Mildred Couper, Quarter-Tone Composer
(Minor edits by her granddaughter, Greta Couper, Ph.D.)
My first voyage across the ocean was made when I was three months old. I have no remembrance of this
trip from my birthplace, Buenos Aires, to Europe, but I am sure it started my travel habits. To quote my
good friend, Verne Linderman, from the Santa Barbara News-Press, "Mildred was born a cosmopolitan.
She galloped bare back, and later decorously on side-saddle, over the Argentine pampas, to separate the
cattle and help with the sheep dipping, studied music and art in Karlsruhe and Paris, was married in the
United States, and lived in a palace in Rome."
In Paris I was studying piano with Moskowski and art at "La Grande Chaumiere." During the summer
vacation my mother and I went to a charming sea-side resort in Brittany called Pontaven. On returning to
Paris I found, to my dismay, that La Grand Chaumiere had not yet started the winter session. At the
suggestion of a friend I decided to go to another art studio, run by a famous artist called Beronneau. I did
not realize that I was about to change my whole life. When Beronneau asked me to sign my name in his
book, Mildred Cooper, spelt with "oo", which was my maiden name, a tall young man wrote his name,
Richard Couper, spelt with "ou", just under mine and said that's funny, my name is the same as his, and
much later I told him, "I gave my o for u ."
Some of my happiest memories are of the period when we were living in Rome in an apartment on the
third floor of the Palazzo Sonnino. On the second floor Baron Sonnino had his world-famous library. He
used to come up and read to us from Dante's Divine Comedy. Once, when he was reading from the
Paradiso he turned to me and said: "Won't you accompany me on your Steinway with one of Beethoven's
Sonatas?" When I responded by playing the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata it was miraculous
how perfectly the moods harmonized. Incidentally, the Steinway was my sponsor in introducing me to
many people of distinction. For example, I met the brother of Peter Ilich Tchaikowsky at a party given by
the Crowninshields at the American Academy in Rome, and, at his request, played the Waltz from the
Nutcracker Suite. I went to a party at Sgambati's (my teacher) and met the brilliant Venezuelan pianist,
Teresa Carreno, heard her play beautifully, and then Sgambati turned to me and said :"Now it’s your turn."
I'm afraid I refused.
There was an eccentric man called Conte Primoli whom one met everywhere; he always wore very fancy
buttons on his waistcoat and fantastic cufflinks. We frequently went to his house for dinner and when he
asked me to play, the first time, I had to go searching for the piano as it was hidden behind the biggest
conflagration of draperies and objects d'art that you ever saw! What a character! he claimed to be a cousin
of the King of Spain.
We had an open house once a week to show my husband's pictures, monotypes and etchings, and I
entertained the visitors with tea and cookies and a musical program. This kept me busy keeping my
repertoire up to date. There came a time, however, when this pleasant, carefree life would have to give way
to a more responsible way of living. The apartment in The Palazzo Sonnino consisted of only two very
large rooms with almost no utilities. There was no room for the son who would soon arrive. We went
hunting for a more suitable apartment and found just the right place on Via Della Lupa (street of the wolf),
off Via Condotti near the Spanish Steps. I half expected twins but fate sent us a single boy so I said
goodbye to Romulus and Remus. We usually spent our summers on the island of Capri or in Venice. One
of our biggest thrills was swimming into the Blue Grotto in Capri; we also swam into the Green, Red, and
Marble Grottos. This idyllic life was not going to last much longer.
With the outbreak of World War One and the subsequent sinking of several passenger ships, including the
Lusitania, our parents insisted on our returning to the U.S. before conditions became more hazardous.
Therefore in November, 1915, we were on our way. At first we traveled only at night, with no lights, and
put into available ports in the daytime. The only two mishaps of the entire voyage took place when I went
to my cabin after dinner one evening in the dark and stepped on my daughter who had fallen out of her
bunk and continued to sleep on the floor. Also, my husband's beautiful guitar, inlaid with pearl shells, fell
off a shelf and was smashed. After our peaceful life in Rome it was difficult to adjust ourselves to the more
strenuous life in New York City. In fact, my husband's health was seriously undermined and during the
Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918 he was one of the first to succumb. I spent the following years teaching at
the Mannes Music School and privately. I also performed concerts in New York, Montclair, Nantucket,
and neighboring cities.
The next episode took place when I was invited by the artist Malcolm Thurburn to spend a summer
vacation in California. It did not take me very long to decide that Santa Barbara was to be my future home
and that my son and my daughter would go to the Cate School and the Santa Barbara School for Girls.
