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William Kapell

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Kapell in 1948.
Signed drawing of William Kapell by Manuel Rosenberg, 1926

William Kapell (September 20, 1922 – October 29, 1953) was an American pianist, esteemed as one of the foremost American pianists.[1][2][3] In 1953, at age 31, he was killed in the crash of BCPA Flight 304 while returning from a concert tour in Australia.


William Kapell was born in New York City on September 20, 1922, and grew up in the eastside neighborhood of Yorkville, Manhattan, where his parents owned a Lexington Avenue bookstore.[4] His father was of Spanish-Russian Jewish ancestry and his mother of Polish descent.[5][6] Dorothea Anderson La Follette (the wife of Chester La Follette) met Kapell at the Third Street Music School and became his teacher, giving him lessons several times a week at her studio on West 64th Street.[7] Kapell later studied with Olga Samaroff, former wife of conductor Leopold Stokowski, at the Juilliard School.

Kapell won his first competition at the age of ten and received as a prize a turkey dinner with the pianist José Iturbi. In 1941, he won the Philadelphia Orchestra's youth competition as well as the prestigious Naumburg Award. The following year, the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation sponsored the 19-year-old pianist's New York début, a recital which won 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.[6]

Kapell achieved fame while in his early twenties, in part as a result of his performances of Aram Khachaturian's Piano Concerto in D-flat. His 1946 world premiere recording of the piece with Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra was a sell-out hit.[8] Eventually, he became so associated with the work that he was referred to in some circles as "Khachaturian Kapell." Besides his exciting pianism and stupendous technical gifts, Kapell's attractive appearance and mop of black hair helped make him a favorite with the public.[6]

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 his generation of young American pianists.[9] On May 18, 1948, he married Rebecca Anna Lou Melson, with whom he had two children. She was a fine pianist herself, having been a student of Sergei Tarnowsky, the teacher of Vladimir Horowitz.

Early on, there was a tendency to typecast Kapell as a performer of technically difficult repertoire. While his technique was exceptional, he was a deep and versatile musician, and was memorably impatient with what he considered shallow or sloppy music making. His own repertoire was very diverse, encompassing works from J. S. Bach to Aaron Copland, who so admired Kapell's performances of his Piano Sonata that he was writing a new work for him at the time of the pianist's death. Kapell practiced up to eight hours a day,[6] keeping track of his sessions with a notebook and clock. He also set aside time from his busy concert schedule to work with the musicians he most admired, including Artur Schnabel, Pablo Casals, and Rudolf Serkin. Kapell also approached Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz (whose East 94th Street townhouse was diagonally across the street from the Kapells' apartment) for lessons, but they demurred. Horowitz later commented that there was nothing he could have taught Kapell.

From August to October 1953, Kapell toured Australia, playing 37 concerts in 14 weeks, appearing in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Bendigo, Shepparton, Albury, Horsham and finally in Geelong.[10]

Death and aftermath[edit]

Kapell played the final concert of his Australian tour in Geelong, Victoria, on October 22, 1953, a recital which included a performance of Chopin's "Funeral March" Sonata.[11] Days 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.[12] He was aboard BCPA Flight 304 when on the morning of October 29, 1953, the plane, descending to land in fog, struck the treetops and crashed on Kings Mountain, south of the San Francisco airport. Everyone on board died.[13][14] His friend, broadcaster Alistair Cooke, covered Kapell's death in his Letter from America on October 30, 1953. On November 2, Kapell's funeral took place at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York; interment followed at the Mount Ararat Cemetery near Farmingdale, New York.[15]

Famed musician Isaac Stern set up the William Kapell Memorial Fund to bring notable musicians to the United States for wider experience. The Australian violinist Ernest Llewellyn, a long-time friend of Stern's, was the inaugural recipient in 1955.[16]

The fascination with Kapell's playing has continued in the decades since his death. Pianists including Eugene Istomin, Gary Graffman, Leon Fleisher and Van Cliburn, and many others have acknowledged Kapell's influence. Fleisher stated that Kapell was "the greatest pianistic talent that this country has ever produced".[17] Kapell's widow, Anna Lou Dehavenon (1926–2012), undertook a career as an expert on homelessness in New York in part as a result, she said, of her own experience of suddenly becoming a single mother with no income. For the rest of her life she worked to keep her late husband's recordings before the public.

