Rachel Barton Pine's Maud Powell favorites, Part II

May 12, 2010, 11:46 AM ·

(This is Part II 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. If you haven't read it yet, here was Part I and here is Part III)

Who was Maud Powell?

She was only one of the most famous and accomplished violinists at the turn of the 20th century – born around the same time as the violinist Fritz Kreisler.

"I like to think that she bequeathed a legacy to me; the very truth she had lived and died for, and her commitment to her violin, to her music, and to humanity," Yehudi Menuhin said of Powell.

"Maud Powell's name is well-known to me," Jascha Heifetz wrote in 1979, "believe it or not, my students know who she was and what she stood for."

But do you?

Violinist Rachel Barton Pine has spent the last seven years of her life making sure that, not only will people know about Powell's history, but they will be able to play the music that she played: her arrangements, transcriptions, original cadenzas and lesser-known works that she commissioned and/or championed. We spoke about Rachel's efforts to restore the musical legacy of Maud Powell, music which has now been published in Maud Powell Favorites. We talked specifically about the challenges and merits of each piece, listening samples of which are available on Rachel Barton Pine's website.

Rachel Barton Pine

Rachel: There's so much to this collection. First of all, there is a very generous amount of repertoire – 43 pieces. A lot of pieces aren't necessarily pieces people yet know and love, but I guarantee you that every one is a gem. If you play through them, you'll love every one more than the last, it's just an amazing collection of pieces. And the music covers a surprising amount of variety and styles, considering the very narrow number of decades that it covers.

Also, the program notes by Karen Shaffer aren't just the little mini paragraphs you might get in other books, but every piece has a full-length essay. The volume of text is an entire book, in and of itself!

Many of the pieces are technically simple enough that they can be played by less advanced students or by enthusiastic adults who play the violin as an avocation. There are certainly virtuoso pieces in there – the "Fantasia on Sousa Themes" by Max Liebling and the "Caprice on Dixie" by Herman Bellstedt – pieces that can only be played by a Paganini soloist! But then there are so many pieces that are absolutely rewarding lyrical pieces, little character pieces. They certainly are worthy of being performed by professionals, but they're also pieces that have potential to be enjoyed by the student and amateur community.
Laurie: How many years did it take you to edit and assemble all this music?

About seven years. It's been a major part of my life for quite a long time. I can't overstate the intensity of this undertaking. There were some pieces -- both some of Maud's own arrangements and those works dedicated to her  –  that existed only in manuscript, that had never been published. You can't just take the manuscript and insert it into the computer and that's that. There are things that have to be corrected and decided upon. So I had to check it against the manuscript and make what you might call urtext editorial decisions. Is that smudge really the pitch above or the pitch below? Or if there was a discrepancy in bowing or phrasing, was it meant to be a discrepancy, or was it just a quick scribble that they hadn't added? All those kinds of decisions that you have to make, in order to present a "clean," true-to-the-page edition.

Then there was the category of pieces where the manuscript was lost – a great tragedy. Maud Powell's husband, at the time of her death, gave her entire music library to the Detroit Public Library, and rather than keeping it in a special collection, they filed it on the shelf. Because the music was placed in the circulating collection, some things have literally been lost. For example, we don't have a record of her interpretation of concertos and sonatas, because recordings weren't that long yet (so she did not record them). We would have had some kind of record if we had been able to study her markings – her bowings and fingerings, notes to herself on the page. But the sad thing is that all those have long since been erased by generations of students, who borrowed those pieces (from the library) to learn them. They erased her pencil and scribbled their own pencil on top of it. You can't tell at all which markings are hers, and which that remain are not.

Then there were the pieces that had never been published – where the manuscript was lost. Now a few of them are just simply lost. But those that had been recorded by Maud, we were able to take the recording and transcribe it. That meant listening over and over for hours and hours and hours, to every note of every measure, to figure out what her bowings were. I didn't put fingering indications or slide indications into the music, I figured that's easy enough for people to listen to and wanted to leave the page a little more clean in case people didn't want to take that type of interpretative approach, but I thought bowings, for sure, are part of the substance of somebody's transcription. So I had to get that right, and boy, that was a very interesting challenge!

Laurie: If a person wanted to start on this music, what would be a good place to start? What if you are an adult amateur, or an intermediate student, or a teacher who to assign one of these pieces to one of your students, what would be a good intro-level piece?

