Classical music has rich history in Jacksonville
Frederick Delius tops century of ties
By Bob Phelps
Times-Union staff writer,
Images of Jacksonville's early days are linked to an old stereotype of the city as a backwater cultural wasteland named Cowford.
But actually, classical music had a strong presence as early as the mid-to-late 1800s.
A Florida Daily Times writer in January 1882 described the sounds of downtown Jacksonville this way:
''The vicinity of St. James Park is rendered very attractive evenings by the music that is floating through the air from the grand drawing rooms of the St. James and Windsor hotels.
''To each of these fine establishments are attached excellent orchestras of several musicians, directed by skilled leaders and each evening they perform selections of all the latest and most popular operas and dances, adding greatly to their attractiveness and to the enjoyment of their guests, and has a very pleasant effect on all the neighborhood.''
Indeed, classical music has a rich history in Jacksonville.
The most internationally acclaimed figure in classical music history to have a Jacksonville influence was Frederick Delius. Delius composed The Florida Suite, Appalachia and a long body of other works.
An Englishman who came to manage his father's orange groves on the banks of the St. Johns River west of St. Augustine, in 1884 he befriended Thomas F. Ward, organist for the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Jacksonville, who taught him music and composition.
Delius went back to Europe in 1886 and became an internao tionally honored composer. He readily acknowledged the influence on his compositions of African American music he heard in St. Johns County.
Delius died in 1934 in France.
The Delius Festival in Jacksonville has honored the composer for 39 years.
James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson: The Johnson brothers, James Weldon and J. Rosamond - who were born and reared in Jacksonville - in 1900 wrote an African-American classic, Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing. It is acknowledged as the black national anthem. Rosamond Johnson was a classically trained musician but was better known for his show tunes. James Weldon Johnson, a poet and educator, wrote lyrics to the song.
Ruth Crawford Seeger: Another composer of note was Ruth Crawford Seeger, an ultra-modernist of the 1920s and '30s era who grew up and studied music in Jacksonville until she left for the Chicago Conservatory of Music in 1920 at age 19. In 1930, she was the first female composer to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship to study in Berlin. Her most noted works were her Violin Sonata, her first String Quartet and a folk-song based work Rissolty, Rossolty in 1939. She was the step-mother of folk artist Pete Seeger.
A pivotal name in Jacksonville music history, with influence felt to this day, is L'Engle - sisters Claudia L'Engle Adams and Mary L'Engle.
Adams was a graduate of the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. In January 1890, she gathered a group of her musically-inclined women friends in the parlor at her home on East Monroe Street to study, perform and listen to fine music. This was the first meeting of the Ladies Friday Musicale.
Adams died in 1895, but her parlor group grew to become a hallmark organization for musical culture in Jacksonville that has survived to this day. It formed orchestras, it ran educational programs and brought great classical music figures, such as pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninov, to perform in Jacksonville. (Rachmaninov performed in the Jacksonville Armory in 1938.)
The Musicale survived the complete destruction of its antebellum auditorium on Oak Street by arson fire in 1995, and rebuilt a new $600,000 auditorium, much like the first one, in 1997.
Mary L'Engle was equally active in classical music, but independent of her late sister's Friday Musicale. Mary L'Engle had studied piano in Europe and enjoyed inviting fine musicians to her home to hold chamber sessions. Then she began to invite conductors and soon, she had her own orchestra, independent of the musicale's orchestra.
The death of Mary L'Engle in 1948 did not end the L'Engle influence. She bequeathed a $100,000 trust for music education that still is operable today. In the early 1950s, the trustees bought a huge supply of stringed instruments, about 800, ranging from quarter-sized violins to full-sized double basses, for public school use.
Carolyn Day Pfohl, chairman of the L'Engle trust, said the instruments are still being reconditioned and loaned to young students and the trust still grants music scholarships.
The L'Engle Trust enhanced a classical music education program that dated back to the early part of the century. The Jacksonville Public Library photo archives show members of a mandolin club that was active at Duval High School in 1914.
Henry Cornely, former principal cellist for the Jacksonville Symphony, played in his youth for L'Engle's Little Symphony in the 1930s. The Friday Musicale had its own orchestra conducted by George Orner.
''We had two orchestras and never the twain met,'' Cornely recalled. ''We didn't even know each other. No attempt was made to bring them together that I know of.''
