The first US female violin star has died at 92

The violin world is mourning the death yesterday of Camilla Wicks, a violin prodigy who made her debut with the New York Philharmonic at just 13 and became Sibelius’s favourite performer of his violin concerto.She recorded the Beethoven concerto with Bruno Walter and the Walton, gloriously, with Yuri Simonov.

She took a break to raise a family in the 1950s and went on to teach at mostly small US colleges, eventually accepting the Isaac Stern Chair at the San Francisco Conservatory, her final position before retirement. Stern called her simply ‘the greatest violinist’.

‘The greatest female violinist?’ he was asked.

‘No. The greatest.’

‘There was discrimination then,’ she said, ‘and I encountered skepticism towards “this pretty young blonde … Still, I don’t believe a woman can simultaneously conduct a full-blown career, sustain a successful marriage and raise a family well. She must learn to prioritize accordingly at different times of her life.’

Wicks, who had a Norwegian father, settled in Oslo for a couple of years and ran the strings department there at the Royal Academy, for which she was awarded a knighthood. Her influence can still be heard across nordic orchestras.

 

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  • I love Camilla Wicks’ playing, and her Sibelius with Ehrling is superb, but “THE FIRST US FEMALE VIOLIN STAR”? That was Maud Powell.
    A bit of research might have been in order, Norman.
    R.I.P., Ms. Wicks.

    • Yes, Maud Powell made Gustav Mahler eat humble pie in 1909. Already a Victor recording star for 6 years (she was the first instrumentalist of either sex to make Red Seal records), she was booked to play the Beethoven with the New York Philharmonic. “What? I play Beethoven with a woman, an American?” he lamented. Mahler changed the concerto to the Mendelssohn, and when she showed him a thing or two, she was booked to perform the Beethoven later that season. Naxos released all her recorded repertoire in 2001-04, the wonderful liner notes by Karen Shaffer of the Maud Powell Society is where I found this tale.

      • Yes– among Americans of any gender, Maud Powell was first. Then Albert Spalding, then Menuhin. But Wicks was very fine.

    • Greg is correct. Of course nobody who knows violinists and violin records should want to place caveats in a tribute to a great one such as Camilla Wicks, but by any measure I can think of, Maud Powell was clearly the first US violin star who was a woman, and many would argue she was the first US violin star, period. She studied under the greatest teachers of the time: Joachim in Berlin, Schradieck in Leipzig, and Dancla in Paris, giving her a fascinatingly broad background in the styles and repertoires of her day. The teaching roots of Dancla in particular reached deeply back into the 18th century. She gave first American performances of many now-standard repertoire concertos (including the Sibelius), was the first instrumentalist of any instrument or either gender to be signed by Victor Red Seal which until then was strictly an opera/vocal label, and toured the US tirelessly.

      And she was a star. The finest orchestras and conductors of her time engaged her regularly. There are likely many towns and cities in the US which have not seen a concert by a comparable artist since. Her debut was with the Berlin Philharmonic in the Bruch Concerto, Joachim conducting. She commissioned and gave first performances by many American composers and championed the Black composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who wrote a concerto for her. And her many dozens of 78 rpm sides, all acoustic, feature movements from a Bach sonata with keyboard, isolated concerto movements, and a very nearly complete de Beriot Concerto, so it isn’t all encores and ditties as was the recording custom of the time. And at a time when many acoustic recordings featured an anonymous pounder at the piano, many of her 78 rpm sides feature the superb pianist Arthur Loesser.

      My friend Karen Shaffer has essentially devoted her life to making Maud Powell better known all these decades after her death, with a massive biography, several CDs of all her available recordings, most recently on Naxos, a regular newsletter about women in music, and a massive multi-volume publication of Powell’s arrangements and cadenza compositions. Rachel Barton Pine has joined in the effort and recorded several of those transcriptions and arrangements by Powell. Thanks to Karen’s tireless efforts there is a bronze sculpture of Maud Powell in her home town of Peru, Illinois, and concerts and recordings honoring Maud Powell have been given in many places in the USA.

