Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Untold Stories of the Heirloom Violin

We've been on spring break at my parents' house in Alexandria, where the kids have been busy playing computer games, eating ice cream, and practicing songs on the piano and keyboard.  I decided it was a good time to take a closer look at the heirloom violin that has been in the Riggs family for more than 200 years.

I don't know what year the violin was made, or for whom.  I can only trace the story through old newspaper accounts, which indicate that my great-great-great grandfather's brother, James Riggs, inherited the German-made violin as a boy in about 1796 and decided late in his life to give it to his 10-year-old nephew, Jasper.

My great-great grandfather Jasper was born in 1843 in Mercer County, Illinois, the second youngest of 13 children.  By the time he reached double digits, he must have demonstrated musical talent, or at least shown interest in music, or perhaps his Uncle James just liked him.  Whatever the reason, he became the violin's next owner.

I like to imagine Jasper’s delight in receiving such a gift.  Considering that he had many older brothers and sisters, and that he grew up on a farm, he likely had few possessions that a sibling hadn’t already worn or used.  I can picture him hurriedly finishing his chores so he could take his violin to the barn, his calloused fingers becoming more graceful with practice.  I especially like to keep this image of him in my head, preserving his boyhood innocence for just a little longer, knowing the hell that was in store for him as a young adult.

Because as you may have guessed by doing the math, Jasper was a young man when the Civil War erupted.  The fact that the Riggs violin endured long enough to pass into my dad’s hands leads me to think it was not among Jasper’s possessions when the blue-eyed, sandy haired 19-year-old left the farm to join Grant’s army.

Jasper enlisted on Sept. 24, 1861, and mustered into service on Christmas Eve in Chicago with the 45th Illinois Infantry, Company I.  He fought in the battles of Shiloh and Vicksburg, participated in Sherman's March to the Sea, and took a shot in the left leg during the Battle of Jonesborough in the fall of 1864.  He was honorably discharged at the war's end.  He returned home to his sweetheart, Rebecca, whom he’d married while on furlough in April 1864, and they started their musical family.

(A sidenote: When Union forces captured Vicksburg, Jasper's regiment was given the advance of the Union army for meritorious service and was the first to march into Vicksburg, where the regiment's national flag was raised at the Vicksburg courthouse.  I didn't know anything about this when I lived in nearby Natchez, Mississippi, and worked as a newspaper intern at The Natchez Democrat in the summer of 1988 and as a full-fledged reporter from 1990-91.  I covered a trial at the Vicksburg courthouse and visited the Vicksburg National Military Park during my time there.  Now I want to go back and take another look at the Illinois Memorial, which lists the names of all 36,325 Illinois soldiers who fought at Vicksburg.

I also didn't know, until a few years ago, that Jasper's son, my great-grandfather G. Oliver, also visited the Vicksburg battlefield.  He played in an Iowa regimental band that toured several Southern battlefields in November 1906 with the Iowa governor and dedicated all the memorials to Iowa soldiers.  But that's a topic for another post, since this is already getting way too long!)

Jasper and his family moved around often in the post-war years.  They left Illinois to homestead in Avilla, Missouri, and then Wapello, Iowa, where G. Oliver was born.  Jasper's war injuries made farming difficult, so he went into the general store business in Dorchester, Nebraska.  The family also spent some time near Esbon, Kansas.  During these years, Jasper played the violin for dances to earn extra money, Rebecca played the accordion, and G. Oliver and his sister Daisy grew up making music.

G. Oliver Riggs, left and his dad, Jasper, right, both played violin.  The photo was taken in 1899.

G. Oliver liked music so much he put himself through the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Oberlin, Ohio, where he studied violin, piano, cornet and the history and theory of music.  He graduated in 1891 and soon took a job teaching violin at the Iowa Wesleyan Conservatory of Music in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.  He was a violin and cornet soloist for many years before he focused on organizing and directing bands.

 G. Oliver Riggs poses with violin and cornet, circa 1913.

My dad figures that G. Oliver didn't use the family violin for his solo work; he likely had a different violin.  If so, we don't know kind he had, or what happened to it, although it's possible he had to sell it in his later years, when he no longer played and was short on money.

