Urso, Camilla (1842–1902)

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Urso, Camilla (1842–1902)

French violinist, widely acclaimed, who was the first female ever admitted to the Paris Conservatoire and one of the first female child prodigies to continue performing as an adult. Born in Nantes, France, on June 13, 1842; died in 1902; eldest child of Salvator Urso (an organist and flutist from Palermo, Italy) and Emilie Girouard (from Portugal).

One of the great virtuosi of her day, Camilla Urso was the first woman violinist to appear in concert in the United States. She also greatly influenced the development of high quality concert programming. Urso was born into an impoverished family in 1842 in Nantes, France. Her father Salvator Urso, an Italian musician, noted his daughter's early abilities and masterminded her career. As first flutist in the orchestra of the local opera, he carried his daughter to the theater almost every night. He was also organist at the Church of the Holy Cross.

At age six, Camilla stood listening at his side while the choir performed the mass of St. Cecilia . In 1868, Mary A. Betts dramatically described the pivotal scene:

Solemnly, slowly, the organ tones swelled and died. Clear voices of soprano and tenor rose upon the air with the saddening plaint of Kyrie Eleison. The orchestral harmonies interwove their pathetic or triumphant music. The dark-haired child … listened—not awed by the under-wave of the mighty organ…—but enchanted for life by the inarticulate passion and sorrow of the violin's changing vibrations. The last note of the mass floated into silence…. Her father's hand aroused her, and she walked home announcing in a firm tone … "I wish to learn the violin."

The following year, it was announced that the seven-year-old Urso would give her first concert, for the benefit of a widow. Friends came to applaud heartily, strangers came to laugh. The event was reported in a Nantes gazette:

Never had violinist a pose more exact, firmer, and at the same time perfectly easy; never was bow guided with greater precision than by this little Urso, whose delivery made all the mothers smile…. [U]nder these fingers, which are yet often busied with dressing a doll, the instrument gives out a purity and sweetness of tone, with an expression most remarkable. Every light and shade is observed, and all the intentions of the composer are faithfully rendered…. Effects of double stop ping, staccato, rapid arpeggios,—everything is executed with the same precision, the same purity, the same grace. It is impossible to describe the ovation that the child received. Repeatedly interrupted by applause and acclamations, she was saluted at the end by salvos of bravos and a shower of bouquets.

That same year, Salvator took Camilla to Paris in an attempt to gain her admittance to the prestigious Paris Conservatoire, where no female had been allowed to enter. The music world remained highly restricted to women. They were not supposed to perform in public and, when they did play in private, they were supposed to play "female" instruments like the piano. Urso's choice of the violin was in itself a proclamation of equality; at the time, the violin was a "masculine" instrument. The faculty found Signor Urso's request absurd: not only a woman, but too young, much too young. And the violin! But Salvator Urso pleaded. Possibly because the faculty was placating him, Camilla found herself playing before a panel of judges comprised of Rossini, Meyerbeer, Massart, and Auber, the school director. She was accepted unanimously: the first female allowed to enter the Paris Conservatoire.

Urso studied for three years, principally under Massart, practicing ten and twelve hours a day, learning harmony, solfeggi. To acquire a steadiness of position, she rehearsed with one foot in a saucer. Fear of breaking the dish kept her feet motionless.

During these years, her family was so poor that Camilla was allowed to concertize to support them, a special indulgence rarely granted by the conservatory. After she went on a three-month tour of Germany, the German public took her to its heart. She also appeared in public concerts in Paris. Wrote one critic: "She excels in that essential expression which comes wholly from the soul, and which the composer, from lack of means to note and write out, abandons to the discretion and intelligence of the executant."

At age ten, she was a sensation mainly because of her gender. Many were surprised to discover women (or girls) could play violins at all, much less extremely well. The child prodigy gave her first concert in New York, performing on the same bill with Marietta Alboni in Trippler Hall (1852). She then joined Henriette Sontag 's U.S. tour in 1853. Sontag "was perfection," said Camilla Urso. "An angel, in talents, temper, and goodness. At fifty-two one would kneel to her,—what must she have been at twenty? She herself took the place of my mother, who was not in America. She plaited my hair, attended to my dresses, and cared for me in everything." They continued the tour in the South and Mexico to ecstatic audiences. When the tour broke up in March 1854, Salvator Urso took his daughter to Savannah, followed by more concertizing in the Southern states. When they returned to New York that May, they heard of the sudden death of Sontag from cholera. Urso was grief stricken. Losing her enthusiasm, she refused to give concerts. Her father, counting on a change of scene, took his daughter to Canada in 1856.

