William Kapell: Honest American Pianist of All Time September 10 2021

There are hundreds of great pianists from all parts of the world. But depending on their performance and composition, some are at the top of the game. Among the renowned American pianists, William Kapell tops the list. In his professional career, Kapell seemed to have the combined qualities of greatest older contemporaries like Artur Schnabel, Artur Rubinstein, and the rest.


William Kapell Signed Photograph

Kapell was uniquely gifted and an exciting pianist of his time. His remarkable technique, including deep insight and integrity, made his performance have command. His artistry balanced several qualities from poetic, sensitive, spontaneous, assuring, and intense to cogent. And during the stage performance, his handsomeness added to the allure.

William Kapell liked playing at informal musicals in New York, but his unique recitals at Town Hall increased his fame as a young American pianist where he was born. The premature death of this American pianist and a recording artist was heartbreaking. He died at the age of 31 when the airplane he was on board crashed while bringing him back from a concert tour in Australia.



William Kapell was an American pianist born in New York of Russian Jewish

William Kapell as a young boy

descent on September 20, 1922. His father, Hyman Kapell, was of Spanish-Russian Jewish descent, while his mother, Edith Wolfson, was of Polish-Russian ancestry. Kapell started taking piano lessons at the young age of about seven. However, during the Depression, his parents couldn't afford to pay for his music lessons anymore and had to stop briefly.

On the right: William Kapell as a young boy

However, due to his insistence, his parents came across Dorothea Anderson La Follette, who trained him for free three days a week. Within six weeks of training with LaFollette, he was among six students selected to play at the apartment of the legendary Jose Iturbi as they shared a Thanksgiving turkey dinner.

This was also a prize for his first competition to win at age 10. In later years Kapell reflected on his training period with LaFollette expressing gratitude to her for what he referred to as his "rubber wrists."

Besides studying in New York, Kapell also went to Philadelphia Conservatory, where he studied under Olga Samaroff and later to Juilliard School. Following his outstanding performance and advancement, his parents arranged for him to attend Columbia Grammar School on a scholarship. At this point, Bernard Kapell described him as an indefatigable practicing.



Kapell's youth is filled with remarkable years of excellence as a promising American pianist. One of his noticeable achievements was in 1940 when he won the Youth Competition of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He went on to win the prestigious Naumburg Award, which led the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation to sponsor his New York debut at the age of 19. This was a recital that won him the year's Town Hall Award for outstanding musician under 30. The award also won him a recording contract with RCA Victor.


William Kapell in concert at a young age

In his early twenties, one of his favorite pieces was the recently composed Piano Concerto in D flat major by Soviet composer Aram Khachaturian, which he frequently played. Kapell played it so convincingly that his recording became an enormous hit.

This success was followed by a sell-out of his world premiere recording in 1946 of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the piece with Serge Koussevitzky. His deep association with the work earned him the name Khachaturian Kapell in some setups.

On the left: William Kapell performing at a young age

Still, in his youth years, Kapell toured the United States, Europe, Canada, and Australia, gaining legendary status. Many regarded him as a brilliant and audacious pianist of his young generation during the years and tours. Besides this acclaim, some people tend to typecast Kapell as a performer of flashy repertory with an exceptional technique. He was a versatile pianist and his energetic, clear, and direct performance style in his young age resulted from his serious practice, sometimes up to eight hours per day.



Arthur Judson was the best artist manager in the United States who managed the Philadelphia Orchestra and New York Philharmonic and a CBS founder. In 1942, Judson signed Kapell to a three-year contract, which was the start of his fame. Kapell had a chance to tour different countries in community concerts. In his visits, Kapell played in recitals and with the major American orchestras. He also partnered with the best conductors like Leopold Stokowski, Eugene Ormandy, Leonard Bernstein, and Fritz Reiner.

Kapell with wife Rebecca Anna Lou Melson and son David, circa 1949As much Kapell was living a glamorous life, it had its own set of sacrifices. For instance, Kapell would practice for up to eight hours a day, keeping track of time and sessions with a clock and a notebook.


On the right: Kapell with wife Rebecca Anna Lou Melson and son David, circa 1949


All this sacrifice was rewarding when conductor Efrem Kurtz chose Kapell to play Aram Khachaturian's Piano Concerto with the New York Philharmonic at Lewisohn Stadium. He later played it with other orchestras throughout the country and beyond, including an outstanding performance with Andrei Gromyko, which became Kapell's best hit.

