“…hear them discourse most excellent music”

The Beethoven Society, part 1

In our previous post, I teased a first look at the Town of Milwaukee’s first concert organization, the Milwaukie (sic) Beethoven Society. The first mention of the society that I can locate is this announcement in the February 8, 1843, edition of the local newspaper:

Milwaukee Weekly Sentinel February 8, 1843, page 2. Click to open larger image in new window.

This was an ambitious undertaking in a collection of villages that would not unite and become the city of Milwaukee until another three years had passed. In fact, when the Wisconsin territorial census was enumerated in 1842, the combined population of the “Town of Milwaukee”—comprising the West Ward, East Ward, Walker’s Point and adjacent lands—came to a mere 2,730 men, women and children. How was such a musical society—and concert—possible only one year later?

Music in America before mid-century

It’s worth remembering that before the late-1800s, if you wanted music in your life you usually had to make it yourself, or with family and neighbors. The were no records, tapes, radio, TV or internet. Mechanical instruments, such as the player piano, were still to be perfected and made widely available. But if your town or city had enough singers and instrumentalists, they might join together in a musical society to rehearse “most excellent music” and perform it for your community. The Beethoven Society was the first such organization in Milwaukee.

Many 19th-century Americans were taught the rudiments of music and singing in school, in church, and at home. Singing in harmony was a common part of worship, education, and home life. It was not uncommon for homes to have instruments such as violins, flutes and guitars or banjos at hand, ready to accompany dances and other celebrations. Improved manufacturing techniques made keyboard instruments such as pianofortes and harmoniums affordable for middle-class families.

And as early as the 1830s and ’40s, music publishing became an important and very profitable business in the U.S. The published “song collections” by Lowell Mason and others sold hundreds of thousands of copies and were distributed across the expanding nation. These published collections brought arrangements of music by important European composers such as Mozart, Handel, Haydn, and Rossini—along with a smattering of new American composers and pieces— into the far reaches of the expanding American frontier, including Wisconsin Territory.

Excitement builds…

The Beethoven Society appears to have begun rehearsals in early 1843. By mid-March, they were ready to announce their first concert, to be held Thursday evening, March 23rd, at the Milwaukee Court House. Doors opened at 7:00 p.m., the concert began at 7:30. Tickets were 50 cents, and two tickets would admit “a gentleman and two Ladies” (what’s up with that?). The music would feature solo songs (“air,” “ballad”), vocal duets, trios and quartets, and choruses. But, at least on this debut performance, there would be no strictly orchestral works. And…no Beethoven!

Milwaukee Weekly Sentinel March 15 1843, page 2. Click to open larger image in new window.

What’s playing?

The news item (or was it a paid advertisment?) includes an almost-complete list of composers and pieces to be performed. Some of the composers on the program remain staples of concert halls and opera houses to this day. The music of Haydn, Bellini, Rossini, and von Weber is still regularly performed, but would the composers recognize the arrangements or texts of their works as sung at this 1843 performance?

The Society’s first concert also includes pieces by composers now forgotten, but very popular at the time. The vocal works by J. P. Knight, Miss Browne, Elam Ives, Jr., Samuel Lover and Reginald Spofforth were favorites of singers both amateur and professional. The songs on this concert, in particular, were well-known; the sheet music for these songs could be found in the parlors of many American homes of the period.

There are two “mysteries” on the program, the Trio by Martini and the Chorus by “Masoni.” Martini is presumably the eminent 18th-century composer, teacher, and collector of musical manuscripts, Padre G. B. Martini. Not much performed today, Martini is remembered (mostly by graduate music history students) for having tested the musical skills of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart when the young genius visited Martini in Bologna. That said, I’m still trying to figure out which Martini work was performed in 1843 with the text “Fallen is thy throne, O! Israel.”

I’m also still stumped by the composer of the chorus, “The Lord descended from above,” one “Masoni.” Really? I’m wondering if this is a typo for “Mason” as in Lowell Mason. Or was there a Mr. or Ms. Masoni who can no longer be found in the reference books? I’ll have to get back to you with more on “Masoni.”

Who’s playing?

