Above the door of 148 Portobello High Street is a small commemorative plaque to Helen Hopekirk, placed there in 2006, the 150th anniversary of her birth on the 20th of May 1856. Who she? Just another forgotten Scottish musician?

Well, yes and no. Portobello remembered her with a mini festival: but it is thanks to two Americans, Dana Muller and Gary Steigerwalt, that something has been done to remind us of a truly remarkable woman both as pianist and composer. To both of them I am much indebted.

“Up-town” in Edinburgh, at twenty years old she played Beethoven’s 5th Piano Concerto, the “Emperor”, and was performing with her teacher Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie, whose piano music she was one of the very first to perform. That was 1876.

Her father was a printer, bookseller and piano retailer, and following his wishes shortly before his death, she travelled to Leipzig to study in the Conservatoire under Maase, Reinecke, Jadassohn and Richter, making her debut in the Gewandhaus in 1878, playing the Chopin F minor Concerto. While there she also met Liszt.

“A meeting with Liszt, which took place in Leipzig while I was studying there, is one of the things that I remember with the greatest pleasure, as it showed his kindness of heart and sympathy with young enthusiasm … I was then at the height of my Liszt fever, and hoped that I might some time study with him. One evening, as I was descending the stairs, I met him face to face – this man of whom all Europe was talking, and whose compositions I admired with a frantic admiration. The suddenness of the encounter surprised me, and I stopped short, breathless.

“Presently, however, I found my voice, and on my mentioning the name of Lichtenstein, who was an old friend of Liszt, he (Liszt) showed the utmost cordiality, invited me to come and talk with him, setting off at once, and evidently taking it for granted that I would follow. But my embarrassment had not entirely disappeared, and I continued to stand, stock still.

He turned, offered me his hand, and a little later, to my own vast astonishment, I found myself talking freely and confidently as to an old friend.”

Hopekirk made her London debut at the Crystal Palace under Manns in 1879, playing the second Saint-Saëns Concerto. In London she met Clara Schumann, Grieg and Rubinstein, whose playing she particularly admired and whom she recalled replacing the artificial roses in her hat with real ones from his table. While in London she also met the famous poet Robert Browning.

“I had always, myself, conceived there to be a close relationship between the poetry of Robert Browning and the music of Robert Schumann. One afternoon in London, I was playing at the house of Lady Mary Hamilton. I had just finished Schumann’s Kreisleriana, that magic set of tone pictures, when a rather little man stepped up, and leaning over the piano commenced speaking in a most enthusiastic manner about the music. He evidenced an insight which, though he was evidently an amateur, astonished and delighted me. With all the ardor of youth I replied, and a rapturous discussion, a la Davidsbündler, was in progress, when up stepped our hostess, who said: ‘Mr Browning, won’t you have a cup of tea?’ You may imagine my astonishment, and, at first, consternation. But that is now one of my most treasured memories.”

In 1883 she performed under Henschel in Boston, again with the Saint-Saëns, and stayed in the US for three seasons, appearing in over sixty recitals and concerts. You might think that by now Hopekirk was well enough established not to require any further lessons, but she thought otherwise and in 1887 went to Vienna to study piano with the legendary Theodor Leschetizky who described her as “the finest woman musician I have ever known”. In Vienna she also studied composition with Nawratil and played with the renowned Belgian violinist, EugeneYsaye.

On the reverse of a cabinet card photograph, Leschetizky wishes Hopekirk “a successful journey that will result in many, many dollars.” Hopekirk’s description of her revered teacher is wonderfully revealing:

“Leschetizski is a small, very nervous, but kind-hearted man. It is true that he had fits of irritation. I recollect one occasion in the class when he became impatient and broke one of the strings of his instrument. He was sometimes very sarcastic, and always impatient of halfway work. But you would go far to find a more innately kind, considerate, generous man. From the majority of his artist pupils, he would accept no payment whatever.

As a teacher he laid especial stress upon artistic consciousness. He insisted upon the student knowing the why and wherefore of every technical combination, and how to apply such knowledge to esthetic interpretation. Technique was a means to an end. My first lesson was spent entirely in the demonstration of the various kinds of touch; my second in employing them in a Beethoven sonata.

He was a most illuminating commentator upon the music we studied. A passage, in a Chopin nocturne was like the unfurling of a beautiful piece of exquisite silk. The slow movement of Beethoven’s trio in D suggested thoughts of an old, stern castle in the midst of a battleground filled with grim reminiscences. . . . Those were wonderful days.”

Hopekirk became an influential teacher in the USA, notably in the New England Conservatory from 1897 until 1901, when commitments to private teaching took over. She took US citizenship along with her husband in 1918, but in 1919 they returned to live in Scotland, expecting a musical renaissance which never took place. Like Lamond, she was better appreciated in other countries and continents, so a year later Helen and William were back in the US, living in Brookline, and she resumed her teaching and performing, though later affected by her husband’s illness and death. For her last public appearance in 1939, she gave a recital of her own works in Steinert Hall, Boston.

