Recorded on 07/31/2007, uploaded on 01/24/2009
Musician's or Publisher's Notes
Notes to the August 1, 2007 Memorial concert by Michael Cansfield, IMF.
Along with remembering the
ground-breaking work that Al Booth did in bringing the Dame Myra Hess Memorial
Concerts to Chicago in 1977, much of today's music recognizes another
ground-breaking Illinoisian, Maud Powell.
Maud Powell was born on August 22, 1867, in Peru, Illinois, then considered the western frontier in the
American heartland. Her grandparents had been Methodist missionaries in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Illinois before the Civil War. Her father William Bramwell
Powell was an innovative educator; superintendent of the public schools in Peru, then Aurora, Illinois, and finally Washington, D.C. Her mother Minnie Bengelstraeter Paul Powell was a
pianist and composer whose gender precluded a career.
A prodigy, Powell began violin and piano
study in Aurora, Illinois, then studied violin four years with William Lewis
in Chicago, to whom she "owed the most." She completed her training
with Europe's greatest masters -- Henry Schradieck in Leipzig, Charles Dancla in Paris, and Joseph Joachim in Berlin.
Returning to the United States knowing that "girl violinists were looked upon
with suspicion," Powell boldly walked into a rehearsal of the all-male New
York Philharmonic in Steinway Hall and demanded a hearing from Theodore Thomas,
then America's foremost conductor. Deeply impressed, Thomas
acknowledged his "musical grandchild" and hired her on the spot to
perform the Bruch G minor violin concerto with the New York Philharmonic on November 14,
1885. New York critic Henry E. Krehbiel acclaimed the 18-year-old's
debut performance: "She is a marvelously gifted woman, one who in every
feature of her playing discloses the instincts and gifts of a born
At that time, the American musical scene was
in its infancy with only five professional orchestras, no established concert
circuits, and few professional managers. Solo engagements were difficult to
obtain; doubly difficult for a female artist and an American since all
orchestra players and conductors were male and generally German.
Yet she refused to be lured into a
comfortable career in Europe. From 1885 forward, Powell made it her mission to
cultivate a higher and more widespread appreciation for her art by bringing the
best in classical music to Americans in remote areas as well as the large
cultural centers. She virtually invented
the event of the violin recital as she blazed new concert circuits throughout
the country, even braving the conditions in the remote West to reach people who
had never heard a concert before. Facing unsophisticated audiences, she carefully
programmed simple melodies along with complex sonatas and concertos, thereby
building a bridge of understanding between song and symphony.
Theodore Thomas chose Maud Powell to
represent America's achievement in violin performance at the 1893 World's
Columbian Exposition in Chicago -- the only woman violin soloist. During the
1893 Exposition, Powell presented a paper to the Women's Musical Congress,
"Women and the Violin," in which she encouraged young women to take
up the violin seriously. At a time when women could not vote and were precluded
from playing in professional orchestras, she argued that there was no reason
why a woman should not play the violin with the best of the men.
The native American boldly championed works
by American composers Amy Beach, Marion Bauer, Victor Herbert, Cecil Burleigh,
Edwin Grasse, John Alden Carpenter, Henry Holden Huss, Henry Rowe Shelley,
Arthur Foote, Charles Wakefield Cadman, Grace White. Composer-pianist Amy Beach
dedicated her Romance for
Violin and Piano, Op. 23, to Powell which they premiered together at the 1893
Women's Musical Congress.
Maud Powell also revolutionized the
recording industry when she stepped into the Victor studio for the first time
in 1904. The Victor Company's choice of Maud Powell to be the first solo
instrumentalist to record for its newly inaugurated celebrity artist series
(Red Seal label) was no surprise The unparalleled standard for violin
performance that Powell ushered in marked the modern age of violin playing and an
historic marriage of recording technology to the highest achievement in violin
At a time when music was heard live or not
at all, the pioneering Powell welcomed the new technology, knowing that
classical music would become popular as it became more familiar through
repeated hearings. Acoustic recording
was a wholly mechanical process at that time, with the performer standing as
close as possible to a large funnel which transferred the vibrations from one's
playing to a wax ring; electrical recording (with microphone) began in 1925,
five years after Powell's death. Yet allied with the impeccable art of Maud Powell,
the primitive technology revolutionized the way we hear music.
Ironically, Maud Powell's life of
achievement ended the same year that the Nineteenth Amendment granting national
suffrage to women was ratified. Upon her death on January 8, 1920, the New York
Symphony paid tribute to this "supreme and unforgettable artist":
"She was not only America's great master of the violin, but a woman of
lofty purpose and noble achievement, whose life and art brought to countless
thousands inspiration for the good and the beautiful."
Courtesy of International Music Foundation.
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