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From the annals of Brooklyn's musical history: BAM in the early 1930s

Jun 15, 2011 12:52 PM | 0 comments

Stars of the musical firmament blazed over Brooklyn during the concert seasons from 1930 to 1934 in concerts arranged under the auspices of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, which at that time included the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). Sergei Rachmaninoff, Fritz Kreisler, Paul Robeson, tenor Roland Hayes, The Fisk Jubilee Singers, and pianists Walter Gieseking, Robert Goldsand and Jose Iturbi all performed at BAM, as did Australian pianist and composer Percy Grainger, by then a naturalized American living in White Plains. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle files hold photographs of many of these performers, not always from their earliest appearances.

This image from 1947 shows a later incarnation of the Fiske Jubilee singers, a group that was formed in 1872 to support the formation of Fiske University.

Rachmaninoff had left Russia after the Revolution of 1917 and made his home in the United States. The great composer and pianist, whose works were banned in Russia, gave an annual concert at BAM for several years.

Fritz Kreisler also made his home in the United States during the later years of World War I and again after the outbreak of WW II. A fat file of photographs of Kreisler and his wife bears witness to many concerts in Brooklyn and New York.

In the 1930s Walter Gieseking was still a relatively young pianist, drawing notice for his talent rather than his politics. This 1949 photograph shows protesters  demanding the cancellation of a Carnegie Hall Concert. Accused of having a pro-Nazi record, the pianist left the country the following day.

Fresh from a triumph on the London stage as Othello, Robeson captivated audiences in Brooklyn and around the world. The Bulletin of the Brooklyn Institute published  two appreciations of his career preparatory to the concert of January 19, 1931,  writing appreciatively of him as "scholar, athlete, actor, singer and gentleman. A career of accomplishement by a man of simplicity."

Roland Hayes gave a recital at BAM on November 28, 1930. The Bulletin of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences wrote of him, "This negro tenor has found a subtlety in voice shading which begins where others leave off. He can produce a tone of utter loveliness...And these achievements he uses to express the human emotions which lie in a song, with a poignancy and yet with a fine restraint which holds his audience marveling."

Still a young prodigy when he played at BAM in th early 1930s, Goldsand later immigrated to the U.S. and taught for many years at the Manhattan School of Music.

But out of all of these, it is Percy Grainger who seems to have entered Brooklyn's social life with the greatest enthusiasm.

Grainger is little known today except as the author of slightly dated popular classics such as "Shepherd's Hey" and "English Country Garden." In fact he was an important collector of English folk songs and a world-famous pianist as well as a noted composer and arranger. During the 1920s and 30s he was a regular performer in the New York City area, and so it should come as no surprise that he made his way over the East River into Brooklyn more than once. Startlingly good-looking, with red hair and finely-chiselled features, Grainger must have cut quite a figure on the concert platform. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle kept two attractive photographs of him on file, as well as two of his wife.

Carnegie Hall and the Aeolian Hall were frequent venues, but in May of 1931 Grainger and his wife were invited to the home of the Tollefsens for an evening of private music-making. Carl Tollefsen, of Norwegian ancestry, shared a passionate interest in Scandinavian music with Grainger, and on that evening soprano Astrid Fjelde sang a group of Scandinavian songs. Later, Grainger joined the trio in performances of his own works--Colonial Song; Handel in the Strand and Spoon River.

There was a dark side to Grainger's personality that is hinted at in his association with the Tollefsens. His belief in the superiority of the nordic race led him into the kind of racial bigotry and anti-Semitism that was broadly prevalent in the 1930s. He was, too, a sado-masochist who enjoyed nothing more than a good whipping. But unlike the press of today, the Eagle, so keen to list every single guest at the Tollefsen's soiree, appeared to have no interest in Grainger's private life.

Grainger also appeared as guest conductor with the Symphony Society of Brooklyn  at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on March 1, 1931, in a program  that included two of his own pieces, a Bach concerto for two violins and orchestra and Schubert's Seventh Symphony. In November of 1932, Grainger was guest artist of the Brooklyn Woman's Club in a program that included works by Grieg, Debussy, Chopin and Bach-Liszt.

Here is approximately what those Brooklyn Woman's Club concert goers might have heard 80 years ago: Grainger himself playing a Liszt transcription of a Bach organ prelude and fugue