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Enlightening the Classics

A Victorian Christmas
Bellamy Mansion • 503 Market St.
Tickets: $20 •

VINTAGE CHANTUESE: Susan Savia’s love for vintage music comes to light at a Bellamy Mansion fund-raiser this weekend, A Victorian Christmas. Courtesy photo.

With every fa, la, la, la, la we sing this season, how many will reflect upon more than merriment of the song? Do we consider the composition of those famed tunes we mindlessly carol, such as when and where they were created? Sure, we all recognize crooners like Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Burl Ives during the holiday, but classics like “Silent Night” were written long before, in 1818 to be exact.

Susan Savia thinks about music in its classical richness: time, place, motivation and creation. And why wouldn’t she? She’s trained across many platforms and eras of music, from guitar to ukulele, harmonica to bass, Victorian age to Ragtime jazz and all decades between. This weekend she descends upon Bellamy Mansion for “A Victorian Christmas” to provide background on many songs we hum along to every season.

“I want to provide history for the music before singing each one,” Savia tells encore. “Most people just hear them without really knowing much about music.”

With vocals sweetly angelic across a three-and-a-half octaval range, Savia’s a chanteuse thanks to early childhood music lessons and a family of players who encouraged her participation. “When I was a teenager, my grandfather gave me a cassette tape of a jazz band recorded in the 1920s at University of Virginia,” she says. “That started my love of music from 1910 to the ‘30s. And my mother and father used to love [classic country from the ‘50s] and played it in the house when I was growing up.”

She taught herself piano at 5 after watching her mother and brother play, and picked up guitar at 13 after learning three chords from a boyfriend. She pursued music as a hobby until her 50s, when she decided that making it a full-time career was a passion she deserved to pursue. Her undeniable love for vintage music became a central point of enthusiasm, as she had been collecting songbooks of yesteryear.

“I stumbled into a tiny, dusty vintage book store in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, back in the early 1970s,” Savia remembers. “I was drawn to a very large, thick book on a shelf, ‘Winners Gems of Music, 1894.’”

The old photos were saturated with color and escorted by lithographs of popular music from the day. Rife with glimpses into another era, Savia was engrossed. “I loved the lyrics of the songs,” she says, “songs about love, home, family, nature—many of them seemed quite enchanting.”

Something spoke to her core in every note speckled on the sepia-toned paper. From its refined language to its canonic compositions.

“The lyrics are sophisticated and intellectual,” she explains, “sometimes innocent, very visual—almost like reading a short story—and quite proper (even old English) in their grammar. The arrangements are really thoughtful and classical in nature, even sophisticated.”

Her purchase led to a newfound collection. She began a hunt to find other “Gems of Music” books and started a library of sonic history from the late 1800s to early 1900s. It wasn’t until 15 years later that her collector’s items featuring old hymnals, obscure music and even children’s classics became useful. When she was asked to perform among six musicians at a church event, she pulled out the books to find inspiration.

“I always performed ‘Amazing Grace,’” she says, “but I knew there was a good chance someone else would be singing it, so I went in search of a song out of the old books, and found [one] in ‘The Welcome Hour.’”

She realized then her desire to discover as much as possible about the old music. “The more I learned, the more I cherished it,” she says. “Sometimes I would find a song and re-arrange it.” She fully recognized this potential in 2006, after releasing her first CD, “Cosmic Summer Sojourn.” She recorded five pieces from the late 1800s, including one from 1914, to accompany her original songs. “The process ended up being very artistic, and led me to include sounds from my back yard intertwined between the songs, to create an aural day trip,” she says.

Upon her move to Wilmington in 2009, Savia brought with her a plethora of knowledge perfectly suited to an historic town. Considering the Cape Fear’s background and landscape of 19th century buildings, especially mansions like the Bellamy, her immersion into our arts scene became more fitting. Savia sings songs from the mid 1800s as “an expression of the Age of Enlightenment—Emerson, Thoreau and the Transcendentalist Movement.” That much of the music was composed by women and performed in a parlor setting makes it even more apropos for her to do “A Victorian Christmas” concert at the Bellamy on December 9th.

“Pre-television, music, art and reading were the only forms of entertainment, so music was huge,” Savia says. “I think all [eras of music] deserve continued life.”

Though she’s still working on selections for the show, folks can expect recognizable classics, like “Joy to the World,” “Away in a Manger” and “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” Savia will provide a brief synopsis about the songs beforehand. For instance, “Silent Night” was written by Joseph Mohr and arranged by Franz Gruber in 1818, but was rearranged in 1871 by an anonymous musician. “I am not sure which tune we sing today,” Savia says, “but it’s one of the most beautiful songs ever written, and I love that it was originally created for guitar. When I play it in bars around Christmas, I do it in a blues style with a harmonica.”

Enjoy the parlor concert on the 9th at 6:30 p.m. with mulled cider and sweets served as well. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased at All proceeds benefit Bellamy Mansion.

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Encore Magazine regularly covers topics pertaining to news, arts, entertainment, food, and city life in Wilmington. It also maintains schedules and listings of local events like concerts, festivals, live performance art and think-tank events. Encore Magazine is an entity of H&P Media, which also powers Wilmington’s local ticketing platform, Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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