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Alliance Publications

Marion Blackwell was born in 1887 in the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the daughter of Thomas and Julia Britt Blackwell. Her musical interests began at the age of 6 when she started piano lessons with her sister Alice. When she graduated from St. John’s Academy in Milwaukee she entered religious life at Sinsinawa, Wisconsin, and made profession as a Dominican Sister in 1907, taking the name Mary Edward. Her first teaching of music was in schools staffed by the Dominican Sisters in Peoria and Bloomington, Illinois. She was among the first Sisters to teach music at Rosary College, River Forest, Illinois, when it opened in 1922.
On weekends she went into Chicago to study under Professor Videk at the American Conservatory in Chicago. After fourteen years, she was the first woman and first religious Sister to receive degrees in music and music theory. Her work was highly esteemed at this time and from 1921-1931 a number of her compositions were published by the Clayton F. Summy and Boston Music companies.
At this time, the head of the American Conservatory sent some of her manuscripts to Ottorino Respighi in Rome. Under his tutelage she was the recipient of the American Scholarship for a 3-year study of orchestration and symphonic composition in Rome (1933-1936). Respighi, a master linguist who spoke 14 languages, assessed her work as ‘very, very sensitive.’
Along with four male students, Sister Edward at the age of 46, was among Respighi’’s private students meeting in his home three days each week. She met Vladimir Horowitz during this residency and noted his eccentricity. Respighi invited her to conduct in her ‘white costume’ (Dominican Sisters wore white habits and black veils), but Sister Edward declined the invitation feeling not fully qualified. When Respighi died in 1936, Nadia Boulanger, aware of Sister Edward as one of his students, invited Sister to join her studio in Paris at the Ecole Normale de Musique. Through Boulanger, Sister Edward met Igor Stravinsky who invited her to join his five male students who dined with him every noon and developed a life-long friendship. Later, Stravinsky’’s son, Soulima, maintained their friendship up to the time of Sister’’s death at Sinsinawa in 1987.
Sister Edward was a faculty member at Rosary College (1923-1932, 1936-1941) and Edgewood College in Madison (1943-1950). In 1944, she hosted Stravinsky for a presentation entitled “Composing, Performing, Listening”. Members of the Madison Pro Arte Quartet participated in his presentation. It is said that Stravinsky asked her to conduct the Chicago Symphony but she declined, preferring to sit with Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Sr. in her box.
Sister Mary Edward was a woman with a unique charisma as well as a very artistic temperament. Stravinsky indicated that she had made a great impact upon the spiritual life of Nadia Boulanger. By her forthrightness, she ‘had reached Nadia, who then chose to return to the Church after an absence of 35 years. From then on, no matter where Nadia was in the world, she wrote to Sister Mary Edward every 3 weeks up until her own death in 1979. From 1941 until 1944 while Nadia taught at Radcliffe, Harvard, Indiana University, or Stanford during the academic year, she came to Sinsinawa Mound each summer to teach music to the Sisters.
Sister Mary Edward came to teach and live at Sinsinawa Mound in 1950. This 63-year old Sister traveled extensively for at least 10 years, giving Fine Arts lectures in high schools staffed by the Sinsinawa Dominicans. She was able to hold a class spell-bound by her poetic and philosophical insights, gleaned from her deep acquaintance with the humanities. One such statement was: ““We face death with none of our business accomplished, for living is distraction disguised as important actions.”” She died at the age of 100 on January 7, 1987, and is buried in the Sinsinawa Mound Cemetery.
Mary Edward Blackwell’’s music needs no apologies. It stands firmly on its own merits as being unique during an era when the music compositional world was mostly male-dominated. This fact may also give a partial explanation for the special relationship of Sister Edward with Nadia Boulanger. It is a distinct honor for Alliance Publications, Inc., with its publishing studio at Sinsinawa, to bring to light the music of this talented composer and teacher. We look forward to bringing other compositions of this eccentric, totally artistic woman into print. In conjunction with this publication, we enclose a few poems of hers. As we move from one generation to another, the legacy of Sister Mary Edward Blackwell is being transmitted by one of her grateful piano students, Anita Smisek, OP, Co-Founder and Editor of Alliance Publications, Inc. and Sinsinawa Studios Productions.

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