Kathleen Parlow, violinist and teacher (1890-1963)

"World's greatest woman violinist"

Virtuoso violinist Kathleen Parlow was, in her day, ranked among the best violinists in the world and reached prominence as one of a mere handful of musicians who represented Canada on the stages of the world. "The lady of the golden bow" was famed as a child prodigy for an unassailable technique. She went on to an international career as a concert soloist, universally respected for her artistry, and later became a revered chamber musician and violin teacher.

Childhood and Education

The woman who became the most respected female violinist of her time was born in Fort Calgary, Alberta in 1890. She was the only child of Charlie Parlow, a Hudson's Bay Company employee, and his wife, Minnie Parlow. Her mother took Kathleen to live in San Francisco when Kathleen was four, and they did not return to live in the nation of her birth until 1940. Mother and daughter nevertheless retained strong ties to Canada; in fact, as Kathleen's international career developed, she was often billed as "the Canadian violinist".

Minnie Parlow herself played the violin, so while in California she gave her daughter a half-size violin. Kathleen received lessons at first from a cousin, Conrad Coward, who was a professional violin teacher; it was he who first called her a prodigy. As her immense talent declared itself, she was sent to the violin professor, Henry Holmes. Parlow's rapid ascension was partly due to being home-schooled, where she could devote more time to her instrument than she could have through normal schooling. Parlow herself believed that nature was responsible for the ease with which she mastered even the most difficult violin technique:

"I have a very good hand for a fiddle. It has a big stretch.… There really is such a thing as a physical aptitude for the violin, and I had it."

(Hambleton, 1978)

North American musicians normally went to Europe to obtain the best teaching and launch their concert careers. Holmes recognized that his student would need this type of finishing for her talent to blossom into a career, and he arranged for her to perform in England. Accordingly, with $300 from their church in their pockets, the fourteen-year-old Kathleen and her mother embarked for England, arriving January 1, 1905.

There, the young violinist performed Beethoven's violin concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra. After attending a concert by another fourteen-year-old violin sensation, Mischa Elman, the Parlows sought out Elman's professor, Leopold Auer. To cover their travelling expenses to Russia, where he taught, they enlisted a loan from Lord Strathcona, the Canadian High Commissioner (who provided similar assistance to the celebrated Canadian singer, Éva Gauthier, around the same period). Thus, Kathleen Parlow became the first foreigner accepted into the St. Petersburg Conservatory, in October 1906.

Parlow recounted these times in an article entitled "Student Days in Russia" in 1961. She found herself the only girl in a class of 45, among whom were other violin prodigies such as Efrem Zimbalist and Elman. At first, intimidated by their talent, Parlow coped by working "like a navvy". She admitted, "… all that wonderful playing never discouraged me but only goaded me on to work and try to play as well as they did". Much of the violin literature that she learned from Auer, such as the then-new violin concerto by Alexander Glazunov, the director of the Conservatory, remained staples in her repertoire. Auer taught the young violinist to play with an artistic goal in mind; as he put it, to "Sing, sing on your violin".

The experience she received at the St. Petersburg Conservatory set Parlow on the path to her greatest successes. She simply loved the life there:

"The joy I had in my lessons is hard to describe.… I sat in that room twice a week from two until six and drank it all in, coming away utterly exhausted but happy."

(Parlow, 1961)

Early Career and Concert Tours

After a year at the Conservatory, Auer launched his student, now age 17, with solo recitals in St. Petersburg and Helsinki. There were financial pressures for such an undertaking: "I remember when I was going to Berlin, Auer was very worried about my debut because it meant everything. We had practically no money, and when all expenses of concerts had been paid for[,] we had exactly ten pounds" (Hambleton, 1978). There followed concerts in Berlin and a tour of Norway, Germany and Holland in 1908, including the first of many appearances before King Haakon and Queen Maud of Norway. It was in Oslo that the Parlows met Einar Björnson, the wealthy Norwegian who became Kathleen's patron and close friend. It was from the generous Björnson that she received the priceless violin that enabled her to reach new heights. This violin, a Guarnerius del Gesù created in 1735, remained her primary instrument.

