Classical Music Has Rich History in Jacksonville Frederick Delius Tops Century of Ties

Article excerpt

Images of Jacksonville's early days are linked to an old stereotype of the city as a backwater cultural wasteland named Cowford.

But actually, classical music had a strong presence as early as the mid-to-late 1800s.

A Florida Daily Times writer in January 1882 described the sounds of downtown Jacksonville this way:

"The vicinity of St. James Park is rendered very attractive evenings by the music that is floating through the air from the grand drawing rooms of the St. James and Windsor hotels.

"To each of these fine establishments are attached excellent orchestras of several musicians, directed by skilled leaders and each evening they perform selections of all the latest and most popular operas and dances, adding greatly to their attractiveness and to the enjoyment of their guests, and has a very pleasant effect on all the neighborhood."

Indeed, classical music has a rich history in Jacksonville.

The Composers

Frederick Delius: The most internationally acclaimed figure in classical music history to have a Jacksonville influence was Frederick Delius. Delius composed The Florida Suite, Appalachia and a long body of other works.

An Englishman who came to manage his father's orange groves on the banks of the St. Johns River west of St. Augustine, in 1884 he befriended Thomas F. Ward, organist for the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Jacksonville, who taught him music and composition.

Delius went back to Europe in 1886 and became an internao tionally honored composer. He readily acknowledged the influence on his compositions of African-American music he heard in St. Johns County.

Delius died in 1934 in France.

The Delius Festival in Jacksonville has honored the composer for 39 years.

James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson: The Johnson brothers, James Weldon and J. Rosamond -- who were born and reared in Jacksonville -- in 1900 wrote an African-American classic, Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing. It is acknowledged as the black national anthem. Rosamond Johnson was a classically trained musician but was better known for his show tunes. James Weldon Johnson, a poet and educator, wrote lyrics to the song.

Ruth Crawford Seeger: Another composer of note was Ruth Crawford Seeger, an ultra-modernist of the 1920s and '30s era who grew up and studied music in Jacksonville until she left for the Chicago Conservatory of Music in 1920 at age 19. In 1930, she was the first female composer to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship to study in Berlin. Her most noted works were her Violin Sonata, her first String Quartet and a folk-song based work Rissolty, Rossolty in 1939. She was the step-mother of folk artist Pete Seeger.

Friday Musicale

A pivotal name in Jacksonville music history, with influence felt to this day, is L'Engle -- sisters Claudia L'Engle Adams and Mary L'Engle.

Adams was a graduate of the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. In January 1890, she gathered a group of her musically-inclined women friends in the parlor at her home on East Monroe Street to study, perform and listen to fine music. This was the first meeting of the Ladies Friday Musicale.

Adams died in 1895, but her parlor group grew to become a hallmark organization for musical culture in Jacksonville that has survived to this day. It formed orchestras, it ran educational programs and brought great classical music figures, such as pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninov, to perform in Jacksonville. (Rachmaninov performed in the Jacksonville Armory in 1938.)

The Musicale survived the complete destruction of its antebellum auditorium on Oak Street by arson fire in 1995, and rebuilt a new $600,000 auditorium, much like the first one, in 1997.

Mary L'Engle was equally active in classical music, but independent of her late sister's Friday Musicale. Mary L'Engle had studied piano in Europe and enjoyed inviting fine musicians to her home to hold chamber sessions. …