Long before I started doing serious research about the Price family, I was aware of two stories about my great grandmother Lizzie Price (Helen Elizabeth Leslie) and her musical career as a cornetist.
I was skeptical about both of them.
As it turns out, one of the stories is absolutely true. I still have my doubts about the other one.
According to story number one, Lizzie soloed at Massey Hall, a concert hall that was then, and is now, one of the finest in North America. If true, story number one is something the family can be genuinely proud of, even now, more than 120 years after the fact.
According to story number two, Lizzie took up the cornet because of her health. As she was approaching thirty, she was diagnosed with weak lungs and her doctor decided that blowing into a brass horn would be therapeutic.
Both stories were captured and preserved, in the early 1980s, by Margaret Leslie Lindner, a cousin and a family genealogist who was researching Lizzie’s mother’s family, the Campbells of Hastings County, Ontario.
My mother was a very lovely and beautiful person. After her third child was born, she studied the cornet and became an outstanding musician. [Another family member said that Elizabeth took up the cornet on the doctor’s recommendation as a means of strengthening her “weak lungs.”] She soloed in Massey Hall, then Toronto’s principal concert hall. She was a very kind person with a great sense of humour.Frances Price Rook (Lizzie’s youngest daughter) as quoted by Margaret Leslie Lindner,, Campbells of Hastings County, pp. 81-82
Let’s start with story number one…
Did Lizzie solo at Massey Hall?
Yes! she absolutely did. In fact, she soloed at Massey Hall not just once but at least three times. The first was in the evening of Wednesday, December 9, 1896, as part of a concert put on by the Knights of the Maccabees, one of the many fraternal societies that were active in Toronto in the 1890s.
As was usual for her musical appearances, Lizzie was billed as “Mrs. Helen Price.” According to the review the next day, she “was repeatedly encored.”
Star of Bethlehem, Tent No. 19, held its annual concert in the Massey Music Hall last night, when the programme presented included an excellent selection of Maccabean tableaux, songs and instrumental music. The building was crowded, the “standing room only” sign being displayed early in the evening, and the enthusiasm of the audience was in proportion to its size. Miss Jessie Alexander was heartily applauded for her different recitations and Miss Dickenson’s singing was, as usual, very favorably received. Another feature of the program was the cornet solo rendered by Mrs. Helen Price, who was repeatedly encored. Miss Janet D. Grant, Mr. B. Harvey, Mr. C. H. Fielding and Mr. E. Bowles also contributed to the entertainment. Altogether the concert was so successful that it has been decided to give two others on Christmas Day, one in the afternoon and the other in the evening.Toronto Globe, December 10, 1896, p. 2
The concert was so successful that they decided to schedule two more.
A “MACCABEAN” CHRISTMAS.
The Knights of the Maccabees have secured Massey Hall for Christmas afternoon and evening and will give two popular entertainments that day. The talent that they have engaged are Miss Frances World, soprano; Miss LaDell, elocutionist; Mrs. Helen Price, cornetist; Signor Blitz, conjuror and sleight-of-hand; Bert Harvey, comic, and Moody and Bland, refined humorists. Besides the above artists there will be a series of pictures given by the “Animatograph.” The plan for reserved seats opens on Thursday morningToronto Globe, December 15, 1896, P. 12
So Lizzie’s second and third solo performances at Massey Hall took place the afternoon and evening of Christmas Day, 1896. Admission was twenty-five cents and reserved seats were fifty cents.
Imagine how proud Lizzie’s family would have been! Her three children, Pearl, Leslie and Earl (aged eleven, eight and five) would probably have been allowed to come to the matinee. Her mother and father, William Leslie and Flora Campbell, might even have come into the city from their farm in Hastings County.
Now let’s look at story number two.
Did Lizzie start learning the cornet, after her third child was born, to help strengthen her weak lungs?
Joe and Lizzie’s third child, Earl, was born in September of 1891. With a newborn and two older children aged six and three, Lizzie probably had her hands full for a while. So let’s say, if the story is true, that she started taking cornet lessons early in 1892. She would have been about twenty-nine and a half.
So how long would it have taken her to go from novice to concert soloist? Do you think she could have done it in three years? If she started in 1892, could she be dazzling crowds with her virtuosity by 1895?
That’s what she would have to have done if, in fact, she started studying the cornet after Earl was born.
In her first performance that I have been able to find evidence for, Lizzie soloed at St. Andrew’s Hall in Toronto on a Friday evening in the spring of 1895. It was the third of May, and her performance was judged, in a front-page review in the Toronto Star, to be “remarkable.”
St. Andrews hall was crowded last evening when one of the best concerts of the season was given. Great credit is due to the committee for their efforts in securing the excellent list of talent. The cornet solo by Helen Price was the hit of the evening, for her playing was remarkable. She is without doubt the best lady cornetist that has appeared in Toronto for some time.Toronto Evening Star, May 4, 1895, p. 1
It was the 1890s and Lizzie’s time wasn’t all her own. She was expected to care for her husband and three children in the way that Victorian women did. Suppose, with that expectation, she was still able to set aside three hours a day, six days a week, to practice her cornet, starting in the first few months of 1892. By May of 1895, when she soloed at St. Andrews Hall, that would have given her roughly 3,000 hours of practice time, 7,000 hours short of Gladwell’s threshold.
That just doesn’t seem like enough to become, in three years, “the best lady cornetist that has appeared in Toronto for some time.”
As more evidence of Lizzie’s skill, here is a page out of the score of the Silver Stream Polka, one of two piece she played, before an audience of 1,500, at the Pavilion in the Horticultural Gardens the evening of December 12, 1895.
It looks pretty challenging. It might have sounded something like this. Once again, she received critical acclaim.
The promenade and musicale given at the Pavilion last night under the auspices of the John Eaton Co. in aid of the poor in the City of Toronto was in every way a brilliant success. […] Over 1,500 people were present, many of whom were seated in the gallery, while others enjoyed the promenade. All seemed to have a most enjoyable time, and indeed it would be strange if they had not, for a splendid programme was provided. The Queen’s Own Band, located at the far end of the gallery, gave a number of fine selections which were greatly appreciated. Mr. W. E. Ramsay kept the audience in excellent humor by his comic selections rendered in exceptionally good form. Mrs. Helen Price gave two cornet solos which gained for her well merited encores. […] The whole affair was a brilliant success and worthy of the highest praise.Toronto Globe, December 13, 1895, P. 7
So what’s the verdict on story number two?
My take is that, for Lizzie to have achieved such amazing skill by 1895, she must have started studying and practicing the cornet long, long before her third child Earl was born in 1891.
Whether she did so in order to improve her weak lungs, we’ll probably never know. If that was her motivation, it worked. There was clearly nothing wrong with her lungs when she debuted at St. Andrew’s Hall.