While in Canada in 1859, they learned that their New York apartment had been robbed and all her prized souvenirs taken. Then, on her return to New York, she received an overture from a Mrs. McCready to tour the West. At age 15, on her own for the first time, Urso left her father in New York and proceeded to Nashville to join McCready. But she was in the hands of a swindler: there was no contract, no tour and no money. Penniless, she enlisted the sympathy of Nashville citizens; a concert was scheduled and she raised $400. This was not, of course, Urso's first experience with those who fed off artists.

The series of losses had its effect. Urso retired from public life for the next five years and did not return to the concert hall until March 1863, at the Philharmonic in New York; she was now 21 and played better than ever. As a child, Urso had been a precocious novelty; now she was a mature artist. Her ability to draw large crowds was just as great. Though she performed with a grave and frequently sad expression, there was a playfulness in her; she capped one New Haven performance with "Yankee Doodle."

Reviews of the period reveal the innate sexism of the musical field, however. "Madame Urso's playing of the Mendelssohn Concerto was a marvel of art," wrote one authority. "The only qualification is that it was feminine; there was not of course the manly force, the … heroic onsweep of Carl Rosa's bow which carries all before it." Or, "Camilla Urso played the first movement of the Beethoven Concerto with such perfect purity of intonation, such fine and vital

quality of tone (though of course feminine and delicate rather than broad and manly)." The musicians of the orchestra of the Harvard Association, having heard her Mendelssohn, felt otherwise: "It is not enough to say that it was a wonderful performance for a woman; it was a consummate rendering, which probably few men living could improve upon." Sadly, the irrelevance of this discourse continues still. Urso, herself, did not consider such comments defamatory, since she capitalized on the fact that she was a woman.

Nineteenth-century concerts had a great deal in common with vaudeville in that they were not serious affairs. Their format had a number of variety acts; no concert was dedicated to any one artist. There were a large number of short selections and most were lightweight. Opera arias were particular favorites. When Camilla Urso began her career, she was one of many acts, a star because of her youth and gender. As she became an accomplished artist, Urso was more and more determined to change the concert format. She played fewer virtuosic showpieces and more substantial works from the classical repertoire. She often played Mendelssohn and Beethoven during a period when they were considered to be "modern" composers. She also devoted concerts to string quartets and chamber orchestras. Few soloists of the period were willing to become part of a group, but Urso enjoyed ensemble playing. She raised the level of concert playing to another tier and demonstrated that audiences would support the new programming.

Symphony orchestras of the period were all male. Because she was such an accomplished musician, members of the Philadelphia Philharmonic Society, an all-male organization, elected Urso an "honorary member." She had already appeared with the Paris Conservatoire orchestra in 1866, the first woman to do so. During her concert career, Urso became more and more convinced that women should have the opportunity to become regular orchestra players. She recognized that the male hierarchy of conductors, managers, boards of directors, and critics effectively discriminated against her sex. In the last years of her life, she was the honorary president of the Women's String Orchestra, one of the first female symphony orchestras. Urso believed, however, that women should be integrated into mainstream orchestras. It was not until well into the 20th century, when women demanded that musicians be auditioned behind curtains, that they were admitted into major symphony orchestras. The fact that they are now included is due, in part, to the remarkable violinist Camilla Urso.


Barnard, Charles. Camilla: A Tale of a Violin. Boston, MA: Loring, 1874.

Betts, Mary A. "Camilla Urso," in Eminent Women of the Age. S.M. Betts, 1868.

Kagan, Susan. "Camilla Urso," in The Strad. Vol. 102, no. 1210. February 1991, pp. 150–152.

"Urso, Camilla," in Dictionary of American Biography. NY: Scribner, 1964.

"Urso, Camilla," in Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia