Thursday, April 17, 2014

Crazy for Comets

I confess, I did not get up early the other morning to catch a glimpse of the “blood moon” lunar eclipse. But I followed the news coverage with interest, and I have also followed people’s excitement about the event with interest. No matter how much we learn about the universe, and no matter how much our technology changes and evolves, it hasn’t taken away the sense of wonder that comes from looking up at the sky at a natural phenomenon that only happens once in a blue – or red – moon.

One of the cool moon photos I saw online was this multi-exposure photo taken by Star Tribune photographer Brian Peterson that shows the progression of the eclipse – the first total lunar eclipse visible in the continental United States since December 2011.

The images in this Star Tribune photo were taken between 1 a.m. and  2:46 a.m. on April 15, 2014.
With thoughts of celestial bodies already floating around in my mind, I was surprised yesterday to discover – in the midst of researching my great-grandfather’s connection to Tacoma, Washington – that in the spring of 1910, people in the United States were going crazy for comets.

I will explain. But first, a bit of background. I have been working on a scene in my book about G. Oliver’s experience in Tacoma, the one time in his career that he failed to successfully organize a band. To try to make sense of what happened and why he failed, I spent some time last weekend reading Tacoma newspaper clippings in the Riggs family scrapbook. Most of them are dated and are from the Tacoma Daily News, but they are not pasted in the book chronologically, which makes it more challenging to trace the sequence of events.

Tacoma had a handful of newspapers in 1910, as most cities did back then, and yesterday I discovered that old issues of the Tacoma Times can be accessed for free online through the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America website.

I spent several hours paging through the newspaper online to see if it had also covered the band situation. I realized right away that the Tacoma Times, founded in 1903 by Edward Willis Scripps, had a much different feel than its rival, the Tacoma Daily News. It seemed geared more toward a working-class audience interested in labor issues. Disturbing crime-related headlines were often splashed across its front page, and it contained many eye-catching illustrations and editorial cartoons.

Through my reading, I learned that the time G. Oliver spent in Washington state coincided with the appearance of not just one, but two comets.

In mid-January of 1910, while he held the job of director of a city band in Grand Forks, North Dakota, G. Oliver traveled to Tacoma to meet with businessmen in that city. He proposed to organize a new concert band of up to 50 members that would help promote the growing city and would provide entertainment for residents. The Tacoma Daily News reported on Jan. 20 and 21 that local businessmen were meeting with a “bandleader of considerable reputation in the east” but did not disclose his name. The article did not explain how long G. Oliver was in the city, but it probably was not more than a few days, because he would have been missed in Grand Forks.

The Tacoma Times mentioned nothing of this, but a few days later it printed its first of several articles about the sighting of a comet. The front page article, “Many Tacomans Saw Comet,” said, “A comet was visible for half an hour above the western horizon about 6 o’clock last night. Its size and brilliance caused many to think that Halley’s Comet had arrived ahead of schedule. The comet is a fast traveler and soon disappeared below the horizon, leaving a luminous trail in its wake. The heavenly visitor has been reported ‘seen’ from all parts of the country during the past few days.”

The comet coverage in the Times continued: the stories described the comet as a crimson-orange color, noted that people in California were planning their suppers around the timing of the comet, and quoted an astronomer as saying that the huge comet, which later was called the Daylight Comet, “is the largest foreign body ever in the solar system so far as is known since the art of writing was discovered. ... This comet is magnificent beyond all powers of description. We are now making history that will endure for the ages.”

I am not up on my comet history, so I did a quick search and discovered that, indeed, the comet that appeared in January 1910 is one of the greatest comets recorded in history. So far. (If you’re interested in reading more about the Great Comet of 1910, check out this blog post.)

The appearance of this comet whetted people’s appetites for what was yet to come in May – an appearance of Halley’s Comet, which had not been seen since 1835. Many people looked forward to the event with great excitement, although there were some people who worried it would bring about the destruction of the earth.

