Powell, Maud (1867–1920)
Powell, Maud (1867–1920)
Concert artist who became the first American violinist to win international critical acclaim. Born on August 22, 1867, in Peru, Illinois; died on January 8,920, in Uniontown, Pennsylvania; daughter of Wilhelmina (Minnie) Bengelstraeter (Paul) Powell (an amateur composer and pianist) and (William) Bramwell Powell (a nationally known, innovative educator and textbook author); began piano lessons with her mother at age four; subsequent piano teachers included Emma Fickensher and Agnes Ingersoll; violin teachers included G. William Fickensher, William Lewis, Henry Schradieck, Charles Dancla, and Joseph Joachim; married H. Godfrey "Sunny" Turner (a concert manager), on September 21, 1904; no children.
Gave first public violin performance (1876); studied in Germany at the Leipzig Conservatory (1881–82); studied at the Paris Conservatory (1882–83); toured Great Britain (1883–84); studied at the Berlin Hochschule (1884–85); performed as a soloist with Joseph Joachim conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (1885); made New York debut with Theodore Thomas conducting the New York Philharmonic (1885); toured western United States (1887–88); gave American premiere of Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto (1889) and Dvorak Violin Concerto (1894); made European tour with Arion Society (1892); chosen as representative American violinist for Theodore Thomas' Exposition Orchestra concerts at World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893); delivered a paper on "Women and the Violin" and premiered American composer Amy Beach's "Romance" with Beach at the piano at Women's Musical Congress (1893); formed the Maud Powell String Quartet (1894); toured Europe (1898–1905), twice as soloist with John Philip Sousa and his band (1903, 1905); was the first solo instrumentalist to record for Victor's Celebrity Artist series (Red Seal label, 1904–19); led her own concert company on tour of South Africa (1905); gave American premiere of Sibelius Violin Concerto (1906); formed Maud Powell Trio (1908–09); performed for American soldiers during World War I (1917–18).
Selected published articles:
"Women and the Violin," Ladies' Home Journal (February 1896); "The Price of Fame," in New Idea Woman's Magazine (December 1908); "How Fashion Invades the Concert Stage," in Musical America (December 26, 1908); "The American Girl and Her Violin," in Étude 27 (No. 7, July 1909, pp. 486–487); "Violin Interpretation," in Étude 27 (No. 8, August 1909); "Maud Powell's Musical Education," in The Musician (March 1910, reprinted from The Pictorial Review , n.d.); "Struggles Which Led to Success," in The Étude (October 1911); "The Violinist," in The Delineator (October 1911); "Musical Future of America," in Violinist (September 1911); "Pitting American Violin Works Against the Foreign Product," in Musical America 14 (No. 23, October 14, 1911, p. 123); "The Violinist," in Delineator (October 1911); "How To Enjoy Music," in Musician (August 1917, p. 634); "America is Getting the 'Shaking Up' She Needed For Her Soul-Awakening," in Musical America (October 20, 1917); "Two Types of Violin Playing," in Étude 36 (No. 11, November 1918, p. 698); "An Artist's Life," in Musical Observer (1918); "We Shall Evolve a Real School of National Art, Literature and Music," in Musical America (October 19, 1918); "Wieniawski's Legende, Analytical Lesson by Maud Powell," in The Étude (c. 1918).
Selected published transcriptions:
Coleridge-Taylor, Deep River (Boston: Oliver Ditson Company, 1905); Couperin, La Fleurie (NY: G. Schirmer, 1906); Gluck, "Melody" from the opera Orfeo (Boston: G. Schirmer, 1910); Chopin, Waltz, Op. 64, No. 1 (Boston: G. Schirmer, 1910); Dvořák, Songs My Mother Sang (NY: Breitkopf and Hartel, 1917); Beethoven, Minuet in G, No. 2 (NY: Breitkopf and Hartel, 1917); Martini, Love's Delight (Plaisir d'amour, NY: Breitkopf and Hartel, 1917); Jensen, Serenata (NY: Breitkopf and Hartel, 1918); Foster, Plantation Melodies (NY: Carl Fischer, 1919); J.R. Johnson, Nobody Knows the Trouble I See (NY: Oliver Ditson Company, 1921); Rimsky-Korsakov, Song of India (New York, Breitkopf and Hartel, n.d.).
Selected published cadenzas:
Original Cadenza to Brahms Violin Concerto Violexchange 2, No. 2 (1987).
Selected music editions:
Pietro Locatelli, Sonata in F Minor for Violin and Piano, Op. 6, No. 7; harmonized by L.A. Zellner; revised and edited by Maud Powell (NY: G. Schirmer, 1919).
