Overtures (from The Cleveland Orchestra Story)

The Cleveland Orchestra Story: “Second to None”, by Donald Rosenberg. Published by Gray & Company, Publishers. Front cover of book.

The Cleveland Orchestra Story, a book by Donald Rosenberg: “Second to None”Book Excerpt

From The Cleveland Orchestra Story by Donald Rosenberg


In 1842, two of the world’s great orchestras came to life. In Austria, the Vienna Philharmonic played its first notes at the city’s Imperial Palace on March 28. In Manhattan, nine months later, the New York Philharmonic gave its first perfomance at the Apollo Rooms.

In Cleveland that year, cows still grazed peacefully on downtown’s Public Square.

Europe already had a long orchestral heritage. The Dresden State Orchestra had been performing since the early 17th century; the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra since 1781. The comparatively youthful United States now was launching its own rich tradition with the New York Philharmonic.

The small town on the southern shore of Lake Erie, however, was only beginning to show an interest in the arts, fine or otherwise. Cleveland would, in fact, be one of the new nation’s last cities—the 17th—to boast of a major orchestra.

Founded in 1796 by Moses Cleaveland and a party from the Connecticut Land Company, Cleveland was in no position to compete with more populous and accessible American cities that had developed their resources to the point where they could nurture artists and artistic institutions. The small metropolis’s ruggedly wooded terrain (the source of its nickname, the Forest City), elusive location, and challenging climate conspired to keep its growth on a slow track. Only after the Ohio and Erie Canal was completed in 1832 and roads later began to lead to the area was the city’s life transformed through shipping and trade, the creation of jobs, and a steady influx of European immigrants.

By the time Cleveland’s permanent orchestra made its debut in December 1918, American orchestras had established themselves, with varying success, in New York (Philharmonic and Symphony), St. Louis, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Dallas, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Seattle, San Francisco, Denver, Houston, Detroit, and Baltimore.

In the decades leading up to Cleveland’s orchestral coming of age, music was already providing a way for immigrants drawn by the city’s burgeoning industries to maintain their cultural identities far from home. The earliest music-making in Cleveland, aside from church choirs, revolved around amateur singing societies, bands, and small ensembles (two dozen or so players) that today would be called chamber orchestras. One group that had an impact on the town was the Cleveland Grays Band, an ensemble of the military unit known as the Cleveland Grays, whose director brought with him an imposing European pedigree: Balthasar B. Schubert was a nephew of the late Austrian composer Franz Schubert. The younger Schubert evidently was a talented bandsman. In 1840, he formed an 11-member group comprising seven brass, two wind, and two percussion players.

Within a few years, Clevelanders had heard not only band concerts but also occasional performances featuring operatic music. Whether the repertoire was performed with piano or orchestra isn’t clear. Most orchestras that appeared in Cleveland during this period were local amateur groups that accompanied choruses or played in the pit for opera productions—many of them heard but not seen. Ensembles that did perform onstage or in ballrooms presented light fare, such as waltzes and overtures.

In 1842, local industry was beginning to flourish. Mills, tanneries, and cheese and flour factories opened their doors. Sandstone quarrying started in Berea. The region welcomed its first shipment of fruit. In the decade that followed, the railroad boom stimulated manufacturing and the mining of iron ore and coal that would be so crucial to the city’s future. These industries attracted a multitude of workers, especially German and Irish immigrants who began pouring into Cleveland in 1848. By 1850, the city’s population had jumped to 17,034, slightly behind Detroit, Milwaukee, and Chicago, but well behind Cincinnati, whose economic development had brought its population to 115,435.

Of the ethnic groups that left their homelands for better lives, the Germans were to become Cleveland’s largest and most influential. They exhibited a rigorous work ethic but also found time to maintain their strong cultural tradition. They established singing societies and instrumental ensembles, including the Germania Orchestra, which performed with choral groups and played for social functions. Among the German arrivals in 1853 was Baptiste Dreher, founder of the Dreher Piano Company. His grandfather, Meinhard, was an organ builder near Ulm who had known Johann Sebastian Bach.

