Leginska, Ethel (1886–1970)

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Leginska, Ethel (1886–1970)

English-born pianist who had a notable career in the U.S. as a composer, conductor, and a performer. Name variations: Ethel Liggins. Pronunciation: Le-GIN-ska (g as in "go"). Born on April 13, 1886, in Hull, England (some sources cite April 12); died in Los Angeles, California, on February 26, 1970, of a stroke; daughter of Thomas Liggins and Annie (Peck) Liggins; attended music schools in Frankfurt (Hoch Conservatory), Vienna, and Berlin; married Roy Emerson Whittern (also known as Emerson Whithorne), in 1907 (divorced 1916); children: one son, Cedric.

Made London debut (1902); had first nervous breakdown (1909); made New York debut (1913); began career as composer (1914); began role as speaker for feminist causes (1915); launched career as conductor (1924); made American debut as conductor (1925); had severe nervous breakdown followed by her retirement from solo performing, and founded Boston Philharmonic Orchestra (1926); toured Europe as conductor (1930); conducted premier of her opera Gale (1935); relocated permanently to Los Angeles (1940); conducted premier of her opera The Rose and the Ring (1957).

Major works:

(opera) Gale, The Rose and the Ring, (orchestra) 2 Short Pieces, Quatres sujects barbares,and Fantasy; (chamber music) From a Life, Triptych, 6 Nursery Rhymes, and 3 Victorian Portraits.

Ethel Leginska had a significant impact on several branches of the world of music. Starting as a successful pianist in Europe and the United States, by her late 20s she took up composing and, a decade thereafter, began a notable career as a conductor. Although she continued to work extensively in Europe, her career in writing music and in leading orchestras was centered within the American musical scene.

The role of women in the American musical world was in rapid transition at the close of the 19th century. Whereas women performers were a rarity and women's orchestras unknown as late as the 1870s, within two decades women were creating and seizing new opportunities in these areas. In the 1890s, as Judith Tick has written, there were a number of "historic firsts in the composition and performance" of women's works: "the first orchestra composition by a woman to be performed by a major American symphony orchestra; the first symphony, the first concerto, and the first large-scale choral composition." Pianists like Teresa Carreño (a grandniece of Simon Bolivár), Julia Rivé-King , and Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler toured extensively. So-called "lady orchestras" likewise became common. Nonetheless, the orchestras at the center of American music continued to exclude women. The first female conductors in the United States, who began to appear around the turn of the century, were compelled to work with female ensembles: Caroline B. Nichols and the Fadette Women's Orchestra of Boston, and Emma Roberto Steiner with various light opera companies.

"During the 1920s," writes Carole Neuls-Bates , "American musical life underwent great expansion in keeping with the economic boom experienced by the country as a whole." In this era of newly constructed concert halls and newly founded symphony orchestras, women found widening opportunities. Talented women were now being trained at recently established musical conservatories such as the Eastman School in Rochester, New York, and the Juilliard School in New York City. Although still excluded from mainstream orchestras, women musicians founded their own organizations. Almost 30 such organizations performed in the United States from the 1920s through the 1940s. In addition, new orchestras that mixed male and female performers now began to appear. It was in this environment that Ethel Leginska rose to prominence as a founder and conductor of symphony orchestras.

The future musician was born in Hull, England, on April 13, 1886, the daughter of Thomas and Annie Peck Liggins . Little has been recorded about her youth, but she apparently responded to music even as an infant, was recognized at an early age as a gifted pianist, and, after initial training, gave entire recitals when she was only seven. A local family, the Wilsons, who had made a future in shipping, took Ethel under their wing, providing her with the opportunity for study in centers of music on the Continent. She started with training at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, where she worked under the direction of the noted Dutch pianist James Kwast. She probably received her most important training for her later career during the three years she studied in Vienna with Theodore Leschetitzky, a celebrated pianist and teacher whose pupils included Ignace Jan Paderewski. She then completed her musical apprenticeship in Berlin. It was during these years that she dropped her original family name to become Ethel Leginska. The new name suggested a continental heritage that was apparently designed to help her career. The musical stage of the time was dominated by performers of Russian or Polish background, and the phrase "Ethel Liggins from Hull" seemed less likely to attract audiences than its contrived, Slavic equivalent.

Leginska achieved quick recognition as a performer in her own country and elsewhere in Europe. Her debut as a soloist came in England in 1902, when, only 16 years old, she gave a successful performance at Queen's Hall in London. In 1907, she married an American, Roy Emerson Whittern, who was also studying music in Europe as a pupil of Theodore Leschetitzky. She and Whittern, who changed his name to Emerson Whithorne when he began a career as a composer, had a son Cedric in the year following their marriage. For a time, her husband acted as her manager.

A tribute to Leginska's growing reputation can be found in frequent references to her as the "Paderewski of women pianists." Sadly, in 1909, at an early stage in her career and personal life, she suffered the first in a series of nervous breakdowns that were to cause her difficulty over the following two decades. Leginska's personal life was marked by recurring difficulties. In 1912, she separated from her husband. In 1916, the marriage was apparently dissolved, although some sources indicate that the proceedings were not complete until 1918. The divorce involved a bitter custody dispute over the couple's only child. Leginska lost despite her claims that her husband had deserted her and that she could earn enough to support a one-parent family.

