Amelia Whiteheart Pieces

A shorter version of this essay was published here in 2009. Since then I have received several requests for clarification and comments. What follows is an expanded version of the original text, in which these requests were taken into account.

The pieces posted below aren't a proper part of my catalogue, since I was not their composer – I only transcribed them to the best of my ability, and of course made them available in digital form. Amelia Whiteheart's work was discovered by the late James Keaton, a good friend of mine. We met online through the now defunct LiveJournal community 'foundthings', where subscribers would share "found objects": mostly photographs, but also antiques and all kinds of paraphernalia, either found in abandoned houses or bought at thrift shops and auctions. It was through one such sale that Keaton acquired the manuscript of these piano pieces, bundled to about two dozen letters and a few photographs, for his collection. He had no interest in music as such, but knew of my affinity for music by obscure composers. In early October 2008 he sent me a message describing his purchase, and attached photographs of a few pages of the music, asking if I wanted to see the rest. Having examined the pages he sent, I urged him to scan and send the entire manuscript. I received that, in rather bad quality, on 27 October 2008. I wrote back, thanking Keaton and asking for more details, but he never responded. Several months later his relatives sent out to all his contacts, informing us of his death on 12 November 2008. The tone of that brief message was such that I would not be surprised if Keaton's collection of found objects eventually found its way to the same thrift stores he used to frequent.

The manuscript, as far as can be ascertained from the scans Keaton sent, and his descriptions, comprised more than a hundred sheets of note paper. Because Keaton only included the pages themselves and no other objects in his scans, and because the original JPEG files have been wiped from my hard drive some time ago, I cannot give an estimate of the dimensions of the volume. The manuscript is almost certainly a copy, possibly by the composer herself, as there are no corrections present, and the writing is extremely clean. Barlines are not used, but the ends of each piece are clearly indicated. Judging from those, there are no unfinished pieces and no sketches included, however, quite a few of the pages are empty (I only have Keaton's word for that, since he did not scan the empty pages). Curiously, those empty pages are not the last ones. They are more or less evenly spread throughout the manuscript: two full pages, one blank, several more pages of pieces, then a few blank pages, and so on. There are 123 pieces in all, but the blank pages suggest there may have been more. Why they were not copied in sequence is a mystery. The title "Piano Pieces" is given at the top of the very first page.

As for the music, Amelia Whiteheart was surely unique for a composer active circa 1900. Her music has more in common with post-war avantgarde than with anything her contemporaries were doing. Vastly more radical than Debussy, Schoenberg, or Satie, these piano pieces have no melodies, no rhythms, no conventional harmonic schemes. One cannot even speak of form or narrative, because most of the pieces are just four measures long, and a few are even shorter than that. They seem to be simply sequences of sounds, and only four types of sounds:

  • very high staccato 8th notes, always forte or fortissimo,
  • low 8th or 16th notes, pianissimo,
  • narrow, three half note (occasionally longer) chords with chordal acciaccaturas, piano, and
  • wide, four quarter note chords, forte.

    I was only able to discern some general guidelines Whiteheart followed. For instance, if a pianissimo bass note is, for example, an E, then all other pianissimo bass notes of the pieces are also Es. Another rule: if there are two quarter note chords, one immediately following the other, the second chord is always higher than the first. This does not apply if the chords are separated by other sounds. Finally, any acciaccatura to a half note chord is always higher than the chord. Perhaps there are other recurring features that I have missed. As for the logic behind the composition of the pieces, I was not able to find any.

    I find myself unable to explain exactly how or why Whiteheart composed these pieces, but they may have been for her a natural way of channeling her experiences into music. Some of the few titled pieces are clearly inspired by real life: "Boscombe Pier" (No. 53) suggests a visit to Boscombe (and since the pier was built in 1888, we can date the piece to no earlier than that), and three pieces composed between 1898 and 1901 were evidently inspired by H.G. Wells' famous novella, "The Time Machine". One is tempted to think that Whiteheart thought at least a little bit conventionally in one of the Wells pieces, "The Palace of Green Porcelain" (No. 75), for it bears the tempo indication "Maestoso". This, however, may be a simple coincidence, for there are two pieces with this title (No. 75 and No. 94), the second bearing no tempo indication.

    These pieces seem to be the only evidence of Whiteheart's life, the circumstances of which are wholly unknown. The earliest dated piece of the collection is from 1893, the latest one was composed in 1904. I was not able to find any mention of the woman in any archives available on the World Wide Web. The only possibly related Whiteheart I could locate was Charlotte Amelia Whiteheart, who moved to Canada sometime in early 20th century: see this link at the Family Search Ancestral File. She was born around 1877 in South Hampton, so she could hardly be the composer. But perhaps Charlotte Amelia Whiteheart and Amelia Whiteheart were related. We will quite probably never learn what exactly prompted Whiteheart to write the way she wrote, or which life experiences she connected to which positions of notes and chords. Stranger still is the manuscript full of blank pages. Was it intended to be a complete artistic statement, a strange story with long pauses? Or were these pieces originally grouped together in suites, telling stories through structural relationships? Were those perhaps harmonic relationships? There are no answers.

    I have typeset the entire collection of 123 pieces in Sibelius 4. Since Keaton neglected to mention the exact locations of blank pages, I decided to simply number the pieces and divide them into two parts for convenience. Here are the PDF scores:

  • Piano Pieces 1 – 60
  • Piano Pieces 61 – 123

    Updated January 2015: to give one a taste of the music, here are several pieces played back using MIDI and a sample library. I have decided to represent all of the titled and/or dated pieces; before, audio was provided only for three pieces (nos. 76, 82 and 87).

  • Piece No. 24 (untitled, dated October 1893)
  • Piece No. 46 (untitled, dated March 1896)
  • Piece No. 53 – "Boscombe Pier"
  • Piece No. 61 – "To a Waterfall"
  • Piece No. 64 (untitled, dated 1898)
  • Piece No. 75 – "The Palace of Green Porcelain"
  • Piece No. 76 – "The White Sphinx"
  • Piece No. 82 – "To a Summer Day"
  • Piece No. 94 – "The Palace of Green Porcelain"
  • Piece No. 102 (untitled, dated 17 September 1901)
  • Piece No. 114 (untitled, dated 12 February 1904)

    The first public performance of Whiteheart's music was given by Iris Gerber on 22 April 2014.

    Performers should note that either Whiteheart had large hands and a virtuoso technique, or she never used the piano to test her pieces. Some of the chords may prove a little bit too wide, and some of the acciaccaturas too difficult to execute correctly. In some cases, problems are remedied by a slow tempo. In any case, since the pieces were evidently conceived as independent entities, one may simply select for performance those of them which are less daunting.

    – Jashiin, June 2009–June 2013. (Audio and premiere information updated January 2015.)

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