Maud Powell with "Nipper."
The Victor Company's trademark mascot
"AN ORIGINAL INTERVIEW WITH MAUD POWELL"
by Ernest John,
Editor and Publisher
The Music Lover
Volume 1, Number 4, August 1915
In the quarter of New York that is richest in tradition there is a house which is a "home" to Maud Powell - at least for a few weeks in the year. To meet and talk to this famous woman is a thing of joy, for she greets her guests with the charming simplicity of the really great. Because her records may be heard where she herself can never go, the interview dealt for the most part with them, and they will have an added interest for music-lovers everywhere because of what their maker has had to say concerning them.
"You, no doubt, have some personal favorites among your Victor records. Which are they?" was the first question.
"I like - Deep River ," said Mme. Powell, in the tone which indicates mental stock-taking.
" Deep River ? Why?"
"I like it musically. I like it as a tune; it is well harmonized and I consider it one of my best records from the point of view of recording. The phrasing is good, and I feel that I was at my best in it. Then, too, it's a real American tune. A man I met in Texas, who had lived in New Orleans in the 70's, told me that he had heard it sung, with a slight variation of rhythm, by the darkies who loaded the cotton schooners."
"Then, I like the Tenaglia Aria , too. Let me see - oh, yes - that's listed as Have Pity Sweet Eyes . You see, to speak of the Tenaglia Aria doesn't convey much and people like some sort of suggestion from the title."
"Do you feel that this aria is a 'find'? That is, is it something like - oh, say the Raff Cavatina ? Something that everybody can and will enjoy?"
"Oh, no," said Mme. Powell. "It isn't superficial enough for that!" and she laughed with the glee of a wood elf. "Oh, no - but it takes the listener into a few moments of serious enjoyment through its simplicity and nobility - like a perfect Greek statue or a lovely bit of architecture.
"Oh, the old writers wrote marvelous things, didn't they? Things that last to this day and - like the old painters - it seems to me that they must have worked with a touch of religious ardor. I don't believe, for instance, that those wonderful cathedrals could have been built in a day like this, do you? Why, we have no reverence for any thing!
"That reminds me. A woman friend of mine says she 'hates' the violin. What she means is that she is afraid of it emotionally. Isn't that rather typically American?"
Mme. Powell got up and for a moment or two was very evidently looking for something, then she said:
"I wanted to show you a book of wild flowers - painted for me. These little things! The beauty of them is enough to make one weep or sing - but - people don't see them. We are too busy playing the game of life to really live , and for us pleasure is a synonym for excitement. Our music is ragtime , which sometimes tickles the rhythmic sense, but more often merely assaults the ears, and vulgar songs of the day, with their unspeakable words! People don't seem to realize that there is much more beauty in quiet music and in classical music if they'll only get familiar with it. That it's more beautiful and - lasts longer."
"Lacking the inspiration of an audience, how can you manage to put so much emotional force into a record like -- well, say the Sibelius Valse Triste ?"
Mme. Powell laughed, and then she said: "Just nervousness! Making a record is the most nervous work I've ever done in my life! I'm as limp as a rag when it's over."
"Yes, I think so. But of course, being an artist means that your nervousness goes into the right channels and accomplishes the thing you want to do. There's a ghastly feeling that you're playing for all the world and an awful sense that what is done is done."
"You watch that awful face at the window, waiting for the raising of the eyebrows which tells you to begin, and then (laughing heartily), for the life of you, you don't know whether you can put your finger on the right note or not! I assure you there is no chance of being bored!"
"Violin records seem wonderfully satisfying. Why should they be?"
"I do think that the violin or the string quartette too, perhaps, does more to cultivate taste. It's freer from the 'feet of clay.' You are not required to listen to words or speculate on accompanying dramatic action and all that. The music is more impersonal than when you listen to a voice. It makes its own appeal and there are not extraneous distractions. A song from opera is less complete in form because it is related to the context, both of music and action, but with us - the things that we play must be complete in themselves."
