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Mary Hallock Greenewalt: Rembrandt of the Piano

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The following is a guest post from Lara Szypszak, Reference Librarian in the Manuscript Division.

Mary Hallock Greenewalt (1871-1950) was a musician, inventor, businesswoman, and all around go-getter, whose work leaves traces throughout several divisions of the Library of Congress, most prominently in the Manuscript and Music Divisions.

Mary Hallock Greenewalt, half-length portrait, at electric light “color organ,” which she invented. 1925 April 28. Underwood and Underwood. LC-USZ62-93477. Prints and Photographs Division.

Greenewalt was born in Bhamdoun, a small town in the mountains of Lebanon. Her mother was from the region, and her father was a United States Consul and director of the first printing plant in Asia Minor. She spent her childhood there, where her environment nurtured originality within her and an affinity for natural mysticism.

After being educated under the German Deaconess Sisters at Beirut, and later graduating from the Chilton Hills School in Philadelphia, Greenewalt studied piano with Theodore Leschetizky of Vienna and subsequently graduated from the Philadelphia Musical Academy. As a concert pianist, Greenewalt performed with the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia Symphony Orchestras and gave piano recitals throughout the country under the direction of conductors such as Victor Herbert and Fritz Scheel. Greenewalt’s contemporaries point back to her Lebanese upbringing when discussing her overflowing emotional nature, which was often revealed in her interpretations of composers such as Chopin (Columbia Records produced a recording of her playing Chopin preludes). She was also known in academic circles, lecturing on rhythm at the University of Kansas, Grinell, Karlham, Holyoke, and Vassar Colleges, and several of her publications can still be accessed online and in several repositories.

The mystic influences of Greenewalt’s childhood were also an important factor in the development of her art and in the invention of the “Sabaret,” or “color organ,” named after her mother, and the “Nourathar.” “Nourathar,” derived from Arabic roots as “the essence of light,” is the “art of achieving aesthetic expression through the harmonious interplay of light and color.” Greenewalt would liken this relationship of art and light to the way music achieves expression through the harmonious interplay of rhythm and sound. Those who saw her perform and witnessed her interpretations and experiments with light color and music deemed her the “Rembrandt of the Piano.”

A 1939 performance at the Delaware State Hospital demonstrates her practice. Greenewalt insisted that the spectral ray essential to the Nourathar was a “capricious queen,” and could only be seen against a fitting background. Accordingly, the walls of the hospital chapel were entirely silvered with a metallic paper, treated in such a way that speaks to the entire field of vision. The colors are not only in the direct line of vision but literally surround the each person in the audience. The lights would then be produced in accordance with aesthetic logic, constantly changing and produced in combination with the values of music or rhythmic expression.

Scans of silver paper and chapel, Mary Hallock Greenewalt Papers. Box 2, folder “Agreements, Portrait, Notes, Biographical Material, Etc.” Manuscript Division.



Greenewalt would dig deep into the emotional and psychological possibilities of her creations. I want them to see something more beautiful than they have ever seen before,” she touted, also arguing that her machine caused illumination factors to conform to such measurable bodily functions as pulse and respiration, reflective of the recurrent timing. Greenewalt thus saw therapeutic possibilities in her invention, suggesting “the emotions, the mind, and the inscrutable being of man are the realm of the artist as they are of the psychiatrist. The interplay of light and color has in the highest degree the capacity to suggest quiet and repose, or conversely to stimulate the mind and emotions. These powerful effects cannot be ignored in psychotherapy.”

Passport. Mary Hallock Greenewalt Papers. Box 2, folder “Agreements, Portrait, Notes, Biographical Material, Etc.” Manuscript Division.

Greenewalt found the business world was not easy, especially as a woman at the time, but her conviction that the potentialities of her invention could bring happiness and self-expression to the human race made her fight for her rights to the Nourathar and other ideas. Both Federal and Circuit courts have confirmed her priority of right in the conception and development of thought and the perfection of method. Greenewalt would spend many years and submit many patent registrations, as evident in her papers, working to ensure she received due credit for her inventions and scholarship. Readers may find it interesting that despite her extensive and successful career as a pianist, Greenewalt identifies herself as an “inventor” as her occupation on her U.S. passport, demonstrating her conviction in being recognized as such.

Light score for the 1st Movement Moonlight Sonate by Beethoven for use with the Sarabet Light Player by Mary Hallock-Greenewalt. Copyright 1919. Music Division, Call number M1480.G7B3.


There are many treasures within the two boxes of Greenewalt material, including a typed manuscript titled “The Inventor Lets a Few Cats out of the Bag,” in which our illustrious inventor vents her frustrations, discusses her work, and puts forth a lengthy diatribe on the difficulties of dealing with the U.S. Patent office and the business world at large. It is not unusual for researchers to come across such a Manuscript collection that also begs to be explored beyond the Manuscript Division walls. A portion of her papers lie in the Manuscript Division, but researchers interested in studying Greenewalt will find relevant material in several divisions and reading rooms across the Library of Congress. The Music Division holds Greenewalt’s 1919 light score for Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, which Greenewalt describes as “the First Light-Color Play Score ever made and sold in the entire history of the world” in her book, Nourathar: The Fine Art of Light Color Playing. Additionally, researchers will find publications in the Rare Books & Special Collections Reading Room, photographs of Greenewalt in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, and published books in the Main Reading Room. The life story and professional endeavors of this particular woman are prime examples of the Library’s multi-divisional offerings. Greenewalt’s legacy lies all across the Library, just as her endeavors reached far and wide during her life time.

Note: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania holds the Mary Hallock Greenewalt Papers, which includes 35 boxes and 29 volumes of correspondence, manuscripts, recordings, and other material.

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