We told Sebastian, age 11, that he could hold the heirloom violin if he promised not to smoke.

Jasper, who had smoked heavily but despised the habit, died in 1911.  His will indicated that his violin should go to G. Oliver's eldest son if he refrained from using tobacco until he turned 21.  If he had used tobacco, the violin was to go to the eldest son of Jasper's daughter, Daisy.

When my grandfather Ronald turned 21 in 1922, he inherited the violin, and it later passed to my dad, William, who is the eldest in his family, and who has never smoked.

I wished, as we opened the case on Sunday, that the violin could tell us more about the people who have played it.  But no stories were contained inside; only a jar of rosin made in Paris, a shoulder rest, a silk handkerchief and a tiny key in a little yellowed envelope, which appeared to fit the lock on the case.  My dad plans to have someone look at the violin, to see if we can learn anything more about it.  I don't imagine it's worth a whole lot of money, but we wouldn't sell it anyway.  It's a piece of our family history.

Inside the case we found a silk handkerchief with an embroidered R.

As I plucked one string gently, I thought about how Jasper had once held this instrument, about how he had played it on the Kansas prairie, just like Pa Ingalls, how it had traveled the Midwest during so many important years in the expansion of our country.  You can't appreciate that connection to history by reading a textbook, or by watching a Ken Burns documentary.  It's the kind of history you have to touch with your fingers, and feel in your heart.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Reflections on 10 Pianos, 31 Years Later

I stopped in at Schmitt Music in Burnsville the other day to pick up a new piano lesson book for Elias and a new viola lesson book for Sebastian.  I don't stop into music stores often, which is probably a good thing because I walked out with $75 in merchandise. 

In addition to the books I'd come in for, I found a piano book of the music from the movie Pride and Prejudice (the Keira Knightly version), which I bought for Louisa.  She had downloaded the first two pages of Dawn and has been teaching herself to play it, so I thought she might like to have the entire piece.  Even though she stopped taking piano lessons a few years ago, she enjoys occasionally sitting down and playing for fun, and I like to encourage her.  I also bought a Lord of the Rings viola book for Sebastian, which he tried out last night.  I bought some valve oil for Seb's trumpet and Louisa's French horn.  And I bought something for myself: a book of piano music from Norah Jones' album, Come Away with Me

I took piano lessons for nine years, from kindergarten through 8th grade, from Mrs. Rolfsrud.  During that time, my dad would buy me the occasional piece of sheet music, which was always a fun break from the pieces I had to play for lessons.  Music Box Dancer.  Billy Joel's She's Always a Woman.  The theme song from The Pink Panther.  I hardly ever play now, but once in a while, I get the urge to sit down and work on a piece.  It's therapeutic.

I noticed, during my shopping spree, that Schmitt had a special section just for piano contest music.  Seeing those books reminded me of my greatest piano triumph.  I competed in the Minnesota Music Teachers Association's annual state piano contest for several years, and in 1979 I made it to the pinnacle: the Honors Concert at Northrup Auditorium on the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis.
This is 11-year-old me before the concert, at my Grandma Falvey's apartment in St. Paul.

The MMTA still hosts the contest, which has grown over the years and now involves more than 5,000 piano students.  The preliminaries were held in January, and the finals were held earlier this month.  Those with the highest scores in each age group will get to perform at the honors concert June 12 at Northrup, two to a piano, on 20 grand pianos.  I think when I did it there were only 10 pianos.

I don't remember what piece I played to get to the big concert, but I do know what I played the day of the concert: the Polonaise from Anton Diabelli's 28 Melodic Etudes (No. 14) Opus 149.  I remember being on stage with the bright lights, and I remember being directed by Philip Brunelle, who now is the artistic director of VocalEssence.  I don't remember being scared, but I think it probably helped that I was on stage with so many other kids, and that I had played the piece so many times I could just let my fingers take over for my brain.

What I didn't know when I played at Northrup – and didn't know until I started researching the life of my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs – was that my great-grandmother, Islea Graham Riggs, took her St. Cloud piano students to MMTA contests in the 1930s.  In an Oct. 18, 1936 letter to my grandmother Eleanor (who also taught piano and who at that time was dating my grandfather, Ronald Riggs), Islea wrote that she was taking three of her female students to Minneapolis later that month for the state music contest finals.  

