Ida Klein

The surviving programs from the Chicago Orchestra’s first seasons’ tours show founder and first music director Theodore Thomas’s enthusiasm for promoting talented young women at a time when it was still rare for them to appear as instrumental soloists. Vocalists appeared regularly, and during the 1891-92 season, Katherine Fisk, Ida Klein, and Christine Nielson traveled with the Orchestra, singing a mix of operatic and popular repertoire (a common practice at the time and likely part of Thomas’s desire to entertain audiences).

Julia Rivé-King

Composer and pianist Julia Rivé-King—who already had a well-established career as a soloist, having toured the U.S. with Thomas and his orchestra in the 1880s—also appeared frequently with the Chicago Orchestra and traveled to the Metropolitan Opera House in Saint Paul, Minnesota in March 1892 to perform Saint-Saëns’s Rhapsodie d’Auvergne. The Saint Paul Daily Globe reported that “the applause which followed [her performance] was so persistent that the famous pianist was forced to return with an encore.” In her book Unsung: A History of Women in American Music, Christine Ammer estimates that by the time Rivé-King would have appeared in Saint Paul, she would have performed in nearly 1,800 concerts since her 1873 debut. She became a fixture of Chicago’s musical life, teaching for over thirty years at the Bush Conservatory of Music.

Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler

Also featured on that Saint Paul program was local violinist Marie Louise Paige, performing a polonaise by Henryk Wieniawsi (it’s not clear in the program whether it is the Polonaise de concert, op. 4 or the Polonaise brillante, op. 21). The same article praised Paige’s technical prowess: “[H]er execution is brilliant, her tone clear. . . . She was recalled again and again, but refused an encore.” Little else seems to be known of Paige; like many women of this period, perhaps she gave up her performing career after marriage. (The complete review is here.)

Maud Powell

Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler also was a frequent soloist with the Chicago Orchestra, both at home and on tour. She made her premiere on subscription concerts at the Auditorium Theatre on March 25 and 26, 1892, and later that spring accompanied the Orchestra to Louisville, Kansas City, and Omaha. Returning the following season, the Chicago Tribune review of her December 2, 1892, subscription concert performance demonstrates the high regard in which she was held as a performer: “Mme. Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler was the soloist in the Saint-Saëns Concerto [no. 4] . . . She has for several seasons stood first among the women pianists of America, but her work last evening proved that now she need acknowledge as her superior none of her brother artists residents[sic] in this country. . . . The audience received her work with merited enthusiasm, recalling her five times and resting satisfied only when an encore was given.”

The rest of the Orchestra’s second season saw many female violinists, including Maud Powell’s Chicago debut as part of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Powell was the only solo female violinist programmed by Thomas in that series, and in a review of her performance of Bruch’s G minor concerto on July 18, 1893, the Musical Courier wrote that “her conception of the concerto was equal to that of any of the great violinists whom I have heard.”

Central Music Hall, November 30, 1892, program

Augusta S. Cottlow

The support of the Orchestra also was given to fourteen-year-old pianist Augusta S. Cottlow on November 30, 1892, for a “testimonial concert” at the Central Music Hall in Chicago. It is unclear how Thomas met or learned of Cottlow (perhaps through her teacher, the Chicago-based Carl Wolfsohn) or why he was willing to throw the full might (and cost) of the Orchestra behind a concert for her. It might have been a benefit concert to fund her impending trip to Europe; however, as late as 1895, she was still appearing in concerts around Chicago.

Amphitheatre Auditorium, Louisville, Kentucky, January 7, 1893

While Rivé-King, Bloomfield Zeisler, and Powell had long careers as performers, the story of violinist Mary Currie Duke is perhaps more representative of the professional trajectory for many women musicians of this period. There are few data points about her, but her appearance with the Chicago Orchestra at the Amphitheatre Auditorium in Louisville, Kentucky on January 7, 1893, is noteworthy and likely led to her invitation to perform for the World’s Congress of Representative Women at the World’s Columbian Exposition later that year. The Californian Illustrated Magazine of November 1893 indicates that she spent some time studying music abroad in Europe, even claiming that she became “one of [Joseph] Joachim’s idols” and had performed Bruch’s First Violin Concerto with the composer accompanying at the piano. Duke married William Matthews in 1899, and it is unclear if she continued her musical career following her marriage. However, according to Gary Matthews’s biography of her father General Basil Wilson Duke, her husband died in 1910, putting her in a precarious financial position. While she might have returned to the stage in order to earn an income, she developed arthritis soon after her husband’s death, definitively ending her performing career.

Electa Gifford (Chicago Tribune, August 4, 1899)

As discussed in part 1, the Orchestra’s third season saw a drastic reduction in the number of tour concerts and, as a result, fewer performing opportunities for women. However, two unusual concerts in Chicago helped launch the careers of several singers. A “Grand Concert” was given by soprano Electa Gifford at Central Music Hall on November 27, 1893, where she was accompanied by Thomas and the Chicago Orchestra. The concert was a mix of vocal works performed by Gifford along with standards from the Orchestra’s tour repertoire, including the Forest Murmurs from the second act of Wagner’s Siegfried. Once again, it is unclear how Thomas came to know Gifford, but this act of patronage had an important impact on her career. In August 1899, the Chicago Tribune announced her engagement with the Grand Opera of Amsterdam, where she sang the lead soprano roles in many of the company’s performances that season.

Central Music Hall, Chicago, May 8, 1894

Similarly, a benefit concert was given for pianist Laura Sanford and mezzo-soprano Fanchon H. Thompson with the Chicago Orchestra supporting the two young soloists. In this instance, the connection from performers to Thomas is much easier to draw: both were students of Amy Fay, the sister of Thomas’s second wife, Rose Fay. While little is known of Sanford, Thompson went on to a successful career as a singer in Paris, where she debuted at the Opéra-Comique in 1899. According to a 1929 New York Times obituary appearing in the New York Times in 1929, “she twice sang before Queen Victoria at Windsor in Cavalleria rusticana and Romeo and Juliet.

The lives and careers of female performers at the end of the nineteenth century are often difficult to assemble, punctuated as they were by long periods of absence due to marriages and births in ways that did not similarly affect the careers of male musicians. However, following the clues offered in the surviving programs of the Orchestra’s initial seasons demonstrates that Chicago was rapidly becoming a hub for the musical education of men and women at this time, and illuminates the direct role that Theodore Thomas and the Orchestra often played in launching many a career.

Jenna Harmon is a doctoral candidate in musicology at Northwestern University and an intern in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association’s Rosenthal Archives.

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