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Hélène de Montgeroult - the piano pioneer

One of those times when you discover a composer who sweeps you right away: Montgeroult 's music is so unique , her life story is fascinating, one of those women I would live to have coffee with in Paris:)

Helene, Marquise de Montgeroult (1764-1836), was not only a wonderful composer and a piano virtuoso, but also, and probably more importantly, a great pedagogue . She was among the first group of piano professors at the Paris Conservatoire when it was founded in 1795, and the first woman to be appointed on the highest level at the highest salary. ("Helene de Montgeroult and the art of singing well on the piano" by Maria Rose)

Montgeroult was according to her biographer Jerome Dorival "the link between Mozart and Chopin" . Her dramatic life story covers the French revolution.

Hélène Antoinette Marie de Nervo, born in Lyon on 2 March 1764, began her musical studies in Paris with Nicolas-Joseph Hüllmandel, continuing with Muzio Clementi and perhaps Jan Ladislav Dussek. In 1784, she married André-Marie Gaultier, marquis de Montgeroult; she was 20, he 48. She was a participant in regularly scheduled musical gatherings in the homes of wealthy music lovers, where she performed music with amateurs and internationally known professional musicians, French and foreign.

The Revolution destroyed much of this world. In 1793, Hélène de Montgeroult and her husband left France with a delegation seeking support abroad to save the Queen from the guillotine. He was imprisoned in Mantua and died there. She returned to Paris where she was in mortal danger during the Terror as an aristocrat and disloyal émigrée. Her life was saved by the founder of the Institut National de Musique (later the Conservatoire de Paris), who convinced the Revolutionary Tribunal that she was indispensable to the school as one of France’s greatest pianists.

At the end of the Terror in 1795, as recovery and reconstruction began, the Conservatoire published her three sonatas, Op. 1, and hired her as one of the professeurs de première classe who enjoyed the highest status and best salary. Also in 1795 she gave birth to her son, Charles-Aimé. In 1797 she married his father, Charles-Hyacinthe His; they divorced in 1802. The Conservatoire did not actually open until October 1796, and only 15 months later, in January 1798, she resigned, perhaps because she was uncomfortable with the populist musical goals of the Conservatoire’s founders.

She continued to teach privately and compose. She published two more volumes of three sonatas each – Op. 2 first appeared in 1800, and Op. 5 between 1804 and 1807. She also published a Pièce pour piano, a Fantaisie, and six Nocturnes for voice and piano. Like other women musicians of her time, her home was her venue for performance and teaching; she undoubtedly earned much more than the Conservatoire would have paid.

By 1810 she was working on her celebrated piano method, the three-volume Cours complet pour l’enseignement du forte piano, conduisant progressivement des premiers éléments aux plus grandes difficultés (‘Complete Course for Teaching Forte Piano, Leading Progressively from the First Elements to the Greatest Difficulties’); it was engraved in 1814 and published in 1820. Here she focuses on fingerings, hand positions, and other techniques that produce a sustained cantabile or singing sound similar to that of the voice or a bowed string instrument. She wrote 972 exercises for volume 1 and, for volumes 2 and 3, 114 études and several other pieces to illustrate her comments on piano technique, musical style, and good taste.

Although Mozart never mentioned her name, he referred in one of his letters that he taught highly talented ladies. Probably Montgeroult was one of them

Her Etude no. 36 has a clear connection to Mozart a minor sonata k. 310 (the 3rd mvt)

I was surprised to see that this fully detailed method was composed long before Chopin, but found out that this method was known to Antoine Marmontel , one of the most distinguished pedagogues in the Paris Conservatoire. Did Chopin know about her legacy when he composed his etudes?

Here is a wonderful video on Montgeroult , her life, the instruments she used and her pedagogic contribution:

Her F sharp minor sonata op. 5 no. 3 has influences of Mozart and anticipates romanticism , along with virtuosic and expressive new pianism. A true genuine composition, full of emotional and original context, seems she was ahead of her time in many ways .

Here is a wonderful recording of Edna Stern on a Pleyel from 1860.

Here is etude no. 26 , a real beauty and pianism.

And here is an etude that will remind us of the "revolutionary" etude by Chopin! similar texture and technique , a true pianistic revolution.

I am curious to find more about this great artist, and still have many questions: why was she neglected so much all these years? why her method was never published by any editor? why did she quit her position at the Conservatoire after a few years? was her decision to leave was personal, or connected to her colleague Louis Adam , who wrote also a piano method? hopefully more and more research will follow.

I am thinking about recording some of her compositions , next album...


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