"The selections the state board gave us are rather difficult, I think, for such young students as mine.  The 13-year-old girl is playing the A Minor Valse by Chopin, and Playera by Granados.  The 11-year-old ones are playing The White Moth by Harriet Dare and Solfeggietto by Bach and the other one Serenade by Backer-Grondahl, and Birdling by Grieg.  They all do quite well, but I am not expecting them to place as the competition is so keen – so many playing from both cities.   But it will be a nice experience for them, and I hope they will have a nice day.  They think it will be a great lark."

Another letter, dated Nov. 29, indicates that Islea's guess was right, and her pupils did not advance to the honors concert.  

"There were 22 in each division, and only 10 could pass.  These 10 are to play in a piano ensemble, 10 pianos, under Percy Grainger's direction at the Music Teachers Convention in Dec.  We had a lot of fun in Minneapolis that day – it was the day of the Homecoming game, so there was a big crowd, and the girls were all so thrilled to be there."

I don't think I'd been back to Northrop Auditorium since my stage debut, at age 11, until a few years ago, when Steve and I attended a concert by – guess who? – Norah Jones.  I didn't think of that when I bought her sheet music the other day; I just made that connection now.  It's funny how things come together.

I should mention that I still play the Diabelli piece occasionally, with my dad.  He plays the primo part and I play secondo.  When we played it last, on Christmas Eve, I was pretty rusty.  Maybe I'll take that book out and practice, in solidarity with the students who are preparing for their big concert in June.  I bet my great-grandma would approve.

My dad, William Riggs, and 42-year-old me, playing piano on Christmas Eve in Northfield.

Monday, March 22, 2010

A Concert No-Show

I feel like a bad parent.  Steve and I aren't attending Sebastian's orchestra concert tonight.  Instead, we are going to a reception and dinner honoring a wonderful gentleman named Olaf Millert, a professor emeritus of psychology at St. Olaf College who's originally from Estonia.

When we received the invitation and I discovered the conflict, I mentioned it to Sebastian.  I told him that I would skip the dinner and go to his concert if he wanted me there.  He said, "No, Mom, it's OK.  Olaf needs you more than I do."

So now I've made arrangements for him to get a ride to and from the all-district concert, which means all the orchestras from fourth grade through high school will be playing.  And I'm getting dressed for the big deal at the college president's house, up the road from our house.

The only other time I've been to a college president's house was when I was a student at Drake University.  I think it was my senior year, when I was editor-in-chief of the college newspaper, although it could have been my junior year.  My main memory of that occasion was being excited to eat fancy food that didn't come from the dining hall.

I am looking forward to a fun evening, and I'm grateful to have an understanding son.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Vintage Bands Make a Comeback

I've often thought it would be cool to have a recording of one of my great-grandfather's early bands.  It's too bad that technology wasn't as widespread and accessible at the turn of the last century as it is now.  But when the Vintage Band Festival comes to town this summer, I'll get a taste of what it would have been like to hear G. Oliver Riggs direct the Esbon (Kansas) Cornet Band in 1886, or the Iowa Wesleyan University Cadet Band in 1896.

The festival, set for Aug. 5-8 in Northfield, will involve 20 bands, playing 50 free concerts at outdoor venues throughout the city (and a few out-of-town locations).

Four international bands are coming, all the way from Russia, Austria, Germany and Finland.  Three bands are coming from the East Coast, including the Newberry Victorian Cornet Band.  And the rest are from the Midwest, like the First Brigade Band of Wisconsin, the oldest recreated Civil War brass band, and the Lake Wobegon Brass Band.

I was out of town for the first festival in 2006.  That one attracted 12,000 concertgoers, and this year's event is expected to be even more popular.  Mark your calendars now, and come for a day, or for the whole festival. 

You can get more information about the Vintage Band Festival by visiting the website or by becoming a fan on Facebook.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

It's Hip to Have Genes

We were in Iowa for a few days, attending the wake and funeral of my husband's grandma, Mary Lawler.  It's the first funeral my kids have attended that they have been old enough to really remember (they didn't go to my uncle Bill's funeral last year because they were all sick).

