Samaroff, Olga (1882–1948)

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Samaroff, Olga (1882–1948)

Virtuoso concert pianist and advocate for American-born performing artists, who exerted considerable influence on musical life in the U.S. during the first half the 20th century and raised the standards of music education through her students, lectures, and writings. Name variations: Olga Samaroff Stokowski; Olga Stokowski. Born Lucie Mary Olga Agnes Hickenlooper on August 8, 1882, in San Antonio, Texas; died in New York City on May 17, 1948; daughter of Carols Hickenlooper (a U.S. Army officer) and Jane Hickenlooper (an amateur pianist); attended Paris Conservatoire de Musique, graduated with honors, 1898; married Boris Loutzky (a civil engineer), in 1900 (divorced 1904); married Leopold Stokowski (1882–1977, the musical conductor), in 1911 (divorced 1923); children: Sonya Stokowski .

Married in Berlin (1900); traveled in Germany and Russia, moved to New York City after divorce (1904); made professional concert debut (1904); toured as concert artist in the U.S. and performed extensively in London until second marriage (1911); resumed concert touring (1914); divorced and moved to New York City, accepted a post at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City and at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music in Philadelphia (1923); after an injury, wrote several books and lectured extensively on music appreciation; died at age 65 (1948).

Selected writings:

The Layman's Music Book (1935, revised as The Listener's Music Book, 1947); The Magic World of Music (1936); A Music Manual (1937); An American Musician's Story (1939).

For the child named Lucie Mary Olga Agnes Hickenlooper, preparation for a remarkable career as an international piano soloist began before she was born, with the lives of her mother and grandmother. The daughter of a U.S. Army officer and an amateur pianist, she was born in 1882, in San Antonio, Texas, and received her early musical training from her grandmother, Lucie Palmer Loening Grünewald. Before the American Civil War, Lucie Palmer had studied music and received a French education at a New Orleans convent and made her musical debut at age 15, playing a Beethoven piano concerto with the orchestra of the French Opera in New Orleans. After marrying a well-connected German, George Loening, she gave no thought to a professional career, but when in Munich with her husband she frequently played for King Ludwig I of Bavaria. When the Civil War ended, however, she was back in New Orleans, a penniless young widow with two small children to support. Lucie became a piano teacher, and a second marriage took her to Texas, where her daughter from her first marriage, Jane Hickenlooper , became the mother of the gifted Olga.

It was the strength of this background that led to Olga's performance, at a very young age, before American composer Edward MacDowell, pianist Vladimir de Pachmann, and William Steinway, head of the famous piano manufacturing firm. All three recommended that the child be taken to Europe for additional training. It was a time when American musicians, no matter how talented or well trained, had great difficulty in developing concert careers in the U.S. without the prestige of European training and press notices. Although there were splendid music schools in the United States, the prejudices against American-trained musicians was so pronounced that developing European credentials were thought to be the only path to a successful career.

At age 12, Olga departed for France, accompanied by her grandmother, and did not see her parents for the next five years. She studied first with composer-pianist Charles Marie Widor at a convent school and took private lessons from François Marmontel, then in his 80s; after a year of preparation, she entered the competition at the Paris Conservatoire de Musique, where she was granted a two-year scholarship, the first ever awarded to an American girl for piano classes. (Most American music students then in Paris were singers.) When Olga began her studies with the eccentric pianist, pedagogue and composer Elie Delaborde, he greeted her at her first lesson with, "Why do you try to play the piano? Americans are not meant to be musicians!" After hearing her perform Schumann's G Minor Sonata, however, he decided that with a name like Hickenlooper she must be European after all; eventually he gave her the pet name "Bambola."

Olga's program of study at the Paris Conservatory was rigorous, demanding more than seven hours a day on music and four or five more at academic subjects. In 1898, after graduating with honors, she went with her grandmother to Berlin, another important European musical center, where her studies continued with the Russian pianist and teacher Ernst Jedliczka, who had been a student of the composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky at the Moscow Conservatory. She took lessons from the Australian pianist, author and composer Ernest Hutcheson, who would later become her colleague at the Juilliard Graduate School, and studied organ and composition with Otis Bard-well Boise, an American who later taught at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore.