Minnie Parlow travelled with her daughter to each appearance and continued to do so long after her daughter reached adulthood. Leopold Auer, too, retained a strong influence on his former student, helping to arrange engagements and advising her on which pieces to perform and how to interpret them. The young musician accepted their involvement, as she accepted and even embraced the discipline necessitated by touring. Kathleen seems to have viewed her relationship with Auer as father-daughter as well as teacher-pupil; Kathleen studied with him whenever they could be in the same city and she nicknamed him "Papa Auer". (Auer, however, recalled Kathleen as only one of the 30 or 40 former students who frequently gathered at his music colony near Dresden.)

Together Auer, Mrs. Parlow and their agents planned Kathleen's concerts to display the young virtuoso to best advantage. Having studied and performed in Europe for five years, a period that included concerts with conductors Thomas Beecham and Bruno Walter, among others, the Parlows returned to North America in November 1910 for the obligatory tour. There, Kathleen performed in New York, Philadelphia, Montréal, Québec City, Ottawa and Kingston, and made her first of many appearances with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in February 1911. In every venue, she was lauded as one of the highest-ranking violinists. The Parlows were especially gratified by Kathleen's acceptance in Western Canada, where she performed in Calgary, Regina, Moose Jaw, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Vancouver and Victoria, and was honoured by civic officials and provincial premiers.

Afterwards, they returned to New York for performances with the New York Symphony Orchestra; the critics were by then championing Parlow as the equal of her friend, the virtuoso Mischa Elman.

"The gifts of this young girl are extraordinary.… In her performances she has not been judged as a woman but as an artist.… The profession have declared that she is today one of the phenomena of the musical world."

(New York Herald, 1911)

There followed a return to England in June 1911, where the Parlows met with "Papa Auer" again to prepare for recitals Kathleen -- now a young woman of 21 -- was to give for the Ostend Festival. Her schedule remained heavy, and they crossed and re-crossed the Atlantic many times. They returned to North America for a second concert tour of Canada and the United States. She appeared at a benefit concert for the survivors of the Titanic in New York. At this time, she also made her first recordings, at the request of Thomas Edison, in addition to recordings for the Columbia label. Parlow returned to St. Petersburg and Moscow in November 1912, for engagements arranged by Auer.

To this point, Parlow's repertoire comprised primarily solo works such as concerti. Now, however, she began to explore the chamber repertoire and with the Italian pianist, Ernesto Consolo, she gave her first sonata recitals at New York's Hotel Astor, in January 1912. She enjoyed the experience and began to feature chamber pieces in her repertoire; later, after she gave up solo touring, it was chamber music to which she turned to rejuvenate her career.

Kathleen and her mother purchased a country home in Meldreth, Cambridgeshire, England, to which they could retreat between engagements. Here, she also began to collect books; reading was a welcome escape from the demands of her career.

In 1914, Parlow undertook her third North American tour, during which she recorded several pieces (such as Rubinstein's "Melody in F") for Columbia Records. They had already returned to England when the First World War broke out. Despite the dangers of travelling during wartime, Kathleen toured the neutral nations of Holland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. In August 1915, she met Auer to prepare more repertoires before leaving for North America in December. She spent the spring of 1916 touring the United States and Canada, and recording Dvorak's "Indian Lament" and other pieces. By 1917, she was back in England, but a travel ban reduced opportunities to earn concert fees and she was unable to recommence her arduous schedule until 1919.

By this time, Auer had been forced by the political situation in Russia to immigrate to New York, but his association with the Parlows had cooled. Perhaps Kathleen, now a seasoned professional, felt less need for her mentor's advice and encouragement.