After the funeral Saturday at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Eldora, we trekked out to the cemetery, where Mary was to be placed next to her husband Lewis, who died in 2001.  It was an overcast day, and the ground was muddy and slushy – not the ideal place for my fancy heels – but we were able to make our way over to the grave for the brief ceremony.

When we returned to the car, Sebastian said, "Mom, now I know why you pursue your family history so urgently.  When I went into the cemetery and saw all the Lawlers, I thought, 'my history is here.'"

Sebastian, at age 11, is learning what many people don't discover until they're in their 40s or 50s, or even older.  Understanding where you came from helps you understand who you are.  And right now, genealogy is hot.

Or so it appears, based on recent TV programming and the explosion of ancestry-related internet databases.

During the Olympics, NBC heavily promoted its new show, Who Do You Think You Are, which has been airing on Friday nights and follows celebrities including Lisa Kudrow and Sarah Jessica Parker  as they journey into their genealogical pasts.  I haven't yet seen an episode of the show, but I've been getting emails about it from the show's partner, the family history website ancestry.com.  

PBS recently had its own family history show, Faces of America, that concluded March 3 (and I referenced in a previous post).  In that show, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. traced the genealogy of 12 well-known Americans, including Yo-Yo Ma and Meryl Streep.

There have been more news stories lately about family history, too – think of President Barack Obama, and the discovery that he's distantly related to former Vice President Dick Cheney.

Interest in family history isn't a new phenomenon, but there does seem to be a huge increase in the numbers of people researching their backgrounds.   The internet has certainly had an impact on this, as it has made genealogical research more accessible.  From the comfort of my home in Northfield, Minn., I can type on my laptop and look up my great-great-grandfather's family on the 1860 Illinois census.  I can search eBay and find a photo of my great-grandfather in a Montana cowboy band.  I can meet people on ancestry.com who share a branch of my family tree, and exchange information, all without having to travel to another state or search through dusty court records.

Is this increased interest in family history a result of baby boomers reaching an age where they've become more introspective?  Are other societal factors – years of being at war, or uncertainty about the economic future – fueling a desire to connect to the past, and learn from our ancestors' experiences?

One of my favorite Minnesota journalists, Minnesota Public Radio's Kerri Miller, hosted a show the other day about the genealogy craze.  Miller and her Midmorning guests discussed how the internet and DNA testing are helping both amateur and professional genealogists find information that was previously unknown or inaccessible.
I have dabbled in genealogy the past few years, as I've researched the life of my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs.  It's easy to get sucked into the challenge of tracing family lines, compiling dates and names and striving to solve mysteries.  But the most rewarding part for me is finding and documenting the personal stories that make these people come alive.

I've also been reminded of how important it is to gather the stories of people who are still alive, while you still have the time.

Baby Sebastian with great-grandparents Mary and Lewis Lawler, November 1998

Nineteen years ago, my husband, Steve, had the foresight to sit down with Grandpa and Grandma Lawler, turn on the cassette recorder and ask them questions about what it was like to grow up in rural Iowa.  He has about two and a half hours of conversation, which he transferred to CD form.  Now that both of his grandparents are gone, it's comforting to know that their stories will be preserved for future generations who will never experience the pleasures of meeting them, or eating a delectable piece of Grandma's pie.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Lost and Found, the Train Edition

One of the things I enjoy about researching the life of my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs, is the way I always seem to find something interesting that I wasn't looking for, but can relate to my own life.

An example: yesterday I spent three hours going through a tiny fraction (2 1/2 boxes) of the 1,431-box collection of papers of Louis W. Hill at the Minnesota History Center library (and I thought the Riggs were savers!)

I was looking for papers relating to the Montana Cowboy Band, a band G. Oliver played in that was hired by Louis Hill to promote Montana in 1912.  Hill, at that time, had taken over from his father as president and board chairman of the Great Northern Railroad.  He also was instrumental in creating and developing Glacier National Park, which is celebrating its 100-year anniversary.

