Elise Hall: An Interview with Dr. Paul Cohen
Though little known today, Elise Hall (1853-1924) was one of the most important proponents of the concert saxophone in the early 20th century. Best known as the dedicatee of Claude Debussy’s Rhapsodie for saxophone and orchestra, Hall commissioned a significant number of orchestral and chamber works that either feature or include the saxophone. In this interview, Dr. Paul Cohen discusses Hall’s importance to the saxophone and its repertoire, and he explores the works dedicated to her by the American composer Charles Martin Loeffler – works that Dr. Cohen discovered, performed, and published.
Producer: Michael Cappabianca, with assistance from Pamela Ferrali. Video editor: Elly Toyoda.
Cohen, Paul. “The Saxophone Music of Charles Martin Loeffler.” Saxophone Symposium 6, no. 4 (Fall 1981): 10-17.
Cohen, Paul. “Vintage Saxophones Revisited: Early Professional Women Saxophonists.” Saxophone Journal, no. 4 (July/August 1990): 8-13.
Noyes, James R. “Debussy’s ‘Rapsodie Pour Orchestre et Saxophone’ Revisited.” The Musical Quarterly 90, nos. 3/4 (Fall – Winter, 2007): 416–45. https://doi.org/10.1093/musqtl/gdn020.
Street, William Henry. “Elise Boyer Hall, America’s First Female Concert Saxophonist: Her Life as Performing Artist, Pioneer of Concert Repertory for Saxophone and Patroness of the Arts (Massachusetts).” D.M.A. Thesis, Northwestern University, 1983.
- 1853 – Elise Hall was born in Paris into a well-off family of Boston merchants. She was born as Elizabeth Boyer Swett Coolidge.
- 1879 – Elizabeth Boyer Swett Coolidge and Dr. Richard J. Hall married in Boston.
- 1895 – Elise Hall took up the saxophone in Santa Barbara, California.
- 1897 – Dr. Hall passed away, leaving his considerable estate to Elise Hall.
- 1899 – Hall began saxophone lessons with Georges Longy and founded the Boston Orchestral Club.
- 1901 – Hall premiered her first commission, Charles Martin Loeffler’s Divertissement Espagnol, with the Boston Orchestral Club. This same year, Hall commissioned Claude Debussy to write a work for saxophone and orchestra.
- 1904 – Hall premiered Vincent D’Indy’s Choral Varié, first in Boston and then in Paris. This same year, she premiered Loeffler’s Ballade Carnavalesque in Boston with the Longy Club and became president of the Boston Orchestral Club.
- 1919 – Debussy’s Rhapsodie pour orchestre et saxophone was premiered in Paris by saxophonist Pierre Mayeur. Hall received a copy of the work but never performed it.
- 1920 – Elise Hall gave her last public performance, in large part due to increasing deafness and declining health.
- 1924 – Elise Hall passed away in Westwood, Massachusetts.
Transcript of the Video
Though it may seem commonplace now, the saxophone is one of the most novel instruments commonly used in solo, chamber and large ensemble works today. At 174 years old, it is a baby when compared to instruments like the flute or trumpet which have existed in various iterations for hundreds or thousands of years. Because of this, the saxophone does not have the same historical breadth of repertoire as these more established instruments, and has struggled to find its place in the symphony orchestra. The body of works for saxophone soloist and orchestra was nonexistent until 1879, and remained incredibly limited until the beginning of the 20th century. In large part this expansion of the repertoire came about thanks to the trailblazing efforts of one saxophonist, a woman whose contributions were somehow forgotten for decades – Elise Hall.
To learn more about Hall’s legacy and contributions to the saxophone repertoire, we spoke to saxophonist and scholar, Dr. Paul Cohen. Dr. Cohen has done extensive research into the body of work commissioned by Hall and has unearthed several forgotten works written for her by the American composer Charles Martin Loeffler.
First, some background about Elise Hall. Hall was born in Paris during the mid 19th century and spent most of her adult life in Boston. She married a wealthy doctor but became a widow in 1897. With her new financial and personal freedom, she was able to pursue music. Hall was an amateur musician who did not take up the saxophone until late in life, but she had personal and professional connections with Georges Longy of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This connection helped her to commission works for the saxophone from some of the finest composers of her time.
Dr. Paul Cohen
Her background is fascinating. As she was learning to play the saxophone, in part to help with some medical issues, she was not a virtuoso player and never thought of herself as a virtuoso player. To become more involved in the musical times in her city of Boston, she became associated with the Boston Orchestral Club. In fact, she ran it for a couple of years. That was a club of amateurs and professionals, an orchestra, that would hold concerts a few times a year, playing music they wanted to play. They weren’t at the level of the Boston Symphony, but they were an active group that was in part coached by Georges Longy, the oboist for the Boston Symphony, and shepherded by Charles Martin Loeffler, who was the assistant principal violinist of the symphony. They would present concerts that would satisfy their interest in being involved musically. Elise Hall wanted to play in the orchestra.
