Éva Gauthier, mezzo-soprano and voice teacher (1885-1958)

"The High Priestess of Modern Song"

Mezzo-soprano Éva Gauthier's musical career took her from Ottawa, Canada to the four corners of the world. Her inimitable flair, her expressive singing style and her dedication to contemporary vocal music led to her reputation across North America and Europe as a tireless champion of modern composers. Although this Canadian singer is best known for her own accomplishments as a leading interpreter of modern song, she is also remembered for introducing George Gershwin in the first-ever performance of jazz-inspired songs in a concert hall. For these and other reasons, therefore, Éva Gauthier occupies an important place in twentieth-century music history.

Early career

Josephine Éva Phoebe Gauthier was born on September 20, 1885, in Ottawa, Ontario. There Éva took piano, harmony and voice lessons, and sang at St. Patrick's Church and Ottawa's Notre Dame Basilica. In those days, Canadian musicians normally sought training under European teachers, so Gauthier travelled to Europe in 1902, at age 17, with the assistance of her uncle and aunt, Sir Wilfrid Laurier and Lady Zoë Laurier. In France, Gauthier studied voice privately with Auguste-Jean Dubulle of the Paris Conservatory, and underwent surgery to correct nodules on the vocal cords. Subsequently, she studied with Jacques Bouhy, whom she credited for her vocal technique.

In Europe, Gauthier learned the standard vocal repertoire. Originally she performed as a contralto, but she expanded her range to include the soprano and even coloratura registers, though she became known primarily as a mezzo. Throughout her career, she used her wide vocal range to advantage.

By 1905, Gauthier had been engaged by the pre-eminent Canadian singer Dame Emma Albani for a concert tour of the United Kingdom and for Albani's 1906 Canadian farewell tour. Gauthier was paid $70 per week for this 30-concert tour of Canada. At the performance in Ottawa, Gauthier's hometown, Albani recognized her protégé's obvious talents by stating, "As an artistic legacy to my country, I leave you Éva Gauthier". Albani took a special interest in Gauthier's singing career, giving her advice on care of the voice and similar matters.

Through her connections with the Lauriers and Albani, Éva obtained assistance from many high-placed individuals. Around 1906 Lord Strathcona, Canada's High Commissioner in London, provided her with a scholarship, which enabled her to study and perform in London and Europe. Despite making numerous concert appearances, Gauthier did not make her opera debut until 1909 in Pavia, Italy, when she successfully sang the role of Micaela in Carmen. Afterwards, Gauthier returned to singing in recital with various European orchestras. She did attempt a second grand opera role, but gave up on opera altogether after suffering a significant disappointment.

She had prepared the role of Mallika in Léo Delibes' Lakmé for the London Covent Garden opera company in June 1910. However, she received a shock on opening night when the director informed her that she was being replaced at the demand of the prima donna soprano Luisa Tetrazzini, who feared Gauthier's voice would overpower her own. Rather than give in to such artistic blackmail, Gauthier quit the company altogether.

Concert tours

After her disappointment with the London Covent Garden Opera Company, Gauthier left Europe for Java, Indonesia, where her future husband, Frans Knoote, (also a trained singer) was a Dutch importer and plantation manager. They married there on May 22, 1911, and for four years Gauthier became engrossed in the music of Java. Through this fortuitous circumstance, she began to incorporate Javanese music into her repertoire. She even obtained permission from the Javanese court to perform and study with a Javanese gamelan (an instrumental ensemble of gongs and chimes), making her likely the first Western woman with classical musical training to do so.


During this period, Gauthier toured Japan, China, Singapore and Malaya, giving recitals in Hong Kong, Canton, Shanghai and Peking (now Beijing) at a time when Western classical music was rarely performed there. Her reviews reflected this fact:

"She is the finest singer North China ever heard."

(Tientsin Times)


"Mlle. Gauthier came, saw and conquered; her concert scored such a musical success, that it is doubtful whether any previous one held in the colony has equaled [it]."

(South China Morning Post)


Reviewers began to compare her to other famous Canadian performers:

"Mlle. Éva Gauthier… stands on the same platform with Madame Albani and Kathleen Parlow, a trio of brilliant examples of Canadian musical talent."

