For 50 years, patrons have been attending concerts for violin and piano that were funded by "The McKim Fund" at Washington D.C.'s Library of Congress. But did they know that the generous 90-year-old lady behind that fund was actually one of the most famous violinists in Europe and America at the turn of the 20th century?
Indeed, this was all made clear on Feb. 21 at a special Library of Congress concert that honored the legacy of Leonora Jackson McKim. She was born in 1878 in Boston, and upon her death in 1969 she bequeathed her personal property to the Library of Congress to create a fund to support music at the Library. In the 50 years since, her fund has led to the commissioning of nearly 90 works for violin and piano and has funded concerts that present those works, as well as a series of concerts in honor of her late husband.
But at the time of her generous bequest, McKim's career as a violinist had been almost completely forgotten by the general public.
Last month's concert shed light on McKim's life and career, with a lecture by German-based historian Alessandra Barabaschi as well as a concert featuring violinist Miranda Cuckson. For the concert, Cuckson played on the 1714 Stradivari violin once owned by McKim, a Strad now owned by William and Judy Sloan, who lent their instrument for the occasion and flew out from Los Angeles to attend. While I could not be there, the Sloans described the event and put me in touch with Barabaschi and Cuckson.
Several hundred people attended the lecture by Barabaschi, who explained that Leonora Jackson enjoyed a brilliant career that took her to Europe and back, until marriage cut it off very suddenly when she was not yet 30 years old. That marriage was short-lived, and in 1915 she married her second William Duncan McKim, 23 years her senior, who was also an organist and from all accounts, a much better match.
Barabaschi, who has been writing a Historic Women Performers series for Tarisio, told me that she has been researching McKim since 2009 and aims to write a biography of this remarkable American artist. "Through her life it's also possible to indulge in a little nostalgia, to observe the society, the culture, and the way of thinking of the 19th century, to better understand how things were at the time and how much they've changed," Barabaschi said. "Although she was born in America, Leonora Jackson McKim was advised to finish her studies in Europe." Because her family lost its fortune, Jackson was able to do this only through the generosity of 20 prominent Americans, who funded her studies after hearing her play. She eventually went on to study with the great Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim.
"She studied in Paris and Berlin, played in the most distinguished European venues and for several European Royal Houses," Barabaschi said. European critics were generous, even cutting her home country some slack: upon her Berlin debut one said that "the myth that Americans are behind the people of the Old World in depth of musical perception will be fundamentally contradicted by unusual public performances of this kind."
In fact, Jackson's role in dispelling European myths about the inferiority of American talent was "even bigger than the example of Maud Powell," Barabaschi said.
"Queen Victoria was so impressed by Leonora Jackson that she presented her with a precious gift: a gold brooch decorated with rubies and sapphires, that she wore for concerts," Barabaschi said. "The American audience seemed not to get enough of her and she ended up giving more than 300 concerts in the U.S. within two years."
As was often the custom of the day, her marriage meant an end to her career. But she continued to live an interesting life that was full of music.
"Her life after her second marriage is quite fascinating," Barabaschi said. "The McKims loved to travel and made a world tour. Albert Einstein and his wife were friends of the McKims." And her husband, an enthusiastic organist, built a 36-foot-high organ with 2,160 pipes in their Washington, D.C. house.
"She had never forgotten how generously her American patrons had supported the beginning of her career and she, in turn, bequeathed her personal property to the Library of Congress to support young American artists," Barabaschi said. "She was a generous woman, who considered her triumphs as the triumphs of her nation."
To that end, February's concert with violinist Miranda Cuckson showcased a piece commissioned by the McKim Fund: Harold Meltzer's "Kreisleriana," written in 2012, as well as a few pieces that Leonora Jackson might have played, back in the day, such as a movement from Beethoven's String Trio in E-flat major, Op. 3, and Robert Schumann's Piano Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 47.
And what about the Stradivari violin in the room? Leonora Jackson played it from 1906 to 1919, after which it was sold and held privately until the Sloans bought it in 1983. When they first bought the violin, they did not know much about Leonora Jackson McKim, either. They were just attracted to the "liquid gold" sound of the instrument. In fact, Robert Bein (who sold them the violin) once wrote that "I honestly don't think there is a better-sounding Strad to be had," of the violin.
"Having Leonora Jackson's violin in our family has been a distinct pleasure. International soloists as well as devoted amateurs have enjoyed playing on it," William Sloan said. The violin has indeed been played by some wonderful violinists including Joshua Bell, Oleh Krysa (who called it "the seventh wonder of the world"), Philip Setzer, Roberto Cani, Jan Talich, David Taylor, Eugene Fodor, Chee Yun and very recently, Andrew Sords. (I've even had a little spin with it!)
Everyone seems to love this fiddle, and it was no different for Cuckson at the concert last month.
"I was very struck by how remarkably sensitive the Leonora Jackson McKim Strad is," Cuckson said. "It spoke easily at the lightest touch and responded with differences in tone as soon as I changed my bow pressure, bow speed, or type of articulation. I found the violin's sound resonant with a nice texture to it, evoking to my ear the grain of the wood. It had a nice edge of projection but also a cushion to the sound and to the feeling under my bow."
"And in doing this program, I was delighted to learn more about Leonora Jackson McKim," Cuckson said. "I was aware of her as the benefactor of the Library of Congress's fund that commissions works for violin and piano, and I figured she was a music-loving person who had a taste for new compositions. I did not know she was such a talented violinist and performer herself in her youth and that she had studied with Joseph Joachim. It was exciting to learn this - and to get to play her violin - but then realizing that she had given up her career and playing when she got married made me sad that she hadn't had the chance to develop her abilities and artistry further. I reflected on how typical that was in that era, and on how much women's lives have and haven't changed since then. Evidently her passion for music did continue during her life because she created the McKim Fund at the Library. It's very moving that her impact continues today."
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