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8.110993 - POWELL, Maud: Complete Recordings, Vol. 4 (1904-1917)
Maud Powell (1867-1920)
The Complete 1904-1917 Recordings, Vol. 4
Maud Powell was born on 22nd August 1867, in Peru, Illinois, on America’s western frontier. Her grandparents were Methodist missionaries in Ohio, Wisconsin and Illinois before the Civil War. Her father William Bramwell Powell (1836-1904) was an innovative educator, who earned a national reputation as superintendent of public schools in Peru, then Aurora, Illinois, and finally in Washington, D.C. Her mother Wilhelmina Bengelstraeter Paul (1843-1925) was an accomplished pianist and gifted amateur composer. She and Maud’s aunts were active in the women’s suffrage movement. Her uncle John Wesley Powell was a Civil War hero and the first explorer of the Grand Canyon. He organized the scientific study of the western lands and of the native American Indians as the powerful director of the U.S. Geological Survey and Bureau of Ethnology and founder of the National Geographic Society.
A prodigy, Maud Powell began violin study at seven in Aurora, then studied four years with William Lewis in Chicago. She completed her training with the great masters Henry Schradieck in Leipzig, Charles Dancla in Paris and Joseph Joachim in Berlin. She made her New York début in 1885 at eighteen performing the Bruch G minor Violin Concerto with America’s foremost conductor Theodore Thomas and the New York Philharmonic. The intelligence, energy, and vigour in her playing reflected her American spirit and the brilliance, optimism and enthusiasm with which she lived. Powell performed with all the great European and American conductors and orchestras of her day, knew nearly every contemporary European and American composer personally and their music, and received international acclaim as one of the greatest artists of her time as she toured from St Petersburg in Russia, to South Africa, and to Hawaii.
Although Powell died of a heart attack while on tour on 8th January 1920, at the early age of 52, during her short lifetime she transformed the art of violinplaying and set a new standard for performance and programming. A legendary figure, her influence was pivotal in the development of classical music in North America. Through her devotion to her violin, her art, and humanity, she became America’s first great master of the violin, winning the love and admiration of all who fell under the spell of her commanding bow and magnetic personality.
Maud Powell once said: “If you are born with music in you, to follow that voice is the only life possible for you to lead”. For her, happiness was “self-expression.” In her quest for self-fulfillment Powell accepted nothing less than full recognition as a complete human being, capable of the heights and depths of human achievement and emotion without limitation of any kind. She excelled at a time when the attitude of the American public mirrored European contempt for American musicians, quashing the aspirations of all but the most courageous, gifted and committed artists. Maud Powell did not change her name when she made her début in 1885. She openly affirmed her American birth, temperament and ideals, becoming a strong, influential advocate for American musicians, composers, artists and cultural institutions. Even with the influx of great foreign artists of the Russian, French and German schools, she remained Maud Powell, American, revered for her unique artistry, loved for her thoroughly down-to-earth personality.
“Character,” Powell believed, made the difference in her art and in the success of her career. Discipline and hard work made her a master of her instrument, she insisted. “I have ever sought artistic truth according to the light that has been given me. Whatever conviction carries with my work is because it has been developed and is myself.” A spirit of exploration and adventure drew her to push back the American frontiers musically and artistically. Optimism, vision and determination kept her at it despite conditions that would discourage the heartiest souls. Facing skeptical audiences, impresarios and conductors, she summoned the nerve repeatedly to prove herself in each new city or town, although her reputation in European capitals and major American cities was well established. She maintained a discipline of courtesy in her dealings with people of every station. It was a courtesy that broke out into unfettered enthusiasm so often that she formed lasting friendships in every community she visited. The violinist and conductor Mary Davenport-Engberg credited her long conversations with Maud Powell for her perseverance in becoming the first woman music director of civic orchestras of men and women, the Bellingham and the Seattle symphonies.
While Maud Powell could lose her temper when mothers brought babies to adult concerts, she revelled in playing for school children throughout the country. “She was the friend of the children the instant she appeared on the platform,” one teacher testified. “The whole town is crazy about Madam Powell.” The warmth of Powell’s humanity leapt from the stage, winning her audiences and emboldening young violinists to seek her advice, even to the point of knocking on her front door at Gramercy Park in New York City, where they received a warm welcome. Powell engaged the 22-year-old pianist Arthur Loesser to tour with her in 1915-16. He remembered it as “my great adventure in becoming acquainted with my own country”. Powell shared with him her keen interest in the native Indians and geology of the American West and took him on a mule ride into the Grand Canyon.
Laughter buoyed Powell’s happy marriage to her English manager-husband H. Godfrey Turner. Whether Maud was studying or performing music, gardening, boating, bird-watching, climbing in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, or designing their summer home, Turner’s supportive presence and humour made recreation “fun” and touring less onerous, even when travelling with a concert grand piano. A nature-lover, Powell refused to wear rare bird plumage in her hats and planted trees on which birds could nest and feed.
Maud Powell continually overcame barriers to her art and prejudices that threatened to waylay her journey to self-fulfilment right up to the end of her life. In 1909 she stood up to the newly appointed New York Philharmonic director Gustav Mahler’s initial prejudice: “What? I play Beethoven with a woman, and an American?” he exclaimed, as he drew his pencil through her name, eliminating her from the classic series and putting her down for the Mendelssohn in the romantic series. Taking her place on stage at the rehearsal, she turned to the violin section and said: “Here is where I spit on my hands!” She performed the Mendelssohn concerto beautifully, guiding the fumbling Mahler, whose unfamiliarity with the piece was evident, but they swung through the finale in perfect accord. Amazed and ecstatic, Mahler stepped from his stand, took Powell’s hand and paid her compliments. Within the week he offered her the Beethoven without reservation. Her collaboration with Mahler in the Beethoven became one of the “supreme moments” in her artistic life.
Despite official Washington’s doubts about allowing a “one-woman show” of “highbrow” music to entertain World War I soldiers, Maud Powell played for the men “as one human being to another” and won their hearts simply by being her “natural self, unconventional, without any formality”. Although her tours of the training camps seriously impaired her health leading to her early death, she threw her “whole soul...into her work,” it was reported, and at the close of one concert, “the men rose in a body and gave three mighty, deafening cheers”. “I shall never forget that moment,” Maud said, her “greatest thrill” in playing for the soldiers.
Powell acknowledged she lived a full life, but she warned young aspirants: “The game is not worth the candle unless your music is a part of your very fibre, your breath of life. If you love it thoroughly, love it objectively and cannot be happy without it, then go ahead. But you wouldn’t have needed me to decide for you, you would have been impelled by something within, regardless of advice or a thousand warnings.”
Powell remained true to her tenth rule on practising: “Love your instrument as yourself. But love your art more than either. Nothing was ever accomplished without faith and enthusiasm.” One of her good friends observed: “She was bent on being a broad musician and a truly educated woman. There were books on her table; there were thoughts in her mind of woman’s work in all lines of activity; she felt the world’s needs in the larger sense.”
When she died, the heartbreak of thousands was expressed by Musical America: “To chronicle the death of Maud Powell as a shock to music-lovers fails to express in anything like its fullness the poignant and personal sense of loss which proceeds from the untimely taking-off of a supreme and unforgettable artist. From the circle privileged to know Mme Powell personally, will be absent one whose kindliness, charm and great-heartedness, shown especially in her encouragement of the aspirants to greatness in her own line, cannot be replaced. It seems impossible that this great and beautiful personality can have gone from us! Come what other geniuses or the fiddle may, the loss of Maud Powell is irreparable.”
Karen A. Shaffer
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