If anyone was to suggest that a young lady born in the city of Hull called Ethel Liggins was to become one of the most talented musicians of her generation, one could be a little surprised. Call it prejudice if you like, but the fact remains it seems like a fairy tale. From a terrace house to conducting at the Hollywood Bowl within less that 40 years is a remarkable achievement by any standards. But there is more. She was not only a conductor but also a top class pianist once dubbed the ‘Paderewski of Woman Pianists’, a teacher who was in considerable demand and a composer of some merit as well. In fact, she was a complete musician. The strange thing is that very few people seem to have heard of her. For some reason she has been ignored by musical historians and recording artists. It is the purpose of this excellent book to try to remedy this default.
Not content with an impressive career as a recitalist she studied composition with Ernest Bloch. She was later to undertake lessons in conducting with Eugene Goossens, Robert Heger and Genaro Papi. Over the years, she was to conduct a variety of major orchestra including the London Symphony, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Paris Conservatory and the New York Symphony Orchestra. In 1924, a reviewer in the National Zeitung insisted that “Leginska dominated the orchestra completely by the storm of her tremendous temperament and aroused the audience to tumultuous applause.” Another in the Daily Telegraph suggested that she “conducts with freedom and élan, and her expressive gestures are eloquent of the effects at which she is aiming.” These were typical of reviews at this time. Her career as a conductor was to last until 1957. An article on the internet suggests that she was “probably the first woman in musical history to be guest conductor of most of the world’s major orchestras, and the first of her gender to be engaged as a grand opera conductor, in London, Salzburg, New York City, Boston and elsewhere”. Just before the outbreak of the Second World War Ethel Leginska settled in Los Angeles and concentrated on teaching. She was to die in that city in 1970. The authors have presented the story of Leginska in largely chronological order - although not quite. They note that they have sometimes written chapters that consider various aspects of her career that were running concurrently. So, various topics such as Leginska as recording artist, her conducting, her teaching and her work as a recitalist are examined in separate chapters. Perhaps my one disappointment with this book is the relatively little discussion of her musical compositions. For example I could find little about her Symphonic Poem Beyond the Fields we Know. There is, however a good discussion of the Cradle Song, complete with a reprint of the music.