Olga Samaroff: Pianist, Educator, Advocate

In the spring of 1905, pianist Olga Samaroff was set to make her long-awaited European debut in London. The morning of the concert, she received a terrifying warning by telephone: her abusive ex-husband was in town, and he was threatening to kill her. “I had two Scotland Yard men stationed in the audience,” she wrote later, “and they watched my husband during the recital and were prepared to interpose in case he should try to do anything.” At the concert, he sat in the front row. Nevertheless she took to the stage and triumphed. From that moment, her European success was ensured.

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The pianist who became international sensation and pedagogical force-of-nature Olga Samaroff was actually born Lucy Jane Olga Agnes Hickenlooper in San Antonio, Texas, on 8 August 1880.

Olga’s family life was dominated by strong women. Her maternal grandmother and namesake Lucy Palmer Loening Grunewald (affectionately known as Mawmaw) was born in 1841 and raised on a Louisiana plantation. Lucy Palmer was a fabulously talented young musician, and when she was fifteen, she performed a Beethoven piano concerto with the French Opera orchestra in New Orleans. However, any professional ambitions she held were suppressed, and the following year, she married a wealthy German immigrant twice her age. Within the span of a few years, she gave birth to both a son and a daughter. That daughter was named Jane, and she became a talented pianist herself.

When Jane also married young and gave birth to Olga, and Olga began showing musical promise, Mawmaw was immediately at hand to teach her granddaughter everything she knew. Perhaps she sensed the newfound opportunities opening up for women musicians. In the late 1880s Mawmaw actually brought Olga to New York so that she might play for William Steinway himself. Steinway was so impressed with Olga that he offered to pay for her European training, but the Hickenlooper family was hesitant to upend Olga’s life at such a young age, and so grandmother and granddaughter returned to Texas. In 1890 Mawmaw brought Olga on yet another networking trip, this time to meet composer Edward MacDowell in Detroit at the Music Teacher’s National Association convention. He too recommended a European course of study.

By the time she was fifteen, Olga’s grandmother and mother were pushing hard for Olga to go to Europe. “I was brought up with the idea that I should fit myself for a public career,” Olga later wrote, “but only undertake it ‘if I had to.’ This meant in plain English that if no stalwart male were at hand to relieve me of the necessity to making my living I might play in concerts and should be thoroughly prepared to do so, but there would be no question if I had the choice between matrimony and a career – I should marry!”

In July of 1895, Olga, her grandmother, her mother, and her brother all set out for Paris together, while her father stayed in Galveston, where he was now working. It wasn’t long before the family’s separation took a financial and emotional toll, and within a few months, only Olga and her grandmother were left in Paris.

Mawmaw had set her eye on entering Olga into the Paris Conservatoire. To prepare for the entrance examination (which she almost missed, because the doorman mispronounced her name as “Ickenloopair”), Olga studied with a variety of private teachers. The Hickenloopers didn’t have the money to pay for her schooling, so not only would she have to be accepted into the Conservatoire, but she would have to play well enough to earn a full scholarship. There were only 12 spots for 176 applicants, but Olga earned one of them…as well as the full scholarship. She became the first woman from America to enroll in a Conservatoire piano class.

Her nationality quickly became a point of contention with her teacher, the colorful Eraim-Miriam Delaborde. “Why do you try to play the piano? Americans are not meant to be musicians,” he insisted. She tried desperately to prove otherwise, studying from seven in the morning until ten o’ clock at night. Eventually Delaborde came around, and Olga ultimately became his favorite pupil.

Olga was overwhelmed by work, and Mawmaw became increasingly disillusioned by her granddaughter’s Parisian experience. (It can’t have helped that Delaborde had a reputation as a ladies’ man; in 1901 he even became engaged to a pupil decades his junior.) So in late 1898 the two women left for Berlin, where Olga began studying privately with Russian pianist Ernst Jedliczka, a former pupil of the Rubinstein brothers.

While she was in Berlin, Olga met a man named Boris Gregorivich Loutzky, a Russian diplomat overseeing the construction of some Russian warships in Germany. Apparently Boris became romantically interested in the young pianist, and the attraction seems to have been mutual.

