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ClassicsOnline Home » POWELL, Maud: Complete Recordings, Vol. 3 (1904-1917)
Maud Powell (1867 - 1920)
The Complete 1904 - 1917 Recordings, Vol. 3
Maud Powell was born on 22nd August 1867, in Peru, Illinois, on Americas western frontier. Her grandparents were Methodist missionaries in Ohio, Wisconsin and Illinois before the Civil War. Her father William Bramwell Powell (1836-1904) was an innovative educator, who won a national reputation as superintendent of public schools in Peru, then Aurora, Illinois, and finally in Washington, D.C. Her mother Minnie Bengelstraeter Paul (1843-1925) was an accomplished pianist and gifted amateur composer. She and Mauds aunts were active in the woman suffrage movement. Her uncle John Wesley Powell, Civil War hero and explorer of the Grand Canyon, organized the scientific study of the western lands and of the native American Indians as the powerful director of the U.S. Geological Survey and Bureau of Ethnology and founder of the National Geographic Society.
A prodigy, Maud Powell began her study of the violin at the age of seven in Aurora, then studied four years with William Lewis in Chicago. She completed her training with the great masters Henry Schradieck in Leipzig, Charles Dancla in Paris and Joseph Joachim in Berlin. She made her New York début at the age of eighteen, performing Max Bruchs Violin Concerto in
G minor with Americas foremost conductor Theodore Thomas and the New York Philharmonic on 14th November, 1885. The intelligence, energy, and vigour in her playing reflected her American spirit and the brilliance, optimism and enthusiasm with which she lived. Powell performed with all the great European and American conductors and orchestras of her day, knew nearly every contemporary European and American composer personally and their music, and received international acclaim as one of the greatest artists of her time as she toured from St Petersburg in Russia, to South Africa and to Hawaii.
Although Powell died of a heart attack while on tour on 8th January, 1920, at the early age of 52, during her short lifetime, she transformed the art of violin playing and set a new standard for performance. A legendary figure, her influence was pivotal in the development of classical music in North America. Through her devotion to her violin, her art, and humanity, she became Americas first great master of the violin, winning the love and admiration of all who fell under the spell of her commanding bow and magnetic personality.
By 1917, Maud Powell was greeted throughout the United States and Canada with large and enthusiastic audiences. Powells musical missionary work had paid off. Classical music was far more widely accepted and appreciated in North America than when she first began appearing on the concert stage in 1885. Since her first recordings for Victor in 1904, the phonograph had boosted her efforts. Everywhere she went, she was greeted with requests to play favourite recordings as encores to her scheduled programme. To demonstrate just how much the phonograph had transformed public taste, Powell decided to give a recital programme derived wholly from music she had recorded, something no artist had ever done. Her husband and manager
H. Godfrey Turner sent out announcements listing 45 records she had made for Victor. The recipients marked their first and second choices on a return postcard from which Powell compiled a programme of seventeen pieces. The programme revealed the tremendous advance of musical taste in America. One critic observed that only ten years earlier, "some of the compositions on the list would hardly have been known much less liked by the general public. Now they are household intimates."
The fact that the public had chosen Bériots Concerto No. 7 in G major, the Mendelssohn concerto Finale, and the unaccompanied Bach Bourrée gave some indication of the publics musical sophistication. The Bériot concerto, which Powell recorded in 1915 and is included in Volume I of the Maud Powell compilations by Naxos, was the first violin concerto recorded entire, with all three movements on separate disks, although each movement had to be shortened to meet technical limitations. The Mendelssohn concerto Finale had been one of the first of Powells recorded efforts in 1904 (her 1909 recording is represented here). The inclusion of three of the artists own transcriptions among the highest ranking popular favourites, including those of Massenets Crépuscule (Twilight) and Coleridge-Taylors Deep River, both on this disc, must have been gratifying to Powell, especially since she had a special affection for Deep River.
The audience which packed Carnegie Hall on 8th January 1917 seemed to understand the significance of the event, but then settled back to enjoy the concert they had chosen, performed by an artist they loved. Although the same performance could have been heard anywhere, one critic observed, "Mme. Powell in life was more absorbing and vital than Mme. Powell of the talking machine." In "rare form," the artist reportedly "gave generously of her gifts and moved and thrilled in turn a large audience that demanded enough encores to make another goodly-sized program."
Through this modern compilation of Powells recordings, we can almost experience the thrill of that New York audience enjoying a programme that ran through "an extraordinary list of moods and styles." We can hear, as music critic Henry Krehbiel did, "Miss Powell at her best, playing with a warm tone, accurate intonation and finished style." And we can imagine Maud Powells effect on the audience: "[T]he popular violinist...played in masterly fashion," one critic reported. "With admirable poise, with large, beautiful tone and majestic sweep, she held a secure grip upon her hearers, and their response was ample proof of the power of her appeal. Since the details of Mme. Powells art are well known, suffice it to say that the potency of her appeal remains undiminished." The music critic Richard Aldrich concluded: "If this was playing to the gallery, the upper parts of the hall paid the compliment back by thunderous applause."
The first-ever release of La Bohème Potpourri through this compilation enables us to hear more clearly than ever before Maud Powells rich tone and violin mastery just as it was in 1917. Of the thirty recordings Powell made but which were never released on disk, this is the only one for which a metal master remains, hence the outstanding clarity of the violin performance despite the "orchestra" accompaniment. But even more striking is the sense of Powells personal magnetism that radiates from the unworn grooves of this newly discovered master, almost transporting us into the audience at her remarkable Carnegie Hall concert.