(Singapore Free Press)


Front cover of a booklet of newspaper reviews of Éva Gauthier's performances on her tour of China, 1911 
[Page 1] from booklet of newspapers reviews of Éva Gauthier's performance on her tour of China, 1911
[Page 2] from booklet of newspapers reviews of Éva Gauthier's performance on her tour of China, 1911 
[Page 3] from booklet of newspapers reviews of Éva Gauthier's performance on her tour of China, 1911 
[Page 4] from booklet of newspapers reviews of Éva Gauthier's performance on her tour of China, 1911 
[Page 5] from booklet of newspapers reviews of Éva Gauthier's performance on her tour of China, 1911 

Gauthier also undertook a tour of Australia and New Zealand, but at the outbreak of the First World War, she left for the security of North America, settling in New York City in the fall of 1915, at the age of 29. She eventually divorced her husband after finding, as have many women performers, that the demands of a career did not mix easily with marriage. She maintained her privacy about these events, but it is known that she had a son, named Evan, and that she maintained a friendly correspondence with Knoote for many years.

New York and celebrity

Upon arriving in New York, Gauthier followed in the footsteps of Canadian singer Pauline Donalda and briefly tried vaudeville. Gauthier's act, entitled "Songmotion", featured one of her Javanese songs illustrated by dancers. Gauthier had not yet, however, found her niche. The New York music scene was crowded with American performers and European expatriates, making it necessary to find a specialty that would make her noticed. She wisely chose to concentrate on exotic Javanese songs and modernist Western vocal repertoire. Although some composers, such as Claude Debussy, had been experimenting with musical exoticism for a few years, Gauthier's performances of Javanese songs were ahead of their time. Not until the 1930s did Asian music become better known in North America.

Gauthier began giving annual recitals at Aeolian Hall in New York City and at that location, in November 1917, she sang three songs by the pre-eminent French composer Maurice Ravel, as well as the American premieres of Stravinsky's "Three Japanese Lyrics" and of "Five Poems of Ancient China and Japan," by the American contemporary composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes.

The singer's flair for negotiating dissonant modern harmonies and austere neoclassical melodies led to invitations to sing the premieres of hundreds of new works by contemporary composers. After the 1917 concert, Stravinsky chose Gauthier to premiere all of his concert vocal compositions. Her reputation earned her the nickname "The High Priestess of Modern Song."

In 1920, the Music League of America sent Gauthier to Paris to offer Ravel a concert tour of the United States. She and Ravel began a long friendship, and she also established valuable contacts with such luminaries in the French music world as Erik Satie and Les Six (a group of modern French composers).

These composers and many others sent Gauthier new compositions in the hope that she would perform them in concert, which she usually did despite opposition from hidebound critics. She habitually accepted all requests by composers' guilds to sing contemporary compositions (the only piece she refused to sing was Arnold Schoenberg's atonal expressionist work Pierrot Lunaire).

Gauthier was satisfyingly busy in the 1920s. She performed with many recognized conductors in America and with many orchestras. Her regular accompanists included Celius Dougherty and Ned Rorem. Gauthier promoted French music in the United States, but she also made a point of including American compositions in her concerts. Her annual New York recitals were events, because they always contained the unexpected. As well as visiting Europe, Gauthier toured the United States; the Canadian composer and oriental music expert Colin McPhee was engaged for one West Coast tour as her pianist.

Gauthier returned to Europe in 1922, and again in 1923, to continue studying voice and seek out new works to perform, but it was the blues elements and innovative rhythms of American jazz that attracted her attention next. Many concert musicians were interested in the new phenomenon of jazz. However, many music critics and large segments of the public were opposed; jazz was considered a "low" form of popular music suitable for dancing, but not sufficiently serious to be presented in concert. Hence, when on November 1, 1923, Éva Gauthier became the first classical musician to present songs of George Gershwin in concert, she upset the musical establishment.

