Left: Ellen Ballon, concert flyer (ca. 1933)
Right: Portrait of Ellen Ballon as a Young Woman, by Edward Barnard Lintott (oil on canvas, ca. 1935)
by permission of Dalhousie University, Halifax
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7 November 2014
Recent concert travels brought me to the Atlantic seacoast city of Halifax, in the northeastern province of Nova Scotia. At the Dalhousie University Arts Centre, where Symphony Nova Scotia presents its concerts (I was soloist in the Beethoven Third Piano Concerto with the superb conductor Bernhard Gueller), the main lobby is graced by a magnificent display — an imposing bronze sculpture by Jacob Epstein, and beautiful oil portrait by Edward Barnard Lintott (pictured above). The subject? Montréal-born pianist Ellen Ballon, a musician of the first rank whose name should drop from the tongues of all proud Canadian pianophiles as easily as those of Glenn Gould, Anton Kuerti, André Laplante, or Marc-André Hamelin.
Canada was home to a trio of outstanding women pianists in the mid-twentieth century: Mme. Ballon (1898 – 1969), Reah Sadowsky of Winnipeg (1915 – 2012), and the Ukrainian-born, Toronto-based Lubka Kolessa (1902 – 1997). All deserve far greater attention for their lives’ work and recordings; all are unheard on the airways of the CBC Radio; and all are nearly forgotten today. As an American emigré to the north, it often seems to me that Canadians believe the piano did not even exist before its invention by Glenn Goldberg Gould. Among the music students of Dalhousie University that I met during my visit, not one had bothered to learn the name of the woman whose portrait and bust they passed daily on their way to classes and concerts, nor did they have any inkling of what she had accomplished.
Which was a staggering amount. One of the youngest musical prodigies of all time (in 1906 Artur Rubinstein described her as “the greatest pianistic genius I have ever met”), Ellen Ballon was accepted as a pupil of Rafael Joseffy at age eight, and made her début with the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Walter Damrosch, playing Concertos of Mendelssohn and Beethoven, at the age of twelve (giving Josef Hofmann, who later taught her in Switzerland, a run for his money). She was invited to the White House three times, once as a child to play for President William Howard Taft, and in her adult years to perform for Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower. In her twenties she worked with Wilhelm Backhaus in Vienna and Alberto Jonás in New York. At the height of her touring career, she resided variously in England, Canada and the United States, where she regularly appeared as a headliner in major venues like Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera House.
There was also something of Latina complexion to her personality, and perhaps Ellen Ballon’s very finest and most rhythmically fiery playing can be heard in her landmark recordings of the piano music of Brazilian composer Heiter Villa-Lobos (1887 – 1959), from whom she commissioned and premiéred his First Piano Concerto in 1946. In an interview for the Ottawa Citizen newspaper in August 1953, Ballon described Villa-Lobos’ music as “of the earth… it is so basic, primitive, if you like and so real.”
An interest in South American repertoire was something that Ballon shared with Reah Sadowsky, who recorded new music of Brazilian and Chilean composers and composed an orchestral dance entitled Cadíz. One can surmise that their mutual teacher Alberto Jonás, a Spaniard, helped to spark such curiosity in his two young Canadian pupils. Jonás dedicated his own difficult Novelette/Étude in Seconds to Ballon.
In the Ellen Ballon Archives housed at Dalhousie’s impressive Killam Library, one finds a treasure trove of manuscripts and autographs which attest to the wide literary and artistic circles in which Ballon travelled. She corresponded with Sir Wilfred Laurier, writer Edna Ferber, artist Kathleen Shackleton, sculptor Jacob Epstein, singer Lotte Lehman, violinist Yehudi Menuhin, composer Aaron Copland, and countless others. She enjoyed a long and celebrated friendship with author W. Somerset Maugham, and my jaw literally dropped to see the shelf of warmly autographed first editions of his novels on the archival shelf.
The daughter of a wealthy family, Ellen Ballon herself generously supported the works of young and talented artists, and left a large endowment to McGill University, where she was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Music degree in 1954. This was a woman who felt clearly, that as her own artistic gifts had been carefully nurtured, so too she could nurture those who would succeed her.
Some years ago I proposed to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that a collection of broadcast shows could be made, to revitalize the interest in pioneering and extraordinary Canadian pianists like Ballon, Sadowsky, and Kolessa (I imagined a series entitled “Gold before Gould”). There was not much interest, although after two years of nudging I did get the CBC to record one of Reah Sadowsky’s last house concerts, when she was 93 years old. After my visit to Dalhousie, I will once again try some nudging, to get the recorded legacy of Ballon and others onto the Canadian airways. But I do find it ironic, that an American might be more interested in the roots of Canadian pianism than those whose birthright should provide far more enthusiastic pride about it.
“It’s your country. If you don’t give a damn about your own heritage, why the hell should I?” was one provocative line I used in a conversation with a disinterested producer. His attitude was: it’s old news, no one remembers or cares, it’s not interesting any more. But I say that history forgotten is history lost, and it is unnecessarily tragic to lose the rich musical legacy of great artists such as Ellen Ballon. She lived a magnificent and generously artistic life, and we may yet enjoy the manifold musical gifts she bequeathed us. It is our job, as musicians or music lovers from any country, to listen to her work, and to know the beauty that flowed from her hands. Surely that would be Ellen Ballon’s own lasting wish.
Bust of Ellen Ballon, pianist, by Jacob Epstein (bronze, London 1938)
by permission of Dalhousie University, Halifax