"Will you tell me another record that you personally like?"
"As a crisp and scintillating piece of violin work I like Hubay's Hejre Kati , and I think it's a wonderful achievement in recording."
"How much of the original brilliance is lost in the Victrola reproduction?"
"Practically none; there may be a little less of - well - shall we say string elasticity? That seems to express what I mean. I've heard people say that the Victrola doesn't sound like the violin, but d'you know, to me it sounds exactly like the violin. I think perhaps people have to learn how to listen. You can get behind all the mechanical part and listen subjectively."
"Is there another record?"
"Yes, the Bach Bourrée . I like it for its rhythm. One man, by the way, who doesn't know anything about classical music, says it's my best record - Bach, if you please! Then, too, there's a lovely aesthetic effect in going from the B minor of the Bourrée into the F major Menuett of Gluck. The first C in the menuett gives me untold satisfaction. It's wonderful, and the transition is so simple. It occurs, of course, in the interval between the end of the bourrée and the beginning of the menuett."
"By the way, I wish people wouldn't play my record of the Mendelssohn Concerto so fast. It loses all the nuances, all the rhythmic charm, and sounds - stupid.
"Once, when I was on a concert tour, I went into a store where they happened to be playing it. I was rather 'on edge' with the strain of concert work, so I went to the young man at the Victrola and said, 'Won't you please play that a little slower?' He told me the Victrola was playing at the right speed, but I said, "Well, but you're playing that in G, and it's written and played in E." Then Mr. Turner came up and said, "Since this is the lady who made the record she may be right, you know"; then, of course, the poor boy wilted - but it does spoil the record to play it so fast."
"Mme. Powell, how far do you think an artist may go in the matter of personal interpretation?"
"Only so far as to make every little point tell; interpretation should never be a cloak for personal display."
"Do violinists ever feel that they cannot interpret the work of some certain composer?"
"Not unless they're afflicted with spiritual laziness. Of course, there are always some composers whose work seems to lie more particularly within one's own taste and capabilities. Musicians ought to be able - as an actor is - to associate themselves with the spirit of a composition. Many a time I've given a composition the benefit of the doubt and delved into it till I found the hidden treasure."
"How do you think the technique of the modern violinist probably compares with that of Paganini?"
"We have to express more. In fact, I think too much is asked of the violinist - it would almost seem as though the orchestra is the solo instrument of the day; the violin is really a singing instrument, and it has its limitations, you know!"
"And now, do you find that public taste has improved in recent years so far as violin music is concerned?"
"Along what line is it developing?"
"Oh - I think the public still rather likes to be dazzled; but it seems to differ somewhat in different communities. Some like the brilliant things, some the emotional, and some the spirituelle-dainty. It's largely a question of putting them in the right mood. A great deal depends on the art of compiling programs - I mean that things must be led up to properly; creating the proper contrasts and so on. The American public doesn't like long, meandering introspective things, but they like things with a definite idea; things that are short and can be grasped in their entirety. They think rather too much about just going from one bar to another and enjoying it as they go along, instead of thinking of a composition as a whole."
"How much of the musical development is due to the Victrola?"
"Ah! It's hard to say too much about the influence of the Victrola - it is a real, a vital and indeed a national influence. Why, do you know, out in Montana I saw a man get off the train who looked like a tramp. He had a big sack over his shoulder containing records which we ourselves had seen him select in a Victrola shop. He must have had a hundred dollars' worth - and he was going to carry them ten miles!"
A famous critic has said concerning Maud Powell: "There is at least one woman that can fiddle with the best of the men and at the same time express herself clearly and forcibly in writing." He meant in talking, too.
I had had a delightful morning and was by no means ready to leave, but Mme. Powell had been practicing when I called, and even an interviewer must be reasonable; but there was no difficulty in remembering what she had said, even in the roar of the city streets.