Handwashers’ Newsletter 25th October 2020

MARIA THERESIA VON PARADIS (1759–1824) Tim writes about another female composer:

Having been introduced to Hildegard von Bingen by Di and Ethel Smyth by Vic, I recently stumbled over an article, written by journalist Selina Mills, about another female composer. Maria Theresia, blind but with acute hearing and musical memory, she was also an accomplished singer and pianist and was ‘the darling of the Viennese musical court’. Here is an abbreviated and redacted version of that article:

Paradis’s story has always struck me as intriguing not only because of her talent, but also because we know so little about her. She was deeply respected by her musical peers; Mozart, Salieri and Haydn all composed for her. Her playing was considered exceptional and was known in all the royal courts of Europe. She went on tour from Vienna to London, via Paris, where she met her childhood playmate Marie Antoinette, and played with George III at Buckingham House.

The original Buckingham House

By the time she was in her thirties, she had started the first school for blind musicians in Vienna, which ran itself entirely by subscription and from the funds raised at the Sunday concerts at which she and her students performed.

Madame von Paradis was also an inventor, creating different-shaped playing cards for blind people so she could join in at the card tables at court. With an engineer and architects, she designed raised maps made of pâpier-maché as well as silken cords with different knots that she draped across her lap so she could discreetly recall key and time changes while playing. She died leaving enough money in the bank to support the school for a century afterwards, and unlike Mozart, who was buried in a pauper’s grave, she was laid to rest in a beautiful family mausoleum in Vienna. The catalogues that existed at her death show that she had written at least five operas, two cantatas, 15 keyboard works, several songs and a piano trio but only 20 per cent of her work survives.

So why don’t we know her name and music and, perhaps more importantly, should we? Maybe she was not as gifted as the other great female composers of the early 19th century such as Clara Schumann, Louise Farrenc and Fanny Mendelssohn. The fact that so many works are lost doesn’t help. The one hit to survive, ‘Sicilienne’, which every cellist performs, was played beautifully by Sheku Kanneh-Mason at Harry and Meghan’s wedding in 2018: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g5bNjRvjCds

. . . . and here played on violin by *Peter Liang: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-GPxJYYi8Eg 

It is thought that Mozart composed Piano Concerto No.18 for Maria Theresia to play. Here it is played by Les Arts Florrisants: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G86vNGe1Udc


Peter was a Cirencester boy; his family owned Tatyans restaurant in Castle Street. At Rendcomb College he excelled in David White’s Music Department as a violinist. Having gained a 1st at the Royal Northern School of Music, he now plays in the Hallé Orchestra.

Lorna and I remember Peter playing at one of David’s Sunday evening concerts. He played a virtuoso piece by Kreizler, molto-prestissimo. At the end, his accompanist, piano teacher Gill Day smiled, ‘Phew’ and firmly grabbed his music so he couldn’t play the encore, noisily demanded by the audience.


Ros reported that the Royal School of Church Music held a Celebration Day yesterday and recorded this special Evensong: https://www.youtube.com/user/RSCMCentre