Halley’s Comet inspired songs, including this one by Harry Lincoln.
Some of you might already know about Mark Twain’s connection to Halley’s Comet. He was born in 1835 shortly after the comet appeared, and in 1909 he said:

I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: “Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.

He died on April 21, 1910, and within a week, the comet was close enough to be seen with the naked eye.

By the time of Twain’s death, G. Oliver had quit his job in Grand Forks and had been in Tacoma for three weeks, trying to organize the new band. He received the support of the businessmen and many musicians, but others took offense to the idea of an outsider from a smaller eastern city coming in and taking charge. G. Oliver’s attempts to stir up support, including an April 17 concert in Wright Park – exactly 104 years ago today! – attracted a large crowd and did get a brief mention in the Tacoma Times.

An article about the April 17 band concert in Tacoma’s Wright Park.
But what really got the Times excited was feeding people daily information about the coming Halley’s Comet, due to arrive on May 18. Even the newspaper’s society columnist, Cynthia Grey, contributed to the coverage. One of my favorite research finds yesterday was her lengthy article about how one could plan a comet-themed surprise party for the evening of May 17.

It included this description:

The guests gather in a circle just before the time we are supposed to begin our bath in the comet’s tail, and write their wills. Reading the wills is funny, as each would will each something to fit his peculiarities. The one who writes the cleverest gets a copy of the Essays of Marcus Aurelius, the stoic, done up in an asbestos package as a prize.

Suddenly, the light is turned down. The hostess whispers, “The comet is coming!” and in bursts a figure (daddy or little brother) clad in a sheet smeared with phosphorus. If he can’t get this paint he can flash pocket electric lamps under his covering of thin cloth. The comet runs into everybody and everything, kissing the girls and slapping the men, and runs out.

Grey suggested that guests come dressed as Greek gods, and her recommended menu included stuffed egg salad on lettuce, punch and two kinds of cake: angel food and devil’s cake.

“The person enacting ‘the comet’ proposes the toast of Epicurus, ‘Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die,’ she wrote. “Of course, if anybody seriously thinks the world’s coming to an end, he might not care to attend such a party. But most of us think we’ll still be alive May 18 ... whatever happens we all want to stay up to have the experience that will be historic under any circumstances.”

The approaching comet also caused some people to reflect upon the changes that the United States had experienced during the previous 75 years. In a May 16 piece in the Tacoma Times, the writer wondered whether the comet would recognize the place. “... What changes the railroads made! Then came the telegraph, the telephone; then wireless, automobiles; and we are now learning to fly! What will the earth be like when Halley’s Comet comes back in 1985?”

The top half of the front page of the Tacoma Times from May 18, 1910.
May 18, 1910, came and went, and people survived (except for Mark Twain). But the band effort did not have a happy ending for G. Oliver. When it became clear by early June that Tacoma was not an environment where his directing star could shine brightly, he left – just like a comet – and returned to the Midwest.

I am sad to say that I don’ t remember doing anything special the last time Halley’s Comet was visible in the United States. It happened in 1986 (not 1985), when I was a senior in high school. Fortunately, I have lots of time to get ready for its next appearance, in 2061, when I will be 93 years old. I plan to have a huge party, and you are all invited. But be advised, it’s BYOP – Bring Your Own Phosphorus.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Charming Debut of Mrs. Riggs

I will be attending the Northfield all-district orchestra concert tonight to hear Sebastian perform on viola, amid a gym floor filled with student musicians ranging in age from fourth grade through 12th grade. It’s a fun concert because everyone, including the students themselves, gets to hear the progression in skills as the orchestras play in order from youngest to oldest.

In anticipation of tonight’s event, it seems fitting to quote from a Polk County Journal front page article about a different concert in January 1899 that included both band and orchestra pieces. I like how the writer took the time to philosophize about why it might be a good idea to conclude one’s long day by attending a concert. You just don’t see that kind of writing anymore. In fact, it’s rare to even preview a concert these days.

The January 18, 1899, concert was the second one in which the Crookston Band was directed by G. Oliver Riggs, and the first concert in which his new bride, Mrs. G. Oliver Riggs (aka Islea), was a featured performer on piano.

