of music. This is partly because the piece is meant to be played in a chopping motion with the side of the hand – hence its name, which has nothing to do with Chinese eating utensils.
Frankenstein notes that the piece was originally published as ‘arranged by Arthur de Lulli’ and later as composed by Euphemia. Frankenstein is disinclined to believe that Euphemia did more than arrange the piece, but confesses his inability to discover the original work and who may have composed it. Mozart and Euphemia, both still alive at the time of the article (Euphemia was by then living in Glasgow) failed to satisfy his curiosity on that issue.
A similar piece was put together by a Russian composer with the aid of a daughter who playing the opening chopping section, in the year of the original’s publication. Liszt took an interest in the piece later on.
I’m no music historian, but perhaps Frankenstein is a little churlish to claim the waltz could not have been written by this girl, especially since he couldn’t locate an antecedent. It’s just as likely that she did, surely, and thereby reached the limit of her musical skill, and even indulgent brothers with a music publishing house couldn’t be persuaded to unleash her creations on the world at large.
But it’s there in print that Euphemia wouldn’t answer Mr Frankenstein’s questions, so I imagine she might have been just a little cranky at the assumption that she didn’t write the wretched thing.
What cranky musical ladies of history do you know of? Please comment and share the joy!