Who were the early female violinists?

Women soloists have long struggled against prejudice and indifference in the male-dominated musical establishment. But, as Tully Potter explains, The Strad has taken an enlightened approach to the sexes throughout its history


From the start, The Strad treated men and women equally; its pages chronicled the steady rise of female soloists and they were often treated to feature articles or picture profiles. In the first issue, published in May 1890, some 15 women violinists were mentioned including such eminent names as Vilémina Neruda, Maud Powell, Nettie Carpenter and Teresina Tua. In August 1894 came the question: ‘Who was the first female violinist?’ Historic names were mentioned such as Sarah Ottey (playing in public in England by 1721), Schmeling, Sacchi, Gautherot, Paravicini and Milanollo. The ‘moderns’ at that stage were considered to be Neruda, Wietrowetz, Shinner and Scotta.

Of course there was the occasional condescension. In December 1897, under the heading ‘A New Profession For Ladies’, The Strad ran a report from a newspaper in Berlin, where women’s orchestras were popular. One manager had the idea of hiring pretty girls, giving them violins, training them to turn the page at the same time as the real musicians and soaping their bows well so that they could enhance the pulchritude of the orchestra without dragging it down musically. But in general women were treated fairly – The Strad arrived in time to reflect the inexorable rise of women soloists.

But in the wider music world, the ignoring of women soloists by influential opinion-makers, impresarios and record company executives was a self-fulfilling prophecy. These men (for they were all men) did not know of great women violinists and therefore such beings could not exist. The movers and shakers of the musical establishment set male parameters of strength and athleticism, expecting a woman to play like a man. I am sure that when Hans von Bülow flattered Marie Soldat-Roeger (1864–1955) – profiled twice in The Strad, in September 1897 and February 1910 – by calling her ‘Brahms’s understudy’, he was not suggesting she played the Brahms Concerto like her teacher Joachim. But from all accounts her performances of the concerto were beautiful and satisfying – she and her fellow Joachim alumna, Leonora Jackson, did more than anyone to fix the work in the public consciousness.

A woman is not like a man, thank goodness, and we need to appreciate that womanly virtues are as valid as manly ones where music is involved. True, social pressures made it difficult for women soloists in bygone days. There was something unladylike about the violin, from the literal stigma that it left on the player’s neck to the overt emotion it evoked. Women were supposed to sit decorously at a keyboard. If, horror of horrors, they wanted to play the cello, it must be done side saddle (which became possible after the invention of the endpin). Whereas a singer could not do more than half an hour’s practice without ruining her voice, a violinist needed eight times that amount. To combine solo status with being a wife and mother was almost impossible. In the 19th century we lost many soloists to marriage, three American cases being typical. Arma Senkrah (1864–1900), a pupil of Wieniawski and Massart who took a first prize at the Paris Conservatoire in 1881, gave up touring in 1888 after wedding a German lawyer. Her death by her own hand was twice mentioned in 1900 issues of The Strad. Leonora von Stosch (1872–1956), who studied in Brussels and Paris, was profiled in The Strad in October 1901, described as ‘a most welcome addition to the ranks of lady violinists’, but she gave up for eight years after marrying. She made a comeback and assisted Elgar with his Violin Concerto but later forsook the violin for the pen, winning a Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Leonora Jackson (1879–1969) abandoned her career after marrying in 1915.

But a few came through. The Moravian virtuoso Vilémina Neruda (1839–1911) played Bach’s ‘Double’ Concerto as an equal with Joachim – one of those performances was reported in that first issue of The Strad – and led his London quartet in his absence. She even got a mention from the violin-playing Sherlock Holmes. Camilla Urso (1842–1902) from Nantes toured widely before settling in America. Marie Soldat-Roeger led two all-female quartets of high accomplishment – the second, in Vienna, could command guest artists of the stature of Nedbal and Casals. By the turn of last century, a fashionable teacher such as Henri Petri in Dresden could attract a stream of young women students.

Leopold Auer’s class in St Petersburg was a finishing school for such soloists as Kathleen Parlow (1890–1963), profiled in The Strad in April 1909, internationally known before returning to promote music in her native Canada; Ohio-born Thelma Given (1896–1977); and Britain’s Isolde Menges (1893–1976, pictured) who appeared in The Strad in September 1913 and December 1923, and was among the first to record the Beethoven Concerto and led an influential quartet. Auer also taught Cecilia Hansen (1897–1989), Russian born of Nordic stock, who toured widely although the bad luck she had with her recording career was typical of her fortunes. She died forgotten in London.