Islea Graham Riggs in 1899
Here is the text of the Jan. 12, 1899 article:

After the day’s ceaseless toil, and often agonizing struggle, there is nothing more acceptable, as a general thing, to the tired body and the spent mind than music. Music hath, indeed, charms to soothe the savage beast. At the playing of Orpheus, in olden times, the wild beasts stood still and listened, and even inanimate nature applauded for the hills and dales echoed and reechoed with the melody of his refrain.

Music is a language that becomes more perfect with time. Through it as a medium greater thoughts are being expressed every day, and in no other way can these particular thoughts be brought to the knowledge of mankind. But not merely is knowledge gained but culture and refinement are secured through listening to the concord of sweet sounds and it is the same with music as with any thing else, the more one tires to appreciate it, the more capable one becomes of understanding it. One must learn to grasp the thought of music by listening to music and if possible by producing some harmonious sounds himself.

Crookston is indeed fortunate in that it has always possessed much musical talent and that talent is being added to all the time. Prof. Riggs is a comparatively new man here, having been with us only a few months, but during that time he has organized the largest and best band Crookston ever had, and this musical company, under his most efficient leadership, is fast becoming one of the leading bands of the state.

By way of entertainment and education they are furnishing a concert in the opera house once a month. The one given last month was a decided success and the public are eagerly looking forward to Wednesday evening, Jan. 18, when the second in the series will be held. The program will consist of numbers by the band, and by the orchestra, violin and cornet solos and duets.

But the special feature of the musical soiree will be the piano work of Mrs. Riggs, a graduate of the Chicago conservatory. Mrs. Riggs has spent the last two years in studying under Emil Liebling, one of Chicago’s talented teachers. She comes to Crookston an accomplished musician and will be warmly welcomed by the musical circles of the city. She will play two piano solos and assist in a violin and piano duet, the professor himself making the violin speak. This will be a musical treat that Crookston people will most liberally patronize.

And here is the order of the Jan. 18, 1899 concert program:

March, Hamiltonian, by Hall – Crookston Band
Variations on Melodies from the Opera Donizetti, for piano and violin by Osborue-De Bériot – Mrs. G. Oliver Riggs assisted by Mr. Riggs
March (two-step, new) – Mandolin Club
Cornet solo, Islington Polka by Rolhieam – Mr.Riggs, band accompaniment
Piano solo, Hungarian Dance op. 5 No. 2 by Schoenberg – Mrs. Riggs
March, Cake Walk, new – Riggs orchestra
Concert Waltz by Fischer – Mandolin Club
Sceur de Bullett for violin by De Bériot – Mr. Riggs
Overture, Sunrise - Riggs orchestra
Piano solo Valse de Concert in E Major by Moss Kowaki – Mrs. Riggs
Squeeze box polka (comic) by Casey – Introducing vocal strains, whip snaps, sleigh bells and a grand chorus of squeezies – Crookston Band

I have not seen the program for tonight’s orchestra concert, so I don’t know if there will be any overlap. I’m guessing not. But if someone could find the music for the polka, it would be interesting to have a gym full of students give it a whirl!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Show and Tell: More Wonders of eBay

It’s confession time. I’ve been busy again on eBay, buying some items related to the book I’m writing about my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, the real-life music man. My excuse is that these purchases are important to the research.

But, I admit, its also pretty fun.

First up: the 1908 C.G. Conn Wonderphone cornet.
Sebastian plays some notes on the new (old) cornet
The engraving on the cornet, made by the C.G. Conn Instrument Co.
I saw the listing for the cornet when I was on eBay searching for vintage music. This was the same week that I learned, while reading old issues of the Polk County Journal online, that G. Oliver bought a new, gold-plated cornet in the fall of 1906, when he was directing the city band in Crookston, Minn. and also performing as a cornet soloist. The news item did not explain what type of cornet it was, and I have no reason to believe it was a Conn (this was two decades before G. Oliver would work for Conn). Even so, I thought it would be cool to own a cornet from that era.

