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Cornelia C. Roeske accomplished musician, teacher, and composer

A guest post about Cornelia C. Roeske, a graduate of Perkins who became an accomplished musician, teacher, and composer.

Seated portrait of Cornelia C. Roeske (1864-1895) outside reading an embossed book. She is wearing a dark dress with light trim.

Cecile Mazzucco-Than, Ph.D. is an independent scholar and author of “A Form Foredoomed to Looseness”: Henry James’s Preoccupation with the Gender of Fiction. Since her 2004 articles on Emilie Poulsson published in The Hopkinton Crier, she has spent happy years researching and writing the as yet unpublished “To Make My Fingers Serve”: Emilie Poulsson and the Kindergarten Cause.

Cornelia C. Roeske, known as “Nellie” to her friends, entered Perkins in 1877. She was thirteen years old, and she had been blind since contracting yellow fever at six months old. A “bright and cheerful spirit born of a pure and contented nature,” Roeske excelled at vocal and instrumental music (Sixty-Fourth Annual 218). Visitors often observed her on campus reading or sitting as if lost in thought, but she was busy creating: “though she sits apparently at leisure, her busy brain is doubtless occupied arranging some piece of music for a future day” (Sixty-Fourth Annual 213). Roeske graduated on June 2, 1885 in a class of four female students, and she teamed up with one of them to sing the soprano-mezzosoprano duet Quis est Homo from Rossini’s Stabat Mater (Fifty-Eighth Annual 28). She won a scholarship to spend the next year studying music in Boston with Professor Carl Baermann, a Munich-born pianist, composer, and friend of Lizst, and in 1887, she became the first music teacher for Perkins’ new kindergarten in Jamaica Plain (Fifty-Eighth Annual 28; Wikipedia). The following year she was appointed to head the boys’ division of the kindergarten music department.

As a teacher, Roeske used her “superior musical gifts” to bring out the best in her students and to give concerts (Fifty-Eighth Annual 31). In her daily vocal music classes, she taught melody and harmony, choral and solo singing, and many students took piano lessons. She became well known for teaching the students to name any note on the scale from hearing a single key played on the piano. However, the most fun was her “kinderorchestra” where, backed by Roeske on the piano, students played “toy whistles, drums, triangles and zither” to popular tunes, such as “Down upon the Swanee River,” or Roeske’s own compositions (Sixtieth Annual 317). The highlight of any Commencement was the astonishing accuracy of her students in her piano note-naming exercise and the charm of the kinderorchestra that she grew to thirteen instruments including ocarina, pipes, and paper bag (Sixty-fourth Annual 200). Roeske also performed solo piano pieces, such as the waltz that opened the 1889 reception for the kindergarten for the blind.

In 1889, Roeske was twenty-five years old and as clever and happy as her music. Perkins Director Michael Anagnos called her “joyous and buoyant,” and her music an expression of the “eloquence in her soul” (Sixty-fourth Annual 195). She was the perfect choice to put Emilie Poulsson’s soon-to-be-famous fingerplays to music. Poulsson never revealed how Roeske came to be her composer, or how they worked together. When Poulsson arrived at Perkins in 1879 with her friend Jennie Colby, the two brought “the new zest of life, the new spirit of comradeship” to campus life (Swinerton 7).  No doubt Roeske joined the fun and friendship. Although Poulsson left for private teaching in 1882, between 1887 and 1889 when the first hardbound copies of Poulsson’s Nursery Finger Plays were offered for sale by Daniel Lothrop Publishing, Roeske composed the music for each of the eighteen plays.

Roeske’s work as a teacher and composer centered on Froebellian themes of nature and simple pastimes. Roeske’s quick notes that do not go too far up or down the scale paired with more complex bridge sections work well with Poulsson’s mostly monosyllabic sing-song verses. The music makes a pleasing pattern and rhythm to go with Poulsson’s meter and rhyme. The combination made each finger play easy to sing and remember. It also demonstrated Roeske’s skill as a composer and her sensitivity as a musician and an early childhood teacher.

Described as possessing “unremitting industry and uncommon energy” (Sixty-fourth Annual 195) Roeske often took the show on the road to Hartford, performing alone and with her kindergarten students at the Heart Sunshine Society. The organization, established in 1892 to help the blind in Connecticut, sent many students to Perkins. The Hartford Courant recognized Roeske as “an accomplished musician and teacher in the Boston kindergarten for the blind.”  She performed so often that The Hartford Times pronounced “Miss Roeske’s piano solos…well rendered,” but criticized her performance of a Chopin waltz as “while correctly played showed a certain lack of her customary expression.”

She was so popular and warmly embraced by the city, the Courant reporter assumed she must have grown up there: “Miss Nellie Roeske, a young lady born and bred in Hartford.” Roeske’s Perkins admissions card identifies her as having been born and raised in Rhode Island. However, her father operated Roeske and Craemer Printers on 248 Main Street in Hartford, and she returned to Hartford for vacations with her family who probably relocated there. One of the selections the kinderorchestra played was Roeske’s own “Heart Sunshine Waltz” which never failed to inspire calls for an encore (Sixty-third Annual 234)

Many of the pieces she and her students performed were her own original compositions. Her “Electric Polka” might have been her response to the electrification of Boston in 1882 which thrilled residents, including Perkins students. For the 1894 Commencement exercises, she composed “The Wildflower” for a trio of voices, and “Christmas Chimes,” a mazurka that she played on the piano in response to a call for an encore (Sixty-third Annual 62). In the 1895 Annual Report, Anagnos recounted another encore request from the audience after the kindergarten boys sang “Union and Liberty” that Roeske set to music. The orchestra performed her original “Froebel March,” and she responded by having the orchestra play her own “Christmas Waltz.” (Sixty-fourth Annual 200).