Even so, Leginska was able to make a successful debut in the United States, playing at Aeolian Hall in New York at the start of 1913. After that, she spent most of her time in America and appeared regularly on the New York concert stage. The critics hailed her talents, and she was particularly well known for her repertoire of works by the great German composers from Bach through Schubert, as well as for her all-Chopin programs. She sometimes presented these demanding performances without giving herself or the audience an intermission. But even early in her career, Leginska's failure to appear at some scheduled performances, attributable probably to her personal difficulties, led some in the musical world to dub her "the disappearing pianist."

We will never be original … until we … trust our own way instead of the eternal beaten paths on which we are always asked to poke along.

—Ethel Leginska

While in the States, she took a number of positions that marked her as one of the leading feminists of the musical world. Eschewing the bare-shouldered evening gown that was the standard dress expected of a female performer, she insisted on performing in a more comfortable (and warmer) costume. It consisted of a black silk shirt, black velvet jacket, a white vest, and a skirt of everyday length. Her short hairstyle also departed from the norm for female performers but offered her the freedom of movement she required while playing. Leginska likewise became an outspoken advocate for such measures as effective child care that would aid professional women in pursuing their careers. She was also canny about publicity. In 1916, when she injured her finger in a door, she sent an X-ray taken of the bruised digit to a music magazine and had the satisfaction of seeing it appear in a subsequent issue.

In the mid-1920s, Leginska's emotional difficulties and her corresponding inability to honor her concert engagements became too burdensome for her to continue that part of her career. A series of dramatic events in 1925 and 1926 made it impossible for her to hide her growing mental problems from the public. In late January 1925, though she set out in a taxi for an appearance before a crowd of 2,000 at Carnegie Hall, Leginska disappeared suddenly in New York City. A substitute performer was found at the last minute to take her place. When a friend notified the authorities, the police began a four-day search for her. In the end, they learned that she had suffered a nervous breakdown and fled to Boston. Leginska later recounted how, on this occasion, she had wandered the city in a daze, with "music singing" in her head. The distraught pianist then stopped at a friend's apartment to write down the tune. It is possible that the tepid reviews Leginska had received from New York critics for her recent debut as a conductor contributed to this emotional crisis.

In October 1926, a similar series of events took place. Leginska failed to appear before a crowd of 1,500 patrons at a scheduled People's Symphony Concert in New York City. Violinist Francis MacMillen filled in for her, and the crowd of ticket holders learned of the change only when they confronted a sign at the entrance to the auditorium. Following this latest breakdown, Leginska attempted to blame her manager for failing to cancel her engagement; she claimed she had asked him to do so well in advance of the concert. But this effort to conceal her emotional turmoil faded when she announced the cancellation of a recital scheduled for late November in Aeolian Hall. Ironically, it was there she had made her successful American debut in 1913. Trying to resume her concert career with a tour of the Midwest led to a new fiasco on January 20, 1926, when she abandoned a performance scheduled to take place before an audience of 4,000 in Evansville, Indiana. She had given a hint of her state of mind the previous day when she complained loudly of the city's yellow cabs, the lack of a symphony orchestra to accompany her, and the concert hall, which she described as "an old barn."

At this point, the troubled performer consulted doctors in Buffalo, where she was staying with friends. They diagnosed her condition as "a severe nervous breakdown," and they called upon her to rest and stay away from the concert stage for at least a year. Although she played the piano in conjunction with her subsequent work as a conductor, after this diagnosis Leginska no longer attempted to sustain a career as a soloist.

The pianist had switched her focus to composing around 1914, studying with Ernest Bloch in New York. Much of her energy over the next decade went into this effort. Her compositions included Four Poems for string quartet, which debuted in London in 1921, and a four-movement suite, Quatre sujects barbares, completed in 1923. Her most substantial work as a composer was completed by the end of the 1920s. Neuls-Bates has described her music as "progressive in its rhythmic intensity, its free approach to tonality,

and its use of vocal declamation." Leginska's more substantial compositions were played by orchestras on both sides of the Atlantic.

The once successful pianist also became interested in conducting an orchestra, a vastly more radical departure from accepted practice than merely performing as a soloist with a traditional symphony orchestra. Notes Christine Ammer : "Traditionally such control, especially over an all-male orchestra, requires a forcefulness that was encouraged only in men." In the early 1920s, Leginska studied conducting in London where she worked under the direction of Eugene Gossens, then moved to Munich where she studied with Robert Heger. She appeared as a guest conductor in a number of European musical centers in 1924, including Munich, Paris, London and Berlin. A female conductor was still a novelty in the musical world of this time, and Leginska apparently obtained work as a conductor by agreeing to perform as a pianist on the same programs. Nonetheless, as Ammer notes, Leginska had the required qualities of a successful conductor: "superb musicianship" as well as "a vivid personality, which can command both the orchestra and the attention of the audience." Her gift for publicity remained in force, and she made it a point to inform the public in the United States, in both interviews and press releases, that she had been the first woman to conduct such esteemed orchestras as the Berlin Philharmonic. It seems likely, however, that another female conductor from America, the Dutch-born Antonia Brico , had taken the podium in Berlin sometime earlier.

