Mary Turner Salter

Mary Elizabeth Turner Salter (1856-1938) received musical training and education from an early age, studying at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and going on to teach at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, in 1879. A recognized mezzo-soprano who most often performed art songs and sacred music, she was also an excellent pianist. This extract from her song "Blossom-time" (published in 1913, Oliver Ditson Company, Boston, MA), contains a piano part that requires a confident yet sensitive touch: the mark of a composer who is familiar with the nuances of pianistic idiom.

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Blossom-time, mm. 18-28

After marrying organist Sumner Salter in 1881, Mary Turner Salter eventually withdrew from her career as a singer, turning instead to composition, teaching, and accompanying as they raised a family in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Her first 'serious' composition, "A Water-Lily," (later published by the Oliver Ditson Company) was a gift to her husband, who encouraged her to continue her musical pursuits. Throughout their marriage, Sumner Salter was sometimes a musical collaborator--performing with her at an organ inauguration for Atlanta, GA's First Methodist Church in 1885--and often an editor of her work. She credited him with helping her prepare compositions for publication, as she had not taken any formal lessons in composition. 

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Boston Massachusetts town clerk records, 1881

Mary Salter's contribution to the body of American classical music is primarily in the genre of art song. Here, two short songs from the collection Outdoor Sketches: Six songs with piano accompaniment (published in 1908, G. Schirmer, New York), "Afterglow" and "The Tanager," show the usual voice-piano instrumentation of this genre. These songs could have been performed on a private recital, public concert, or even an informal musical soiree among upper-class amateurs.

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Afterglow, mm. 5-8

Salter's compositional style shows close attention to the tone of the poetry she set and its potential for musical illustration, with moments of drama and also of poignant elegance. For comparison, note the simple rising line of "one great star" over an echoing right-hand chord and a lilting left-hand accompaniment pattern in "Afterglow," creating the tranquil atmosphere of a quiet dusk. In contrast, the more virtuosic piano flourishes under the repeated phrase "summer's epitome" and the singer's rapid descent through a wide vocal range make this passage in "The Tanager" an impassioned declaration of summer's fiery but fleeting nature.

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The Tanager, mm. 13-17

In a 1910 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Salter modestly mentioned that she did not initially think her compositions might be worth much attention, saying that her songwriting was a simple and organic process of self-expression, often inspired by her everyday activities as a wife and mother of five:

"Indeed, it is delightful to hear her say she "made them up" while engaged in such essentially feminine domestic occupations as baking, sewing, marketing and others of the homely duties of everyday life. "Contentment," for instance, was written while she was busy making cakes; and, with a delicious sense of humor--so often lacking in women, 'tis said--Mrs. Salter adds that the cake, in spite of the diversion, was a success. Certainly the song has proven to be."

"Mary Turner Salter: Illinois Woman Wins Fame as Singer and Composer--Songs Show Great Versatility," Los Angeles Times, March 13 1910, p. 19. (ProQuest Historical Newspapers)

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The Wind's Tales, mm. 18-28

It is easy to see her maternal inspiration coupled with a touch of gentle humor in the children's songs she set. Here, the vocal and piano part in extracts from "The Wind's Tales" (published in 1916, Oliver Ditson Company) evoke the gesture and mood of the text by Helen Hutchinson: 'striding' broken octaves in the right-hand piano part as the moon-man returns to his home in the sky; stern and chromatic chordal accompaniment under a solemn, monotonous textual declamation of the imagined stairway-dwelling bear; a running ascending line as the child pictures being chased up to bed; and finally, a whispering flourish that mimics the sly wind's last word, perhaps, in the piano part when the singer hesitates, wondering if such things can be true.

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The Wind's Tales, mm. 37-44

Her song "Last Night I Heard the Nightingale" (published in 1910, G. Schirmer) was featured on the acclaimed League of American Pen Women recital in 1924. This song features a balance of passionate outcry and delicate melancholy, with a mixture of thick repeated chords and sparse, sustained harmonies.

Click here to read more about the LAPW recital in Washington, D.C., as described by Melissa Wertheimer, Music Reference Specialist at the Library of Congress.

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Last Night I Heard The Nightingale, mm. 16-23

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New York Times, December 29 1912

Throughout her musical career, she performed and gave recitals in multiple states, including California, New York, Illinois, Atlanta, and Massachusetts. Some of her most notable concert appearances were on recitals with her fellow composers, of whom Amy Beach would go on to become the most renowned. Her songs were especially popular in New York concerts, where she sometimes accompanied performances of her own compositions as singers showcased American art songs alongside canonic European repertoire. It was common for singers to finish with a work by an American composer, and Salter's songs were popular choices for this aspect of programming. Famous emigree contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink was especially supportive of Salter's song "The Cry of Rachel," performing it on several occasions in New York.

The popular art-song themes of love, reverie, and pastoral imagery combine in "Love of an Hour" (published in 1913, Oliver Ditson Company).
The full text of this song, credited to Frederick Martens, is as follows:

O rose of an hour, O bloom of a day,
Too fair you flow'r to die for aye,
So deathless sweet, O rose of an hour,
In memory's garden you shall flow'r.
O love of an hour, love of a day,
Too dear your dow'r to pass away;
Transcendent fair, O love of an hour,
In the shrine of my heart you e'er shall flow'r.

Salter opens her setting of the wistful text in an uncomplicated melody over pensive chords and echoes of the vocal line in the piano accompaniment. The effect is one of natural expression springing from thoughtful reflection, not unlike Salter's description of her own compositional process and inspiration. There is no overwrought emotion here, just a simple, sincere declaration of enduring devotion.

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Love of an Hour, mm. 1-16

After a period of illness in the 1930s, Mary Turner Salter passed away on September 12th, 1938, in Orangeburg, NY. Sumner Salter compiled and published an account of her achievements shortly after, including published reviews and personal correspondences praising her musicality and compositional talents (In Memoriam: Mary Turner Salter).

Click here to view all the scores of Mary Turner Salter's compositions available in the AMRC's Digital Sheet Music Collection.

Mary Turner Salter