Selected published recordings:
The Art of Maud Powell, A "Victor Immortal" (1904–1917), historic reissue, 3 compact discs, MPF-1, MPF-2, MPF-3, The Maud Powell Foundation, Arlington, Virginia, 1989; Maud Powell, Biddulph Lab 094, historic reissue, compact disc, 1994.
When Maud Powell stepped into the Victor recording studio for the first time in 1904, the art of violin playing was about to be revolutionized. The unparalleled standard for violin performance that Powell engraved on the spinning wax ushered in the modern age of violin playing. The Victor Company's choice of Powell as the first solo instrumentalist to record for its newly inaugurated celebrity artist series (Red Seal label) was no surprise. Internationally recognized as America's greatest violinist, she easily ranked among the supreme violinists of the time, including Joseph Joachim, Eugene Ysaije, and, later, Fritz Kreisler. Powell was also a popular favorite, winning the affection of the American public with her unabashed enthusiasm for the violin. Ushered into a small, acoustically "dead" room in November 1904, she was strategically placed before a large, gaping funnel. The nearer one stood to this mechanical monster, the better the recording. The music's vibrations agitated a needle in an adjoining room that scratched impressions of sound waves on the soft, spinning wax from which a record could then be molded. "I am never as frightened as I am when I stand in front of that horn to play," Powell once explained. "There's a ghastly feeling that you're playing for all the world and an awful sense that what is done is done."
Although acoustic recording was a wholly mechanical process, primitive by today's standards, when allied with the impeccable art of Maud Powell it revolutionized the way music was heard. (Electrical recording [with microphone] began in 1925, five years after Powell's death.) At a time when music was heard live or not at all, Powell welcomed the new technology, knowing that classical music would become popular as it became more familiar through repeated hearings. Upholding a high artistic standard from the beginning, she insisted immediately upon recording the Finale to the Mendelssohn violin concerto—even though she had to squeeze a reduced version into the severe time limitations of four minutes and fifty seconds. In 1907, her recording of Drdla's Souvenir became the best seller of all violin recordings, European and American, with Massenet's Meditation from Thais becoming a close second in 1909. Powell's recordings were enhanced by her violin which was labeled "Joannes Baptista Guadagnini, in Turin 1775"; she cherished the instrument for its ringing clarity and responsiveness to her command.
She was born a pioneer by heritage on August 22, 1867, in Peru, Illinois, on the Western frontier of America's heartland. Her grandparents had been Methodist missionaries in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Illinois before the Civil War. Powell's father Bramwell Powell was an innovative educator who served as superintendent of the public schools in Peru, then Aurora, Illinois, and finally Washington, D.C. Her mother Minnie Paul Powell was a pianist and composer whose gender had precluded a career in music. Minnie's and Bramwell's sisters were active in the women's suffrage movement, and Maud would later remember the visits of women's suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony to her home in Aurora. Powell's uncle John Wesley Powell, Civil War hero and explorer of the Grand Canyon, organized the scientific study of the Western lands and the American Indians. The powerful director of the U.S. Geological Survey and Bureau of Ethnology, he was also, with his brother Bramwell, founder of the National Geographic Society.
Both of Powell's parents shared a love of music. Under the tutelage of her mother, she began music lessons and by age four could play short pieces on the piano flawlessly. Powell later wrote of her early music instruction:
My mother is musical, but her talent whatever it might have been with cultivation, remained undeveloped. She often said to me, I have achieved through you what I was never able to do myself. It was my mother who, so to speak, first "tried music on me" to find out if I was musical.
A prodigy, Powell began private violin study in Aurora with G. William Fickensher, a German musician who headed the music department for the Aurora public schools. She studied piano with his daughter Emma Fickensher . Rising at 6:30 AM, Powell practiced for an hour before breakfast and an hour after school under her parents' watchful eyes and attentive ears. By the age of eight, she was playing Mozart violin sonatas accompanied by her mother.
Powell's progress was so rapid that after only a year of instruction, Fickensher recommended that she continue her studies with William Lewis, one of the best violinists and teachers in Chicago. Later, Powell would remark, "To William Lewis, a man of genius who played the fiddle because he couldn't help it, I owe much of my vigor and freedom of style." In fact, she said she "owed the most" to this "unfettered" player, who laid the foundation for her solid technique, impeccable musical taste, and wide sympathies. She simultaneously studied piano with Agnes Ingersoll , an associate of Lewis' in chamber music who, along with him, founded the Chicago Chamber Music Society. Powell made the weekly 40-mile trek to Chicago by train on her own because her parents could not afford to go with her. Recognizing her exceptional talent, Lewis played duets with Powell in some of her first public appearances in 1876.
