Striking a Chord: The National Federation of Music Clubs Convention and the Production of the Opera “Fairyland,” 24 June through 3 July 1915

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Just another of a plethora of examples of how rapidly Los Angeles grew during the first few decades of the 20th century is the prominence of the Angel City in hosting national conventions of all kinds. Tonight’s featured object from the museum’s collection is a program for ninth biennial convention and festival of music for the National Federation of Music Clubs, with emphasis on the premiere of an opera that captured a $10,000 prize sponsored by the organization, this being Fairyland by composer Horatio Parker with the book by poet Brian Hooker.

The NFMC was organized in 1898 and is now the largest nonprofit entity promoting and supporting music, music education and musicians in the United States. The headquarters for the 1915 convention was the city’s finest hostelry, the Hotel Alexandria. When the meeting began its proceedings, the Los Angeles Express editorialized that it was doing so “in fairyland in very truth,” as Los Angeles was where “nature in her finest creative mood has composed a score that is the physical expression of a noble part of the divine harmony itself.”

Los Angeles Times, 24 June 1915.

The paper referred to the growing popularity of the city as a convention haven, observing that “the development of culture in this center of population has not been obscured by the intensity of endeavor devoted to material progress.” It added that, if the recent meeting of the national realtors’ association was one end of the spectrum, “the gathering of the country’s music clubs and the premiere production of an American grand opera fityl symbolizes the other.”

Working itself into further into a lofty lather as it concluded, the Express proclaimed:

The development of Los Angeles has been harmoniously rounded and things spiritual have not been neglected in the contest for trade supremacy. The ideal of civic progress this community has established for its guidance includes the aspirations that match with the finer purposes of life.

It is a people imbued with this spirit that greets the members of the music clubs of America and in sympathy of recognition of the aims they hold, bids them thrice welcome.

That first day on 24 June included the usual business with a welcoming address, reports, committee appointments, and the like in the morning, while, in the afternoon at Mason Opera House, there wer more addresses and papers, as well as a “Demonstration of Earliest Indian Music,” by Charles F. Lummis, one of the more notable figures in Los Angeles at the time, having been city librarian, founder of the preservation organization, The Landmarks Club, and founding father of the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, which opened the prior year.

Los Angeles Express, 24 June 1915.

A group of native songs was perfomed by Princess Tsianina Redfeather, a Creek and Cherokee tribal member, pianist, composer and singer who was widely known in the indigenous community until her death at age 102 in 1985, but who was also a mezzo-soprano associated with the prominent composer Charles Wakefield Cadman. In the evening here was a program of chamber music by the Brahms Quintet and songs sung by soprano Isabel Richardson.

The following day was the “Public School Music Program” with performances held at the original Shrine Auditorium (which burned five years later and was replaced by the current venue) by children from all levels of the school system in Los Angeles, with first through eighth graders performing during the day and high schoolers, including an orchestra, chorus and glee clubs, in the evening.

Los Angeles Record, 28 June 1915.

Saturday the 26th featured the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra, led by Adolf Tandler, and which preceded the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, while the following day higlighted the Woman’s Symphony Orchestra of Los Angeles, the bands of the city and county, and 1,000-member chorus in a “sacred concert.” Monday the 28th was largely devoted to a program of those who won the NFMC’s National Music Contest in the categories of piano, violin and vocals and by districts. So, the winner of the California and Western District was Mrs. Julia Harris Jack, who sang two of the lieder of Franz Schubert and a work by Mary Turner Salter.

Also on that day were committee reports; a symposium from the students’ department; several addresses regarding young musicians, including one from the local impresario Lynden E. Behymer on “Engagements in Opera and Concert;” organ recitals and a choral concert by members of the Lyric, Ellis and Orpheus clubs, this latter held at the Shrine.

Los Angeles Times, 29 June 1915.

On the 29th, there was a “Congress Recital” featuring the Brahms Quintet, as well as a recital featuring the well-known composer Carrie Jacobs Bond and two others, during the day and a varied evening program with the 1915 Prize Song, “The Ballad of the Trees and the Master” by Faith Rogers, who played the piano during the piece, a new Cadman piano sonata, and the seemingly inevitable “ministrel tune” comprising a piece by composer Harriet Ware [Krumbhaar], and called “Mammy’s Song.”