Gauthier's concert, which was entitled a "Recital of Ancient and Modern Music for Voice", is now recognized as a historic moment. In attendance at Aeolian Hall were many notable musicians, including contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink, composer Virgil Thomson and jazz band leader Paul Whiteman. Gauthier's program featured "serious" music in the first half, including traditional opera selections by Vincenzo Bellini and art songs by Henry Purcell, juxtaposed against songs by twentieth-century modernist and neoclassical composers Arnold Schoenberg, Darius Milhaud, Béla Bartók and Paul Hindemith. If the first half was not already interesting enough, the second half of the recital broke protocol by featuring American popular songs, beginning with Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band". Gauthier continued with music by Jerome Kern and Walter Donaldson, and wound up with three George Gershwin compositions: "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise", "Innocent Ingénue Baby" and "Swanee". The young George Gershwin, in his first appearance in such a venue, accompanied Gauthier at the piano.

Together, Gauthier and Gershwin showed conservative audiences that jazz-influenced music could be a serious artistic experience. Indeed, Gauthier's innovation led directly to the equally famous concert "An Experiment In Modern Music", in February 1924, at which Gershwin and Paul Whiteman introduced Gershwin's blues-tinged piano concerto, Rhapsody in Blue. This work quickly became a staple in the repertoire of American orchestras, and a favourite with the public.

Gauthier and Gershwin repeated their Aeolian Hall success in Boston, in January 1924, and London, England in May 1925. On the latter occasion, Gauthier was quoted as saying, "Most concerts bore people. Mine, I hope, is going to entertain as well as educate" (London Daily Express, May 13, 1925).

A further highlight in Gauthier's career took place a few months later, when she performed songs by the Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos, at the Festival of the International Society of Contemporary Music in Venice, Italy. Here, Gauthier courageously finished her performance despite opposition from the traditionalist audience, which booed the Villa-Lobos composition. Sixteen years later she remembered that ". . . the audience on the whole much preferred the music of the old Venetians to the masters of today" (The Musical Record, June 1941).

Gauthier had become a celebrity by this point and circulated among the brightest coteries of New York society. She corresponded, performed and socialized with the luminaries of early twentieth-century music, art and letters (Debussy, Gershwin, Manuel de Falla, Francis Poulenc, Satie, Stravinsky, John Alden Carpenter, John Singer Sargent and Amy Lowell, among others), and she enjoyed a close association with Ravel. She was instrumental in bringing Ravel and Gershwin together at a party she hosted for Ravel's birthday on March 7, 1928. The same year, she was presented at Buckingham Palace.

Although Éva Gauthier's musical career was centred mainly in the United States, she occasionally returned to perform in her homeland. Her Canadian performances include concerts in December 1918 in Montréal; in 1921 in Lachine, Quebec; and in January 1924 in Ottawa and Montréal. She sang in 1926 at the invitation of the Women's Musical Club of Toronto, receiving an excellent review from the Globe and Mail: "Even more remarkable than her vocal gifts, however, is her brilliant originality in choosing her program. . . . nothing trite, hackneyed, banal, but everything fresh, alive, intensely interesting and immensely worth while - a typical Gauthier program" (Globe and Mail, November 26, 1926).

Gauthier was also extended the honour of singing in Ottawa on July 1, 1927, for the 60th anniversary of Canada's Confederation. (This event was also broadcast coast to coast, the first Canadian transcontinental radio broadcast.) She made other visits to Canada to see her family, such as in 1940 on the death of her mother. Although she did attend concerts of Canadian music in New York, she had a negative opinion of her homeland's treatment of its musicians: "Canadians . . . would rather listen to foreigners than their own people" (Globe and Mail, October 15, 1937).

Later career

In the late 1920s, Gauthier encountered financial worries and illness led her to Paris for a time. She temporarily gave up performing, resuming in 1931 at age 45, with a concert in Havana. As her stage appearances became less frequent, she took up teaching, in part because it was lucrative. In this, Gauthier shared Emma Albani's experience: Albani was impoverished in later life and had to rely on patrons and teaching to earn a living.

By the mid-1930s, Gauthier's career as a recitalist was winding down. She was still premiering vocal works, though; for example the soprano role in Socrate, Satie's dramatic symphony with voice. She concluded her long association with Stravinsky by premiering the title vocal role in his ballet Perséphone, in March 1935, and reprising the role in 1936. Through 1936 and 1937, she let it be known that after 22 years of singing modern music in the United States, she was retiring. She gave three farewell concerts in New York, including one devoted to the music of French composers early and modern.

