Thursday, July 07, 2005

Mark Twain's Musical Family

Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, has many more books written about him than he ever wrote*. He’s an attractive subject, who had a way of eloquently saying ordinary things in extraordinary ways; who led a life that is a magnet for biographers and graduate students; and it may be that his family has also been scrutinized, for surely I am only an interested reader-not a Twain scholar, because I didn’t know until recently that his daughter, Clara, was a singer of some repute and that she married the conductor of the Detroit Symphony. That was a surprise because I remember some of what Twain wrote about opera - and he didn’t disown her. Here is a well-known example:

“….To me an opera is the very climax & cap-stone of the absurd, the fantastic the unjustifiable. I hate the very name of opera - partly because of the nights of suffering I have endured in its presence, & partly because I want to love it and can't. I suppose one naturally hates the things he wants to love & can't. In America the opera is an affectation. The seeming love for [it] is a lie. Nine out of every ten of the males are bored by it and 5 out of 10 women. Yet how they applaud, the ignorant liars! …”
Notebook # 15, July - August 1878

How is it that we who may love opera still laugh at this? That’s Twain. But, it is likely that there were two Twains-one who treated his public which consumed such acidic and humorous remarks with relish, and the Twain who would be unfamiliar to his public, a Mr. Clemens who really cared for music and encouraged his children in their musical aspirations. We know he sang, played the guitar, and the piano. His brother, Orion, wrote: “Samuel Clemens had a pretty good voice in those days and could drum fairly well on a piano and guitar. He did not become a brilliant musician, but he was easily the most popular member of the singing-class.” Albert Bigelow Paine, Mark Twain: A Biography: The Personal and Literary Life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 3 vol. (1912).

Twain at the piano
with daughter Clara and friend

And, after an impressive recital by Stefan Czapka in Vienna, Twain revealingly autographed: “All of us contain Music & Truth, but most of us can't get it out.”

Aside from a piano and guitar Twain also owned an Orchestrella.

Mark Twain's orchestrelle.
Postcard from the Dave Thomson collection.
For more on the orchestrelle,
see related article in
Mechanical Music Digest

He was also a product of careful tilling by his wife Olivia. When they married he was somewhat crude, biographers write, but she was elegant and cultivated and slowly she softened and broadened her husband’s refinement. While “Livy” Clemens--from a refined, religious, philanthropic, abolitionist family--did ask her less genteel husband to give up some of his bad habits, letters show it was love--not badgering--that made him change.

Mark Hambourg comments wryly on Sam’s singing even at age 61: “Mark Twain used to keep open house in Vienna and musicians used to drop in for a meal. They were enormous meals, for artists are always hungry people. One day when I arrived, I heard an extraordinary noise, like a dog howling. I wondered if the animal was in pain and discovered it was Mark Twain singing one of the old Mississippi river songs."

Twain was also a close friend of Charles Ives' father-in-law, Reverend Joseph Twichell, who married not only Charles and Harmony Twichell Ives, but also Ossip and Clara Clemens Gabrilowitsch (Twain’s daughter). Sam’s sister, Pamela, was an accomplished musician and teacher of voice and guitar. Perhaps some future studies will tell us more about Twain’s musical proclivities.

Twain’s daughter, Clara, a concert contralto, was born in Elmira, N.Y., in 1874. She had a varied education while growing up, including home schooling; a year at a public high school in Hartford, Connecticut; and tenure at a boarding school in Berlin. At the age of 21, Clara was the only Clemens daughter to accompany Sam on his around-the-world lecture tour in 1895/96. At age 23 the Clemens family went to live in Vienna in order for Clara to study piano under the renowned Leschetizky. Although she would eventually give up piano for singing, she did meet her future husband, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, the Russian pianist, in Vienna.

Not much could be found concerning her vocal accomplishments, but the NY Times printed a favorable review.

WINSTED, Conn., Sept. 22.--Before a large audience in the Norfolk Gymnasium, Norfolk, this evening, Miss Clara Clemens, the daughter of Mark Twain, made her debut as a concert singer. A large delegation of the young singer's friends was present from New York and other places. Miss Clemens was assisted by Marie Nichols, a Boston violinist. Miss Clemens, who is the possessor of a rich contralto voice, was enthusiastically received. New York Times. 9.23.1906

In 1909, Clara invited Ossip to the Clemens home in Redding, Connecticut, to recuperate from an operation he had in New York. By October of that year the couple was married. The wedding took place in the drawing room at Stormfield, Twain’s country home, with the Rev. Dr. Twitchell , as officiating clergyman. The bride was attended only by her sister, Miss Jean Clemens, but her cousins, Jervis Langdon of and Mrs. Julia Loomis, wife of Edward Loomis, Vice President of the Delaware Lackawanna & Western Railroad, were also present.

Clara’s husband, Ossip was pupil of Anton Rubinstein at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and of Leschetizky. His debut was made in Berlin in 1896. He was well-known both as a brilliant pianist and as conductor of the Munich Konzertverein Orchestra, 1910-14, and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, 1918-36. Ossip died in 1936 from stomach cancer, at the age of 58.

Miss Ethel Newcomb of New York City, a friend of Clara, a prominent concert pianist and student of Leschitzky, played a wedding march as the bridal party entered the drawing room. While the ceremony was being performed, Sam Clemens was attired in the scarlet cap and gown which he wore when the Degree of Doctor of Literature was conferred upon him by Oxford University.

Twain was interviewed after the wedding and said: "Clara and Gabrilowitsch were pupils together under Leschetizky, in Vienna, ten years ago. We have known him intimately ever since…The wedding had to be sudden for Gabrilowitsch's European season is ready to begin. The pair will sail a fortnight from now. The first engagements are in Germany. They have taken a house in Berlin."

Among the other guests at the wedding were Richard Watson Gilder, Mrs. Gilder and three daughters, Mr. and Mrs. A. M. Wright of Boston, Mrs. E. F. Bauer and the Misses Flora and Marion Bauer of New York, Miss Lillian Burbank, Miss Marie Nichols, Mrs. John B. Stanchfield, Mr. and Mrs. Frank J. Sprague, Miss Foot, Miss Comstock, Miss Mary Lawton, Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Gaillard, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Hapgood, Mr. and Mrs. Albert Bigelow Paine, and Miss Ethel Newcomb, all of New York-a sparkling and distinguished array of musical and other guests indeed!

Several months after leaving for Europe to settle down, Clara and Ossip returned to Redding to Sam Clemens' bedside just four days before his death, April 21,1910. Clara became the sole heir to the Clemens estate, as both her sisters had already passed away. Caring for the Clemens’ estate became Clara’s lifetime occupation. After Ossip’s death Clara moved to Los Angeles. She remarried eight years later to another Russian musician, conductor Jacques Samossoud, and they moved to San Diego. In 1962, at the age of 88, Clara died in San Diego.

*Berkeley houses the world's largest collection of Samuel Clemens' manuscripts, letters and notebooks. Five full-time editors at the Mark Twain Project produce authoritative editions of Clemens' works. So far, 31 scholarly and popular books have been printed. The project aims to publish 70 volumes by 2010, the 100th anniversary of Clemens' death. And this is only Berkeley.


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10:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did you know that many of Mark Twain's books are available online free like
The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc is available online here

12:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello, Interest blog.

Any info Clara Clemen's piano accompanist, Charles E. WARK?

10:47 AM  

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