Fannie Bloomfield-Zeisler: The Life and Times of a Piano Virtuoso. By Beth Abelson Macleod. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2015. xii + 197 pp.
We remember late nineteenth-century virtuoso performers Anton Rubenstein and Ignace Paderewski, but women who were hailed as brilliant instrumentalists during the same era are forgotten. Why? Longtime Central Michigan University arts and music librarian Beth Abelson Macleod immediately draws us in with this accessible, slim biography of Fannie Bloomfield-Zeisler, the performer acclaimed as the "Sarah Bernhardt of the piano" (108). The author's previous work, Women Performing Music (2000), shone light on female musicians and included an excellent chapter on Bloomfield-Zeisler. Macleod has supplemented her earlier biographical sketch by appealing to musicologists and historians with materials that elaborate on performance contents, marketing, and critical reviews, salons at home, the performer's husband, and Judaism, among other topics.
Born in 1863 in Austrian Silesia, the youngest of three surviving children, Fannie Blumenfeld (she Anglicized her name in 1883) emigrated with her family to the United States in 1867 and moved to Chicago in 1870. Her parents ran a dry goods store. Although her father loved Talmud study and her grandmother kept kosher, Fannie aligned with her mother's rebellion against religion. She attended a public grammar school and Dearborn Seminary, where, as the only Jewish student, she mixed uncomfortably with Chicago's elite young women.
Bloomfield fell in love with the piano at seven when her brother took lessons. A prodigy, she quickly proved her determination to pursue excellence at all costs. Though a sickly child, she defied her parents' pleadings and doctors' threats that long hours practicing might prove fatal.
Chicago proved a felicitous location for a person determined to pursue a musical career. On the cusp of becoming America's Second City, its arts and culture drew strong support from interested citizenry in a city that played host to touring musical greats. Among musical educators who made Chicago their home, two proved critical to Bloomfield's career. Noted theorist Bernhard Ziehn instructed Bloomfield as a child, and Carl Wolfson, a concert pianist, educator, and conductor, continued her education. Bloomfield debuted at eleven as a soloist with the Beethoven Musical Society and performed on several occasions. Later, Wolfson's brother became Bloomfield's...