No one bothered to record the Australian Alma Moodie (1898–1943) at all, yet she was Carl Flesch’s favourite pupil, had a duo with the pianist–composer Eduard Erdmann and performed the big concertos – including the Paganini D major with Flesch’s cadenza – and difficult modern works. She took her own life. Other Flesch pupils were Anja Ignatius (1911–95), from Tampere, a fine advocate of Sibelius’s violin music, and the ageless Ida Haendel (born 1923), who has made numerous appearances in The Strad throughout her long career, first in a profile in March 1937 that began with the prediction: ‘From Poland, the homeland of many celebrated musicians, we welcome a young lady who bids fair to add her name to its scroll of great artists.’ Two Frenchwomen were also Flesch pupils: subtle Janine Andrade (born 1918), whose party piece was the Paganini–Kreisler La campanella, and powerful Ginette Neveu (1919–49), who had conquered Brahms and Sibelius and was homing in on Beethoven when she was taken from us in an air crash. Neveu’s concerts were reviewed in The Strad as far back as 1930, and in April 1945 a reviewer commented on her ‘masterly technique, with a phenomenal range of tone values and a bow-arm which is a joy to watch’ in the Beethoven Concerto. Most recently, she was remembered by her classmate Ida Haendel in October 2009.

Mention of France reminds me of Renée Chemet (born 1888). She enjoyed quite a vogue before vanishing to Japan in 1932; back in Paris by the 1950s, she ended in obscurity. An interview in The Strad in August 1909 caught her early in her career, and commented on ‘the charm of her playing, which is distinguished by a fi ne broad singing tone, warmth, colour and life’. The Franco–Belgian style was kept going by the delightful Paris-trained Romanian Lola Bobescu (1919–2003), who settled in Brussels; the French pair Michele Auclair (1924–2005) and Marie-Claude Theuveny (born 1931); and Ghent-born Edith Volckaert (1949–92), who declined too soon due to cancer.

Jeno Hubay and his Budapest colleagues taught a succession of brilliant ladies, starting with Joachim’s great-nieces Adila Fachiri (1886–1962) and Jelly d’Arányi (1893–1966). No pre-war London Proms season was complete without these talented sisters playing the Bach ‘Double’. Adila was more polished, Jelly more fi ery, as witness some of the pieces written for her – Bartók’s two sonatas and Ravel’s Tzigane, as well as Ethel Smyth’s Concerto for Violin and Horn. The pair received a joint profile in The Strad in August 1912, where B. Henderson commented: ‘Their ensemble is so perfect that no disparity of style is observable, but individually Adila, in accordance with both her nature and training, leans to the purely classical school, and her playing is sound, scholarly and refined, but not inspirational. Jelly on the contrary has naturally almost an excess of temperament, and a warm vivid style which rings true.’ The two players later received separate profiles in September 1926 and April 1928.

Gioconda De Vito (1907–94), heir to the tradition of Paganini’s pupil Caterina Calcagno, the Milanollo sisters and Teresina Tua, was a distinctive Italian soloist excelling especially in Brahms – the first of her two recordings of the concerto has just been reissued. In a lengthy interview in October 1977, The Strad described her playing as ‘characterised by a fervent intensity of expression which is moderated by classical restraint, so that the result is a satisfying sense of controlled passion’. Her full, glowing tone combined well with Menuhin’s in their joint recordings and among her fans were two amateur violinists, Benito Mussolini and Pope Pius XII.

Intrepid Americans abroad were headed by New Yorker Nettie Carpenter (born 1865), who took first prize at the Paris Conservatoire in 1884 and also studied with Sarasate. She was profiled in The Strad in 1894 in an article stating that her 1882 Proms performance ‘established definitely her reputation as an artist of the first rank’. The  contemporaries Maud Powell (1868–1920), from Illinois, and Geraldine Morgan (1868–1918), from New York, studied with Schradieck in Leipzig and Joachim in Berlin. Powell, the great US violinist of her day, toured the world and took good music all over the States at a time when travel was not easy. In September 1900, The Strad commented: ‘A brilliant and virile player, Miss Powell is invariably paid the compliment of not being judged from the standpoint of women players, but from that of excellence as a musician, with the technique and strength of a man.’ Morgan, the first American to win the Mendelssohn Prize in Berlin (1886), toured Europe and Britain for several years and played the Bach ‘Double’ with Joachim at the Crystal Palace. She led the Morgan Quartet with three men, including her brother Paul, a cellist. Powell said she had ‘the most musical talent of all the girls I have known who played the fiddle’.

