February 2012

Marie Hall: The Career of a Violinist, Part 2/2

February 26, 2012 16:15

Here's Part 2 of violinist Marie Hall's 1908 article for The English Illustrated Review. In it she discusses a nearly fatal attack of typhoid (imagine if she had succumbed: no Lark Ascending, or at the least, a very different Lark), a possibly embellished story about a train robbery, and irresponsible American reporters. We also find out that clueless patrons of the arts are hardly a modern phenomenon...


After I had played in London I went to Newcastle to perform there. I got a very, very kind and warm reception, for everyone knew I was a Newcastle girl. At the end of my performance a working man stood up and said, "I think Miss Hall should have a new violin. I have just made one and intend to give it to her." The Amati evidently did not strike him as being a good one.

A few years ago I got a very bad attack of typhoid, but, thanks to the efforts of several doctors and nurses, I pulled through all right, though my life was absolutely despaired of at the time. Of course this illness interfered with my work and for nearly a year I could do nothing. When I recovered I did a big tour in America and visited New York, Boston, Washington and many other towns. I had to do, as may readily be imagined, a great deal of travelling to keep all my engagements, which amounted to sixty concerts in all, at places hundreds and hundreds of miles from each other. Trains in America are still sometimes "held up" by gangs of train robbers, and with generally unpleasant results to the passengers who have got anything valuable about them. One day I was about to start on a journey with my manager, and at the time we had with us a considerable sum of money in "greenbacks" and bank drafts, so that we should have been a very valuable catch to a "holding up" party. Now, at the last moment, we decided to go by another train, and shortly afterwards learnt that our original train had been "held up" and completely rifled.

I enjoyed my tour in America and Canada immensely. At Ottawa I stayed at Government House with Lord and Lady Grey, who were very kind to me, but I was not sorry when the time came for my return home, for truth to say, I was getting rather homesick, and I am very, very fond of England.

I was interviewed a good deal in the American Press, and though I had heard something of the lively imagination of the American journalist, I had no idea how lively it really was until I saw some of my opinions on subjects on which I had expressed no opinion whatsoever appearing in the columns of different American papers, and in addition to these "opinions" I found myself relating in print the most weird and wonderful anecdotes of my career, which I must say did credit to the imagination of the writer if not to his veracity. However, in America one soon gets accustomed to that sort of thing. I wonder though why American Press people go to the trouble of interviewing at all when they can write such wonderful interviews from their imagination.

I have done, of course, a great deal of touring in this country, and have had the pleasure of playing at Buckingham Palace. I have played at innumerable "at homes," and once had a rather funny experience when performing at one of these social entertainments. When I finished playing Bach's very well known Chaconne, a lady came up to thank me, and with great impressment said, "You do play Bach divinely - Can you play his Chaconne - it is my favourite piece?" I said "Yes," and nothing more, for what more was there to be said?

I overheard once a really amusing little bit of conversation between two ladies at an "at home," that was indirectly connected with my playing. I had finished playing and was talking to the hostess when the conversation I allude to arose. It was mainly concerning the love affairs of a certain "young couple" whom both ladies were apparently much interested in.

"He has taken her downstairs to tea," said one of the ladies, "and I should not be in the least surprised if he has proposed to her."

"I should not be a bit surprised if he had," said the other, and then added thoughtfully, "I can hardly understand how a man can sit next a girl he cares about when Miss Hall is playing the violin and not propose to her."

I wonder if I really have been responsible for any engagements. It is rather a dreadful thought, for certainly if my playing had any such effect it would add immensely to my responsibilities as a violinist. I have sufficient as it is. I see a very large pile of correspondence that I must get through somehow; I hear my telephone tinkling, tinkling, and my maid has come to tell me that several people I have made appointments to see are waiting for me. So I must bid my readers a kind adieu and trust I may have interested them for a little while.

