It is fitting that Maud Powell, the first violinist to record a real violin with a recording horn, was honored at the Grammys the same year as Emile Berliner, the German audio pioneer behind the gramophone. Previously, violinists had to record on a Stroh violin—essentially a violin fingerboard with a protruding metal recording horn that served as a sound box.
Physically it was hard to play because it was so unbalanced, and it was Maud Powell who insisted that someone figure out how to record a real violin. Because of her status, she was taken seriously, and in 1904 she entered the studio with her violin and became the Victor Company’s first recording star.
The peak of Maud Powell’s recording career was the 1910s when her records were popular across the country, but it was cut short by her death in 1920 at the age of 52. The electric microphone was introduced in 1925, which is why we remember musicians like Heifetz, with her long-playing records and complete concerto recordings, while with Maud Powell, who was so associated with Sibelius concertos and by Tchaikovsky and to her interpretations of Bruch and Mendelssohn, there is no trace of her in these works because she died before the technology had been invented. She had to settle for recording in a single recording horn, which with a large ensemble meant that musicians crowded around the horn and pointed their instruments at it, and a cylinder of wax could only hold about five minutes of sound.
It’s amazing to think that Maud Powell made over 100 recordings, from Bach to her own interpretations of the most avant-garde contemporary composers she championed, like Sibelius, as well as African-American spirituals. Some 87 of his recordings have been remastered and are available on the Naxos label, and his playing still holds up today.
She was recording at her peak and through the snap, crack and pop of the wax cylinders you can hear the vitality of her playing, the spontaneity and character she brought to her performances, and the care of her phrasing. . Among the records are one she made of her violin version of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s piano version of the African-American Spiritual Deep River in 1908, before any vocal version was recorded, and it became a popular hit throughout white America.
I discovered Maud Powell through her biographer Karen Shaffer, who unexpectedly sent me a copy of the book. What impressed me was not only that she was a great violinist, but that she was such a pioneer for the development of classical music in America. She brought classical music to remote communities that had never heard it before. She was an important figure in her day, but a century on her artistry and the values she lived her life by still resonate.
She was recording at her peak and through the clack, crackle and pop of the wax cylinders you can hear the vitality of her playing.
She believed in using music for social good and to bring about positive change, and she performed not only the great classics, but also American composers, women composers, and used technology to spread the music. She was tireless in bringing live music to people and generous in giving advice to young composers and performers.
Maud Powell is the first female solo instrumentalist of any genre to receive a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. There were three other violinists before her, Perlman, Stern and Heifetz, and four classical musicians, all opera singers, but no female instrumentalists.
Maud Powell’s career has seen such a series of firsts – the premiere of concertos by Tchaikovsky, Sibelius and Dvořák in the United States, being the first woman to form and conduct a quartet in which men were part of the ensemble, and being one of the first white artists to champion the work of black composers – it’s funny that 100 years later she’s still breaking new ground.
I was born in Chicago, and Maud Powell was born in a town outside of Chicago called Peru, Illinois, where there’s a statue of her in the town square. It is the only life-size statue of a female musician in the United States.
Two years ago, I performed a Maud Powell tribute concert at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, and included Maud Powell’s violin version of Deep River. Then Leonard Slatkin came up to me and told me how great he thought the transcriptions were, and said that Maud Powell was Fritz Kreisler’s wife. If I had been quicker to think I would have said no, Fritz Kreisler was the male Maud Powell, because he came after her and she was a hero to him and his generation.
INTERVIEW WITH CHLOE CUTTS