The program during the day for the 30th included more federation business; a piano recital with string accompaniment at the Trinity Auditorium; a three-part program of a variety of works; a coloratura soprano recital; and a four-part element of popular songs such as Stephen C. Foster’s “Jeanie”, another piece by Ware, and what was purported to be a Blackfeet tribal lullaby. In the evening, a two-part orchestra concert at the Trinity involved works by five composers, including Danish-born and Kansas City-based Carl Busch, George W. Chadwick of the New England Conservatory, and Mabel Daniels of the Boston area.

Times, 2 July 1915.

The last three days, being the first of that number in July, included more federation business, as well as, on the first, an “Automobile Ride to Points of Interest, Venice and Santa Monica,” but the main feature of that concluding period of the conclave was the premiere of Fairyland, which was performed at Clune’s Auditorium, owned by a colorful figure in Los Angeles theatre circles, William H. Clune.

Composer Parker was primarily recognized at the time for his sacred music, but was also a Yale University teacher who had the remarkable Charles Ives as a student, though the insurance executive/modernist felt his father was a superior teacher. The conductor was Alfred Hertz, then of the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York, but soon to lead the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra until 1930. He also conducted the inaugural concert at the Hollywood Bowl in July 1922, was a frequent guest conductor and then worked full-time there in the Thirties.

Express, 2 July 1915.

The performance was under the auspices of the American Opera Association of Los Angeles, located at Blanchard Hall, built for musical purposes by Frederick W. Blanchard, co-owner of the Blanchard and Fitzgerald Music Company, president of the Gamut Club, a founder and long-time president of the city’s art commission, founder of the Brahms Quartet and Quintet and president of the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra. Behymer, ubiquitous in the Angel City performing arts sphere, was vice-president of the association.

The cost for mounting the opera was $50,000 and Mrs. William H. Jamison, secretary of the American Opera Association and vice-president of the NFMC’s western district, penned a short essay about “The Birth of Fairyland.” She noted that the idea for the prize and the search for a host city came about three years prior and that Blanchard suggested that the NFMC should “hold every alternate festival in this city, for as long a time as we were willing to offer a prize and produce a new American opera.”

Record, 2 July 1915.

This agreed upon with the AOA in charge, the $10,000 amount was chosen and “there were fifty-six entries” but “the judges were unanimously in favor of this one.” She continued that the “purely philanthropic” endeavor of the association was given financial legitimacy because Security-First National Bank president, J.F. Sartori, was in charge of the funds, and any disbursements had to be signed for by the president, secretary and three of the executive committee members. She ended by averring that the production of the prize opera “marks an epoch in the history of American music.”

The book for the three-act performance by Hooker concerned Rosamund, a novice nun, fell for King Auburn, who was abandoning his crown for a pilgraimage, but bypassed his brother Corvain as successor for the abbess of the nunnery, Myriel, and the latter, in revenge, kills the king. Auburn, however, is restored to life among fairies and marries Rosamund, who becomes the queen. Back on earth, however, Corvain seizes Rosamund, who went in search of Auburn, returned to reality but unknown as the king and to her. The king seeks return of his crown, but unrecognized as such, he is unsuccessful.

Rosamund is sentenced by Corvain, who came to an agreement with Myriel regarding the rule of the kingdom, to be burned at the stake as a witch, while she and Auburn finally “wholly remember each other and despise their dream.” In a battle with Corvain, Auburn is taken and is added to the stake to burn with his lover. Yet, as the flames rise, they are freed by a cadre of fairies “and Auburn and Rosamund are again set free and crowned in a world that is one with Fairyland.”

While Ralph Errolle (Auburn), William Wade Hinshaw (Corvain), and Kathleen Howard (Myriel, and who became better known for her roles in some of W.C. Fields’ classic mid-1930s comedies) were well-known at the time in opera circles, Rosamund was played by a local soprano star, Marcella (born Sarah Marcia) Craft, who grew up in Riverside, studies in Boston and Italy, and became a particular favorite in pre-World War I Berlin and again in the Weimar Republic years of the Twenties. Another highlighted performer was the “premiere danseuse” Albertina Rasch, a native of Vienna later highly regarded for her choreography and dance troupe performing on Broadway and in film in the 1920s and 1930s and who was married to the great film composer Dimitri Tiomkin.

