Lifetime Achievement Award: Maud Powell

Rachel Barton Pine pays tribute to an iconic violinist
  • Photo: Courtesy of The Maud Powell Society for Music and Education
    Maud Powell
  • Photo: Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
    Rachel Barton Pine
January 17, 2014 -- 1:44 pm PST
By Rachel Barton Pine /

(In addition to the GRAMMY Awards, The Recording Academy presents Special Merit Awards recognizing contributions of significance to the recording field, including the Lifetime Achievement Award, Trustees Award and Technical GRAMMY Award. In the days leading up to the 56th GRAMMY Awards, will present the tributes to the 2014 Special Merit Awards recipients.)

Every industry needs its pioneers and the recording industry found one in legendary American violinist Maud Powell. She stood for the highest achievement in the art of violin playing and radiated an unbounded spirit of adventure. 

In 1904 Powell stepped into a recording studio to play into a recording horn and helped launch the science and art of recording the violin. She became the first solo instrumentalist to record for the Victor Talking Machine Company's Celebrity Artist series (Red Seal label), and for the first time, violin recordings entered into the Victor Red Seal catalog.  

Recognized as America's greatest violinist and ranked among the preeminent musicians in the world, Powell was known for breaking barriers. Her magnetic personality, brilliant artistry, scintillating technique, and versatility were unequaled and she used them to introduce classical music to countless new audiences at a time when few performers dared to face the uncertain concert conditions and hardships of travel in North America. She championed music composed by women and by Americans alongside the music of Europeans. She fathomed the depths of the Tchaikovsky and Sibelius violin concertos, giving them their American premieres when other violinists balked at their difficulties. She was among the first white instrumentalists to integrate the works of composers of African descent into recitals and recordings.

Powell recognized recording technology's potential to aid in her mission to bring the best in classical music to people everywhere. She recorded prolifically from 1904 until her untimely death at 52 in 1920, making more than 100 acoustic recordings. Powell mined the phonograph's potential to elevate the public's musical taste as she recorded only music that met the highest artistic standards. Through her recordings of short classical works and condensed versions of longer works, her artistry helped to revolutionize music appreciation. 

Powell's musical heritage is preserved by Naxos in four meticulously remastered CDs of 87 of her recordings. Even now, her playing as captured by the recording horn sets the standard by which today's classical recording artists are measured. 

Countless individual lives have been inspired and enriched by Maud Powell. Jascha Heifetz, Fritz Kreisler and Yehudi Menuhin considered her to be one of their musical heroes. Leading concert artists today include her repertoire in their programs. Students are inspired by her high ideals and mission to enrich the lives of everyone through music.

Maud Powell is the violinist I most admire. Dedicated to her art, brave in her repertoire choices, nurturing of young artists, tireless in utilizing music to break down social barriers and elevate society, her example inspires me every day.

(American violinist Rachel Barton Pine is internationally renowned for her interpretations of great classical works that combine her gift for emotional communication and her scholarly fascination with historical research. She is the music editor and advisor for Maud Powell Favorites, a collection of Powell's transcriptions and music dedicated to Powell, and in 2007 she released a best-selling recording of these treasures: American Virtuosa: Tribute To Maud Powell.) 

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