5 replies

Marie Hall (1884-1956): The Career of a Violinist, Part 1/2

February 23, 2012 19:32

Violinist Marie Hall (1884-1956) was one of the great instrumentalists of the Edwardian era. She left violinists a beloved legacy: she was the first person to record the Elgar violin concerto* and she was the dedicatee of The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams. (Wikipedia claims that Hall aided Vaughan Williams in the composition; I'd be interested in seeing if there is any surviving evidence that might help us understand what kind of a hand she had in helping him.) Her strength of spirit was clearly inversely proportional to the size of her frame!

(* There's some controversy as to whether she was the first or second to record the Elgar concerto; apparently Albert Sammons made a recording in 1916, as well. For more information, check out the discussion in the comments below. If anyone has any information on who was the first, or whose recording was released first, feel free to chime in on the comments or to message me.)

This is an article she wrote for the English Illustrated Review in 1908 called "The Career of a Violinist." In this part, she discusses her Dickensian childhood, her daring ambush of Jan Kubelik (the Heifetz of her day), and her "disinclination to observe rules."


A dreary wet evening in Newcastle-on-Tyne; the rain coming down straight, steadily, unceasingly; the streets all slush and the footpaths little better; the passers-by all looking profoundly cold, wet and miserable. Outside an hotel which had just been lighted up for the night stood a poorly clad girl of about ten years old, playing a violin. People passed in and out of the hotel, without taking any notice of her or her playing, but still she played on. Then suddenly a window in the hotel opened and someone threw a coin out that lighted somewhere near the violinist, gleaming as it caught the light of a lamp, lying half hidden in the mud. The girl picked it up and...that is how I earned my first shilling by playing the violin. A few years later at my first concert at St. James's Hall I made £500.

I was born in Newcastle-on-Tyne, and at that time my father had a very good position as harpist in the Carl Rosa Opera Company. I was called by the way, the "Opera baby." Some years later he gave up his position, and then misfortune after misfortune fell on my family. We got into very straitened circumstances and money had to be made somehow, and the "somehow" resolved itself into our playing in the streets. I hated doing it, but more especially I hated taking and, above all, asking for money. But necessity knows no scruples and I did it. My father, as I said, was a harpist, and he determined that I should devote myself to learning to play the same instrument, and I was equally determined that I would learn to play nothing but the violin. The struggle between us went on for some time, but at eight years old I won, and to my immense delight my father consented to give me lessons on the one instrument I had longed to play ever since I was capable of wishing or longing to do anything.

My family moved from Newcastle to Malvern about this time, and a very bad time it was; until I was thirteen I played in the streets, sometimes picking up a few pence and occasionally sixpences. People used to ask me into their houses to play, and in this way I gradually made friends, very kind friends some of them were, too. They subscribed together to buy me a violin. The money amounted to £15, but my father thought it would be better to utilise the money in getting lessons from Wilhelmj, and accordingly I went to Birmingham to do so and whilst there made plenty of friends. Max Mossel heard me play, and on his recommendation I got a free studentship at the Birmingham School of Music for two years. But a great disappointment awaited me after this. I won the first Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Music, but alas, could not keep it, as I had not sufficient money to live on in London, and so had to go back home, sick and sore at heart. My family was now living at Clifton; shortly afterwards a chance circumstance led to my meeting a Mr. and Mrs. Roeckel, who have been the kindest of kind friends to my family, and from that date I may say my struggles, with financial difficulties at all events, ceased.

One day, shortly after my return to Clifton, my father was playing the harp in the street and his skill and execution attracted the attention of a gentleman and his wife who spoke to him. They were Mr. and Mrs. Roeckel, who curiously enough had heard my uncle playing at Llandrindod when they were on a holiday in Wales. Both had been greatly attracted by my uncle's playing, and were very much interested at hearing that my father was a brother of the Mr. Hall whose playing in Wales had so pleased them. A friendship sprang up between the Roeckels and us from that date, and to their kindly aid I owe the fact that I was able to make my début on the concert platform under rather favourable circumstances. I was just fifteen then and the concert was given at Bristol. I did not feel really nervous, but I was very excited and I suppose rather anxious as to the result. Anyway it was a great success. I am almost forgetting that the editor of this Magazine asked me to tell some anecdotes about myself of which he says he is sure I must have many that are interesting to relate. I am not so sure about that, but I take it the editor's request is a polite way of saying that stories are more interesting to the general reader than succinct autobiographical matter, so let me see what anecdotes I can tell. It is not easy to recall them at once, but some incidents in my career stand out very clearly, landmarks in my life that will never be obliterated from my memory.

