Saturday, June 11, 2011

Music Notes From The Past

The Minneapolis Symphony was founded in 1903. Its principal conductor, from 1903 until 1922, was Emil Oberhoffer (1867-1933), a German-born conductor who emigrated to the United States in 1885 and who became an American citizen in 1893.

In addition to serving as founding conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony, Oberhoffer—composer, conductor, organist, pianist, violinist, choral trainer, lecturer—was the first head of the Music Department of the University Of Minnesota.

The press sheet below, from 1916, offers extended excerpts from reviews the Minneapolis Symphony received during its 1916 tour of the East Coast.

The reviews are glowing—and appear to be written by knowledgeable persons, no less.

If the reviews are reliable, by 1916 the Minneapolis Symphony was deemed equal, if not superior, to the Boston Symphony of Karl Muck and the Chicago Symphony of Frederick Stock—and vastly superior to the New York Symphony of Walter Damrosch, the New York Philharmonic of Josef Stransky and the Philadelphia Orchestra of Leopold Stokowski.

Indeed, the Minneapolis Symphony, from approximately 1910 until approximately 1950, was generally considered to be one of America’s top five orchestras, a few steps above Cincinnati, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Saint Louis—and on par with the orchestras of Boston, Chicago, New York and Philadelphia. (No other American orchestras during this period were considered to be of any importance whatsoever; this is so even though they may have enjoyed the services of prominent conductors, such as Los Angeles, for a time guided by Otto Klemperer, and San Francisco, for a time guided by Pierre Monteux.) It was the rise of the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell that knocked the Minneapolis Symphony from the pedestal.


Many music-lovers are unaware that the Twin Cities supported two major orchestras early in the 20th Century.

The Saint Paul Symphony was a major ensemble from 1905 until 1914. In the latter year, the orchestra disbanded because there were insufficient guarantors for the 1914-1915 season and because too many of the orchestra’s musicians were trapped in Germany with the onset of World War I.

In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, American orchestras were staffed with numerous German players who would routinely return to Germany for the summer months. In August 1914, these players found it impossible to leave Europe and return to America, as quarantines were widely imposed throughout Central Europe and as ocean-crossings from the continent—but not from Britain—were largely halted. (In addition, many players found themselves drafted into the armies of The Central Powers). The loss of German players was significantly to impact musical activity all over the United States for years to come.

The conductor of the Saint Paul Symphony for the duration of its existence was Walter Henry Rothwell (1872-1927). Rothwell had been a student of Anton Bruckner and assistant to Gustav Mahler while Mahler had served as conductor of the Hamburg Opera. Five years after the Saint Paul Symphony folded, Rothwell became founding conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

During its short existence, the Saint Paul Symphony was generally deemed superior to the Minneapolis Symphony, with better conductors, better guest artists, and more serious programs.

Unlike the Minneapolis Symphony, the Saint Paul Symphony never toured—the Minneapolis Symphony began aggressive, weeks-long tours of the East Coast no later than 1912, and continued such tours well into the 1950s—and, as a result, the Saint Paul Symphony was never as widely-known to the rest of the country as its Twin Cities competitor (although it was known and respected within the orchestra field—its best musicians were routinely poached by other leading ensembles).

The Saint Paul Symphony is mostly forgotten today. Even music-lovers in the Twin Cities are largely unaware of its former existence.

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