After the concert, his many other memorably graceful performances helped him establish his career. Kapell was fiercely dedicated to music, and he worked zealously, spending most of his time teaching, practicing, performing, and recording. He was his own strictest critic, as he would write comments after the performance and sometimes set very high standards for himself, which were impossible to attain.

William Kapell Teatro Colon program 1948
William Kapell Teatro Colon program 1948

As a result of his hard work, Kapell had an enormous repertoire, and he could play seven different recitals and ten piano concertos. He was excellent in playing the modern Russian repertoire of Shostakovich, Rachmaninov, Khachaturian, and Prokofiev. By the late 1940s, Kapell had toured Canada, Europe, Australia, and the USA to emerge as the most audacious American pianist.



Kapell did his first recording with Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and ever since, his performance became the epitome of which others were judged. He made other vital recordings, including the breathtaking performance of Mephisto Walz by Liszt. Kapell's early few recordings were aggressive, forceful, goal-oriented, and brilliant, just like his pianist hero, Vladimir Horowitz. He was one of the most promising American pianists of the post-war generation, with his recordings gaining legendary status even after his untimely death.

Although Kapell did not play the American premiere, he first recorded with Boston Symphony and Serge Koussevitzky. Later recordings include an impressive live recording of the Chopin b-flat Minor Sonata performed at his last concert. After 1947, musicians like Pablo Casals, Rudolf Serkin, Eugene Istomin, and Artur Schnabel had a great influence on Kapell. All of Kapell´s commercial recordings were made for RCA, a label he signed in 1944 at 24. A lot of Kapell's recordings were issued as 78 revolutions per minute (RPM) records, but they went out of print in 1960.

William Kapell recording - Great pianists of the 20th century
William Kapell - Great Pianists of the 20th Century

RCA reissued Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No.3 and Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 in the 1970s. Kapell's recordings in two compact discs, including Prokofiev and Khatchaturian Third Piano Concertos and all F. Chopin discs, were released. A nine-disc survey by RCA contains all authorized Frederic Chopin mazurkas and sonatas, including Khatchaturian, Prokofiev, and Rachmaninoff concertos.

The disc has other not-much-known items like Scarlatti sonatas, Copland Piano Sonata, and Shostakovich preludes. The set sold exceptionally well, increasing Kapell's fame and brought Kapell´s work to a new audience.



Listening to Kapell's recordings, one can tell that his music sounded magnificent rather than just beautiful. His music and performances were brilliantly executed, playing keys with great finger control.

As much as the nine discs are full of treasures, the VAI album has other amazing broadcast recordings, Khatchaturian piano concerto and Rachmaninov's piano concerto No. 3. Arbiter album has Shostakovich's concerto No. 1, Beethoven's piano concerto No. 3, including Mussorgsky's "Pictures in the Exhibition" in the RCA set and on the VAI album.


Kapell and Ormandy preparing a radio broadcast
Kapell and Ormandy preparing a radio broadcast

Fortunately, there are also several live and private recordings. The International Piano Archives in Maryland published Kapell's live performances at Carnegie Hall in 1945 and 1947. A two compact disc includes a live performance of Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor with Sir Ernest MacMillan and Toronto Symphony Orchestra. One of Kapell's best live performances with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and Artur Rodzinski in 1945 has an excellent sound and is far superior to some of his studio recordings.



Although nothing deep is stated about Kapell's relationship with other performers and trainers, it's evident that he got along well with many. For instance, from his early training with LaFollette, she became a major force in his musical development. LaFollette taught Kapell and she was regarded as his first important teacher in music. Kapell once stated that she was an angel with him and credited her for developing his career since his childhood.

Besides LaFollette, at the age of 16, Kapell met Olga Samaroff, who had a direct significant musical influence on him. During his school days, it's indicated that Kapell was diligent, and teachers liked him, including Samaroff. Their musical relationship remained intact until she died in 1947.

Kapell at the time of his Town Hall debut
Kapell at the time of his Town Hall debut

When Kapell met Arthur Rubinstein, another notable performer through the encouragement of LaFollette, they didn't get along well. Kapell considered him a well-gifted musician but a little lazy. Rubinstein, on the other hand, regarded Kapell as undisciplined for criticizing his close friend Josef Lhevinne. He was also angered by reports of Kapell criticizing him. However, they remained in contact for a long time but under a strained association.



Although music was undoubtedly the core driving force and passion in his life, William Kapell explored other interests. He became a competent painter at some point in his life, loved movies, and was also an ardent reader. His love for painting saw him purchase a small Picasso painting in France, where Fredric Mann lent him the amount required for the art.

