Jaëll, Marie Trautmann

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Marie Trautmann Jaëll

The first pianist to perform all of Beethoven's piano sonatas in Paris, Marie Trautmann Jaëll (1846-1925) was a renowned 19th century French composer, teacher, and pedagogue in piano technique. As a child prodigy, she toured Europe and won the prestigious First Prize of Piano at the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 16. A student of Franz Liszt and a teacher to Albert Schweitzer, Jaëll presented herself to 19th century artists with passion toward composition, individuality, and scientific technique. She composed a variety of styles, such as solo piano, quartets, sonatas, waltzes, four-hand pieces, and or chestral. Considered a derivative composer, Jaëll will be remembered for her treatises on the physiological study of piano playing. She wrote scientific studies describing muscle movements of the hand, the sense of touch, and the mental discipline involved in playing piano.

Won the Premier Prix as a Child Prodigy

Jaëll was born on August 17, 1846, in Steinseltz village in the north of Alsace, France, near Wissembourg. Her father, George Trautmann, was mayor of the village, a man committed to modernization. Her mother, Christine Schopfer, a refined woman who appreciated the arts, encouraged her daughter's musical education. At the age of seven, Jaëll first studied piano under professor F. B. Hamma and with Ignaz Moscheles, both in Stuttgart. Only one year later, with her mother managing her performances, Jaëll was playing concerts in France, Germany, and Switzerland.

In 1856, her mother presented her to the Paris Conservatory's renowned piano teacher Heinrich Herz, who tutored her. Due to her young age of 10, she studied with Herz until she was old enough to formally register with the Conservatory in 1862. Meanwhile, she continued to perform publicly in Paris. At 10, she played piano sonatas, accompanied by the 13-year-old violin prodigy Guillaume Bauerkeller, a student of Alard of the Academy of Paris.

Once she was 16, after only four official months at the Conservatory, she won the Premier Prix (First Prize of Piano) out-performing 20 other girls. Her mother collected newspapers clippings that touted her daughter as not only a child prodigy but "a true artist." The Revue et Gazette musciale de Paris reported on July 27, 1862, as seen in the Marie Jaëll Exhibit website, that Jaëll "restored freshness and life to the piece … She marked it with the seal of her individual nature. Her higher mechanism, her beautiful style, her play deliciously moderate, with an irreproachable purity, an exquisite taste, a lofty elegance, constantly filled the audience with wonder."

Toured Europe with Husband

At age 20, on August 9, 1866, Marie Trautmann married concert pianist Alfred Jaëll, 15 years her senior, in the Church of La Madeleine in Paris. A student of Chopin, Alfred was an internationally recognized piano virtuoso. Husband and wife navigated Europe and Russia concertizing solos, duos, famous works, and works of their own creations. The two interpreted and performed many four-handed piano compositions popular at the time.

With the connections afforded to her by her husband's notoriety and musical circles, Jaëll was introduced to Franz Liszt in 1868 who took her as his student. The encounter would have a profound effect, not only on her piano playing and composition, but also on her scientific endeavors later in life. Liszt, too, was impressed with his young protege, an article in American Record Guide said Listzt described her as having "the brains of a philosopher and the fingers of an artist." Liszt, in turn, introduced the now-recognized Jaëllto the period's other great musicians, such as Johannes Brahms and Anton Rubinstein. By 1871, Jaëll's piano compositions were being published.

Jaëll's husband died in 1881 when she was 35 years old, but she continued studying composition under special invitation by Liszt in Weimar, Germany, and with César Franck and Camille Saint-Saëns in Paris, France. As recognition of her talent and status, Saint-Saëns introduced Jaëll to the Society of Music Composers, which was an honor for a woman in those days.

Mentored by Franz Liszt

A true admirer of Jaëll, Liszt became her mentor. He premiered her waltz for piano four hands, "Valses pour piano à quatre mains" Op. 8, which was published by F.E.C. Leuckart, Leipzig. Liszt even wrote variations based on the piece, although these variations were not published.

Jaëll spent the years 1883 through 1886 working for Liszt a few months a year in Weimar where she assisted with his correspondences, performed at his musicales, and witnessed piano lessons taught and studied by renowned pianists. Saint-Saëns offered Jaëll advice on her compositions, and he dedicated his first concerto and the "Etude en forme de valse" to her.

During the 1890s, Jaëll's reputation was secure with incredible performances of the masters played in a series of concerts. Her repertory included the primary piano works of Robert Schumann, which she played in six concerts in Salle Erard; and Liszt, with six concerts in Salle Pleyel. She was the first person in France to perform all thirty-two of Beethoven's sonatas in the course of six concerts in Pleyel in 1893.

Although she performed in the top European cities of her day—Bern, Geneva, Heidelberg, and London—Jaëll retained a fond attachment with her hometown of Alsace and sought to honor it. Remembering a happy childhood there, she wrote a composition, "Harmonies of Alsace," and presented a scientific conference in Paris that she titled, "Some observations addressed to the Society of Physics by a musician from Alsace."

Created Romantic, "Derivative" Compositions

Some critics have labeled Jaëll's original compositions as "derivative" and "characteristic." Her style was certainly a product of her times, a mix of the pervasive Romanticism genre and the French music of the late nineteenth century. American Record Guide called her music, "romantic in style, with more flavor of the salon than the concert hall."

