City’s Story Can Only Be Related with Lots of Background Music

Culture and Education
Published October 9, 1997

City’s Story Can Only Be Related with
Lots of Background Music

| Published October 9, 1997

Crowds jammed Weequahic Park for Fourth of July celebration in 1915. The Newark Public Library

By 1900, Newark was well into its golden age. It was a national manufacturing center, a financial powerhouse, a transportation center, and possessed a large and prosperous middle class that respected education and culture.

On the musical side, it was a city with upright pianos in the parlors of many homes, a place where a large concert hall was built by the 1920s and where music in its parks provided outdoor summertime fun.

By 1907, band concerts were held on Sunday afternoons at Branch Brook Park near Park Avenue, a trend that continued into the late 1960s. In the Ironbound, a bandshell was built at Independence Park in 1903. Concerts were played there by John Nichol's band. Band music was also available at Weequahic Park on Wednesdays, and on Thursdays at West Side Park. So popular were these concerts that the county built several bandstands in 1906 over the objections of some that officials were breaking the Sabbath. In 1932, 39 concerts drew 265,000 spectators. By 1950, just 300 onlookers took to the outdoors to attend each of the seven concerts at Branch Brook Park.

In 1914, C. Mortimer Wiske met with a group of influential Newarkers with the idea of establishing a music festival. 'If you will get me 100 men to pledge themselves to this amount of $20 each, I will put over your music festival and make a profit as well,' he promised. The first festival, at Newark's First Regiment Armory in the spring of 1915, was a huge success. According to one report, 'The music lovers of the state all but trampled each other in an effort to get seats. The police mopped their brows and admitted they had had a weary evening. The city of smokestacks had done the impossible.' By 1916, and during Newark's 250th anniversary celebration, the festival had become widely accepted as the most successful event of its kind in New Jersey. The Newark Music Festival was here to stay. Better yet, it spurred an interest in community singing and helped to develop local artists. It was not unusual to have a festival chorus of 700, an audience packed with the state's bluebloods, and a stage of well-known performers from the New Jersey-New York region. Smaller groups sharing the cultural spotlight at the same time included the Contemporary of Newark, which held an annual spring concert for friends, and the Young Men's Hebrew Association, which brought in famous performers such as Sophie Braslau, the Flonzaley Quartet and Percy Grainger. Each agency in its own way was adding to the increasing cultural richness available in Newark.

In 1922, three-quarters of a century ago, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra marked its birth in Newark and the Oranges. Its nine conductors have taken it from a nonprofessional organization into the musical big leagues of American symphony orchestras. Although it has seven regional homes throughout New Jersey, its longtime headquarters remains in Newark. Newark's Philharmonic Concert Band began performing in 1924 at Branch Brook Park, where its concerts were carried over WOR, a Newark radio station. According to one newspaper account, the band 'has received many telegrams, postcards, and letters conveying appreciation of the high order of excellence of the work of the musicians and of the radio experts.' Nearly 10,000 people attended the concerts of classical and popular music. Carl D. Bethel was the band's director. The honorary committee that charted its activities included Mayor Breidenback, Henry W. Egner, C.W. Feigenspan and Dr. Edward Schaaf. Beginning in 1937, the Newark Stadium Concerts, known as 'Music Under the Stars, ' attracted huge audiences. According to the Newark News, they brought in crowds 'of a size hitherto unknown here and generated more musical interest, than ever had been experienced in this area.' Because of the coming of World War II restrictions, 'Music Under the Stars' activities were diminished somewhat. But at the 1940 concert, more than 25,000 attended a program to hear Marian Anderson. A series of other concerts drew 52,000 fans to hear Lily Pons. In 1939, just before the start of the war, Dolores Tillery founded the North Jersey Philharmonic Glee Club, a men's a capella choral group composed of African-American men who sang spirituals and other music reflective of their heritage. Though started to keep young men in her Newark neighborhood involved in a productive activity, the group was so well received that the members made their Town Hall debut in New York by the mid-1940s. Tillery, now Dolores Benjamin, was succeeded by several directors, but the glee club lives on, performing at events throughout North Jersey.

In 1942, the war effort touched Newark's musical heart when an effort was made by local people to provide music and records to its servicemen and women serving aboard combat ships and transport vessels. The Griffith Foundation, the local Red Cross and the American Legion used their motor corps to collect all the music they could. Local churches and synagogues stored it until it could be sent to the military. Lt. William B. Stone, morale officer of the Third Naval District, and his counterparts in other services moved local donations to their intended recipients as quickly as possible. After the war, Paul Kleinberg, Newark's only remaining licensed organ grinder, represented the last of a breed of street musician. Each day he wandered through the shopping crowd in the old Prince Street district, where he made his round with Pinky, his cockatoo, Richard, his parrot, and his pet monkey, whose named has escaped the pages of history. Each year Kleinberg renewed his organ grinder's license at City Hall, paying $10.50. When he left his Charlton Street home for the last time, a fascinating musical era had truly ended.

In 1967, the Newark Boys Chorus emerged as one of the city's outstanding musical organizations. Initially established as a chorus to accompany the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra's holiday performance of 'The Nutcracker Suite,' it soon became a fully independent organization. Over the years, the boys have performed at dozens of local concerts, appeared before the Pope in Rome and toured faraway places including China, Japan and Australia. Today, the Boys Chorus is located at 1016 Broad St. and includes a school for 75 students in grades 4 through 8. In 1966, the Little Symphony of Newark was organized at the Newark Public Library, conducted by Ira Kraemer and sponsored by Bernard Schein, former library director. The members were a group of talented men and women of varied ages and occupations who shared a devotion to classical music and wanted to share their appreciation and enjoyment with others. Although the organization lasted only through the decade, it represented a stunning endorsement of good music by the serious amateur. Another investment in classical music in Newark took place at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. Beginning in 1962, the series involved the church's music personnel as well as its great 150-rank Schantz pipe organ, one of the nation's largest. Over the years, the Cathedral Concert series brought many patrons into the Gothic cathedral/concert hall. From the city's early years to the present, Newark's musical repertoire expanded from the singing of simple Protestant hymns to the brilliance of the stately trumpets of a giant cathedral organ. In the coming weeks, we will look at some of Newark's musical stars, locally written compositions, and the city's concert halls—past, present and future.