At that time, about the only thing she could play was the Bizet L’Arlesienne Suites, numbers 1 and 2, which has a beautiful saxophone part in the orchestra. She wanted music that she could play as a member of the orchestra and not not necessarily to become a soloist with the orchestra. She made that request fairly explicit in her commissions. She was interested in pieces like Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun by Debussy, where the flute has a really great part, but the flute stays in the woodwind section and is featured as a soloist, rather than coming out as a soloist. So we see some of these pieces are very beautiful, very lyrical, not particularly complicated, and use the saxophone voice as a beautiful haunting voice throughout but does not really take over the reigns in a featured solo capacity. It’s usually not technical. Now, some composers totally ignored that. The Schmitt Légende is a very difficult, demanding, first-class solo concerto, but that was dedicated to her in 1918, just about the time she retired from playing, so she never had a chance to tackle that. Some other pieces turned out to be more of a solo than she wanted, but the solo parts are not particularly difficult, so these are things that she was able to play. It’s interesting to see that her intent was not to get solo concertos written for her, but to have orchestral works that include the saxophone in a significant way. That’s what she accomplished most of the time.
Hall is best known for commissioning Claude Debussy’s Rhapsodie for Saxophone and Orchestra. Many of her other contributions to the repertoire were lost or forgotten until more recent decades, when scholars began to uncover them. Dr. Cohen’s research into Elise Hall led him to rediscover a treasure trove of forgotten works.
Dr. Paul Cohen
I first learned about Elise Hall when I was studying the Debussy Rhapsodie. As a young player, to have a piece by Debussy for the saxophone was amazing, and her name was at the top. So the question was for me, “who was this person for whom the Debussy was written, and why was it written?” So that’s how I first found out about it.
At that time there was a little bit written about her, some from program notes from early performances and some from recordings, but then it led to further questions. An amateur woman saxophone from Boston commissioned the great Debussy to write a work for her, and it’s an amazing work for saxophone by an early impressionist composer? That got me interested to find out more. In finding out more, there is an intriguing history about Elise Hall, who she was, how it is that she commissioned Debussy to write this. There is a treasure trove of other works that were written for Elise Hall, some of which were published, some of which never saw the light of day, some of which were forgotten, and some of which were just lying in obscurity. That started a real interest to find out: if Debussy wrote for her, what other treasures were written for her? So first, you look at the pieces that were published that were written for her, such as the Florent Scmitt Légende and the piece by Grovlez [Suite pour saxophone alto en mi♭avec accompaniment de quintette à cordes, flûte, cor, harpe]. Then you naturally start to look at what other pieces were written for her that we don’t know about. It turned out that there were many. Some of these were found in the composers’ estates, most of which were found in the Elise Hall Collection. When she died in the early 1920s, she gave her materials to the New England Conservatory of Music library. There we found quite a number of pieces that were of interest, including correspondence, scores, parts, program notes. Sometimes we would actually go to the composers themselves and find their materials related to these pieces, and we would stitch together a whole history of the legacy of Elise Hall and her contributions to not only saxophone repertoire but to the role of women in serious performance at the turn of the last century.
One of Dr. Cohen’s primary research interests is uncovering lost saxophone repertoire. In the early 1980s, this interest led him to fascinating discoveries about the history of the saxophone repertoire and Elise Hall’s contributions to it. In an obscure reference library, he rediscovered what is thought to be the second work ever written for saxophone and orchestra: the Divertissement Espagnol, written in 1901 by American composer Charles Martin Loeffler for Elise Hall. Dr. Cohen prepared and re-premiered this work at the Manhattan School of Music in the 1980s. This performance was the first one since 1903 by Hall herself. Shortly afterwards, Dr. Cohen’s research in the New England Conservatory Elise Hall collection and in the Library of Congress led him to rediscover two different scores for a chamber work, Ballade Carnavalesque, also written by Loeffler for Elise Hall. This work for flute, oboe, bassoon, alto saxophone and piano had been played twice by Hall in 1904 and 1905, and then forgotten after her playing career ended. It is particularly notable for being the first known chamber work in which the saxophone is a musical equal to the other players, rather than a color instrument used sparingly for effect. Cohen reconciled the differences between these two scores, taking into account notes in the score from Loeffler himself, and created a performance version of the piece. Cohen has since published this version of the Ballade Carnavalesque, performed it several times, and has just recently recorded it on his new CD, “Heard Again for the First Time.”
Loeffler’s Divertissement Espagnol and Ballade Carnevalesque are just a few of the many works that Hall commissioned over the course of her playing career. The breadth of her contributions to the repertoire is significant.
