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  • Maud Powell - Sarasate: Zigeunerweisen

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    Watch full screen. Pictures courtesy of Karen Shaffer and the Maud Powell Society, http://www.maudpowell.org/h...

    Maud Powell (August 22, 1867 January 8, 1920)
    IMHO the best American violinist.

    MAUD POWELL - A Pioneer's Legacy by Karen A. Shaffer (edited to fit)
    Maud Powell was born on August 22, 1867, in Peru, Illinois, on 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, IL, and finally Washington, D.C. Her mother Minnie Paul Powell was a pianist and composer whose gender precluded a career. Minnie and Bramwell's sisters were active in the woman's suffrage movement. Maud's uncle John Wesley Powell, Civil War hero and explorer of the Grand Canyon, organized the scientific study of the western lands and the native Indians as the powerful director of the U.S. Geological Survey and Bureau of Ethnology and founder of the National Geographic Society.

    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 marvellously gifted woman, one who in every feature of her playing discloses the instincts and gifts of a born artist."

    The young violinist pioneered the violin recital as she blazed new concert circuits throughout the country, even braving the primitive touring conditions in the Far West to reach people who had never heard a concert before. She explained: "I do not play to them as an artist to the public, but as one human being to another."

    Theodore Thomas chose Maud Powell to represent America's achievement in violin performance at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. 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.

    Powell herself had proved to the world that a woman could play the violin as well as a man, fulfilling the shared hopes of her mother and woman suffrage leaders Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Her example inspired young girls to take up the violin and women to form music clubs and orchestras throughout the land.

    Powell became one of America's most revered and beloved musicians while her 1907 recording of Drdla's Souvenir became the most popular violin record of its day.

    Maud Powell toured Europe, North America and South Africa to wide acclaim, appearing with the great orchestras of her time under such conductors as Mahler, Nikisch, Thomas, Safonov, Damrosch, Seidl, Richter, Wood, Herbert and Stokowski.

    Perhaps Powell's greatest artistic triumph was her American premiere (November 30, 1906) of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, which she glowingly described as "a gigantic rugged thing, an epic really....It is on new lines and has a new technique. O, it is wonderful."

    Powell introduced fourteen violin concertos to the American public -- by Tchaikovsky, Dvořák, Saint-Saëns, Lalo, Sibelius, Coleridge-Taylor, Arensky, Aulin, Huss, Shelley, Conus, Bruch and Rimsky-Korsakov. She also revived neglected works of the 18th century, including Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola, and even edited a Locatelli violin sonata for publication.

    She boldly championed works by American composers.

    Maud Powell died the year the 19th 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."

    © Karen A. Shaffer
    Karen A. Shaffer, Maud Powell's biographer and president of The Maud Powell Society for Music and Education based in Arlington, Virginia. E-mail: kshaffer@erols.com Show less
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