Pianos, mostly by the Boston firm Chickering, were already being sold in Cleveland by S. Brainard’s Sons, an instrument dealer and music publishing house founded by Silas Brainard in 1836. Brainard built a small musical empire, managing Brainard’s Opera House (later the Globe Theater) and publishing a monthly journal, Brainard’s Musical World, before moving to Chicago in 1889. Along with sheet music for the general public, the firm supplied musical materials for the local orchestras of the Cleveland Mozart Society, St. Cecilia Society, Cleveland Musical Society, and Cleveland Mendelssohn Society, as well as the Germania Orchestra. These ensembles occasionally played major choral works—Handel’s Messiah, Rossini’s Stabat Mater—and short orchestral pieces, but they mostly served in accompanying capacities.

Opera brought orchestral sounds to local audiences, though most ensembles of the day tended to employ reduced rosters to fit the pit and the budget. Cleveland began to import opera in 1849, when a troupe known as the Manvers Operatic Company performed Bellini’s La Sonnambula and Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment, works hardly renowned for their use of the orchestra. As travel to Cleveland became easier and new theaters opened in the 1850s and 1860s, opera companies from New Orleans, New York, Boston, and Chicago made their way to the city to present pieces that were richer from an orchestral point of view, among them Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, Weber’s Der Freischütz, and Gounod’s Faust (just five years after its 1859 Paris premiere). These productions raised the sophistication level of audiences that had been used to hit-and-miss playing by local amateur ensembles.

Another troupe that came to Cleveland, in 1866, was the American Opera Company, which performed works by Gluck, Delibes, Massenet, and Wagner (the last three were living at the time) in English with American singers. The conductor of these productions, Theodore Thomas, would have a lasting impact on orchestral life in the United States. Thomas had created his own symphony orchestra, the Theodore Thomas Orchestra, which began touring in 1869, when Cleveland became part of his “great musical highway,” as his wife, Rose, called the orchestra’s itinerary through America’s larger cities. After performances in Cleveland in November 1869, the Musical World reported that Thomas’s orchestra was “the finest we have ever heard in the city, and the concerts [were] successful in every way.” Thomas, who would make frequent appearances in Cleveland for the rest of his life, went on to serve as conductor of the New York Philharmonic (1877–78 and 1879–91) and as founding conductor of what later would become known as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Local conductors were attempting to give the city’s own musicians opportunities to pursue their art, too. Austrian-born Ferdinand Puehringer, a student of Franz von Suppé, arrived in 1872. He worked with the Germania Orchestra, began a singing and instrumental school, and, in 1881, created the Philharmonic Orchestra. Puehringer’s ensemble initially had 30 amateur musicians; professional players eventually joined. Rehearsing at the YMCA building, they made their debut on October 31, 1881, with a program of music by Verdi, Chopin, Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Ole Bull, the extraordinary Norwegian violinist.

In 1873, Alfred Arthur founded the Cleveland Vocal Society. A year before, he had led a series of orchestra concerts—some with as few as 16 players—at Brainard’s Piano Rooms, though these performances evidently couldn’t approach the quality of the music that Thomas was bringing to the city. “The orchestral numbers at both concerts were wretchedly given,” reported Musical World in May 1872. “Mr. Arthur either has no control over his orchestra or does not understand his business.” He apparently began to understand his business in following years, as he not only developed his orchestra but also imported ensembles from Cincinnati and Boston to collaborate with the Cleveland Vocal Society.

* * *

By the 1870s, Cleveland was on the verge of major postwar industrial and commercial expansion. Eugene Grasselli, whose company had made chloroform for Union forces, founded the Grasselli Chemical Company. Theodore H. White transported his sewing-machine enterprise from Massachusetts. Shipyards owned by Captain Alva Bradley opened in Cleveland. Perhaps most significantly, an ambitious young entrepreneur named John D. Rockefeller organized the Standard Oil Company, which would make Cleveland the oil capital of the world in little more than a decade. Euclid Avenue, lined with mansions of the city’s nouveaux riches, was considered one of the most beautiful streets in the country. The city’s population rose to 92,828 (15th largest in the U.S.) in 1870 and 160,146 (12th largest) in 1880.

