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"Hindsights" by Michael Barr

Looking back at:
Sister Elaine's Music

Michael Barr
Ida Gentemann was a natural at the piano. By age 5 she could play anything she could whistle or hum. Although her feet barely reached the pedals, her fingers danced along the keyboard, playing notes with thunderous authority or as softly as a butterfly landing on a bluebonnet.

Ida was born on October 4, 1909 in Fredericksburg, Texas. Her father, John Gentemann, was her first music teacher. John was the organist and choir director at St. Mary's Catholic Church for over 50 years.

After graduating from St. Mary's School, Ida studied music at Our Lady of the Lake College in San Antonio. At age 19 she joined the Sisters of the Divine Providence and took the name Sister Elaine.

Sister Elaine earned a master's degree from the America Conservatory of Music in Chicago. She did post graduate work at Julliard and Columbia University before returning to San Antonio.

She taught piano and organ as well as courses in musical composition, orchestration, counterpoint, form and analysis at Our Lady of the Lake for the next 70 years.
Sister Elaine
Sister Elaine
Courtesy Fredericksburg Standard, April 1, 1953
An internationally acclaimed musician, Sister Elaine is well known for her extensive work in musical composition. She wrote over 500 pieces for orchestras, wind ensembles, vocal ensembles, choruses, stringed quartets, vocal trios and solos including masses, motets, hymnals, overtures, piano pieces, fugues and passacaglias.

In case you're wondering, the online dictionary of musical terms tells me that a motet is a composition of sacred choral music without instrumental accompaniment, a fugue is a musical composition in which one or two themes are repeated or imitated by successively entering voices, and a passacaglia is a musical composition that features variation over a repeating bass.

Sister Elaine wrote all kinds of music, from simple children's songs to concert overtures and masses with full orchestration.

Her original compositions include a 200 page hymnal and a 3-act operetta called "The Rose Window," based on the famous legend of the Rose Window at San Jose Mission in San Antonio.

She wrote a special song for the Fredericksburg Easter Fires Pageant.

But she is best known for adapting popular Negro spirituals to masses. Her work includes arrangements of "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?" "Nobody knows the trouble I've Seen" and "Swing Low Sweet Chariot"

There was a special place in her heart for the Native American culture. She wrote masses that contained nothing but American Indian chants.

Sister Elaine spent her summers traveling throughout the Southwestern United States and Mexico attending Native American dances and ceremonies. Even in those rituals she heard strains of the Gregorian chant which she attributed to the influence of early Spanish missionaries.

Sister Elaine believed music had the power to feed the soul, to teach and to heal. She wrote 4 piano books integrated with language study in German, Spanish, French and Italian. She coauthored a series of books called We Speak Through Music, acclaimed by speech therapists for helping children with speech difficulties.

An article in Time Magazine described her as "an accomplished pianist" with "a lightning musical memory."

Sister Elaine described her gift for writing music not so much as inspiration but "a kind of hunger that doesn't leave until you have given time and thought to the musical idea with the ultimate result."

People who knew her say Sister Elaine was modest, thoughtful and sincere, but she was also playful, funny and very human. And her taste in music went far beyond hymns and spirituals. She loved ragtime, jazz, rock and roll, Broadway musicals and other forms of popular music.

She was especially fond of Scott Joplin, The Beatles and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Many of her concerts included songs from "Camelot," "The sound of Music" and "My Fair Lady" mixed with religious music and sophisticated piano and organ numbers.

While Sister Elaine enjoyed creating and playing complex musical arrangements, she used popular songs to connect to the common man. Most of us, after all, love music but have little interest in music theory or advanced musical composition.

We just turn on the shower and sing.
Michael Barr
"Hindsights"
July 1, 2018 Column

Sources:
"Sister Elaine Widely Recognized for Musical Ability in Composing Masses," Fredericksburg Standard, April 1, 1953.
"OLL sets program by Sister Elaine," San Antonio Express, December 9, 1976.
"Negro Spiritual Mass Stirs Interest of Music Critics," San Antonio Express, November 7, 1944.
"Pianist, Composer to Present concert," Kerrville Daily Times, April 30, 1991.

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    "Hindsights" by Michael Barr

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