Monday 18 February 2019

Classic talk: A musical pioneer called Paradis

Maria Theresia Paradis
Maria Theresia Paradis

George Hamilton

At the heart of the Vienna that we recognise as the capital city of the classical era, two towering figures dominate the scene. Joseph Haydn, known as the father of the symphony, was one. Mozart was the other.

Beethoven came to town as well. Music flourished. And, in the midst of all of this, there was one remarkable woman.

Remarkable, not only because she made an impact in what was then undoubtedly a man's world, but also because she had to overcome a considerable handicap to do so.

Maria Theresia von Paradis was her name, and for all of her adult life she was totally blind.

A direct contemporary of Mozart, born when he was three, she was named after her father's employer, the Empress Maria Theresa, described in some quarters as her godmother.

The only female head of the Hapsburg dynasty employed Joseph Paradis as secretary of commerce.

Maria Theresia began losing her sight as an infant, but her disability had no impact on her progress.

So impressive was she, that the empress herself took her under her wing. God-daughter or not, Maria Theresia became her protégée, with the imperial palace contributing to the cost of the girl's musical education.

Among her teachers was Antonio Salieri, the man depicted - somewhat erroneously - as Mozart's greatest rival. He gave her lessons in composition, and was her voice tutor as well. Before she was out of her teens, Maria Theresia was performing regularly, not just as a singer, but as a pianist, too.

Salieri dedicated an organ concerto her, while Mozart's father noted in a letter that his son had written a piano concerto for her.

There's been speculation for years that this might be Mozart's 18th, in B-flat major, though that's not certain. But what does seem beyond dispute from the correspondence is that one of them was specifically written for Maria Theresia to perform.

The Viennese public loved her - they called her 'The Blind Enchantress'. She was ingenious in finding ways to get beyond her disability. Braille wouldn't come along for more than a century, but Maria Theresia had already worked out a formula for reading and writing based on raised lettering. As for composing, she made use of a pegboard.

In her twenties, on an ambitious concert tour of Europe that would last three years, she met an eminent Parisian academic.

Valentin Haüy was inspired by what she had achieved. He worked on his own embossed alphabet and went on to open France's very first school for the blind.

Maria Theresia herself had a passion for education.

She'd left her performing career early to concentrate on composition, expanding her output beyond the Lieder that she'd dabbled in during her grand tour.

Opera, chamber works, and piano concertos followed, but little enough of what she wrote survives.

Ironically, the Sicilienne by which she's best known - a lovely dance tune, all gentle oscillations, written for violin and piano - may not have been her work at all. It's become one of those bones that music historians love to chew over.

Whatever, her name is on it, and it's beautiful music. And her songs are lovely too.

While not the most prolific composer, she was a popular musician who clearly heightened awareness of disability.

And she left a legacy in music education as well, as the force behind the founding of a school of music for girls. The students' concerts became a staple of Sunday-night entertainment in Vienna.

Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven may be the names that spring first to mind when thinking of the imperial capital's glorious years, but there must also be a place for Maria Theresia von Paradis, a pioneer in so many ways.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday

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