A Chautauqua Symphony Concert

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Ray Hahn

A Chautauqua Symphony Concert

Chautauqua is a Native American word that is fun to say; especially when you know what it means. The etymology of the word is from the Iroquois and a literal translation is impossible but we come close in English when we say, “a bag tied in the middle.” And too, Chautauqua is the name of a lake in southwestern New York, a village that teeters on the northwest shore of the lake and best of all, it is the name of a setting for the Chautauqua Institution, an adult educational meeting system. Hundreds of Chautauqua themed postcards show lakeside and outdoor activities at Chautauqua style gatherings near the New York lake, but the concept was equally popular in Ohio, Illinois, Texas, Nevada and places where rural families would gather but a few times each year. Study classes specialized in topics from a very broad spectrum – apple agriculture to beekeeping – rotated through the years, but the curricula had several mainstays, i.e., art education, literature and poetry study, and music. *  *   * Even at the early gatherings (1873 or shortly after) those who attended Chautauqua took musical instruments and registered to join the orchestra. The only account so far located was authored by none other than Elbert Hubbard, the founder of the Roycroft community in nearby East Aurora, New York. Penned for a Buffalo (NY) Enquirer newspaper, he recounted his evening in a Chautauqua Orchestra’s audience, “listening to music; the language of the angels.” One postcard of special interest is this advertising card for a Broadcast Concert by the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra.  A little sleuthing was needed to determine that the program was a broadcast of music recorded at the 67th Assembly – that was 1940. There are many bits of interest on this card:
  • The Conductor was Albert Stoessel. The one-time Music Department Head at New York University and later the Opera and Orchestra Department Head at Juilliard. Stoessel achieved great success in his career, but the distinction he is most remember by is that he died of a heart attack in the midst of conducting a concert in New York in 1943.
  • Muriel Kerr was the pianist for the Rachmaninoff concerto. A very accomplished woman who taught at both Juilliard and the University of Southern California. She was much loved by her students. There is an account that tells of music students queueing two days before class registration began, just to be sure they could enroll in her classes.
  • The concert overture by William Schumann American Festival Overture was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky, composed for and premiered in October 1939 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It is, by design to be played as the first piece in festival performances. It is loud, brilliant and spontaneous. The music was new and for a Chautauqua orchestra to learn it in just a few weeks was a major musical achievement.
  • In the fall of 1900 through to April 1901 Sergei Rachmaninoff composed his Second Piano Concerto. The signature key is C-minor, one of his favorites. There is a popular back-story about how the public acceptance of this composition helped the composer heal from a severe bout of depression and “writer’s block.” The legend may be true, but so many critics and music historians of the era “needed” to find reasons or excuses for everything. There was little acceptance of the idea that the music is simply beautiful. Period.As political unrest rose in Russia during the 1910s and the evils of the Romanov czars were unmasked for the world to see, Rachmaninoff sought new residences and performance venues for his music; he chose Switzerland, France, the United Kingdom and the United States. (He became a naturalized American citizen in 1943.)
  • It is interesting that the notice includes a one-hour time frame for the broadcast in “Eastern Daylight Saving Time.”
  • The program was masterfully timed. Standards of performance were invented by the musician’s unions years after this broadcast, but a best scenario calculation follows and the four pieces come out to exactly one hour.(The Schuman overture is 9 minutes long, the concerto is 32 minutes when the repeats are cut, Bizet’s Adagietto is another 9 minutes and the Wagner’s prelude requires between 9 and 11 minutes depending on the version performed.)
  • The card lists three encore performances, something completely unheard of today because of royalty payments.
  • The National Broadcasting Company (NBC), led by David Sarnoff chose to create a “radio music box” as early as 1926, but it took until Christmas night, 1937, before Arturo Toscanini conducted their first performance.
Toscanini, circa 1921
Sarnoff was adamant that his NBC Radio Network should devote as much airtime as possible to concerts, lectures, and music. Sadly, sometime in the last few decades someone made the decision to sell the radio stations (2004) and change their television programing to half-hour sit-coms, motion picture rebroadcasts, pop-culture drama (crime, medicine, and adventure), and non-scripted reality shows. Sigh! *   *   * The Chautauqua orchestras were not the kinds of organizations recorded by “label” record companies, and few, if any, record pressings were made. They were not even close to being professional musicians and their collective (musical) color was different from year to year. Notwithstanding the quality of performance, good or not, their performances were seldom reviewed. However the music they played as been recorded on many occasions by professionals and you should do yourself a favor. Go to Youtube.com, spend an hour listening to the music. You too, can then claim to have heard the voices of angels.
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Coincidentally, this article appeared just a few days after an Elbert Hubbard statement was featured in the “Cryptoquote” puzzle syndicated to daily newspapers (yes, I still read the “dead tree” edition).

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