Concert pianist Ethel Leginska helped open doors for women seeking careers as orchestra musicians. She was born Ethel Liggins in Yorkshire, England, on April 13, 1886. Ethel soon emerged as a musical prodigy and performed her first concert when she was only seven. Winning the support of a wealthy patron, she began studying piano in Frankfurt, Vienna, and Berlin in 1900. By 1906 Liggins was performing recitals throughout Europe as Ethel Leginska. She perhaps took the new surname because she believed its Polish sound would give her more legitimacy as a musician. The next year she married Roy Emerson Whittern, an American music student. The couple had one son, Cedric, before divorcing in 1918. Leginska made her American debut in New York in 1913. She was immediately a popular and critic success. Impressing her audiences by her demanding repertoire, Leginska was dubbed the “Paderewski of women pianists,” a nickname that compared her to one of Poland’s most famed musicians.
Leginska also became known for her opposition to the handicaps female musicians and other professional women faced. Angry over her own unsuccessful custody fight for her son, she spoke out against the lack of child care options as well as the inadequate educational opportunities for women. In concert, she eschewed ball gowns for practical, comfortable clothing, making it clear to her audiences that she regarded herself not as an ornament, but as an artist. Although Leginska was more than willing to challenge society’s prejudice against female concert performers, she was unable to conquer her own personal obstacles. After suffering three nervous breakdowns, she abandoned the concert stage in 1926. Leginska instead began to concentrate on her work as a composer and conductor. Since the early 1920s, she had tried to carve out her conducting career, a field previously closed to women. Drawing on her contacts in the music world, she secured engagements as a guest conductor of many of Europe’s finest orchestras by promising to play a concerto as part of the program. In 1925, she returned to the United States to conduct the New York Symphony Orchestra, following with successful engagements in Boston
and Los Angeles. The novelty of a female conductor first drew in audiences, though soon Leginska’s obvious talents were earning her universal acclaim. The ambitious Leginska also devoted herself to establishing the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra (1926–27) and the Boston English Opera Company (1927–1929). In addition to directing the Chicago Women’s Symphony Orchestra, she also founded the National Women’s Symphony Orchestra in New York in 1931.
By the late 1930s, Leginska increasingly turned to teaching. In 1940, she settled in Los Angeles where she established a studio and gave lessons for more than a decade. She frequently staged concerts featuring her students as soloists and herself as conductor. In 1957 Leginska also conducted a Los Angeles orchestra in performing The Rose and the Ring, an opera she had composed in 1932. Having become the first woman to have a distinguished career as a pianist, conductor, and composer, Ethel Leginska died on February 26, 1970, at the age of 83.
Conlon, Paula. “Ethel Leginska.” In American National Biography, edited by John Arthur Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, vol. 13, pp. 432–433. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Neuls-Bates, Carol. “Leginska, Ethel,” In The New Grove Dictionary of American Music. Edited by H. Wiley Hitchcock and Stanley Sadie. New York: Grove’s Dictionaries of Music, 1986.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Columbia Masters. Ivory Classics, CD, 2001.
The Pupils of Leschetizky: A Gallery of Great Pianists. Pearl Opal, CD, 1992.