Who were the performers? How many singers? How many and what kinds of instruments were there? We don’t know much. The news item mentions two key performers:

• Miss E. Hinton will preside at the Piano Forte
• L. T. Zander, Leader

So, Miss Hinton played the piano. But what does it mean that she “will preside” at that instrument? Is that just a fancy, 19th-century way of saying, “the piano accompaniments will be played by Miss Hinton?” Or will Miss Hinton be front and center, leading the performers from the keyboard, as was the fashion for many concerts in the 18th- and early 19th-centuries?

What does it mean that L. T. Zander was the “Leader”? In modern British and European usage, the “leader” is what Americans would call the “concertmaster,” the leader of the first violin section and the first-among-equals within the orchestra. Before the era of the professional, baton-waving conductor, orchestras were often led by their leader-concertmaster. Was that the case here?

It is possible that at this 1843 concert L. T. Zander might have played a violin (or other instrument) and led the assembled forces that way. But my research shows that Zander, in the 1850s, performed (exclusively?) as a singer, probably a tenor. I suspect he sang, and led the combined forces from his post in—or in front of—the assembled musicians.

I’ve been researching Miss Hinton and Mr. Zander, and I’ll have more to say about them in our next post. I even know what the L. T. in L. T. Zander stands for. (Don’t miss this. Even by florid, mid-19th-century tastes in names, Mr. Zander’s are exceptional.)

What about the chorus and instrumentalists?

Who was L. T. Zander leading, and Miss E. Hinton accompanying? Here’s our only clue, a short “preview” of the concert that appeared in the same issue of the paper as the long advertisement (above):

CONCERT — It will be seen by an advertisement in this paper, that the “Beethoven Society” will give a Concert on Thursday evening (next week) at the Court House. We were at the rehearsal on Monday evening, and were much pleased with the selections and talent displayed. There were about 35 performers present. The Society should be encouraged, and we trust that on the evening of their concert they will be honored with a full house.

Milwaukee Weekly Sentinel March 15 1843, page 2.

“About 35 performers,” namely Mr. Zander, Miss Hinton, and about 33 other singers and instrumentalists. Not bad for a new town on the frontier of the Old Northwest.

What did it sound like?

What did it sound like? That’s the big question. Like their modern counterparts in community orchestras and choruses, the performers of the Beethoven Society were probably a mixed collection of abilities, experience, and musical sensitivity. My guess is that the vocal parts may have been pretty respectably done, with soprano, alto, tenor and bass voices all represented in the ensemble (though perhaps not in equal numbers or quality).

Miss Hinton may well have been a fine pianist; quite a few young ladies of her day were. She certainly had a full program of accompaniments that evening, including reductions of complicated orchestra parts. As she “presided” at the piano, she may have had to improvise extra notes to make up for any instruments lacking in the orchestra. She probably performed on a square piano, the common pianoforte of the time.

The other musicians are a mystery. I know from my Mequon researches that Jonathan Clark’s neighbors, the brothers James, William, Henry, Charles, and Alfred Bonniwell, and their brother-in-law Philip Moss performed as the Bonniwell Band. James played cornet and Charles played flute; what the others played is not known. The Bonniwell Band performed all over the Milwaukee area in the 1840s and beyond; a reminiscence published in the Waukesha Freeman on December 12, 1898 recalls they “had a local fame here as the first band organized in the territory.” Could they have participated in the Beethoven Society concerts? We have no evidence, but it’s not impossible.

Music, maestro, please!

That’s the background to the first concert of the Milwaukee Beethoven Society. But words and facts without musical sounds only give a partial impression of what the 1843 Milwaukee concert-goers experienced at that notable concert. For my next post, I hope to put together a collection of YouTube links and images of vintage sheet music that will give you at least a taste of what the concert experience was like in the middle-third of the 19th-century. Some of the composers may be familiar, but the texts may surprise you, as will the variety of moods and styles of the various pieces.

Have a fine weekend. Be well, stay safe. See you Monday.

5 thoughts on ““…hear them discourse most excellent music”

    • It must have been some sort of ticket-selling, audience-building idea, but I’m not quite sure what the rationale was. Perhaps they assumed the ladies of Milwaukee were likely to turn out in good numbers, and the the men of the city needed encouragement? Maybe the idea was “if two ladies each buy tickets, they can bring along one dubious gentleman friend for no extra charge”? What do you think?

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