A century ago, any American musician who aspired to an international concert career had to first acquire a European education and reputation.
Stifled by anti-American sentiments towards Americans as musicians and Old World prejudices towards women, Lucy Hickenlooper would later reinvent herself as Olga Samaroff and become one of America’s first and perhaps most famous international female concert artists of the early 20th Century.
Musically trained by her maternal grandmother, Samaroff later studied in Paris after winning a competition and becoming the first American woman to ever be admitted to the classes at the prestigious Conservatoire de Musique. Three years later she traveled to Berlin where she studied privately. In 1904, after a disastrous marriage, Samaroff returned to New York, determined to start a new life and begin a concert career. Against her family’s advice and on borrowed money, Samaroff hired the New York Symphony and rented Carnegie Hall to give her American debut, a very risky venture in the world of 1905, especially for a woman. A New York promoter also advised her to change her name. Thus against tremendous odds, Lucy Hickenlooper, a.k.a. Olga Samaroff, gave an American debut and rose from complete obscurity to become the most successful American woman concert pianist of her time.
Samaroff’s virtuoso career was marked with improbable firsts. She was the first American pianist to perform all 32 Beethoven Sonatas in concert; the first woman music critic for a New York daily newspaper; and among the first pianists to ever make recordings (1908.) In 1944, she saw the immense potential for television and televised a series of lectures with the General Electric Company. Samaroff performed and socialized as the respected and beloved equal among all the leading musical figures of Europe and America. She counted among her personal friends all the great performers and composers of her time. She even married in 1911 one of the legendary conductors, Leopold Stokowski, whose talent she first recognized and career she fostered, even arranging for his first position as a conductor.
Divorced from Stokowski in 1923, Samaroff embarked on yet another career, becoming the only American-born piano faculty member at the new Juilliard School of Music (1924) and commuting faculty member for the Philadelphia Conservatory in 1928. She even launched the first competition for American musicians--the Schubert Memorial—creating for the first time, a venue only for young American musicians to perform and compete.
By the 1930s and 1940s, the name Olga Samaroff Stokowski was magic. Every aspiring music student wanted to study with her. Known to her many students as “Madam,” she was the beloved artist-teacher who launched the musical careers of our first generation American-born, American-trained concert pianists. William Kapell, Joseph Battista, Rosalyn Tureck, Joseph Bloch, Eugene List, Alexis Weissenberg, and Maurice Hinson are only a few whose talents first found expression under her tutelage. The young Van Cliburn had requested her as his teacher before entering Juilliard in 1947, but that was prevented by her sudden death of a heart attack in May 1948.
Virtuoso: The Olga Samaroff Story is the compelling story of an American woman who was a true musical progressive, an achiever, and an innovator. She was at the very center of a fascinating American music era that to this day still embodies the stamp of her many contributions to the world of music. Her legacy continues today through her students and grand students.