A year after the American debut of Jascha Heifetz in 1917, James Huneker wrote an interesting sentence in the New York Times: “Much has been said of Heifetz and his musical gifts compared with great violinists of the time—Ysayë, Kreisler, Elman, Zimbalist, Kubelik, and Maud Powell.” We notice that one of these great violinists is referred to by both her first and last names, that she is the only female, and the only one born in America. She kept remarkable company on such a list, but there is evidence to suggest that she was even more distinguished than Huneker thought.
Jan Kubelik’s name is not at all as famous today as it was, and Efrem Zimbalist’s name has been rather eclipsed by that of his son on television some decades ago. But Maud Powell? Though she died in 1920 at the age of 52, her name was remembered well enough for her to have won a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement in 2014—nearly a century after Huneker’s recognition. Yet that memory itself has been a result of 35 years of assiduous work by Karen A. Shaffer, president of the Maud Powell Society for Music and Education and author of the biography published in 1988 (Maud Powell: Pioneer American Violinist, now being revised for a second edition). We can understand easily enough how a famous musician could be forgotten in the welter of technological and cultural change—one who died five years before the introduction of the microphone into the recording process, which would render her recordings “obsolete.” But the revival of the name and the fame, though against the grain of change, has been justified by appeal to contemporary vibes of feminist and multicultural values, not only by Karen Shaffer but also by an outstanding violinist of our time, Rachel Barton Pine. The case of Maud Powell is indeed a remarkable and revealing one, though perhaps not altogether translatable into televised masscult terms.
Born into a family of educators in 1867, Maud Powell was from Peru, Illinois. Her father’s brother was John Wesley Powell, who lost an arm at Shiloh, explored the Grand Canyon, and founded the National Geographic Society. Maud’s parents were admirable and substantial people who lived more quietly than the heroic Powell did—she took after him in her own way. Her musical gifts made themselves known at an early age, as is common with great instrumentalists. Her first important teacher was William Lewis of Chicago—his foundational instruction was never repudiated, but rather built on as she matured. When it was clear that the next step was European, Maud studied at Leipzig with Schradieck for years—his is a name known to every serious student of the violin, even today. Next was Dancla at the Conservatoire de Paris—Sarasate and Kreisler also went there. The last touch in her education was from Berlin with Joseph Joachim, who framed the definition of the violinistic repertory. At the end, Joachim conducted for her as she was a fully formed master player. She was soon received by British royalty and was much respected by musical Europe and its authorities—conductors, composers, and so on.
Maud Powell had little difficulty in establishing herself, because all she had to do was perform—nothing else is so convincing. By the time she first recorded for Victor Red Seal in 1904, she’d had years of experience and success. She reached out to audiences and never played down to them. She was interested in recruiting new lovers of the best music, and in developing herself and her repertory. She formed a string quartet with three men, and a piano trio with two women. She was always committed to excellence, never backed off or quailed at anything, and knew that the total commitment that the musical life requires is itself the answer to the question, Is it for me? It is for you—if you have to do it.
She was interested in new music and new combinations and opportunities. She knew that the music of black people was an important part of America, and she played some of that music in recitals. She had herself proved that she could play as well as a man—but which man? It is quite possible that she was the best violinist in the world, if there could be such a person. Had she then proved that she could play better than any man? Quite possibly! There was no question that she was the greatest violinist of American birth, no question that she was the best fiddler of her sex. She even had to stare down Gustav Mahler in a contretemps of 1909 in New York, and she won her point. She was not to be condescended to as a woman or as an American.
As the years went by, she could have had little warning of what was coming, but in 1919, she did. There was a cardiac incident. The next year, she left the scene much too early, and resigned from the undefined rivalry with Kreisler and Heifetz and the rest of them. I believe that some of the heroism in her uncle’s nature, some of the nobility of her parents, expressed itself in her. And I think as well that the epithet of “feminist” meant much more in her time than in ours. Even her regard for African-American music meant more then than it does now. The respect of Gustav Mahler she had to fight for, and she earned it the hard way, as she did everything. Let me put it this way: There is a nine-and-a-half-foot-tall statue of John Wesley Powell out in Green River, Wyoming, and an eight-foot statue of Maud Powell in Peru, Illinois. Statues are for heroes of the strenuous life—they are not for TV shows that recognize ethnic categories of music or quotas for “genders.”
But disregarding any speculation about what would have happened if Maud Powell had lived longer, I want to return to the rehabilitation of Maud Powell as a model for musical America. After laying the foundation of the study of Maud Powell in the form of a scholarly and unstinting biography, Karen Shaffer proceeded to promote the resurrection of the Powell sound, insofar as it could be known. She was the producer of the four compact discs that were released by Naxos, beginning in 2001—discs that were overseen in their transcription and restoration by the unsurpassed expert in the field, Ward Marston. These discs changed the situation—they jogged people’s ears and aroused much attention. I would go so far as to say that they are, at least some of them, outrageous—and you can check me on that. Several of these recordings are on YouTube, so that the Maud Powell phenomenon, the experience, is there to be known.
I found the four volumes to be fascinating—I was knocked off my feet by what I heard. First of all, in spite of the acoustic restrictions, I found the sound to be highly appealing—some of the best violin sound I ever heard. There are times when old recordings are better than those new ones so often touted as superior! Most of the credit goes to the artist, of course, but the system was aimed at capturing the core of the tone, not the ambience of the studio. One of the best recordings I have ever heard of anything is Maud Powell’s version of “Silver Threads Among the Gold.” Yes, Amelita Galli-Curci and John McCormack sang it beautifully, and Maud sings it better with a bow. You can listen to all three on YouTube. Otherwise and in various instances, the violinist comes across as a master or mistress of her instrument in every way: in tone, in rhythm, in intonation, in command, and in supple adjustments and flexible phrasing. She plays in multidimensional aspects with perfect hands left and right, impeccable double stops that sound like duets, and even more of perfect articulation and persuasive address. In the “Poupée Valsante” in Hartman’s arrangement (as distinct from Kreis ler’s), she beats Kreisler at his own game and floats the best harmonics I ever heard. I never thought that anyone could so challenge the received notions of violinistic accomplishment, but that is what my ears tell me about Maud Powell.
So having indicated that much about Powell’s acoustic recordings, I find it also necessary to say something about what isn’t there because it never was—recorded, I mean. The Powell/Mahler Beethoven Violin Concerto is, like the Maltese falcon, the stuff that dreams are made of. There never were any, so there are no recordings of Maud Powell’s string quartet or of her piano trio. Though she introduced to America 14 concerti, including the Dvorák with the composer present, the Tchaikovsky, and the Sibelius, Maud Powell never recorded any of this material. Except for a reduction of the third movement of the Mendelssohn concerto, the Romance from the Wieniawski Second Concerto, and the Beriot Concerto No. 7, there is hardly anything of big pieces or major works. Our aural encounter with Maud Powell excludes so much of her reality on stage that only imagination and scholarship can fill the gap, however unsatisfactorily. And we have to keep the lack of a fullness of presentation in perspective, for back in the day, all the artists were presented thus. From a singer, you get a song, not an opera. From a pianist, a waltz, not a sonata. Beginning in 1904, Maud was treated as a star of Victor Red Seal, and she was one. Some people actually bought record players just to hear her—she was a hit, even if succeeding generations forgot the fact. I bought CDs to hear her, and she is still a hit—out of the park!
Leave a Reply