The second in a series of posts about my family tree.
Inspired by Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks
Prompt: Favourite Find
Part of the thrill of shedding light on the family tree is discovering who’s hanging out on its numerous branches. During my meanderings I’ve located many interesting people and stories, and so far this is my favourite find. It relates to my mother’s story and a magical connection made to an ancestor through music.
Let’s start with some background on my mother, Lois Jeanette McDonall:
Dimings and Sparklings
Mom was born during the night of a frigid February 7, 1939, in a one-room log cabin in the middle of nowhere northern Alberta. By all accounts she was a “miracle baby,” born three years after her mother, Alice, had suffered a traumatic event giving birth to stillborn twins and been told by her doctor it was unlikely she would ever have more children.
Still, she was an only child raised among adults, encouraged to read whatever was on the bookshelf (Voltaire!), and to sing. Music was a vital thread in the family fabric. Everyone sang and played at least one musical instrument, so on many an evening her parents (Alice and Stan), paternal grandparents (Steve McDonall and Mary Belton), and uncles Joe and Earl, gathered around the old upright piano and made music. The harmonies of old hymns; parlour songs and Irish folk tunes filled the air and were among the happiest of times for a family beset with challenges while recovering from the trauma of losing everything after the Dust Bowl.
These lamplit musical interludes left an enduring impression on young Jean. “I fell in love with singing the moment I knew what it was,” she told me recently. “It spoke to my heart like nothing else.” In fact, she loved it so much that at the tender age of four she announced to her mother that she was going to sing on the stage one day wearing “dimings and sparklings.” Her mother’s response: “Hitch your wagon to a star, darling, hitch your wagon to a star.” And that’s precisely what Jean did.
A little more than 20 years later Jean was married with two small children and attending the Opera School at the University of Toronto. After graduating she had a chance to get her professional feet wet by fulfilling a one-year contract in some of the smaller German opera houses. This necessitated a difficult separation from her two young children (who stayed with their grandmother Alice) and from her husband (foreshadowing divorce). During this time she adopted the professional name, Lois McDonall, and secured a one-year contract with Sadlers Wells Opera (soon to become English National Opera) in London’s West End. In 1970 she moved to London with her children and raised them as a single parent while pursuing her career. The initial contract was renewed for 13 more years and she enjoyed an illustrious career as a dramatic soprano specializing in the Bel Canto repertoire. Among her major roles: The Feldmarschallin (Der Rosenkavalier, R. Strauss); Countess Rosina Almaviva (The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart); Miss Jessel (Turn of the Screw, Britten); Rosalinda (Die Fledermaus, J. Strauss); Violetta (La Traviata, Verdi), and more. In addition, Lois was a regular guest on BBC Radio’s Friday Night is Music Night, and toured Britain’s many opera houses and concert halls.
Just as she’d dreamed the little girl from the middle of nowhere Alberta grew up to sing on the international stage. Naturally the story is far more nuanced than this and deserves further scrutiny, but it sets the stage, as it were, for what follows.
Expect the Unexpected
When I felt prompted to take another look at our ancestry last year I hooked into FamilySearch.org, plugging in our family information until it linked to related lineages already uploaded by other researchers. There ensued hours of ooh-ing and ahh-ing as I traced back through the maternal ancestral line. The Fairchild name (my 5th great grandmother, Ruth Fairchild, married Daniel Springer in Delaware, Ontario in 1794) proved to be the most fruitful. During my exploration, (and without going into detail about all the generations that made this possible ~ that requires a book!), I was transported back to the American colonies and beyond to Britain and Western Europe. As it happens many of the lines reach back to royalty. One name in particular caught my eye, Maria Juana de Padilla.
There are many sources of information on this colourful woman, however for simplicity’s sake the following is taken directly from the entry under her name on the FamilySearch.org website.
“María Juana de Padilla (c. 1334-Seville, July 1361), mistress of Pedro I “el Cruel” Rey de Castilla (1334-1369)
Maria was a Castilian noblewoman, daughter of Juan García de Padilla (died between 1348 and 1351) and his wife María González de Henestrosa (died after September 1356). Her maternal uncle was Juan Fernández de Henestrosa, the King’s favorite between 1354 and 1359 after Juan Alfonso de Alburquerque fell out of favor, and the mediator in an apparent pardon for Fadrique Alfonso, King Peter’s half-brother. She was also the sister of Diego García de Padilla, Grand Master of the Order of Calatrava. María’s family, members of the regional nobility, originally came from the area of Padilla de Abajo, near Castrojeriz in the province of Burgos.
