Tone Poem Tuesday

This may be something of a cheat, since Tone Poem Tuesday has always featured orchestral music, and this week all we have is a solo piano work. But what a work it is, juxtaposing traditional melodies with interesting sound effects, some produced by the piano and some not.

But first, let’s meet our composer: Blind Tom Wiggins.
He was born a slave in 1850, but–as one might expect from his name–he was blind. A blind slave might have expected to simply be killed by their owners, since they offer little by way of economic benefit, but for whatever reason, Tom’s owners let him live, and he seems to have been allowed to simply wander about the plantation and entertain himself as best he could, which ultimately led to his finding his way to a piano. He played songs from memory upon first hearing, and he had other strange gifts of recall as well: he was able to recite speeches he had heard years before, even aping the speakers’ intonations, and he could repeat entire conversations verbatim. But he couldn’t communicate his own thoughts or needs beyond grunting.
It is now thought that Blind Tom Wiggins was an autistic savant, in a time when such individuals were unheard of. He traveled extensively, performing concerts where he would entertain “audience challenges”: someone would play for him a new, unheard composition, challenging him to reproduce it by ear, and he would. Wiggins also composed a lot of music of his own, little of which has been heard since his day.
One of his best-known pieces is this week’s feature. It is called The Battle of Manassas, and it begins with rolling piano chords possibly signifying the drums of an army on the march. Then comes a series of familiar tunes from the Civil War era, some of which come as a surprise. As the piece goes on, the drumming in the bass gives way to pounded dissonant chords, possibly signifying gun and cannon fire. At one point the performer is to whistle a single note over the entire proceedings, while in another the performer makes a “Ch-ch-ch” sound.
It’s a bizarre and fascinatingly modern piece, written by a man who was enslaved, misunderstood, and exploited. Here is The Battle of Manassas, by Blind Tom Wiggins.

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1 Response to Tone Poem Tuesday

  1. Roger Owen Green says:

    Keep up the good work. Never even HEARD of him!

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