KANE COUNTY HISTORY: Meet Maud Powell, America's Darling, Aurora's World-Famous Violinist

KANE COUNTY HISTORY: Meet Maud Powell, America’s Darling, Aurora’s World-Famous Violinist

  • Editor’s Note: Kane County has an amazing history and outstanding resources for local historians. This is Week 5 of Kane County Connects’ weekly series of articles written by representatives of local historical societies and history museums. Today’s article was submitted by Mary Clark Ormond, president of the Aurora Historical Society.

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Maud Powell’s Amazing Life Will Never Be Forgotten

Were there any clues, in the 1870s, that the lively little girl living on West Street in Aurora, IL, was destined for greatness? She was, at first glance, merely a proper Victorian child, doing her parents’ bidding and acquiring the skills and graces expected of little girls of the times.

Maud’s modest home. (CREDIT: AHS)

But much more than that was going on in her modest frame house and her handsome brick school, Center School. It would flower into a spectacular career as a violinist that created America’s first female superstar. In a few short years, Maud Powell would be a household name around the world.

Her father was the progressive-minded superintendent of schools for District 131 on Aurora’s east side. Her mother was a talented violinist whose own aspirations to a career were thwarted by Victorian cultural biases. Both were firm believers that each person must be the best and do the most good possible in the world. No wonder, then, that Maud’s little feet were early set on a virtuous and pioneering path.

As a schoolgirl Maud was fun-loving and energetic, once climbing to a neighbor’s roof for a better view of his chimney repairs, and engaging in lighthearted antics that included hanging by her heels from a hammock and playing baseball with her younger brother, Billy. But her days began and ended with violin practice, a parentally-decreed discipline that, loving music greatly, she followed with few complaints.

Maud at 8. (CREDIT: AHS)

By the age of 9, she had outgrown the teaching of her Aurora professor and was taking the train every Saturday morning, by herself, to save money on the tickets, to Chicago to study there.

At age 12, Maud was invited into Aurora’s Stein Orchestra as first violin, where she was somewhat lost in the forest of adult men, her feet dangling above the floor as she played. Although she thrilled to the experience of making music in concert, she said the fancy dresses she had to wear were “a burden to my soul” and that she felt “decked out like a prize rabbit.”

Questions of fashion aside, she matured so rapidly as a violinist that by age 13, Maud was sent to Europe to study with the great violinists of the time. The U.S. was a cultural backwater at the time, without institutions for higher education in music, and “finishing” in Europe was considered a necessity. A necessity for boys, however, not girls.

In Aurora, more than a few eyebrows were raised and voices lowered to murmur against the foolish waste of resources on young Maud, be she ever so charming a child.

Maud, the darling. (CREDIT: AHS)

That tune changed in the spring of 1885 when Maud Powell, now a blossoming 18-year-old, made a triumphant return to the U.S. and Aurora, with the elegant Coulter Opera House sold out a week in advance of her welcome-home concert with the Stein Orchestra. She was clearly, now, the darling of Aurora.

In the ensuing decades, she conquered the concert stages of the world, collaborated with the most prominent composers and conductors of her time, and quietly but firmly became a tastemaker for her nation.

That early influence to do the most good for the most people in the most places never deserted her. Even as she became a musical legend worldwide, she looked deeply into her native land and saw a shocking ignorance of music in general. She threw herself into endless American touring, traveling to not just the big cities but to any town or hamlet that invited her, using her warm personality and passionate urge to educate to concertize, encourage children to make music and offer her support to cultural initiatives by local citizens.

To engage audiences which had, by and large, never heard an orchestra concert or a violin recital, she shaped her appearances to include popular American tunes and spirituals. Into this mix she added European classics, works by African American and women composers, and also new work by unknown composers of the era such as Sibelius and Tchaikovsky.

Maud, the wonder. (CREDIT: AHS)

Her home and studio were in New York, but whenever her schedule allowed, Maud Powell returned to her beloved home town of Aurora to concertize and visit with old friends. On one occasion some of her friends presented her with a stylish serpent’s-head bracelet, which she made sure to wear during subsequent visits

By 1904 sound-recording technology was advancing, and Maud quickly grasped that records and phonographs could vastly expand her educational outreach. She became the first instrumental soloist to record for the RCA Red Seal label. Although the capacity of those early discs was a mere 2 minutes and 50 seconds, and the sound quality was poor, over the next 15 years Maud made more than 100 acoustic recordings in the belief that even the shortest pieces would elevate American musical taste.

Her grueling schedule took a toll on her health and in 1920, at the age of 52, she suffered a heart attack while on tour in Pennsylvania and died. Her ashes were scattered along the Hudson River. The world had lost a towering musical figure and Aurora had lost its most famous citizen.

In 2014 Maud Powell was awarded a lifetime achievement GRAMMY for her pioneering work in the recording industry and her contributions to American cultural life.

For More on Maud

  • WEBSITE: http://www.maudpowell.org.
  • VIDEO: The Aurora Historical Society’s Aurora Shop at 20 E. Downer, 60505 carries the recent one-hour documentary, Our Maud Powell by Paul D. Butler. Cost is $20 plus tax, and AHS members receive a 10 percent discount. To get your copy, call  630-906-0650. Regular hours are noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.

    BIOGRAPHY: Maud Powell, Pioneer American Violinist by Karen A. Shaffer is out of print (2nd edition is in the works) but some copies are available on Amazon.

    • Maud Powell: The Complete Recordings, 1904-1917. Naxos Records.
    • American Virtuosa: Tribute to Maud Powell is Rachel Barton Pine’s homage to the volinist she says is her favorite musician of all time.
  • KEEPING UP: Subscribe to the Aurora Historical Society’s mailing list at http://www.aurorahistory.net to learn about upcoming events dedicated to Maud Powell.

About The Aurora Historical Society

In continuous operation since 1906, the Aurora Historical Society is one of the oldest institutions in the Chicago area. Come tour the 1857 Tanner House, visit changing exhibits at the David L. Pierce Art and History Center or make an appointment to do research at the History Center. Enjoy special events such as lectures, cocktail parties for exhibit openings, July 4 Ringing of the Bells and December Holiday Celebration. Shop in the AHS gift shop. Enjoy history. For more information, visit the Aurora Historical Society website.

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