Some Historical Perspective

A reader passed along this lovely vintage piece from the Minnesota Historical Society archives… It’s an excerpt from John K Sherman’s “Music and Maestros: The Story of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra,” which was published in November of 1952. Highly recommended reading! I was so entertained that I live-blogged my reactions to it on Facebook this morning. I want you to read the whole thing yourself, so I won’t spoil anything for you, but here are a few of my initial observations:

  • We’ve been discussing the fiscal sustainability of the Minnesota Orchestra since before the Minnesota Orchestra was even formed.
  • Minneapolis has been an orchestral leader since 1900. We have a long proud history of excellence to guard and preserve.
  • The violist story in this article is one of the most entertaining performance mishaps that I’ve ever read about. Way to reinforce violist stereotypes, dear Joseph Frank!

The thing I really wanted to share with you, though, is this very cool mention of soprano Olive Fremstad:

The first performance of the new orchestra needed a big and costly name, preferably a singer’s name, as an ace-in-the-hole guarantee of its success and as lure for that sizable portion of the populace that might be more name-conscious than symphony-hungry. The orchestra’s backers were willing to spend five hundred dollars for such a name. Minneapolis’ own Olive Fremstad, who in the last three years had become the darling of European opera-goers, would have filled all specifications. But she was not available for the opening night and could only be engaged for a later appearance…

The sixth and final concert of the first season, on March 23, 1904, reverted to the International Auditorium. Olive Fremstad, absent from her home city for ten years and now laureled with success, was the soloist.

Olive Fremstad was an amazing woman, with an amazing life story. In fact, she had such an amazing life story that Willa Cather used it as the basis of a novel:

The Song of the Lark.

Is your mind blown?

I chose this name for the blog way back in May of 2011 because of the connotations with Cather (a well-respected music writer), the story of the novel itself (a small-town Midwestern girl of Scandinavian descent fulfilling her artistic ambitions), and Vaughan Williams’s Lark Ascending (one of the most famous pieces ever dedicated to a female violinist). But it turns out there’s a pretty remarkable Minnesota Orchestra connection in there, too! I am a nerd, and I think this is very cool.

On a related upbeat note, our Ode to Joy concerts are rapidly approaching! I’m coming to the Sunday show. If you see me, please say hello. Forgive me if I don’t recognize you, because I’m absolutely terrible with faces. I’d love to thank you in-person for coming along on this crazy journey.

8 Comments

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8 responses to “Some Historical Perspective

  1. Emily,

    Did you notice in “Music and Maestros,” the list of “Out of Town Engagements, first through forty-ninth season, 1903-1952,” pages 311-317?

    It is a truly astonishing document. The list goes on and on and on, Maine to California, Cuba to Edmonton, Canada, and seemingly every place and state in-between, year after year after year.

    It must have been because of this very extensive touring that the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra had a wide and deep national reputation in those years, and, in addition to its excellence, this may be why the record companies were so interested in making recordings so far away here in the midwest.

    The Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, through hard and arduous touring, earned a stellar name for itself in those years, and the board through it all away, when they changed the name in the late 1960s. The orchestra has been rebuilding ever since, and finally reestablished its former fame and reutation as one of the world’s great orchestras in just these last few years–and now this, a lockout. What are they thinking?

    If you could somehow copy and post that list, every detail, it would be a real eye-opener to many of your readers.

    • That is fascinating!! I didn’t read the whole book, just this excerpt from the MHS document. The only Minnesota Orchestra book I have full access to is the softcover one celebrating the centenary in 1903. I should read that again and see if there are any excerpts relevant to this whole mess. (But, uh, hey, if anyone has a spare copy of Music and Maestros….Christmas is coming up; I’d be happy to take that off your hands for you.,..) ;)

  2. Sarah

    I’m going to the Sunday concert too! Should be another “already legendary” concert.

  3. Emily,

    I too, do not have a copy of “Music and Maestros.” My copy was from the library a year or so ago. For some reason, I was moved to take a photograph of the pages detailing the cities and dates the orchestra toured. I printed it out, and stuck the folded pages in a book.

    I would love to forward this astonishing document to you–if only I knew how–I don’t see a way on your blog. But you have my email. Just let me know by email if you’d be interested, and I’ll rephotograph it, and send it to you as an email attachment.

  4. Ken

    Emily, I have a copy of that book in my collection, and I’d be happy to loan it to you sometime. I always found it interesting the amount of touring the Minneapolis Symphony did to far and away communities – places that no major orchestra would ever dare visit these days. Without a doubt that helped cement their reputation early on. And although I was not yet born when the name of the orchestra changed, in hindsight it seemed like a bad idea. I often wish they would change the name back.

