William Kapell (September 20, 1922 – October 29, 1953) was an American pianist who was killed in the crash of a commercial airliner.
Kapell was born and grew up in Yorkville, Manhattan. His father was of Spanish-Russian Jewish ancestry and his mother of Polish descent. Dorothea Anderson La Follette (the wife of Chester La Follette) met Kapell at the Third Street Music School when his mother was searching for low-cost piano lessons and LaFollette then gave lessons several times a week at her studio in West 64 Street. Kapell later studied with Olga Samaroff, the spouse of the conductor Leopold Stokowski, in Philadelphia and at the Juilliard School.
Kapell won his first competition at the age of ten. The prize was a turkey dinner with the pianist José Iturbi. In 1941, he won the Philadelphia Orchestra's youth competition and the Naumburg Award. The following year, the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation sponsored the 19-year-old pianist's New York début which brought him the Town Hall Award for the year's outstanding concert by a musician under 30. He was immediately signed to an exclusive recording contract with RCA Victor.
Kapell had achieved fame while in his early twenties, most especially by his performances of Khachaturian's Piano Concerto in D-flat, his world premiere recording of which was an enormous hit. Eventually, he became so associated with the concerto that he was nicknamed "Khachaturian Kapell". Besides his exciting pianism, Kapell's good looks and mop of unruly black hair helped make him a hit with audiences.
By the late 1940s, Kapell had toured the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia to immense acclaim and was widely considered the most brilliant and audacious of young American pianists. On May 18, 1948, he wed Rebecca Anna Lou Melson, with whom he had two children. She was a fine pianist herself, being a student of Sergei Tarnowsky, whose other students included Vladimir Horowitz.
There was some tendency to typecast Kapell as a performer of flashy repertory. While his technique was exceptional, he was a versatile musician, and could also give memorably graceful performances of Mozart and Scarlatti. Kapell practiced up to eight hours a day, keeping track of his sessions with a notebook and clock. Kapell set aside time from his busy concert schedule to work with the artists he most admired, including Artur Schnabel, Pablo Casals, and Rudolf Serkin. He also approached Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz (who was a neighbor) for lessons, but they demurred. Horowitz later commented that there was nothing he could teach Kapell.
Death and aftermath
In Geelong, Kapell played his last performance on October 22. The concert included a performance of Chopin's "Funeral March" Sonata. A week after the concert, he set off on his return flight to the United States, telling reporters at Mascot Airport he would never return to Australia because of the harsh comments from some Australian critics. He was aboard BCPA Flight 304 when the plane hit Kings Mountain, south of San Francisco, on the morning of October 29, 1953. None of the 11 passengers or eight Australian crew survived. Alistair Cooke covered the death in his Letter from America on October 30, 1953.
Isaac Stern set up the William Kapell Memorial Fund to bring notable musicians to the USA for wider experience. The Australian violinist Ernest Llewellyn, a long-time friend of Stern's, was the inaugural recipient in 1955.
The fascination with Kapell's playing continues in the decades since after his death. Pianists such as Eugene Istomin, Gary Graffman, Leon Fleisher and Van Cliburn, and classical-fusion jazz pianist Suezenne Fordham, among others, have acknowledged Kapell's influence. Fleisher stated that Kapell was "the greatest pianistic talent that this country [The United States] has ever produced". Kapell's widow – Anna Lou Dehavenon, a social anthropologist in New York – was a factor in helping to keep her husband's name alive.
Kapell's estate sued BCPA, Qantas (which had taken over BCPA in 1954), and BOAC (which was alleged to have sold Kapell the ticket). In 1964 Kapell's widow and two children were awarded US$924,396 damages, a decision which was overturned on appeal in 1965.
In 1944, Kapell signed an exclusive recording contract with RCA Victor. Many of his recordings were originally issued as 78RPM records. Some were issued on LP, but by 1960, all of Kapell's commercial recordings were out of print. RCA reissued Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 and Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 on LP in the early 1970s. For decades, bootlegged copies of the commercial recordings and pirate recordings of "live" performances circulated among collectors.
A nine-CD survey released by RCA in 1998 contains Kapell's complete authorized recordings, including renditions of Chopin's mazurkas and sonatas as well as concertos by Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, and Khatchaturian. It also has many lesser-known items, some of them first releases, including Shostakovich preludes, Scarlatti sonatas, and the Copland Piano Sonata. The set sold remarkably well throughout the world and brought Kapell's work to a new audience.
VAI 1027 contains broadcast recordings of the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 and the Khatchaturian Piano Concerto. Arbiter 108 features part of the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 and the Shostakovich Concerto No. 1, and it includes Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, which also appears in the RCA set, as well as on VAI 1048, the last from an Australian recital of July 21, 1953.
In 2004, a number of recordings made during William Kapell's last Australian tour were returned to his family. These were released on the RCA Red Seal label in 2008 as Kapell Rediscovered. They contain several previously unknown performances of "God Save the Queen", Debussy's Suite bergamasque, Chopin's Barcarole, Op. 60, and Scherzo No. 1 in B minor, Op. 20, and Prokofiev's Sonata No. 7, Op. 83.
Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival
In 1986, the University of Maryland's piano competition was renamed the William Kapell International Piano Competition in Kapell's honor. It became quadrennial in 1998 and is currently held at the university's Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.
- Downes (2013), p. 15
- William Kapell at Naxos.com
- Tim Page, "William Kapell's Piano Benchmark", Washington Post, September 27, 1998 (at williamkapell.com).
- Downes (2013), p. 18
- William Kapell Edition Vol 4 – Khachaturian, Prokofiev—Notes & Reviews at ArkivMusic.com
- McBeath, John (February 16, 2013). "Last notes of a prodigy". The Australian.
- Downes (2013), p. 115
- "19 Killed In B.C.P.A. Crash in U.S.A." The Sydney Morning Herald, October 31, 1953, p. 1, National Library of Australia. Retrieved 2012-08-17
- "Kapell: Truly American Craftsman Of Music", obituary in The Sydney Morning Herald, October 31, 1953, p. 2. Retrieved 2012-08-17
- W. L. Hoffmann, "Lest we forget Isaac Stern", Canberra Times, October 24, 2001.
- Dubal, David. Reflections from the Keyboard, ISBN 0-8256-7211-2
- "$7M Suit Filed Against Three Airlines" (News in Brief). The Times (London). Friday, January 30, 1959. (54372), col C, p. 10.
- "$924,396 for Pianist's Widow" (News). The Times (London). Friday, 31 January 1964. (55923), col G, p. 12.
- Edward Ranzal (10 June 1965). "Kapell's kin lose $924,396 award; Appeals Court Throws Out Damages for 1953 Death of Pianist in DC-6 Crash". The New York Times. (subscription required)
- Daniel J. Wakin (November 10, 2004). "The Found Treasures of a Great Pianist". The New York Times. Retrieved 2007-01-12.
- "Last Recordings of American Pianist William Kapell". Sony BMG. Retrieved 2008-03-20.
- Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at Maryland – The William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival – About the Competition and Festival
- William Kapell Rediscovered at williamkapell.com
- "The Undefeated" review of William Kapell Edition by Michael Kimmelman, The New York Review of Books, March 24, 2005 (subscription required)
- The William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival
- Video of William Kapell recital (10:19) on YouTube, Scarlatti; Chopin's Nocturne No. 2, Op. 55; "Gato" arranged by Emilio A. Napolitano
- William Kapell Remembered, Part 1 (8:26) on YouTube
- William Kapell Remembered, Part 2 (8:27) on YouTube
- William Kapell Remembered, Part 2 (8:26) on YouTube