Musical Theatre in America: Papers and Proceedings of the Conference on the Musical Theatre in America

By Glenn Loney | Go to book overview

Edgar Stillman Kelley and the American Musical Theatre, 1880-1900

LEONARD L. RIVENBURG

From 1800 to 1900 no classically trained American composer was more active in writing for the musical theatre than Edgar Stillman Kelley. Details of Kelley's works are scarcely known today, although the stage productions of Macbeth ( 1885), Puritania ( 1892), and Ben Hur ( 1899), for which he composed the music, were important events in the American theatre world of the late nineteenth century. Kelley was to become known for his symphonies, tone poems, piano pieces, and songs, but his "dramatic period" contains much of his most interesting music, and his initial success in writing for the stage established his reputation in the United States and Europe as a major figure in American music at a time when such recognition was rare. From 1885 until his death in 1944, Kelley was a famous, well- regarded, and influential figure whose works were performed by major musicians and musical organizations. His New England Symphony was performed fifty times in the United States and abroad, and other of his orchestral works received similar acceptance in the concert halls of the world.

Kelley was the first white child born in the frontier settlement of Sparta, Wisconsin, in 1857. He was extremely precocious and learned to play the piano and read before the age of six. The church library was housed in the attic of his parents' home and he had ready access to its volumes. As a direct result of his familiarity with classic works of literature and drama, both remained the touchstone of his muse throughout his long career of sixty years.

Kelley was a gifted man who came from a background dominated by a caring and culture-seeking family. The important influence of qualified and highly trained artist-teachers at an early age is evident in his subsequent development. His first teacher was his mother, a competent and welltrained pianist. His next lessons were with Farwell W. Merriam, of Winona, Wisconsin, a pupil of Louis Plaidy, the famous German piano teacher of Leipzig and an associate of Felix Mendelssohn. From 1874 to 1876 Kelley commuted regularly by rail to Chicago for study with two of the city's

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