Melinda Bargreen | 26 APR 2022
If you have never heard of the pianist/composer Philippa Duke Schuyler, you are not alone: her brief lifespan (1931-1967) and challenging circumstances (a biracial woman in a less enlightened era) impeded her career and consigned her to relative obscurity. This recording, by the pianist Sarah Masterson, seeks to redress that neglect in presenting Schuyler’s magnum opus, a lengthy suite for solo piano based on T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom – a memoir of the eventful life of the explorer/writer popularly known as “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Schuyler’s own life story is an unusual one. Born in Harlem in 1931, she was the daughter of African American journalist George Schuyler and a white artist/writer, Josephine Cogdell, who hailed from Texas. Both parents actively promoted their daughter’s musical career as a pianist, directing her life from an early age.
Philippa Schuyler had a promising and early start: she was performing Mozart at age five, and she was only 10 when she earned national attention as a composer. As she transitioned from child prodigy to young adult, however, Schuyler began to encounter racial prejudice and more limited career prospects. She performed nonetheless on tour in more than 80 countries, playing before leaders and dignitaries, and she also turned to writing – as Vietnam correspondent for the Manchester Union Leader.
“I’m half-colored,” she wrote in 1961, “so I’m not accepted anywhere. I’m always destined to be an outsider – never, never part of anything.”
She published four nonfiction books: Adventures in Black and White (a biography, 1960); Who Killed the Congo? (an analysis of the Belgian Congo’s fight for independence, 1962); Jungle Saints (a biographical work about African missionaries, 1963); and Kingdom of Dreams (a study of dream interpretation co-written with her mother, 1966).
Schuyler was not only a musician and a writer but also a natural journalist, analyzing people and politics of the day. Her views, and her books, tend toward the provocative. She was an intrepid traveler and a quick-sketch artist of landscapes and people. Her early successes were propelled by her parents, who had ambitious dreams for her:
Schuyler was only 35 when she was killed during a disastrous 1967 helicopter rescue mission in Vietnam, helping evacuate students from a school.
Preparation for this Seven Pillars of Wisdom recording presented some formidable obstacles for the pianist, Sarah Masterson. About three years before Schuyler’s death, the composer began work on this highly programmatic nine-part suite that exists today in several alternate orders and forms. The state of the Seven Pillars manuscript, which includes a prologue and an epilogue, posed numerous challenges for Masterson, who describes her task in the album’s liner notes:
Masterson, who has taught at Newberry College in South Carolina since 2014, was well equipped for her foray into what might be termed “forensic musicology.” She holds a doctorate and a master’s degree from the University of Connecticut and a bachelor’s degree from DePauw University. She has been analyzing and working on the “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” suite for the past four years, gathering together papers from several New York archives.
So what does the music sound like?
It is programmatic and picturesque; sometimes busy and motoric; easily imagined as a film score; and owing a likely debt to Bartok with rhythmic impulses punctuated by crashing chords. Inspired by Lawrence’s writing, the work is a musical reflection of many of the episodes in Lawrence’s book of the same title. In the liner notes, Masterson includes introductory quotations from the book, which the composer/pianist Schuyler would often read aloud in performance. The quotations are a great help in understanding the narrative arc of the music.
Some of the movements of Seven Pillars of Wisdom are more effective than others. The second movement’s simple melodies are presented over oscillating bass lines; ominous ostinato statements lead to extended passages of trills. The third movement, “Fire and Reason,” has a robust opening that moves into lengthy passages of repeated figures and motifs that sound as if the composer had run low on imagination. More repeated figures dominate subsequent episodes, often with similar bass lines that sometimes feature open fifths moving back and forth. Frequently the movements are laid out in four-bar patterns with motoric figures that are repeated throughout the duration of the movement.
The movements vary markedly in mood and impact. Some are quieter and more somber; “The Agonies, the Terrors, the Mistakes” (the fifth movement) takes a deeply reflective turn that rises to crashing chords underlining the repeated motifs.
Surprisingly, in some passages the piano sometimes sounds as if it had been imperfectly tuned; there are a few problematic notes.
The recording’s liner notes are a great help in understanding the links between the musical episodes and the salient events of Lawrence’s book. Kudos to Masterson for bringing Schuyler‘s Seven Pillars of Wisdom to new life with such flair and commitment. ■
• Sarah Masterson (Newberry College): newberry.edu/faculty/details/masterson-sarah