Is music illustratable? Can color and light enhance one's experience of a song? For Philadelphia polymath Mary Elizabeth Greenewalt (1871-1951), the answer was a resounding and colorful "Yes!"
The daughter of a U.S. consul, Greenewalt spent her childhood in what was then called "Beyroot," a city in Greater Syria (now Beirut, Lebanon). These halcyon days were ones of privilege. In between piano lessons from her mother - the daughter of wealthy Syrian parents - servants tended to all of Greenewalt's needs. She didn't dress herself until she was 11.
After the death of her sister, Greenewalt's father sent her to study in Philadelphia. She lived at Chelton School, a Quaker residential academy ran by suffragists, before enrolling at the Philadelphia Musical Academy in 1888.
Upon graduation, Greenewalt left to study under Theodor Leschetizky, Europe's most famous piano instructor. In Vienna, Greenewalt began training as a concert pianist with other affluent Americans, such as Clara Clemens, daughter of Mark Twain. After returning to the United States, Greenewalt performed with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Kneisel Quartet, and others.
Several prominent individuals recognized Greenewalt's talent and drive, including Thomas Eakins. The artist painted a portrait of Greenewalt in 1903, inscribing her name in Latin - an honor Eakins reserved for those (mostly men) whom he admired. A 1905 relief sculpture of Greenewalt is also one of the few three-dimensional objects Eakins made in his studio.
New musical interests soon captivated Greenewalt. She began experimenting with ways to unify "light and sound . . . abstract image and music," no doubt influenced by Eakins' use of projected photography. To that end, she explored the use of colored lighting to give expression to the combined mind-body response to music.
Greenewalt worked for more than a decade to bring her research to life, culminating in a color-producing organ, the "Sarabet," named for her mother, Sara Tabet. The instrument was unlike earlier color-music inventions. The Sarabet was not an automated machine, where colored lights were synchronized to phonographs. Instead, it could be "played" live, allowing the performer to react to the mood of the audience.
The performer would sit at a console and operate several levers that controlled the reflection of seven colored lights. Two large expression pedals, responsible for luminosity, were controlled by the performer's feet.
After the instrument's debut at John Wanamaker in New York City, the New York Times reported, "The color organ was privately demonstrated . . . before musical and engineering experts . . . and the opinion was voiced that it possessed the capacity . . . of playing on the human soul."