England's Ethel Leginska (1886-1970) enjoyed an acclaimed career as a concert pianist for many years; in the 1920s she became the first woman to regularly appear as a conductor with some of the world's top orchestras. Leginska left behind a small body of musical works she wrote for the symphony and string quartet, as well as two operas. Many "were performed by major organizations at a time when women's compositions rarely received such recognition," according Leginska's profile in Notable American Women: The Modern Period.
Leginska was born Ethel Liggins on April 13, 1886, in Hull, a thriving port city in northeast England. Her parents were Thomas Liggins and Annie Peck Liggins, and her innate musical talents were recognizable from an early age. With the encouragement of her parents, she began a public recital career at age six and soon became known as a child prodigy in the city. When she was in her teens, a wealthy Hull shipping family, the Wilsons, became her patrons and paid for her formal musical training on the European continent. Leginska first studied in Germany with James Kwast, a Dutch pianist, at the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt am Main. She then went to Vienna to study with Theodor Leschetizky for three years there. This Austrian, who enjoyed a renowned concert career in the 1840s, was inarguably the most famous piano teacher of his era. He taught Ignace Jan Paderewski, Artur Schnabel, Ossip Gabrillowitsch, and many other prominent names, and by the time Leginska came to study with him, he was one of Vienna's leading cultural icons and even friends with the Austro-Hungarian emperor.
In 1902, at the age of 16, Leginska made her solo recital debut in London. A renowned singer of the era, Lady Maud Warrender, suggested to her that she change her name to more Slavic-sounding "Leginska" to boost her professional career. At the time, Polish and Russian piano prodigies like Paderewski were very much in vogue, and Leginska soon came to be dubbed the "Paderewski of woman pianists." She studied in Berlin and made a concert tour of Europe. In 1907, she married an American, Roy Emerson Whittern, whom she had met in Vienna when he was a student of Leschetizky as well. The following year, they had a child, Cedric. In 1909 Leginska suffered what would be the first of three nervous breakdowns in her life. She separated from Whittern in 1912.
Leginska sailed to America to make her debut at New York City's Aeolian Hall on January 20, 1913. She earned favorable reviews for the performance and decided to base herself in the city, keeping a small rehearsal studio at Carnegie Hall. Her vigorous style and fluid movements at the bench differentiated her from other concert pianists of the time, who played with a more rigid and formal demeanor. Yet Leginska believed that a more emotive technique yielded a more expressive listening experience. "Relaxation is a hobby with me," she was quoted as saying in a 1915 volume by Harriette Brower, Piano Mastery: Talks with Master Pianists and Teachers. "I believe in absolute freedom in every part of the arm anatomy, from the shoulder down to the finger tips. Stiffness seems to me the most reprehensible thing in piano playing, as well as the most common fault with all kinds of players."
Leginska was also somewhat daring for wearing her hair in a bobbed style and eschewing the formal, bareshouldered evening gowns that were standard stage gear for women performers in the classical world at the time. Instead she favored an imitation of a tuxedo-a black velvet jacket, slim skirt, and white shirt. Her career began to accelerate around 1915, and she gave sold-out performances of piano works from the German canon, such as the concertos of J. S. Bach and Franz Schubert. "She was an extremely popular artist and won praise from the press for her demanding programs, her magnetism as a performer, and her innovations—for example, playing an entire Chopin program without an intermission," as noted in Notable American Women.
Leginska's husband managed her career for a time, but they were divorced by 1916. She soon took up many of the duties herself, as a Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia essay by Neil M. Heyman noted. Heyman described her as "canny about publicity. In 1916, when she injured her finger in a door, she sent an X-ray taken of the bruised digit to a music magazine and had the satisfaction of seeing it appear in a subsequent issue." Yet a string of off-stage worries began to hinder her career. She sometimes failed to appear at scheduled engagements and entered into a bitter custody battle with Whittern over their son. She lost, though she had even offered to give up performing altogether and instead teach piano for a living. She estimated that she could earn around $300 a week—a large sum of money at the time—but the judge sided with her ex-husband.
Not surprisingly, Leginska often spoke publicly about the challenges faced by the few professional women of the time, especially regarding child care. She also urged women to move forward and break down artificial barriers. She was already doing so herself by writing her own compositions, which she began around 1914. To further her knowledge, she studied composition with Rubin Goldmark and Ernest Bloch, and the first of her works to be performed publicly was String Quartet, inspired by four poems by an Indian poet, which premiered in Boston in April of 1921. A symphonic poem with a title borrowed from a tale by Irish fantasy-fiction pioneer Lord Dunsany, Beyond the Fields We Know, made its debut in New York City the following February. The critics treated these performances of Leginska's work as somewhat of a novelty, however.