Roeske never became as famous as Poulsson, but after the Nursery Finger Plays, several of Roeske’s original compositions, such as “The Dover Galop” and “The Hub Waltz” were bought and sold as sheet music by the Oliver Ditson Company. The music publisher, located at 453 Washington Street near Boston Common, was one of the biggest music publishers in America in the nineteenth century.  Roeske’s compositions were sharing shelf-space with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” written by Julia Ward Howe who was married to Samuel Gridley Howe, Perkins founding director, as well as another song destined to become a classic: “Jingle Bells.”

Roeske was known for her “independent and self-reliant nature” (Sixty-fourth Annual 218). On June 29, 1893, during a severe, nation-wide economic depression, Roeske wrote a short letter to Michael Anagnos asking for a raise:

“Hartford June 29, 1893

Dear Mr. Anagnos;

It seems to me not at all unfair to ask that my salary may be raised to three hundred and fifty dollars for the coming year as the work in my department fully equals that of the other music teacher, but I love the work, and am always willing to do even more than my share now all I ask is, that I may be placed more on an equality with sighted teachers.”

“Yours very sincerely, Cornelia C. Roeske

Salaries are a touchy subject in the best of economic times, but asking for a raise at the beginning of the economic downturn known as The Great Depression until the 1930s must have taken all Roeske’s courage. On July 3, four days after Roeske’s initial letter, she wrote a second letter to Anagnos accepting $350.00 and stating that she would provide her own reader. Anagnos must have given Roeske the raise she requested as soon as he read the letter. It’s interesting to note that at a time when Anagnos was dictating letters to his sighted secretary who hand wrote them, Roeske like many Perkins students, was using the cutting-edge technology of the typewriter.

Roeske seemed satisfied with her raise, However, according to a September 15, 1893 letter from Anagnos to kindergarten matron Isabel Greeley listing the salaries of the teachers, Roeske was still making less than the sighted teachers. Maybe she knew that, maybe she didn’t. Maybe she justified it by factoring in additional education or teaching seniority. Maybe she planned to ask for another raise when the economy strengthened and was satisfied that she won the first salvo in a battle for equal pay.

Roeske enjoyed her raise for about a year and six months. At the 1895 Commencement the audience applauded as usual until she gave an encore. Caroline Derby, a friend of the school and a member of the Ladies Visiting Committee, helped Greeley organize a retirement party with gifts for Roeske who was suffering from Bright’s Disease (kidney disease) and the pulmonary consumption that killed her mother and two sisters. Just thirteen days after the end of the school year, Roeske died. She was just thirty-one years old. Roeske’s final letter to Greeley written after she arrived at her family home in Hartford ended: “give them [the faculty] my love.” A heart-broken Greeley summed up her friend and former pupil’s life as strong and fierce: “she overcame obstacles which would have seemed insurmountable to a person less courageous and persevering” (Sixty-fourth Annual 218)

In November and again in December after her death, Roeske’s father wrote twice to Greeley about publishing his daughter’s music: “You know more about Cornelia’s music than I do, and that is why I ask.” Henry Roeske enclosed a letter from Oliver Ditson and asked Greeley to look it over. He wanted to leave a legacy of his daughter’s extraordinary musical talent. This publication might or might not have been C.C. Roeske Collection of Songs, Duets and Trios listed as available to Perkins students as an embossed book.

In 1896, the students purchased an engraving of The Child Handel to hang in the kindergarten in Roeske’s memory (Sixty-fifth Annual 222). In 1898 Roeske’s sister, Julia Marion Bertha Roeske, who as “a tiny little girl” performed a reading by touch at the 1886 commencement where Anne Sullivan made her valedictory speech, graduated from Perkins (Fifty-fifth Annual 119). In 1901she was one of two Perkins students graduating from the New England Conservatory of Music.

Works Cited

“Carl Baermann (son)” Wikipedia

“Cornelia Roeske.” Staff Photographs and Educators of the Blind 

Cornelia C. Roeske to Isabel Greeley June 1895 in Kindergarten Correspondence Collection Supplementary (1895)

Cornelia C. Roeske to Michael Anagnos June 29, 1893. Series 1: Kindergarten Letters (incoming) 1890-1921. Vol. 2 1892-1893.

“Entertainment by the Heart Sunshine Society.” The Hartford Courant, Wednesday morning April 27, 1892.  Perkins Scrapbook of newspaper clippings

Fifty-fifth Annual Report of the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind for the year ending sept 30, 1886 Boston Wright and Potter, 1887

“Helping the Blind Their Entertainment Last Night in Unity Hall.” The Hartford Times, April 27, 1892. Perkins Scrapbook of newspaper clippings

Henry H. Roeske to Isabel Greeley. November 4, 1895 in Kindergarten Correspondence Collection Supplementary (1895) 

Michael Anagnos to Isabel Greeley, September 15, 1893. Kindergarten Correspondence Collection Supplementary (1893)

The Fifty-eighth Annual Report of the Trustees of the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind, for the year ending September 30, 1889. Wright and Potter Printing Co. 1890.

The Sixty-third Annual Report of the Trustees of the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind, for the year ending September 30, 1894. Press of George H. Ellis, 1895

The Sixty-fourth Annual Report of the Trustees of the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind, for the year ending September 30, 1895. Press of George H. Ellis, 1896

The Sixty-fifth Annual Report of the Trustees of the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind, for the year ending September 30, 1896. Press of George H. Ellis, 1897

Swinerton, Lenna D. “In Loving Memory of Jennie M. Colby.” In A Beneficent Life Tributes to the Memory of Jennie M. Colby Graduate of Perkins Institution  February, 1920  American Printing House for the Blind 

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