Interview with Marie Hall, 1913

Here is a chapter from the 1913 book Modern Musicians: A Book for Players, Singers, & Listeners, by J. Cuthbert Hadden on violinist Marie Hall (1884-1956). I feel badly that I missed the 55th anniversary of her passing by a week. Marie Hall was an extraordinary women who apparently overcame extraordinary obstacles.

***

CHAPTER XXIX. MARIE HALL

Soft as the rain that falls on April night,

Light as the falling petals of a flower,

Dim as a misty landscape seen at night,

Low as the murmuring waves at twilight hour,

Your music held me with its strangely subtle power.

It rose and fell in lingering melody,

It held the speechless yearning of a soul,

Struggling for freedom – some great threnody

Woven in song, poured forth, a perfect whole

From those impassioned strings in mystic harmony.

Thus a rhymster in a Montreal paper in 1906. In England there was long a deep-rooted prejudice against lady violinists. It continued far into the nineteenth century. A musical journal of 1819 wrote: “We are tempted to ask why should not the prejudice against ladies playing the violin be overcome? It seems to us to be an instrument peculiarly adapted to their industry, delicacy, and precision; while what we have seen and heard of female violin-playing fully bears out the recommendation we feel disposed to give to its adoption.”

The Spectator in 1860 said: “Female violinists are rare, the violin being, we do not know why, deemed an unfeminine instrument.” In 1869 The Athenæum, noticing the performance of some lady violinists, said: “The fair sex are gradually encroaching on all man’s privileges!” Man’s privileges! What would that critic say now? Violin-playing by ladies made slow progress in England, even after the wonderful achievements of Mme. Neruda (later Lady Hallé) gave it such a splendid impetus. For instance, the first lady student of the instrument entered at the R.A.M. in 1872. Now the lady violinists at the Academy must be nearly a hundred.

And why not? Sevcik, the famous violin teacher, was asked recently whether in his experience men or women made the best pupils. And this was his answer:

“Girls don’t drink too much or smoke inordinately, therefore they keep their bodies in better condition. Besides, look what patience women have compared to men! Perhaps at first a woman does not put as much expression and feeling into her playing as a man, but wait till she falls in love! Then the soul comes. However, some remain as cold as ice for ever. Men, too, have often no idea of feeling, and imagine that if they put on a tremolo that they have done all that is necessary. Kubelik lacked expression at first, but it came to him as he grew older.”

It may be added that some leading lady singers, notably Christine Nilsson and Marcella Sembrich, have been good fiddlers.

Among living lady violinists, Marie Hall takes the first place. Her history has been quite romantic. She said once: “I am really sick to death of all that has been written about my youth and its vicissitudes.” But the way in which she triumphed over these vicissitudes is entirely honourable, and ought to be recorded for the encouragement of others.

Born at Newcastle-on-Tyne in 1884, she received her first lessons from her father, a harpist in the orchestra of the Carl Rosa Company. When she was ten she had a year’s tuition from Sir Edward Elgar – a very interesting connection, surely! Subsequently she studied for three years with Max Mossel at Birmingham, making several appearances meanwhile as an infant prodigy. The struggle was severe at this time owing to her father’s lack of means; and she was reduced to playing ephemeral music in saloons and sometimes on the pavement’s edge.

In 1899 she gained one of the recently-instituted Wessely Exhibitions at the R.A.M., but was unable, through poverty, to take it up. The story goes that a little later a clergyman, an enthusiastic lover of music, found her in a half-starved condition playing for composers in the streets of Bristol. Recognising a talent beyond the ordinary, he took her to London, and with the assistance of some friends – among them the late Mr. Hill of Bond Street – placed her in a position to continue her studies with Professor Johann Kruse. After she had made steady progress with him for a year and more, her friends again came forward, and sent her, armed with a letter of introduction from Kubelik, to Professor Sevcik at Prague. The rule at the Prague Conservatoire is that every pupil who enters must take the entire six years’ course before leaving; but Anton Dvorák, at that time chief director of studies, was so impressed with her playing that for the first and last time he allowed the regulation to be broken, and the first five years to be taken as fiddled. Hard work is the initial demand that Sevcik makes on his pupils, and it was a demand which Marie Hall was fully prepared to meet. During her year at the conservatoire, and her extra five months of private study with him, she practised eight hours a day at least, and oftener ten.

And yet Joachim had refused her because, as he alleged, she played out of tune!

Sevcik was so delighted with his pupil that he lent her his own Amati violin for her début. This was made at Prague in 1902. The lady’s success was enormous and instantaneous. When she appeared in London in 1903 she created a great sensation, and since then her brilliant career has proceeded on the usual virtuoso lines.