    • Very cool. Thank you so much for that offer, Ken! There’s also a copy on Alibris for $20… I may keep an eye out to see what the prices do and get a copy of my own online.

      I like both names. I like Minnesota in the sense that it suggests it represents the entire state. I wonder what the legal status of the name Minneapolis Symphony is. I’m sure more than one person has fantasized about the Minnesota Orchestra returning to the stage as the Minneapolis Symphony…sigh. Let’s hear it for totally unrealistic dreams. <3

  5. Anon

    I knew about Lark Ascending previously and Cather’s book from you mentioning it here, but not the Fremstad(/t?) connection. That is kinda neat how it all connects together. ‘Song of the Lark’ is also the name of an oil painting from 1884, (Can we post links? If not, let me know, and I won’t do it again.)
    http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/94841
    :)
    Anyway, mind blown! Again! (I finally was able to see your Advent Calender vid on Youtube. You have no idea how much that made me smile. I was wondering if you made a gigantic one out of a full piece of posterboard to be a bit (well okay, even more, I should say, I guess) over-the-top, or what? Making it double-sided though was, while not the traditional way of presentation, at least from my experience of them, a well considered nice touch. lol… I sincerely hope you don’t let it get trashed. It might make a good momento for someone in the Minnesota Orchestra in the future if this all comes to a reasonably just, if not also, hopefully happy conclusion. Just a thought.) ;)

  6. “Historical Perspectives” seems the perfect place to make known the extent of the orchestras touring in its early and middle years, so I’m going to detail some of that touring so that reader’s will be fully appreciative of what it took to build our orchestra. The source I am using for this information appears as an appendix to John K. Sherman’s “Music and Maestros,” a history of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra to 1952.

    In the State of Wisconsin, the orchestra toured in these cities in the listed years, starting in 1909:

    Appleton, 1912, 1913, 1916, 1917, 1921, 1923, 1925, 1926, 1927, 1928, 1950. Ashland, 1916. Beloit, 1913, 1919, 1932. Eau Claire, 1911, 1919, 1921, 1923, 1925, 1926, 1940. Fond du Lac, 1925. Green Bay, 1912, 1921, 1929, 1947. Janesville, 1912, 1915. Kenosha, 1911. LaCrosse, 1910, 1911, 1912, 1914, 1915, 1920, 1923, 1925, 1940, 1941, 1943, 1944, 1945, 1946, 1947, 1949, 1950, 1951 (2), Lancaster, 1924. Madison, 1912, 1913, 1914, 1915, 1918, 1929, 1921, 1923 (2), 1924 (2), 1925 (2), 1926, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943, 1944, 1945, 1946, 1947, 1948, 1949, 1950, 1951. Manitowoc, 1942. Menomonie, 1911. Milwaukee, 1912, 1914, 1917, 1920, 1921, 1923, 1925, 1927, 1930, 1936, 1942, 1943, 1945, 1946, 1947, 1948, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952. Neenah, 1912 (2). Oshkosh, 1912, 1913, 1920, 1929. Racine, 1912, 1919, 1929. Ripon, 1920, 1923, 1925. Sheboygan, 1912, 1943. Stevens Point, 1925, 1926. Superior, 1911, 1921. Watertown, 1925. Wausau, 1926, 1947, 1949, 1950. Waukesha, 1925.

    Going on alphabetically to one more state–the State of Wyoming. Yes, that would be “Wyoming.” It is to say nothing at all against the good State of Wyoming, but it is not the place you might expect the fabled Minnesota Orchestra ever to have set up their music stands–but set them up they did.

    Wyoming:
    Cheyenne, 1928, 1947, 1949. Laramie, 1917, 1928, 1946.

    In sum, during the years 1909 through 1952, they toured to forty-four of the fifty states; they toured to six of Canada’s ten provinces; they toured to Cuba. they toured to 442 cities and performed 3168 concerts.

    The detailing of the tours I’ve quoted above is an astonishing document. It appears as an appendix in John K. Sherman’s history of the orchestra, “Music and Maestros,” and takes up five single spaced pages.

    But the tours didn’t stop in 1952. They continued through the 50s and into the 60s. I remember the excitement when Stanislaw Skrowaczewski came to Minnesota in 1960 or 61. His first appearance as our new conductor was in a high school gymnasium in Brainard, Minnesota–the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra was again on tour.

    My “historical perspective?” The Minnesota Orchestra has a deep tap root, going back well over a century, and it extends from our city, through the humus of our soil, to our state, our neighboring states and region, to the nation, and yes, even to the world. It would be a crime–literally a crime against our forebears and our cultural heritage, a crime against ourselves–to allow this great orchestra to wilt on the vine. We must not let this happen.

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