I will always remember the day I asked Kubelik to hear me play.

My father and I had heard him play in Bristol, and shortly afterwards I saw that he was giving a recital in London. I made a desperate resolve that, come what might, I should personally ask the great master to hear me play the violin. It was, to be sure, a forlorn hope, but I was desperately in earnest and resolved that nothing but physical force would prevent me from carrying out my intention. Accordingly I stationed myself outside the concert hall when the recital was finished, with the purpose of waiting there until Kubelik came out, and then asking him to give me a hearing. I waited, I do not know how long - it seemed hours - but at length the great violinist made his appearance, and in an instant I was at his side, putting forth my request in what was, I daresay, rather wild language. Kubelik shrank away from me. "I do not think I know you?" he said. I wonder, did he think I was mad? I was mad, mad with excitement, and determined to gain my point, and at length I did. Kubelik gave me his address and asked me to come to where he was staying the following morning. I went, and found him and his accompanist together, and I have an idea they both regarded the affair as a little joke. I asked Kubelik to accompany me, and with a reckless daring I played the very piece he had given at the concert the day before. When I had finished, both he and his accompanist jumped up to shake me by the hand, and rushed at the same time to place a chair for me, with the result that I sat down...on the floor. Kubelik at once declared I must go to study under Professor Sevcik, at Prague, his own old master, and arranged to introduce me to him, and a little while later I went to Prague. I have pleasant recollections of my studies there. Prague is a very sedate place, and it is not considered at all "the thing" for girls to go about by themselves. I have always had a disinclination to observe rules, silly rules I consider them, of this sort, and consequently very often broke them, shocking a great many people I fear by doing so. I remember on one occasion I went to dine with a couple of girl friends at a restaurant in Prague, and near us sat two elderly ladies who glances in our direction from time to time with looks of mingled pity and stern disapproval. One of them, as we passed out, observed to her companion "that it was a pity to see such respectable looking girls behaving in such a fashion." Curiously enough, some years later, I observed that very lady sitting close to the platform in St. James's Hall when I was performing, though whether she recognised me as being one of the respectable looking but badly behaved girls she had seen some years before at Prague, I cannot say. But I did not really amuse myself very much at Prague. I worked tremendously hard, often practising for fourteen hours a day. I may mention that I was the only English girl pupil Professor Sevcik had. [Author's note: Vivien Chartres also studied with Sevcik, although one could argue Chartres's nationality...] He lent me an Amati violin when I came out in London, and I played on it for several years. It was the same violin that Kubelik had played when he made his first appearance.

9 replies

Hey diddle diddle, the flu and the fiddle

February 15, 2012 11:44

This week I’ve had the flu.

Flus and fibromyalgia don’t mix. Consequently, I tend to hermetically seal myself from society as much as possible during the winter months, because I catch everything. Things have gotten better since the B and C and D supplements, but nevertheless germs still find me incredibly sexy. So here I am after a hazy week of coughing and dripping. If prior flus are any indication, I probably have another week or so of battle left. Appointments were postponed, rehearsals canceled. As the days slip past, indecipherable from one another, I fall further and further behind. I’ve been posting way too much on Facebook and nursing an insidious self-loathing.