As Cleveland grew, its residents sought greater artistic stimulation, including a broader range of musical events. Clevelanders had heard soprano Jenny Lind, the “Swedish nightingale,” in 1851. The Thomas Orchestra, featuring pianist Anton Rubinstein and violinist Henri Wieniawski, gave a concert in May 1873 introducing “the most supreme organization of musical talent that has ever performed in one evening before a Cleveland audience,” according to the Leader, a daily newspaper. Recitals followed by violinist Pablo de Sarasate and pianist Hans von Bülow (soloist in the world premiere of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto in Boston during the 1875–76 season). In 1889, 14-year-old Austrian violinist Fritz Kreisler made his Cleveland debut with pianist Moritz Rosenthal.

Audiences also enjoyed opera performances featuring richly colored orchestration (if reduced instrumental forces). Maurice Grau brought the Metropolitan Grand Opera Company to the Euclid Avenue Opera House in 1886, offering Carl Goldmark’s Queen of Sheba, and Wagner’s Rienzi, Lohengrin, and Tannhäuser with “150 performers, an orchestra of fifty-five, a chorus of fifty, and a ballet.” The 1890s held a panoply of performances by great singers (Adelina Patti, Nellie Melba). Walter Damrosch presented his opera company and the New York Symphony Orchestra in Wagner’s Lohengrin, Siegfried, and Tannhäuser in 1897, the same year that Victor Herbert’s operetta, The Serenade, received its world premiere at Grays Armory, home of the Cleveland Grays, on Bolivar Road. Grau inaugurated the Metropolitan Opera’s long relationship with Cleveland with the 1899 spring tour, which included The Barber of Seville, Carmen, La Traviata, and Faust starring Emma Calvé, Marcella Sembrich, and Édouard de Reske.

Before the turn of the century, the city heard a generous sampling of noteworthy orchestral ensembles. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1881, came to town in 1886 and 1887 with Wilhelm Gericke. In 1889, the ensemble returned under one of the commanding figures in orchestral history, Arthur Nikisch, who was later described by George Szell as “in the best sense hypnotic and magic . . . You could not extricate yourself from his spell.” Cleveland also heard performances led by Anton Seidl, head of German repertoire at the Metropolitan Opera, who had assisted Wagner at the inaugural Bayreuth Festival in Germany in 1876. Seidl provoked an outpouring of American affection for Wagner, especially among women. In Cleveland, Seidl conducted his so-called Wagner Orchestra (actually the Met orchestra) in 1893 and 1897.

Starting in the early 1890s, prominent American orchestras came to Cleveland at the invitation of N. Coe Stewart, a conductor and composer who had guided music curriculum in the city’s public schools since 1869. He expanded his reach as director of the Star Course concert series, which presented solo artists and orchestras. His roster included the New York Symphony Orchestra (with Damrosch) and the Pittsburgh Orchestra, then in its infancy under cellist-composer-conductor Victor Herbert.

* * *

While all of these visitors were making welcome appearances, Cleveland’s resident musicians were trying to establish a homegrown orchestral tradition, without much success. The conductorship of the Philharmonic Orchestra had passed from Puehringer to Müller Neuhoff to Franz X. Arens. In 1888, the post went to Emil Ring, a Czech-born oboist, pianist, composer, and conductor who had arrived in the United States the previous year to play principal oboe in the Boston Symphony under Gericke. Ring, who was born in 1863, would become a key figure in Cleveland’s musical community as conductor and teacher. His vast experience made him well suited to conduct the Philharmonic Orchestra, which now had 60 players. Ring expanded the repertoire and the concert schedule, collaborating with the Cleveland Gesangverein, a German chorus, and, in the summer, taking the orchestra to Haltnorth’s Gardens, a former beer hall at Woodland and Willson avenues that had thrown off its erstwhile reputation as a den of iniquity. (The Leader once reported that “scenes are enacted there every Sabbath that should excite a blaze of indignation in the breast of every respectable citizen.”)