In December 1920, the Parlows undertook Kathleen's fifth concert tour of the United States. While there, she performed her first radio broadcast, from Seattle, in April 1922. From there she went on to Hawaii and a 22-month tour of the Far East and the Dutch East Indies, following in the footsteps of Éva Gauthier, who had toured there from 1911 to 1914. Parlow appeared on the stages of China, Java (Indonesia), Singapore and Korea. She also performed in Japan, where she was invited to record for the Nipponophone Company.

In the wake of this enormous success, the Parlows returned briefly to England and Kathleen continued to perform across Europe. However, despite a high profile in continental musical centres, she and her mother were disappointed that she did not enjoy similar prominence in England. There are also hints of a broken personal relationship, fatigue and perhaps a nervous breakdown around 1926 or 1927. The combination of pressures seems to have led to their decision to seek opportunities in North America. A year-long concert hiatus, about which little is known, coincided with their move.

Subsequently, in an attempt to resuscitate her career, Parlow agreed to perform a series of concerts in Mexico City in April 1929. For the first time, she travelled without her mother. In Mexico, Parlow was praised as superior even to Heifetz, but was never able to earn as much money as her contemporary. In fact, even after performing numerous extra concerts, she barely broke even after paying travel and hotel expenses and agents' and accompanists' fees. This may have been one of the experiences that she referred to when she later told an interviewer, "When things were very hard, we often thought -- mother and I -- why not give it up and get a job, do something that would bring in less fright for the future, but I knew I just couldn't do it" (Hambleton, 1978).

Teaching and chamber music

The experience of having undertaken an expensive month-long tour without adequate compensation figured prominently in the Parlows' decisions from that point on. At age 40, Kathleen now reconsidered her options, turning more and more to teaching. Like Emma Albani and Éva Gauthier, Parlow found it the most reliable way of earning an income from music. Her first faculty appointment was to the music department of Mills College in Oakland, California, in 1929. Parlow found satisfaction in teaching female students in the same manner she had been trained. At the same time, she switched from solo concerts to ensemble and chamber work. Parlow organized a string quartet in which she played first violin, her first venture into this area of the string repertoire. In 1933, Mills College awarded her an honorary Master of Arts degree and by the summer of 1935, she had formed the South Mountain Parlow Quartet in Massachusetts. Thus, by the mid-1930s, she was well established in her second career.

Parlow left Mills College in 1936 for an appointment at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music. However, at the outbreak of the Second World War, Kathleen and Minnie felt they could not stay in the isolationist United States when their homeland was at war. They therefore made the decision that finally brought this great talent back to the country of her birth.

 

The decision to return permanently to Canada was made easier once the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto engaged Parlow for a series of lecture-recitals. She was by then at the same level as Auer, teaching not only students but also professional violinists. The violinist Harry Adaskin noted that the lectures were immensely successful:

"Every violinist of note in Toronto was there.… I saw most of the best fiddlers in town coming in and out of her studio."

(Canadian Music, page 3)

Money was still a concern, however, and Parlow seemed uncharacteristically diffident. She wrote to Sir Ernest MacMillan to propose that she should teach for the Conservatory.

"It seems to me I could be of use to the Conservatory and, incidentally, Canada. But I am so cowardly at taking a risk that I really do want a guarantee. Needless to remark, if my actual living is secure[,] I can do so much better work. I don't thrive on anxiety."

(French, 1967)
 

Parlow's resulting appointment to the Royal Conservatory in 1941 brought with it temporary financial security. Soon, too, Parlow found herself performing with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Ernest MacMillan. Now as busy as ever, she taught students at her new home in Toronto, to which the Parlows moved in March 1941.

It is perhaps for Parlow's pioneering ventures in chamber music that she is best remembered in Canada. Soon after moving to Toronto she formed The Canadian Trio, with cellist Zara Nelsova, and Sir Ernest MacMillan at the piano, both from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Considering the high calibre of musicianship, the Trio's glowing reviews were hardly surprising. The Toronto Evening Telegram said that the Trio had something to say that Canada was yearning to hear and The Globe and Mail called the Trio a chamber organization of high distinction.