That was in 1927 and I have been here ever since, except for a few side trips here and there. What a
wonderful community spirit there was in those days. The Drama Branch of the Community Arts
Association, under the direction of Irving Pichel, produced a series of plays at the Lobero Theatre, with
casts selected from a wide range of social groups. For example, you might find a milkman, a plumber, a
muscian, an artist, and a member of a prominent family putting on a successful production together. When
Pichel decided to produce "Marco Millions" he asked me to compose the music. Having heard some
quarter-tone music in a New York recital I decided that this system would be appropriate for the Oriental
setting of the play. [Produced April 24-26, 1930, at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara, with stage murals
painted by Scottish-Argentine artist Malcolm Thurburn].
Let me explain how I produced quarter-tone music; the smallest interval on the piano is a half-tone. There
are 12 half-tones within the octave; in order to get 24 quarter-tones I used two pianos and had the tuner
raise the second piano by a quarter-tone, so that a chromatic scale played alternately, note by note, from
one piano to the other produced the ultra-chromatic scale. "Marco Millions" went over with a bang and I
received expressions of appreciation from many sources for the music. This encouraged me to write more
music in this medium. My "Dirge" for two pianos, tuned a quarter-tone apart, was published by Henry
Cowell in the New Music Magazine in 1937 and has received many performances both in the U.S. and
In 1951 I was asked to play my quarter-tone music in one of the "Evenings on the Roof" concerts in Los
Angeles, devoted to music by California composers. Ingolf Dahl and I played my Dirge and a new work,
Rumba. When I lived on Orena Street I had three pianos in my music studio. The third piano was a smll
upright which was placed at right angles to my Steinway and tuned a quarter-tone higher, so that I was able
to experiment in this medium with a hand on each keyboard. I have written many other works in the usual
system, children's pieces, songs, chamber music, and symphonic works. My most recent work is a piano
suite in nine movements, one for each of the Nine Muses; this has been recorded on tape by Peter
Yazbeck. My Irish Washerwoman Variations has been played in its three versions: The original version,
for piano solo, by Shura Cherkassky; in the second version, for two pianos, by Marjorie and Wendell
Nelson; and in its final version, for orchestra, by Werner Janssen in Los Angeles.
When I saw a movie here the other night with scense from Bali, showing beautiful Indonesian girls
dancing o their Oriental music, I was reminded of Henry Eichheim, one of Santa Barbara's most
distinguished citizens of former years. he went to Bali and was so fascinated by the music that he wrote a
symphonic poem based on Balinese themes. This work was performed by Leopold Stokowski, conductor
of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, and broadcast on the NBC Symphony. Henry Eichheim lived in
a house built for him by the Santa Barbara architect, Lutah Riggs. It had a large music room where he and
I often played violin sonatas. Stokowski had a week-end cottage nearby, so I was able to meet him. In our
Art Museum there is a room devoted to Henry Eichheim, showing many of the instruments he brought
back from Bali.
There is one more episode I would like to tell you about. Some years ago a family called Sachs lived at the
former Featherhill Ranch in Montecito. I used to go there three or four times a week in the summer to teach
their little daughter and a friend of hers, both called Marion. Mr. Sachs often had Stravinsky as a weekend
guest. Igor Stravinsky is considered by many to be the greatest composer of our times. One day I arrived to
give the two Marions their lesson, and found the whole group posing for a photograph in the patio.
Stravinsky saw me and asked me to join them, which I did. This is a photograph that I treasure greatly, as it
also includes Nadia Boulanger with whom I studied composition.
In 1946 I bought my house in Mission Canyon from the Dreyfuss Family. I named it Monteverde, after the
17th century composer, but also because there was a beautiful view of mountains and trees, hence monte
verde! I lived there for 22 years. Oh, what memories I have of musical afternoons in the studio, large
enough to hold an audience of 80 to 90 people. While I was president of the Santa Barbara Music Society
we had our concerts there. The Players had their Christmas party there, the Civic Music Association
entertained their musicians there after concerts, and the Council of Arts presented musical events there.
The stage at the north end of the studio held two pianos; the acoustics were marvelous. Oh, I almost forgot,
the Alliance Francaise met there once a month.
One of my happiest memories of that period was when the Stradivarius Quartet wrote me from Boston that
they were coming to Santa Barbara to give a concert at the Lobero Theater, and they asked me to play one
number with them. They suggested the Cesar Franck piano quintet. I accepted their invitation and when
they arrived I was ready. The Santa Barbara News-Press wrote a very flattering review: "However, it was
the Cesar Franck Quintet, with Mildred Couper at the piano, that really made the evening so eventful -- the
vast third movement brings the satisfying conclusion, and last night found the audience stirred to the very
depths. What a delightful surprise, when the season appears to be over, to hear a concert such as this."
Mildred Couper, Santa Barbara, CA, 1970.