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Laurie Niles

Rachel Barton Pine's Maud Powell Favorites

May 10, 2010 at 8:06 PM

(This is Part I in a three-part series featuring violinist Rachel Barton Pine, talking about the Victorian-era violinist Maud Powell, and the preservation of her history and her music. Part II and Part III)

Maud PowellTo explore the new four-book series Maud Powell Favorites, is to find lost treasure, to discover a missing episode that sheds new light on everything about violin music, and especially violin music in America.

I do not exaggerate. The books, assembled by historian Karen A. Shaffer and violinist Rachel Barton Pine, follow the life and music of the American violinist Maud Powell (1867-1920), a trailblazer who changed the American musical landscape greatly during her short life. But out of these pages emerges much more: the voices of Dvorák on his deathbed, being visited by Fritz Kreisler; of Jules Massenet before he ever wrote "Thais"; of Jean Sibelius – whose 'radical new' violin concerto was premiered in America by Powell in 1906; of early African-American composers; of women composers. Powell's journey spans the globe, from her birth in 1867 in Illinois, to her education under Joachim in Europe; to her concerts in St. Petersburg, Russia, her concerts in South Africa, all across America by train, and even across the Pacific to Hawaii. She died at the young age of 52; playing the last six notes of "Nobody Knows the Trouble I See" as she was seized by a massive heart attack on Thanksgiving 1919, in St. Louis. These are just a few of the episodes in her life documented in essays, pictures and clips, like a Victorian scrapbook in which every last detail is annotated and explained

It's all larger than her life. Consider this thought, quoted from the book's ruminations on American composers: "The paradox confronting the American composer was that the European classical music tradition was his heritage, yet alien to his experience." Aren't we still trying to reconcile these things, more than a century later?

Beyond all this fascinating history is a collection of violin music – 43 pieces that Maud Powell played, transcribed or wrote, along with the piano accompaniment for each. The music is playable, worthy and forgotten no more. I actually took up one piece, "Deep River" by Samuel Coleridge Taylor, arranged by Maud Powell, and played it in a recent recital. Audience members loved the music, and they applauded the choice: one of the first African-American spirituals that was brought to a wider audience, in large part because of Maud. Beyond her transcriptions of works by known composers such as Beethoven, Boccherini, Chopin and Dvorák are works by lesser-known composers: Dan Emmett, J. Rosamond Johnson, Marion Bauer; Amy Beach, Cecil Burleigh, Henri Ern, Arthur Loesser...the list goes on. (You can listen to samples of these works here, on Rachel Barton Pine's website.

Concert violinist Rachel Barton Pine, tireless advocate of our art who has has recorded a tribute to Maud Powell's legacy and spent countless hours editing music for this series, spoke to me a few months ago about being the music editor for this project, and about what makes Maud's life and music so relevant to us today.

(BTW to purchase "Maud Powell Favorites" you must buy it from the Maud Powell Society. In the same old-fashioned spirit as is the style of this book series, you must fill out a form and send a check! Attention music libraries across America: you should have this book.)

Laurie:
Exploring these books was like going to an old used book store or library, and discovering a long-lost box of music, programs and letters from another century – it was really enlightening about that period in history.

Rachel: Learning about Maud's life means learning about what was going on in America, in classical music, during the years of Maud's life. Going back to the biography of Maud Powell that Karen Shaffer penned, it was really a book that was far beyond Maud, and I feel the same way with this repertoire in "Maud Powell Favorites"; it's not just about Maud's transcriptions and the works dedicated to her, but it's this voice of violin repertoire from the Victorian era.

We play Kreisler pieces, but those are from a little later. And we play Wieniawski showpieces, but those are from a little earlier. But there's this place, this time, from our own continent, that we just never play and never hear.

Laurie: What kinds of revelations did you have from doing this project?

Rachel: It's fascinating to read about the lives of each composer and how they were trying to get things going here in America when classical music -- and classical music concert presentation -- was still in its infancy. Everybody was a pioneer; they weren't just walking into an existing culture and riding on the coattails of what had gone before. They were having to start symphony societies, start concert series. Composers had to try to get their music into artists' hands. Everybody had to be an entrepreneur.

Laurie:
I was fascinated by this idea of Maud coming into a town, trying to get the pulse of the town, and creating a recital based on that. Did you relate to that in any way, being a recitalist yourself?

Rachel:
Unlike many of her colleagues, who would play a big concert in a big city one night, rest on their day off, then play the next big concert in the next big city, Maud would find some small town halfway in between, and she would play that town's first-ever classical concert. She didn't have to do that. For a period of time, she was America's most popular violinist, and most successful violinist of either gender here in America. She could have rested on her day off!

But she believed the same thing that I believe: that music has the power to uplift the human spirit and that it's our responsibility to be missionaries for this music. Even if every classical music concert were completely sold out, with a waiting list, we should still do outreach, because the reason for outreach is to bring music to people who haven't heard it before.

