Quad-City Symphony

"This Orchestra will, with the proper support, develop to be the pride of Davenport, Rock Island and Moline and can do for our cities what the Symphony Orchestra has done for Chicago, Boston, and Minneapolis." – First Concert program, May 29, 1916

On February 10, 1916, a small group of musicians and music-minded citizens from Davenport, Iowa, Rock Island, Illinois, and Moline, Illinois, met to discuss organizing a community symphony orchestra. By March, the group had secured a director, Ludwig Becker of Chicago, who was a friend of J. A. Schmidt, the secretary of what was now called the Tri-City Symphony Association.

The Association enlisted 60 area musicians--with the consent of the Tri-City Musicians' Union--and held its first rehearsal on Sunday March 12. The Tri-City Symphony played its first concert on May 29, 1916 in the Burtis Opera House. At that time, The Tri-Cities were the smallest community in the country to have established a full symphony orchestra.

The first concert was ambitious and thorough and meant to impress the eager 1200-member audience: Wagner's Prelude to Die Meistersinger con Nurnberg; the Wagnerian aria "Dich Theure Halle" sung by contralto Esther Plumb; Schubert's Symphony No. 8 (Unfinished); Camille St. Saens' Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, featuring pianist Robert MacDonald; and a few shorter pieces, including a string Orchestra elegy, a waltz, and Tchaikovsky's Marche Slav.

The Symphony was an immediate hit, and Mr. Becker planned a series of quality musical programs of both Old World and American composers. The first concert of popular music was performed on May 6, 1917 at the Davenport Coliseum, to rave reviews. That day, Ludwig Becker announced in an interview in the Democrat that "I am sure that next year the music and attendance will be even better. I feel we have made a good start, better than many orchestras."

Despite the popularity of the new orchestra, however, it had a rough financial and organizational start. As a blurb from the first program states: "The Tri-City Symphony Orchestra was created wholly through the musicians' love for music . . . There is no other remuneration to the personnel of the Orchestra but there should be a fund established sufficiently large to assure its permanence."

Promises of personal donations and subscription pledges were made, but actual financial support fluctuated so widely that one season there might be eight concerts while the next might include only three. The World War I economy lead to the cancellation of the 1918-1919 season, but did allow the Association to save up enough funds to continue, though the orchestra usually appeared to be running on a shoestring. Part of the problem was the prices set for concerts and programs; for example, the Symphony gave highly popular Children's concerts between 1923 and 1930, but the seats were priced so low that even sold-out programs could lose money.

The orchestra managed to keep afloat until the Great Depression. People saved their money for basic necessities, not entertainment, so ticket sales plummeted. Expenses unexpectedly rose as well; the initial orchestra was a mix of professional and amateur musicians, none of whom had auditioned and none of whom were initially paid, though members of the Musician's Union earned a nominal fee. But now the Union insisted that all members of the orchestra should receive some kind of payment, a demand the Association simply couldn't afford. After a year of fighting with the Union and the budget, Ludwig Becker resigned.

By September of 1933, the orchestra was completely out of money. Most of the Union musicians left, and though the sections were filled—and expanded--with dedicated amateurs from the Tri-Cities, they couldn't play the sustained, complex programs that had gone before. Tickets to the 1933-34 season were handed out for free, except for a few 25 cent seats. The new director, Frank Kendrie from the University of Iowa Orchestra, agreed to be paid only $100 per concert.

The Association refused to give up. Among the board members who were determined to save the orchestra was Mrs. Elsie von Maur. In 1934, Mrs. von Maur, newly elected to the executive committee, suggested that the orchestra start charging what they were worth and resume the original practice of hiring well-known guest artists to encourage sales. These changes worked, and the orchestra was soon on its way to solvency.

With the efforts of Frank Kendrie, who was said to run rehearsals like music lessons, the quality of the Symphony improved as well and he also managed to negotiate a settlement with the Union. Before he resigned in 1936, local professional musicians had returned to the Symphony, though amateurs and non-residents were still allowed to play. That year, a Junior Board was formed to sponsor fundraising projects for the symphony.