On January 9, 1925, Leginska made her American debut as a conductor, appearing with the New York Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. This was, in fact, the first time a woman had conducted in the famous New York concert hall. The critic for The New York Times was conspicuously unenthusiastic in assessing Leginska's skills, although he noted the warm response she received from the audience. In short order, however, she received a subsequent engagement in Boston, and Leginska enjoyed particular acclaim for her appearance later in the year at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.

Pursuing her career as a conductor, Leginska founded several orchestras in the last part of the 1920s: the Boston Philharmonic, the Boston Woman's Symphony, and the Boston English Opera Company. The Boston Philharmonic, which performed for only a single season, was a predominantly male ensemble. It was intended to provide good music to a mass audience at rock-bottom prices, and its performances received favorable reviews from Boston's leading critics. The Boston Woman's Symphony, founded in 1927, had a longer life span: it conducted extensive national tours in 1928 and 1929 and survived through 1930. The Woman's Symphony sometimes employed a small number of male musicians, Leginska explaining that a lack of some female instrumentalists from the Boston region made it necessary to use men rather than incurring the cost of bringing in women players from out of town. She also served as director of the Woman's Symphony Orchestra of Chicago.

Her developing talent at the podium won reluctant praise from American critics, many of whom still looked upon a female conductor as a slightly unwelcome novelty. The critic for The Boston Transcript captured the appeal of the Women's Symphony and Leginska's role in directing the ensemble. "In solidity of tone, vigour, and self-confidence … this orchestra ranks high among orchestras everywhere." It presented worthy programs "under the firm leadership of Ethel Leginska, that distractingly versatile but surpassingly musical person." According to Arthur Elson, who wrote a study of women in music at this time, Leginska was everywhere "acclaimed as a dynamic conductor of much skill, individuality, authority, and magnetism."

Apart from leading her own orchestras, Leginska continued to work effectively as a guest conductor. In December 1928 at the Boston Opera House, she conducted the National Opera Company in a performance of Rigoletto. In 1930, she had a successful tour conducting various European orchestras. In 1933, she conducted Beethoven's Ninth Symphony before an appreciative audience in Havana. In leading her own orchestras, Leginska filled the dual role of conductor and soloist when it came to works like Liszt's Hungarian Fantasia and Mendelssohn's Concerto in G Minor. For these performances, she stood in front of her musicians for the introduction, moved unobtrusively to the piano for her solos, then stood at the piano to direct the subsequent orchestral passages.

Neuls-Bates attributes particular significance to Leginska's work with the Boston Woman's Symphony Orchestra during its four years of existence. The organization's two extended tours in the eastern United States, one in 1928 and a second the following year, let it display its abilities to audiences as far as Chicago and St. Louis. Accomplished women musicians thus had an unprecedented opportunity to demonstrate their talents and, according to Neuls-Bates, give "encouragement to countless women to take up orchestral instruments." The tours were based on a rigorous schedule of traveling and performances, the 1928 tour presenting 55 concerts in only 43 days.

Leginska's work as a composer continued in the early part of the 1930s, during which time she wrote two operas. The first, The Ring and the Rose, received its initial performance only in 1957, but the second, Gale, was staged by the Chicago Civic Opera Company in 1935. Leginska herself took the podium for the premier performance of Gale. In the late 1930s, as her status as a female conductor lost its novelty, Leginska turned, perhaps reluctantly, to teaching. She established studios in London and Paris, then settled permanently in Los Angeles. Noted performers who studied with her included James Fields, Daniel Pollack, and Bruce Sutherland. Leginska still took the baton on occasion, leading the orchestra at concerts where her students were presented to the public. This multitalented woman, who had battered down numerous barriers in the musical world, died of a stroke in Los Angeles on February 26, 1970. Her work as a teacher had continued to the time of her death. According to Ammer, Ethel Leginska was "one of the most colorful women musicians of her time."


Ammer, Christine. Unsung: A History of Women in American Music. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980.

Anderson, E. Ruth, comp. Contemporary American Composers. 2nd ed. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1982.

Bowers, Jan, and Judith Tick, eds. Women Making Music: The Western Art Tradition, 1150–1950. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Elson, Arthur. Woman's Work in Music. Boston, MA: L.C. Page, 1931.

Sadie, Julie Anne, and Rhian Samuel. The Norton-Grove Dictionary of Women Composers. NY: W.W. Norton, 1995.

Sicherman, Barbara et al., eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period: A Biographical Dictionary. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980.

suggested reading:

Greene, David Mason. Greene's Biographical Encyclopedia of Composers. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985.

Slonimsky, Nicolas. Music since 1900. 5th ed. NY: Schirmer Books, 1994.

Thompson, Oscar. The International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians. London: J.M. Dent, 1975.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California