I have long been fascinated by the brave and sorely-neglected American pianist and composer Philippa Duke Schuyler (1931-1967). Her story is astoundingly told in the book “Composition in Black and White” by Kathryn Talalay — a volume I unhesitatingly place among my top ten ever written about the life and work of concert pianists. It is published by Oxford, and you must read it, for it tells Philippa’s courageous story with manifold colors, incisive research, and unparallelled sensitivity. I will not recapitulate that story here; it is too complex, too painful, too personal for me as well, in the sense that I feel close to many of the prejudices that Philippa experienced, though from a different lens. You may find out more about all of that elsewhere, on the internet.
Classical music has never existed on a spiritually pure level, and the lives of its creators and protagonists are inextricably bound with the political and social realities of their times. That Philippa made her way in a world of incomprehensible prejudice, speaks volumes about her brilliance and fortitude. Contemplating that, I see her story as no tragedy at all, but an inspirational miracle. She is, indeed, one of my idols.
And the music? The playing? For me, it has been one of the greatest musical frustrations of all, that Philippa Schuyler’s recordings are near-impossible to locate, and have never been re-issued on CD. You cannot find a single note of her playing on YouTube. Her many compositions exist primarily in manuscript form in libraries, a mere dollop of which have been edited and published in obscure collections. Will I live long enough to hear or perform her White Nile Suite for piano and orchestra? Will any American orchestra program her Manhattan Nocturne, written for and played by the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Rudolf Ganz, when she was but 13 years of age? It has not been heard since 1946.
Through dint of years of perseverence and scouring of record collections, I found two pristine LPs of Philippa Schuyler, and recently sat down with my dear friend Mark Ainley (of the indispensible website The Piano Files) to listen to the recordings. Excepting a frustrating attempt to hear through headphones a reel-to-reel tape of Philippa’s amazing live performance (aged 14) of the Saint-Säens Piano Concerto no. 2 with the New York Philharmonic at Lewisohn Stadium — standing in a noisy hallway of the Schomburg Center of the New York Public Library some five years ago — this was the first time I could really assess the extent of Philippa Schuyler’s pianistic artistry.
It is a widely mixed bag, attesting to the life of struggle, hard travel and personal crises she lived. International Favorites: Philippa Schuyler, pianist (Middle-Tone Records, New York), features a diverse recital program ranging from a poorly conceived and executed mini-rendition of themes from George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris”; through a stolid, unexceptional performance of Franz Liszt’s Sixth Hungarian Rhapsody; to an astounding interpretation of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” with gorgeous array of colors, bold tempi and personal touches especially highlighting voicing and contrapuntal lines I have never heard any other pianist approach.
A second LP, which I assume to have been made a bit earlier (judging from the cover photo and liner notes), is called Pianologue: Philippa Duke Schuyler (Circe Records CLP 101, New York). It features one side of varied short compositions and arrangements by Schuyler utilizing native folk themes from countries where she concertized such as Japan, China, Uganda, Ethiopia, France, Haiti and Chile. To some degree the pieces reminded me of similar “souvenir” works by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and in the main I found them a trifle naïve and dated. But on the flip side of this LP is arguably Schuyler’s greatest recording of all, a traversal of the Bach-Liszt Prelude and Fugue in A minor that is simply jaw-dropping in terms of its rhythmic intensity, clarity of contrapuntal voicing, and dramatic power.
She was one of the great originals of her time, a trailblazing virtuosa and creative genius, and she needs to be heard. It is long past time for America, and the world, to recognize and celebrate the magnificent and proud artistry of Philippa Schuyler.
Philippa Schuyler on the cover of Sepia magazine, 1962.
“an artist of major stature…
a personable, graceful young woman possessed of fine pianistic technique,
ample tone power, and a subtle skill in etching pictures in sound.”
– The Musical Courier