Tuesday, November 30, 2010

NYTimes.com: 'Twain was also enthralled by Thomas Wiggins, a blind, possibly autistic former slave'

[John Davis Plays Blind Tom, Newport Classic 85660 (1999)]

Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins (1849-1908) is featured at AfriClassical.com, which presents a complete Works List compiled by Prof. Dominique-René de Lerma of Lawrence University Conservatory. The most recent biography of the enslaved pianist is The Ballad of Blind Tom, Slave Pianist: America's Lost Musical Genius, written by Deirdre O’Connell and published by Overlook Press (2009). Its website is http://www.BlindTom.org. Two compositions of Thomas Wiggins which are discussed in the following article are also found on the above recording, John Davis Plays Blind Tom: Cyclone Gallop and The Battle of Manassas.

New York Times
“Music Review
By Allan Kozinn
Published: November 29, 2010
With so many pianists commemorating the bicentenaries of Chopin and Schumann this year, it is refreshing to find a player whose fascinations lie elsewhere. John Davis has been spending the year celebrating Mark Twain on the 175th anniversary of his birth and the centenary of his death.”

“Twain was also enthralled by Thomas Wiggins, a blind, possibly autistic former slave with a prodigious repertory and technique, who toured under the name Blind Tom. By Mr. Davis’s reckoning, Blind Tom, at the height of his career, earned the equivalent of $1.5 million a year in today’s dollars and was probably the first black musical superstar. Two works by Blind Tom, along with readings from Twain's magnificently detailed account of his performances and other musical feats (he could apparently play, perfectly, any piece of music after a single hearing) proved the program’s highlights.

“The first, 'Cyclone Gallop,' begins with a Chopinesque introduction and becomes a lighthearted dance piece, rich in the spirit and charms of the late-19th-century drawing room. Its companion, 'The Battle of Manassas,' is a bravura concert work of Lisztian pretensions and spectacular wildness. Though it begins with a sober evocation of the battlefield — a suggestion of a snare drum and a lively top line that quotes battle songs of the North and South — it becomes a freewheeling set of virtuosic variations on 'Dixie,' 'Yankee Doodle,' 'The Star-Spangled Banner' and, oddly, 'La Marseillaise.'

“Mr. Davis played these pieces powerfully and with a rich palette. He did much the same for two Gottschalk works — 'The Banjo: Grotesque Fantasie' (with its gloss on Stephen Foster’s 'Camptown Races') and the more dramatic 'La Savane: Ballade Créole' — and a set of variations on 'Nearer My God to Thee' by the early ragtime pianist John William Boone, best known as Blind Boone.”

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