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Thomas Feng on Emahoy and Chopin

Updated: Jan 29

Context: In December 2023, a symposium titled, Emahoy Tsege-Mariam Gebru at 100, was held at Cornell University as part of Thomas Feng's dissertation on Emahoy. This marks the first academic conference entirely dedicated to Emahoy's life and work. The following are the written notes that accompanied Thomas Feng's performance of piano music by Chopin and Emahoy.


The Program

Story of the Wind:

Piano music by Emahoy and Chopin

Thomas Feng, piano


Wagaye, Don’t Cry Anymore (1973)

Emahoy Tsege-Mariam Gebru (1923-2023)

Mazurka in B-flat, Op. 7/1 (1830/31)

Fréderic Chopin (1810-1849)

Presentiment (1949)

Emahoy

Mazurka in a, Op. 7/2 (1830/31)

Chopin

The Last Tears of a Deceased (1962)

Emahoy

Grande Valse Brillante, Op. 18 (1833)

Chopin

Evening Breeze (1966)

Emahoy


~INTERMISSION~


Story of the Wind (1947)

Emahoy

Waltz in A-flat, Op. 69/1 (1835)

Chopin

Grande Valzer Improvisata, inspired by Tolstoi’s Anna Karenina (1975)

Emahoy


Barnes Hall venue for Emahoy Tsege-Mariam Gebru at 100 recital
Thomas Feng at the Barnes Hall Auditorium

Upon Emahoy’s passing this past March, the obituary by the Ethiopian state media company, Fana, led with the headline: “World-Renowned Classical Pianist And Composer Emahoy Tsege Mariam Dies at 99”. (1) Later this year, the US-based Ethiopian diaspora publication, Tadias, declared: “Emahoy... left an indelible mark on the world of classical music.” (2)


In contrast, Western publications in recent years have been hesitant to place Emahoy so firmly in the Western classical tradition: the Washington Post’s obituary described her as “genre-defying”, (3) the New Yorker, among others, “otherworldly” (4); an oft-cited profile by the Guardian muses, “Her melodies flit between traditions.” (5)


I have expressed previously my skepticism toward this “othering” of Emahoy and her music, (6) as always adjacent to something familiar, “but not quite.” (7) On the one hand, Emahoy’s suggestive liminality relative to recognizable Western idioms (the blues, ragtime, waltzes, new age) facilitates her remarkable transcendence of international cultural and generic boundaries; on the other hand, it keeps her music exotically “something else.” As Ghanaian musicologist Kofi Agawu has argued about African music more generally, this “othering” and default presumption of difference, no matter how well-intended, may keep African music the subject, but never equal interlocutor, of the Western metropole, and with all its institutional, material, and cultural capital. In remedy, Agawu provocatively argues for an analytical framework of “strategic sameness,” by which African music, apprehended with already existing rather than newly invented theoretical apparatuses, may be drawn into global cultural discourse on a more bilateral basis. Such a comparative approach, Agawu claims, will also allow actual differences to float more clearly and appreciably to the surface. (8)


Emahoy herself, while staunchly disavowing that she ever tried to imitate anyone, (9) has acknowledged the influence nonetheless of such composers in the Western classical tradition as Chopin, Beethoven, and Johann Strauss. (10) What stands, discursively, to be gained from seriously considering that affinity? By holding her music up to that which she knew and admired, perhaps a more concrete notion can coalesce around what makes her music what it distinctly is, rather than what it is merely like but ultimately is not. This is not to claim altogether that Emahoy should be considered a classical composer, or necessarily that she thought of herself as one. It is, however, to propose a more specific account of Emahoy’s unique musical style than has yet appeared in Western journalism; aspects inevitably unaddressed by the present study (in particular, the influence of the Ethiopian Orthodox liturgical chant tradition, and traditional Ethiopian idioms more broadly (11)) will, I hope, be fruitful for further investigations.


For the present program, I have chosen several pieces by Emahoy, interspersed with mazurkas and waltzes by Chopin, scores for which she kept in her room. It’s unclear just how well she knew these pieces, though she marked each of them marginally with pencil, and acknowledged having performed some of the waltzes during the Ethiopian Revolution. (12) Still, striking affinities shine through the interstices: periodic sectional repetition, idiomatic rhythmic flexibility within a triple meter, consistent “oom-pah-pah” left hand patterning. Indeed, whether explicit (as in “Grande Valzer Improvisata” of 1975, and “Story of the Wind” of 1947) or implied (as in “Presentiment” of 1949, or “The Last Tears of the Deceased” of 1962), strains of the waltz never seem far.


