17 Oct 2016

Ethel Leginska: The Musical Pioneer

WOW celebrates Hull genius who paved the way for female conductors and musicians

For those who haven’t heard of Ethel Leginska (1886-1970), this incredible woman was a highly influential performer, pianist, composer, teacher … and the first woman to conduct her own orchestra in a leading opera house. We’ll be highlighting her achievements next year as part of Hull 2017’s Women of the World (WOW) festival.

Her work will be celebrated in Ethel Leginska: The Musical Pioneer between Friday 10 March and Sunday 12 March 2017 in both an exhibition and concert. Curated by Dr Lee Tsang of the University of Hull, the exhibition aims to include little-known facts and rare recordings of her work. There will also be concerts that combine Leginska’s piano roll recordings with her original compositions.

The concerts will feature Leginska’s own playing, made possible through digitization of her piano rolls, and further live performances will be given by pianist Graziana Presicce, current holder of the Sinfonia UK Collective graduate placement scheme. Dr Tsang will join her, performing songs as featured at Leginska’s Hollywood Bowl concert (an event celebrated for its 30,000-strong live audience!).

Leginska’s profile in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography was submitted by Dr Tsang, who is also managing and artistic director of Sinfonia UK Collective and vice-chair of Hull Music Hub.

She’s in good company – Leginska’s bio was one of 40 Hull figures active between the 16th and early 21st centuries who were added to the 2016 edition of the dictionary.

Some of these Hull entries include the Maister family of Baltic merchants, Thomas Thompson (1754-1828), who was the first Methodist to sit as an MP in the House of Commons and Jean Hartley (1933-2011), co-creator of the Marvell Press which published The Less Deceived, the first volume by Philip Larkin.

The significance of Leginska’s musical career is huge. From her years as a child prodigy, all the way to her death – she is believed to have died whilst playing piano in 1970 at the age of 83 – Ethel was not only a pioneer in music, but completely individual in every way.

 Lee Tsang © Patrick Mateer

Her passions were apparent through her music, but also in her drive to bring forward equality for women through her ambitious, elusive and unique character. Aside from this, she was shown to have developed an entrepreneurial approach towards her work. Leginska was known to have the ability to really engage audiences with her talents. “She was always very clever about how to strategise and appeal to the public. She knew how to play the system,” says Lee.

I’ve managed to gain access to a rare recording of her string quartet which sounds like it’s been recorded off a radio. You really get an understanding of who she was just by hearing her music. Being a pianist was never enough for her.” – Dr Lee Tsang

Leginska was also congratulated on her achievements by fellow pioneer Amy Johnson – the first female pilot to fly alone from Britain to Australia. In one message addressed to Ethel Leggins (mis-spelt on the telegram as her previous name was actually Liggins) at the Carl Rosa Opera Company on 17 July 1930, Amy had supposedly sent a telegram with the words “brilliant pioneer achievement”.

 Ethel Leginska telegram

“There are so many fascinating aspects to Ethel’s story that make her life so interesting it could be made into a film” says Lee.

Even the way she expected her pupils to undertake the same dedication to her playing as she did was intriguing. “She felt it was a crime to not fulfil potential,” says Lee. “She told one of her pupils they had to have a lesson on Christmas day, her standards were definitely high.”

Lee, who will also be conducting the Sinfonia UK Collective: A Concert – hopes both the exhibition and concert will give people the opportunity to understand what Ethel Leginska was really like and how her background, the influence and support of her mother, and her love of nature also played a integral part in shaping the woman she became.

I would like people to feel that wherever they come from in life, they can always be creative. It’s about not letting society define who you are and not letting it put barriers in front of you. Hull is a very individual place with a strong identity, and Leginska is a prime example of that individualism combined with an impassioned work ethic and an unquenchable sense of ambition. She had what some I believe have described as ‘Yorkshire grit’.” – Dr Lee Tsang

“Although Leginska is largely forgotten, she was very famous in the early 20th century – a time when she astounded the public with her pioneering achievements,” says Lee. “People tend to forget about artists when they’re no longer in the spotlight. It’s therefore important that we now recognise and celebrate Leginska as the true hero that she is, both on a national and international level.”

Ethel Leginska: The Musical Pioneer will take place between Friday 10 March and Sunday 12 March 2017 at Ferens Studio, Ferens Art Gallery, Queen Victoria Square, Hull, HU1 3RA as part of WOW Hull. Discover more here.

If you fancy having your say in helping shape WOW Hull in 2017 – drop in to one of our fun, free and informal Thinkin sessions below, we would love to hear your views.

* Pave Bar, Princes Avenue, west Hull, Monday 17 October, 1945-2115

* Asda Mount Pleasant, east Hull, Wednesday 19 October, 1330-1500 and 1800-1930

* Rayners, Hessle Road, west Hull, Friday 21 October, 1730-1900

* The Mercure Hull Royal Hotel, Ferensway, city centre, Monday 21 November, 1800-2000

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