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Éva Gauthier - New York and Celebrity

Upon arriving in New York, Gauthier followed in the footsteps of Canadian singer Pauline Donalda and briefly tried vaudeville. Gauthier's act, entitled "Songmotion", featured one of her Javanese songs illustrated by dancers. Gauthier had not yet, however, found her niche. The New York music scene was crowded with American performers and European expatriates, making it necessary to find a specialty that would make her noticed. She wisely chose to concentrate on exotic Javanese songs and modernist Western vocal repertoire. Although some composers, such as Claude Debussy, had been experimenting with musical exoticism for a few years, Gauthier's performances of Javanese songs were ahead of their time. Not until the 1930s did Asian music become better known in North America.

Éva Gauthier in Javanese-style dress, before a concert

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Éva Gauthier in Javanese-style dress, before a concert

Gauthier began giving annual recitals at Aeolian Hall in New York City and at that location, in November 1917, she sang three songs by the pre-eminent French composer Maurice Ravel, as well as the American premieres of Stravinsky's "Three Japanese Lyrics" and of "Five Poems of Ancient China and Japan," by the American contemporary composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes www.wnet.org/ihas/
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The singer's flair for negotiating dissonant modern harmonies and austere neoclassical melodies led to invitations to sing the premieres of hundreds of new works by contemporary composers. After the 1917 concert, Stravinsky chose Gauthier to premiere all of his concert vocal compositions. Her reputation earned her the nickname "The High Priestess of Modern Song".

Letter from Erik Satie to Éva Gauthier postponing their meeting

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Letter from Erik Satie to Éva Gauthier postponing their meeting. Note the caricature of Satie, by caricaturist Alfred Frueh, in the corner of the paper

In 1920, the Music League of America sent Gauthier to Paris to offer Ravel a concert tour of the U.S. She and Ravel began a long friendship, and she also established valuable contacts with such luminaries in the French music world as Erik Satie and Les Six (a group of modern French composers).

These composers and many others sent Gauthier new compositions in the hope that she would perform them in concert, which she usually did despite opposition from hidebound critics. She habitually accepted all requests by composers' guilds to sing contemporary compositions (the only piece she refused to sing was Arnold Schoenberg's atonal expressionist work Pierrot Lunaire).

Gauthier was satisfyingly busy in the 1920s. She performed with many recognized conductors in America and with many orchestras. Her regular accompanists included Celius Dougherty and Ned Rorem. Gauthier promoted French music in the U.S., but she also made a point of including American compositions in her concerts. Her annual New York recitals were events, because they always contained the unexpected. As well as visiting Europe, Gauthier toured the U.S.; the Canadian composer and oriental music expert Colin McPhee was engaged for one West Coast tour as her pianist.

Gauthier returned to Europe in 1922, and again in 1923, to continue studying voice and seek out new works to perform, but it was the blues elements and innovative rhythms of American jazz that attracted her attention next. Many concert musicians were interested in the new phenomenon of jazz. However, many music critics and large segments of the public were opposed; jazz was considered a "low" form of popular music suitable for dancing, but not sufficiently serious to be presented in concert. Hence, when on November 1, 1923, Éva Gauthier became the first classical musician to present songs of George Gershwin in concert, she upset the musical establishment.

Concert programme for Gauthier's RECITAL OF ANCIENT AND MODERN MUSIC FOR VOICE

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Concert programme for Gauthier's "Recital of Ancient and Modern Music for Voice", at which George Gershwin was introduced, November 1, 1923

Gauthier's concert, which was entitled a "Recital of Ancient and Modern Music for Voice", is now recognized as a historic moment. In attendance at Aeolian Hall were many notable musicians, including contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink, composer Virgil Thomson and jazz band leader Paul Whiteman. Gauthier's program featured "serious" music in the first half, including traditional opera selections by Vincenzo Bellini and art songs by Henry Purcell, juxtaposed against songs by twentieth-century modernist and neoclassical composers Arnold Schoenberg, Darius Milhaud, Béla Bartók and Paul Hindemith. If the first half was not already interesting enough, the second half of the recital broke protocol by featuring American popular songs, beginning with Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band". Gauthier continued with music by Jerome Kern and Walter Donaldson, and wound up with three George Gershwin compositions: "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise", "Innocent Ingénue Baby" and "Swanee". The young George Gershwin, in his first appearance in such a venue, accompanied Gauthier at the piano.

Together, Gauthier and Gershwin showed conservative audiences that jazz-influenced music could be a serious artistic experience. Indeed, Gauthier's innovation led directly to the equally famous concert "An Experiment In Modern Music", in February 1924, at which Gershwin and Paul Whiteman introduced Gershwin's blues-tinged piano concerto, Rhapsody in Blue. This work quickly became a staple in the repertoire of American orchestras, and a favourite with the public.

Gauthier and Gershwin repeated their Aeolian Hall success in Boston, in January 1924, and London, England in May 1925. On the latter occasion, Gauthier was quoted as saying, "Most concerts bore people. Mine, I hope, is going to entertain as well as educate" (London Daily Express, May 13, 1925).

A further highlight in Gauthier's career took place a few months later, when she performed songs by the Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos, at the Festival of the International Society of Contemporary Music in Venice, Italy. Here, Gauthier courageously finished her performance despite opposition from the traditionalist audience, which booed the Villa-Lobos composition. Sixteen years later she remembered that ". . . the audience on the whole much preferred the music of the old Venetians to the masters of today" (The Musical Record, June 1941).

Gauthier had become a celebrity by this point and circulated among the brightest coteries of New York society. She corresponded, performed and socialized with the luminaries of early twentieth-century music, art and letters (Debussy, Gershwin, Manuel de Falla, Francis Poulenc, Satie, Stravinsky, John Alden Carpenter, John Singer Sargent and Amy Lowell, among others), and she enjoyed a close association with Ravel. She was instrumental in bringing Ravel and Gershwin together at a party she hosted for Ravel's birthday on March 7, 1928. The same year, she was presented at Buckingham Palace.

Photograph of Éva Gauthier and Maurice Ravel seated at a piano, with several people standing behind them, at a party hosted by Gauthier for Ravel's birthday, March 7, 1928

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The party hosted by Gauthier for Ravel's birthday, March 7, 1928. Éva Gauthier and Maurice Ravel are seated at the piano; George Gershwin is standing on the far right

Although Éva Gauthier's musical career was centred mainly in the U.S., she occasionally returned to perform in her homeland. Her Canadian performances include concerts in December 1918 in Montréal; in 1921 in Lachine, Quebec; and in January 1924 in Ottawa and Montréal. She sang in 1926 at the invitation of the Women's Musical Club of Toronto, receiving an excellent review from the Globe and Mail: "Even more remarkable than her vocal gifts, however, is her brilliant originality in choosing her program. . . . nothing trite, hackneyed, banal, but everything fresh, alive, intensely interesting and immensely worth while -- a typical Gauthier program" (Globe and Mail, Nov. 26, 1926).

Gauthier was also extended the honour of singing in Ottawa on July 1, 1927, for the 60th anniversary of Canada's Confederation. (This event was also broadcast coast to coast, the first Canadian transcontinental radio broadcast.) She made other visits to Canada to see her family, such as in 1940 on the death of her mother. Although she did attend concerts of Canadian music in New York, she had a negative opinion of her homeland's treatment of its musicians: "Canadians . . . would rather listen to foreigners than their own people" (Globe and Mail, October 15, 1937).