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Leonora Jackson: “A Name that Will Live in Musical History”

Leonora Jackson, ca 1900, PP306.023, MdHS (reference photo)

Leonora Jackson, ca 1900, PP306.023, MdHS (reference photo)

Although largely forgotten today, violinist Leonora Jackson was among a group of pioneering female classical musicians who broke down a number of barriers for women in the late nineteenth century. One of the first female American solo violinists to gain international acclaim, Leonora Jackson dazzled crowds throughout Europe and the United States with her virtuoso performances for over two decades.

Born in Boston on February 20, 1879 to a prominent Brahmin family, Leonora Jackson began studying violin at age seven, and was quickly recognized as a prodigy. Her mother, a gifted vocalist, passed her musical talents on to her daughter, for whom the mastery of her chosen instrument came easily. Jackson generally needed to practice only one to two hours a day, and never more than four over the course of her performing career. Among her early instructors in America was S.E. Jacobsohn, violinist and concertmaster of the Chicago orchestra. Jacobsohn also instructed violinist Maud Powell, one of a handful of American female violinists that preceded Leonora Jackson on the world stage. On the advice of her instructors, Leonora’s parents sent her to study for a year in Paris in 1891 to fully cultivate her talent. While she was away her family suffered a number of financial setbacks, but with the aid of a a few admiring patrons, including First Lady Frances Folsom Cleveland, wife of President Grover Cleveland and  industrialist George Vanderbilt, Jackson was able to continue her fledgling career.

PP306-098 Prof. Joachim Postcard

Joseph Joachim, ca 1900, PP306.098, MdHS.

In 1893, Joseph Joachim, the renowned Hungarian violinist, conductor, and frequent collaborator of Johannes Brahms, had a chance to hear the 14-year-old Jackson perform during a visit to the United States: “I have heard Miss L.J. play Vieuxtemps Ballade and Polonaise for the Violin and was struck with her great talent. She played with genuine expression and displayed a command of her instrument most unusual at her age. If she continues to study she cannot fail to become a violinist of the greatest imminence.” (1) A few years later Joachim took Jackson on as a student at the Royal Academy of Music in Berlin. Under his tutelage she achieved full maturity as an artist.

In 1896, she made her European performance debut in Berlin with the German Philharmonic Orchestra, and began playing throughout Europe. The following year she became the first American violinist to receive the prestigious Mendelssohn Scholarship awarded by the Leipzig Conservatory to support foreign students who studied at the school. Over the course of her career, Jackson toured through both Europe and the United States as soloist with the Boston Symphony, the London Philharmonic, and other leading orchestras. During the 1900-1901 season, she played over 160 concerts during a trans-continental tour of the United States. On July 17, 1899, during a tour of England, Jackson had the honor of playing before Queen Victoria and the royal family at Windsor Castle, where bit of light comedy ensued:

Leonora Jackson, 1891, PP306.031, MdHS.

Leonora Jackson, 1891, PP306.031, MdHS.

“She was so kind and friendly, asked about my studies, about my player in Germany and added ‘you play most beautifully.’ I replied I was very happy to have given her Majesty pleasure. She then responded that she had enjoyed it very much; she then asked ‘you are a Canadian, aren’t you?’ No, your Majesty, I am an American. Yes, from Canada, she said again and waited. No, your Majesty, I am from America. Then her daughter Princess Beatrice said ‘oh Mother,’ she means she is from the states. With that they both broke into hearty laughter and a little subdued titter flew across the room where the others were seated so like the rustling of autumn leaves. I suddenly realized in my limited vision that in saying I was American, I had monopolized the whole Western Hemisphere to my great embarrassment and felt suddenly very much smaller in size….Embarrassed and believing I had said enough, I hastened to make my formal curtsy and backed out of the room as gracefully as possible, if backing this way is ever graceful, leaving them laughing and chatting to one another in bright good humor.” (2)

For her performance, the Queen Monarch presented Jackson with a jeweled star bearing the royal monogram. She often wore the Victorian Star during performances and when posing for studio photographs. Jackson was among a handful of women soloists making their mark in the then male dominated classical music world. These women fought stereotypical notions of how women should play, or if they were even capable of playing up to the standards of men. Like her contemporaries, Jackson elicited much acclaim for her equal parts powerful and delicate performances, often tempered with a sexist, patronizing tone:

