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Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler and Dreyfus Collateral

By Benjamin Ivry

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The collateral damage of the Dreyfus Affair was far-reaching. The new release from Appian CDs of the complete recordings of elegant British pianist Harold Bauer recalls the most dramatic passage from Bauer’s memoirs, about how the famed Jewish American pianist Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler (1863-1927; born to an Orthodox family in Bielitz, Austrian Silesia), caused a riot in Paris by daring to perform at the height of the Dreyfus controversy. Seen by the xenophobic Gallic audience as a Germanic artist and, even worse, a Jewish one, she dared perform on a Hamburg Steinway piano instead of a French instrument, and was roundly booed. Bloomfield Zeisler was uncowed, as Bauer relates, instead quipping: “Where did the legend arise that French people are polite?”

Born Fannie Blumenfeld, at age 4 she moved to Chicago, where the family name was Americanized to Bloomfield. She returned to Europe to study with the eminent piano pedagogue Theodor Leschetizky, who helped develop her into a fiercely capable virtuoso, a kind of Martha Argerich of her day, if tantalizing surviving piano rolls are any indication. This galvanizing forthrightness was no doubt encouraged by her marriage to Sigmund Zeisler, a landsman from Bielitz and stout-hearted radical lawyer who defended anarchists (at the 1886 Haymarket trials) as well as lecturing on “The Legal and Moral Aspects of Abortion” at a 1910 meeting of the Chicago Gynecological Society!

Listen to a modern day player piano executing one of Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler’s piano rolls below.


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