Parlow, Nelsova and MacMillan performed together until early 1944, focusing on concerts in Ontario (e.g., University of Toronto, October 1942; Queen's University, Kingston, November 1943 and January 1944) and radio broadcasts. Archival documents show that the Trio's typical fee was $300 for a Toronto performance, divided three ways, minus the costs of photos and printing, leaving about $88 per performer for a concert. They sometimes asked fees of up to $750, depending on the venue, to cover travel and additional costs.

 

The Parlow String Quartet

Encouraged by the success of this venture, Parlow proceeded, in 1942, to form her third string quartet, entitled simply The Parlow String Quartet. She was joined by co-founder Isaac Mamott, the principal cellist of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra; Samuel Hersenhoren, second violin; and violist John Dembeck. Parlow handled bookings and business affairs, as well as her duties as principal violinist, while simultaneously continuing with the Trio and her teaching and solo responsibilities. Adopting The Canadian Trio's successful formula, The Parlow String Quartet concentrated on concerts in Canada and did not travel abroad. They debuted in April 1943, on CBC radio and in concert at Toronto's Eaton Auditorium the following month. During the 15 years the Quartet performed, they played in Ottawa, Kingston, Quebec City, Winnipeg, London and Hamilton, as well as throughout Western Canada and the Maritime provinces, and appeared frequently in concert series of the Royal Conservatory. Wider audiences were reached via the economical means of radio broadcasts. For example, on March 24, 1946, the CBC made a national broadcast of their performance of the D Minor Quartet by Sibelius, whom Parlow had met in Finland around the time he composed it.

As always, Parlow's performances received unrestrained congratulations. The Toronto Telegram called the recital by the Parlow one of the loveliest concerts heard in Toronto during years. The paper praised each of the players as a distinguished master of music making and exclaimed that the quartet played to one another with the sympathy of genius. Listeners noted that Parlow expertly subordinated her solo style to the needs of the ensemble.

The fact that Parlow was able to lead chamber groups of highly talented performers speaks to the esteem her fellow musicians held for her and to her energy, dedication and organizational ability. She explained her philosophy:

"For success in music as in any art there are no rules. My way to what measure of success I have achieved has lain through work -- hard, continuous, systematic."

(French, 1967)

Performers came and went from the Quartet, and several of her students, such as Rowland Pack, were drafted as replacements, but it remained Parlow's in name and achievement. The Quartet performed not only the standard repertoire, but also gave Canadian premieres of works by Kodaly, Britten, Glinka, Hindemith and Kreisler, and by Canadian composers John Weinzweig, James Gayfer and Oskar Morawetz. They later made recordings of the Weinzweig quartet and other pieces.

Parlow's successes in chamber music were equaled by her success as a teacher. She was so popular in Toronto that she had to turn applicants away. She taught aurally, expecting students to imitate her movements and interpretation. Lucky was the student who got to see the great Parlow at a private demonstration. Above all, she favoured Auer's teaching approach, often quoting him and his predecessors. Among her many students who enjoyed successful careers were Gisèle LaFleche (known professionally as the singer, Gisèle Mackenzie) and the conductor, Victor Feldbrill. Parlow achieved her best results with students who were as dedicated and ambitious as she, but expressed disappointment in those who chose the security of an orchestral position instead of a precarious solo career.

By her sixties, Parlow had experienced losses and personal disappointments. She had never married, believing firmly that to be an outstanding violinist required complete dedication. "Papa" Auer had died in 1930, but the biggest blow came with the death of her mother in June 1954. From financial necessity, Parlow continued performing, giving a concert series in Toronto in January 1958 with Mario Bernardi as accompanist, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of her first professional concert. In the same year, the Parlow String Quartet ceased to perform. As her career wound down, so did her earning power. She had no pension and by 1959, Parlow, again like Albani and Gauthier, experienced financial straits. For not the first time in her career, she relied on the generosity of others; her friends, among them Godfrey Ridout, established a fund for her support. In retrospect, Parlow summed up her career by saying she had "never a great deal of money, but wonderful experiences" (French, 1967).