“…truly in this fair young girl shines the light of genius. Her violin seems to speak, telling every human emotion, while her listeners hold their breath in wonder at her raw power. There is refinement of feeling and soul loftiness in her playing; in fact she seems almost like one inspired as she tells to listening ears stories of love, hope or sorrow, and the audience is irresistibly drawn to the gifted girl, for she holds them as if with magic spell. There are other great or mature players, and yet we might pass them by to hear her. Looking at her in her simple gowns, we are in the presence of one who has a high spiritual nature. She is all purity, giving out her music, not as if she were granting favors, but as God’s steward, bestowing upon others a gift not hers alone. There is no vanity. Her smile seems to say: I am glad to make you happy,” and she responds cheerfully to the wishes of her audience.”(3)

PP306.068 William Duncan McKim and Lenora Jackson McKim. Ca. 191

William Duncan McKim and Lenora Jackson McKim, ca 1915, PP306.068, MdHS.

In 1915, Jackson married Dr. William Duncan McKim, from the prominent Baltimore family. Upon her betrothal, she promptly retired from performing. Jackson had been growing weary of the touring life of a concert musician for some years prior to her marriage. In 1911, she took a year long sabbatical to live on a farm in Albany County, New York:

“My life has been a series of railroad journeys and hotel rooms and concert halls, a succession of cities and audiences…Have you ever analyzed what success, even a great success, means for an artist? Often, for a violinist, it means playing to an audience in a city where the musical knowledge or appreciation is non- existent; and when a violinist has been given the best art and that earned by long years of labor, it is to have some listener at the end of the concert to say gushingly that the music was perfectly lovely, and add, ‘You should hear Johnny Jones play the violin. He’s only thirteen and he has taken only a quarter’s lessons, but the way he plays is simply wonderful. You ought to hear him!’ Those people get as much if not more enjoyment out of Johnny Jones’ playing as out of mine. And that is success!…I did not mean that to sound ungrateful, for the world has been good to me. I meant to speak impersonally; but to explain how, after years of concert tours and railroad trains and hotel rooms and audiences in cities and cities, a successful women might want to run away and live on a farm for a year or so!”(4)

The "Leonora" (6)

The “Leonora” (6)

Except for the occasional charity recital for local churches and schools Leonora Jackson McKim never played in public again, taking up a quieter role as a self described “society dame.”(5) Like many newly married women of the day, a career, no matter how brilliant, was not often possible, practical or socially acceptable. The McKims often hosted musical and arts programs in both their Baltimore and Washington, DC homes. Their residence in DC boasted a 50 x 23 foot music room, complete with a 36 foot high organ with 2160 pipes. Dr. McKim, a talented organist would often play for guests, and sometimes, “a privileged few” might hear Leonora perform. The McKims were avid supporters of the arts and owned an extensive collection of paintings, orchestral scores, tapestries, and sculptures. Upon Dr. McKim’s death in 1935, Leonora donated much of their collection to the Smithsonian Institution and the Maryland Historical Society.

Leonora Jackson McKim passed away with little fanfare on January 7, 1969, her career as a young prodigy turned world renowned musician largely forgotten. Her name, however, continues to live on through the instrument she played during the latter half of her public career. Built by the renowned violin maker Antonio Stradivari in 1714, it passed through the hands of a number of wealthy European family until acquired by Joseph Joachim in 1880. Joachim then passed it on to his former student, Leonora, in 1904; she played it in concerts until her retirement in 1915. Four years later Jackson sold the violin and over the years it has found a home with various owners. At some point the instrument garnered the name of its once famous owner. Today “Leonora” attracts world class violinists to the Los Angeles residence of its present owners, eager to perform on one of the finest antique violins in the world.

(Damon Talbot)

Sources and further reading:

(1) Joseph Joachim to unidentified, Berlin, May 7, 1893, Diary 1904-1905, MS 1780, Box 7, MdHS.

(2) Leonora Jackson, account of visit to Windsor Castle, not dated, MS 1780, Scrapbook, Box 6, MdHS.

(3) ”A Lesson in Modesty,” The Dramatic Review, San Francisco, March 2, 1901, SMS 1780, Box 6, Scrapbook, MdHS.

(4) “Violin Virtuoso an Albany Farmer,” Albany Argus, March 12, 1911, MS 1780, Box 6, MdHS.

(5) Leonora Jackson McKim to Ernest McKim, September 7, 1940, Scrapbook, MS 1780, Box 6, MdHS.

(6) Image from: http://www.violinist.com/blog/laurie/20148/16097

http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/awhhtml/awmusic8/special_music.html

 

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