The art of the Wisconsin bombshell Guila Bustabo (1916–2002), profiled in The Strad in October 1935, was a bit overheated for my taste, but she feared no male competition as she tackled the most fearsome pieces. Eudice Shapiro (1914–2007) made a legendary career on the West Coast, admired by composers such as Stravinsky; but Frances Magnes (born 1919), for whom Dohnányi wrote his Second Concerto, Patricia Travers (1927–2010), a child prodigy, and Camilla Wicks (born 1928), a leading Sibelian, gave up touring early for family reasons.

In England, apart from Menges we had the S?evc?ík pupil Marie Hall (1884–1956), whose fame is attested by four profiles in The Strad. In May 1910, she was described as ‘the first woman violinist of her time’, but nevertheless ‘just as simple, just as eager to learn, and just as devoted to her art as when she came fresh from the School at Prague to conquer London’. In 1924, she provided tips on choosing a violin, asserting: ‘From the performer’s point of view, no test for making selection equals the test of playing the instrument. Do not let price be your only guide, for in violins it is a very varying and a very uncertain quantity.’ Elgar chose her for the first recording of his Violin Concerto and I love it, despite the heavy cuts. She was the first woman to play the Paganini D major Concerto in public and The Strad described her as one of the ‘exceptionally few’ of either sex who could handle the Tchaikovsky Concerto.

May Harrison (1890–1959) was a cultured artist for whom Delius and Moeran wrote concertos. Her partnership in the Brahms ‘Double’ with her sister Beatrice still resonates. Among the quartet leaders working in the UK were Emily Shinner, the Canadian Nora Clench, Marjorie Hayward and Marie Wilson (who appeared in The Strad in August 1935), deemed the best BBC Symphony concertmaster but allowed to lead only the reduced B section. Shinner (1862–1901), among the 1876 intake of students who broke the male stranglehold at the Berlin Hochschule, studied with Joachim. Her solo repertoire included David’s E minor Concerto. She formed her quartet in 1887 with Lucy Stone, Cecilia Gates and Florence Hemmings. The largely self-taught Eda Kersey (1904–44) was a first-rate soloist, as a radio recording of the Bax Concerto proves: it was made soon after she gave the premiere and five months before her sudden death. The Strad profiled her in October 1931, with writer Ralph Hill enthusing: ‘I have no hesitation in placing Miss Kersey in the company of the few women violinists who really matter and are fit to be compared with some of the best men players.’

Of undisputed greatness was that bewitching Viennese fiddler Erica Morini (1904–95), who was profiled in The Strad as early as June 1925, and who eventually settled in America. In her best days she was a considerable virtuoso, with sensuality, rhythmic subtlety and tonal individuality. Her most re-issued recordings, the Tchaikovsky and Brahms concertos with Rodzinski, are her least meritorious memorials – she left better ones, as well as live performances.

Peering behind the Iron Curtain, we find the superb Galina Barinova (born 1910), one of the great exponents of the Sibelius and Glazunov Concertos. Among those who recorded with her was Sviatoslav Richter. Two prizewinners of the 1937 Ysaÿe Competition in Brussels deserve mention. Marina Kozolupova (born 1918), a classy Beethoven, Bach and Mozart player, had notable duos with Rosa Tamarkina and Maria Yudina, as well as Konstantin Bogino; one expects her to play the Beethoven and Mozart A major Concertos well but her Franck Sonata with the shortlived Tamarkina is also memorable. Elizaveta Gilels (1919–2008) was likewise a model classicist, appearing on equal terms with brother Emil and husband Leonid Kogan. The Polish artist Wanda Wilkomirska (born 1929) had a terrific studio partnership with the conductor Witold Rowicki, yielding concertos by Szymanowski, Wieniawski, Karlowicz and Khachaturian.

Even before the achievements of Teiko Maehashi, Mayumi Fujikawa and Yuzuko Horigome, Japan boasted the soloist Nejiko Suwa (born 1920) and the great quartet leader Mari Iwamoto (1926–79). Though Suwa’s solo Bach was recorded in 1979–80 when she was a little past her best, it provides rewarding listening.

I could have restricted this article to a dozen names, but I wanted to show the richness of female violin-playing in the immediate past – a richness that has been veiled by the arrogant clubbishness of the male establishment yet nevertheless reflected in The Strad throughout its history. Great violinists come in a number of guises and, most important, in two sexes.


This article was first published in The Strad, May 2010. For more thought-provoking articles on the string world, subscribe to The Strad or download our digital edition as part of a 30-day free trial. To purchase back issues click here.

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