In October 1959, some stability came when friends arranged for the 70-year-old violinist to be appointed head of strings at the College of Music of the University of Western Ontario. Then, in April 1960, she fell and seriously injured the humerus bone in her left arm, a disaster for a violinist. After surgery, therapy and six months' recuperation, she recovered sufficiently to demonstrate in class.

 

In August 1963, Parlow suffered another fall that resulted in a broken hip, and she died of a heart attack on August 19 while convalescing. Dedicated to her beloved "fiddle" to the last, through her will, Parlow endowed the Kathleen Parlow Scholarship for students of stringed instruments at the University of Toronto, supported by the proceeds from the sale of her Guarnerius violin.

Kathleen Parlow earned her place in music history and not just alongside women violinists, including Wilma Neruda, Marie Hall and Maud Powell. In the eyes of many, she was without rival among violinists of either sex. Those who knew Parlow or heard her perform spoke of her in superlatives: "among the few great artists of the violin"; "among the best violinists of the day", "one of the elect"; and "phenomenally talented" were phrases used to describe her playing. Recognizing her achievements, both CBC Radio (1982) and Radio Canada International (1986) produced programs to revive the virtuoso's work.

Kathleen Parlow, a musician of destiny, had made the long journey from child prodigy, to adult virtuoso, to chamber musician and teacher, to legend in her own time. As her mentor, Leopold Auer, had done, she left her greatest legacy by teaching their shared artistic vision to the next generation of Canadian violinists: "Sing, sing on your violin."

Selected recordings available

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References

  • Adaskin, Harry. "Kathleen Parlow : an appreciation". Canadian music. Vol. 1, no. 4 (Apr. 1941). P. 3. AMICUS No. 131034
  • Auer, Leopold. My Long Life in Music. London : Duckworth, [1924]. xii, [1], 377 p. AMICUS 12422686
  • Graded Course of Violin Playing. 4th ed. New York : C. Fischer, [c1926- ]. AMICUS 12469828
  • French, Maida Parlow. Kathleen Parlow : a portrait. Toronto : Ryerson Press, c1967. ix, 167 p. AMICUS 3750455
  • Hambleton, Ronald. "Tea with Kathleen Parlow". Music magazine. (Feb.1978). P. 12-15. AMICUS No.  5549
  • "Hersenhoren, Samuel". Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Edited by Helmut Kallmann et al. 2nd ed. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, c1992. xxxii, 1524 p. AMICUS 12048560
  • "Kathleen Parlow" [textual material] at Library and Archives Canada
  • "Parlow, Kathleen". Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Edited by Helmut Kallmann et al. 2nd ed. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, c1992. xxxii, 1524 p. AMICUS 12048560
  • Parlow, Kathleen. "Student days in Russia". The Canadian Music Journal. Vol. 6, no. 1 (Autumn 1961). P. 13-20. AMICUS 123175
  • "Parlow String Quartet". Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Edited by Helmut Kallmann et al. 2nd ed. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, c1992. xxxii, 1524 p. AMICUS 12048560
  • Samuel Hersenhoren Collection at Library and Archives Canada
  • Sir Ernest MacMillan Collection at Library and Archives Canada
  • Withrow, John B. "Ladies of the Bow". Bravo!. (May/June 1988). P. 54-59. AMICUS 3487772
  • "Zara Nelsova" [textual material] at Library and Archives Canada

Discography

  • Creighton, James. Discopaedia of the violin. 2nd ed. Vol. 2. Burlington, Ont. : Records Past Publishing, [1994]. AMICUS 13710167
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