Hull’s unlikely musical genius
She is one of the music world’s forgotten stars, but now Ethel Leginska is back in the spotlight. Stephen
Ethel Leginska was reckoned one of the greatest pianists of her day. She wowed audiences with her dazzling playing and charisma. “Leginska Held Her Audience Spellbound” was a typical headline. A child prodigy, she made her London debut at the age of 10, played for the future King Edward VII and toured America. One critic described her as a “pianistic marvel... a musical Joan of Arc, a genius moved by unseen powers”. Another was astonished that “those little hands can achieve such crashing chords and massive harmonies”.
Leginska (1886 – 1970) wasn’t, though, quite as exotic as her surname suggested. She was born plain Ethel Liggins in Hull, the daughter of a builder and a governess, and changed her name after someone pointed out that most of the top pianists had Polish or Russian-sounding names.
“The little Yorkshire musical wonder”, as the Sunday Times called her, is about to be celebrated in her home city. Her fascinating story will be explored over a March weekend as part of Hull 2017’s Women of the World (WOW) festival.
“I think she would make a great film,” says Dr
Lee Tsang, a lecturer in music at the University of Hull, who is curating the weekend and will be performing some of Leginska’s songs during it.
It’s likely to touch on her mysterious six-day Agatha Christie-style disappearance shortly before a concert in New York’s Carnegie Hall, her muchpublicised divorce, and her role as a composer and pioneering female conductor. She performed to an audience of 30,000 at the Hollywood Bowl and was the first woman to conduct the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.
She settled in American in her twenties, founded women’s symphony orchestras, was the first woman to conduct her own opera in a major opera house, and campaigned for concerts at prices the man (and of course the woman) in the street could afford.
For much of her career, she battled against many male music critics’ patronising attitude to woman conductors and became a feminist icon. Young women adopted her striking hairstyle, imitated her way of dressing and turned themselves into what one critic described as “numerous little Leginskas”.
She achieved extraordinary fame. She was hailed as “the Paderewski of woman pianists”, a female counterpart to the world’s then most famous pianist. When she jammed a finger in a train carriage door in 1916, Musical America published an X-ray of her hand. And now she’s all but forgotten.
“If you go into a record shop and ask for Ethel Leginska, they look at you as though you’ve come from the moon,” says Terry Broadbent.
Sheffield-born Broadbent, a retired university lecturer, has long championed Leginska and, together with his late wife Marguerite,