Rachel: There are of course some pieces that are in the Suzuki repertoire itself, the Dvorák Humoresque, and the Beethoven "Minuet" – but those are actually not easy! Those arrangements have thirds, they're in original keys, they haven't been made into violin-friendly keys, they're in the piano keys, which are not easy for violin.

Laurie: I've actually played your recording of the Maud Powell arrangement of the Dvorák "Humoresque" for my Suzuki kids, and it had a really neat effect on them. Even though they are playing it in a simple, violin-friendly key, when they listened to your version – the Maud Powell version – with all the embellishments, some of felt inspired to try adding some double stops and slides. They realized that they don't have to do it just the Suzuki-recording way!

But tell me, what am I going to give my Suzuki Book 4 student from this book? What would be good for a college recital? Which are virtuoso pieces?


"Deep River" (No. 18) and "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen," (No. 19): They have a few challenging shifts, you can definitely do a little of your own simplification in terms of. "Deep River" has its roots in the African-American community, but it is one of our beloved American songs, we really think of it as a song that belongs to all of us.  I've played it as an encore so often, not just when I have a performance with piano accompaniment, but I'll even play it just as Maud wrote it, a cappella.
You can take the lower octave, instead of doing all those octaves, to take the upper voice of the sixths – just for those few spots. That makes them totally achievable.

"Molly on the Shore" (No. 30): This is a really fun one, it has a few places that are in seventh position, but why not bring those few measures down an octave? So there might be a few things that teachers have to tweak, but it wouldn't be like making a wholesale transcription of a transcription.

(Henri) Ern "Minuet" (No. 28): This is a cute one that's ready to go.

The  Amy Beach's "Romance" (No. 25) and the Henry Holden Huss "Romance" (No. 38) do go quite a bit of the ways up the fingerboard.

(Carl) Venth's "Aria" (No. 43) doesn't have too much radical stuff way at the end of the fingerboard...it's got a lot of emotional scope, that would be a great alternative to the kind of pieces students tend to play like Rachmaninov's "Vocalise." The Venth Aria is so gorgeous; it has delicate parts and passionate parts, and it's so well-crafted.

"Minute Waltz" by Chopin (No. 3): If you don't play it at the speed of light! There is a longstanding tradition among pedagogical repertoire: to play a piece that, professionally, would be played at a very fast speed, but a student can play it at a moderate tempo. If you take this piece and put it at what you might call a "student tempo," it becomes totally playable. Also, it's Chopin's year, so this is the year to play it! Again, you can choose to use different the types of fingering: if you're a professional artist you can go all the way up the D string and do lots of expressive slides just for the sake of having shifts that are there to make an effect. If you are a student you can choose a more simple fingering, where you remain in fewer positions and lower positions but still treat the melody really beautifully. That makes this Chopin piece totally playable by kids and students; it's such a fun one.

Jean Sibelius' "Valse Triste" (No. 14): This would be an intermediate piece.

Jean Sibelius' "Musette": There is a whole section that is sul G, which gives it a cool effect. But you wouldn't have to play it sul G. You can play it just fine in the first position; it makes that piece much more simple. It's such an appealing piece.

Christoph Gluck's "Melodie" (No. 7): The Kreisler version is a favorite that everybody plays. I don't know if Maud's is any easier or harder than his. It's crafted along the same lines, but it's a nice alternative to play hers instead of Kreisler's.

Marion Bauer's "Up the Ocklawaha" (No. 24): This still sounds almost contemporary for our ears today. It's not atonal, but it has very progressive use of harmony that still seems very current, somehow. Marion Bauer is a woman composer.  Maud had been touring in Florida back when it was a swamp, and she took a trip up this narrow river. It was such a spooky environment that she wanted to have a piece of music created to capture her experience. It's is a reflection of Florida –  not necessarily drawing on American traditional music, but drawing upon unique American experiences.

Cecil Burleigh's "Four Rocky Mountain Sketches" (No. 27): Here's another descriptive piece. It's not the Alps, it's not the Himalayas, it's the Rockies. It's music that could only have been created by an American who knew what he was talking about – our wide-open spaces and our incredible landscape.

Then there are the Maud Powell transcriptions: Jules Massenet's "Twilight" (No. 10); or the Dvorák "Humoresque" (No. 5); or J. Rosamond Johnson's "Nobody Knows the Trouble I See" (No. 19): These are serious pieces that really should be in the meaty part of our recital program.