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In February 1900 Lucy and Mawmaw returned to Texas for eight months, perhaps to ponder the future. In September, as grandmother and granddaughter were on their way back to Berlin, the Galveston hurricane struck. The Hickenloopers survived, but their finances did not. It’s possible that the disaster influenced – or maybe reinforced – Olga’s decision to marry the financially secure Boris Loutzky. Their wedding was held in Munich that fall, and the couple moved between Berlin and St. Petersburg. Ominously, Boris forced his new wife to give up playing piano.

Olga quickly realized that her marriage was doomed. Four years after the wedding, she told Boris she was leaving for America to visit her family. What she didn’t mention was that she wasn’t coming back, and that she would be seeking a divorce.

Her mother Jane came to meet her daughter’s ship when it docked in New York. After the destruction of Galveston, the Hickenloopers had relocated to St. Louis, where Jane was teaching piano. She encouraged Olga to join her.

However, Olga was wracked by guilt and hesitant to slip into the role of Midwestern piano teacher. “I was haunted by the thoughts of all the sacrifices my family had made for my education,” she later wrote. “It seemed out of the question to renounce all possibility of a concert career without making a more determined effort to justify what had been done for me.”

In New York, Olga contacted well-known manager Henry Wolfsohn. He explained to her what she already knew: she would have no career without positive European press. At the time, American organizations and presenters simply didn’t hire soloists who hadn’t already proven themselves abroad. But of course for Olga, going abroad was – at the moment, anyway – out of the question.

She felt defeated, but she didn’t give up. The next day she went to Steinway Hall to rent a grand piano. As she was playing, Wolfsohn walked in by chance. He was so impressed by what he heard that he decided to hear her out one more time. Olga described the reluctant advice he finally gave:

“If you are determined to begin in America, I see only one way to get anywhere near the big field. Hire an orchestra and give a concert in Carnegie Hall.”

Even then, he said, nothing was guaranteed. But it was the only path forward that Olga could imagine taking. Her mother and her grandmother poured their life savings into financing the Carnegie concert, and Wolfsohn negotiated for the New York Symphony Orchestra and Walter Damrosch to accompany her.

Olga was initially going to use her maiden name, but Wolfsohn discouraged her: “It is hard enough at best for a woman to make a successful pianistic career. With a name like that it is impossible.” And she certainly wasn’t going to use Loutzky. Finally she settled on Olga Samaroff. She claimed the surname came from a “remote branch” of her family tree, but scholars haven’t been able to retrace her steps. (Her distant relative, Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, wrote in his 2016 memoir that the name “Samaroff” was suggested by her cousin, Federal Judge Smith Hickenlooper.)

Her Carnegie concert program would have been dizzyingly difficult for a seasoned pro, let alone for someone whose husband had recently kept her from the piano for a period of several years. It opened with the Liszt first concerto and closed with the Schumann concerto, with shorter pieces by Sgambati, Tchaikovsky, and Chopin sprinkled in between. The concert was scheduled for January 18, 1905. “When the fateful day of my first concert arrived I spent most of it wishing I had never been born,” she later wrote.

The reviews weren’t raves, but Wolfsohn was happy enough; he felt there was enough positive press there to build a career on. Perhaps more importantly, though, the concert introduced Olga to a patron named Maria Dehon, who became a dear friend and the key to her financial independence. Thanks to Dehon’s advocacy, Olga became a popular fixture at luncheons and private events held in glittering turn-of-the-century New York. The pay she received from these engagements kept her afloat.

A recording of Olga’s piano roll performance of Chopin’s third piano sonata (1908)

Around this time, Boris Loutzky got wind of Olga’s abandonment of him. He wrote furious harassing letters that made Olga fear for her safety. At the same time she understood that, in order to take her career to the next level, she would need to risk her personal safety and appear in Europe. On 15 May 1905, with Boris in the front row, she gave a warmly received recital in London. Her long-awaited debut was a great success, but she waited to embark on a long European tour for a few years yet.

The following season she became increasingly popular in New York, giving between sixty and seventy concerts that year alone. Around this time, in late 1905 or early 1906, she met a musician who would have a great impact on her life: Leopold Stokowski, then the organist and choirmaster at St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York City. Their friendship was built on shared artistic interests and didn’t turn romantic for several years. Olga was busy with her career, desperately making up for lost time, and she had no interest in dating. Over the course of just a few seasons she appeared with every major American orchestra and recital presenter. Finally in 1908 she gained the bravery (and financial patronage, courtesy of Maria Dehon) to return to Europe for a longer tour.