There was extensive media coverage of Fairyland in the local press, including its stars appearing in ads from the Southern California Music Company, whose president Frank Hart was the brother of Hacienda Heights and La Habra Heights founder and avocado promoter Edwin G. Hart, and articles playing up the imminent debut of the piece. On the 1st, the Express exclaimed that “for the remainder of the week Los Angeles becomes in an increased degree the capital of musical America” and that the piece “owes its being to the generosity and love of music of the people of Los Angeles.”

Moreover, the paper stated, the AOA was “moved purely by the spirit of civic patriotism and a desire to forward the creation of a school of American opera, of which Los Angeles should be the producing center.” Parker was quoted as saying that good music should reflect the qualities of the country in which it was created, so the Express reported that Fairyland “is said to be cheerful, buoyant and confident, as is the American character.” Hertz added that the opera was something new in American composition and that it should be recognized for its daring approach. The conductor further noted,

It is a notable manifestation of musical and artistic advancement that Los Angeles is to be the cradle of this newest American musical creation of magnitude.

The Los Angeles Times, in its 2 July edition, devoted an entire page to the opera, with the headline claiming that its performance “Marks An Epoch in American Music” and that “Our Own Opera [Is] a Grand Achievement.” It gushed that the city, which hosted grand opera festivals in recent years, was on its way to becoming a musical mecca and opined that the thousands, including tose from the NFMC convention, who witnessed the premiere were telling each other what a remarkable accomplishment was wrought.

The paper waxed grandiloquently that when the lights went up after the first act and a lod ovation washed over the venue, “the twinkling hands, the waving fans, glittering jewels and vivid gowns mingling with the black and white of the male attire, presented a picture that none but a ultra futurist artist might paint.” It added that hordes outside required an extra police presence.

Critic Edwin Schallert called Fairyland a “lyrico-dramatic pageant” worth ten times the prize money and stated that the piece “was received with unbounded enthusiasm” with ten curtain calls lasting eight minutes after the first act with the stars, conductor and composers taking their bows. Hertz was singled out for his mastery of the baton, while Craft and Hinshaw received extra kudos for having “scored remarkable triumphs,” even as the former’s part was not as well developed as it should have been and the latter was over-dramatic. Errolle sometimes fell short of expectations, but did well on many lyrical passages, while Howardwas praised for her “striking picture” of Myriel and her “superb stage presence.”

Dorothy Willis of the Express was also highly impressed and reported on the “ecstacy of enthusiasm” of the 2,000 or so attendees, who could “scarcely contain their joy until the fall of curtain on the first act,” upon which the “enthusiasm ran riot.” A booster of the opera in preceding days, Willis wrote that “Fairyland belongs to the people, it is of the people and for the people.” The listener did not need to have an understanding of music to enjoy the production as “one need only be human and comprehensive of life.”

Willis added that the first call from the enraptured audience was for Craft, with those following for Parker and Hooker. When Hertz was asked to step forward, he was led by Rasch and was then accounted “the hero of the hour.” After noting that the performers, conductor and creators were called again repeatedly to accept the adoration of the crowd, Willis concluded that Fairyland “is the first American grand opera—and it is worthy of the country of its birth.”

Kathryn Barnard of the Los Angeles Record reckoned that the piece was the greatest American opera and offered that “though the great guns of Europe [then nearing the end of the first year of the horrific World War] have trodden into stagnation the advancement of culture,” the future would find it “carried on in the west.” She called the music “ultra modern” in its complexity, unusual use of intervals, and leaps of key without modulation and stated that the peak was Rosamund’s second act aria.

The stage director, Louis F. Gottschalk, was the great-nephew of famed composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, and was credited with his oversight of the scenic work and costumes. Barnard, too, felt that Hertzwas the “signal success” of the evening. As for the performers, she generally rated them equally, though she did note that Errolle’s voice “is not as settled” as it would get when the 26-year old matured.

While the convention and festival were important and the opera considered groundbreaking for the Los Angeles music scene, the Angel City did become the center of opera that was prognosticated by ebullient promoters, like Blanchard, or excited critics. There was, however, the further development of “serious music” through the 1919 inauguration of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the opening of the Hollywood Bowl, the creation of the Los Angeles Grand Opera Association and others to further the cause.

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