By 1893, Ring had honed the Philharmonic Orchestra so impressively that he was chosen to be musical director for the 27th Saengerfest, a national festival of amateur singing societies. Even so, the orchestra couldn’t sustain itself, especially after the festival’s expenses placed a crushing burden on its guarantors. Although Ring offered to work without pay, the orchestra was doomed. It reorganized in 1894 but finally went out of existence in 1899.

* * *

The big problem with the local orchestral scene in Cleveland wasn’t necessarily lack of talent. Local managers simply could make more money importing an orchestra than organizing one of their own, for they had to pay musicians’ salaries and music costs, as well as other expenses. And audiences would rather hear renowned orchestras than a fledgling local ensemble. Still, Clevelanders in the early decades of the 20th century listened hopefully to three local ensembles that set out to give the city a permanent orchestra. The time was ripe for such an enterprise. With industry booming, the population in 1900 had leaped to 381,768, putting Cleveland seventh among U.S. cities.

The first entirely professional ensemble that attempted to put down roots in the city was the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, which was conceived in part as a new incarnation of the defunct Philharmonic Orchestra. The conductor was Johann Beck, who, with Emil Ring, would become one of Cleveland’s most visionary and influential musicians of the period. Born in Cleveland in 1856, Beck pursued part of his education at the Leipzig Conservatory. As composer, conductor, and violinist, he returned home in 1882 in triumph. He formed the Beck String Quartet and conducted numerous American orchestras in his own compositions, and also taught.

The Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, with Ernest Farmer as manager, played its first concert on January 16, 1900, at Grays Armory. Beck conducted Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, the second and fourth movements of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia, arias and songs by Mozart and Schubert, an excerpt from Wagner’s Lohengrin, and Beck’s overture, Lara, based on the poem by Lord Byron. Among the soloists were violinist Sol Marcosson, the orchestra’s concertmaster, and cellist Elsa Ruegger. Cleveland Town Topics, a weekly journal devoted to the arts and social events, was impressed: “Beck produced unexpectedly good results with a new body of players and demonstrated himself to be a musician of scholarly endowment, a conductor of authority, judgment, progressiveness and spirit, and a composer of high ability.” The orchestra of 50 musicians played three concerts in its first season.

The second season began on a high note on November 5, 1900, with a program that included Beethoven’s First Symphony and excerpts from Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Once again, Town Topics chimed in with encouraging words, stating that the “experimental Cleveland Symphony Orchestra season of last year has given way to the substantial and assured one of this season.” The Plain Dealer, the Cleveland newspaper published since 1842, proclaimed, “success had come and come to stay.” Both views were premature, though the season’s remaining four concerts must have proved intriguing. The soloists included violinist Fritz Kreisler (in the Bruch G minor Concerto) and pianist Ossip Gabrilowitsch (in the Schumann Piano Concerto). Beck programmed more of his own music, as well as works by colleagues from Cleveland and Pittsburgh. When pianists were needed to accompany, Beck turned to two prominent local musicians—James H. Rogers, a composer who later would serve as longtime music critic of The Plain Dealer, and Adella Prentiss, a fledgling impresario whose true impact on Cleveland’s musical life was still decades away.

Unfortunately, the audacious Farmer tried to run the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra entirely by himself, and his management skills were questionable. Believing that ticket sales would take care of funding, he didn’t seek donations from the public, including the wealthiest audience members, until it was too late. Rather than admit he had blundered, Farmer lashed out at the city’s inability to support its own, saying that Cleveland’s musical community reminded him “of the story of a Mississippi river steamboat that had a bigger whistle than a boiler. When the whistle blew they had to stop the boat.”

Aside from his mishandling of money matters, Farmer was inept at scheduling. When he noticed that the fourth concert of his orchestra’s second season, on February 5, 1901, would compete with local performances the same week by Eduard Strauss and his Viennese orchestra and by soprano Marcella Sembrich, he only changed the program, convincing Beck to add Johann Strauss II’s Tales from the Vienna Woods. But ticket sales went nowhere for the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra concert, and Farmer was forced to cancel. The situation drew protests from both Farmer and local journalists. The manager fumed that “a permanent local orchestra has to postpone its concert (because it is dependent on public support) so that more showy and transient concerts may whistle merrily and successfully.” As Town Topics observed, “knocking [down] has always been a favorite diversion in Cleveland musical circles. An undercurrent of it has existed contemporaneously with the establishment of the local orchestra.”

