Teresa Carreño spent the majority of her life on tour, traveling around the world as an operatic soprano and virtuoso pianist. She was called the “Valkyrie of the piano” and “a queen among pianists.”
María Teresa Gertrudis de Jesús Carreño García was born in Caracas, Venezuela in 1853. She came from a musical family. Her grandfather was an important musical figure; composing one of the first patriotic Venezuelan songs. Carreño‘s father was her first music teacher.
The family immigrated to New York City in 1862. Teresa made a huge splash as a child piano prodigy. She impressed composer Louis Moreau Gottshalk who began promoting the young talent. Carreño gave her first recital at the age of eight. It was such a huge success that they took the show on the road across northeastern United States. She even had a chance to perform for President Abraham Lincoln at the White House.
In 1866, the family moved to Paris. Teresa Carreño performed across Europe and the United Kingdom impressing the likes of Charles Gounod and Franz List. As a young woman, her heart turned towards singing. She took instruction with Rossini and became a sought after operatic soprano. Soon she was starring in productions of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
In 1872, Carreño returned to the United States to tour with a troupe of artists. She fell in love with composer Emile Sauret. The two were married and had a daughter, Emilita. Life on the road was demanding. Teresa ended up giving her child to family friends who adopted Emilita, and it wasn’t long before Carreño’s marriage fell apart. At this point, Carreño focused again on her career as a solo pianist. She became a champion of the music of Edvard Grieg and American composer Edward MacDowell.
In 1885, Venezuela invited Carreño to come home to help establish an opera company and music conservatory in the country. It was an exciting opportunity, but because of political unrest these organizations never got off the ground. Carreño went back to New York City after just two years.
Undeterred, Teresa Carreño planned a return to Europe as a piano virtuoso. Her popularity really took off. After success in Germany, she came back to the U.S. again in 1897. Finally Carreño was the headliner she always hoped she’d be. Her performances were captured and recorded on piano rolls and sold around the world. She also toured the globe so audiences could hear her in person. In 1916, she returned to the White House to perform for President Woodrow Wilson.
Carreño started composing her own music when she was only six years old. She published her first work “Gottschalk Waltz” when she was nine. The bulk of Carreño’s music was written before she was 22. There are a few exceptions. She wrote Himno a Bolivar & Himno al ilustre Americano during her short time in Venezuela. Her most popular pieces include a Serenade for string orchestra, a String Quartet in B minor and a piece entitled Kleiner Walzer (Mi Teresita) written for her daughter.
While traveling in Havana, Cuba, Teresa Carreño fell deathly ill. She passed away in New York City in 1917 at the age of 63. 20 years later, her remains were brought back to Venezuela. The home of the Venezuela Symphony Orchestra in Caracas is named the Teresa Carreño Cultural Complex. There’s also a crater on the surface of Venus that bares name Carreño.
Find out more and follow the Timeline at VPR.org/timeline.