Here is a surprisingly frank interview with violinist Marie Hall (1884-1956). She obviously had a dizzying drive and spunk to spare. She saw what she wanted and she went for it, other people’s opinions be damned. I wonder if all of these astonishing stories are true…
This article originally appeared in Success Magazine in March 1906.
She Began As A Street Musician:
Marie Hall, the Greatest Woman Violinist, Tells the Story of Her Hard Struggle to Win
by Ernest R. Holmes
“I was always determined to be at the top, and I’ve always had plenty of energy and perseverance.”
It was a very slight girl who said this, a girl with a thin, pale face, very serious brown eyes, and a mass of most rebellious dark hair, neither long nor short, just “coming in,” after an attack of typhoid fever. An utter stranger might well have questioned what it could be that such a frail person could lead the world in. Yet that girl of twenty-one can almost lay unquestioned claim to be the greatest woman violinist, and she is compared with Kubelik, her friend and benefactor, pupil of the same master.
But as I talked with Miss Marie Hall, the day after her second New York concert, her pale face grew animated, her eyes opened wide and flashed, and her words came with a decision that revealed a soul on fire with her art, and a determined will to great for her slight frame. One felt almost a pitying fear that her efforts would over-tax her strength.
As Miss Hall talks, one forgets her frailty, so sure of herself is she, and so full of her music. And the impression of an iron will and a dogged determination keeps recurring as she tells incident after incident of her rise from street and music-hall playing to a place among masters of the most human of instruments.
“Yes,” she said, “even when eight years old, I was determined to be a great violinist. My father was a harpist. He was with the orchestra of the Carl Rosa Opera Company and another, and he tried to teach me the harp. But I wanted the violin. He taught me a little on this, but still discouraged my continuing. I heard a lady play a concerto of Paganini, and I was bound I would play it too. With only a little help from my mother, I learned it in a few hours, and then played it for my father. He was astonished, and gave up to me. I had my beloved violin lessons.”
She had won by the weapon she has used ever since – winning prizes, tuition, instruction by the best masters, and now financial and artistic success.
“I have been lucky,” she went on. “I have always found friends to help me, I don’t know why. And if people won’t do what I want, I play for them, and generally then they do what I want,” and she gave a roguish smile as she thought of the magic power she keeps in little, slender, white fingers.
It was thus she won Kubelik, and through him his master, Sevcik, with an audacity that surprises when one thinks what she must have been at sixteen. Kubelik was taking London by storm.
“I went to hear him,” related Miss Hall. “I saw immediately that he had something I never had been taught, and I felt sure that it was from his teacher. I heard all his concerts, and I resolved that I, too, would learn that wonderful technique. I waylaid Kubelik – I was only sixteen, and my long hair was hanging loose. I told him I wanted him to hear me play. He smiled, and seemed amused, but consented. I went next day. His accompanist met me, and, seeing my violin, said, “But are you really going to play to him?” “Of course I am,” I answered, “that’s what I came for.” Kubelik came. He was very kind, but still seemed amused. I told him I wanted to know who his master was, who had taught him to play so, for I wanted to go and learn to do so too. He said, “I’ll hear you play first. I suppose you play from memory?” “Of course I do,” I replied with spirit, and then I played him two concertos that he had played the day before. He said it was wonderful, that I must go to his master, Sevcik, at Prague.
“I went to Professor Kruse, my teacher, and said, ‘I have found something that you can’t teach me. I must go to Sevcik to learn it.'”
The girl’s audacious proposal met with strong opposition from her master and her benefactors, who were supporting her in London. When there was no other way to gain her point, Miss Hall declared that if she could not go to Prague, she would quit studying and go home. She had her way, and it proved for the best, just as her decision for the violin and against the harp was for the best.
The ten years between her first public appearance at a little hall in her birthplace, Newcastle, and her triumphant debut at Prague, in 1903, were full of ups and downs, but that childish determination to be “at the top” shines through it all, and illumines seeming wilfulness that somehow always led to better things. One can gather, too, for Miss Hall is very frank, that her parents, musicians though they were, hindered rather than helped her high ambitions, though willing enough that she should help the family purse by playing in the way they always had. When enthusiastic Newcastle gentlemen wished to educate her, her nomad father took the family across England to Malvern, near Worcester. Her next benefactor, Max Mossel, violin professor at Birmingham, gave her a year’s instruction, and secured her a free scholarship at the Birmingham School of Music. Friends, won by her playing, aided her father to take her to London to Wilhelmj, who was so delighted that he wanted to adopt her, and he did keep her and teach her several months. But, as she told me, “I did not stay long. I was afraid of him, and of the bulldogs he kept in the room next to where I practiced.”
Then the ambitious girl tried for a Royal Academy scholarship, and won in the competition, only to find that it meant merely tuition, and there was no money to pay her board in London. She had to give it up, and go back to playing for her father in concert halls, and even on the street, for the family was then desperately poor. They wandered to Bristol, and there something in the little minstrel’s playing appealed to a musical clergyman, now Canon Fellowes, of Windsor. He asked her to his house, found out her poverty, her genius, and her ambition, and interested wealthy friends in her. Here again her unambitious father was an obstacle. He did not want to sign an agreement to give her to others’ care for a three years’ systemic course. When provision was made for the family, to compensate for the loss of her now valuable earning capacity, he consented, and the way was clear to accomplish all that the girl’s genius was capable of doing.
Then came Kubelik. When she had won consent to go to Prague, Kubelik aided her in every way, even to securing an apartment for her, and won over his old master, Sevcik, and Dvorák, director of the Conservatorium, to a lively interest in the little English girl.
“And there I worked,” said Miss Hall, reminiscently, “ten hours a day, but it was pleasure.”
When Miss Hall talks of Sevcik and his method, she grows enthusiastic. She says no one else on earth teaches such technique, and in such a systemic way. To that method she ascribes her sureness, and the confidence with which she attacks the most difficult concertos. On entering the Conservatorium, her attainments were recognized, so that she was admitted to the sixth year work, and in one year she had completed the whole course. Then for five months Sevcik gave her private lessons, – his “little concerts” he called them, so delighted was he with her playing.
When she gave her “coming out” concert in Prague, to invited guests, they recalled her over a score of times after her rendering of Ernst’s concerto in F sharp minor. Two gold caskets and a laurel wreath were hers before she left Prague for other triumphs at Vienna, and then her appearance at St. James Hall, London, where the enthusiasm is said to have been unequaled since Rubinstein took London by storm. The long years of patience practicing (four thousand bowing exercises, she told me,) the alternate hope and despair, and the struggle with unappreciative parents and dire poverty had borne fruit – she was a great concert performer.
When I asked Miss Hall how much of a great artist’s success is from genius and how much from hard work, she looked puzzled for a moment, and then said: –
“Well, you must have the mind, the feeling to know what is right. You do feel, you don’t know how,” and she put her hand to her breast in an effort to express intuition. “You must be able to grasp the principles of art. If a person does not admire beauty in whatever form, if he is satisfied with the course and vulgar things, he can never become a great artist. Hard work will not make him one.”
“But in your struggles did you not get discouraged?”
“Yes, indeed I did, and I do yet. I just give up, and think I will not try any more. Then I conclude it is worth while, and I go at it again.”