Having secured a future, the Symphony began evolving, expanding its repertoire and performances, especially under the direction of Oscar Anderson, who took up the baton in 1938. He encouraged the Association to add more concerts to the seasons, and to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the orchestra, they agreed to add a fourth performance, featuring the young musicians who had won a Young Artists' Contest sponsored by the Association.

That 1939-40 season, named "The Season of Symphony Music" was a triumph. The guest artists were stunning: French-born Robert Casadesus, a pianist who had collaborated with Maurice Ravel; famed opera soprano Rose Bampton, whose impressive range made her a principle artist at the New York Metropolitan; and, certainly not least, Jascha Heifetz, arguably the most famous violinist of his time. The Association was so confident about sales that they raised the prices for season tickets.

It was in 1940 that Mrs. von Maur was appointed as the orchestra's first manager, a position she held for 47 years. It was well known that the concert did not start before Elsie von Maur was seated. She is credited for the Symphony's traditional playing of the Star Spangled Banner before performances—a practice begun on December 7, 1941, hours after news of the attack on Pearl Harbor was broadcast. Since that day, there has been no applause after the anthem, echoing the stunned silence of that first audience. In 1944, Mrs. Von Maur, with the help of private donations and the support of the Junior Board, was able to help re-establish the children's concerts.

During World War II, the Symphony continued, with students filling in for the musicians who had left for the armed forces. "Music Maintains Morale" was the theme, and in contrast to the time of the last war morale (or did you mean attendance?) remained very high indeed. In 1944, audience attendance rose to three thousand. A fifth concert was added to that season.

On January 31, 1948, the Symphony broadcast a live performance for the National Broadcast Company's "Orchestras of the Nation" radio program, which was heard around the country. Later, orchestra performances were often broadcast locally. Portions of concert recordings may still be heard on WVIK, Augustana College's radio station.

Though financial problems seemed to be a thing of the past, annual ticket drives were naturally still vital. In 1957, all of the volunteers who had insured full concert halls for so many years formed into the Tri-City Symphony Auxiliary (now the Quad-City Symphony Guild).

The Symphony has remained a cohesive group, weathering storms and uncertainties together. Though none of the original musicians remain, of course, many of the current members have been with the orchestra for a remarkable length of time. For many, the Symphony is almost a family profession; in 1962, six local families had two or more members playing that year, and several others could produce almost an ancestry of constant association going back to the first concert. It is this link to the community that helps set the Symphony apart from those in larger cities.

Only a few of the ten past directors have come close to equaling their musicians in years served—but each has left a stamp on the orchestra that extends past the repertoire. In 2008, Mark Russell Smith was appointed the eleventh director of the Symphony after an extensive search and a season of auditions by several candidates.

The orchestra has been one of the longest lasting community organizations in the Quad-Cities. In 1985, to reflect the expanding community, which by then officially included Bettendorf, Iowa, the Symphony was renamed the Quad-City Symphony Orchestra. Its mission, to share the love of music, remains the same. As James M. Johnson says, "It has been a combination of . . . the conductors, the musicians, the association and the people that has kept the [Symphony] a healthy and growing institution. . . .It has survived and prospered because it has truly met the needs of the people."

Compiled by Sarah J. Wesson, Special Collections librarian

Sources

  • Johnson, James M. The History of the Tri-City Symphony Orchestra of Davenport, Iowa, Rock island and Moline, Illinois. [s.l.: s.n.], 1976.
  • McDonald, Donald. A History of the Quad-City Symphony Orchestra. (Davenport, Iowa: Quad-City Symphony Orchestra Assocation), 1989.
  • Svendsen, Marlys. Davenport: A Pictorial History, 1836-1986. ([S.L.]: G. Bradley Publishing, Inc), 1985.
  • Tri-City Symphony Orchestra. Notes and Records of the First Years. 1916-1929.
  • Tri-City Symphony Orchestra. Programs. (Davenport, Iowa: Tri-City Symphony Association). 1916-1918