As a composer, Hopekirk deserves much more attention. Her Concertstück was premiered by her in Edinburgh in 1894 and 1904 in Boston, and she premiered her Piano Concerto in D major in Boston in 1900. But the score and parts are missing, so her biggest work is lost to us. What we do have makes that loss all the more tragic. There are many lovely piano pieces, a fine early Violin Sonata and her songs were deservedly popular. They include outstanding settings of Heine’s Der Nordsee, deeply thoughtful lieder with a quiet beauty and assurance which can stand comparison with the best in the genre. A little masterpiece of a song cycle – but few have heard it.

Hopekirk’s music is romantic, poetic and grateful to play, and shows influences of Scottish folk music. She regarded folk music as an important element in musical education, and much admired the work of Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser.

In 1905 Hopekirk published her collection of Scottish Folk-Songs in her own arrangements. She also wrote a remarkable introduction, describing her memories of Gaelic singing.

“… as the song goes on, one is strangely moved by a subtle something - a wild irregularity of rhythm, something ancient, remote, more easily felt than expressed. The quaint Gaelic language, the old-world melodies, the quiet and pathos of the way of singing, are haunting…” Hopekirk’s words may seem condescending: but hers was a very real respect.

“There are also queer little grace notes introduced between the notes of the melody. As a child I remember hearing a beautiful old Highland lady over eighty years of age sing Jacobite songs to her own accompani¬ment on an old spinet-like piano, with such a little, sweet, pathetic voice, and with so many of these little grace notes, that it has ever since been one of the outstanding memories of my childhood. My maternal grandmother also had that quaint way of singing, and it used to be the pleasure of the church service to me to hear ‘Granny’s graces’ added to the decorous performances of the others.”

But now comes Hopekirk’s sharp-edged criticism of the state of cultural affairs in Scotland at the time – this written over a hundred years ago:

“Two influences have been powerful in stifling that impulse towards expression in music which has been for years the inheritance of both Gael and Lowlander. The first was the introduction of a hard, merciless Calvinism at the time of the Reformation. The aim of that seemed to be, not to ‘glorify God and enjoy Him’ and His gifts of the beautiful ‘forever,’ but to glorify Him by despising these gifts as a sacred duty. Scotland is only now recovering from that blight.”

And if that were not enough, the following asserts a reality which is with us to this day.

“Another influence was the Anglicizing of everything Scottish since the Union –‘girdling the world with Brixton,’ as George Moore expresses it. England brings material prosperity when she sets her foot on a lesser nation, but it is generally accompanied by a waning of interest in the real things, which are the inward things …”

Enough said.

Where can I hear Hopekirk’s music you may ask? Well, there are no commercial recordings available. However, here is a link to Gary Steigerwalt’s performance of the Concertstück and also for the Nordsee Lieder.

Two short pieces played by Philip Sear are also available on Youtube. A lecture recital The Audacity of Hopekirk including a performance of Hopekirk’s song settings of poems by William Sharp (“Fiona MacLeod”) is available. Hopekirk’s papers are kept in the Library of Congress, Washington.

The woman's persepective

What was it like to be a female musician in 19th century Edinburgh? Here is Catherine Jameson, writing in 1833, aged ten: “I am fonder of music than ever. Oh! Had I a pair of ten league boots to carry me to Berlin to see yourself and hear the delightful music . . . Professor gave a grand concert on Thursday last . . . I played two pieces on the Piano Forte, the first was a Concertstück by Weber with orchestral accompaniments . .”

The Weber is a decidedly difficult piece and to be able to even think of playing it in public at the age of ten is remarkable.

Then there was Robena Laidlaw (1819-1901). In her ’teens she performed in Berlin and Leipzig, and, in 1832, at Paganini’s farewell concert in London; of which performance he wrote “I shall never forget the prodigious effect she produced at my concert, and confess never to have heard that instrument [the piano] treated so magnificently”.

In June and July of 1837 she became intimate with Schumann. She was the dedicatee of his Fantasiestücke Opus 12:- “It is true I have not asked for permission to make this dedication, but they belong to you, and the whole ‘Rosenthal,’ with its romantic surroundings, is in the music.” The reference is to a walk in the Rose Valley when Schumann selected a flawless rose to present to her. Of her personality, he wrote:- “This artiste in whose culture are united English solidity and natural amiability, will remain a treasured memory to all who have made her closer acquaintance” and said of her playing that it was “thoroughly good and individual”.

Following a tour in Prussia, Russia and Austria, Laidlaw was appointed pianist to the Queen of Hanover, but settled in London in 1840. In 1852 she married a George Thomson - a fellow Scot – and this put an end to her career.

Helen Hopekirk, on the other hand was lucky in her husband, who devoted his energies to furthering her career. She had married William A Wilson on 4 August 1882 but sadly he was injured in a traffic accident in 1896 and in the end Hopekirk’s career changed from that of performer to teacher. Wilson is shown in a photo likely taken during Hopekirk’s series of recitals in Chicago in 1886. Theirs was a happy marriage without issue, ended only by her husband’s death in 1926. For her last public appearance in 1939, she gave a recital of her own works in Steinert Hall, Boston. She died in Massachusetts, in November 1945.