True as these statements may have been, they did nothing to help the new orchestra. Farmer attempted to reschedule the February program for the following month, to virtually no response from the public. Lack of confidence in the local product and in Farmer’s business methods led to bankruptcy in the spring of 1901, though the orchestra showed its appreciation to the manager by offering a benefit concert on May 28, 1901, to help him reduce his debts.

* * *

Cleveland was once again without a local orchestra. Soon to come to the rescue was Conrad “Coonie” Mizer, a Cleveland tailor and music lover who had instituted seasons of Sunday afternoon summer band concerts in public parks in 1898 with funds from the city. Now he envisioned a similar scenario to bring the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra back to life. He called on some of the town’s heaviest political and industrial hitters—including future Cleveland mayor and U.S. secretary of war Newton D. Baker and chemical magnate Eugene Grasselli—to provide support for an orchestra that would play Sunday afternoon concerts at Grays Armory. Beck and Ring were invited to alternate as conductors.

The new institution was dubbed the Cleveland Grand Orchestra, though it was advertised for the 1904–05 season as the Cleveland Orchestra, probably the first time a local ensemble used this name. The orchestra comprised 45 players (all men, according to Town Topics) who were paid the paltry sum of $30 each for the entire season. Ticket prices were low, too: most cost 10, 15, or 25 cents. The orchestra made its debut on January 4, 1903, when pianist William Sherwood performed Liszt’s E-flat major Piano Concerto on a program that included Weber’s Euryanthe overture, Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia, an excerpt from Bizet’s Carmen, and the “Wedding March” from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Throughout their dual tenures with the orchestra, Beck and Ring paid generous attention to local soloists and composers, and they led standard classical fare.

The orchestra encountered the problem faced by every local symphonic organization—it was compared, fairly or not, with visiting orchestras, which were now being brought to town by concert manager Adella Prentiss in her highly successful Symphony Orchestra Concerts series. The Cleveland Grand Orchestra came to be regarded as a “pop orchestra,” or, by implication, a lowbrow ensemble.

Many, though, considered its existence a positive sign. Prentiss was enthusiastic about the new venture, telling Mizer that he was “not only a ‘pop’ but a ‘prop’ because he is giving the people a taste of orchestral music which will bring them to a better plane of musical appreciation.” Town Topics noted in 1905 that “if these same guarantors and lovers of music would rally and come to the aid of Cleveland musical talent, the day might not be so far distant when we could hope to compare with other symphony orchestras. Pittsburgh capitalists have made it possible for the famous Pittsburgh Orchestra to live and thrive. New York, Boston, Chicago, and Cincinnati have done the same, and why, with all the wealth in this city, we should be a back number in the greatest of arts has always been a mystery. Can it be a lack of civic pride?”

It could have been, but it is more likely that the Cleveland Grand Orchestra simply was not good enough to convince citizens that they should support the local product over fine visiting orchestras. Tensions within the orchestra itself also seemed to be taking a toll on the musicians, who had difficulty coming to terms with two leaders with highly different personalities: Beck was perceived as a much more authoritative conductor than Ring. In 1910, the orchestra changed its name to the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra and performed for two more years under Beck and Ring. Then waning financial support and attendance, as well as brickbats from the press, darkened the orchestra’s horizon. The biggest blow came from Wilson G. Smith, a local composer and pianist who had become the music critic of the Cleveland Press, which would cover the orchestra’s high-profile successor for decades. Smith blamed the ensemble’s erratic quality on “inadequate rehearsals, and absence from the ranks of some of our best orchestra talent, and the fact that two directors of divergent temperament and qualifications have been in control.” The solution: better musicians and one charismatic conductor who could attract financial support and raise the orchestra’s standing in the community. Adella Prentiss Hughes (she had married vocal instructor Felix Hughes in 1904) offered a typically forthright reason for the waning popularity of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra in 1912: “The Sunday pops had begun to be monotonous.”