It was fascinating to me to see that Maud Powell clearly had those same beliefs and those same motivations, way back when.

Of course, she died young. Life on the road was far more stressful, and medical care wasn't what it is now. They had difficult climate conditions and bad food. She traveled by rail, and by horse and carriage. Her husband famously said she 'wore her heart out,' metaphorically as well as literally.

But one advantage to that kind of travel was that she wasn't zig-zagging. For example, in the first seven weeks of my 2010, I did Sibelius in Syracuse, Brahms in Knoxville, Paganini in Finland, a tribute recital to Maud Powell in El Paso; I went to Israel, where I did the Mendelssohn Concerto, Brahms Sextet and a full unaccompanied recital, then I went to Springfield and did the Korngold, then I went to New York City and rehearsed the Glazunov to  record with the Russian National Orchestra for Warner Classics in Moscow in April – that was just my first seven weeks! That's pretty nuts, and that simply wasn't possible back in Maud's day.

With the way she traveled, you had to walk through the town and get from the train station to the hotel to the local restaurant to eat your dinner...your feet were on the ground a little more, somehow, getting the pulse, like you said, of that particular group of citizens.

Also, she traveled with her entire wardrobe! She would arrive at each venue, check out the color scheme and match her gown to the colors of the hall. She really saw that as being part of the performance presentation. Maud would arrive early and set things up, lay things out – it was a more hands-on approach. It's something we've lost a little bit.

Laurie: Tell me about Maud's relationship to American music. She went to Europe for her musical education..

Rachel:
You had to in those days!

Laurie: ...but then it seems that she really was engaging with America and American music.

Rachel: What's really fascinating is to realize how truly radical she was. At that time, even American artists were very prejudiced against American composers. They felt like our composers couldn't compare with the great composers of Europe, of the past. They wouldn't even give American composers a chance.

Maud Powell's family was a group of progressive educators – her uncle John Powell was the explorer of the Grand Canyon –  and she applied those values to her life as a musician. Maybe our composers aren't yet as great as the greatest coming out of Europe, but that doesn't mean they're less talented; they need to be nurtured – that was her attitude. Our job as American artists is to be the ones to nurture them. So she devoted quite a lot of time to perusing the scores of every composer who sent one to her. The good, the bad and the indifferent, she would faithfully go through and offer her very honest and fair critiques, advice and encouragement. She said it's only through this type of process that our composers are going to learn and grow. 

Those pieces that she found to be the most worthy, she would champion and add to her rotating repertoire. She would perform, record and commission music from the composers she especially believed in. This was cutting-edge contemporary music that everybody else was dismissing. Even among European music, she was pretty cutting-edge. Conductors were reluctant to program things like the Sibelius, Tchaikovsky and Dvorák concertos – particularly the Sibelius. Conductors would say, 'This is a piece that's so modern, obviously people are not going to be able to understand and enjoy it. Why don't we do something they know and they love like the Bruch or the Mendelssohn?' Nowadays we lump all of those in the same vote, but at that time, it was like trying to get a conductor to program the Schoenberg. But she insisted: 'The audience will love the Sibelius, I just know it.' If it had been somebody else they might have said, 'Well I guess I'm not going to invite you after all if you are insisting upon that weird concerto,' but she was so famous and popular as a player. They felt that if the only way we can get Maud Powell is to program the Sibelius, I guess we're going to have to do it. Then, of course, it would end up being a big success, and she would be vindicated.

She also added those concertos to her recital programs. Most towns didn't yet have an orchestra, and you couldn't record pieces of that length at the time. The only way to get those concertos into everybody's ear was to perform them with piano, which she did. So she was championing the most progressive of the music that was coming out of Europe, as well as encouraging and seeking the best of what America had to offer.

She also was the first white artist of any instrument to champion the works of black composers. Certainly guys like Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges and Samuel Coleridge Taylor – Afro-European composers – their works were being played by their European colleagues who were white. But she was the first person to not just play music as it came up, but to say look, this music ought to take its place and not be relegated to just the black classical music societies and the African-American orchestras. She actually made her own arrangements of Negro spirituals and insisted that this music be played.

Her version of "Deep River" was the first "Deep River" ever recorded,  in 1911, before any vocal version was recorded. So this is very interesting, what she was doing.

(Continues in Part II and Part III)


From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on May 10, 2010 at 8:13 PM

Thanks, it's facsinating! 

Anne-Marie


From Emily Liz
Posted on May 10, 2010 at 11:00 PM

This is just so wonderful, I'm so excited about this series.  Maud Powell and Wilhelmina Halle are two of my great musical heroes. 


From Drew Lecher
Posted on May 11, 2010 at 5:11 AM

Thanks Laurie and Rachel, this is wonderful.


From Pauline Lerner
Posted on May 11, 2010 at 7:50 AM

This is fascinating.  Here is a woman I knew almost nothing about, and she accomplished so many great things.  I look forward to reading more about her.  Thank you Rachel and Laurie.

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