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Helen Hopekirk (1856-1945)

A page from near the end of the Concertst&uumlck Hopekirk was something of a second Clara Schumann, with a huge career as a touring virtuoso pianist. Press reviews and contemporary accounts show that she was regarded as one of the great concert pianists of her generation. As performer, teacher and composer she exerted a strong influence on the cultural life of her adopted city - Boston. She was born in Scotland and later became an American citizen. She studied composition with Carl Reinecke, and later with Theodor Leschetizky; he described her as "the finest woman musician I have ever known." Following successful debuts with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and at London's Crystal Palace, she started making regular and extended tours of America. George Chadwick invited her to teach at the New England Conservatory and in 1897 she settled in Boston. In 1900 she performed her Piano Concerto in D major with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Her recitals frequently included her own compositions, which reflect her love of Celtic folk tunes. She was interested in how Chopin and Vaughan Williams created beauty and vitality by marrying their musical natures with a foundation in touch with all humanity through folk song. As well as the two works for piano and orchestra, she wrote two violin sonatas and numerous songs and piano pieces.

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Concertstück. 1894
Maestoso - Allegro con fuoco - Meno Allegro - Tempo Primo - Poco Meno Allegro - Cadenza - Presto. D minor.
Solo Piano, 2 fl, 2 ob, 2 cl, 2 bn, 4 hn, 2 tpt, 3 tbn, perc, timp, stgs. 20 mins
This is an expansive fantasy on celtic tunes in a popular, grand romantic style. The pianism reflects her as a technically superior pianist of uncommon sensitivity and imagination. Here are some of Hopekirk's own notes written for the American premiere given with the Boston Symphony Orchestra:
"It will be noticed that the Concertstück is moulded pretty much on classical lines at its opening, but as it develops there is a characteristic freedom of form, and what may be called fantastic flavour, redolent of northern breezes and heathery hills. After a ff chord from the orchestra the pianoforte arrests our attention with a prelude. The orchestra then announces the Allegro con fuoco, which enters piano but increases rapidly to assume a wild and barbaric character. The second subject, which is like a plaintive love-song, is first delivered by cellos and violas, answered by the piano, then the full orchestra. An orchestral tutti, built on the prelude and the barbaric theme, leads to the development. After brilliant passages for the piano, the cadenza enters like a melancholy recitative on the first subject, capricious and fanciful transformations succeeding each other. A feature of the cadenza is the introduction of the oboe, which lingers with dreamy tenderness over the main theme, while the piano supplies soft harp-like harmonies. The short Presto finale provides a tutti conclusion."
The Scottish musicologist John Purser had no reservations about the value of the Concertstück: "it bloody well ought to stir them in the aisles as it is full of mood and very effective piano writing. When one reflects on the music for showy pianist and orchestra which gains international currency, then I see no reason why this piece should not join the ranks - indeed raise its head well above the standard."
We gave the English premiere in October 2002 to a very warm response.

I am indebted to Dana Muller for the information, quotations and musical illustration. They come from her dissertation "Helen Hopekirk (1856-1945): Pianist, Composer, Pedagogue: A Biographical study; A Thematic Catalogue of her works for Piano; A Critical Edition of her Concertstuck in D minor for Piano and Orchestra." published as a Doctor of Musical Arts essay at the Hartt School of Music, University of Hartford, in May 1995. To visit her web site, click here.
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