Fritz Kreisler, Maud Powell, Jacques Thibaud; Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz, and Efrem Zimbalist; Albert Spalding, Ada Sassoli and Pablo Casals. What do they have in common, and which names do you know?
Not to keep you in suspense: all were string artists, mostly violinists, whose faces appear together on those little pages of round pictures that used to advertise Victrola artists; and chances are, you recognize only the men's names.Which is an injustice to history, and a crying shame, says Karen Shaffer, author with Neva Greenwood of "Maud Powell, Pioneer American Violinist."
Indeed, few would have failed to identify Powell in turn-of-the-century America, where she was the first instrumentalist to record for the Victor Talking Machine Co. (1904). Among the brightest luminaries of the concert stage during her day (1867-1920), Powell held some sort of record for premiering a remarkable range of violin concertos in America Saint-Saens No. 2, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Huss, Shelley, Arensky, Coleridge-Taylor and Sibelius, Lalo's Concerto in F Minor and Concerto Russe, and Bruch's Concertstueck.
Powell was born in Peru, Ill., to a distinguished family. Her father, William Bramwell Powell, was a forward-looking educator who became superintendent of the District of Columbia schools, and her uncle, John Wesley Powell, was the Colorado River explorer.
Powell's precocious talent was nurtured by parents willing to make the necessary sacrifices. She was taken abroad at age 13 to study with such notables as Schradieck, Joachim and Dancla, returning a full-fledged artist at 18.
While Powell had great success in Europe, it was her own nation she aspired to educate, touring with the Theodore Thomas Orchestra and later with John Philip Sousa. For her yearly American tours she selected the best music without compromise.
"Some of the audiences in the smallest towns are the most wonderful," she said. "When they do like music . . . depend upon it, they are an audience that warms the cockles of one's heart. Oh, I do not despair about America at all."
She recollected a 1907 concert in Ogden's Weber Stake Academy the first touring artist the town had ever had. Not realizing she would need a piano, her presenters had provided none and had to scour the town to find even an upright. They also bought a music stand. "After the concert, which was a fine success, they told me, `Miss Powell, we now have a music stand, and when you come again we will have a grand piano for you."
Author Karen Shaffer recently visited Salt Lake City with Trudy McMurrin, who edited and packaged the book. Shaffer is an attorney and amateur violinist, though "I didn't actually study violin until I was a freshman in college, with a borrowed fiddle." Shaffer then fitted in three hours' practice a day around her studies at the American University Law School in Washington, D.C., and she's since been an artist's manager and member of Washington lawyers for the arts.
"Maud ruined my career," she said with a rueful laugh. "When I started writing I said goodbye to most of my activities. But I had saved my money from four years of a lucrative job as counsel for a government agency.
"Neva Greenwood's research and collection of information about Powell is the core of what I did. She was a gifted violinist and teacher, and Powell was her idol."
The book is a readable narrative, assembled chronologically, much of it in Powell's own words, which give the real flavor of this remarkable American and her stimulating opinions on music, philosophy and life.
There is some wordiness, and the casual reader may learn more than he wants to know. But this is not a book aimed at the dilettante, though it will certainly entertain most of them. It is an exhaustive study of a significant woman whose life and accomplishments could easily slip into oblivion, and it's nice that Shaffer fills in the gaps. If she mentions somebody, she immediately relates that person's background, ancestry and any corollary information that make his position more meaningful.
Though born only two years after the Civil War, Powell was a modern woman, open and direct and western, with parents who reinforced her sense of humor and perspective. The challenges, the glamour and adulation, the hard effort and even drudgery, the loneliness and isolation of a woman artist, especially during her time, are all acknowledged by Powell.
In 1908, she reflected on the risk a woman took in deciding in favor of a career, at a time when women knew better than to think they could "have it all." "It is a question too difficult to answer by a simple yea or nay: Shall you become a great artist and have the multitude at your feet (if you are lucky), or shall you marry the faithful and honest Dick, live a life of humdrum domestic felicity and suffer ever after with a gnawing sense of defeated and thwarted ambition, a bitter `might have been'?"
The choice was always clear to Powell, though she readily admitted her career took a fearsome toll of her nerves, and her conscientiousness to her audience contributed to her untimely death by massive heart attack.
The many photos show Powell at all stages of her career, and a fine figure she cut to her dying day erect, slim, beautifully gowned and coifed, the personification of the fastidious artist. Family and friends figure prominently, including her beloved husband-manager, H. Godfrey "Sunny" Turner.
McMurrin has moved back to Utah from Texas, where she was when she made connection with Shaffer, and is working as an independent publishing consultant. She's glad to be back in this area, which "takes culture seriously and makes it available to all. People here live Maud Powell's ideal," she said.
The book was printed in Salt Lake City by Publishers Press. Copies should be available in Salt Lake bookstores, or special orders may be directed to Iowa Press, 2121 S. State Ave., Ames, Iowa, 50010.