On January 25, 2014 the American violinist Maud Powell was posthumously granted a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys, during the Recording Academy’s 2014 Special Merit Awards Ceremony and Nominees Reception. The award was accepted on behalf of Powell by violinist Rachel Barton Pine, who recorded a tribute album of Powell’s work in 2007. Powell is widely regarded as one of the greatest female violinists in history, and was also the first American violinist to achieve international rank.
Powell was a close friend of Frances Glessner and visited the Glessner home on Prairie Avenue many times during her trips to Chicago to concertize and perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The museum is fortunate to have a number of letters in its archives from Maud Powell to Frances Glessner, in addition to a signed photograph (shown above), which is inscribed, “To one of the dearest and best ladies in the land, with fond affection, Maud Powell.”
Maud Powell was born in Peru, Illinois on August 22, 1867. She began the study of the violin about 1874, taking lessons in Aurora, Illinois. Within a couple of years she was recognized as a child prodigy and started taking lessons with William Lewis in Chicago. At the age of 13, her parents sold their home to finance her musical studies, and she travelled to Europe with her mother to study with Joseph Joachim at the Berlin Hochschule, Henry Schradieck at the Leipzig Conservatoire, and Charles Dancla at the Paris Conservatoire.
Her official debut took place in 1885, when she performed Bruch’s G minor concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic under Joachim’s baton. Her American debut was with the New York Philharmonic under Theodore Thomas, marking the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership with Thomas and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Powell was the first American violinist – man or woman – to change the opinions of Europeans, who, at the time, tended to scoff at classical music in America. She concertized extensively throughout her career on stages across the United States and Europe. She also introduced solo violin recordings with the Victor Talking Machine Company on their Red Seal label, all of which have been digitally remastered and were rereleased in 2009.
She met her future husband and manager, H. Godfrey Turner, in London during the winter of 1902-1903. At the time, Turner was serving as manager of the British syndicate which guaranteed the band of John Philip Sousa, and in that role, he extended an offer to Powell to play with Sousa’s band. They married in 1904.
On November 27, 1919 she suffered a heart attack on stage while performing in St. Louis, Missouri; she died from another heart attack on January 8, 1920 while on tour in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. She was just 52 years old.
Journal entries by Frances Glessner and surviving letters indicate that the two became acquainted in 1907, when Powell was in Chicago playing with the Orchestra. Frances Glessner wrote on January 24, 1907, “I went to the orchestra rehearsal . . . Maud Powell played. After rehearsal was over, she came down with Mr. Wessels and I had a pleasant talk with her. We walked down to her hotel together.”
The next day, Frances Glessner received a letter from Maud Powell, which reads, in part:
“I can’t quite tell you how touched I was that you have sent me those beautiful, beautiful roses! They are the most exquisite things in the world. I wonder if you saw them and know how ravishingly lovely they are? They are filling the gap that comes in the awful reaction after an exciting performance and it WAS exciting today. I tried so hard to induce Mr. Stock to have the orchestra rise to share the applause – but he was obdurate. I felt that it was awful to stand there and to take all of it myself after their wonderful work. I shall be here Sat. and Sun. the 2nd & 3rd of Feb. unless plans are changed. Should I leave St. Paul earlier I might (visit) you – for I should love to see you again if possible. With a thousand thanks for filling my room with beauty and my heart with warmth, believe me, yours sincerely, Maud Powell.”
Another letter, written in February 1908, reads in part:
“En Route – Pennsylvania Lines – Pullman Vestibuled Train – Monday:
Dear Mrs. Glessner,
It is extraordinary, but I feel as though I had always known you and as if our ideas about essential things of life and conduct would walk hand in hand, and when you called me “Maud” – I loved it. You radiate womanliness and have so many qualities of mind and temperament that I am so woefully lacking in, but love to feel the influence of! It was very sweet of you to give me such a delightful opportunity of meeting the artistically elite – and in Chicago the artistically elite are so RIGHT personally. Isn’t it so? It was a lovely evening?”
By 1909, she is signing her letters simply “Maud” such as this example from November 1909 where she thanks Frances Glessner for making a chain for her:
“My dear Mrs. Glessner,
I keep hugging myself with pleasure YOU not being near to receive my ebullitions of delight – over the beautiful chain. Why I should be so honored I hardly know, but certainly no one else could appreciate the lovely gift more than this erratic fiddler. I am so proud that a woman made it – and proud that you wanted to give it to me. What I love in you so much is the beautiful enthusiasm that keeps you interested in right things – the simple things of life – in spite of worldly riches. How few people know how to live – and how seldom riches help them to know – isn’t it so? My love to you and a heartful of thanks – thanks to the fates, too, for letting me know you.”
Frances Glessner was quite ill for an extended period, and Maud Powell was unable to see her when visiting Chicago in 1911. She wrote in part:
“Thank you for your sweet letter received many weeks ago. How are you now, dear? I tried to see you in Chicago, when they told me of your illness – and since then I have had news of you from different mutual friends . . . Take care of your dear self – what I mean is: as you convalesce, don’t get busy being nice and kind to everyone and doing too much. Don’t let your heart go beyond your strength. I send you my love, and hope next winter will find you in Chicago feeling QUITE your old self.”
A particularly amusing letter was sent in 1912 after Frances Glessner wrote inquiring about Maud Powell’s condition following an automobile accident:
“It was very good of you to write. The accident occurred a month ago. It was not nearly as bad as it might have been, nor was it as bad as it seemed at first. I was badly cut up, as my head went through the windshield, but my eyes were not hurt, and I shall carry only one small scar, and that, the Doctor promises will go down in a year. Mr. Turner was not hurt at all, thank goodness, and the little machine came out of the repair shop, better than ever. I was to blame for the whole thing. A case of too much artistic temperament! A wonderful butterfly flew in and fell on his back. I tried to save him, but the draught caught him a second time, and he blew against the pedals. Mr. Turner’s attention was taken for a second from the wheel, and of course, in that second, bang! we ran off the road and tried to root up the stump of a tree! And if that tree had not been there, we should have been down in the ravine, - and in eternity, probably. However it was a good lesson for us, and we are more careful than ever, now.”
Powell ends the letter with a postscript apologizing for typing the letter (which at the time was not considered appropriate for personal correspondence):
“I almost forgot to apologise for writing with the machine! But I know you will forgive me, when you realize how it saves my bow arm. And it is easier to read!”
Letters continue until 1917, when Frances Glessner stopped writing her journal. There are frequent mentions of visits, dinners at the Glessner house, and of Maud Powell sitting in the Glessners’ box at Orchestra Hall during concerts. It must have been a hard blow for Frances Glessner to lose her dear and talented friend at such a young age especially considered Maud Powell was only four years older than the Glessners’ son George. But the warm and affectionate friendship they shared for more than a decade provided many happy memories that Frances Glessner carried with her for the remainder of her life.