Magazine article Strings

An American Tale

Magazine article Strings

An American Tale

Article excerpt

Rachel Barton Pine celebrates the indomitable spirit of prima violin virtuoso Maud Powell, who helped bring classical music to the masses

The dawn of the 20th century found the United States flourishing. Its cities were growing, its industry booming, and its status as a great power taking root. But its culture? Save for those widespread metropolitan areas, the rest of the country was the Wild West when it came to the arts - a raw, untamed frontier of Philistines. In the mid-1880s, as the likes of violin virtuoso Eugene Ysaye held authences in Europe enraptured, there were but a handful of permanent orchestras in the United States and all featured European-born soloists.

Enter Maud Powell, the American-born virtuoso violinist. "She was one of the first artists to elevate the taste of the American public," violinist Rachel Barton Pine says.

Pine has championed Powells legacy since getting in touch with author Karen Shaffer, president of the Maud Powell Society, and collaborating on new projects that will help to make Powell's legacy - and her music - available to a wider authence.

In addition to performing many of Powell's arrangements onstage, Pine has served as musk advisor and editor of Shaffer's Maud Powell Favorites (Maud Powell Society for Music and Education; $115), a four-volume set of 43 Powell violin arrangements of works by Amy Beach, Marion Bauer, Sibelius, Palmgren, Foster, ColeridgeTaylor, Rosamond Johnson, Hermann Bellstedt, Dvorak, Gluck, and others. The set includes a copy of Pine's critically acclaimed 2007 CD, American Virtuosa, Tribute to Maud Powell.

"[Powell would] get people used to new musical languages," Pine says. "It was very daring, in fact."

Why Powell - who gave American premieres of concertos by Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, and Dvorak - has slipped from the public mind remains a mystery. But after 23 years of poring over historical documents and unearthing arrangments, Shaffer has been able to sketch out just how the late-19th-century woman toppled and defied gender and racial barriers to bring civility to an unruly nation.

Born in Illinois in 1867, Powell studied under William Lewis in Chicago, Henry Schradieck at the Leipzig Conservatory, Charles Dancla at the Paris Conservatoire, and Joseph Joachim at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik. She made her performance debut in Europe and later in America. Critics foreign and domestic agreed she was an equal to Eugène Ysaye and, later, her predecessor Fritz Kreisler.

If Powell so desired, she could have spent her life in grand concert halls performing for the rich and famous. But, at age 20, Powell set off on what became her life's mission: to bring classical music to the masses, remote and otherwise.

Accompanied by a pianist, a few suitcases of clothes, and her violin, she played to cowboys in roughneck frontier saloons, to farmers in drafty barns, to miners and railroad workers, and anyone else who turned out to hear her play, Nearly always, the authence was composed on everyone in town, or everyone who could fit into the venue she chose.

"She believed classical music is something that can build civilizations and she recognized that, at this critical period, America needed classical music to develop to its highest potential," Shaffer says. "She set a standard for violin playing that hasn't been exceeded, reallyevery [musician] who has toured [the country] followed in her footsteps, really."

Powell would return to Europe to playonce with her own quartet comprised entirely of women, a rarity for that time period, and again with John Philip Sousa's orchestra. And she would be one of recorded music's first stars. But time and again, in between trips to England or Africa and every year from 1907 until right before her death in 1920, she toured the United States, sometimes under "nightmarish" conditions, Shaffer says.

The payoff for the long rides on smokefilled trains and the 3 AM wake-up calls to catch the next train came quickly. …

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