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In Europe she gave concerts in London, Vienna, Munich, Dresden, Leipzig, and Berlin. Unfortunately, the conductor at one of her Parisian concerts, a Russian named Winogradsky, backed out, and the presenter began looking for a replacement. Despite the fact that he had very little experience conducting orchestras, Olga recommended her friend Leopold. She and her mother came up with a canny and audacious plan: they knew that the Cincinnati Symphony board was looking for a new music director, and that Stokowski was lobbying for the job. So they encouraged Ohioan friends and family to promote him, and even arranged for representatives from the Cincinnati board to be present for her Parisian concert. Stokowski was so impressive on the podium with Olga at his side that he was offered a contract immediately after the concert. Thanks in no small part to the advocacy of Olga and her mother, he debuted to great fanfare in Cincinnati in November 1909. His American career was thus assured.

In March 1910, after her highly successful European tour, Olga came down with appendicitis. Much to her distress, she had to cancel the rest of her season. She opted to recover abroad, in Bavaria. Stokowski joined her. Together they attended various festivals and took in the picturesque surroundings. Presumably their relationship turned romantic around this time.

Olga’s recording of Liebestraum

One of her first big concerts back in America was with the New York Philharmonic under their music director Gustav Mahler. Olga had first met Mahler in 1909 at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Steinway, who bet her five dollars that she wouldn’t be able to engage the moody Mahler in conversation. Author Donna Staley Kline writes in her book Olga Samaroff Stokowski: An American Virtuoso On the World Stage:

“There was something so remote about him at first glance that I could scarcely imagine his taking part in any ordinary conversation,” Olga wrote. But she tenaciously persisted. Finally, she remembered Mahler had looked at Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazoff on the bookshelf before dinner. Boldly, she asked him whether he didn’t believe the novel to be over-rated. “You ask that because you do not understand it,” Mahler responded; he then launched into a long discourse about Russian psychology and the author’s understanding of it, while Olga beamed at the Steinways and settled down to enjoy her dinner and her triumph. At the end of the evening, the Steinways presented their friend with six one-dollar bills, the extra one a bonus for the length of the conversation.

Her ability to engage with talented men boasting massive egos served her in good stead during her relationship with Stokowski. In April 1911 the two announced their engagement to the world; within weeks, they wed in St. Louis. She wouldn’t make the same musical misstep she had made during her first marriage: “I won’t give up my concerts,” she said, “but I will not attempt too many.” They scheduled their first concert together in Cincinnati for December 1911. The concert sold out weeks in advance.

The Cincinnati position, however, was proving troublesome. Although his tenure had been short, Stokowski had already developed several grievances with the city and its politics…and a bigger, flashier orchestra was secretly courting him, to boot. Stokowski submitted his resignation letter to Cincinnati’s board in March of 1912. He was released from his contract the following month, and by June, he became the director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The ever-canny Olga had signed the contract for him while traveling through New York City.

*

Suddenly Olga found herself the wife of the conductor of one of the great American orchestras, with all of the social responsibilities that position entailed. “During my first winter in Philadelphia, I received and returned about seven hundred calls,” she later remembered.

Olga and Stokowski in Philadelphia, c1911

It seemed as if the Stokowskis had it all. Unfortunately, things began to unravel in the summer of 1914, when they were traveling and performing in Europe. Both Leopold and Olga were politically oblivious (irresponsibly so), and the outbreak of war took them completely by surprise. As tensions mounted, they played in the spa town of Bad Reichenhall, Germany, near the Austrian border. “I have never played to such an emotional audience. In the quiet slow movement of Beethoven’s D-minor Sonata which I played a woman began to sob convulsively. Cahier and I could not give enough encores. Nobody wanted to go home. In a sense the evening was – for all of us – a farewell to the old order of things… From that day on, our cosmopolitan world of music was filled with problems, changes and tragedies.” The Stokowskis were lucky to escape to Holland unscathed.

The Ride of the Valkyries arrangement, performed by Olga Samaroff

Olga had a lifelong affection for Germany that dated back to her student years in Berlin. In the early days of the war she went so far as to state publicly that “Our sympathies are completely with Germany.” In time this put her and her husband at odds with the American public, which clamored for the removal of German works from concert seasons and the blacklisting of German performers. Although the Stokowskis eventually came to support the Allied cause (even going so far as to sell Liberty Bonds and perform at charity concerts for soldiers), they thought that the musical discrimination was unwarranted. Art, they believed, should exist above politics. In 1917 she met with President Wilson, where she opined “it was not necessary to extend current warfare to composers long since dead, nor to deprive our audiences of the musical masterpieces that belong to the world rather than to any single country.” Wilson agreed, and issued a declaration stating, “We are fighting their government, not their people.” A satisfied Olga later wrote, “That settled the matter, at least for two orchestras, and luckily common sense prevailed throughout the musical world.”