Kapell's estate sued BCPA, Qantas (which had taken over BCPA in 1954), and BOAC (which was alleged to have sold Kapell the ticket).[18] In 1964, more than ten years after the crash, Kapell's widow and two children were awarded US$924,396 in damages.[19] The award was overturned on appeal in 1965.[20]

Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival[edit]

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.[21]


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. In 1962, RCA Victor reissued the Kapell/Koussevitzky recording of the Khachaturian Piano Concerto. Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 2 and Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 3 were reissued on the RCA Victrola label in 1970. For decades, pirated copies of the Kapell's commercial RCA Victor recordings and unlicensed recordings of "live" performances circulated among collectors.

In the 1980s, RCA Victor issued two compact discs of Kapell's recordings, including the Khatchaturian and Prokofiev Third Piano Concertos, and an all-Chopin disc.

A 9 CD set released by RCA Victor 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 Victor set, as well as on VAI 1048, the last from an Australian recital of July 21, 1953.

In 2004, a number of broadcast recordings made during William Kapell's last Australian tour were returned to his family.[22] RCA Victor issued these recordings in 2008 under the title Kapell Rediscovered. Included are several previously unknown performances of "God Save the Queen", Debussy's Suite bergamasque, Chopin's Barcarolle, Op. 60, and Scherzo No. 1 in B minor, Op. 20, and Prokofiev's Sonata No. 7, Op. 83.[23] In 2013, RCA issued a new 11 CD set of Kapell's complete recordings, including the broadcast recordings from the final Australian tour.



  1. ^ Wakin, Daniel J. (November 10, 2004). "The Found Treasures of a Great Pianist". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved May 31, 2024. When the 31-year-old pianist William Kapell, one of the last century's great geniuses of the keyboard, was killed in a plane crash in 1953, he was returning from a concert tour in Australia.
  2. ^ "WILLIAM KAPELL'S PIANO BENCHMARK". Washington Post. January 9, 2024. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved May 31, 2024. America's first great pianist has finally been accorded the tribute he deserves.
  3. ^ Kimmelman, Michael (March 24, 2005). "The Undefeated". The New York Review of Books. Vol. 52, no. 5. ISSN 0028-7504. Retrieved May 31, 2024. Was there any greater American pianist born during the last century than Kapell? Perhaps not. Certainly he was the most famous American-born player before Van Cliburn.
  4. ^ Downes 2013, p. 15.
  5. ^ William Kapell Archived 2008-07-04 at the Wayback Machine at Naxos.com
  6. ^ a b c d Tim Page, "William Kapell's Piano Benchmark", The Washington Post, September 27, 1998 (at williamkapell.com).
  7. ^ Downes 2013, p. 18.
  8. ^ "William Kapell Edition Vol 4 – Khachaturian, Prokofiev—Notes & Reviews". ArkivMusic. Archived from the original on August 23, 2018.
  9. ^ Jean-Pierre Thiollet, 88 notes pour piano solo, "Solo nec plus ultra", Neva Editions, 2015, p. 51. ISBN 978 2 3505 5192 0.
  10. ^ Jed Distler. "Review: William Kapell Rediscovered: The Australian Broadcasts". Classics Today. Retrieved July 12, 2021.
  11. ^ McBeath, John (February 16, 2013). "Last notes of a prodigy". The Australian.
  12. ^ Downes 2013, p. 115.
  13. ^ "19 Killed In B.C.P.A. Crash in U.S.A." The Sydney Morning Herald. Australian Associated Press. October 31, 1953. p. 1. Retrieved October 8, 2023 – via Trove.
  14. ^ "Kapell: Truly American Craftsman Of Music", obituary in The Sydney Morning Herald, October 31, 1953, p. 2. Retrieved 2012-08-17
  15. ^ Downes 2013, p. 16.
  16. ^ W. L. Hoffmann, "Lest we forget Isaac Stern", The Canberra Times, October 24, 2001.
  17. ^ Dubal, David. Reflections from the Keyboard, ISBN 0-8256-7211-2
  18. ^ "$7M Suit Filed Against Three Airlines". News in Brief. The Times. No. 54372. London. January 30, 1959. col C, p. 10.
  19. ^ "$924,396 for Pianist's Widow". News. The Times. No. 55923. London. January 31, 1964. col G, p. 12.
  20. ^ Edward Ranzal (June 10, 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)
  21. ^ "Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at Maryland – The William Kapell International Piano Competition and Festival – About the Competition and Festival". Archived from the original on June 23, 2012. Retrieved January 15, 2012.
  22. ^ Daniel J. Wakin (November 10, 2004). "The Found Treasures of a Great Pianist". The New York Times. Retrieved October 8, 2023.
  23. ^ "Last Recordings of American Pianist William Kapell". Sony BMG. Retrieved March 20, 2008.


  • Downes, Stephen (2013). A Lasting Record. HarperCollins Australia. ISBN 9780730499909.

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