Maud Powell's Brahms Concerto cadenza: I knew this from having written my own cadenzas: if you look up my manuscripts, and compare that to my Carl Fischer Collection, you'll notice there are lots of differences. The manuscript was used as a shorthand to remind myself what I wrote -- not meant to be used by anybody but myself. So there's a lot that's missing! Maud Powell's cadenza is a little bit along those lines: she had no intention of publishing it, she just wrote it down for herself, and that's what we have to go on. So we do publish a sort of urtext, clean copy of what was in the manuscript, and then I provide a second copy of my suggestions for how it actually would be played.

Max  Liebling's "Fantasia on Sousa Themes" (No. 39): That is a difficult piece. If somebody wanted to use it for an international competition in place of Ernst's "Last Rose" or Ravel's "Tzigane," it would be right up there, in terms of showing whether or not you've got the chops. It's very, very difficult, absolutely top-level, Paganini stuff.  Note-wise, the "clean version" and the edited version that I created don't vary all that much. But where I believe there was a call for having an edited version is the fact that it's so darn difficult that it took me many many hours to just come up with a solution for how to finger it to make it playable at all. So it's not a question of choosing the artistic fingering that you believe in, that matches your interpretation, It's a question of solutions. How can I actually make this passage possible? I wanted to maximize the potential that people might take the plunge and perform it. By providing ready-to-go fingering solutions, it will make it that much more likely that people will decide to take it up and add it to their repertoire, play it in concert.

It's purely recognizable as Sousa, but what we forget is that Sousa didn't just write marches, he also wrote a couple of operas. The first handful of themes come from his operas. Then of course it ends with the Stars and Stripes, which is great, because that's the one we all know. It's a perfect piece to use in place of a European fun flashy showpiece -- we can now perform an American piece that will serve the same role but will be something from our own country. And I really see this Sousa piece having a lot of life, not just for  Fourth of July concerts or American-themed recital programs, but to be added to any recital program by American artists or even by non-American artists who want to play something American. That's a piece that I'm really excited about getting out there and adding to the virtuoso repertoire.

This Maud Powell sheet music collection is so much more than some appealing pieces to add to your repertoire. It's inspiring on so many different levels. I happen to be a research geek, I love learning about the composers' lives, the performance practices of the time, all that stuff-- But not everybody does, and there's nothing wrong with just liking the music for itself!

The music is good enough that it can stand on its own two feet and exist apart from its interesting history. It's great music, and that's what really matters in the end. If it were historically interesting but not quite great, then it wouldn't have been worth spending seven years of my life! But it's because the music is absolutely top-quality that it was worth putting in all of the effort.    

The past informs the future. The values by which Maud Powell lived her life still have resonance for artists and students today: the fact that she championed new music, the fact that she was so giving of herself to students who came to her for advise, the fact that she sought out communities that she could introduce classical music to, and all of these are things that we still should be doing. The fact that she played things by women composers, by composers of different ethnic backgrounds.

Coming Friday: Part III, What you never knew about John Philip Sousa!




May 12, 2010 at 11:40 PM ·

Hi Laurie,

I continue to be impressed and inspired by RBP's level of competence and her dedication to  our art. She is a wonderful advocate!

On a more personal note, this is the level of journalism that keeps me returning to Vcom.

May 14, 2010 at 12:23 AM ·

I read this article on Strings magazine right after I performed Amy Beach's Romance at my recital. I really wish I had read it before my recital because so many windows opened up for me after I read it. Why don't more people know about her? I give a lot of credit to Rachel for putting in so much work, effort, and awareness of this wonderful lady. I have now become inspired to spread the word as well!

Thank you for this post, it was awesome!


May 14, 2010 at 02:26 AM ·

Well, you didn't read this article on Strings Magazine...;)

May 15, 2010 at 02:37 AM ·

Laurie and Rachel, thank you so much!  This is the most exciting article I've read on this site since I started here years ago.  I love Rachel's description of all the pieces and how she edited them to make them playable and a tribute to Maud Powell.  This article whets my appetite to listen to and perhaps try to play some of them.  I love Rachel's insider's view as a researcher, arranger, teacher, and performer.  I have edited and arranged some pieces for my students and myself, and it's very instructive to hear Rachel talk about how she did it.  She is not too snobby to allow some simplification of the pieces as long as the results are artistically valid.  She is doing so much to make Maud Powell's music accessible to so many of us.  Laurie, your role in this endeavor commands a lot of respect, too.  Only a really good journalist, violinist, and violin teacher could have done the subject justice.  Wow!  Thanks again.

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