Camilla Urso Collection

Irvin Department of Special Collections

Camilla Urso was one of the leading violinists of the 19th century. She accomplished this at a time when the violin was not considered to be a suitable instrument for a woman to play. Furthermore, she made the difficult transition from child prodigy to mature artist with a career that spanned more than fifty years and that took place on several continents.

Kindra Becker Redd (MLIS 2011) completed the digitization of the first group of materials donated by Betsy G. Miller and Brianna Hughes (MLIS 2015) added a second group of materials donated by Mrs. Miller. The images and metadata were uploaded into the content management system. Redd and Hughes scanned the items on the Avision bookedge scanner. Katharine Thompson Allen completed the metadata for the first group of materials.

About Camilla Urso

Urso was born in Nantes, France, in 1840, to musical parents who recognized her rare ability and who moved the family to Paris to enable the child Emilie Camille, as she was named at birth, to enroll in the Paris Conservatoire. She was the first female to be admitted for the study of the violin. In 1852, Urso’s father was persuaded, by the promise of a lucrative contract, to bring her to the United States. Although the initial backing failed, Urso’s skill was such that she was given a place on the platform with some of the leading artists of the day. Her youthful performances were lauded as “surprisingly fine” and even as “extraordinary.” She performed with the New York Philharmonic for the first time on January 20, 1855, when she was only fifteen.

Urso’s career turned in a different direction in 1856 when she was stranded without funds on a tour to Nashville. While there, she met and married her first husband, a pianist and music teacher. Her performances continued, but less frequently and apparently only locally. At about the time that Union troops invaded Nashville in 1862, Urso lost her husband. With small children to support, she fled north and determined to rebuild her career. She was said by her biographer Charles Barnard to have put aside the pieces of the child prodigy and to have taught herself those of the mature virtuoso. Her achievement was so great that it led to performances throughout North America, Europe, South America, Australia and South Africa. In her travels, Urso sometimes received tokens of appreciation for her performances. One of these was a silver laurel wreath presented to her in Melbourne in 1879. Despite her extensive travel, Urso considered the United States to be her home.

Less than two months before her death, Camilla still was actively performing. A review of her performance in Flint, Michigan, on November 22, 1901, said that she played the difficult Mendelssohn violin concerto to an enthusiastic audience. Camilla Urso died January 20, 1902, in New York City.

In private correspondence of November, 1902, Theodore Tilton, newspaper editor and poet, left a wonderful verbal image of Urso:

“And Camilla—a phenomenal combination of cold & heat—stood on the stage like a statue on fire.

One day in New York, William Lloyd Garrison, who had just ridden from Boston, said to me, ‘I am tired—I wish I might be refreshed by some fine music.’ I took him, that evening, to hear Camilla. The audience must have numbered three thousand—all as still as mice. Her playing was in her most characteristic vein—winter & summer both in one! She never had a more reverential listener than the grand old Reformer. When her calm conquest was over, there were tears in his eyes.”

For those interested in further details about the life of Camilla Urso, the following are recommended:

Camilla Urso: Pioneer Violinist (1840-1902) by Jennifer Schiller, a dissertation. University of Kentucky, 2006.

Music Research: new directions for a new century edited by Michael Ewans, Rosalind Halton, John A. Phillips. London: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2004. Chapter 9 “Camilla Urso: A Visiting Virtuoso Brings Music to the People” by Johanna Selleck.

“Camilla Urso,” by Susan Kagan. The Strad 102 (February 1991), p. 150+

Camilla, a Tale of a Violin by Charles Barnard. Boston: A. K. Loring, 1874. This work was written in Urso’s lifetime reportedly with her assistance. It contains some inaccuracies of dates and information, but it is a beginning point for a look at Urso’s life as viewed by a contemporary. In his preface, Barnard acknowledges the assistance of John S. Dwight. Dwight’s Journal of Music: a paper of art and literature is a resource for Urso’s early performances in Boston.

The New York Philharmonic online performance archive has a record of Urso’s twelve performances with them and lists the pieces that she played.

This Camilla Urso collection was begun as part of an attempt to learn more about Urso’s history and my own ancestry. My great-grandfather, a London-trained concert pianist by the name of Harry George Hopper, was said to have toured with Urso in 1888. A search of the Boston Globe of July 8, 1888, uncovered an announcement that the tour was to take place in the “Provinces” later that month. Urso and her small troupe consisted of, in addition to Hopper, the soprano Phila Griffin, tenor Louis Miller, and baritone J. Aldrich Libby. With Urso’s second husband, Frederic Luere, as their manager, they visited New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia. It was likely that this was a practice tour for a more extensive one that Urso later undertook to the far west. Griffin and Miller made that longer trip with her. For whatever reason, Libby and Hopper did not. Hopper was said to have returned home to his fiancee saying that he didn’t feel extensive touring was appropriate for a newly married man. He married September 4, 1888, after his tour with Urso ended in August.

During an intensive search of microfilmed journals to verify the existence of that provincial tour, it became clear that many sources had copied one another with regard to Urso’s history and had included each other’s errors. Thus, Urso’s incorrect birthdate of 1842 as given by biographer Barnard was repeated by many including myself in the article “A Lady Gives a Monster Concert,” The Bulletin of the Society for American Music Vol. XXVI, No. 1 (Spring 2000), p. 1+. Johanna Selleck located Urso’s birth certificate showing 1840 is the correct date, and Jennifer Schiller gives further evidence for that record in her dissertation.

Urso’s life in Nashville is another area that generally has been ignored. Curiosity led me to a search for music in Nashville and to Charles Robert Crain’s dissertation Music Performance and Pedagogy in Nashville, Tennessee, 1818-1900 (Ph.D. diss., George Peabody College for Teachers, 1975). This revealed Urso’s first appearance in Nashville in 1856 and her subsequent marriage that same year. The 1860 census shows George Taylor with wife Camille and children Emily and Lindsley. A 1938 New York Sun interview, with two of Urso’s daughters, disclosed that she had another daughter by Taylor, and it further states that she was widowed before she was twenty. That age may be off a bit since the 1860 census shows the presence of only two children and Taylor still alive. This also points out that family information is invaluable for providing clues, but it may not be perfect in detail. (Urso had an additional son and daughter by Frederick Luere.) There is no question that Urso’s time in Nashville and events there had a profound influence on the rest of her career and her personal life.

As scholars know, uncovering the details of a life takes all sorts of research. Biographies can be biased, and if they are based on details given from someone’s memory, they can be incorrect. For a musician, programs date performances, show the strength of the repertoire, and may indicate the reputation of the performer by the importance of the hall in which he or she played. Photographs create a mental image of the performer, and artifacts tangibly bring the past into the present day.

The silver laurel wreath that was presented to Urso in 1879 and other items featured in this digital collection are now held by the Irvin Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of South Carolina.

Betsy G. Miller

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