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(1888 - 1953)

Albert Spalding’s early life involved personal encounters with some extremely significant musical figures: his mother (Marie Boardman, a singer and pianist) kept open house at their winter residence in Florence and regularly entertained artists such as Sarasate, d’Albert, Busoni, Joachim and Casals, all of whom left their mark on the young Albert and helped sharpen his critical sensibilities. He deeply disapproved of Sarasate, for example, as a ‘…paradox of a player who made trivial music sound important and deep music sound trivial’.

Joachim, auditioning him in Berlin, liked Spalding’s playing but refused him as a private pupil on the grounds that his artistic course was already set. London audiences received Spalding relatively warmly in his early career and with the endorsement of Saint-Saëns, he became acquainted with Hans Richter.

In America, after his return in 1908, Spalding received strongly opposing critical responses to his debut playing of the (by now well-aired) Violin Concerto No. 3 by Saint-Saëns. Although the Tribune accused him of ‘rasping, raucous, snarling, unmusical sounds’, Walter Damrosch (who conducted the performance) announced him as ‘the first great instrumentalist this country has produced’. In the same season Mischa Elman arrived on the US stage and was hailed by all as an outstanding virtuoso. Spalding never considered himself to be that kind of artist and the two players conducted their careers without rivalry. Tours to all parts of Europe and Russia, undertaken during these early years, gained Spalding a degree of popularity abroad.

Thomas Edison analysed Spalding’s tone with electronic equipment and found it to be the purest of any living violinist he had heard; this led to a twenty-year ‘contract’ during which Spalding made over a hundred records. His burgeoning career was, however, interrupted by World War I as he enlisted in the army. A further period of service during World War II involved making radio broadcasts in liberated Rome and he developed an interest in journalism which was further exercised in his autobiography, Rise to Follow, which cites many candid anecdotes of well-known contemporaries.

On record Spalding’s late performances, such as the Chausson Poème under Mitropoulos (1951), betray effects of age: intonation is sometimes uncertain and vibrato a little unfocused. His Sarasate Introduction and Tarantelle (1925), however, is masterly: in his prime, he demonstrates a characteristic fast vibrato and magnificent command of Sarasate’s technical challenges. The Tartini ‘Devil’s Trill’ (1936) is characterised by a dense, rather thick sound, but the fast and almost percussive trills are exceptional. The Handel Adagio (1941) and Spohr Concerto (1938) are equally distinguished, if rather heavy, performances. Like many others of his generation Spalding tried his hand at composition, producing an orchestral suite, two violin concertos, a string quartet, a violin sonata and various smaller pieces; Elman gave the first performance of one of these, Etchings. Spalding’s own 1934 performance of Etchings reveals him to be a persuasive colourist. These thirteen little miniatures, with charmingly facile titles (such as ‘Cinderella’ or ‘Professor’), show Spalding the composer to be imaginative and resourceful, even if these works are far from special. Seen within the context of violinist-composer salon pieces of the period, they stand up well.

Although he was not generally considered to be in the top flight of virtuosi, Spalding has been dubbed by some as the first American-born violinist to gain international recognition. This distinction, however, should surely belong to the earlier-born Maud Powell.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Milsom (A–Z of String Players, Naxos 8.558081-84)

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