I have already written about the arrival of jazz in Batavia in 1919. What was heard until the invasion of the Japanese in 1942 varied little from the sounds of imported 78rpm platen and transcriptions from sheet music. However what is little known in Indonesia is how Javanese ‘traditional’ music came to be an influence on jazz itself.
And this lady was to be the catalyst.
Eva Gauthier (1885-1958) was a Canadian mezzo-soprano who in a diva hissy fit gave up on singing high opera after she was replaced at the last minute by another singer in a 1910 Covent Garden (London) production of Lakmé. She promptly left for Java to join her fiancé Frans Knoote,, a Dutchman who was then managing a tea plantation outside Bandung.
Within weeks of arriving she was performing concerts of arias by Tchaikovsky and Rossini in Batavia’s Schouwburg Weltevreden (Gedung Kesenian Jakarta) accompanied by a local pianist and the house band.
1In the months that followed, Gauthier toured Java, playing all the major concert halls and sociëteiten (Dutch social clubs). The Robinson Piano Company (a firm specializing in pianos built for the tropics) underwrote a tour to Delhi, Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Peking in 1911; tours to Japan, Siam, and India followed over the next two years.
Knoote then got a job with a Semarang commercial firm and it was while living there that Gauthier discovered Javanese music.
“From there I went to the other cities of the island. Often on the roads I would see groups of natives playing queer instruments, and hear them singing songs of many peculiar harmonies. I immediately became curious. Here was a music of which I had never heard! I, who had made music my life study! I inquired about these strange melodies. All my friends shook their heads, and said it would be impossible for me to understand the native music, no white people did, and as for singing it …!“
The man who provided entrance into the world of Indonesian music for the vocalist was the Dutch composer and pianist Paul J. Seelig (1876-1945) who had sat in as Gautier’s pianist when her local pianist failed to turn up. Brought up in Bandung, he had studied composition, conducting, and piano in Germany. In 1900, Paku Buwana X, the susuhunan (Sultan from 1893 to 1939) of the royal court of Surakarta (Solo), appointed Seelig as the conductor of the royal band, a position he held until 1908.
During this time, Seelig documented the royal gamelan ensemble repertoire in Western notation. He also collected Malay songs from the kroncong and stambul (pdf) repertoires, adapting them for voice and piano in a music style influenced by Debussy. Seelig provided Gauthier with a number of these song arrangements and she liked them enough to commission some more.
This is her 1914 recording of Nina Boboh, a Javanese lullaby.
2 With the outbreak of the Great War (1914-18) in Europe, Gauthier decided to travel back to North America, arriving in New York City in September 1915.
Arriving in New York, Gauthier struggled to find a niche in the already crowded New York music scene, so she wisely chose to concentrate on ‘exotic’ Javanese songs and modernist Western vocal repertoire. With the Boston-born exotic dancer Regina Jones Woody (1894-1983), who danced under the name Nila Devi, she created a novel 15-minute act titled ‘Songmotion’ in which Woody illustrated Gauthier’s Indonesian songs in dance. At the end of October 1915 they left New York for a year-long tour of the main American vaudeville houses.
However, the gruelling schedule of matinees and evening performances and the lack of understanding (‘artistic appreciation’) from audiences, who were otherwise entertained with trick cyclists, comedians, singers and jugglers, lead to Gauthier withdrawing from the tour after five months.
Back in New York, she found that it was already home to many North American and European musical performers, so Gauthier focused on her Java music repertoire, which she combined with knowledge and skill in ‘modernist’ western singing. She began a series of annual recitals at Aeolian Hall. Known as a “sensitive purveyor of interesting, untried songs“, her performances there caught the eye of many leading composers. On November 1st 1917 she gave renditions of three songs by Maurice Ravel, plus the American premières of Stravinsky’s Three Japanese Lyrics and Griffes’ Five Poems of Ancient China and Japan.
The key concert (flyer) in this narrative was in 1923. The first half consisted of classical works by Vincenzo Bellini and Henry Purcell, and modernist works by Arnold Schoenberg, Darius Milhaud, Béla Bartók, and Paul Hindemith. The second half of her performance would upset the musical establishment, however. She opened with Alexander’s Ragtime Band by Irving Berlin, then performed works by Jerome Kern and Walter Donaldson, and finally finished with three works by George Gershwin, the first time his works (I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise, Innocent Ingénue Baby, and Swanee) would be performed by a classical singer in a concert.
Important figures in the audience included Paul Whiteman, who then commissioned Gershwin to write a composition for his orchestra. Rhapsody in Blue was the result and it was premièred in 1924, also at the Aeolian Hall, by Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra with Gershwin at the piano, as he had been the previous year for Eva Gauthier, the first performer of jazz on a concert stage.
Eva Gautier with Maurice Ravel at the piano and George Gershwin on the right
“Jazz began to break into society last season. One pioneer was Eva Gauthier.”
– Independent, 3rd January 1925
Text first published in the Indonesia Expat magazine, issue 167.
Notes on sources
1 Matthew Isaac Cohen’s lengthy Eva Gauthier, Java to Jazz (2006) is a detailed yet fascinating read. Originally available here but you have to register. If you have a more than a passing interest in Indonesian, I recommend that you do so you can download academic papers of interest. However, for now I’ve posted it here.
3. Some 30 Gauthier recordings are streamed here.
Check out the funky male voice accompaniment to this Québecois folk song recorded on 15th January 1917.
Finally, here’s George Gershwin at the opening of the Manhattan Theatre in NYC in 1931.