* * *

The conductor chosen to ward off the monotony was Christiaan Timmner, former concertmaster of the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam under Willem Mengelberg and most recently concertmaster of the St. Paul Symphony Orchestra. The Dutch violinist and his wife, Anna, a cellist, had arrived suddenly in Cleveland in the spring of 1912. The Timmners quickly established themselves in the musical community by joining forces with pianist Betsy Wyers for a series of public and private recitals managed by Adella Prentiss Hughes. The public concerts drew a favorable response from the press.

To bolster Timmner’s reputation locally, the savvy Hughes printed a formidable testimonial, from no less a figure than the noted German composer Richard Strauss, on a recital advertisement: “Mr. Timmner is well remembered by me from the performances of the Concertgebouw Orchestra as a superior violinist, a distinguished musician and an amiable artist, and it gives me particular pleasure to recommend him most warmly to concert associations as soloist as well as concertmeister.”

With the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra on the edge of extinction, Hughes and others, including Press critic Smith, pianist Wyers, and Alice Bradley of Town Topics, lobbied for Timmner to replace Beck and Ring. Smith would refer to the Cleveland conductors in his column as “old brooms” and call Timmner the “new broom who can sweep clean all the accumulated rubbish.” In December 1912, the management brought in the “new broom” for a clean sweep. Timmner was appointed sole conductor of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. In addition, an executive committee (comprising musicians’ union representatives Walter Logan and Robert Brew, managers Adella Prentiss Hughes and Victor Sincere, lumber magnate Archibald Klumpf, and architect Frank Meade) was formed to bring responsible business practices to the organization and to appeal to wealthy donors.

Timmner led his first concert on January 19, 1913, at Engineers Hall. It was followed by eight more Sunday afternoon concerts that generally sold out (tickets cost 25 to 50 cents). To rid the orchestra of its reputation as a pops ensemble, Timmner programmed beloved and substantial European works, and drew accolades from critics. Smith raved about the results and denigrated Beck and Ring in the process.

The previous conductors weren’t about to let the success of the new man in town overshadow their achievements or ambitions. Two months after Timmner’s inaugural concert with the orchestra, Beck—keenly aware that the Dutch violinist had no conducting credentials—began a petition drive to oust him. Writing to Newton D. Baker, who had become Cleveland’s mayor in 1912, Beck stated, “we have local men who are unquestionably better musicians and who are far more capable as Orchestral Directors, to occupy this position, which should be open to competition, and secured on merit alone, and not upon the suggestion or recommendation of a few individuals.” His words were to fall on deaf ears, at least for the time being.

In April 1913, a month after the mayor received Beck’s petition, Baker appointed Timmner as Municipal Director of Music for the city of Cleveland and named Smith as advisor to the superintendent of parks. Timmner was to lead the orchestra—renamed the Cleveland Municipal Orchestra—in Sunday afternoon concerts in city parks throughout the summer and in winter concerts at the 4,000-seat Hippodrome Theatre.

Dubbed the “anti-ragtime director” for his aversion to the popular syncopated music (“It is too rotten. Until I have to play it, I won’t play it”), Timmner began his tenure by firing almost half of the former Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. The Cleveland News listed some of his reasons:

They practice with a long stogie or a black cigar in their mouths.

They cross their legs.

They slouch down in their seats and rest their elbows on the arms of the chairs.

They yawn audibly and without attempting to conceal their mouths with their hands.

They ignore his appeals for them to come to rehearsal and became peeved when he corrected their technique.

With the players he had chosen, Timmner set out to provide summer audiences with music they could simply sit back and enjoy (even though this sounded, oddly, like a pops approach). “People in general like music according to the ease with which they can remember the melody,” he told the Cleveland Press. “That is the reason ragtime is so popular and everyone whistles it. They would whistle the ‘Blue Danube’ or the intermezzo from ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’ if they heard them often enough.” But listeners wouldn’t be hearing serious classics, at least during the summer. “The heavier music will be all right later on, perhaps, but if you play it at the start people will say, ‘I know it’s very good, but I don’t like it,’ and so they won’t come again,” Timmner said.