In her memoirs, Samaroff describes the endless succession of debut concerts given by young American musicians in pre-World War I Berlin. The performances, marking the end of student days, were a very expensive means of eliciting press reviews that could be sent to the performer's hometown, and American music magazines solicited advertising for the events at very high fees. In 1900, Olga's grandmother was at work on plans for her Berlin debut when Olga decided instead to marry Boris Loutzky, a Russian civil engineer connected with the Russian Embassy in Berlin. Under pressure from her husband, and also following her own convictions about the role of a wife, Olga stopped performing for three years, but continued to study music and attend occasional concerts while the couple moved in the diplomatic circles of Berlin and St. Petersburg.

According to some accounts, the jealousy of Olga's husband made her life a nightmare. In 1904, she obtained a papal annulment and legal divorce, and returned to the U.S. that September with little money and no alimony. In New York, she approached Henry Wolfsohn, a leading concert manager, who refused to help her prepare for a New York debut because she had neither European press notices nor the resources to return to Europe to achieve them. While she was in Europe, her family had moved from Texas to St. Louis, after losing all their property in the Galveston flood of 1900, so they had no financial support to offer. Jane Hickenlooper came to New York, however, and shared a small room with her daughter at the modest St. Hubert Hotel near Carnegie Hall while trying to persuade Olga to become a music teacher in St. Louis. But Olga, driven by thoughts of the sacrifices her family had already made for her sake, was determined to pursue a concert career. By a stroke of good luck, Wolfson chanced to hear her play at the Steinway showroom, and was impressed enough to agree to arrange a debut concert at Carnegie Hall.

An orchestra had to be hired to accompany Olga, and her mother and grandmother decided to risk all their savings on hiring the New York Symphony Orchestra, to be conducted by Walter Damrosch. Wolfsohn, refusing to represent anyone with the name of Hickenlooper, insisted that Olga change her name. She "combed the family tree" and found the name of a distant Russian relative, Olga Samaroff, which she took as her stage and legal name.

Her New York debut performance was January 18, 1905, the first time Samaroff had ever played with an orchestra. The program included Schumann's A Minor Concerto, Liszt's E-Flat Concerto and some solo pieces by Chopin; the favorable reviews launched her career, at age 22. Of the risky gamble taken by her mother and grandmother, Samaroff wrote in her memoirs, "I have often wondered how I brought myself to allow them to do it, but the confidence of youth has strength, if not wisdom. I believed in a successful outcome."

Many performance opportunities followed, and through the assistance of a New York patron

Samaroff played a series of paid engagements. Since Wolfsohn's fees were extremely high, Jane Hickenlooper took over the management of her daughter's budding career. After Samaroff played the Saint-Saëns C Minor Sonata for Piano and Cello with the Boston Symphony Quartet, the relatively minor performance received enthusiastic reviews from major critics of the day, and elicited a management contract with the prestigious Charles A. Ellis of Boston, whose clients included the Australian operatic soprano Nellie Melba , Polish pianist Ignace Jan Paderewski, Austrian-American violinist Fritz Kreisler, and American soprano Geraldine Farrar .

If Samaroff advanced relatively easily in her concert career, it was because the trail had been blazed by an earlier generation of American women pianists in the late 19th century. By 1900, women concert players were not considered a novelty in America or in Europe because performers like Julie Rivé-King , Amy Cheney Beach , Venezuela-born Teresa Carreño , Fanny Bloomfield Zeisler , and Amy Fay had gained the confidence, respect and admiration of the public as "lady pianists"; in Europe, the ground had been broken by Clara Schumann and Sophie Menter in Germany, Louise Farrenc in France, and Arabella Goddard in England, among others.

In 1906, Ellis arranged for Samaroff's first solo recital, at London's Steinway Hall. Although the appearance did not prove profitable, Samaroff met some of England's leading personalities of the day, including novelist Thomas Hardy, publisher John Lanes, painter John Singer Sargent, and poet William Watson. By the end of the season, she had been promised an engagement with the London Symphony Orchestra for the following year.