She is described in the chronicles of her time as very beautiful, intelligent, and small of body.
Relationship with Pedro I “el Cruel,” Rey de Castilla
King Peter met María in the summer of 1352 during an expedition to Asturias to battle his rebellious half-brother Henry. It was probably her maternal uncle, Juan Fernández de Henestrosa, who introduced them, as mentioned in the chronicle of King Peter’s reign written by Pero López de Ayala. At that time, María was being raised at the house of Isabel de Meneses, wife of Juan Alfonso de Alburquerque, a powerful nobleman. They became lovers and their relationship lasted until her death despite the King’s other marriages and affairs. The Padillas were raised to various offices and dignities. Her uncle, Henestrosa, became Alcalde de los fidalgos.
In the summer of 1353, under coercion from family and the main court favorite, Juan Alfonso de Alburquerque, Peter wed Blanche of Bourbon, the first cousin of King John II of France. Peter abandoned Blanche within three days when he learned that she had an affair with his bastard brother Fadrique Alfonso en route to Spain, and that the dowry was not coming.
María and Peter had three daughters and a son:
Beatrice (born 1354)
Isabella (1355-1394) [our ancestor]
Alfonso, crown-prince of Castile (1359-October 19, 1362)
Two of their daughters were married to sons of Edward III, King of England. Isabella married Edmund of Langley, 1st Duke of York, while the elder, Constance, married John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster, leading him to claim the crown of Castile on behalf of his wife. Constance’s daughter, Catherine of Lancaster, married Henry III of Castile in order to reunify any claim to succession that may have passed via Constance.
Death and burial
María de Padilla died in July 1361, possibly a victim of the plague, although Pero López de Ayala does not specify the cause in his chronicle of the King’s reign. She was buried in the Real Monasterio de Santa Clara de Astudillo which she had founded in 1353. Shortly afterwards, however, her remains were taken, following the orders of King Peter, to the Cathedral of Seville where she received burial in the Royal Chapel with other members of the royal house.
Depictions in fictionFamilySearch.org
Gaetano Donizetti composed Maria Padilla (1841), an opera about her relationship with King Peter.”
The Magic Unfolds
In 1980, Lois McDonall was signed by Opera Rara, a music organization whose mission it is “to rediscover, restore, record and perform the lost operatic heritage of the 19th and early 20th centuries,” and the Donizetti Society, for whom she’d already made a number of recordings, to sing the title role in Gaetano Donizetti’s dramatic opera, Maria Padilla. (This link takes you to a platform featuring snippets and options to download. For an initial preview I recommend tracks 7 and 8. The full recording is also available on Spotify and other platforms. ) When asked about the experience of doing the recording mom shares how she loved the music of Donizetti and was thrilled to be asked to do it. As with all 45-plus major roles she’d performed during her career, she familiarized herself with the character of Maria by researching her story and the times in which she lived. “Beyond that,” she notes, “I gave it no further thought. It was an easy production that went off without a hitch. This made all involved immensely happy.” It was, indeed, well received. The New York Times called it, “A fascinating and valuable recording.”
Here’s where it gets trippy … Imagine our delight last summer when mom and I discovered that Maria Juana de Padilla is her 19th great-grandmother!
“It makes me giggle,” says Lois, now in her 80s and astonished by the synchronicity of it. “First of all that an esteemed composer of 70 operas would find Maria’s story worthy of a musical retelling. Secondly, that I should have the opportunity to record it. And lastly, because never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that such a blood connection existed to this remarkable woman to whom I’d loaned my voice. And that I’ve lived long enough to know about it? Simply marvellous!”
As I muse about this favourite find it occurs to me that it isn’t until we allow ourselves the curiosity to peek beyond our perceived realities that life’s magic can truly begin to unfold. Shedding light on the family tree is one of the ways to uncover that magic … and maybe it even involves a little music. ❦