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American Composers and Musicians from A to Z: I-Part 2, Blind Musicians, International

“I” is for International. Part 1 of our American Composers series featured three American composers who had a last name beginning with the letter “I.”  For Part 2, let’s take a look at blind musicians on an international level.  Music is an international language and many cultures have featured blind musicians in court life and their society.

From sixth century B.C., China organized Guilds of Blind Musicians as a profession, a practice that continued right up until the middle of the 20th century. Eruqn Yinguye (Moon Reflected in the Second Spring) is a popular title and is attributed to Hua Yanjun, also known as Blind Ah Bing. He performed it on an erhu, a fiddle-like instrument.

In the late 12th century, traveling blind musicians in Japan were known as biwa hoshi. They brought story-themed music to the provinces. The Tale of the Heike is a beloved Samurai war story between two military families, the Taira and the Minamoto.  These musicians played the biwa—a lute-type instrument consisting of four strings, an elliptical box, and long neck—while singing their epic tales.

In Ukraine, blind musicians were integral to the culture.  This blind musician tradition is known as Kobzarstvo, and those rising to a high level were called kobzars. The kobzars played a bandura, a plucked string instrument. The lirnyks played a lira, a sort of hurdy-gurdy. They were highly regarded in Ukrainian culture and sang of historic events in Ukraine’s past. This tradition was prevalent until the 1930s. The communist leader Joseph Stalin, in an awful move, persecuted many of these artists in an attempt to eradicate elements of Ukrainian culture. The tradition and repertoire have been revived but are mostly performed by sighted artists.

Blind Irish musicians  were taught as children a musical instrument for a profession and livelihood. Turlough O’Carolan is represented in the NLS Music Section with 40 O’Carolan Tunes for All Harps.  It is in four volumes, available on BARD and hard copy at BRM 32673.

We know Louis Braille was the inventor of the tactile writing system named after himself, but he was also an accomplished organist. Many blind organists have achieved fame for their performances, among them Bach scholar Helmut Walcha, and several French organists who composed as well as performed: Louis Vierne, André Marchal, Gaston Litaize and Jean Langlais. The NLS Music Section  has some titles by these composers on BARD; from Vierne there is Symphonie 1 pour Grand Orgue, op. 14, (BRM 35175), Pièces de fantaisie for Grand Organ, Second Suite (BRM 24338), Messe Solennelle in C-sharp minor, op. 16, (BRM 21082), First Symphony, op. 14, finale movement, (BRM 20778), 24  Pièces en style libre pour orgue ou harmonium, (BRM 32179) and Second Symphony, op. 20, (BRM 04925). From Jean Langlais, there is Neuf Pièces pour Grand Orgue, (BRM 24225), Organ Book, Ten Pieces, (BRM 24130), Fête (BRM 29011), and La Nativité from Poèmes Évangéliques, (BRM 36049).

And while it is not as common today with the popularity of the piano having waned somewhat since the Romantic-era 19th century, many piano tuners were blind.  NLS has multiple titles for this tradition.  Piano Tuning and Allied Arts, (BRM 18485), Scientific Piano Tuning and Servicing, (BRM 10906), Scientific Tuning and Servicing (BRM 11295), Pianoforte and Organ Tuning and Famous Builders of English Organs, articles reprinted from Braille Musical Magazine (BRM 11276), Pianoforte-Tuning: an Occupation for the Blind, (BRM 24171) and Grand and Spinet Pianos, (BRM 09604.)

And since this is a series of American Composers and Blind Musicians, we can offer Arizona Dranes,  a barrelhouse piano player, and Ray Charles, with his great recorded version of America the Beautiful. From jazz great Art Tatum NLS has The Art Tatum Collection, (BRM 36131), and The Right Hand According to Tatum (BRM 36375) and Stevie Wonder’s great work Songs in the Key of Life, (BRM 26034.)

Thanks for the music, and play on!

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