Mary Elizabeth Hallock Greenewalt and the Sarabet

Here at HSP we are excited about a project that is currently brewing in our back offices and bringing music to our ears! It stems from the rich collection of Mary Elizabeth Hallock Greenewalt. Born in Beirut she came to the U.S at a young age and lived in the Philadelphia area for a large portion of her life. During her life span (1871–1951) she was able to create and patent many inventions including a musical instrument called the Sarabet.

This instrument was the focal point of the art form she created called “The Fine Art of Color-Light Play.” This art form synthesized music and color together to create what many of us have experienced as a light-show (where music is played and a lights are synchronized with the sounds). This art form, however, was grounded in the theory and studies of Ms. Greenewalt as she developed a color value scale to match the musical scales of the piano. As well she developed a language for color to accompany music which would be noted  below the staff lines of her musical scores. So, imagine a light show you may have seen in the past. Now, instead of saturated contrasting lights imagine soft gradual changes of color set to classical music like Chopin. Now you’ve got it!

The machine she developed  both a musical instrument and a color/light producing invention. It was aptly named the Sarabet in honor of her mother whom she was separated from at an early age (her mother reportedly suffered from a mental illness).

This collection is a gem at HSP and we were fortunate enough to receive a small HPP (Heritage Philadelphia Program) grant that we used to hire some musicians to interpret her collection. They are going to create a piece of music at least 60 seconds in length and it will be function like a ‘creative finding aide.’ The music will help capture the creativity and musicality of Mrs. Greenewalt’s life and hopefully inspire researchers who are trying to learn more about her.

Please feel free to read the finding aide about her collection and write your comments about Mrs. Greenewalt!

Here is the link to the finding aide:  http://www.hsp.org/files/findingaid0867greenewalt.pdf

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