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American Composers and Musicians from A to Z: G (Part 2–Grasse, Edwin)

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Welcome to a new installment of the NLS Music Section’s journey through the alphabet to learn about musicians and composers who were blind or visually impaired. In part 2 of the letter G, we’ll meet Edwin Grasse and introduce our new violin scores catalog.

Edwin Grasse

Edwin Grasse was an immensely gifted and renowned American composer, violinist, pianist, and organist who lived from 1884 to 1954. Born blind, he displayed a remarkable precocity for music and studied violin in New York as well as Belgium. Upon hearing the young Grasse play, the great violinist Joseph Joachim reportedly told the teenager, “You are by nature gifted far more than most musicians, and need no further school but the school of public performance!”

In his lifetime Grasse found great success as a performer, touring the United States and Europe. A profile of the musician appeared in a 1908 issue of Etude Magazine. The author, Robert Haven Schauffler, writes of the then-twenty-three-year-old musician, “Not only is Edwin Grasse the first blind man to become a violin virtuoso, but Eugène Ysaÿe [a renowned Belgian violinist, composer, and conductor] places him among the greatest violinists of his time. César Thomson [a Belgian violinist, teacher, and composer] calls him the best of all piano accompanists, and [Edvard] Grieg considered him one of the most promising of American composers.”

The same article in Etude includes numerous fascinating anecdotes from Grasse’s musical life. Of Grasse’s method of composition, Schauffler writes, “At first his ideas came to him while improvising at the piano, and he made notes…on his point print slate… Then, with an occasional reference to these, he would dictate the work to his old teacher, while sitting at the piano and playing what he was dictating… But of late he has cast aside all aids to his marvelous memory. He composes now away from the piano, and last winter he dictated his trio without having made a single note on his slate.”

Schauffler also provides insight into how Grasse viewed his blindness in relation to his music career: “Grasse’s great ambition is to be such a musician that people will lose sight of his blindness. He will not allow himself to be advertised as ‘The Blind Violinist;’ for he desires no handicap in the race, and it is his greatest joy and pride that the critics have almost ceased to mention his eyes.”

On one occasion Grasse toured with Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan Macy, making appearances in Elmira, New York, in April 1926 on behalf of the American Foundation for the Blind. The Elmira Advertiser reported that “traveling about as he does, with Miss Keller, Mr. Grasse has to memorize the stops of a different organ every night for he seldom finds two organs alike.”

Grasse’s compositions include organ works, violin concertos, a symphony, and a suite for orchestra. The NLS Music collection has a braille score for Grasse’s “Serenade for the Organ,” op. 38, in bar by bar format available for checkout (BRM22392). Today his best-known composition may be a concert study he wrote for violin with piano accompaniment called “Waves at Play,” or “Wellenspiel,” first published in 1914. Violin superstar Joshua Bell has recorded the piece in recent years, and in the past virtuosi Jascha Heifetz and Fritz Kreisler used the piece as an encore. The NLS Music Section is now adding this piece to its braille music collection, so stay tuned, violinists (music pun intended)!

New: Braille Scores Catalog for Violin

Talking about violin virtuosi this week gives me the perfect opportunity to introduce the NLS Music Section’s newest catalog: the Braille Scores Catalog for Violin! This catalog is a guide to braille music scores for violin in the NLS collection. It has three sections: Composers, Collections and Method Books, and Folk Melodies. You have a few options for browsing the catalog:

  1. Browse the Braille Scores Catalog for Violin on the NLS website
  2. Listen to the Braille Scores Catalog for Violin on BARD
  3. Contact the Music Section to order the catalog in audio format on digital cartridge
  4. Contact the Music Section to order a large-print copy of the catalog

How to Contact the NLS Music Section

To learn more about the NLS Music Section, call us at 1-800-424-8567, option 2, or e-mail us at [email protected].


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