Before I got the flu, I’d been doing really well in the practice department. Like two-hours-a-day well. Lots of Kreutzer, lots of second position, lots of Ševcík, lots of Schradieck, lots of alto clef. I was actually really proud of myself, and highung perfectionist that I am, I have to do a lot to be really proud of myself. But then I went to visit friends for a couple days – and I didn’t bring the fiddle along – then I got sick the day after my return – and then I didn’t want to risk draining various facial fluids onto my violin, so… (Yes, I did say various facial fluids. Forgot to mention I also have a case of recurring pinkeye.) It was only yesterday that I finally picked the violin and viola up again, and then only for a half hour. And I had to lay down afterward because the excitement of Schradieck made my fever spike. (Sign you’re an orch dork: Schradieck makes your fever spike.)

So today I’m lying on the couch, eyes closed, thinking. I’ve been doing way too much of this lately, and chasing my thoughts in circles. But I’m wondering… Maybe the best measure of a devoted musician is not only how consistently they practice, but also how consistently they jump back onto the wagon once they’ve slipped off. In other words, how unfazed they are by circumstances that conspire to keep them away from the instrument. I think I’m going to move forward on this assumption. It’s not fair to hate myself for something I have no control over. Our society encourages us to think that there’s always a cure out there somewhere for everything if we just look hard enough. Quick fixes, the media tells us, abound, just as long as you get off your lazy ass to look for them. Chronic illness and I have been roommates for twenty-two years now, and I still fall victim to this ridiculous mindset; whenever one of my friends isn’t feeling well, my first impulse is to give them advice and ideas to try to cure themselves. Have you been to the doctor? Have you taken this pill? Are you eating these foods? But you know what? Sometimes there isn’t a cure. Sometimes you’re just sick. Sometimes you just have to endure waiting it out, and sometimes you just can’t do anything about it. In short, sometimes life sucks.

This isn’t a particularly inspiring moral – actually, it’s kind of terrifying – but…whatever. It’s the truth.

Plus, the sickness hasn’t been all bad. Thanks to my altered state of mind, I was able to complete a short story I’d been in a rut about for months. I’ll have to wait until I feel better to know for sure, but…I think I might be proud of it. (I know I’ve gotten somewhere with it, though, because I’ve now moved from worrying about how to finish it to worrying about how the people I so obviously have used for inspiration will receive it, if they ever stumble upon a fictionalized version of themselves in print…) I’ve cleaned out my desktop and a bunch of spam in my inbox, so I can now successfully delude myself into thinking I’m organized. My Tumblr has a long queue full of gorgeous pictures and audio. I’ve been thinking some thoughts that I’d been pushing down before; lately I’ve been too busy to acknowledge them, let alone process them. It remains to be seen whether I’ve over-thought everything. Maybe I have. (I probably have.)

But I’m happy to think that by the time I can decide, I’ll be feeling better. It might take a while, but eventually I’ll be feeling better.

And back to playing the violin.


(Oh, and I also heard that a little band named Bonny Bear won something called “Best New Artist” at some awards show or something…? Congratulations to Justin Vernon and his band Bon Iver. I’m proud to share your hometown.)

9 replies

Emily Visits Violaland, Part 3/?

February 2, 2012 13:26

This week marks my fourth as a wayfaring stranger in Violaland. I thought that now might be a good time to take stock and figure out where to go from here.

I’ve been playing an hour of viola a day, as well as an hour of violin. When I first asked for advice for a violinist taking on viola, someone mentioned not to slack on the violin. I remember thinking, “Thanks, Captain Obvious,” but here’s the weird thing: once you start, it’s not obvious. It’s so easy to focus on one or the other, and to start gravitating toward either the sonic thrill of a new instrument or the familiar comfort of an old one. But you must not allow yourself to backslide on the fiddle, and that in turn means committing to the viola wholeheartedly. The viola is not a side-project. So far I’ve combatted favoritism by telling myself that for every half hour spent at the viola, I have to guarantee a half hour will be spent at the violin, and vice versa. I also mix up my practice sessions; every day I alternate which instrument I start with. So far it seems to be working.

Technically, all sorts of things have been changing...for the better, I think. (I hope.)