Bernard Kapell also described William Kapell as very pro-Jewish and a liberal democrat. Even though he wasn't religious, he highly acknowledged his heritage and was fascinated by the creation of Israel.

These views mainly stem from Kapell's active interest in politics with a notable admiration of Adlai Stevenson. Still, music remained the principal interest in his life. "He could not be in a home with a piano for very long without finding his way to the keyboard," Dehavenon once said. Kapell's love and curiosity about music were insatiable.



Like many other performing artists, William Kapell occasionally received criticism on his performance. However, some unfavorable reviews didn't bother him, but others he would brood for days. One such review was after a concert at Carnegie Hall, February 1945. Noel Straus, a New York Times critic, described Kapell's performance the previous night as disappointing. Samaroff came to his defense, writing a letter to the editor, but she never mailed it. You can find a copy in the International Piano Archives at Maryland.


Kapell - Stainway Magazine Ad

William Kapell received another criticism but this time from someone unexpected in February 1947. After playing the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto, No. 2 in a WGN radio broadcast, he met Rebecca Anna Lou Melson. She later stated that he played so fast that she couldn't hear a thing. However, this didn't trouble him. Instead, he showed a persistent interest in her that resulted in marriage fifteen months later.

On the left: A Steinway Magazine Ad featuring William Kapell

Despite these occasional negative reviews, he continued growing, meeting, and performing with other noteworthy pianists. Kapell was also a fierce critic of other players at one point, telling his friend Gary Graffman that he played like a pig. But on many occasions, he was more critical of his performance.



William Kapell's charm, charisma, and greatest pianistic talent are easy to remember even after his death many years ago. His recordings were reissued, and the search continues for any surviving tapes.

The pianist played his final concert in Australia on October 22, 1952, which included a recital and a performance of Chopin's "Funeral March" Sonata. Few days after the show, Kapell set off to fly back to the United States, and he said to reporters at Mascot Airport he would never return to Australia after harsh comments from Australian critics.


William Kapell in performance

While in Australia, Kapell played 37 concerts in 14 weeks in Melbourne, Sydney, Bendigo, Shepparton, Albury, Geelong, Horsham, and all over the continent. On October 29, 1953, the plane he was aboard hit the treetops and crashed on Kings Mountain, south San Francisco airport killing everyone on board. Kapell's funeral was held at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York and later at the Mount Ararat Cemetery.


On the right: William Kapell in performance


As Chicago's renowned music critic Claudia Cassidy says, "Kapell was this smoldering, passionate young pianist, generous, lovable, and deeply gentle at heart. After his death, Isaac stern set up Kapell Memorial, bringing many notable musicians to the US.

Even after his death, many pianists, including Gary Graffman, Leon Fleisher, Eugene Istomin, and Van Cliburn, have acknowledged Kapell's influence. Anna Lou Dehavenon (1926-2012), Kapell's widow, worked tirelessly to keep her late husband's recordings to his audience. As his wife puts it, in the last year of his life, Kapell was "taking on the Beethoven sonatas."



Many pianists considered Kapell as a connecting factor of the qualities of their greatest older contemporaries, such as the high-strung brilliance of Vladimir Horowitz and the virility of Arthur Rubinstein. He is also described as one of the most honest artists who ever lived. His simplicity, passion, and directness made his playing audible and pure.
William Kapell in recital

Despite his dedication, he would still apply the same high standards he judged himself to others. This state made him always ready to take on anyone, such as other musicians, managers, critics, and record executives. On the other hand, his continued success in recording gave him the reputation of a virtuoso performer of Russian music. This status was well verified during his performance at the Philadelphia Orchestra of Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini" Concerto No. 2.

Kapell's performance of the "Rhapsody" was exceptional, with acclaims that no one, including the composer, ever played the piece in a record time without compromising quality. In fact, Kapell's Russian Music recordings, particularly of the Khachaturian Concerto, are said to sound still the finest ever made more than 50 years later. As a great virtuoso, Kapell's performance didn't depend on the galvanizing sonority and velocity. This quality is evident in his collections whenever his music is played.

In the last three years of his, life and according to Shirley Rhoads, William Kapell had grown a strong intensity of purpose. This impact made him play as beautifully as possible, perfecting his style. He tended to go to any lengths to learn something more about music and its presentation. He worked with a strong sense of integrity, humor, and generosity until his unfortunate and untimely death.



- William Kapell - Teatro Colon Program 1948

- William Kapell - Signed Photo

- William Kapell - Signed Photograph

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