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How can music communicate political ideas?
By Yishi Zeng

Helen Clay Frick was an accomplished pianist with a large collection of sheet music at her house that included a lot of standard repertory from the Classical and Romantic periods. The collection shows that she was a connoisseur of fine arts, more interested in serious, elite repertory than the popular songs of her time. One piece stands out in this collection—Cécile Chaminade’s Sérénade in D, Op. 29 written in 1884. This is the only piece written by a female composer, and it is relatively new compared to the other works. When you listen to it, the piece sounds very polite and peaceful. It has a lyrical, melodic line in the right hand with arpeggiated notes in the left hand. This sound clip is played on a Steinway, like the one Helen had in her parlor.

Zeng PIANO 1
00:00 / 00:51

Performed by Yishi Zeng (piano)

But could this music have had deeper political meaning? In the 19th century, Cécile Chaminade and her music became very important to American women. They formed clubs dedicated to playing Chaminade’s music and promoted feminist ideas. According to musicologist Michele Mai Auchele, there were at least 65 Chaminade Clubs, and possibly as many as 200, across the United States. Surprisingly, there were more Chaminade Clubs than Clara Schumann Clubs. There was even a Chaminade Concert Company based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania , which was active from 1922 to 1924. Why was Chaminade and her career so important and admired by American women?

Cécile Chaminade was a self-made woman who became famous as a composer and pianist despite facing significant challenges in a male-dominated field. She was the first woman to be awarded the Légion d’Honneur. The 1894 story “A Suitor Unmasked” shows that Chaminade’s music is a symbol of the modern woman who wants to be treated equally. In it, the heroine, Miss Hobson says: “This is the nineteenth century Jack, and a woman is man’s companion, not a plaything or doll. And now sit down, Jack, and I will play you that dashing new dance of Chaminade. She is a woman, Jack, and women have their place to-day in the business world and in the field of art. Is not this motif charming?” Just like the woman in this story, Helen also seemed like she wanted to be seen as a modern woman, and to have a place in the business world and field of art. She went on to become a collector of books and art, using her wealth to support cultural institutions like the New York Public Library and the Frick Collection.

When we hear the Sérénade in D, Op. 29 by Cécile Chaminade, we should think not only of it as a re-creation of a piece Helen Frick played on this piano but rather of it as a piece that was for her deeply significant. One that expressed her independence and deep connection with Cécile Chaminade as an inspiration.

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Aichele, Michele Mai. Cécile Chaminade as a Symbol for American Women, 1890–1920. The University of Iowa, dissertation, 2019.

Bohemian, “A Suitor Unmasked.” Cleveland (OH) Gazette, May 12, 1894, taken from Aichele, 84.

“Frick Madison | the Frick Collection.”

Frick, Martha, and Symington Sanger. Helen Clay Frick. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2008.

Giraudet, Jean-Paul. “Cécile Chaminade.”, 2007, Accessed 2 Apr. 2023.

 “Cécile Chaminade.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 4 Aug. 2018, Accessed 20 April 2023

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