Hull’s un­likely mu­si­cal ge­nius

Yorkshire Post - YP Magazine - - Front Page -

She is one of the mu­sic world’s for­got­ten stars, but now Ethel Le­gin­ska is back in the spot­light. Stephen

McClarence re­ports.

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,

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