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Leon Sametini (Leon Sametini Collection)

The Rosenthal Archives recently received a collection of materials documenting the life of violinist, influential teacher, and member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Leon Sametini.

Sametini was born on March 16, 1886, in Rotterdam, Holland, where his father Samual was principal flute in the Royal Opera Orchestra. He showed early promise on the violin and soon became a protégé of Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, who funded his study with the famed violin pedagogue Otakar Ševčík for one year.

When Sametini was fifteen, the Queen gifted to him an early eighteenth-century Serafin violin and funded his enrollment at the Prague Conservatory from 1902 until 1903. There he continued his studies with Ševčík and with then-director of the conservatory, Antonín Dvořák.

Sametini cited violinist and composer Eugène Ysaÿe as a particularly important influence on his playing, despite not formally studying with him: “It was after I had finished with all my teachers that I really began learning how to play violin: above all from Ysaÿe, whom I went to hear play wherever and whenever I could.”

A year after graduating, Sametini embarked on a decade of international travel, beginning with a six-month concert tour through Holland before moving to London and touring both England and Ireland. In 1905, he first appeared with the renowned soprano Nellie Melba, one of the first Australian classical musicians to win international recognition. Sametini also gave recitals throughout 1907 and 1908 with Australian contralto Ada Crossley and her eponymous Concert Company. Also supporting Crossley in her tour of England was composer and pianist Percy Grainger. With Crossley’s company, Sametini went on to tour Australia and New Zealand, as well as India and Indonesia, in 1908.

In 1912, Sametini departed London for Chicago, where he had accepted a position as the head of the violin department at the Chicago Musical College (now a division of the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University), a position he would hold for the remainder of his life. Soon after his arrival, Sametini rehearsed Brahms’s Violin Concerto with Frederick Stock, and it became clear that there were plans in the works for him to soon perform with the Theodore Thomas Orchestra (as the ensemble was then known).

However, this opportunity came about sooner than anticipated. Mischa Elman was scheduled to perform Saint-Saëns’s Third Violin Concerto with the Orchestra on January 24 and 25, 1913. However, Frederick Wessels, the Orchestral Association’s manager, received a telegram from Elman at 10:11 a.m. on January 24, stating that Elman was “ill with grip [the flu] in hospital, Madison [Wisconsin]. Doctors Head and Jackson refuse to allow me leave, therefore impossible to play today or tomorrow.”

Stock immediately contacted Sametini, who, with mere hours’ notice, replaced Elman and performed Brahms’s Violin Concerto with the Orchestra. In spite of these unfavorable circumstances, the violinist’s dramatic debut was received enthusiastically by Chicago audiences and critics. Sametini earned “much applause and great success,” wrote Maurice Rosenfeld in the Chicago Daily News, and “belongs to the list of brilliant young violin virtuosos. . . . Sametini’s playing of the difficult Brahms concerto disclosed him to be an artist of eminent qualities [with the ] technical equipment of the leading virtuosos of the day.” In the Chicago Tribune, Glenn Dillard Gunn added, “Such a feat inspires respect. It attests to the courage and decision of character as well as to abundant talent and sterling qualities of musicianship. These were the salient elements revealed in [Sametini’s] interpretation.”

Sametini performed a similar act of musical heroism just a week later, on February 2, 1913, with the Chicago Grand Opera Company. He stepped in as a last-minute replacement for Efrem Zimbalist, performing the final two movements of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto along with Saint-Saëns’s Introduction and Rondo capriccioso. “Mr. Sametini proved again his right to be reckoned among the foremost artists of he city with a musicianly performance . . singing qualities of tone, with accentuation of rhythm, and with musical phrasing,” wrote the critic in the Chicago Examiner.

The violinist became a frequent soloist across the city and surrounding areas, and Sametini would feature as soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on two more occasions. On December 20 and 21, 1918, he appeared with the CSO playing Saint-Saëns’s Third Violin Concerto, conducted by Eric DeLamarter. Just over a decade later, on December 28 and 29, 1928, he returned, this time performing Lalo’s Violin Concerto in F minor and Saint-Saëns’s Introduction and Rondo capriccioso under Stock’s baton. At Stock’s invitation, Sametini joined the Orchestra’s first violin section for the 1942-43 season. He died of a heart ailment in Chicago on August 20, 1944, at the age of fifty-eight.

Dinner given in honor of Leopold Auer by the American Guild of Violinists on April 14, 1918; Auer is on the far left, Frederick Stock bottom left, Sametini bottom right, and seventeen-year-old Jascha Heifetz in the center (Kaufmann & Fabry photo, Leon Sametini Collection)

Leon Sametini is best remembered for his contributions as a pedagogue, working with many notable violinists, and his teaching philosophy is reflected in the diverse achievements of his protégés. He encouraged his students to not only consider a career as a soloist, but also to explore the broad range of opportunities available in an orchestra. Sametini recognized the distinct skills required of both the soloist and the orchestral violinist, treating both roles with impartiality and encouraging his students to pursue whichever best played to their strengths.

