Charlotte Blensdorf MacJannet’s recalls her formative years

Charlotte Blensdorf, age 22, 1923

Charlotte Blensdorf, age 22, 1923

Editor’s note: Charlotte MacJannet was born in 1901 in Elberfeld (Wuppertal) in the German Rhineland. Her father, Otto Blensdorf (1871-1947), was an innovative music teacher, composer and gym instructor. After participating in Jacques Dalcroze’s first summer course in “rhythmic gymnastics” in Geneva in 1906, Otto organized numerous rhythm courses for children, adolescents and adults, despite resistance from school authorities. The following memoir by Charlotte, partly typed and partly handwritten, was found recently in the Tufts University archives. It appears to have been intended as a tribute to Gerda Alexan- der (1908-1994), who devised a method of self-development called Eutony after moving to Denmark in 1929. – Dan Rottenberg

My father became famous as a poet and composer of his delightful “Kinder Spielund Tanzlieder.” He was invited all over German-speaking Europe to give introductory courses for kinder-
garten and school teachers, social workers and leaders of youth groups, as well as educators coming from other countries.

Gerda Alexander and her comrades sang, danced and acted in some of these classes, to learn to observe and to recognize the elements of rhythm, dynamics, sound, space and form in a child’s spontaneous actions in daily life and play, and to build their lessons from there.

Soon their teacher was asked to train actors and singers at the famous Louisa Dumont School of Dramatics in nearby Dusseldorf. A special hall was being built for the purpose, and the position of music director in a nearby college was proposed to him, when the war of 1914-18 broke out.

Hard times of cold and hunger soon struck, but the lessons in the different towns went on as before. In fact, they became more important to the young, as in movement and music they could express what they felt but could not say in words.

Expression through movement

In 1923 my father founded the Blensdorf Schule (Dalcroze Seminar) in Elberfeld for professional training in Eurythmics. I returned from several years of teaching in Sweden two years later to help in the direction of the Institute.

Following the years after the First World War, the search for expression through movement in order to release the emotional tension of body and mind became an urgent need in the German population. A wave of schools and methods of various inspirations sprung up, inspired by Isadora Duncan’s pre-war barefoot Greek dancing, or by Dr. Bess Mensendiek’s anatomical study
of muscular functions. One did either “free move- ment”— modern dance— or “Korperbildung” (body building).

Charlotte (left) with sister Eva and father Otto Blensdorf at Lake Annecy, c. 1935

Charlotte (left) with sister Eva and father Otto Blensdorf at Lake Annecy, c. 1935

Replacing the Piano

 The Blensdorf Seminar went in corpore to attend and to take part in important meetings of the different schools, impressed but not entirely satisfied with what they saw and heard. The Dalcroze way of education— with its reaction to time, dynamics, sound, space and form in movement and music, its training the ear for listening, its creativity in improvised music— made us feel that we were closer to the education of the whole person.

A process of re-evaluation, clarification, of looking for essentials in our work followed.  Tambourines, triangles, gongs, the bamboo pipe, etc., joined the piano and replaced it somewhat.

The leaders of the Blensdorf School believed in a great deal of practice teaching for their students, sending them to live and teach for several months in educational institutions, adapting what they had learned to the special needs of their surroundings.

Gerda became my assistant in a center for severely disturbed and/or retarded boys and girls of different ages, as well as working with prostitutes expecting an unwanted child. We also gave lessons to the medical and professional personnel.

After the departure of Jacques Dalcroze from Hollerau in 1914, devoted German pupils carried out his ideas in creative ways through the war and subsequent disasters. Misunderstandings had however arisen among different schools of Eurythmics as well as with the Geneva Institute. As I was the first German student to receive her license in Switzerland shortly after the end of the war, it became my concern to rebuild ties of understanding and harmonious international exchange between colleagues.

In August 1926 Gerda and other pupils accompanied me to Geneva, where I spoke and demonstrated my work with children during the “First Congress on Rhythm,” at the Geneva Institute.

During the summer school that followed, we realized that the Dalcroze Method was in danger of neglecting the relationship of natural rhythmic movement and intellectual pursuit of musical phenomena. Physical and mental strain were apt to result from this lack of awareness, hindering the harmonious development of creativity in the student. Jacques Dalcroze once told me, “It is up to you, the next generation, to find the way.” His concern was taken very seriously by our group and many others, which eventually led Gerda to devise her “Eutonia.”

In 1928 I left for a prolonged stay in England, teaching at an outstanding New Education Fellowship school in Surrey and concentrating on bel canto voice training in London. I continued to hold summer schools in Scandinavia. Many of my former students attended, in spite of worsening political and economic conditions in Germany.

Gerda was offered positions at the Philipson School for disturbed children in Vedback, Denmark, and also at the Frobel Training School in Copenhagen. She accepted and soon taught hundreds of children in kindergartens all over town. She also continued our former work in nearby Sweden at the Conservatory in Malmo and at the Institute for Swedish Gymnastics in Lund.

My marriage in 1932 to Donald R. MacJannet, as well as Gerda’s very busy life, made our contacts less frequent. Then the war interfered with us all, while Gerda suffered for her new country, Denmark, and helped others in mortal danger to survive.

"The war interfered wit us all": Charlotte (2nd from right) with her relatives in Germany c. 1946 - Otto on left.

“The war interfered wit us all”: Charlotte (2nd from right) with her relatives in Germany c. 1946 – Otto on left.

We met again in 1946, this time in Talloires. From then on Gerda gave her summer schools in Eutonia every year at our camp and later at our restored Prieuré, in its beautiful chapter hall of the Benedictines.

During my 11 years as president of the International Organization of Dalcroze Teachers, I grasped the opportunity to introduce Gerda’s work into the Dalcroze Method. Thousands of people are grateful to Gerda for what she has taught them in terms of easing and enriching their lives. Her therapy has given new hope to severely hopeless cases of the handicapped. I and my family and friends are deeply in her debt, and grateful for her example of a dedicated and joyful life.