If anyone was to suggest that a young lady born in the city
of Hull called Ethel Liggins was to become one of the most talented
musicians of her generation, one could be a little surprised.
Call it prejudice if you like, but the fact remains it seems
like a fairy tale. From a terrace house to conducting at the
Hollywood Bowl within less that 40 years is a remarkable achievement
by any standards. But there is more. She was not only a conductor
but also a top class pianist once dubbed the ‘Paderewski
of Woman Pianists’, a teacher who was in considerable
demand and a composer of some merit as well. In fact, she was
a complete musician. The strange thing is that very few people
seem to have heard of her. For some reason she has been ignored
by musical historians and recording artists. It is the purpose
of this excellent book to try to remedy this default.
There are many people who should be interested in this book.
The thing that led me towards Leginska was her compositions,
not that I have heard any, but the tantalising information that
she wrote a Fantasy for piano and orchestra, an opera based
on Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring and fair number
of songs and piano pieces. On top of this, there is a major
symphonic poem Beyond the Fields We Know. It is an evocative
title. Let us hope that one day it can be revived. Apart from
those interested in her compositions, this book must appeal
to students of the piano and the art of the conductor. And lastly,
there is the feminist critique here too. Fundamentally, the
history of Ethel Leginska revolves round the irony of a once-famous
artist totally disappearing into oblivion in a world largely
dominated by men.
There is no other biography of Ethel Leginska. Various references
crop up in journals and on the Internet and there is a contemporary
article in Woman’s Work In Music by Arthur Elson
and Everett E. Truette. Furthermore there are a host of references
in newspapers such as the New York Times and the Christian Science
Monitor. This present volume is a distillation and synthesis
of much of this primary material and serves not only as a biography
of Leginska but as a document that charts the musicological
development of her times. It is doubtful if another biography
will be undertaken in our day, but that would seem to be of
little concern when presented with what is quite definitely
a model of biographical writing.
A few brief notes on Ethel Leginska may be of interest to readers.
As noted above Ethel Leginska was born Ethel Liggins in 1886
in Kingston-upon-Hull in the East Riding of Yorkshire, England.
It was immediately clear to her parents that she was immensely
talented and was playing the piano publicly from the age of
six. She made her debut at the Queen’s Hall in London
in 1896, with works by Mendelssohn, Bach and Beethoven. In mid-1897
she entered the Hoch Conservatory of Music in Frankfurt, Germany,
where she stayed for some years.
It was around this time  that Lady Maud Warender, suggested
that she change her last name from Liggins to Leginska. It was
thought that a ‘continental’ sounding name would
be of benefit to her career. She was to use that name for the
reminder of her life. Leginska had further studies with Theodor
Leschetizky in Vienna until she was seventeen or eighteen years
old; The Broadbents point out that she was always a little hazy
Leginska married the composer Roy Emerson Whithorne in 1907.
In 1913 she made her debut recital at the New York Aeolian Hall
where she played a concert of music by Beethoven, Liszt, Chopin
and Brahms. The book gives a number of contemporary reviews
of this event. But her repertoire covered a wide range of composers
including Max Reger, Edward MacDowell, Carl Maria von Weber,
Maurice Ravel and Cyril Scott.
Not content with an impressive career as a recitalist she studied
composition with Ernest Bloch. She was later to undertake lessons
in conducting with Eugene Goossens, Robert Heger and Genaro
Papi. Over the years, she was to conduct a variety of major
orchestra including the London Symphony, the Berlin Philharmonic,
the Paris Conservatory and the New York Symphony Orchestra.
In 1924, a reviewer in the National Zeitung insisted that “Leginska
dominated the orchestra completely by the storm of her tremendous
temperament and aroused the audience to tumultuous applause.”
Another in the Daily Telegraph suggested that she “conducts
with freedom and élan, and her expressive gestures are
eloquent of the effects at which she is aiming.” These
were typical of reviews at this time. Her career as a conductor
was to last until 1957. An article on the internet suggests
that she was “probably the first woman in musical history
to be guest conductor of most of the world’s major orchestras,
and the first of her gender to be engaged as a grand opera conductor,
in London, Salzburg, New York City, Boston and elsewhere”.
Just before the outbreak of the Second World War Ethel Leginska
settled in Los Angeles and concentrated on teaching. She was
to die in that city in 1970.
The authors have presented the story of Leginska in largely
chronological order - although not quite. They note that they
have sometimes written chapters that consider various aspects
of her career that were running concurrently. So, various topics
such as Leginska as recording artist, her conducting, her teaching
and her work as a recitalist are examined in separate chapters.
Perhaps my one disappointment with this book is the relatively
little discussion of her musical compositions. For example I
could find little about her Symphonic Poem Beyond the Fields
we Know. There is, however a good discussion of the Cradle
Song, complete with a reprint of the music.
The main feature that immediately strikes the reader is the
depth of research that has gone into this book. It has truly
been a labour of love. The text is crammed full of information
derived from a large number of reviews, articles and letters.
There are literally dozens of illustrations presented on virtually
every other page in this book. Most of these are fascinating
and contribute to our understanding of the text. The photographs
naturally include studies of Ethel Leginska, but often depict
concert programmes, publicity shots, advertising posters and
pictures of venues associated with the artist.
The documentation is impressive. For each chapter there are
both footnotes and endnotes! The appendices are of great importance
and interest. These include: details of Liggins family tree,
a typical concert programme, a list of music played at here
first season of concerts with the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra,
and a comprehensive list of her compositions and her recordings.
Finally, there is a comprehensive index. The book itself is
a solid production by the Heaton Press Limited of Stockport:
it feels nice, is robust and has an attractive cover.
This volume fills a major gap in the history of both British
and American music. It is a huge and important investigation
into one of the forgotten great all-rounders of music.
It will fill the needs of all interested musicologists for many
years to come. The book can be read as a biography - from cover
to cover, or the reader can dip in to explore various themes
and topics, although I do recommend a through-read. As noted
above, it is an attractively presented and well-documented production
that is certainly good value for money.
I do not imagine there will be a huge demand for this text,
which is a pity, for it is really a model of its kind. However
I believe that it will be required reading for all those interested
in women in music and for those who are particularly interested
in performance history both in the United States of America
and in Great Britain.