The first woman violinist on record. Any guesses?
November 6, 2014 by norman lebrecht
Professor Robert Eschbach has come up with a fascinating tale from the mists of gramophone history.
A student of Sam Franko and Joseph Joachim, Dora Valesca Becker (1870-1958) was born in Galveston, Texas and became the first female violinist on record (1898). In the first year of recorded violin playing, she cut fourteen cylinders for the Bettini label, five years before Joachim made his own iconic recordings for Gramophone and Typewriter. You can hear her here:
In an 1895 article on “American Girls as Violinists” in the Ladies’ Home Journal we read that Dora’s mother “had, as a child, the greatest craving to study the violin, but her wish was never realized, because her father, a wealthy Hungarian merchant, was opposed to the idea of having a girl educated in music. Mrs. Becker was therefore determined, should she be blessed with a daughter, to have her learn the violin. So it came about that the little Dora began her studies when only six years of age.”
Dora made her début at Steinway Hall in New York when she was ten years old. When she was fourteen, she played over a hundred concerts. At sixteen, she sailed for Europe. In 1889, she was awarded the coveted Felix Mendelssohn scholarship to study with Joseph Joachim at the Berlin Hochschule. (Over the years, that award was also given to such talents as Marie Soldat, Ethel Smyth, Gabriele Wietrowetz, Karl Klingler (Suzuki’s teacher), Otto Klemperer, Wilhelm Kempff, Kurt Weill, Max Rostal, Arthur Balsam and Roman Totenberg.) She made her German debut as a soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic, and returned to New York, where she founded the New York Ladies’ Trio, and appeared in concerti with conductors Theodore Thomas and Anton Seidl. She was the first to play Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy in America.
In 1899, she married Charles Grant Schäffer, Harvard ’93. This notice in Werner’s Magazine, Vol. 23, p. 586 (1899), tells the rest of the story.
Dora Valesca Becker gave at least one last performance. In 1908, she gave a well-received recital in New York’s Mendelssohn Hall, performing the Saint-Saëns Concerto in B minor, some shorter works, and giving the American premiere of a Reger sonata for violin alone.
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