by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As Los Angeles experienced dramatic growth from the Boom of the 1880s, which largely took place during the 1887-1888 term of Mayor William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste, there were many manifestations of the development of the Angel City and its environs.
When it came to leisure, of which there was much more available time to the middle and upper class denizens of the region, and the arts, including so-called “serious music,” one of these was the significant uptick of professional and amateur musical societies. One of these, founded just as that great boom was going bust in 1889, was the Treble Clef Club, which was distinctive in that it was entirely made up of women and that it predated the establishment of the Woman’s Symphony Orchestra by several years.
In late 1904, after factionalism, seemingly so prevalent among groups of all stripes, which recently took place within the Treble Clef Club and contributed to its dissolution, some of its members launched a new musical society, the Woman’s Lyric Club. This institution lasted far longer than its predecessor and continued to provide concerts until the late 1970s. Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a program for the club’s third and final concert of its sixteenth season, held on 28 May 1920 at the Trinity Auditorium, managed by the seemingly omnipresent Lynden E. Behymer, a preeminent figure in the Los Angeles arts scene for decades.
Conducted by J.B. Poulin with Mrs. M. Hennion Robinson as accompanist, the program mainly consisted of vocal selections with soloists including club members soprano Helen Sisson Barker, contralto Clemence Gifford, and mezzo-soprano Nellie Coburn Walker, along with tenor Ralph Laughlin and Earl Bright on violoncello. The composers of the pieces were mostly somewhat well-known at the time, but largely forgotten now, excepting Claude Debussy, whose “Beau Soir” was rearranged by Deems Taylor, widely known for his promotion of classical music as well as being a critic.
While most of these works were wistful and idyllic with lyrics evoking spiritual and natural themes, there was also “The Leprechaun” by Welsh composer Bryceson Treharne, which had its fantasy elements involving the title figure and a fairyland, but also Arthur Bergh’s “Melican Man,” which featured truly cringe-worthy lyrics about Ah Sin Foy, who migrated to San Francisco and worked in a laundry, and Wee Sin San, his beau who waited for his return. Here’s a sample:
The ship it sailed and Ah Sin Foy
Soon found himself ashore
Upon the banks of Mellican [American] Land
With other Chinks a score.
He took a job in a big laundry,
And lived on rice and a cup of tea
While he worked for Wee Sin San.
One day in far-off Frisco Town
Beside the golden sea,
Sin Foy was jumping up and down
As happy as could be.
He’d sold his laundry, soap and suds,
And all diked out in Mellican duds
Was quite a changed Chinee!
[After returning to China and Wee Sin San . . .]
How Ah Sin Foy and Wee Sin San
Are happy as can be;
They spend their days in the flower-land
Beneath a cherry tree;
They sigh no more—their every joy
Is centered in a flub-dub, sprawling, chubby boy,
Whose name is Mellican, Ah Foy Mellican,
Sin San Mellican Man!
The distinguishing talent in the program, however, was “pianiste” Olga Steeb, who is generally forgotten now, but achieved great success in Los Angeles because, not only was she a native, but she became a renowned concert performer in pre-World War I Berlin, where she was showered with acclaim by adoring audiences.
Born in June 1890, she was the oldest of three daughters of German immigrants Sophia Schmitt, whose family came to Los Angeles in 1882 when she was twelve and Carl Steeb, who migrated to the Angel City in 1880. Carl sang and played the French horn, including with the first symphony orchestra in Los Angeles, formed in the early 1890s. Olga’s sisters Norma and Lillian were also musicians, but it was the first-born who became a sensation.
By the end of the Nineties, “Little Olga Steeb” was getting local recognition for her preternatural abilities on the piano, with the Los Angeles Express of 24 August 1899 reporting that “a rumor has gained credence that Herr Thilo Becker, the well-known pianist, is about to bring to the public an infant prodigy.”
When asked about it, Becker told the paper, “my new prodigy . . . it is little Olga Steeb, but I do not like to have her called a prodigy,” though it was said her friends called her a musical marvel who was “an indefatigable little student” whose “talent gives great promise.” Becker demurred when asked if she was to perform the following winter, but it wasn’t too long before she became prominent in Angel City musical circles.
An early performance was in May 1901, as Olga was a featured performer in a recital by Becker’s students at Blanchard Hall, though it was said by the Los Angeles Times that she was nine years old, when she was actually just a little shy of her eleventh. By the next year, “Little OIga Steeb” was being called “The Child Genius of the Piano” and performing solo recitals.
In February 1905, the Los Angeles Herald reported, “the dream of years of little Olga Steeb became a reality yesterday afternoon when several hundred admirers of the young musician listened to her interpretations of the great masters at Simpson auditorium.” She not only played works by Brahms, Chopin, Haydn, Mendelssohn and Schumann, but her own Scherzo in D Minor was well-received.
At the end of 1906, the Times reported that Ossip Gabrilowitsch, a renowned Russian pianist who performed in Los Angeles and heard the teen phenom, was said to have uttered “that is Ms. Steeb’s strength and ambition continue, she will be one of the greatest pianists in the world.” Ignace Jan Paderewski, a legend on the instrument, had similar predictions for her potential career after he saw her perform.
Having graduated from high school and spent years under Becker’s tutelage, Steeb achieved something of great rarity as a Los Angels musician as she headed to Europe in late 1909 to continue her studies and to perform and made the biggest impact in her parents’ homeland and its capital of Berlin. There she had a big impact on audiences and a local correspondent for the New York Musical American, who enthused:
Olga Steeb of Los Angeles, Cal., is the biggest living piano genius I know of. I look for her to be recognized within five years as the greatest piano genius since Liszt. Her gifts are something phenomenal. Her playing has the power of moving auditors to laughter or tears.