      I do think Powell would have agreed with Camilla Wicks’s statement that “I don’t believe a woman can simultaneously conduct a full-blown career, sustain a successful marriage and raise a family well. She must learn to prioritize …” Powell was married but never had children. When I interviewed the marvelous violinist Ursula Bagdasarjanz for Fanfare she made similar points, but she had chosen marriage and children.

      I am sad to think that Karen Shaffer’s efforts have not penetrated into N.L.’s orbit but with all due regard for Camilla Wicks (and due respect for the famous names of Olive Mead and Leonora Jackson, and a list of early American woman violinists whose playing is simply unknowable to us but who had splendid reputations in their day), Maud Powell simply has to be acknowledged for what she was, a true star of the violin.

      I could say more (and often do) but this is the time to mourn and pay tribute to Camilla Wicks, not to snipe endlessly at an overly-casual opinion.

    • I agree, Camilla Wicks was a wonderful violinist, but you are absolutely right about Powell, she was the first big American violin star. He also forgot about Guila Bustabo, an earlier and much bigger name than Wicks.

  • Thank you for all that information.

    I am reflecting on her comment: “Still, I don’t believe a woman can simultaneously conduct a full-blown career, sustain a successful marriage and raise a family well. She must learn to prioritize accordingly at different times of her life.’”

    Of course, she wrote that at a different time.

    It’s interesting, though, that even today people rarely say anything similar about how a man can “simultaneously conduct a full-blown career, sustain a successful marriage and raise a family well,” yet will still do so about a woman. Yes, there is the difference that men don’t get pregnant, but rearing children takes much longer than nine months.

  • Camilla Wicks’s long life and career set me thinking of other prominent women violinists early and late: Sherlock Holmes admired Norman Neruda, Lady Halle, rushes off rom Baker Street to her concerts, and mentions her and Sarasate several times.

    Miriam Fried, Frances Magnes (Shapiro) whose Bach double concerto with Adolf Busch is a favorite; Joseph Joachim’s Hungarian grand-nieces Jelly d’Aranyi (a friend of Georgie Yrats) and her sister Adila Fachiri, who recorded a Beethoven sonata and Bach andante with Sir Donald Frances Tovey; Erica Morini, whom I saw play the Mendelssohn; Carroll Glenn, Mutter, Salerno-Sonnenberg, Janine Jensens, Rachel Barton-Pine, the many gifted Asians.

    Magnes and the Hungarians have ties to Bartok, share dedications of his two violin sonatas and concertos by Arthur Somervelle . Maud Powell was born in Peru, Illinois, and played in Aurura, a few miles from here. She commissioned Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s concerto.

  • First American female violin star? What about Maud Powell? Not ot take anything away from Camilla Wicks, who was indeed a formidable artist.

  • Most women, at least US women, could not afford to do what Ms. Wicks did –take time off for parenting and then pick up where she left off. Housing, music lessons, tuition and the burden of student loans would make it very difficult to live a middle class lifestyle on a single income.

    Furthermore, a professional musician, even one known as a star, would be too afraid that others would eclipse her and that orchestras and institutions would not want to hire someone with gaps on the resume–he or she might be considered a has been regardless of the audition.

    They say professional women (and men) have more choices than the 1950s but there are also as many if not more constraints; they are just different constraints than in yesteryear.

  • My dad took lessons from Camilla’s father in Long Beach, California when Camilla was about 5 years old. She would come in after his lesson and play for him. At that point he decided if he ever had a daughter she would be named Camilla….so here I am 67 years later. We were able to hear her in concert years ago…and I was able to meet her. So special.

  • RIP Camilla. In my view the greatest Barber (Ehrling, Stockholm RPO) on record and maybe the best Sibelius – he said so – (Ehrling, Radio Stockholm SO 1952). A talent killed by American conformism.

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