At nearly 90, piano jazz legend, Marian McPartland, paid tribute in music to the famed environmentalist
By Linda Pentz Gunter
It’s always a joy to come across extraordinary women. Rachel Carson was certainly one; Marian McPartland, longtime host of the NPR program, Piano Jazz, another.
Who would have thought there was a connection between them? It was therefore another joy to discover that there very much was.
Aside from being a wonderfully talented jazz pianist, McPartland was also an environmentalist. And so, a few months before her 90th birthday, with her show still on the air, McPartland set down an improvised piece of piano music in tribute to Carson. (McPartland hosted Piano Jazz from 1978 until her retirement in 2011. She died in 2013 at 95. NPR retired the show in 2018.)
For McPartland, as for many of us, Silent Spring, Carson’s breakout 1962 masterpiece, was a work of seminal importance. And it was to honor Carson and that book that McPartland composed what became her symphony, A Portrait of Rachel Carson. The orchestration was arranged by New Zealand pianist, Alan Broadbent.
McPartland premiered the work on November 15, 2007 with the University of South Carolina Symphony Orchestra, herself on piano. At the time, she was enduring considerable medical challenges, and announced before the performance that “I can’t walk. I’m in miserable pain. But at the piano, I don’t feel a thing.”
You can hear the piece in its entirety, archived on the NPR website. The symphony begins, appropriately enough, with birdsong, evocative of the very sounds Carson warned us could disappear forever. It is worth quoting the NPR description of this work at length:
“Silent Spring begins: ‘There once was a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surrounding…’