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 much-publicised 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, researched the pianist’s life and published an impressively thorough biography of her in 2002 – Leginska: Forgotten Genius of Music.
Based at Wilmslow near Manchester, the Broadbents knew Leginska’s name from her piano rolls – recordings on long rolls of paper studded with perforations, which captured a performance that could then be reproduced on specially adapted pianos. Some of these will feature in the Hull weekend.
“Like almost everyone else we knew nothing about her, but we discovered she came from Hull and was an incredibly interesting and forceful character,” says Broadbent. “She was such a remarkable person that we thought she deserved a biography, though we knew it would never be a best-seller at WH Smiths.”
In the 1980s, they embarked on what he admits became “a mission”. They collected hundreds of press cuttings and traced people who had known Leginska, many of them as pupils during her later career as a teacher.
Lee Tsang came to Leginska by a different route. He was invited to write an entry on her for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. “As soon as I found out about her, I was intrigued,” he says. “There is so much.”
He has clearly caught the Leginska bug. In his university office he leafs through a colourful programme for the 1935 Chicago Opera House premiere of her opera Gale, which she herself conducted, “waving a baton as if she believed it possessed some superhuman power”, reported the Chicago Times.
He shares a crackly vintage radio recording of her string quartet and publicity photographs of her, dark and intense at the keyboard. Her characteristic bushy bobbed hair style, modelled on Franz Liszt’s, gives her the look of a silent film heroine.
He shows me the only known film footage of Leginska – a 45-second snatch of a 1940s home movie on which she says goodbye to guests at her home in California. She darts around, a tiny figure, smiling, relaxed and animated. “Everything has a real level of energy,” he says.
Energy and fierce determination – sometimes over-fierce – were at her core. She sometimes rebuked audiences for whispering and, in Vienna at the age of 15 , pestered the greatest piano teacher of the day until he took her on as a pupil.
She could clearly be a demanding woman, full of, as Tsang says, “persistence, resilience and independence of spirit... what people call ‘Yorkshire grit’.”
Despite this, she suffered from terrible pre-concert nerves, which may explain her decision to retire as a concert pianist at the age of 40.
Fortunately, she made many recordings. Tsang says, they can be “quite straightforward, not self-indulgent, with a no-nonsense approach.”
Lee Tsang leads the way from his office to a recital room. Accompanied by PhD student Graziana Presicce, he sings one of Leginska’s songs, a powerfully lyrical lullaby.
It’s a sort of homecoming for little Ethel Liggins, who once received a telegram from a fellow Hull-born celebrity praising her “brilliant pioneer achievement”. It was signed by Amy Johnson.
Ethel Leginska: The Musical Pioneer will be held at the Ferens Studio, Hull, from March 10 to 12..hull2017.co.uk/leginska
• To order a copy of Leginska: Forgotten Genius of Music by Marguerite and Terry Broadbent (£15 plus postage), visit leginska.org.