Marie Hall has been everywhere in the course of her tours. Her account of the Americans is very complimentary, but she has an amusing word to add about the New Yorkers. “The 1812 Overture of Tschaikovsky appeals to them,” she says. “They like something big, with plenty of sound. It seems more for their money.” At private parties in the States she has had sometimes to shake hands with 500 people. In Australia she was literally smothered with flowers. Harps and lyres, shepherds’ crooks, and bouquets were showered on her after her concerts.

An interviewer said to her once: “Will you tell me the most extraordinary experience you have had?” And this was her reply:

“I think the one that appealed to me most was a concert I gave at Suva, the capital of the Fiji Islands. Our boat put in there for a few days to take in some cargo, and a concert was hastily arranged. There are about 1100 white people there, and I think they all went – in fact, it was a sort of universal holiday. I went to the only draper’s shop there to see if I could get a cotton dress, as mine were packed away, and they explained to me that they could not let me have one that day as they were all going to a concert, and expressed much astonishment that I was apparently not going too. When I explained that I was going, and wanted a dress for that reason, that changed matters entirely, and they all set to work and fitted me out with something which answered the purpose. Suva does not boast a concert hall, so the concert was held in a sort of large tent, and the heat was something terrific; I had to have a man to keep an electric fan moving right over my hands, or I could not have played at all. The piano was a very old one and fearfully out of tune, but at last we found an old sailor from a warship who volunteered to tune it. He was very deaf, and had his own ideas about tuning, and he informed me with great pride that as a piano always sounded more brilliant if the upper notes were a little sharp he had tuned up the treble. He had really done so, with the result that for about an octave and a half in the treble the notes ascended in varying degrees of sharpness. The Governor and his wife were to be present, and someone was wanted to play “God Save the King” at the beginning, so the small daughter of one of the residents was pressed into service. She not only played “God Save the King,” but about twenty variations as well, during which the audience had to stand. I am pleased to say the concert was a great success, and we wound up the festivities by a dinner at the Governor’s house. I also played at Honolulu, in the Hawaiian Islands, and Miss Alice Roosevelt, or rather Mrs. Longworth, was staying there with her husband, and very kindly came to hear me. Another concert I gave was at Vancouver, but as we were only to be there for a few hours I had to go straight off the boat, and was on the platform within ten minutes of our landing. When I got back to England – after being away eight months – I was booked to play at a concert at New Brighton the day after my arrival, and had to be up early the morning after we landed to attend a rehearsal with the orchestra.”

Marie Hall, like all other artists of fine expression, is nervous when playing in public. “I have been very nervous on many occasions,” she said a year or two ago. And then she continued:

“I remember when Sevcik sent me to play in Vienna while I was still at Prague, how miserable I felt. It was only the fact that I felt I simply must do my best to prove my appreciation of all my master’s trouble that made me able to get through it all. Again at my début in London in February 1903 I felt so much alone and quite wretched. Mr. Henry J. Wood was a tower of strength and so kind to me, and all through that evening I felt as though Sevcik were present in the hall, and I forgot all about my fears and the audience, and just played to him. I may say that never in all my career have I enjoyed a concert as much as that (to me) memorable one. The only remedy I know for nervousness is to be able to concentrate one’s attention wholly on the music. By so doing all thoughts of self vanish, and one becomes lost to everything but the beauty of the music.”

She has interesting ideas about her profession, this fiddler of the frail physique. She thinks nineteen quite young enough for a violinist to “come out.” She says it is much better to wait until one’s education is finished, though finished is merely a convenient term, for “there is always something more to learn.” But certainly, she adds, “one is more fitted to appear before the public at nineteen than at twelve. I believe in gaining a certain amount of experience before playing in London or any other big town, and a hint that may be worth having is to try always to play before the concert in the hall in which you are to perform so that you may get some idea of its acoustic properties. Another thing I should like to say is that violinists should not neglect any opportunity of hearing the best music, and not only other violinists, but music of every kind, pianists, singers, orchestral, and chamber music.”

She says that violin-playing of the virtuoso sort is hard work, but she does not find it trying, because she loves it so much. She enjoys practising, and never allows anything to interfere with it. “I have practised,” she says, “in the train, on the steamer, and in all sorts of odd places when travelling, and I am not happy if I cannot get in about six hours a day. During my spare time at home (when I have any) I love to play chamber music, and have been revelling lately in quartets. I think every violinist ought to acquire a knowledge of chamber music, for, besides being most enjoyable, it affords such a splendid training.”

She plays on the famous “Viotti” Stradivarius. “It is a great treasure,” she says, “and it seems so wonderful to think that is over 200 years old, and is yet as beautiful as ever.” In 1911 Miss Hall was married to Mr. Edward Baring, of the firm of concert-directors, Messrs. Baring Brothers, of Cheltenham. Mr. Baring had been her business manager.

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