I managed to get through seven months of telegrams and letters before closing time and did find two things that related to G. Oliver.  One was a postcard of the Montana Cowboy Band, sent to Hill by the band's leader, Bill Houle, in December 1912 after the group returned from a trip to Chicago with some Blackfeet Indians from Glacier.  The other was a letter written to Hill by one of the tribe members, Fred Big Top, in which he describes their adventures in Chicago with the Cowboy Band.

The item that most amused me, though, had nothing to do with the Cowboy Band.  It was a telegram sent to Hill by his wife, Maud, in October 1912, when she and the children had been traveling between St. Paul and Seattle on the train without Hill:

"Mrs. Hill asks that you look on car A-22 for Louis (Jr.'s) new blue coat and hat which they could not locate."

This made me think of our family vacation last summer, when Steve, the kids and I traveled to Montana on the Empire Builder, the same train that the Hills took.  On our way back, Steve lost his Mini Cooper baseball cap.  Although he searched the train, and later called the Amtrak Chicago office when we returned to Minnesota, no one was able to locate it. 

I wonder if Louis Jr. ever found his? 

Sebastian, Steve, Elias and Louisa in Havre (Hill Co.) Montana, before we got on the train and Steve lost his Mini cap.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Music to Soothe the Savage Bear

Elias and I recently were talking about legends and folk tales as part of his Cub Scout Bear achievement requirements.  It reminded me of a folktale I stumbled across a few years ago in a Riggs family scrapbook, with an accompanying illustration of my great-grandfather, G. Oliver Riggs.  When I scanned the drawing today, I realized that it appeared in the Crookston (MN) Daily Journal almost exactly 107 years ago, on March 6, 1903.

 The musical folktake of G. Oliver versus the bear
If you look closely, you can see that it says "Prof Riggs" on his pant leg.  In the family scrapbook, it lists the artist's name as simply "Hubert" – I'm not sure if that's a first or last name.  Here's the article that accompanied the drawing:

"A story is wafted to the Journal from away out on the Big Fork, where G. Oliver Riggs has a claim that on a recent trip to that part of the country, the popular Crookston bandmaster was chased by a bear.  The pace grew hot and in order to make his escape, the gentleman discarded everything he carried but his valuable violin.  He finally 'shinned up' a tree so small the bear couldn't hug it for climbing, and there they were.  Bruin, when erect on his back feet could almost reach the music man's legs, but not quite, and finally decided to wait for its fruit until it fell from the limb.  After shouting for help (a few words here are unreadable) ... Mr. Riggs, having heard of the efficacy of music in charming the savage beast, drew his bow and played an air from de Beriot which so pleased and affected Bruin that he went away to bring the balance of his family to the concert, and incidentally when it closed to let the cubs taste of a Crookston musician.  When he returned, Mr. Riggs was miles away up the trail.  Our artist's imagination has reveled in the possibilities of the situation with the above result."

Maybe Sebastian should consider packing his viola the next time he goes on a Boy Scout camping trip.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Bow Ties, Michael Buble and Estonian Cultural Exchange

Our family is getting a crash course in Estonian culture this week as we host two members of the Girls Choir of the Old Town Music House from Talinn, Estonia.

The choir, conducted by Maarja Soone, arrived in town last night and will perform tonight at 7:30 p.m. at Boe Chapel on the St. Olaf College campus.  The Northfield Youth Choirs' Concert Choir, of which Louisa is a member, will be singing at the concert, too.

The choir members are ages 14-18 and are on their first concert tour of the United States.  Tomorrow evening the choir performs in St. Cloud at Bethlehem Lutheran Church and on Wednesday, it performs with a Hungarian male chorus at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis.

The two girls staying with us are both 15 years old.  We only had about an hour to talk with them last night before bedtime, but we learned several things about Estonia, including the fact that the president of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, is known for wearing bow ties (he also grew up in the United States).

One of the girls is a huge fan of Michael Buble.  We discovered this as one of his songs played over our Pandora radio service.  Minutes later, a song from the musical Wicked came on, and the girls told us in their wonderful English that that they also liked that musical (one had seen the show in London).

Even though it's a short stay, it's been great for my kids to experience how music really does bridge cultures, whether it's classical, pop or another genre.  It's too bad the girls have to leave early tomorrow; I'm sure we'd find more common musical ground, if we had more time.