After four years with Lewis, Powell was sent abroad to complete her studies supported in part by the financial generosity of Aurora residents. In 1881, she was placed among the most advanced pupils as she began a year of study with Henry Schradieck at the Leipzig Conservatory. Reviews that survive of Powell's performances from the Leipzig period laud her "exact intonation,"
"accuracy in bowing," and "remarkable depth of emotion." The following year, she was one of 6 students selected from some 88 applicants to study at the Paris Conservatory with the eminent violinist and teacher Charles Dancla. She would later credit him with showing her "how to develop purity of style…. [H]e taught me how to become an artist, just as I had learned in Germany to become a musician."
Following only six months' study with Dancla, Powell was advised that she would gain more from performing experience than formal studies. So she embarked on an extended concert tour in Great Britain (1883–84). While in London, she was introduced to Joseph Joachim, one of the greatest violin masters of the 19th century. After hearing Powell play, Joachim pronounced her an artist and invited her to study with him in Berlin. Her instruction with him began not with the usual technical études, but rather with the standard concert repertoire, especially concertos. Within one year, she concluded her lessons with Joachim, performing Max Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor with her master conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (March 1885).
I was four years old when I began to play the violin, the same year in which Maud Powell died. 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.
Returning to the United States with the knowledge that "girl violinists were looked upon with suspicion," Powell boldly walked into a rehearsal of the all-male New York Philharmonic in Steinway Hall and demanded a hearing from Theodore Thomas, then America's foremost conductor. Deeply impressed by her playing, Thomas hired her on the spot to perform the Bruch G minor violin concerto with the New York Philharmonic on November 14, 1885. New York Tribune critic Henry E. Krehbiel acclaimed the 18-year-old's debut performance: "She is a marvelously gifted woman, one who in every feature of her playing discloses the instincts and gifts of a born artist."
At the time of Powell's debut, appreciation for her art was in its infancy in America, with only five professional orchestras, no established concert circuits, and few professional managers. Solo engagements were difficult to obtain, especially for an American female artist since all orchestra players and conductors were male and generally German. H. Godfrey "Sunny" Turner, who became Powell's husband and manager in 1904, once reflected: "If any young woman could really know what Maud Powell suffered for her art, she would not go into the game."
Yet Powell refused to be lured into a comfortable career in Europe. From 1885 forward, Theodore Thomas' "musical grandchild" was an indefatigable ambassador for her art, making it her mission to cultivate a higher and more widespread appreciation for classical music by performing throughout America, from the remote areas to the cultural centers. She played the most demanding music before dubious conductors and critics as well as skeptical managers and audiences. Early in her career, she dared to give the American premiere of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto on January 19, 1889, with Walter Damrosch conducting the New York Symphony. It was a courageous and "brilliant achievement" to present the "formidably difficult" work (The New York Times) that had been condemned after its world premiere in 1881 by Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick as "music that stinks in the ear." The concerto became one of Powell's personal favorites, and she performed it publicly until it became a standard in the violin repertory.
Theodore Thomas chose Powell to represent America's achievement in violin performance at the Chicago 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, where she was the only woman violin soloist with the Exposition Orchestra. During the Exposition, she presented a paper before the Women's Musical Congress on "Women and the Violin," in which she encouraged young women with the requisite "talent, health and application" to take up the violin seriously. At a time when women could not vote and were precluded from playing in professional orchestras, she argued that there was no reason why a woman should not play the violin with the best of the men.
Powell also championed works by women composers. She commissioned Marion Bauer to compose a tone picture for violin based on Powell's own poem describing her experience in Florida's Everglades. At the Women's Musical Congress, Powell and American composer-pianist Amy Cheney Beach (Mrs. H.H.A. Beach) premiered Beach's Romance for Violin and Piano, Op. 23, which Beach had written for and dedicated to Powell.
To reach people who had never before heard a concert, Powell pioneered the violin recital, blazing new concert circuits and enduring the difficult touring conditions in the far West. The direct communicative force of Powell's playing, evident in her recordings, stemmed partly from her experience of taking music to the American people. When urbane Easterners wondered how she was able to reach listeners lacking in sophistication, she replied: "I do not play to them as an artist to the public, but as one human being to another. Therefore, every one of the pieces I play must above all have human interest—an obvious appeal to some simple, fundamental emotion. Each one must be a complete mood in itself." Her uncle John Wesley Powell had observed that "no one can love a symphony who does not first love song." By her masterly programming of simple melodies with complex sonatas and concertos, Powell managed to build a bridge of understanding between song and symphony while never "playing down" to an audience.
