- Fannie Bloomfield-Zeisler: The Life and Times of a Piano Virtuoso by Beth Abelson Macleod
Fannie Bloomfield-Zeisler: The Life and Times of a Piano Virtuoso
Urbana–Chicago–Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2015
xii + 197 pp., 15 illustrations, 3 appendices
The only audible traces of Fannie Bloomfield-Zeisler (1863–1927), one of the most renowned pianists of the early twentieth century, are her 1908 Welte-Mignon recordings. Inaccessible for many years, these sophisticated piano rolls have been successfully transferred to the digital realm and are currently available through Naxos. Although the recordings were made well before the advent of the electric microphone, the performances are precise and wonderfully nuanced, allowing an intimate glimpse of an artist who captivated concert audiences for nearly forty years.
Beth Abelson Macleod’s biography, the first book-length treatment of this internationally recognized pianist, is a welcome addition to the literature on significant Jewish women musicians. At her height, Bloomfield-Zeisler was acknowledged as one of three pianists who could reliably fill Carnegie Hall (p. 2). She performed with major American orchestras, gave concerts in Europe and hosted numerous accomplished people in her Chicago home. She also witnessed several important historical incidents, including the 1871 Chicago fire and her husband Sigmund Zeisler’s legal defense of the “anarchists” accused in connection with Chicago’s infamous Haymarket Riot in 1886. Bloomfield-Zeisler is a compelling subject from many perspectives, and Macleod examines her life in clear prose and rich detail, drawing upon Sigmund’s unpublished biography of his wife and other primary sources housed in Cincinnati’s American Jewish Archives. Macleod has made good use of these treasures, significantly expanding the chapter on Bloomfield-Zeisler in her 2001 book, Women Performing Music: The Emergence of American Women as Classical Instrumentalists and Conductors.
The book’s first two chapters treat Fanny Bloomfield’s Austrian-Jewish heritage, her natal family’s immigration to Chicago and her extended study in Vienna with Theodor Leschetizky, arguably the most important piano teacher of the era, alongside Franz Liszt. The third chapter describes her courtship with distant cousin Sigmund Zeisler, who studied law at the University of Vienna and Northwestern University. They were [End Page 142] married less than a year when the Haymarket affair, in which a bomb thrown during an ostensibly peaceful labor demonstration resulted in the deaths of seven policemen and at least four civilians, put Sigmund at the center of one of the most notorious legal cases in U.S. history. Fannie gave birth to the first of their three sons during the trial and resumed touring three months later. Meanwhile, seven of the eight men charged were sentenced to death, though their involvement in the bombing was not clear. One committed suicide in jail, and four were executed a year later. The Zeislers’ eldest son, who eventually joined his father’s law practice, recalled that Sigmund “suffered for his part in it all his life.” Sigmund’s “Reminiscences of the Anarchist Case” is still an important primary source on the trial, which is now considered a “heinous travesty of justice” (pp. 40–43).
Chapter Four returns to Bloomfield-Zeisler’s professional career, beginning with her 1884 American debut as a mature artist performing contemporary composer Adolph von Henselt’s Concerto in F Minor. The petite Bloomfield-Zeisler created a sensation with this virtuosic work—said to demand “a man’s power”—and requests to play with symphony orchestras in Milwaukee, Boston and New York soon followed (p. 56). Over the next two chapters, Macleod chronicles Bloomfield-Zeisler’s domestic and European tours, her relationships with conductors and critics, her repertoire and her work with such eminent composers as Edvard Grieg, Gustav Mahler, Moritz Mozkowski, Anton Rubinstein and Richard Strauss. Bloomfield-Zeisler also championed female composers, playing works dedicated to her by Amy Beach, Cécile Chaminade, Helen Hopekirk and Signe Lund. The eighth and last chapter focuses on Bloomfield-Zeisler’s final two decades, balancing career and domestic life. As her demanding touring schedule slowed, she focused more on teaching, and she directed a piano studio at the family’s home in Chicago’s Hyde Park. An appendix...