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Sophie Eckhardt-Grammaté: the untold love story behind 10 of her greatest pieces

Andrea Warner

How should a love story sound? What if it’s not all pop songs and symphonies but rather bursts of anger and silence and overwhelming, all-consuming affection, note upon note, a jagged flutter in one breath, a lyrical hush the next?

10 pieces for 10 years — that is the backbone of Never the Last, a new multidisciplinary musical piece from theatre artists Christine Quintana and Molly Mackinnon, based on the largely untold love story of Russian-Canadian violinist and composer Sophie-Carmen Eckhardt-Gramatté and her first husband, artist Walter Gramatté.

If you’re not familiar with Eckhardt-Gramatté’s name, you’re not alone. Born in Moscow in 1899, Eckhardt-Gramatté, who was also known as Sonia and whose name is often abbreviated to E-Gré, was a virtuoso pianist and violinist who decided to focus entirely on composition in 1935. In 1953, she immigrated to Winnipeg and composed and taught violin until her death in 1974. A foundation in Winnipeg continues to preserve her legacy. There’s also an annual competition for emerging musicians that bears her name. In fact, the 40th annual Eckhardt-Grammaté Competition for the performance of Canadian and contemporary music was held on May 6; pianist/composer Matt Poon took first place.

May 11 marks the world premiere of Never the Last, which opens as part of the rEvolver Theatre Festival in Vancouver, and offers the rare experience of seeing E-Gré’s 10 caprices for solo violin performed live, albeit very far from a classical concert hall.

“The first E-Gré piece I heard was her Violin Caprice No. 7 ("The Departure of a Train"),” Mackinnon, who is a violinist, writes via email. “I was introduced to it by my teacher at UBC, Jasper Wood, who has recorded all 10 violin caprices and would occasionally give his students an E-Gré caprice to learn. I felt a strong response to it right away. There's such an emotional depth to it: it really conveys this sense of yearning, of loss. At the same time, it is percussive, harsh, almost ugly in places, the violin mimicking the sounds of a train picking up speed. It's that contrast that I found and find so compelling.”

Quintana saw her friend perform an E-Gré piece at a theatre fundraiser and was overwhelmed by the complexity and power of the music. When Mackinnon told her that it was actually one of 10 pieces and that she’d long dreamed of performing all 10 in one evening in a theatrical setting, Quintana, who wrote the book and music for Stationary: a recession-era musical, wanted to help make it happen.   

“We kind of jammed and did some research and found out she was a Russian-born, Canadian immigrant who was composing at a time when women were supposed to be interpreters, not creators,” Quintana says. “It was fine for them to perform, but if they had ideas and presence like that on stage, that wasn’t encouraged. And she said, ‘No, no, I’m not doing that.’ She had a hard life butting up against these institutions — sexism, the rise of fascism in Europe — and also this turbulent, incredible, powerful romance that ended in tragedy.”

The Gramattés’ marriage lasted from 1919-1929, and the caprices were composed between 1924-1934. Quintana and Mackinnon meld the two together to try to unravel the largely unknowable relationship between the two artists. It was volatile, passionate and short-lived — Walter died of intestinal tuberculosis in 1929 at the age of 32. With little written about E-Gré and even less about Walter, Quintana turned to their art to help write the script.

“I had to do a lot of inferring and looking at their art, his paintings and her compositions, and trying to work backwards and think, what might have invoked those feelings?” she recalls. The E-Gré foundation in Winnipeg eventually gave Quintana a set of unpublished letters between the two. “It was totally incredible and intimate and so exciting to read them. The kind of details that I thought I’d made up appear in the letters, so there’s something about the way that their work communicated so clearly what their experience on Earth was like that I’d guessed and there it was, written into the letters.”

But as much as the Gramattés’ relationship is central to Never the Last, this is a show inspired by E-Gré’s compositions — intense, intellectual, athletic pieces — and shining a light on a woman who defied convention at great personal cost since she was never able to find success comparable to her male peers.

“When you look at the stats, even now, it’s unreal!” Quintana says. “I mean, it’s bad for female playwrights but it’s really bad for female composers.”

“Sonia was a brilliant performer, both on violin and piano, and this was the role that was expected of her,” Mackinnon writes. “Starting at a young age, she had patrons who wanted to contribute to her career as a concert violinist and pianist, but not to her career as a composer. Through her own drive and talent, she did get composing commissions and have her works performed both in Europe and North America, but she was never taken as seriously as her male contemporaries. As a result, her music has only been minimally recorded, and hasn't worked its way into standard performance repertoire to the degree which I believe it deserves. This is one of the reasons I am so excited to share her music with new audiences!”

Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner

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