Magazine article American Music Teacher

BRAHMS in Our BACKYARD: Reflecting on the Piano Music of Arne Oldberg

Magazine article American Music Teacher

BRAHMS in Our BACKYARD: Reflecting on the Piano Music of Arne Oldberg

Article excerpt

History can be fickle. We collectively remember celebrated artists, writers and composers that represent a fraction of the activity in their time. American pianist and teacher Arne Oldberg earned respect and recognition for his composition in the early 20th century, but his contributions today are largely seen in the legacy of his teaching. However, his piano compositions deserve a second look.

Oldberg (1874-1962) was bom in Youngstown, Ohio. He lived much of his life in the Chicago/Evanston, Illinois area, and often composed in Estes Park, Colorado, during the summer months. Oldberg taught at Northwestern University for 41 years, and several of his notable students include Howard Hanson, longtime director of the Eastman School of Music; and John W. Schaum, founder of the piano method series started in the 1940s and still used today. Oldberg also taught one of only a few African Americans enrolled at Northwestern in the 1920s, Margaret Bonds, who later became a well-accomplished composer and collaborator with author Langston Hughes.

As a pianist, Oldberg studied with the legendary Theodor Leschetizky for two years in Vienna (1893-1895) and performed as a soloist with the Theodore Thomas Orchestra at the Mozart Centennial Concert in Central Music Hall, Chicago, in 1891, at age 17. After a year of study in Vienna, Oldberg wrote to his family: "I know I have profited in strength, rapidity, evenness, quietness, in time and rhythm, and in tone; in short--in all that a piano player needs to be an artist." (1)

Oldberg recounted in his letters the intrigue of striving to be an artist in a competitive studio: the moment of moving on from lessons with the assistant to the sage; the value of the master classes versus the individual piano lessons; and updates on the mood and health of Leschetizky. After his years in the Leschetizky piano studio, Oldberg reflected, "Do you know, I think I will make a better composer than piano player." (2)

Oldberg gained the most recognition for his orchestral works and piano solo pieces, although he wrote significant chamber works as well, such as his Quintet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 24, for piano and string quartet. Conductors of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) Frederick Stock and Ftitz Reiner often programmed his works, with performances of 15 different works, spanning from 1908 to 1956. (3) In addition to performances by the CSO, his orchestral works were performed by the Symphony Orchestras of Philadelphia, Minneapolis and Los Angeles; and his chamber works were performed in Boston, New York City and Washington, D.C. Oldberg's Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major, Op. 43, won a composition award, which included a performance by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. One of his early piano pieces was performed at a meeting of the Illinois Music Teachers' Association in 1896. (4) Oldberg was involved with the Chicago Manuscript Society, the Cliff Dwellers (a Chicago arts club), and he was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. At the time, 1915, only two other Chicago musicians held the honor: Frederick Stock and composer John Alden Carpenter. (5)

Like many American composers of his generation, including Horatio Parker (Charles Ives's teacher at Yale), Oldberg went to Germany to study with Joseph Rheinberger, whom Oldberg described as "one of these crystallized old fellows who froze up tight as soon as they had heard all nine of Beethoven's symphonies." (6) However, he added that he admired his teacher immensely.

Pvheinberger's grueling routine of regular counterpoint exercises made a deep impression on the young Oldberg, and he wrote largely fugue-based forms in his early works. The intricate use of polyphony prevails in his piano pieces, along with a sincerity of melodic writing, and an instinct for harmonically lush, large-scale dramatic climaxes. Oldberg's Piano Sonata in B-flat Minor, Op. 28, was dedicated to concert pianist Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler, who premiered it in 1910, and played the piece frequently, including at Carnegie Hall as part of her national tour that season. …

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