Blythe Owen was born December 26, 1898 in Long Prairie (Bruce Township), Minnesota. Attracted by the government's offer of free land, the family soon moved to the booming community of Lisbon, North Dakota. Encouraged by her mother, young Blythe showed an early love of music, singing and playing the family's parlor organ. Her first lessons were from a neighbor who had graduated from the New England Conservatory. Following a move to the Pacific Northwest, Blythe studied at the Pacific College Conservatory, graduating in 1917. As a teenager, she began giving piano lessons, which she continued doing until the age of 97. After spending some time studying in Portland, Oregon, with French pianist Dent Mowery, Blythe was invited to join the faculty at Walla Walla College in Southeastern Washington. It was not an easy time for her, a woman who was the same age as the students, but during those years she gained valuable teaching and performing experience.
In 1926, Blythe moved to Chicago to study and establish herself as a teacher/performer. Her Chicago debut, sponsored by the Young American Artists Series, helped launch an active performing career as soloist, accompanist, and in chamber music. During the late 30's she began to work toward an undergraduate degree in piano performance at the Chicago Musical College with Rudolf Ganz. Theory studies under Louis Gruenberg encouraged her interest in composition, an interest that grew to produce more than 150 works over the next 50+ years. With the world at war, Blythe had the opportunity to study with French pianist, Robert Casadesus, who had taken refuge in America. Following graduation in 1941, she immediately began a masters in composition at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, studying with Albert Nolte, head of the composition department. Upon graduation, Blythe was invited to join the Northwestern faculty. She also continued teaching at the Cosmopolitan House Conservatory. In 1950 she left Northwestern to take positions at Roosevelt University School of Music and Chicago Teacher's College. Beginning in 1946 she embarked on the doctorate in composition program at the Eastman School of Music, studying with Howard Hanson and Bernard Rogers. She took the summer of 1949 to study with Nadia Boulanger, Jean Batallat Casadesus, and others in Fountainebleau, France. One of the first women to do so, Owen earned her Ph.D. in composition from Eastman in 1953. Her dissertation was a piano concerto.
In 1961, following 35 years of performing, teaching, and study in the Chicago area, Dr. Owen returned to Walla Walla College as professor of piano and composer in residence. At the age of 66, when most people would be retiring, she moved to Berrien Springs, Michigan, joining the faculty of Andrews University where she taught composition, theory, and piano. Over the next 25+ years she continued her energetic career of composition, teaching, concertizing, international concert tours, adjucating, and guest lectureships. Throughout her entire professional life, she was active in women's music clubs, music teacher's organizations, and societies promoting new music. Her compositions received many awards from these organizations and other groups. She continued teaching and composing until her late 90's. Dr. Owen's students remember her as a warm, but exacting teacher, encouraging them to aspire to do their best. In December of 1998, friends, students, and colleagues gathered to celebrate this remarkable woman's 100th birthday with a concert of her music. Having lived a full life of more than 101 years, doing what she most wanted to--make music, teach, travel, enjoy wonderful friends, Blythe Owen passed away February 28, 2000 in Berrien Springs, Michigan.
"Bill Collecting" by Beverly M. Stout
"Why couldn't they have just responded to the letter," she breathed. "Maybe I should just go home and send another one." But she knew if she did that, there would be no telling if she would ever see the money that was due her. Things were tight, and she needed every penny to make ends meet. Teaching piano to immigrant children at Hull House wasn't exactly lucrative, but it was a job and the best option she had at the moment. For the most part, she enjoyed it, feeling proud when their chubby little fingers correctly pounded out a Bach minuet. It was just moments like today, when she found herself standing on a less than reputable street preparing herself to be a bill collector, that she questioned her purpose.
Halfway down 32nd street, Blythe finally identified what appeared to be the house she was looking for, and it was as run down as she had expected. It was a small, two-story wooden square house. The roof was missing tiles in various places and sagged over a crumbling front porch. The paint, which must have at one time been a bright, crisp white, was peeling off in many spots, allowing large, gaping sections of weathered, gray wood to peer through.
With her hand on the small, tattered fence, Blythe paused and briefly considered forgetting the whole thing. She took a deep breath. "I don't think I can do this. Lord, help me!" She shot a prayer up to heaven and pushed open the gate. The front porch looked abandoned, unsafe, so Blythe decided to make her way around to the back entrance. Just when her courage was about to fail her again, she was discovered by a group of children hanging around the back porch, one of which was her little student, Della. Any chance of escape disappeared in that moment, for the little girl had given a small shout upon spotting her piano teacher, and had run inside to tell her mother that Mrs. Cramlet was here.
Before she knew what was happening, a very large, jubilant woman, who jabbered excitedly in a mixture of Greek and English, was escorting her into the house. Blythe had had to make house calls once or twice before in order to collect unpaid lesson fees, and usually the mothers and fathers dropped their eyes with shame and embarrassment, muttering apologies when they saw her standing on the porch, but not this time. Within minutes, Blythe had been seated in the living room, a cold soda in one hand and a plate of something she couldn't quite identify sitting on her lap.
"Perhaps they don't realize why I'm here," she reasoned to herself. But when the mother had paused long enough for Blythe to explain her purpose for coming, the woman seemed unconcerned and started rambling on about how honored they were to have little Della's teacher come to visit.
Blythe noted with surprise that the inside of the house was completely different than the outside. The rooms were clean and neat, and well furnished. Their possessions were far from being extravagant, but they were in good condition and appeared to be well taken care of. She found herself becoming a little more at ease.
After Blythe had been fed and settled into a chair, the mother randomly started telling a very dramatic story of an accident that had happened not too far away. She spoke mostly Greek, so Blythe could only make out a few words, but the woman told the story with her whole body and with such emotion, that Blythe was able to get the main gist. Evidently, a neighbor child had gotten hit by a car and was in bad condition, obviously a very tragic event, but the way the woman told the story, even breaking into tears a time or two, seemed so ludicrous that Blythe found it hard to concentrate on the seriousness of the matter. She did manage to give a few sympathetic clucks and 'oh, mys,' however, and the woman seemed pleased by her reactions.
In the midst of the woman's excited storytelling, Blythe managed to take a glance at her watch; it was already 6:30pm, and she had to be at Dr. Hagan's by 7:00pm. For a little extra money, she'd been keeping the books for a local dentist in the evenings. If she didn't leave soon, she'd never make it on time. When it seemed the woman had paused to take a breath, Blythe stood up and did her best to explain that she had to leave. With a grand smile and a tumble of indistinguishable words, the woman finally began searching about the house for what Blythe hoped was her wallet. After a large scuffle and rifling through coat pockets and desk drawers, Della's mother returned to Blythe with a couple of crumpled bills. With a series of thank yous and goodbyes, Blythe was once more escorted out the back door. The large woman, Della, and the gang of scraggly children stood in the doorway, waving as Blythe made her way back onto the street. Once she was out of view, she released a hearty chuckle and headed on her way to catch the 6:40 trolley car to Dr. Hagan's office for an evening of crunching numbers and filling out forms.