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Teresa Carreño
Teresa Carreño

Maybe you’ve seen Jonathan Goldsmith as "The Most Interesting Man in the World," promoting a certain liquid product on television. It’s sheer fantasy, of course. But how about "The Most Interesting Pianist of the Present Age"?

That title went to a Venezuelan pianist in the late 19th century. The noted critic Hans von Bülow bestowed it. He declared that this pianist "sweeps the floor clean of all piano paraders who, after her arrival, must take themselves elsewhere."

Did you notice that pronoun? In an era dominated by male musicians, von Buelow said "her."

This phenomenon of the piano was Teresa Carreño. Rossini was mesmerized by her. The great American pianist Louis Moreau Gottschalk called her a genius. Claudio Arrau remembered hearing her in his youth: "I don’t think I ever heard anyone fill the Berlin Philharmonic, the old hall, with such a sound."

As a child, Carreño took a few lessons from Gottschalk. Anton Rubinstein tutored her for a time in London. When she was a teenager, Liszt heard her in Paris and offered her lessons on the spot. Strong-willed even then, she declined his invitation, refusing to follow him to Rome.

Not only was Carreño an accomplished, powerful virtuoso pianist, she was quite attractive and possessed a gorgeous mezzo-soprano voice. She even conducted, and, for a time, ran an opera company.

Carreño wowed President Lincoln in a White House performance – but not before expressing her disapproval of the piano! As a virtuoso in Europe, she was just shy of canonization.

But Carreño was rather less than a saint in her private life, which really wasn’t very private at all. One German publication reviewed the "Walküre of the Piano" thus: "Frau Carreño yesterday played, for the first time, the second concerto of her third husband at the fourth Philharmonic concert."

In fact, Carreño eventually married four times. Two of her husbands were brothers. Legend has it that she kept a loaded pistol on her piano to ward off unwelcome guests.

A most unlikely friendship and mutual admiration developed between this enchantress and the staunchly conservative New England-born composer Amy Beach. Beach even dedicated her Piano Concerto in c sharp minor to Carreño.

Teresa Carreño may indeed have been one of the most interesting pianists of all time.

— Sylvia Docking

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