Helen Hopekirk was born Edinburgh. She studied there with A. C. Mackenzie, then at Leipzig Conservatory, and later under Leschizky in Vienna. Her concert debut was at the Gewandhaus, Leipzig in 1878, and over the next few years gave many recitals in England and Scotland. In 1882 she married a Scottish business man and music critic, and after extended visits to the United States, finally settled there in 1897. She taught at the New England Conservatory at Boston, and later privately at Brookline, Massachusetts. Her compositions include several orchestral works, a Concerto and a Konzertstuck for piano and orchestra, several pieces for violin and piano, and over a hundred songs.
Pianist and Teacher
Born on 20th May 1856, at 74-76 High Street, Portobello, Helen Hopekirk was the second child of Helen Croall and Adam Hopekirk, a printer, bookseller and piano retailer. She received her earliest piano training from Miss Stone, governess of Windsor Lodge Academy in Portobello, where she performed in public for the first time in July 1868. While in her teens Hopekirk attended the Edinburgh Institution for the Education of Young Ladies at 23 Charlotte Square, continuing piano instruction under Hungarian pianist George Lichtenstein, studying music theory with Alexander MacKenzie, and appearing as soloist with the Edinburgh Amateur Orchestra Society on three occasions. Fulfilling her father’s dying wish, Hopekirk continued her musical education under Louis Maas, Salomon Jadassohn and Carl Reinecke at the Leipzig Conservatorium in 1876.
By her mid-twenties Hopekirk had appeared with the orchestras of the Gewandhaus in Leipzig and the Crystal Palace in London. She married William A. Wilson (1853-1926), partner in the Edinburgh rope and twine manufacturing firm of Lees & Wilson, on 4th August 1882, thereafter adopting the stage name Mme. Helen Hopekirk. For several years Wilson limited his business activity in order to manage Hopekirk’s career. He organized two arduous tours of Great Britain for her in 1880 and 1881, encompassing a total of 42 recital, chamber music and orchestral appearances. Having accrued a repertoire probably larger than that of any other pianist save Rubinstein (Boston Evening Traveller), she followed her British successes with an extended tour of the United States in 1883-1886, appearing as recitalist in New York, Brooklyn, Chicago and Boston, among other cities, and presenting as many as four different programs in as few as twelve days. Lauded for her musicianly pianism and prodigious memory, the Chicago Tribune remarked that her well-attended recitals had done more for musical taste than any recitals previously given in Chicago.
After her American tour Hopekirk wished to study piano again under a master teacher. Her first choice, Franz Liszt, died before she could join his class in Bayreuth, but her second, Theodor Leschetizky, became the single greatest influence on her playing and teaching. Working with Leschetizky in Vienna for extended periods in the mid- to late 1880s, she acquired the expanded tonal variety that was possible through his approach integrating finger technique with use of the wrist, arm and shoulder. Years later Hopekirk wrote journal articles in which she recounted Leschetizky’s principles for the edification of other teachers and performers.
Hopekirk’s second American tour (1891-1892) comprised recitals as well as appearances with orchestras under some of the foremost conductors of the period, including Arthur Nikisch, Walter Damrosch and Theodore Thomas. Returning once more to Europe, Hopekirk reduced her performing and teaching activities to allow more time for composition. When Wilson suffered severe injury in a London traffic accident in January 1897, however, Hopekirk realized it had become necessary for her to procure a dependable income. Accepting an invitation from Leipzig schoolmate George Chadwick to head the piano department at New England Conservatory, she and Wilson moved to Boston in the autumn of 1897. She remained at the Conservatory for four years, thereafter continuing to teach privately in her home in Brookline, Massachusetts, and to perform in major venues throughout New England. After 1900, Hopekirk’s interests increasingly turned toward the work of late Romantic and impressionist French composers. She gave the American premieres of Vincent d’Indy’s Piano Quartet and Gabriel Faur’s Piano Quintet with members of the Kneisel Quartet in 1902 and 1907, respectively, and her performances of solo works by Claude Debussy were among the first heard by Boston audiences. Her last extended stay in Scotland came in 1919-1920, when she presented her piano concerto in performances with the Scottish Orchestra under Landon Ronald.
The list of her performances in the United States and Canada grew to include, in addition to nearly 200 solo recitals, twelve appearances as soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (twice in her own compositions) and multiple collaborations with Boston-based chamber groups and soloists. At age 82, she gave her last public performance in a Boston recital devoted entirely to her own compositions. She died in Cambridge, Massachusetts on 19th November 1945.
Helen Hopekirk was best known as a pianist and teacher during her lifetime, but composition remained a strong interest throughout her career. While attending classes at the Leipzig Conservatory, she wrote short piano pieces and vocal selections that combined aspects of art and parlor song. Following additional study with Carl Nawratil in Vienna in the late 1880s and with Richard Mandl in Paris in the early 1890s, she scaled down her performance schedule in favor of composition. Devoting winters to teaching and limited performing, and summers solely to composition, Hopekirk added many large-scale works to her oeuvre during the last decade of the 19th century, including two sonatas for violin and piano, Concertstuck in D Minor and Concerto in D Major (now lost) for piano and orchestra; six short works for orchestra without soloist, and an unfinished piano trio.
When she and Wilson relocated to Boston in 1897, Hopekirk became the only foreign-born member of the city’s famous circle of composers that included George Chadwick, Amy Beach, Arthur Foote and Mabel Daniels. Many of her piano compositions extending over the first two decades of the twentieth century reflect Baroque and contemporary French influences encouraged by her repertoire interests as a recitalist.
The most distinctive elements of Hopekirk’s music after 1900, however, came from her Scottish heritage. During the summers of 1901 through 1908, she investigated the music of highland Scots and made frequent trips to Iona and her beloved Edinburgh. These experiences, along with her friendship with Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser and close readings of poetry by Fiona Macleod, provided inspiration for a spate of folk-inspired songs and character pieces for piano in the last thirty years of her career.