Just as Chopin’s music offers a particular lens through which to view Emahoy’s music, so the same is true of the reverse, challenging as well any notion of Chopin’s music as canonically unmarked. The features of Emahoy’s music that appear on the surface most ineffable also cast Chopin’s in a new light: the startling “bluesy” (13) chromatic shifts, the elaborate ornamentation right-hand melodies, sometimes (incorrectly) assumed to have been improvised. (14) Indeed, Chopin’s Mazurkas especially are characterized by their roots in Polish folk music, described in his time as having “something naïvely untamed about them that charms and captivates by its very strangeness...” (15) Thus Chopin’s representation of national identity may be seen to parallel Emahoy’s own, in its perceived ineffable “otherness”: “Chopin’s inner ideal reveals itself... in the very original and absolutely inimitable way in which he interprets his nationalistic Polish pieces, with a genuinely characteristic stamp. For that reason, he himself, in his own music, could not be a model to imitate.” (16)


And yet, history has ensconced the “inimitable” Chopin in the Western classical firmament for generations of pianists thereafter; the subtleties of mazurka performance continue to engage scholars and critics, as do the lilt of the Viennese waltz, (17) and the string fingerings (18) or metronome markings in the music of Beethoven. (19) Emahoy held, even obliquely, and outside any mainstream classical institutions, perspectives on such matters, metabolized through her own compositions and performances. To really consider what Emahoy and Chopin have to say to one another offers an opportunity for transformation: as Emahoy’s friend and collaborator, Maya Dunietz, remarked, getting to know Emahoy’s music changed how she approached all other notated music. (20) I, myself, have found the same to be true, and hope to share something of it with the present program.


Thomas Feng

November 2023


(1) “World-Renowned Classical Pianist and Composer Emahoy Tsege Mariam Dies at 99,” Fana, March 27, 2023, https:// www.fanabc.com/english/world-renowned-classical-pianist-and-composer-emahoy-tsege-mariam-dies-at-99/ .

(2) “DC: The Kennedy Center Presents Historic Musical Tribute to Ethiopian Icon Emahoy

Tsege Mariam Gebru,” Tadias, September 26, 2023,

(3) Brian Murphy, “Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, Ethiopian Nun and Piano Virtuoso, Dies at 99,” Washington Post, April 5, 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/obituaries/2023/04/01/emahoy-guebrou-nun-ethiopian-piano-dies/.

(4) Amanda Petrusich, “The Otherworldly Compositions of an Ethiopian Nun,” The New Yorker, April 7, 2023.

(5) Kate Molleson, “The Extraordinary Life of Ethiopia’s 93-Year-Old Singing Nun,” The Guardian, April 17, 2017, https:// www.theguardian.com/music/2017/apr/17/ethiopia-93-year-old-singing-nun-emahoy-tsegue-maryam-guebrou .

(6) Thomas Feng, “Quo Vadis?: The Life and Music of Emahoy Tsege-Mariam Gebru” (Cornell University, December 7, 2022).

(7) Molleson, “The Extraordinary Life of Ethiopia’s 93-Year-Old Singing Nun.”

(8) Kofi Agawu, Representing African Music: Postcolonial Notes, Queries, Positions (New York and London: Routledge, 2003).

(9) “The Honky Tonk Nun,” BBC Radio 4, 2017, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08mb1ft; Emahoy Tsege-Mariam Gebru, recorded conversation with Mary Sutton (2018) and personal communication with Hanna Kebbede and Thomas Feng (September 21, 2023).

(10) Ben Shalev, “A Musical Secret, Hidden Away at an Ethiopian Convent in Jerusalem,” Haaretz, August 16, 2013, https:// www.haaretz.com/jewish/2013-08-16/ty-article/.premium/jerusalem-ethiopian-convent-hides-musical-gem/0000017f- f039-d497-a1ff-f2b91cbc0000?_amp=true; Emahoy, recorded conversation with Mary Sutton (2018).

(11) Two publications have made significant headway: Nadav Haber, “She Always Comes Back Home: The Music of Emahoy Tsegué-Mariam Guèbru,” in Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbru, ed. Itay Mautner, trans. Kim Weiss (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Season of Culture, 2013), 12–21; Lucien Johnson, “Itineraries of Modern Ethiopian Instrumental Music” (Victoria University of Wellington, 2017).

(12) Emahoy, recorded conversation with Mary Sutton (2018).

(13) Molleson, “The Extraordinary Life of Ethiopia’s 93-Year-Old Singing Nun.”

(14) Neil Genzlinger, “Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, Nun With a Musical Gift, Dies at 99,” The New York Times, April 3, 2023, sec. Arts, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/03/arts/music/emahoy-tsegue-maryam-guebrou-dead.html; John Lewis, “Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou: The Ethiopian Nun Who Was One of History’s Most Distinctive Pianists,” The Guardian, March 28, 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/music/2023/mar/28/emahoy-tsegue-maryam-guebrou-the-ethiopian-nun-who-was-one-of-historys-most-distinctive-pianists .

(15) Hector Berlioz, via Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, Chopin: Pianist and Teacher as Seen by His Pupils, ed. Roy Howat, trans. Naomi Shohet and Krysia Osotowicz, 11. Aufl (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 71.

(16) Anton Schindler, via Eigeldinger, p. 72.