During the war, rumors began to circulate about Stokowski’s unfaithfulness. If Olga was bothered by it, she hid her betrayal well, explaining to a friend that “if you continually put liquor under the nose of a man who loves to drink, no matter how strong he wants to be, he will eventually take a drink.”

But the growing tension between them manifested itself in other ways. Both became increasingly edgy about hearing the other practice. Leopold’s affairs became more and more numerous and obvious. Then in January 1917 Olga suffered a humiliating memory loss during a performance with Stokowski in Pittsburgh. It was bad enough that she was forced to walk backstage to collect herself. She suffered from a mental breakdown a few weeks later, but she quickly rallied enough to play Tchaikovsky with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

In 1920 Leopold suggested that his wife learn and perform all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas. This cycle had only been done once before, by Hans von Bülow, and never by a woman, and certainly never in America. In addition to this audacious set of performances, Leopold offered to give lectures about the sonatas before and after each concert. The idea proved to be hugely popular.

Fate intervened at one concert. Leopold missed his train, and in addition to performing, Olga decided to take his place as lecturer with a mere two hours’ notice. “From that all kinds of things have developed,” she wrote with characteristic understatement. Truth be told, Leopold’s missed train would ultimately lead Olga down a path that would culminate in her becoming an international leader in music education.

Unfortunately their history-making joint project failed to save their marriage. They were in the process of pursuing a divorce when Olga got pregnant, and matters were suddenly complicated. Their daughter Sonya was born on December 23, 1921, in London. One of her middle names was Noel: Leopold and Richard Strauss had come up with that idea.

Their happiness couldn’t last. In 1923 news broke publicly that Leopold and Olga had signed a separation agreement. Sonya would spend six months with one parent and then six months with the other (an arrangement that Sonya herself would later characterize as “a terrible thing to do to a child”). The two also promised never to write about one another and their lives together.

Eight years later Olga wistfully wrote to John Erskine, the President of Juilliard:

You will find out as we work together, that with all my other faults, there is one that has been knocked out of me – vanity. I think I was born with the average human amount of it, but my experience with Stokowski killed it. When one has worshiped a man and done everything humanly possible to make him happy and then realized he prefers any inconsequential flapper that comes along, one either becomes bitter, or one convinces oneself, that if one were anything very grand, it just couldn’t happen. That is where I learned humility.

*

Luckily Olga had music to distract her from her crumbling marriage. As soon as she got divorced, as if by magic, a whole series of opportunities opened up to her. In 1924 the Juilliard Graduate School was established, and Olga was one of the first artists tapped to be on the faculty. Between her responsibilities as a single mother and a teacher, she began to look for work that would keep her closer to home. (This desire became more acute after she fell in her apartment in December of 1925 and was forced to keep her arm in a sling for a full year.) Luckily, in late 1925, the New York Evening Post extended an offer of employment: would she be interested in becoming their chief music critic?

She wrote: “There was something – unknown even to my intimate friends – which gave me the courage to do it: I had been writing all my life… Writing was my avocation from the time when I penned a bloody tragedy at the age of twelve.”

Due to her background as a performer, she believed that the role of the critic was not necessarily to pass judgment, but rather to describe. “The idea of musical criticism as a tribunal of justice before which music and musicians, even the greatest, are brought to account as potential culprits to be acquitted with magnanimous praise, or publicly rebuked in the event of failure to please, is fantastically impertinent,” she wrote. She soon gained a reputation as a bit of an unserious softy among her (almost exclusively male) colleagues. One went so far as to start inserting false facts into her reviews to sabotage her reputation. The job was grueling: she was often up all night after a concert, and every day she produced a thousand words longhand. She also included space in her column for great artists to write. There they posed and answered questions about their lives in music and the state of the art, partaking in a valuable public dialogue.