Both with the Maud Powell String Quartet, which she formed in 1894, and with the Maud Powell Trio (1908–09), she played concertos and sonatas in recital and complex chamber music to a wide range of audiences. Acknowledged as America's "educator of a nation," she wrote her own program notes and many music-journal articles to broaden her audiences' understanding of music. Powell listened to and advised aspiring young musicians—including the violinist Louis Kaufman and Juilliard violin teacher Christine Dethier —and she eagerly met with music-club leaders to encourage the cultivation of music in each town. During World War I, she performed for the benefit of hospitals and schools as well as for soldiers. With clever programming, she won over the skeptical American self-made men who were dragged to concerts by their wives, and she played for children in severely deprived, out-of-the-way places. "Once I played for a theater full of miners' children," she recalled, "children who had never seen a tree, nor a blade of grass, nor had they ever heard music before a little brave school teacher came to town one day and slaved thereafter heart and soul to open their minds to a perception of beauty…. I consider it one of the triumphs of my life that I held them practically spellbound for forty-five minutes."
Frequently touring with her own Steinway grand piano, Powell was unconventional in making the pianist an equal partner in recital and in the recording studio. She chose such young pianists as the Americans Arthur Loesser and Francis Moore, the Danish Axel Skjerne, and the Russian Waldemar Liachowsky to accompany her on tour, ensuring a successful launching of their careers in America.
Basing herself in London, she primarily toured Europe in 1898–1905, yet returned regularly to tour the United States. On both sides of the Atlantic, she appeared with the great orchestras of her time under such conductors as Mahler, Nikisch, Thomas, Safonov, Damrosch, Seidl, Richter, Wood, Herbert, and Stokowski. English critics were surprised by her performances of the Tchaikovsky Concerto in Manchester (1899) and London (1902) under the batons of Hans Richter and Sir Henry Wood, respectively, when the work was still a novelty. The Manchester Guardian critic hailed her as "the most sensational violin player that we have ever heard," with an "astounding technical facility." Sir Henry Wood asserted that Powell played the Tchaikovsky Concerto "better than any other living violinist." In 1902, French composer Camille Saint-Saëns congratulated her on a "magnificent" performance of his B minor violin concerto in London under his direction.
John Philip Sousa invited Powell to tour Great Britain and Europe as soloist with his band in 1903. The pace was grueling: 13 different countries and 362 concerts scheduled in 30 weeks. She performed the Beethoven and Mendelssohn violin concertos with band accompaniment and violin favorites such as Camille Saint-Saëns' Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso and Henryk Wieniawski's Faust Fantasie. Sousa's cornet soloist Herman Bellstedt, Jr., composed Caprice on Dixie especially for Powell, a work she recorded and proudly rated as "quite worthy of Paganini." She would tour again with Sousa in 1905.
On September 21, 1904, Powell married English concert manager H. Godfrey "Sunny" Turner, who had managed Sousa's 1903 tour of Great Britain. Turner, whose fun-loving personality made him a genial companion, managed Powell's concert tours from that time on, including her pioneering and highly acclaimed tour of South Africa in 1905 at the head of her own concert company.
Perhaps Powell's greatest artistic triumph was her introduction of Jean Sibelius' Violin Concerto in D Minor to American audiences in 1906. Upon the premiere of this work—which Powell described in glowing terms as "a gigantic rugged thing, an epic really"—on November 30, 1906, New York Sun critic W.J. Henderson asked: "But why did she put all that magnificent art into this sour and crabbed concerto?" Henderson did not foresee that in the late 20th century this work by Sibelius would be one of the most recorded of all violin concertos. Powell had played it into this honored position.
Powell's artistry bridged the old and modern schools of violin playing. Although trained in the staid French and German schools, she developed a new and increasingly modern technique to meet the demands of new literature. With her American premieres of the Tchaikovsky, Dvorák and Sibelius violin concertos, she advanced the technique of the instrument into the modern age. Her technique, which had exceeded her teacher Joseph Joachim's at the time of her debut in 1885, ultimately pointed toward that of violinist Jascha Heifetz, who was to arrive in America only a few years before her death.
Her recorded legacy dates from 1904 to 1917 (recordings made in 1919 were never released) and documents Powell's influence on the development of classical music in America. On January 8, 1917, she gave a recital in Carnegie Hall based solely on her recorded repertoire, demonstrating dramatically how her alliance with the talking machine and her many personal appearances had transformed musical taste.