Most of the changes have been in the right arm. Right now, I’m focusing on relaxing the shoulder and elevating the elbow. I had a brief discussion with Professional Violist Friend (PVF) about this at the lesson. With the relatively low elbow I’d been employing before, he wondered if I’d ever had any pain or discomfort in my right arm. I was so tempted to cackle bitterly before launching into a detailed description of my battle with right arm nerve pain, in the kind of overwrought explanation that an old lady would give at a family reunion when an unsuspecting relative asks about her bum hip. (Thankfully, I resisted the temptation to go into all the awful details.) But the truth is I’ve struggled with bouts of unbearable nerve pain for a decade now. It comes from the pinky and the ring finger and goes all the way past the elbow, into the neck, and down to the toes. (For those who don’t know, I have health problems that exacerbate nerve pain. I’m aware that’s an extreme physical response.) Anyway, after some experimentation, I’m wondering if the low right elbow made those two fingers stiff. Over time, stiffness led to pain. Add in tension from a lowered chin and high shoulder and gritted teeth, and voilà. (Or should I say viola? ... Maybe not.) I’m wondering if, with the higher elbow, maybe the code to nerve-pain-free playing has been cracked. I say “maybe” because it seems too easy and wonderful to actually be true, and I don’t want to jinx it. And also because it’s humiliating to think I’ve sobbed in pain because of two stiff fingers. Anyway, this month my bow arm has felt much more relaxed and efficient, both on the violin and the viola. I’ve also taken on the no-doubt creepy-looking habit of closing my eyes halfway to three-quarters of the way. It might make me look high, but as long as nobody’s watching... It’s an expression that helps release facial tension.

The left arm has not been without its adjustments, either. I’ve decided that if I can’t see my elbow through the c-bout, it’s not tucked under enough. I need all the help I can get to stop those strings. Obviously this might be too extreme of a position for other players with different body types, and at times it’s almost too extreme for me (especially when I’m playing on the Aing). But I’ve still found it’s a good goal to shoot for, since I usually fall a little short of it, anyway. This change in position also necessitates some changes with the left wrist, since it’s tempting to arc it away from the neck. I’m having to bring the wrist in more so that it’s more in line with the arm.

Clef-reading has been coming along surprisingly well. I keep waiting for a massive roadblock, but it hasn’t come. The progress is slow but steady. To give a general idea of where I’m at, I can sight-read maybe three-quarters of the first Bach cello suite (not up to tempo, but the notes are largely there). Schradieck has been my savior; it’s just worked so well, especially since I know the exercises from violin. The exercises on one string (the D string in the transcription I’ve been using) really really really hammer the notes home. In fact, it works so well that I’m planning on transcribing it for the other strings. Ševcík, surprisingly, has not been nearly as helpful, although it too has been worth doing, if only to practice the elusive art of shifting on the viola. (Perhaps it will become more relevant once I get alto-clef in first position mastered.) One area I’m still very weak in is naming the notes. I know where to put my fingers, but I can’t tell you what note that is without taking a second or two to think about it. I suppose this will come in time. I guess when I think about it, twenty-five or so hours of playing is not a lot of time to totally learn a new clef. And I’m not a prodigy by any stretch of the imagination. So I’ll cut myself some slack on that one.

The thing that has helped the most by far in note-reading is the idea of intervals. Consequently, certain passages with notes a third or fourth or fifth apart come relatively easily. Things with wider jumps are still a little slower, especially when string-crossings are involved. And don’t ask me to read anything in a key with more than a couple sharps or flats...

I make a point to sight-read something every day. Right now I’m working on the viola part to the Mozart G-major violin-viola duo. It’s slow, but... I’m hoping that once I get my orchestra music for the semester I will start picking up sight-reading skills faster. Maybe eventually – gasp – I will be able to play in positions without my brain splattering all over the music stand. That would be a cool and welcome development.

Another awesome unexpected benefit has been mastery of second position...on violin. Yeah, I’m not sure how that happened, either. But something about learning first position in alto clef made second position in treble totally click. (???) This is something I’ve been struggling on and off with for five years; I would do all the exercises, but it just never stuck. So as you can imagine, I’ve been pretty chuffed, and using my newfound second position chops whenever I get a chance.

