Jan DeGaetani and Composer Pia Gilbert

First, Friends, an update:

I’ve been in my new Mississippi home for three weeks, and I love it. Last night, I sat on my blue porch as the sun set, watching fireflies spark.


The Blue House

My dad and I had brought buckets of flowers home and he watched me pot them all. This morning, I wake again to 66 degrees and clear skies. I don’t understand and I’m not complaining. Prejudice. Preconceptions. I simply believe Mississippi in summer is treacherous. Torture. They all say so right here. But it’s not. Not yet, at least. End of June, and I’m still sitting on my porch in the mornings, drinking tea, reading. Today, I did a short 20 miles on the road to Coffeeville, right next door. Beautiful. I don’t know, but I hear tell that at some point in the future, the southern Delta will be the most habitable place in this country.  Yeah, I know. July and August still to come. We’ll talk then.


Just a few miles from my house in Water Valley.


I spent the latter half of this past week working on a piece about Jan and Pia Gilbert, certainly one of Jan’s closest friends and accomplished pianist, teacher, and composer. You can read the extraordinary oral history she gave to UCLA’s World Arts and Culture/Dance Department in 1986 here: UCLA Music Oral Histories Pia Gilbert (I am heavily using this text in the writing of this piece about Jan and Pia.)


Pia’s book Music for the Modern Dance, co-authored by Aileene Lockhart.

I posted a brief first section of this piece earlier, but I’m posting it again here with a few more sections. Happy Reading. And thanks to all who keep returning and viewing my work. Please note: there are now very helpful directions in the upper right of homepage for leaving comments at the end of posts. I’d love to hear from you!



I don’t know what Pia Gilbert looks like today.  I’ve never seen Pia face-to-face. I probably never will.

I invent her face, her hair, a diminutive figure, all from the sound of her voice. Sound. [What had Jan heard?]

I picture small bones, bird.

I don’t have much mobility.

I picture tiny frame, thin, strong jawline, small face. Tiny loopy curls of wispy white and gray encircling it.

I picture pale skin. Intense dark eyes.

I hear in her voice pebbles in the path, moisture tumbling these stones against throat, larynx, breath.

I hear kindness and earnestness. And un-urgency, though certainly she knows this won’t last much longer.

Pia is almost ninety-five. [Today, Jan would be 84.] Pia says, I never know how old anybody is. We agree it doesn’t matter. But at 95, it does matter to Pia who declares she feels old and doesn’t accept it.

I don’t know what to do. It’s becoming more of a question.

She is German. Come to this country in 1937.  In time. Decades of living, composing, and teaching in Los Angeles and New York, and still the sound of her home language rides the edges of her English.

They were friends. Everyone just knew that we were very close.

When we said goodbye, she called me Dear.


Pia Gilbert was born on June 1, 1921 in Kippenheim between Freiburg and Baden-Baden Germany, 1800 people then.

Not quite in the Black Forest, near the foothills. She could see the main mountain near the Rhine, Feldberg, near the French border.

Alsace-Lorraine, 30 minutes away, French/German mix occurs.

People have always wondered if Pia was French because of this.

Her village basically, a farming town. Beautiful landscape. Wine growers. She remembers picking grapes. White asparagus, strawberries, all kinds of berries. Violets.

Every village had its own forest…as did hers.

Pine forests.

It was a ritual, when she was a little girl, to climb into the hills and pick the first violets for her parents each spring.

But she didn’t grow up on a farm. It was a big house in what would be called the village square.

Later the swastika lands in front of her family’s home because it sat in the middle of the village.

Very threatening.

Built in the 17th century, it was a beautiful house. It once had three porticos which became the three living rooms. Large windows. A barn which became a garage. Cellar where wine and apples were kept.


Running water and electricity, but no hot water, no steam heat. Tile and porcelain stoves.

Old coal stove in the kitchen and new electric one. (These were changing times. Schizophrenic.)

She says the way they grew up was fairly tough (even though they had personnel).

Farm girls lived with them as maids.

But, no heat at night.

But, running water and real toilets.

But, the bathtub was outside.

They bicycled everywhere: 3.5 miles to school and back in the snow.

Four miles to Piano lessons.

She thinks she must have been a tough kid, even though I couldn’t’ see very well; she was nearsighted. One of her theories: she was a difficult birth, got stuck. Caused a kind of palsy which she overcame; shaking head. She had to overcome a certain misalignment. She says it was difficult to be a peculiar child. The physical handicaps.

(Musicality was also a handicap.)

Her father Richard Wertheimer had a smoking-articles business, and he traveled through Germany during the week. He was gone a lot.

Her mother was Berta.

Both parents had grown up in Kippenheim; they’d always known each other.

Father was enormously mercurial but it was a loving ideal marriage.

This put a strain on the family: Storms. Shifting winds and tides.


Both Berta and Richard Wertheimer were musical.

The German-Jewish community at large had great appreciation for culture for the theater for the arts for literature for music.

They all played music together. [This was taken for granted.] Selbstverstaendlich.

This was before phonograph records. They played violin and piano; Berta and Pia played piano duets. Salonmusik: nice little after-dinner pieces such as serenades, Mozart minuets, semiclassical.

Once Pia started playing, it was just a couple of weeks in that her parents knew she was a music addict.

(As a baby, Pia’s screaming could be stopped if someone played or whistled a song.)

She was determined. She stopped her palsy and defended what she could see. She was a loner.

She says others didn’t understand her.  She didn’t either.

Pia felt ugly. Both parents were gorgeous, her brother, gorgeous.

She just played piano as soon as she could. As soon as she could reach the keys. Climbed up and played.

One grandfather, a tenor and lay cantor in synagogue.

Maternal grandmother, excellent pianist.

Tante Fanny had a beautiful singing voice. She had a guitar and would sing every week when we got together.

My first teacher was my Tante Lina Wertheimer who was trained to be a pianist and studied in Freiburg at the Musikhochschule.

Pia was seven or eight years old.

Growing up, there was music constantly, but Pia also had to seek it out. When someone in the village got a radio, she’d go to listen. Her father wasn’t keen on getting one. He didn’t want it to vulgarize music.

[You could say she was born to music. Like Jan.]


About dhaines54

Dawn Denham (formerly Haines) lives in North Central Mississippi hill country where she's writing two books: one, Close To Water, a lyric hybrid memoir/biography about her mentor at the Eastman School of Music mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani, and a memoir The Blue House about transforming her life at the end of her 30-year marriage and in Mississippi, a place she never thought she'd want to live. Dawn currently teaches writing at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Recent work adapted from The Blue House appears in Barnstorm, Entropy, After the Art, Dorothy Parker's Ashes, American Writer's Review, and Waterwheel Review. Her book with authors Jacqueline Raphael and Susan Newcomer Writing Together: Transforming Your Writing in a Writing Group was the first book of its kind published in the US. Her essay Aleatorik about her mother’s death won the 2012 Solstice magazine Creative Nonfiction prize chosen by Jerald Walker and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She received an MFA in Nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts, an MA in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of Arizona, and a BM in Voice from Eastman School of Music.
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2 Responses to Jan DeGaetani and Composer Pia Gilbert

  1. Pingback: Jan DeGaetani and Dawn | The Stream and the Broken Pottery: a blog by Dawn Haines

  2. Pingback: Jan DeGaetani and Turnau Opera Players | The Stream and the Broken Pottery: a blog by Dawn Haines

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