Ethel Leginska, born Leggins, was a child prodigy whose musical education at the Hoch Conservatory in Germany was sponsored by a local shipping magnate. She graduated at the age of ten and continued her studies with Theodor Leschetizky for three years, also studying for a while in Berlin. At the beginning of her career she adopted the name Leginska at a friend’s suggestion and retained it for the rest of her life.
After a successful London debut Leginska toured Europe. In 1906 she played the Henselt Piano Concerto in F minor Op. 16 in London with Henry Wood, a performance where the Queen’s Hall organ was used in the first movement. Two years later she gave a concert at Aeolian Hall, London playing works by her husband, the American composer Emerson Whithorne, Brahms’s Piano Sonata in F minor Op. 5 and short pieces by Cyril Scott and Edward MacDowell.
In 1912 Leginska was studying music theory in New York with Rubin Goldmark and the following year made her debut in that city. She became popular in the United States, but it was not until the 1916–1917 season, after her divorce from Whithorne, whom she had married at the age of nineteen, that she had her greatest success in America. The following year Leginska studied composition with Ernest Bloch in New York and later took further tuition from Eugene Goossens. Although she composed chamber music, orchestral music and two operas, her reputation as a composer was not high during her lifetime and has not survived her. She also took up conducting and performed her own works. A review from a 1922 concert in London describes her compositions thus: ‘The music for the most part is in the present day style of discordance, short phrases, and broken rhythms. A little time ago, possibly, one might have felt interested, but nowadays such things are commonplaces, just as are concords, square tunes, and regular beats, and like these, unless they are the outcome of some genuine impulse and are employed with evidence of genuine skill and understanding, are equally dull and unconvincing. We listened in vain for suggestions of something being said that really counted, some evocation of atmosphere, of poetic feeling, of humour, of fancy, while technically Miss Leginska did no more than a quick ear and a certain aptitude for putting two and two together can accomplish if it is thought worth while.’ Later that same year Leginska gave a concert with Goossens where she played a piano concerto by Mozart and Liszt’s Hungarian Fantasy. Also on the programme was a symphonic poem of her own composition. A critic thought she was ‘…au fait with all the tricks of modern instrumental sound…but we do not find much music behind it all.’
As well as studying composition with Goossens, Leginska studied conducting with him and had done the same with Robert Heger in Munich a year before. In 1924 she conducted the London Symphony Orchestra at Queen’s Hall in London where the overture to Weber’s Oberon, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 and Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in F minor were on the programme. ‘The conducting was that of an amateur, and we cannot say more than that it was reasonably good at that…Two orchestral pieces by the conductor, said to be after poems by Tagore, were also played. The composer has a good deal to learn before she can attempt such things.’
With reviews such as these it is surprising to read that Leginska retired as a pianist in 1926 to concentrate on composing and conducting. She had taught piano in New York and in 1939 she moved to Los Angeles where she continued to teach the piano and was instrumental in organising important concerts in the area.
Leginska recorded six or so acoustic sides for Pathé Actuelle around 1920. In a work such as MacDowell’s Witches’ Dance she takes a careful tempo and is short on drama. Leginska’s main series of recordings was made for Columbia between 1926 and 1928. For the Schubert centenary year she recorded the four Impromptus D. 935 and the six Moments Musicaux D. 780, but her playing of Schubert can sound rather straightforward and restrained. The Impromptu No. 2 and Moment Musical No. 2 seem short on sensitivity; whilst in her recording of Chopin’s Prélude in D flat Op. 28 No. 15, Leginska unaccountably doubles the tempo for the middle section. Rachmaninov’s two most famous préludes fare better and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 8 is delivered with a lot more character.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — Jonathan Summers (A–Z of Pianists, Naxos 8.558107–10).
Role: Classical Artist