The truth is, I have had cornet envy since last August, when I curated the vintage instrument exhibit at the Northfield Historical Society as part of the 2013 Vintage Band Festival. Paul Maybery, a Twin Cities resident who is internationally known as a conductor, arranger and musicologist, let us display a whole wall of his Conn Wonder Instruments at the museum, and it was fascinating to hear him talk about their history, their design, and the sound they produce. 

Now, we are well on our way to acquiring our own wall of instruments. Because as my husband, Steve, reminded me (I am not sure how this escaped my memory), we already had an old cornet in the basement that his dad found many years ago at an estate sale. This second cornet is European-made, a Henri LeFevre. I don’t know the year it was manufactured.

I think one of our kids, possibly Sebastian, stuck a small toy inside the cornet when he was a little boy. Because of the obstruction, the cornet is not currently playable. Sometime before the next Vintage Band Festival in July 2016, I hope to get both cornets refurbished, so they can be part of the next instrument exhibit.

The decorative engraving on the LeFevre cornet
My other recent eBay purchases are of sheet music. The most exciting and meaningful find was a copy of the 1910 Montana State Song. When G. Oliver played with the Montana Cowboy Band in the 19-teens, this song was in the band’s repertoire. It also was one of the tunes the band members performed in 1917 when they created a ruckus at the Minnesota State Capitol.

I have written a scene about this in my book. I already knew some of the song lyrics thanks to the newspaper coverage. Now I know all of the lyrics and also the tune!

The State Song of Montana; music by Joseph Howard, lyrics by Charles Cohan
This next song, “Marching through Georgia,” was significant because G. Oliver’s dad, Jasper Riggs, did march through Georgia during the Civil War as part of Sherman’s March to the Sea. Later, G. Oliver would play this song – on his new, gold-plated cornet – as part of the Iowa 51st Regimental Band that traveled to the South in 1906 to dedicate battlefield memorials to Iowa soldiers.

This last purchase is a collection of songs that were popular at the turn of the last century, and that the Regimental Band also played during the trip to the South.

These songs don’t look too difficult to play on the piano, so I think with some practice I can have one or two ready for the next My Musical Family recital.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Gist of Whist, and Other Literary Surprises

My Aunt Dana launched me on a new track of research last month. She had been looking through old books on her bookshelf and noticed that a couple of them had G. Oliver Riggs’ signature inside the front cover.  The books, she was surprised to see, were not music-related. One was a Temple Shakespeare 1895 edition of Hamlet, which contained a few pages of handwritten notes.

The lovely title page of the pocket-sized copy of Hamlet

G. Oliver’s signature and his notes on Act III
More notes, and the question: Why did Hamlet offer no resistance in being sent to England?
Other books that had belonged to G. Oliver were an 1895 edition of Homer’s The Iliad, an 1894 edition of The Human Body by Henry Newell Martin, The Knightes Tale by Chaucer and The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser.

Dana also found books that contained the signature of Mrs. G. Oliver Riggs, aka G. Oliver’s wife, Islea. Her personal library included biographies of musicians Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart by Louis Nohl, and a 1925 edition of How to Teach Music to Children by Elizabeth Newman, which had a Schmitt Music stamp on an inside page.

Dana said she had always thought the books had belonged to her parents, and not her grandparents, and she wondered whether my dad also had books that belonged to G. Oliver and Islea. So I asked my dad, and after some digging, he came up with some great finds, too, some that were music-related and some that were not:

