Violinist Camilla Urso “stood on the stage like a statue on fire,” in the words of writer Theodore Tilton. Nearly everyone who witnessed her virtuosity in the 19th century marveled at her fusion of passionate playing and poise, describing her presence as “ethereal” and “with an intonation as nearly perfect as the human ear will allow,” anointing her the “Queen Violinist of the World.” She was the first woman to perform as a concert violinist in the United States and a celebrated force in the classical music scene, beginning with her debut before the age of 10 in her home country of France. Later, she took grand tours across the globe from South Africa to Australia, and spent her last struggling years in New York vaudeville. At the peak of her fame, one of the wilder reports claims that 300 timber wolves were slaughtered to raise enough funds to bring her to the frontier of the Northwest United States.
So why is she almost entirely forgotten? Johanna Selleck in her 2002 paper on Urso wrote that “many of the characteristics that went into making Urso the exceptional person that she was also contributed to ensuring that her fame would not live on.” As a twice-married mother who was a performer, concert organizer, and teacher, she “did not fit comfortably within the late 19th-century paradigms of womanhood.” The lack of recordings from her era also means that many of its most celebrated musicians are not remembered.
Born in 1842 in Nantes (although some sources, including her Wikipedia page, list 1840), she was a child prodigy who sustained a career beyond a novelty act. According to Elisabeth Vincentelli in European Immigrant Women in the United States, when, at nine years old and with the support of her Italian flautist father Salvator Urso, she was accepted to the Paris Conservatory, “she was the first girl to be admitted as a student.” She was described by George Putnam Upton in his Musical Memories as, having an “inscrutable face” and “dark lustrous melancholy eyes.” And while critics often fixated on her stoic expressions and style of dress as much as her music, she argued at every chance for better opportunities for women in music. In an 1898 letter to the editor of Musical Courier, she railed: “Let my sisters agitate this question and assert their rights. It will in time benefit women with scanty means who have spent their time and money, when now men alone profit.”
Urso died in 1902 in New York City from appendicitis. Yet go to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn where she’s buried, and you won’t find her grave on the map. In fact, she wasn’t even on Find a Grave, that thorough online compendium of burials, when I set out to track down her memorial earlier this year (although I made her an entry after my visit). Instead, I had to search for her husband, Frédéric Luére, who was buried alongside after his death in 1927. There below the granite cross positioned among low stones in an eastern corner of the cemetery, she’s simply described as the “wife of” Luére, with no hint of her incredible life.
In an 1893 lecture for the Woman’s Musical Congress in Chicago, she responded to the constant question of why she chose to play the “masculine” violin with “why should I not have learned the violin?” She couldn’t singlehandedly change the cultural landscape, but she was an undeniable inspiration to aspiring musicians. Maud Powell, the first internationally prominent American-born violinist (man or woman), once said that Urso “showed me what it was I wanted to do — what all my crude scrapings might become.” In the 1908 The Child Violinst, Edith Lynwood Winn affirmed that Urso “did more in America to cause girls to enter the field of violin playing than anyone else has done.” And her impact went beyond music; an 1871 publication called Women of the Age relates how one listener exclaimed upon hearing her performance that she was “woman enough to vote.”
Kindra Becker Redd at the University of South Carolina recently led a digitizing project for their Camilla Urso Collection, adding photographs, letters, and programs to the rare source materials available on her life. Her 1874 biography, for example, is often described as “romanticized,” with passages seemingly made up by the author. Yet we can derive that her life did not end easily. Christine Ammer in Unsung: A History of Women in American Music writes that Urso “never managed to amass enough money to retire,” so that in the final years “she occasionally appeared in vaudeville shows, and she was harshly criticized for stooping so low.”
Without recordings, we can’t hear Urso play, we can’t experience the incredible performances that kept audiences rapt in 19th-century theaters, the ricocheting notes of Mozart or heavy tones of Beethoven that punctuated her stunning solos. All we can rely on are the over century-old accounts of her music, and the influence she had in inspiring female violinists who followed. In this account from an 1870 performance in support of the Mercantile Library of San Francisco, as described in The Violinist magazine, you can almost feel the physical anticipation of the crowd:
When she finally advanced to the front of the orchestra, in her usual quiet manner, she was hailed by a burst of enthusiastic recognition that made the pavilion tremble. The chorus and orchestra rose behind her, waving a thousand white handkerchiefs, and before her the entire audience rose, waving hats and handkerchiefs, clapping hands and cheering, and protracting the demonstration, while the little lady in her tasteful dress bowed low and often, acknowledging the plaudits of a whole city.
And after her violin bow was lowered, the last reverberations of its strings hushed, Urso “was obliged to reappear again and again” on the stage as the audience refused to end their applause.