Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


On the Great Plains frontier, classical music may seem to have disappeared from the milieu of settlers, and of course its presence was very much diminished. However, traces of its existence could be found in the instruction books and other material to be played on parlor organs (some of which were to be found in the sod structures of the Plains) or to be used in piano instruction for children, an early feature of the settlement era. Private classical instruction in other instruments and voice followed in many communities. A basis for the classical tradition also existed almost immediately in the music of many religious services. Often shortly after the arrival of the railroad, in some localities church choirs were formed that undertook the performance of anthems reflecting the classical tradition if not actually being composed by Handel or Haydn. Eventually, in larger communities, building on the church choir tradition (which still continues), choral societies were formed that presented oratorios. Denver's Musical Union (1867) is among the earliest of these societies. About the same time, the development of independent concert orchestras began. Often consisting of about twenty members, many of these efforts had an ephemeral existence, lasting sometimes for only one or two concerts or perhaps a season before the development of more durable organizations that in turn may have been dissolved themselves during times of depression or war.

The approach of the twentieth century saw the appearance of classical selections on the programs of the many wind bands of the era. Verdi and Wagner were particularly popular, and of one ensemble, that of Frederick Innes, it was said in Omaha in 1898 that "there is but one Wagner, and Innes is his prophet."

With the establishment of railroads came the appearance of touring artists at communities along the line. Before the turn of the twentieth century and after, artists such as Madam Albani, Madam Melba, the Mendelssohn Quintette Club, the Metropolitan Opera, the Theodore Thomas Orchestra, and many others made their way to larger centers in the Great Plains. In some cases these appearances were sponsored by local musical societies, many of which are still important in the musical life of communities. In addition, there are over seventy concert agencies that offer classical artists to the public.

Before the middle of the twentieth century, universities began to play an important part, which still continues, in the public presentation of classical music, either through their own series of guest or faculty artists or the performance of their campus ensembles such as choirs, orchestras, and wind groups. Most composers of the region have, during this time, become situated at universities. Almost universally, school systems offer experience and instruction in classical music, both vocal and instrumental, to students, as do many hundreds of private instructors.

Prominent artists who have their origins in the region include clarinetist James Campbell (Leduc, Alberta), tenor Jon Vickers (Prince Albert, Saskatchewan), bass Samuel Ramey (Colby, Kansas), composers Roy Harris (Lincoln County, Oklahoma) and Howard Hanson (Wahoo, Nebraska), and composer-critic Virgil Thomson (Kansas City, Missouri). Thomson said of his compositions written during his years abroad: "I wanted Paris . . . to understand the ways we like to think and feel on the banks of the Kaw and the Missouri." Orchestral works reflecting the attributes of the region include Sowerby's Prairie (1929) and Thomson's soundtrack to the film The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936).

Well over fifty independent symphony orchestras are to be found in the region as well as thirty orchestras maintained by colleges or universities that in some cases include community members. Ten of the orchestras–the Calgary Philharmonic and the Edmonton Symphony in Alberta; the Winnipeg Symphony in Manitoba; the Colorado Symphony (Denver) and Colorado Springs Symphony in Colorado; the Omaha Symphony in Nebraska; the Kansas City Symphony in Missouri; the Wichita Symphony in Kansas; and the Oklahoma Philharmonic and Tulsa Philharmonic in Oklahoma–have budgets in excess of $1 million. Many communities also support wind ensembles over and above those sponsored by educational institutions. In more recent times, youth orchestras independent of educational institutions have been formed in several larger centers.

Choral ensembles presently flourish in considerable number either independently, associated with a symphony orchestra, as a community function of universities or colleges, or as an ensemble exclusively for students. A number of independent children's choruses are also active. Fifteen professional ballet or dance companies presently operate in the region. Larger centers often possess concert facilities specifically designed for classical music such as the Jack Singer Concert Hall in Calgary, the Boettcher Concert Hall in Denver, and the Century II Concert Hall in Wichita.

Bruce Lobaugh Omaha, Nebraska

American Symphony Orchestra League, Washington DC. 1998–99 North and Central American Directory. New York: Amateur Chamber Music Players, 1998.

Musical America International Directory of the Performing Arts. Hightstown NJ: Primedia Information, 1998.

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