(17) Jian Yang, “Viennese Style in Viennese Waltzes: An Empirical Study of Timing in the Recordings of The Blue Danube,” Musicologica Austriaca: Journal for Austrian Music Studies, January 1, 2023.

(18) Fabio Morabito, “Theatrical Marginalia: Pierre Baillot and the Prototype of the Modern Performer,” Music and Letters 101, no. 2 (May 1, 2020): 270–99, https://doi.org/10.1093/ml/gcz110.

(19) Marc D. Moskovitz, Measure: In Pursuit of Musical Time (Suffolk, UK; Rochester, NY: The Boydell Press, 2022).

(20) Maya Dunietz, “The Ethiopian Barefoot Nun: Remembering Emahoy, One of History’s Greatest Pianists,” TRT Afrika, May 3, 2023, http://www.trtafrika.com/lifestyle/the-ethiopian-barefoot-nun-remembering-emahoy-one-of-historys-greatest-pianists-13067826.


Works Cited

Agawu, Kofi. Representing African Music: Postcolonial Notes, Queries, Positions. New York and London: Routledge, 2003.

Dunietz, Maya. “The Ethiopian Barefoot Nun: Remembering Emahoy, One of History’s Greatest Pianists.” TRT Afrika, May 3, 2023. http://www.trtafrika.com/lifestyle/the- ethiopian-barefoot-nun-remembering-emahoy-one-of-historys-greatest-pianists- 13067826.

Eigeldinger, Jean-Jacques. Chopin: Pianist and Teacher as Seen by His Pupils. Edited by Roy Howat. Translated by Naomi Shohet and Krysia Osotowicz. 11. Aufl. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Fana. “World-Renowned Classical Pianist and Composer Emahoy Tsege Mariam Dies at 99.” March 27, 2023. https://www.fanabc.com/english/world-renowned-classical- pianist-and-composer-emahoy-tsege-mariam-dies-at-99/.

Feng, Thomas. “Quo Vadis?: The Life and Music of Emahoy Tsege-Mariam Gebru.” Cornell University, December 7, 2022.

Genzlinger, Neil. “Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, Nun With a Musical Gift, Dies at 99.” The New York Times, April 3, 2023, sec. Arts. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/03/  arts/music/emahoy-tsegue-maryam-guebrou-dead.html.

Haber, Nadav. “She Always Comes Back Home: The Music of Emahoy Tsegué-Mariam Guèbru.” In Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbru, edited by Itay Mautner, translated by Kim Weiss, 12– 21. Jerusalem: Jerusalem Season of Culture, 2013.

Johnson, Lucien. “Itineraries of Modern Ethiopian Instrumental Music.” Victoria University of Wellington, 2017.

Lewis, John. “Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou: The Ethiopian Nun Who Was One of History’s Most Distinctive Pianists.” The Guardian, March 28, 2023. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2023/mar/28/emahoy-tsegue-maryam- guebrou-the-ethiopian-nun-who-was-one-of-historys-most-distinctive-pianists.

Molleson, Kate. “The Extraordinary Life of Ethiopia’s 93-Year-Old Singing Nun.” The Guardian, April 17, 2017.https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/apr/17/ethiopia- 93-year-old-singing-nun-emahoy-tsegue-maryam-guebrou.

Morabito, Fabio. “Theatrical Marginalia: Pierre Baillot and the Prototype of the Modern Performer.” Music and Letters 101, no. 2 (May 1, 2020): 270–99. https://doi.org/10.1093/ml/gcz110.

Moskovitz, Marc D. Measure: In Pursuit of Musical Time. Suffolk, UK; Rochester, NY: The Boydell Press, 2022.

Murphy, Brian. “Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou, Ethiopian Nun and Piano Virtuoso, Dies at 99.” Washington Post, April 5, 2023. https://www.washingtonpost.com/obituaries/2023/04/01/emahoy-guebrou-nun- ethiopian-piano-dies/.

Petrusich, Amanda. “The Otherworldly Compositions of an Ethiopian Nun.” The New Yorker, April 7, 2023.

Shalev, Ben. “A Musical Secret, Hidden Away at an Ethiopian Convent in Jerusalem.” Haaretz, August 16, 2013. https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/2013-08-16/ty- article/.premium/jerusalem-ethiopian-convent-hides-musical-gem/0000017f- f039-d497-a1ff-f2b91cbc0000?_amp=true.

Tadias. “DC: The Kennedy Center Presents Historic Musical Tribute to Ethiopian Icon Emahoy Tsege Mariam Gebru.” September 26, 2023. http://www.tadias.com/09/26/2023/dc-the-kennedy-center-presents-historic- musical-tribute-to-ethiopian-icon-emahoy-tsege-mariam-gebru/.

Yang, Jian. “Viennese Style in Viennese Waltzes: An Empirical Study of Timing in the Recordings of The Blue Danube.” Musicologica Austriaca: Journal for Austrian Music Studies, January 1, 2023.



Copyright © 2023 by Thomas Feng




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