In all, she premiered 14 violin concertos in America, including those by Saint-Saëns, Lalo, Coleridge-Taylor, Arensky, Aulin, Huss, Shelley, Conus, Bruch, and Rimsky-Korsakov, as well as Tchaikovsky, Dvorák, and Sibelius. Unfortunately, she died before the technology could enable her to record these and other important works with orchestra. She revived neglected works of the 18th century, including Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola, and even edited a Locatelli violin sonata for publication.
Urging Americans to develop a musical culture of their own, Powell boldly championed the works of American composers including Amy Beach, Marion Bauer, Victor Herbert, Cecil Burleigh, Edwin Grasse, John Alden Carpenter, Henry Holden Huss, Henry Rowe Shelley, Arthur Foote, Charles Wakefield Cadman, and Grace White . Many composers dedicated works to her. Powell herself transcribed music for violin and piano, and she composed an original cadenza for the Brahms Violin Concerto.
Powell once said: "I expect to die with my violin in my hands." The strain of ceaseless travel and performing took its toll. While on tour in January 1920, she collapsed in her hotel room while preparing to go on stage in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. She died the following morning, January 8, 1920, of a massive heart attack. She was 52.
As a soloist and one of the first women to lead her own professional string quartet, her example had inspired large numbers of young girls to take up the violin and women in cities throughout the country to form music clubs and orchestras. In the year of her death, the 19th Amendment granting national suffrage to women was ratified.
Powell's art had represented a synthesis of the age-old European traditions transfused with the American spirit. Upon her death, the New York Symphony paid tribute to her: "She was not only America's great master of the violin, but a woman of lofty purpose and noble achievement, whose life and art brought to countless thousands inspiration for the good and the beautiful."
Coolidge, Arlan R. "Maud Powell," in Notable American Women. Vol. 3. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971, pp. 90–92.
Greenwood, Neva Garner, and Karen A. Shaffer. "Maud Powell," in The New Grove Dictionary of American Music. Vol. 3. Edited by H. Wiley Hitchcock and Stanley Sadie. NY: Macmillan, 1986, p. 617.
Karpf, Juanita. "Maud Powell," in American National Biography. Edited by John A. Garraty. Cary, NC: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Martens, Frederick. "Maud Powell," in Dictionary of American Biography. Vol. 15. NY: Scribner, 1935, pp. 149–150.
"Powell, Maud," in National Cyclopedia of American Biography. Vol. 13. NY: James T. White, 1906, pp. 120–121.
Shaffer, Karen A., and Neva Garner Greenwood. Maud Powell, Pioneer American Violinist. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1988.
Slonimsky, Nicolas, ed. Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. 8th ed. NY: Schirmer Books, 1990. S.v. "Powell, Maud," pp. 1438–1439.
Ammer, Christine. Unsung: A History of Women in American Music. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980.
Campbell, Margaret. The Great Violinists. NY: Doubleday, 1981.
Petrides, Frédérique Joanne, ed. "Women in Music," in Jan Bell Groh, Evening the Score: Women in Music and the Legacy of Frédérique Petrides. Fayetteville, AR: University of Arkansas Press, 1991.
Powell, Maud. "Some Hints for the Concert Player; Introduction by Karen A. Shaffer," in Violexchange 2. No. 2, 1987.
Roth, Henry. Great Violinists in Performance. Los Angeles, CA: Panjandrum, 1987.
Schwarz, Boris. Great Masters of the Violin. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1983.
Shaffer, Karen A. "Between Symphony and Song: The Violin Virtuoso in American History," in Journal of the Violin Society of America. Vol. 10, no. 1, 1990.
——. "Maud Powell, America's Legendary Musical Pioneer," in Journal of the Violin Society of America. Vol. VIII, no. 2, 1987.
——. Maud Powell, Legendary American Violinist (Women in Music series of biographies for children). Arlington, VA: The Maud Powell Foundation, 1994.
——. "Perpetual Pioneer," in The Strad. November 1987.
——. "String Quartets in Nineteenth Century America," in Violexchange 3. No. 3, 1988, pp. 38–43.
Clipping file, Aurora Historical Museum and Aurora Public Library, Aurora, Illinois.
Mabel Love Papers in the possession of Jean Holmes in Detroit, Michigan.
Maud Powell Archive, The Maud Powell Foundation, 5333 N. 26th Street, Arlington, Virginia 22207; serves as a clearinghouse and repository of Powell information and memorabilia, as well as distributor of reissued Powell recordings; publishes the Women in Music series of biographies for children and The Maud Powell Signature, a subscription newsletter on women in music, past and present.
Karen A. A. , Maud Powell biographer and president of The Maud Powell Foundation in Arlington, Virginia, and
Juanita Karpf , Assistant Professor of Music and Women's Studies, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia (all quotations are from Shaffer's biography of Maud Powell)