Leginska decided to turn her energies to conducting. She traveled to London in 1923 to study with Eugene Gossens and later that year worked with Robert Heger, conductor of the esteemed Bavarian State Opera in Munich. Through connections realized in the classical world from her earlier stage career, she secured guest-conductor spots by agreeing to appear on the program with a piano concerto. She conducted several renowned bodies, including the Berlin Philharmonic. Soon she was able to lead orchestras in performances of her own works, beginning in December of 1924 with her Quatre sujets barbares suite in Munich. She made her American conducting debut on January 9, 1925, with the New York Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall and appeared in a much-lauded Hollywood Bowl engagement in Los Angeles later that summer.
Leginska was still plagued by stress, however, and in 1925 and 1926 suffered two more nervous breakdowns. The 1925 episode began with a taxi trip to Carnegie Hall for a scheduled performance of hers; she vanished en route and a last-minute substitute had to be called in. Missing for four days, she was finally located in Boston. The following year, she disappeared again before a New York City engagement, leaving some 1,500 admirer's waiting for her to appear. She later claimed that her manager was supposed to have canceled the date. She also had a bad experience that same year on a tour of the Midwest. As Heyman reported in his Women in World History article, Leginska "abandoned a performance scheduled to take place before an audience of 4,000 in Evansville, Indiana. She had given a hint of her state of mind the previous day when she complained loudly of the city's yellow cabs, the lack of a symphony orchestra to accompany her, and the concert hall, which she described as 'an old barn.' "
Consulting with doctors, Leginska was counseled to take a year off from performing and duly announced her official retirement from the concert stage as a solo pianist. She wrote her last symphonic work, Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra, which made its premiere on January 3, 1926, in New York. She had settled in Boston in 1925 and there founded the hundred-member Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, which was a mostly male group that offered accessible ticket prices to classical-music lovers for one short season. She then established the Women's Symphony Orchestra of Boston in 1926. It toured twice before it folded in 1930. In December of 1928 she conducted a National Opera Company performance of Rigoletto at the Boston Opera House. Her determination to conduct—when it was unheard of for a woman to do so at the time-ignited a media debate; detractors argued that women did not possess the intellectual rigors to handle the complexities of the job.
Leaving Boston for Europe in 1930, Leginska conducted performances of opera companies there and returned to New York City in 1931 to lead an orchestra for a Broadway revival of Franz von Suppe's Boccaccio. The following year, she founded another short-lived group, the National Women's Symphony Orchestra, in New York. An opera she wrote, Gale, made its debut at the Chicago City Opera on November 23, 1935, with Leginska at the podium. She found fewer opportunities to lead orchestras, however, and turned to teaching to support herself. Living in London and Paris in during the late 1930s, she had some notable students there, and in 1939 settled in Los Angeles. Again, she enjoyed a reputation as an esteemed instructor in her field, and her students of note from this later part of her career included James Fields, Daniel Pollack, and Bruce Sutherland. She also established a concert bureau, New Ventures in Music, with many of her students on its roster. A second opera, The Rose and the Ring, had its debut in Los Angeles in 1957, again with Leginska leading the orchestra. It would be the last of her works to debut before an audience.
It was not until late 1950s that women conductors began to make progress within classical circles: Leginska's true heir at the podium was American Sarah Caldwell and her Opera Company of Boston. Some years later, Caldwell became the first woman ever to conduct at the New York Metropolitan Opera House in a 1976 engagement. Leginska died in Los Angeles of a stroke on February 26, 1970, at the age of 83. Despite her pioneering forays into composition and conducting, Leginska remained devoted to her first love. "For me the piano is capable of reflecting every mood, every feeling; all pathos, joy, sorrow—the good and the evil too—all there is in life, all that one has lived," she told Brower in the Piano Mastery interview. She made some recordings for the Columbia label in the mid-1920s and in 2002 these were re-issued on Ivory in the compact-disc format. Of its Four Impromptus by Schubert, the Chopin Polonaise, two Rachmaninoff Preludes, and Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody, American Record Guide critic Harold C. Schonberg found that the tracks "reveal a superior musical mind coupled to an unerring technique."
Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Centennial Edition, edited by Nicolas Slonimsky, Schirmer, 2001.
Brower, Harriette, Piano Mastery: Talks with Master Pianists and Teachers, Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1915.
The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, edited by Stanley Sadie, Volume Two: E-Lom, Grove's Dictionaries of Music, 1992.
Notable American Women: The Modern Period. A Biographical Dictionary, edited by Barbara Sicherman and Carole Hurd Green, with Ilene Kantrov and Harriette Walker, Belknap/ Harvard University Press, 1980.
Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia, edited by Anne Commire, Volume 9: Laa-Lyud, Yorkin, 1999-2000.
American Record Guide, May/June 2001.
Los Angeles Times, March 31, 1990; August 3, 1995.