Writing in The Musical Leader, Sametini expressed his philosophy. “There is every opportunity in this country to become an able musician and a great violinist, and those who do not attain the rank of soloists need not feel that they are any less musicians on that account. Their unique talents simply make them better orchestral musicians than soloists, and who is to say there is any degree of superiority between these two branches of the same art?”

Sametini’s students included many orchestral string players, including several members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra: William Faldner (violin, 1956–1994), Victor Charbulak (violin, 1922–1967), Samuel Thaviu (violin, 1934–1937), and Sheppard Lehnhoff (viola, 1930–45 and 1953–1978). Milton Preves also studied with Sametini before being appointed to the CSO’s viola section by Frederick Stock, achieving the ranks of assistant principal and principal in 1936 and 1939 respectively, serving until his retirement in 1986. Mildred Brown studied with Sametini in 1915 before becoming a charter member of the Civic Orchestra during the 1919–20 season. Brown was invited to return to the Civic by Stock in 1922, becoming the ensemble’s first female concertmaster. Fred Spector, another of Sametini’s students, also was concertmaster of the Civic before joining the CSO’s first violin section in 1956, serving until his retirement in 2003. Sametini also taught composer and violinist Silvestre Revueltas, whose works have been performed by the Orchestra on several occasions.

The Leon Sametini Collection in the Rosenthal Archives contains the violinist and teacher’s collection of musical memorabilia from his decades of performance, including clippings of concert reviews from his years as an international soloist, as well as autographed portraits of his many friends, teachers, and collaborators within the musical world.

This article also appears here.

With her masters in musicology from Northwestern University, Sara Mercurio is an acquisitions assistant for Northwestern’s libraries and an intern in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association’s Rosenthal Archives. In the fall of 2023, she will begin a master’s degree in library and information science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.



Prokofiev in Chicago

During Sergei Prokofiev’s first visit to America, he appeared with the Orchestra as conductor and piano soloist in two U.S. premieres. He was soloist in his First Piano Concerto (under the baton of assistant conductor Eric DeLamarter), and after intermission he conducted his Scythian Suite.

“Prokofiev made his first Chicago appearances as pianist, conductor, and composer at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert yesterday afternoon, and in all three musical capacities proved himself a sensational figure, one who must be reckoned with in the future,” wrote Maurice Rosenfeld in the Chicago Daily News. “He is a remarkably gifted pianist; virile, full of exuberant activity, equipped with a wonderfully complete technique, extraordinary supple wrists which dash off octaves with lightning like rapidity and brilliance, steely fingers which reel forth scale passages of great clarity, and a touch which is directed to reproduce tones which range from mere whisperings to thunderous masses of sound. As a composer, he disclosed himself in his concerto for piano with orchestral accompaniment as a musician of great originality, as a writer who finds beauty in music in rhythmic combination more than in melodic lines, and emotional expression in masses of varying degrees of tones and contrasting dynamic changes.”

December 6 and 7, 1918

December 6 and 7, 1918

Over the next twenty years, Prokofiev returned regularly to Chicago to perform with the Orchestra, both as conductor and soloist. His December 1921 appearances included the world premiere of his Third Piano Concerto (and he conducted the world premiere of his Love for Three Oranges with the Chicago Opera Association at the Auditorium Theatre), and he led the U.S. premieres of his Divertimento in 1930 and the first suite from his ballet Romeo and Juliet in 1937.

This article also appears here.



November 25 and 26, 19xx

November 25 and 26, 1927

On November 25, 1927, Myra Hess made her debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Schumann’s Piano Concerto. Frederick Stock conducted.

Maurice Rosenfeld in the Chicago News commented that Hess performed “in a way that this romantic, tuneful, and particularly pianistic concerto has but rarely been performed in Chicago. Miss Hess has temperament and a musical nature which invests every note that she played with vitality and individuality, and her emotions and feelings as they are affected by the music that she plays are translated into the tones that come forth. . . . She made a distinct success and proved herself one of the finest soloists we have had this season thus far. The Orchestra under Mr. Stock’s sympathetic direction gave her a beautiful accompaniment and it was evident that the members of the band enjoyed the concerto as much, at least, as did the public.”

November 25 and 26, 1927

November 25 and 26, 1927

Hess returned regularly to Chicago until the outbreak of World War II, during which she remained in her native England and inaugurated a series of lunchtime concerts—nearly 1,700 between 1939 and 1946—at the National Gallery in London’s Trafalgar Square. Appearing frequently on the series, she often continued to perform, undaunted, during air raids. King George VI recognized Hess as a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1941.

Following the war, she resumed her tours to the United States, appearing regularly in Chicago. Her last collaboration with the Orchestra was on March 7 and 8, 1957, in Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto with Fritz Reiner conducting.

“It is a curious thing how a great performance can stir great echoes,” wrote Claudia Cassidy in the Chicago Tribune. “The line of the concerto was constantly reinforced in the mutual serenity of collaboration. Orchestra and soloist spoke the same language. . . . In the finale the gayety was shared, the stature sustained through the fugal flutter to the joyous signing off that set the house roaring its delight.”

This article also appears here.

the vault

Theodore Thomas


The opinions expressed here are mine and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.

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