Books from the library of G. Oliver and Islea Riggs, my great-grandparents
• The 1872 Peters’ Burrows’ Thorough-Base Primer: Containing Explanations and Examples of the Rudiments of Harmony
• An 1888 edition of the play Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe
• An 1892 edition of Poems by William Cullen Bryant
• An 1895 edition of The Gist of Whist, by Charles Emmet Coffin, with the signature of G.O. Riggs, Joy, Ill. (G. Oliver played whist? Who knew?!)
• An 1898 edition of The Music Dramas of Richard Wagner by Albert Laignac (this book has G. Olivers signature from 1914 but also has an Ex Libris book stamp with the signature of Mrs. G. Oliver Riggs, so perhaps they shared it?)
• A 1911 edition of The Standard Operas by George P. Upton, from the Lyon & Healy store in Chicago, which G. Oliver inscribed on Dec. 10, 1913
• A 1911 edition of Songs and Song Writers by Henry T. Finck, which G. Oliver inscribed on April 18, 1914
• A 1911 edition of How to Listen to Music by H.E. Krehbiel
A 1924 edition of Outlines for Teaching Piano Teachers by Carolyn Bowen, a teacher at the MacPhail School of Music in Minneapolis. This book has Islea’s signature and St. Cloud address written on an inside page.

Last but not least is my sentimental favorite, The Pianist and the Art of Music by Adolph Carpé. This is also a Lyon & Healy book, and it appears that G. Oliver gave it to Islea Graham in 1892, six years before they were married, when Islea was studying music in Chicago. The words at the top of the left-hand page say: Isla Graham, celebrated Boston pianist, which I imagine is some kind of inside joke, and contains a misspelling of her first name. Underneath that is her correctly spelled name and her address in Chicago, and underneath that in different handwriting it says: Presented by G. Oliver Riggs 1892.

The inside of a book G. Oliver gave to his future wife, Islea
I knew that G. Oliver and Islea began performing together in the Aledo/Joy Illinois area in the early 1890s, but it’s fun to see that he gave her a music book during this time. It appears that she read through at least the first 31 pages because she underlined some of the text, and on page 25, she wrote very true at the end of this paragraph:

The greater the variety of composers and compositions of sterling value that come within the range of the student’s efforts, the more thoroughly each is studied and appreciated in its musical character, the more chance will the pianist have to acquire that subtle intelligence, that broadness of character, and intensity of feeling in musical reproduction, which is the chief charm of piano playing.

This line of research got me thinking about the books I buy and choose to keep year after year – what does this say about who I am and what I value? I have books on my bookshelves that I may never read again but keep for sentimental reasons. I have books that I love and do occasionally reread. I have books that I am using for research, and I have books that I have meant to read, but never seem to get around to starting. Some of the books make perfect sense for anyone who knows me, but others may prove puzzling for my descendants (like the book signed to me from David Broder, the late Washington Post reporter and editor, whom I met the summer after college when I had a Pulliam Fellowship in Indianapolis).

The books on the shelves in my office
What books will I have on my shelves 30 years from now, and what picture of me will they portray? Time will tell. But it is probably safe to assume that my future self will still not have mastered the gist of whist.

Monday, January 27, 2014

My Musical Family Recital - the Encore!

The inaugural My Musical Family recital was such fun two years ago, I don’t know why it took us so long to revive it. But revive it we did, in lively fashion last evening, with the help of two other musical families: our friends Michael and Shari and their daughter Sophie; and Steve’s sister Beth, her husband Hans, and their kids Hannah, Franny and Zach.

Fortunately, they all live within walking distance. A third musical family was unable to come due to the stupid blizzard conditions. We missed you, Owen, Myrna, Rose and Ryan!

I came up with the idea of having a recital as a way of honoring my great-grandparents, G. Oliver and Islea Riggs, who were both accomplished musicians. They used to perform regularly at gatherings in people’s homes back in the days before TV, iPads, radio and talking movies. Imagine that!

It seemed like a tradition worthy of resurrecting. Also, it seemed like a good way to motivate members of my family, myself included, to take the time to practice a piece of music we enjoy playing, or one that might even be a bit challenging. It can be nerve-racking to perform in front of an audience – even a small one made up of friendly faces – but it also feels good to occasionally be jolted out of one’s comfort zone, especially in the depth of winter.

During the recital, I read from my book in progress and performed a piano piece.
Having the event last night was the perfect way to forget about the cold for a while. We started with a meal: two types of chili, served with a spinach salad, soda bread and cornbread muffins. Then, we commenced with the recital.