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She also had an innovative approach to teaching. “I’m going to teach you so you can be rid of me,” she told her students. Instead of molding them in her own image, she took care to encourage the development of their own musical personalities and priorities. She also emphasized the importance of their growth outside of music: she would often instruct her students to visit a particular art exhibition or a performance at the Met Opera. But despite her holistic approach, her technical and musical standards always remained dazzlingly high. Some students who couldn’t keep up with her demands fell by the wayside.

She had a special (and, given her biography, understandable) interest in championing poor students. “Poverty of parents always seemed to be in direct ratio to the talent of students,” she once observed. “The greater the talent, the greater the poverty.” She recognized from the very beginning of her teaching career that it was hugely important to offer financial resources to students, especially if they were studying in New York City. She always put her money where her mouth was: a large portion of her salary always found its way back to her students, and she was never above writing a wealthy patron friend to ask for their support.

Teaching piano to wildly talented students was fulfilling, but she also had an interest in teaching what she labeled “the layman”: adult men and women who may not have had specialized musical training, but who might have a desire to learn more about classical music. She threw herself into pedagogical research, gathering various tone deaf friends and experimenting on them to see if she could say or teach things that would enhance their enjoyment of music. She found that she could, and so in 1933 she established a non-profit organization to help her do just that. She wrote The Layman’s Music Book in 1935, and began giving engaging lectures complete with technologically advanced audio visual equipment as teaching aids. From January to April 1937 alone, she spoke in nearly thirty cities. Her method began spreading across the country.

She took another big step in her educational career when in 1943 she started giving weekly thirty minute (and later sixty minute) long lectures on WQXR. Her most noteworthy radio appearance came on March 5, 1944, when she adjudicated a famous blind listening test. She broadcast performances by both male and female pianists, then asked her listeners at home to submit their guesses as to the players’ genders. She received over a thousand responses, and less than a third of the guesses were correct. (In fact, a full ninety-two percent of listeners erroneously thought that Olga’s student Solveig Lunde was a man.) She clearly took joy in observing, “I want to emphasize that those who guessed wrong in connection with the sex of the pianists…performed just as valuable a service as those who guessed right.”

Her health began to seriously decline in the 1940s. Nevertheless, in early May of 1948, Juilliard offered her a three-year contract extension. She accepted the vote of confidence with great joy and relief. She was teaching and networking until the very end of her life, which occurred suddenly and very early in the morning on May 17th, when she suffered a fatal heart attack.

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For as long as she could, in addition to her work as performer and educator and advocate, Olga Samaroff volunteered on countless boards and committees devoted to bringing art and music into people’s lives. Although most people today have forgotten her countless contributions, in her later years especially she was often celebrated by her peers. She wrote in wonder:

“When one thinks of all the honors that have been showered on me in Philadelphia, it is marvelous. I thought as I received all those people how I once went there and was honored as Stokowski’s wife. Now I am honored for myself.”

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As always, a huge shout-out to the patrons who make this series of articles on forgotten musical women possible! It wouldn’t happen without you. If you want to support the series for as little as a dollar a month, click here. Entries come out every other Wednesday. (This entry was delayed a week because of its length and the fact that I was following the Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra strike.)

Here’s a list of sources:

Olga Samaroff Wikipedia page

Olga Samaroff Stokowski: An American Virtuoso On the World Stage, by Donna Staley Kline [a great biography, and the main source for the vast majority of this entry!]

Virtuoso: The Olga Samaroff Story [a documentary based on the book; you can rent it on Youtube!] Here’s the trailer:

7 Comments

Filed under Women In Music

7 responses to “Olga Samaroff: Pianist, Educator, Advocate

  1. Doug Ramsdell

    What an utterly absorbing account, and WHAT a life! if your posts have shown me anything, it’s the horrible damage patriarchy has wrought on women’s lives and careers (well, and on our culture as well). If someone made a movie of Olga’s life, I’d see it in a heartbeat. Thank you Emily!!

  2. PamThorsen

    Fascinating. Imagine hopping back and forth to Europe back then. And renting an orchestra and hall to prove oneself is so gutsy and creative. Wow. Wow wow. Inspiring. Thank you Emily

    .

  3. Emily, what a truly amazing bio of Olga! Resourced. Documented. Illustrated with pix and YouTubes! I can again understand how it comes that your blogs are relatively far between. Thank you, thank you!!

  4. Steven Ledbetter

    I’ve enjoyed all of your essays to date and found them very informative and interesting, but this one caps them all! What a personality and what daring! Thank you so much!

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