Cornely said hard times finally brought the two orchestras together in the late 1930s, when the Works Progress Administration recruited musicians to play for a small but living wage in the WPA Orchestra.
Following World War II, Friday Musicale organized the Junior Symphony Friday Musicale. Cornely was its second conductor. The Jacksonville Philharmonic Orchestra was founded by Orner.
In 1949, civic leader and attorney Olin Watts led an effort to have a new orchestra founded. He was elected the first president of the newly chartered Jacksonville Symphony Association that year.
Herbert Panken, an attorney, was a member of the first symphony board. ''Olin Watts had the idea and started to put it together,'' Panken said. ''He asked me if I would serve on the board. We all knew that it was important.''
The year the music died
Between 1969 and 1971, the symphony underwent a financial crisis. Mired in debt, it shut down for a season. It got back on its feet with the help of major contributions from Ira Koger, a suburban office park developer and former orchestra musician himself.
To help relaunch the rejuvenated orchestra, Koger backed a trip to Carnegie Hall in New York and the Kennedy Center in Washington in 1972. Willis Page was director then.
In 1997, the symphony - under Roger Nierenberg's direction - was invited to play in Carnegie Hall's visiting orchestra series.
The city enters the new millennium in a relatively new hall - Robert E. Jacoby Symphony Hall in the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts - with internationally traveled music director Fabio Mechetti and with the prospect of a powerful new pipe organ to be installed in the hall next year.
The best is yet to come.
BEGINNINGS OF THE SYMPHONY
The first Jacksonville Symphony concert was held in March 1950 in George Washington Hotel auditorium.
The conductor was Van Leir Lanning, a veteran horn player of the National Symphony and music director of the Arlington, Va., Civic Symphony. Lanning conducted only one season and was replaced by James Christian Pfohl, who was in charge from 1952-'61.
Later symphony music directors included John Canarina, 1962-'69; Willis Page, 1971-'83; Roger Nierenberg, 1984-'98; and the recently appointed Fabio Mechetti.
Canarina directed the first symphony concert in the then-new Civic Auditorium in 1964. Nierenberg directed the first symphony concert in the new Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts in 1997.
- Bob Phelps/staff
SUBHEAD:Important dates in Jacksonville's history of classical music:
1900: Jacksonville brothers J. Rosamond Johnson, a classical musician and musical comedy composer, and James Weldon Johnson, a poet and educator, wrote Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing, known as the black national anthem.
1923: The Jacksonville College of Music was founded by Lyman Prior, William Myer and George Orner. In 1941, it received national accreditation and in 1958, it became the school of music for the new Jacksonville University.
1929: The Jacksonville Chapter of the American Guild of Organists was organized.
1955: The Jacksonville Opera and Choral Society was founded with C. Carter Nice Sr. as director.
1971: Willis Page conducted the Jacksonville Symphony in The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky and combined ballet companies performed the production at Civic Auditorium. It became an annual event.
1971: The University of North Florida was founded with Gerson Yessin chairing the school of music.
1972: Stereo 90, the public broadcasting station with a classical music format, went on the air.
1972: The Beaches Fine Arts Series was founded at St. Paul's By-The-Sea Episcopal Church, presenting nationally acclaimed soloists and chamber groups in free concerts.
1979: The Emil Maestre Music Association of St. Augustine, named for a virtuoso cellist, was founded. It now is the EMMA Concert Association and presents 12 to 15 concerts of internationally traveled soloists and ensembles each year.
1984: The St. Johns River City Band was founded by Ira Koger and Willis Page.
1994: The Riverside Fine Arts Series, featuring leading classical music soloists and chamber groups, was founded at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Riverside.
1997: The Robert E. Jacoby Symphony Hall, the first building erected specifically for performance of classical music in Jacksonville, was opened as the third hall in the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts. Roger Nierenberg conducted the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and the Gainesville Civic Chorus in a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Ode to Joy for the inaugural concert.
- Bob Phelps/staff
Sources used for this story include:
The Florida Collection of the Jacksonville Public Library.
A History of Music in Florida by Grier Moffett Williams, 1961.
The WPA Guide to Florida, Federal Writers' Project, 1939.
The private files of Henry Cornely Jr.
The archives of The Florida Times-Union.