Dr. Paul Cohen
We have no recordings of her playing, so her main legacy is in the pieces that exist because of her. If it was only for the Debussy, we’d be happy, but there is more than just the Debussy. Significant works include the Schmitt Légende, and the Loeffler Ballade Carnavalesque. We have other works by lesser known composers that may be substantial and should be looked at: music by André Caplet [Légende] and Grovlez. Paul Gilson was a very famous Belgian composer who wrote a work dedicated to Hall [Concerto pour saxophone]. There are also a number of chamber works by Dupin [Chant pour saxophone: À ceux qui partent] and by Woollet [Siberia: Poème symphonique pour saxophone alto et orchestre], composers of the time who had some prominence, and by Georges Longy [Impressions: Piéce pour saxophone and Lento in C# minor] who was an oboist and composer.. Also, I forgot the Choral Varié by Vincert D’Indy. That’s a very beautiful work. We have a list of about 24-25 pieces which are a fascinating window or insight into how composers would look at the saxophone at the time. Some of the pieces are really terrific, some of the pieces are rather slight; all of them are fascinating and all of them give great insight into how they thought of the saxophone.
This extensive collection of early concert works for the saxophone is an artistic marvel, which ought to have been performed and celebrated by saxophonists and concertgoers alike. Yet, nearly all of the works commissioned by Elise Hall were forgotten for the better part of a century. How could this be? In part, this can be attributed to Hall’s career and legacy itself, as well as to the musical tides of the time.
Dr. Paul Cohen
She was not a teacher and she had no intention of being a teacher. She was a player; a player who wanted to play with her friends in the Orchestral Club so that she could enjoy the expression of performing music. So she had no students and probably would not have accepted them if they had asked her. She didn’t have a need to teach and she did not have a need to play in any kind of commercial venue or to be hired to play. She just wanted to play. So that’s another reason that there was no legacy for her, because there was no legacy for her. When she passed away, everything just stopped. There was nobody picking up the mantle for that. At that point, the idea of the classical saxophone was still relatively new and untested. Yes, there was a lot of use for the saxophone in opera orchestras and ballet, both in Europe and more and more in this country. Right around the time that she passed away, jazz was only beginning to become more popular. It hadn’t solidified yet, and the saxophone was not an integral part of jazz as it quickly became. But the idea of having a solo saxophone recital was still somewhat novel. It wasn’t until the early 1920s when Jascha Gurewich and Rudy Wiedoft tested the waters by holding their own recitals of just the saxophone as a soloist, and playing not the popular music of the day but a variety of other musics: some original, some orchestral transcriptions adapted for the saxophone and piano, and then some novelty tunes. So there was really no place for [Hall’s legacy] to be picked up at the time.
Though her legacy may have been lost for some time, there is no doubt that Hall was a trailblazer, both as a saxophonist and as a woman in music. She defied expectations of and limitations on women’s participation in musical life.
Dr. Paul Cohen
We don’t really come across anything that inhibited her career because of her gender. I haven’t seen anything regarding her gender keeping her from where she wanted to be as a player. She was in charge of the Orchestral Club, she funded everything, she had many composers writing for her and she had ample opportunity to do all the playing she wanted to do. She didn’t record because she didn’t want to, she didn’t really play outside of her area of Boston because she didn’t want to and from what I can tell, there was no real impediment to her as a woman.
As a woman, Hall operated with uncommon agency in the musical world. It is worth noting that her circumstances were unique; a single woman with significant financial resources and high social status. This may have opened doors for her that were closed to other women, and certainly helped facilitate her commissions. However, other women saxophonists also had thriving performance careers during this era.
Dr. Paul Cohen
But I’m not surprised about that because in the early part of the 1900s, women were very actively involved in music-making on the saxophone. I have a postcard from 1904 showing the Schuster Sisters from St. Louis, an all-female saxophone quartet. Edward Lefebre, the great Paganini of the saxophone of the 19th century, after he retired from the Gilmore and Sousa band, started up his own female saxophone quartet, of which he was the one non-female. He toured with them all over the country, including Alaska, if not the world. We have the first recorded saxophonist, from the 1880s to early 1890s, who was Bessie Mecklem. She had a very active professional duo with harp and saxophone that played all over the northeast for decades. There were many other instances of women being involved in professional saxophone playing for a period of time.
Thanks to today’s researchers, we are rediscovering the contributions of women to the development of our musical traditions. These women may finally receive long overdue recognition for their work. In the case of Elise Hall, we have rediscovered the contributions of a saxophonist whose musical impact places her among the greatest figures of the instrument. The value of her commissions cannot be overstated.
Dr. Paul Cohen
The legacy of our instrument is solely a function of the music written for it. Performers come and go. Some leave a recorded legacy which we can understand from, but when everything else stops: what music exists for the instrument, and what impact does that have on us? So when we look at the thousands of saxophonists who have prospered over the last 150 years, we come up with a very few who have had an impact. Edward Lefebre from the 19th century, the Paganini of the saxophone who was born in Europe but came to this country in the 1870s and who really helped to spark the saxophone in the United States, is one of those people. The Florio quartet and Introduction, Theme and Variations concerto were written for him, and those are significant works as the beginnings of our repertoire. Then we have Elise Hall. Then we have Rudy Wiedoft. Then we have Sigurd Rascher, Ceecil Leeson, Marcel Mule, and then we stop. So, we have six major players for the legacy of our instrument. Elise Hall was one of them because of the music that she had written for her and because of the time that she had it written. She has that importance in the pantheon of important saxophonists.