She apparently had the additional rare gift of a photographic memory because, it was added, she “has given careful study to nearly two thousand pieces of music, and plays about nine hundred of them from memory.” Moreover, she impressed many with her ability to play any piece in her massive repertoire on just a couple hours notice” and her “practically perfect technic and a most wonderful tone.”
Surprising, as well, to the culture music lovers of Europe was “how can it be possible that a person could get such training in America, and particularly in the Far West?” Los Angeles was known for its impeccable climate and its delicious oranges, but this was “beyond the grasp of most people” to comprehend. The correspondent concluded that Steeb “is one of the most modest, simple persons I have ever met.”
Steeb returned to the Angel City and the Herald of 13 March 1910 reported that her performances “aroused such enthusiasm that she was invited for private recitals in the leading cities of England and Switzerland and on each occasion received criticisms and commendations from the most famous musicians and critics of the world.” When she played in front of two of the most renowned teachers of the piano, they marveled about “her phenomenal musical endowments” and professed that “she had received a technical schooling which needed no additional touch.”
The musician’s stay at home, however, was short as she soon went back to Europe for two years of consistent concertizing, followed by some touring in the United States, before once more returning to her home town in spring 1913. The Express observed that “she looks so slight and schoolgirlish that it seems almost incredible that a fairy-tale little creature could enter into the pugilistic encounters with the piano necessary to play concertos with orchestras.” Yet, it continued, she remained “more unaffected about her work than is the average debutante.”
Quoted in the article was her manager and husband, Charles H. Keefer, told the paper that “one of the biggest concert halls in Berlin was unable to accommodate the crowds that came” so that some persons sat on the platform on which Steeb played. He added, “in two weeks Miss Steeb played nine concertos with the Philharmonic orchestra of Berlin . . . a number of the critics said it could not be done in the time. But Miss Steeb did it with triumphant success in three concerts. He crowed that she “is the first great artist who has been turned out by the western hemisphere without taking a lesson in Europe. She has the largest repertoire of any woman pianist.”
She played to large audiences at home with an April 1914 concert at the Temple Auditorium with the Woman’s Symphony Orchestra publicized as the “Greatest Program Ever Played In America,” but any plans to return to Europe to continue her blazing career came to a sudden halt with the outbreak of the First World War that summer. Additionally, her marriage to Keefer soured as she accused him of showing no initiative to work, but rather to live off her accomplishments.
In 1915, perhaps tiring of the demands of concert performance and expectations of audiences and critics and wanting some stability, Steeb was hired to lead the piano department at the University of Redlands under the supervision of the dean of the College of Fine Arts, Charles E. Hubach and she remained in that Inland Empire city for a couple of years and, in August 1919, married Hubach, who was also a widely-known vocal instructor, remaining with him until his death a little more than a decade later.
She then returned to more frequent public engagements, including with the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra and, just after the war’s end, performances elsewhere in the United States, including Aeolian Hall in New York. By the time she performed at the Woman’s Lyric Club season-concluding concert, Steeb had also been a featured soloist during the first year of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.
As for reviews of the concert, the Express wrote that it was a “brilliant and colorful program which was one of the finest which the organization has offered.” The vocal selections were adjudged to have been executed with due preparation, skill and delivery, while “Mellican Man” was singled out as it “gave a rare touch of comedy and humor to the program.” As for Steeb, the paper, somewhat perfunctorily, observed that she “revealed her usual great artistry” with three works by Chopin followed later by pieces from Ravel, Debussy and a combination of the Midsummer Night’s Dream fantasias of Mendelssohn and Liszt.
Jeanne Redman of the Times chose to focus first on the fact that “the Woman’s Lyric Club was very generous in the matter of soloists for their concert” and noted that Steeb
was enthusiastically received, as always, and gave a delightful interpretation of a Chopin group, which she played with finesse and a style which is becoming more and more assured.”
As to her performance of a section of the Mendelssohn fantasia, the critic enthused that “she gives to it a delicacy as of flowers and a subtle poetic melancholy.” Redman was complimentary of the vocal pieces, as well.
With respect to Steeb, she continued to perform, though more frequently in Los Angeles, to where she returned to live by the time the concert was given. She did tour the East Coast in early 1923, but returned to devote herself increasingly to teaching. For a time she worked at the University of Southern California, but, in 1923, she opened her own school, which also included her sisters as instructors.
While in the 1920 census, her occupation was given as “concert pianist,” the next two enumerations listed her as a teacher. She did, however, continue to give concerts, but poor health forced her to retire in 1939 when she was not quite fifty. Two years later, a few weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the Second World War, Steeb died of cancer.
In its New Year’s Day 1942 issue, the Times paid tribute to Steeb in its editorial pages, writing
Los Angeles was proud of Olga Steeb from the day she astounded local musical groups as a child prodigy more than 40 years ago until illness forced her retirement from the concert stage late in 1939 . . . [noting the fact that the world was engulfed in war] it was in Europe—in Berlin, in fact—that she was first acclaimed as one of the greatest of pianists. That triumph of 1910 [actually, 1909], however, but confirmed the opinion of Americans that this native daughter of Los Angeles and California was, indeed, one of the era’s ranking musical geniuses.
Her career was a distinct contribution to musical and cultural development in this community.
Olga Steeb was not only a rarity as a world-class musician emanating from the Angel City and the Golden State and making a significant impact in the rest of the country and, especially, in Europe, but she was a relatively unusual example of a woman achieving the highest levels of musical achievement during her time.
This program reflects the prominence of musical societies, including those consisting of women, as well as its featured soloists renown.