By the first summer concert on June 15, when the orchestra played music by Bizet, Delibes, Saint-Saëns, Wagner, and others, Timmner had an ensemble of 46 musicians. Attending a rehearsal before this performance, the Press noted that the bass players wore blue suspenders, and that although the cymbal player had the least to do he had to be “on the job all the time. If he is the fiftieth part of a second late with his crashes, Timmner begins to roar.” The story also depicted the orchestra’s work as far from glamorous: “Rehearsals are held each day on the fourth floor of the old gas company building adjoining city hall. The highbrow organization is buttressed on one side by the street cleaning department and on the other by the smoke inspector’s office.”

But the first concert elicited a glowing review from Smith: “If any doubt existed concerning the practicality of a symphony orchestra for Sunday park concerts, it was dissipated at Edgewater park Sunday afternoon by the municipal orchestra under Muny Director Christiaan Timmner.”

The success of the summer concerts led to hope that the new orchestra might become a fixture in Cleveland. “I cannot possibly see failure for the project,” said James D. Johnston, a viola player in the orchestra and also its personnel manager. “I know that no man leading an orchestra, big or little, in Cleveland or in any other city can hope to do his work without having opposition. He is bound to have trouble, prompted, generally, by jealousy. But the more opposition there is the more backbone it will take to fight it and to bring the project to a successful conclusion. Successful conclusion it must be and nothing else, for a Cleveland symphony orchestra will mean wonderful things for the musicians and the music lovers of Cleveland alike.”

However visionary Johnston may have been about the place of such an ensemble in the city’s life, he was hasty in assuming that the Municipal Orchestra could be the group that would succeed. In early 1914, at the suggestion of critic Smith, Mayor Baker made the orchestra a project of the city. It was to be funded through taxes, with the city taking full responsibility for the budget. The deal meant additional work for Timmner, whose obligations included starting amateur orchestras at social centers. He would be paid $2,400 a year. Baker, a staunch supporter of the arts, didn’t appear concerned that the venture might affect the city’s deficit, and he shared Johnston’s optimism. “There is no question in my mind that the orchestra should be continued,” Baker told members of the City Club. “The esthetic development of the city is just as important in my mind as are paved roads and other physical improvements.”

As admirable as Baker’s view may have been, it was misguided in two ways. The city’s funding of the orchestra didn’t pay Timmner enough to make a living, so he augmented his income by giving high-priced lessons. This may have seemed innocent enough, but the conductor was soon accused of using his teaching to “sell” jobs in his orchestra to his students. Musicians complained, and the charges led to a court case against Timmner in March 1915. With Baker and others defending him, Timmner prevailed in court, but his reputation was forever tainted in Cleveland.

The last straw for the orchestra came in May 1915, when city officials realized that Cleveland’s deficit of $52 million would mean the end of funds for the orchestra (and thus the end of the orchestra itself). Timmner’s power base had eroded. His only recourse was to seek employment out of the region, armed with recommendations from Baker and Smith.

It was during Timmner’s court case in March that the public learned why he had arrived so suddenly from Minnesota in 1912. He had been let go as concertmaster of the St. Paul Symphony Orchestra after behaving badly toward conductor Walter Rothwell, fellow musicians, and students whom he had overcharged and promised seats in the orchestra. Adella Prentiss Hughes later suggested that the period under Timmner had tried everyone’s nerves: “Years later, with a twinkle in his eye, Mr. Baker told me that he had more trouble handling the Municipal Orchestra than all the affairs of the city of Cleveland put together!”

By 1915, Hughes had been a hardy survivor of Cleveland’s symphony wars for almost two decades. The indomitable woman who so zealously spread appreciation for great music—in an environment dominated by high-powered men—was about to lead the city to a cultural milestone.


From the book The Cleveland Orchestra Story, © Donald Rosenberg. All rights reserved.

This excerpt may not be used in any form for commercial purposes without the written permission of Gray & Company, Publishers.
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