With the superlative European press notices Samaroff had received, Ellis was able to secure some of the highest fees ever paid to a woman pianist, $500–$600 per concert. Samaroff paid Ellis 20% of her fees and was responsible for her own traveling and living expenses, as well as all the costs handled by a press agent for photographs, printing expenses and distribution of leaflets, window cards, and the three-sheet posters then popular. Samaroff gave joint recitals with world-class violinists Fritz Kreisler and Efrem Zimbalist, among others, and performed with every major symphony orchestra in the U.S. and Europe; in 1908, she made records for Welte-Mignon Company in Germany, becoming the first American woman pianist to record.

In 1905, Samaroff met the English-born musician Leopold Stokowski when he was the organist at St. Bartholomew's Church in New York, his first position in the United States. The courtship lasted nearly five years while she continued to perform as many as 80 concerts a season. When they married in 1911, he was conductor of the Cincinnati Orchestra and she ended her stage appearances to devote herself to building Stokowski's career. "I was very much in love, and was quite willing to agree that it was too difficult to combine marriage and a career."

In 1912, Stokowski took the podium for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he served as sole conductor for 24 years, becoming one of the most charismatic and celebrated maestros of his generation. Samaroff had previously appeared in Philadelphia as a guest soloist with the orchestra's two former directors, Fritz Scheel and Karl Pohlig, and it was widely believed that she handled the negotiations for her husband's contract. She became familiar with the behind-the-scenes politics of American symphony orchestras and tried to be effective as a conductor's wife. In 1914, encouraged by Arthur Judson, the company's manager, she resumed her own career, performing with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Judson also involved her in some of his other projects, but she considered her career as secondary to the duties of her private life as long as the marriage lasted.

During the first few summers of their married life, the Stokowskis spent time in their villa outside Munich, but the outbreak of World War I forced a hurried departure from Germany. The summers of 1916–18 were spent in Seal Harbor, Maine, where they were visited by many famous musician friends. In 1917, Samaroff played the Saint-Saëns Concerto in G minor at the Worcester Festival, accompanied by her husband. Several accounts of this performance indicate that she was recovering from some serious illness, generally believed to be a nervous breakdown. In 1920, she played a series of eight concerts, during which she performed all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas, the first American woman pianist to achieve this feat. She was also one of the first women artists to become a member of the Beethoven Association of New York.

In 1921, at age 39, Samaroff gave birth to a daughter, Sonya, in London. That year, she began recording for the Victory Talking Machine Company and from 1921 to 1931 made more than 20 recordings. Always forward-thinking, Samaroff had immediately embraced the new technology of recording and saw its potential in music education. Although many had thought of them as the ideal couple, Samaroff and Stokowski separated in 1923. They continued to maintain a friendship and work together while Samaroff reestablished herself in New York. Meanwhile, record royalties enabled her to buy a house at Seal Harbor, where she spent summers and was aided by a full-time cook, housekeeper, secretary, and an English nurse for the baby.

Always a prolific writer of letters, as well as of plays, poems, essays and fictions that remained unpublished, she began during these years to write about music for Etude and other music magazines. She followed the contemporary music scene closely, and was a colleague of the American composer advocate Claire Reis in the Town Hall Music Committee and the League of Composers. Samaroff had a reputation for being open-minded, progressive and visionary.

Although the majority of student pianists in music schools were women, who also outnumbered men as teachers, few women gained international influence as performers or teachers. Samaroff became the exception. Without any prior experience, she signed a contract in 1924 to teach piano at the newly established Juilliard Graduate School, then on East 52nd Street in New York City. In 1925, she injured her arm and shoulder in a fall that effectively ended her performing career. Soon after, she was offered the job of music critic for the New York Evening Post, replacing British writer and guest music critic Ernest Newman. Samaroff held the post for two seasons, resigning when the paper refused her proposal to expand the department.

