The name Albert Spalding was a household word in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s. It was synonymous with violin virtuoso. During this period, when radio was a main source of entertainment, Spalding was heard regularly.
But he was not merely an accomplished radio performer: He was America's first internationally famous violinist. A child prodigy, he quickly developed into an artist who was enthusiastically received in Europe, as well as in the Soviet Union, Scandinavia, and Central and South America.The Albert Spalding centennial will be celebrated throughout the United States from now through next April. The theme is "Discovery." The artist, so famous in his lifetime, is relatively unknown by the present generation. He needs to be rediscovered, for his was truly a major contribution to the music world. Besides being a great performer, Spalding was a composer. For a time he considered leaving the concert stage to devote all his time to composition. Many of his violin pieces and transcriptions, along with a host of lovely songs, are still performed.
During the centennial there will be compact disc releases of some of Spalding's finest recordings. Strad magazine features him in its August issue, with his photo on the cover. In addition, an exhibition of his recordings and compositions, along with other memorabilia, will be seen at the Mugar Memorial Library's department of special collections at Boston University, Oct. 4 through next spring.
A new book, titled "Ton Albert, qui t'adore," is devoted to Spalding's courtship letters, written to his fiancee, Mary Pyle, while on concert tour. Theirs was to be a true romance and an enduring marriage. Mary was a fine singer, though she did not pursue singing professionally, and Albert wrote many songs especially for her. Some of these he refused to have published; he wanted them to remain hers alone. Among his published songs are a number of settings of Robert Herrick's poems. These include the popular series of "Songs From the Hesperides." Among his sacred solos is a setting of the 24th Psalm, "The Earth Is the Lord's." Spalding was a constant reader of the Bible; he carried it with him on all his tours.
The lead-off event of the centennial was a birthday party on Aug. 20 at Aston Magna, Spalding's former estate in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, featuring the performance of some Spalding compositions, as well as the playing of some of his recordings.
Other musical events still in the planning stage will be held in Boston and New York. An introduction to the centennial took place May 2 in New York, when the Music Foundation of The Bohemians, New York's famous musicians' club, held its annual dinner. Spalding himself had been active in the club's Music Foundation, which is a charitable agency for musicians. Half the program was devoted to his centennial, the other half to Rose Bampton, the celebrated singer who had sometimes appeared in concert with Spalding, who was present.
A multifaceted person, Spalding could truly be described as a Renaissance man. Son of one of the two brothers who founded the A.G. Spalding & Bros. sporting goods concern, he was an excellent tennis player, who sometimes took part in regional matches. It was not uncommon for his picture to appear in magazines and newspapers as a tennis player as well as a violinist.
In World War II Spalding worked in the Psychological Warfare Branch of the Office of War Information. He was fluent in Italian and several other languages, and his broadcasts in Italy aided the northern revolt and the eventual liberation of Italy in 1945. He won the United States Medal of Freedom for his wartime work.
An incident much publicized in the Italian press and which indicates something of the resourcefulness, alertness and courage of the man occurred during an especially severe bombing raid in Naples. Everyone was forced to take refuge in shelters. Spalding was in a shelter with several hundred others. The crowd was near panic. Noticing a man with a violin case, Spalding asked him if he might borrow his instrument for a while. Then he quickly launched into an unaccompanied rendition of the Beethoven violin concerto. The crowd, inspired by Beethoven's heroic music and Spalding's heroic behavior, soon calmed down.
Something of a pioneer, Spalding sometimes gave as many as 70 concerts a year in the US - visiting small towns as well as cities, introducing great music to many who had never before been exposed to it. He also brought new music to American audiences, including the concertos of Elgar, Barber, and Respighi.