At the risk of publicly humiliating myself, here I am playing the Courante and Sarabande from the first cello suite. I’ve been working on the Courante a little bit every day for the last month. On the other hand, I’m sight-reading the Sarabande. (I wanted to prove to people that even if you are not particularly talented, it is possible to become comfortable enough with alto clef in a few weeks to sight-read a slow movement of a Bach suite without getting into a total trainwreck!)

Some observations...

- My voice recorder does not pick up the range of the viola nearly as well as it picks up the range of the violin. The sound seems much thinner and less complicated than in real life. Or maybe I’m not projecting well? Hmm. What I need is a set of portable human ears that I can move across the room and then connect to my brain. Does Shar sell those?

- Especially in the Courante, I’m sounding weirdly like a 90-pound violinist playing a violin with a Cing while using a crappy student violin bow. Which makes no sense, since I’m a 90-pound violinist playing a 14-inch viola while using a crappy student violin bow. At this stage in the game, should I be focusing on just hitting the notes? Or should I be adding “strive for a viola-like tone” on top of changing my right and left arms and reading the clef? How does one get a viola-like tone on a 14-inch instrument anyway? Especially when you’re forced to use a crap violin bow? (Sadly, upgrading won’t be an option for a very long time, and the viola bow that came with the rental is so awful I’m tempted to see if carbon-fiber bows are really as indestructible as their makers claim. I’m thinking a ritual massacre by steak knife...) Anyway, one possible solution I came up with was to slow the tempo down, because the viola clearly needs more time to speak and resonate than I’m used to giving the violin. What do you think? Would this help at all?

- It would be nice to have a full-time teacher. Never going to happen, but it would be So. Frigging. Nice. For any violinists wanting to add on viola, keep in mind that you can teach yourself a lot, but you’re going to get a lot farther a lot quicker with the help of a good teacher.

So, the inevitable question... Will I keep going with the viola?

Heck, yeah!!

Then the next inevitable question... Where do I want to go from here?

I’ve been thinking about it. It would be nice to feel familiar enough with alto clef to be able to read faster pieces at-tempo, so I guess more sight-reading and Schradieck is in order. I’ll need to work on rhythm, especially in ensembles (my rhythm’s atrocious without a metronome). Repertoire... I’ll continue my traversal of the Bach first cello suite, but I also have a viola transcription of Fauré’s Élégie for cello. Fauré is my favorite composer, and IMHO the Élégie doesn’t sound very good in the violin transcription, so... Even if the Élégie proves to be too challenging, I’ve got to try Après un Rêve at least. A Fauré fix is in order. Maybe from there I can take on the Bruch Romance, or something by Rebecca Clarke. Any repertoire suggestions?

To close... In my last entry, I pondered briefly as to what makes a violinist feel like a violist. Since writing that entry, I came up with one of the definitive signs: when you play the violin immediately after the viola, the violin sounds completely unsatisfying in comparison. It feels like a toy – a scratchy, unresponsive, uptight, whiny toy. You finally understand the gospel truth that it is always going to be easier to switch from violin to viola. You’ve heard many other people say this over the years, and you’ve always wondered how it could possibly be true, but then suddenly you experience it yourself and you think to yourself, oh. They’re right.

I still don’t love the viola more than the violin, though. They’re like my two kids. It would feel criminal to choose between them.


In future installments of Emily Visits Violaland...

- Emily curses fate that she has to learn all this crap without a teacher. Why God, why?? It’s so much to keep straight! Whine moan whine moan complain moan. She will then melodramatically wave a fist with calloused fingertips toward the sky.

- She tries to learn to sustain the viola sound. This will involve... Um... I don’t know. Experimenting with bow changes? Something like that. I’m not sure.

- She plays viola in an orchestra for the very first time. Will she be an asset to the section, or will her poor sight-reading skills make rehearsal grind to a halt like a New York Philharmonic concert interrupted by a marimba ringtone? Stay tuned.

4 replies

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