No one could have imagined then that exactly three years later Maud Powells bow would be silenced for ever. One of her last concerts was a benefit recital in aid of the Negro Music School Settlement in New York City, given on 19th June 1919. Powell cut short a vacation interlude while touring in the West and re-crossed the continent in response to the urgent appeal of the American composer J. Rosamond Johnson, the Settlement director. While she performed a full recital, including the Lekeu Sonata, one reporter noted: "The greatest moment...came with the performance of the Negro folk-songs and spirituals. Here the audience contributed almost as positive a share as the violinist. Lips moved that knew the words of Deep River, faces took on a visible emotion. It had always been one of Rosamond Johnsons wishes to hear [his own music], Nobody Knows the Trouble Ive Seen, arranged for violin played by Mme. Powell. To surprise him she transcribed the piece on the train and then played it to the intense delight of everyone."
Powells affinity for the music of African-Americans reflected her own deep roots in American soil. Fittingly, this compilation concludes with Powells transcription of the American Negro melody Deep River, first arranged for piano by the African-English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. She never found a chance to record Nobody Knows the Trouble Ive Seen but her transcription of Johnsons beautiful music was published in 1921. It was, in fact, the last piece Powell performed publicly. She collapsed on stage in St Louis from a heart attack after completing the last note of this plaintive song on Thanksgiving Day, 27th November 1919. That she should strive for perfection to the last note in spite of imminent physical collapse was characteristic. "I knew I had six more notes to play," she later recalled, "and I played them. But the last one was not as long as it should have been."
Maud Powell had paid a high price to uphold her art before the American people from 1885-1920. In 1919 John C. Freund, the editor of Musical America, wrote: "Few realize how much the cause of good music in this country has been aided by Mme. Powell. And how, especially in years gone by, when traveling was more difficult, hotels were poor, she stood the strain, never flinched, never disappointed her audience, was always good-natured, good-tempered, and always, indeed gave them her best. Do you wonder that wherever she goes, wherever her name is put up, it means a crowded house of enthusiasts, who welcome one whom they have learned to love and regard as an old and tried friend?"
To a reporters query whether the fame of a great artist is really worth the struggle, Powell replied, "That isnt the question." She pointed out that if one has the artists instinct, nothing can keep her from it, despite the hardships. Her husband reflected: "If any young woman could really know what Maud Powell suffered for her art, she would not go into the game." Powell knew that she was born with a message to deliver, one that she said "I must carry...as long as I am able." She told a friend, "I expect to die with my violin in my hands." On 7th January 1920 the great violinist suffered a heart attack while warming up for a concert in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. She died the next day.
Maud Powells passing shocked the music world but they rallied to pay tribute to this unique artist: "She was not only Americas great master of the violin, but a woman of lofty purpose and noble achievement, whose life and art brought to countless thousands inspiration for the good and the beautiful."
Karen A. Shaffer
For more information on Maud Powell, contact:
The Maud Powell Society for Music and Education
5333 N. 26th Street, Arlington, VA 22207 USA
Phone: 703-532-2055; Fax: 703-532-1816
The emergence of electrical recording in 1925 together with Maud Powells untimely death in 1920 contributed to Victors deletion of her recordings from its catalogue in the mid-1920s. By the time Maud Powells biography was published in 1988, her name had faded from memory. It was clear that her recordings would have to be reissued if her legacy were to be fully restored. Yet this once famous American violinists original Victor Red Seal disks have become scarce and difficult to find in good condition. Sparked by the energy and determination of the late Arnold Sposato, who opened his extraordinary record collection to us, The Maud Powell Society embarked on a project to reissue Powells recordings in 1989. At that time, LPs were giving way to compact discs but the art of re-mastering old 78s was still an analogue based procedure. We were fortunate to have Ward Marston re-master the original shellac pressings. For this Naxos release, Ward Marston has employed digital technology to remove even more ticks, pops, and extraneous noise. With consummate skill, he has managed to allow Powells violin tone to emerge in all its fullness.
According to the Chicago Tribune, Ward Marstons name is synonymous with tender loving care to collectors of historical CDs. In 1996 Marston received the Gramophone award for Historical Vocal Recording of the Year, honouring his production and engineering work on Romophones complete recordings of Lucrezia Bori. He also served as re-recording engineer for the Franklin Mints Arturo Toscanini issue and BMGs Sergey Rachmaninov recordings, both winners of the Best Historical Album Grammy. Born blind in 1952, Ward Marston has amassed tens of thousands of opera classical records over the past four decades. Following a stint in radio he became well-known as a reissue producer in 1979, when he restored the earliest known stereo recording made by the Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1932. Ward Marston has produced records for a number of major and specialist record companies and is now bringing his distinctive sonic vision to bear on recordings released on the Naxos Historical label. Ultimately his goal is to make the music he remasters sound as natural as possible and true to life by lifting the voices off his old 78rpm recordings.
The Naxos historical label aims to make available the greatest recordings in the history of recorded music, in the best and truest sound that contemporary technology can provide. To achieve this aim, Naxos has engaged a number of respected restorers who have the dedication, skill and experience to produce restorations that have set new standards in the field of historical recordings.
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