I opened by reading a scene from my book in progress, in which G. Oliver and his fellow Montana Cowboy Band members take part in a “shoot-up” at the Minnesota State Capitol in 1917 during the St. Paul Winter Carnival.
Musical numbers included Michael and Shari performing on ukuleles, Elias on piano, Seb on trumpet and Sophie on piano.

Elias on piano
Seb on trumpet, playing the theme from Monk
Sophie on piano
I got so caught up in enjoying the performances, I forgot to record most of them, but I did take a video of one of the last numbers: Steve, Louisa and Sebastian performing “Barton Hollow” by the Civil Wars.

Once the nerve-racking part was over, we all enjoyed the icing on the cake of the evening’s enjoyments – some delicious frosted tuxedo cake from CakeWalk.

Friends, food, music and cake. It doesn’t get much better than that. I can’t wait for the next recital!

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Big Story on Northfield ArtsTown

I know, I know, I go without blogging for weeks, and now here I am with a second post this week. It’s a feast or famine thing. This post will be brief, though. I wanted to be very non-Minnesotan and pass along a link to a story about me that was published today on the Northfield ArtsTown website.

I am used to being the interviewer, so it was fun to have the tables turned and have my cool and talented neighbor Amy Smith ask me questions about my book in progress, my Minnesota Parent column, and other writing-related topics. The interview is the latest installment in the site’s “The Big Story” series on members of Northfield’s artist community.

You can read it here: The Big Story: Joy Riggs.

I’m honored to be included in such creative company; previous “Big Story” interviews have featured Charlie Black, a longtime actor on the Northfield Arts Guild stage; musician and all-around good guy Doug Bratland of Matt Arthur and the Bratlanders; and hot rod artist Nick Sinclair.

If you are not familiar with Northfield ArtsTown, be sure to check it out. Its mission is “to spread the word about all the amazing artists and art happenings in Northfield, Minnesota.” It includes an events calendar of local art happenings, artist portfolio pages, and information about arts-related venues and organizations.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

If a Blog Falls in the Forest: a Jazz Meditation

The My Musical Family blog has been way too quiet lately. Not good, especially for a blog that revolves around music! It would make more sense if I wrote about meditation.

The good news is I have not been idle. I have been working diligently on my book about G. Oliver Riggs and his extraordinary career as a real-life music man. I have had limited time for writing lately (writing for myself, I should say – I have plenty of paid writing and editing work that is keeping my schedule full), and when faced with the choice of writing a blog entry or working on a scene from the book, I have chosen to work on the book. But the blogging is an important part of the project, too, so I hope to get back to posting at least once a week.

My writing space
What else is new in My Musical Family-land? Before Christmas break, I finished my six-week online class through the Loft Literary Center, called The Art of Narrative Nonfiction. It was a fantastic class, and I am hoping the teacher, Ashley Shelby, will offer a part 2 later this spring or summer. In the meantime, I am trying to maintain my momentum by setting personal deadlines for myself, and I’m meeting one night a week with my friends Chris Lienke and Myrna Mibus to work on our respective writing projects.

I have also been busy serving on three music-related boards, the Northfield Fine Arts Boosters, the Northfield Youth Choirs, and the Vintage Band Festival. And I have attended some delightful concerts, including Monday evening’s middle school and high school jazz bands concert, featuring guest band Jazz MN of Minneapolis.

There’s a story about the concert in today’s Northfield News: Jazz Bands rock the house at Northfield Middle School.

The Northfield Fine Arts Boosters provided a grant to help bring Jazz MN to town from the Twin Cities. The professional jazz musicians had a clinic with the students after school and then performed that night at the concert, after the middle school jazz band and the two high school jazz bands. It was a great example of why I am proud to be involved with NFAB.

Sebastian plays the trumpet in the NHS Jazz Band Two, and he had a solo during his band’s rendition of “Chameleon” by Herbie Hancock. Since it seems appropriate to end this meditation with some music, I have included the clip of Seb’s solo, followed by Jazz MN playing the jazz standard “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” which happens to be the title of one of my book chapters.