In 1928, she was appointed head of the piano department at the Philadelphia Conservatory, and held the post concurrently with her Juilliard position for the next 20 years. That same year, she established the Schubert Memorial, a foundation to help young musicians secure a first performance with a major orchestra, inspired by her own experiences as a young artist. She also set up an annual competition to select a soloist for a performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra in a regular subscription concert.

Samaroff based her teaching on her own hands-on experiences. One of her goals was to make the student independent, both musically and in life. She demanded that students study and analyze a score away from the piano and think of the piano in orchestral terms. She also believed that study and practice were the keys to success in interpretation, and she demanded accuracy and fidelity to the score, insisting that her students "exhaust the printed page."

Samaroff believed that students needed to study music history, theory and literature because "one cannot be musically mature while one is humanly immature." She sent her students to museums, opera, ballets and libraries, encouraging historical research. Often she invited her students to dine in her home with famous personages of the time like conductor Bruno Walter, English pianist Dame Myra Hess and Russian pianist and conductor Ossip Gabrilowitsch. She invited students to Europe and to stay at her summer home in Maine.

Samaroff often found debut gowns for women students through her society friends, or had a suit tailor-made at her own expense for a male student. During the Depression years of the 1930s, some students lived with her, undertaking housekeeping duties for room and board. Musicales put on in her New York apartment gave young artists an opportunity to perform before audiences of other musicians, famous conductors, patrons of the arts, managers and world-famous personalities. Among the artists supported by her in these ways were Eugene List, who began his studies with her at age 13, African-American Natalie Hinderas , Rosalyn Tureck , William Kapell, American composer Vincent Persichetti, and Alexis Weissenberg.

Throughout the 1930s, Samaroff lectured on music appreciation, intent on making "listening more of a real musical activity." In 1935, she wrote The Layman's Music Book (with a revised edition published as The Listener's Music Book, 1947). She also wrote The Magic World of Music (1936) and A Music Manual (1937). Samaroff was one of the first to use recordings and other audio-visual aids in her presentations. She was chosen by the State Department to represent the U.S. at the first International Congress of Musical Education in the House of Parliament in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and in 1938 she was the only woman among 21 delegates to Belgium to serve on the Concours Eugène Ysaÿe International Jury.

Samaroff was acutely aware of the prejudices faced by women musicians. In 1937, she wrote an article for the Music Clubs Magazine, the publication of the National Federation of Music Clubs, the largest music organization in the U.S., challenging them to work to eliminate these difficulties. In her concert programs she premiered works by women composers, including Americans Mary Howe and Amy Cheney Beach, and in her later years she became a role model for other women in the profession, and was often interviewed.

Her autobiography, An American Musician's Story, speaks eloquently about many aspects of musical life in the States as well as her own career and personal experiences. She wrote in the conclusion of her book: "As I have observed the profound changes that have taken place in the musical life of my time, it has often seemed to me as though each of us—no matter what the circumstances of our existence may be—sits at a loom fashioned to do its share in the weaving of fate." Olga Samaroff was 65 when she died, in 1948.


Kline, Donna S. "Olga Samaroff: Teacher Extraordinaire," in American Music Teacher. Vol. 38. June–July 1989, pp. 10–15.

Pucciani, Donna. "Olga Samaroff (1882–1948): American Musician and Educator," dissertation, New York University, 1979.

Stokowski, Olga Samaroff. An American Musician's Story. NY: W.W. Norton, 1939.

suggested reading:

Loesser, Arthur. Men, Women and Pianos: A Social History. New York, 1954.

Pucciani, Donna. "Olga Samaroff: Pianist and Master Teacher," in The Piano Quarterly. Vol. 30, no. 118, 1982, p. 32.


Correspondence located at the New York Public Library, Music Division at Lincoln Center, and at the Library of Congress, Music Division, in Washington, D.C.

related media:

Olga Samaroff Performs in 1908 (long-playing record, #665 in "The Welte Legacy of Piano Treasures" series), Recorded Treasures, Hollywood, California, 1963.

Jeannie G. Pool , freelance writer on music history, Los Angeles, California