She never shied from diversity, composing solo piano as well as four-hand pieces, quartets, waltzes, works for violoncello, and orchestral. She put to music the poems of Victor Hugo and Jean Richepin and wrote the symphonic poem Ossiane which was performed in Paris in 1879. She wrote At the tomb of a child which contained choruses. Her Runéa was an opera.

The New Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians noted that Jaëll "composed piano pieces and songs which, though essentially Romantic, reveal an assimilation of the innovations of the time." She absorbed the influences of the most renowned pianists and composers of Europe: Schumann, Brahms, Liszt. Perhaps because of the greatness around her, Alexander Morin, of American Record Guide, is kind when he commented that her work "doesn't supply much evidence of a distinct musical personality. But it is all skillfully written and pleasant to hear."

If she lacked in originality, she embraced the passion and intensity of the artist at work, and strove to identify that element and describe it for other performers. She characterized her own approach to music and the piano as written in the Marie Jaëll Association website, "The body and the spirit, the movement and the thought are the same force. The energy of the movement is in connection with the intensity of the mental representation of this same movement."

Researched the Physiology of the Hand

Franz Liszt's music was a revelation to Jaëll. Absorbed by it when she first met him, she had always wanted to not only analyze and reproduce it, but to preserve it for posterity. Beginning in the 1890s, Jaëll dedicated herself to studying the techniques and methodologies of Liszt. As she also suffered bouts of tendonitis that interfered with her playing and garnered unkind reviews of her concerts, she decided to research the physiology of piano playing.

Jaëll benefited from living in the industrial age. The science of physiology was gaining acceptance as people studied the brain and nervous system. Jaëll added to these the study of the hand to create a new pedagogy of the piano. As the Marie Jaëll Exhibit observed, "According to this completely original approach, science was at the service of art." Moreover, the craft of piano making was employing Europe's new technological inventions.

Jaëll immersed herself in her research. During her 40s, she virtually abandoned her successful life of concert pianist to devote herself to her sciences. She read about physiology, anatomy, chemistry, mathematics, physics, and even psychology to help in her understanding of "artistic laws." She wanted to combine the emotional and spiritual act of creating beautiful music with the physiological aspects of tactile, auditive, and visual sensory.

Through observations and experiments, and through consultation with medical doctors, she focused her study on training the brain and nervous system, and on the unique movements of the hand. In the end, she published The Touch in 1894, a psycho-physiological treatise on touch. The book, which was translated into German by her pupil, Albert Schweitzer, was well-received.

Worked with Doctor Charles Féré

In the last years of the 19th century, the noted physiologist, Dr. Charles Féré, noticed that Jaëll referenced his scientific work in her "Music and Psychophysiology," published in 1896. Féré, medical superintendent of the psychiatric clinic at the Kremlin-Bicêtre Hospital near Paris, contacted her and began a collaboration between the two that lasted until his death in 1907.

Again profiting from friends who could help in her achievements, Jaëll accepted use of Féré's laboratory. Jaëll and Féré studied the muscle behavior and the sense of touch to analyze the physical act of playing the piano. By learning how keys are struck and how a person perceives sound mentally, they strove for a new approach to playing. They suggested an economy of movement and a replacement of mechanical drilling methods of learning with precise practice steps that took advantage of the anatomy of the hand.

From H. Keiner, "Marie Jaëll, Problèmes d'esthétique et de pédagogie musicales," Paris, 1952, Jaëll noted of her research with Féré, "I sought the right movements, and by these movements, I found the harmony of the touch, the musical memory, the improvement of the ear, all faculties which seem to sleep in each one of us. These movements were unceasingly controlled in experiments at the laboratory of Dr. Féré."

She continued to study the musical quality of sound. She believed that everything from human fingers and our vision to the wood the piano was constructed from influence our perception of musical notes. In all, Jaëll produced 11 books on piano technique, and left 80 compositions for piano, other instruments, and vocals. Jaëll continued to teach in her later years; her more famous pupils were Albert Schweitzer and Eduardo del Pueyo. She died February 4, 1925, in Paris, at age 79.

Today's Remembrances

In 1979, Marielle and Katia Lebèque recorded six of Jaëll's thirteen "Valses" for the Strasbourg Bibliothéque Nationale et Universitaire. In 1998, the first CD entirely devoted to Jaëll's compositions, performed by Alexandre Sorel and Lea Schmidt-Rogers, was released.

The Strasbourg library in France keeps copies of most of Jaëll's correspondence, compositions, books, and articles. The Marie Jaëll Association Foundation, also in Strasbourg, organizes meetings and training sessions on the method of Marie Jaëll.


International Encyclopedia of Women Composers, Books & Music, 1987.

New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Macmillian Publishers, Ltd., 2001.

Slonimsky, Nicolas, ed., Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Centennial Edition, Schirmer, 2001.


American Record Guide, September/October 1998.


"Condensed Introduction to the Life and Work of the French Composer Marie Jaëll," Schmidt-Roger, Lea, Music Teachers' Association of California,http://www.sdiegomtac.com/Jaëll.htm (December 22, 2003).

Marie Jaëll Association,http://www.marieJaëll.asso.fr (December 22, 2003).

Marie Jaëll Exhibit,http://perso.wanadoo.fr/jc.ingelaere/Jaëll/ (December 22, 2003).