Although officially retired, Gauthier remained active in the music scene. She maintained a studio on West 51st Street in New York, and proved herself a skilled voice teacher. She gave master classes and served on performance juries. Many of her students distinguished themselves and through some of them, her influence extended to other fields. One example is James Lipton, who became vice-president of the Actors Studio and helped found the Actors Studio Master of Fine Arts program.

Gauthier was also a founding member of the American Guild of Musical Artists and served on its board of governors. The ambassadress for contemporary music received many honours. One of these, the Campion Citation, which was awarded to her in 1949, read: "To Mme. Éva Gauthier: She has devoted a lifetime to the study, performance and teaching of the best in song literature in all its phases, her rare open-mindedness and unorthodox enthusiasm having been initially responsible for the recognition of many vital and important modern composers".

In her later years, Éva Gauthier continued to support the New York art-music scene, attending recitals of her students and others, and taking part in fund-raising efforts. She published articles on her experiences, including one on the contemporary music festival in Venice (The Musical Record, June 1941) and another on the Roaring Twenties (Musical Courier, February 1, 1955). She also wrote for radio. During her last years, however, she became quite ill and suffered further financial reverses, and her pianist Celius Dougherty sought support for her. She passed away on December 26, 1958.

Few recordings of Éva Gauthier's voice are available, in part because as a recital specialist she simply did not make many recordings. However, some recordings do remain, in particular those that she made on the Victor label in 1917 and 1918 of traditional French-Canadian songs. She also recorded arias and songs by French composers, and "Nina Boboh", a Javanese slumber song. Among her surviving recordings are the folk song "Un Canadien errant", "Romance", by her friend Debussy, and "Sur les bords de la rivière" (on the Columbia record label, 1918).

Éva Gauthier distinguished herself as a musical artist ahead of her time, who personally shaped the status of modern vocal music in North America. Her musical technique and her inspirational strength in her beliefs have secured her a place among Canadian musicians. In calling Gauthier a "perfect friend and perfect interpreter," Maurice Ravel acknowledged the debt that he and other twentieth-century composers owed her.

"Our present-day musicians must be encouraged to give us what they have, so that our own period shall not be sterile - so that music shall not stand still."
(Quoted in Music Magazine, October 1985)

Selected recordings available

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  • Éva Gauthier fonds.  Library and Archives Canada, MUS 81, MIKAN 206177
  • "Gauthier, Éva". Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Edited by H. Kallmann et al. 2nd ed. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, c1992. xxxii, 1524. AMICUS 12048560
  • "Gauthier, Éva". The New Grove Dictionary of American Music. Edited by H. Wiley Hitchcock and Stanley Sadie. New York, N.Y. : Grove's Dictionaries of Music, 1986. 4 v. AMICUS 6194168
  • Jablonski, Edward. George Gershwin. With an introduction by Harold Arlen. New York : Putnam, [1962]. 190 p. AMICUS 1736385
  • Lindsay, Jennifer. Javanese gamelan : traditional orchestra of Indonesia. 2nd ed. Singapore ; Toronto : Oxford University Press, 1992. vii, 76 p. AMICUS 11194395
  • Mansell, Wendy. "Grand tradition : Éva Gauthier : 1885-1958 ; great Canadian musical figures of the past". Opera Canada. Vol. 37 (Summer 1996). P. 9. AMICUS 1645716
  • Schwartz, Charles. Gershwin, his life and music. Indianapolis : Bobbs-Merrill Co., c1973. 428 p. AMICUS 2660535
  • Sills, Herbert. Éva Gauthier - mezzo soprano. [Ottawa] : Historical Society of Ottawa, 1986. 9 p. AMICUS 13092109
  • Turbide, Nadia. "Éva Gauthier - de Java au jazz". Aria. Vol. 5, no 2 (July/August 1982). P. 13-14, 19. AMICUS 2862457
  • "Canadian Éva Gauthier pioneered 20th century". Music Magazine. (October 1985). P. 11-14. AMICUS 15549
  • "Éva Gauthier (1885-1958) : Première cantatrice canadienne-française d'avant-garde". Les Cahiers de l'ARMuQ. No 7 (May 1988). P. 65-78. AMICUS 3849092
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