By Professor Emeritus Scott Burnham, ©2018
Glimpses of a Remarkable History
Princeton University Concerts over the Past 125 Years
Imagine Princeton in 1894, the year Princeton Borough began governing itself as an entity fully independent from Princeton Township. And now imagine the Old Princeton Inn, a building that stood where Borough Hall stands today. At half past three on a Monday afternoon in late October, a group of music enthusiasts gathered there to enjoy a concert performance by the renowned Kneisel Quartet. They concluded with a piece of new music, namely Antonin Dvorák’s most recent string quartet, the so-called “American” quartet, which the Kneisel players had premiered in Boston some months earlier and which was one of the fruits of Dvorák’s extended stay in America.
That inaugural concert was organized by the “Ladies Musical Committee,” founded in 1894 by Philena Fobes Fine. Mrs. Fine was a remarkable spirit who persuaded the community to rally round and underwrite this new venture, which in its early years presented about six concerts annually. She was the first in a long line of such spirits: to an extraordinary degree, the history of Princeton University Concerts is a history of determined women making wonderful things happen. The initial committee was all women, and the driving forces for supporting and managing the concert series throughout the entire history of Princeton University Concerts have been mostly women, exclusively so for the first fifty years. Mrs. William F. Magie became chair of the committee after Mrs. Fine’s death in 1928 (in an interesting parallel, her husband, William F. Magie, had succeeded Mrs. Fine’s husband, Henry B. Fine, in the role of Princeton University’s Dean of Faculty back in 1912). And for a fifteen-year span during the 20s and 30s, Mrs. Williamson U. Vreeland did much of the heavy lifting, organizing the concerts, choosing the artists, and managing the finances.
Had you been around in the 1920s, you would have caught the Princeton debut of violinist Fritz Kreisler in March of 1920; or heard Pablo Casals, then lauded as the world’s greatest cellist, play Bach in 1922; or heard 23-year-old Jascha Heifetz play five encores after his concert on April 7, 1924; or attended the historic concert in 1925 that featured Polish pianist, composer, and statesman Ignacy Jan Paderewski in a program including Beethoven’s “Waldstein” Sonata and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody. Not to mention a steady array of orchestral performances by the New York Philharmonic, The Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
A turning point for the Ladies Musical Committee came in 1929, marking a new and crucial stage in its relationship with Princeton University. The first move was to stabilize and augment the committee’s finances. Mrs. Fine had led the concert series for over thirty years at the time of her death. During those years, she had managed to raise about $35,000 to support the concerts. In 1929, Mrs. Jenny Hibben and others helped increase that number to about $52,000, and the committee established a fund in Mrs. Fine’s memory, stating that the monies had “been raised for the purpose of securing for Princeton audiences better music than they could otherwise afford.” The name of the committee changed to Princeton University Concerts Committee at this time as well, but its constitution insisted that “at least a majority of the members shall be women” (this wording was not altered until 1977!). In accordance with the name change, the University became increasingly involved throughout the 1930s and 40s. Nominations to the committee had forthwith to be approved by the President of Princeton University (the President at the time was John Grier Hibben, husband of Mrs. Jenny Hibben); the university Controller’s Office soon began keeping the books; and in 1946 President Harold Dodds authorized payment for the building of a stage set that would enable the chamber concerts to move to McCarter Theater, where the orchestral concerts and showcase recitals were already happening.
When Mrs. Magie resigned in 1944, Professor Roy Dickinson Welch took over as head of the committee. Welch was also the father of the Music Department, which began in 1934 as a subsection of the Art and Archaeology Department. A dozen years later, in 1946, Music became an official university department, housed in Clio Hall. In that same year, Welch hired Mrs. Katharine (“Kit”) Bryan as concert manager. They had collaborated before: in 1935, Mrs. Bryan co-founded the Princeton Society of Musical Amateurs with Welch; the group still exists today.
Among the many highlights during Mrs. Magie’s tenure was the historic 1937 appearance of American singer Marian Anderson, who sang four sets of arias and lieder and then concluded with a stirring set of spirituals. Also notable were several concerts by the Trapp Family Singers in the early 1940s. Highlights of Mrs. Bryan’s early years as concert manager include performances by the recently formed Bach Aria Group, founded and directed by Princeton legend William H. Scheide.
When Mrs. Bryan retired in 1964, she was replaced by Mrs. Maida Pollock, who greatly professionalized the entire operation, bringing it up to speed in ways that are still in effect today. A force of nature, Mrs. Pollock ran the Princeton University Orchestra as well and was also very involved with the Princeton Friends of Music. Due to the greatly increased expense of hiring symphony orchestras, the concert series stopped programming orchestras in 1975 and began focusing exclusively on chamber music. In a recent interview, Pollock asserted that her most cherished goal was to get a worthy concert hall for chamber music up and running at the university, and in the 20th year of her 22-year tenure, her efforts were finally rewarded. Richardson Auditorium became the concert hall it is today in 1984, thanks to a donation from David A. Richardson ‘66, in memory of his father David B. Richardson ’33, a lifelong enthusiast of classical music.
One of the most memorable nights of Mrs. Pollock’s reign was almost a disaster, because Spanish singer Victoria de los Angeles had to cancel at nearly the last minute. Pollock quickly obtained the services of Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, who happened to be the wife of Mstislav Rostropovich; he played the piano for her in an electrifying performance.
After Mrs. Pollock retired, Nate Randall took over in 1988. Randall broadened the purview of Princeton University Concerts, introducing programs of jazz music and world music. He also oversaw the 100th anniversary season of the series, and assisted with the inauguration of the Richardson Chamber Players, along with their Co-Founding Director, Michael Pratt.
Our current Concert Director, Marna Seltzer, came to Princeton in 2010. Recognized by Musical America in 2017 as one of their “30 Movers and Shapers,” Seltzer’s many audience-friendly innovations have clearly established Princeton University Concerts at the forefront of the future of classical music. These include new ways to interact with the musical artists, such as live music meditation sessions, late-night chamber jams, and “Performances Up Close” that feature onstage seating. In introducing these additional ways to get involved in music, Marna Seltzer continues to honor the original and sustaining intention of Philena Fobes Fine: that Princeton University Concerts should reflect the values of our community as a whole. As such, it enjoys pride of place as perhaps the finest ongoing town/gown affiliation in Princeton.
The history of Princeton University Concerts has been remarkably consistent for these past 125 years. Passionate, committed women (and a few men) have presented the premier musical artists of their age, from fiery 20-somethings taking the concert world by storm to larger-than-life stars who can captivate us merely by taking the stage. An exalted lineup of the world’s finest string quartets has always maintained pride of place in the series, from the Kneisel Quartet in the first decades through the Budapest Quartet in the 1930s to the Takács, Brentano, and Jerusalem Quartets today. A special relationship has always endured between all these musical artists and their Princeton presenters. Back in the day, Mrs. Fine, Mrs. Magie and Mrs. Vreeland often entertained artists after the concert; as an early history of the Concerts Committee put it: “the artists came to think of Princeton people as their friends.” That holds true now more than ever, for our visiting artists regularly declare that they love playing in Richardson Auditorium, they love the way they are treated by Marna and her staff, and they love all of you, who so demonstrably value the experience of music, who take in and give back the brilliant energy of their cherished performances.
“Music offers infinite capacity for infinite self-renewal.” This is what Music Department founder Roy Dickinson Welch fervently believed, and this is what Princeton University Concerts will continue to offer us, one unforgettable concert after another.