Before 1853, New Brunswick’s indoor entertainment venues were limited to City Hall or a large room in a tavern. But on November 9, 1853, George Greer, a local baker, opened an amusement hall on the second floor of 197 Burnet Street in the heart of the business district. It was equipped with a stage, candle footlights, and a curtain that could be raised and lowered; and the audience could pay 25 cents to stand in the modest space that, as one New Brunswicker recalled, was often filled “to the point of suffocation.” For the next 20 years, it was the sole public hall of any importance in the city.
Music Warerooms and Showrooms
An excerpt from Asher Atkinson’s diary recalls a cold Sunday afternoon in January 1873 when his wife had “some beautiful music in store for this day.” To have a pleasant afternoon of parlor songs, residents had to have the right equipment at their disposal. On Hiram Street, E.V. Addis’ Piano, Organ and Melodeon Showroom carried the latest Aeolian player pianolas and the popular Orchestrelle player reed organs. Locals like Mary Atkinson could pop into Pette & Burton’s General Music Warerooms to try their hands (and voices) on sheet music arrangements ranging from simple dance-and-march piano versions of popular tunes to excerpts from European operas with English singing translations.
1850s–1870s: Music Education
New Brunswick’s high concentration of German immigrant teachers and musicians provided a wealth of opportunities to study music and attend concerts. Among the city’s musical educators were Austrian-born Franz Schneeweiss, the father of Rutgers treasurer Henry P. Schneeweiss, and his wife Mary. Between inspiring residents every Sunday with his organ and choir compositions in St. James Methodist and the German Reformed Churches, Franz Schneeweiss taught private lessons with Mary’s help in their George Street home.
New Brunswick Conservatory of Music
In 1872, Dr. Chester D. Hartranft, pastor of the Second Reformed Church, founded the Conservatory of Music in a brick building at the northeast corner of Hiram and Neilson Streets, opposite the First Reformed Church and the town clock. At the time, Hartranft’s concept of placing the study of music within reach of those of limited means was still a relatively new one. The conservatory emulated the European system of intensive weekly small classes in vocal and instrumental music, combined with study of German, French and Italian. Admission was contingent on the ability to play an instrument. From its annual catalogue for 1872–1873, we can ascertain that there were 12 professors who laid a “true musical foundation” for no less than 300 eager students.
1850s–1870s: Musical Associations
Early New Brunswick contained numerous musical organizations. Among the earliest were the New Brunswick Band (circa 1813–1828) and the City Amateurs, later known as the New Brunswick Musical Society (1830–1832). The New Brunswick Band met every few weeks, primarily for members to practice. The band played at political events, weddings, funerals, and at Rutgers College. The Philharmonic Society, in turn, was founded by a few young men in June 1853 with the explicit purpose of “expanding and refining” the city’s musical knowledge, talent, and taste. Several organizations devoted to the cultivation of sacred music, including the Haydn Musical Society (active in the 1860s) only managed to survive for a few years. Members of the German community in New Brunswick formed amateur singing groups beginning in 1846 with Frederick Schneeweiss’s Anglo-German Gesang Verein Eintracht, and later, Franz Schneeweiss’s Septemvirs. The groups would practice and perform for the benefit of the German-speaking population in Saenger Hall, a former gymnasium on Richmond Street.
Besides their role in music education, musical associations provided gathering places for adults and youth alike. Following the national community band tradition that had grown out of the Civil War, local instrumentalists could join the Hosiery Company’s Darrow Band, the Goodwill Council Cornet Band, or the Union Brass Band. The newly established Choral Society performed selections from Beethoven with keyboard accompaniment by James Garland. Vocalists could connect with their German heritage through singing popular tunes with Frederick Schneeweiss’s Volks Concert Association or with Albany Street’s piano tuner Otto Geitner’s Anglo-German group, Aurora Verein. Associations such as Aurora Verein not only hosted crowd-pleasing annual winter masquerade balls, but they raised relief for the yellow fever epidemic of 1878, the catastrophic 1880 Elbe River flooding in Germany, and pledged $150 towards equipment for the city’s hospital.
1880s–1890s: Religious and Musical Associations
Before the late-19th century, most New Brunswick religious congregations were not large enough to have many talented choir singers or leaders to train them. In fact, until 1860 Christ Church was the only one with an organ. By 1886, the First Presbyterian Church was given a pipe organ from the New York factory of Kilbourne Roosevelt.
As well as using music to enhance weekly worship, churches hosted programs for the surrounding community. The First Presbyterian Church gave a benefit recital for the local Young Women’s Missionary Society that featured Willard P. Voorhees on the organ. Likewise, the New Brunswick branch of the all-female Baptist Zenana Missionary Society’s Forget-Me-Not Band performed for the benefit of converting women in colonial India. In a more light-hearted vein, newspaper articles and programs show how each of New Brunswick’s churches made the most of summer’s strawberry season by providing beautiful hymnals, strawberries at ten cents a bowl, Philadelphia’s famous Harkinson-brand ice cream, and home-baked strawberry shortcake.
The city’s amateur musical life continued to flourish through its large Musical Association, the seasonal symphonies of the Vocal Union Singing Society, and Otto Geitner and F.W. Stein’s highly popular Anglo-German Singing Society Aurora. Diarist Sarah Voorhees, for instance, offers us a glimpse into the Monday evening meetings and rehearsals of the New Brunswick Musical Association’s 170-person chorus. Even New Brunswick’s often hypercritical audience could only praise the “rich power, flexible tones [and] grace” of soprano Garret Smith and baritone Francis Fisher Powers during the Association’s May 1892 program.
Mrs. Parks’ Seminary for Young Ladies
M.S. Parks’ Seminary reflected the contemporary attitude that treated music as a peripheral, decorative branch of education. As an academic subject in girls’ schools, music was on a par with drawing, dancing, flower-arranging, and embroidery. In addition to improving technical proficiency, music teachers described their “wares” in catalogs and advertisements as “refined,” “polite,” “agreeable amusement,” “genteel,” and “an elegant accompaniment to education.” Excerpts from the student newsletter "Winter Crumbs" highlight the moralizing influence of music as a leisure activity and give a lighthearted look into the musical life of an average New Brunswick child.
Garland’s Music Store, 24 Albany Street
Garland’s Music Store―later, James and C. Hattersley Garland’s Music Store―was owned by Dr. James Garland (1828–1884). A music teacher and organist for the Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed churches, Garland was a prominent figure who accompanied visiting artists, as well as performed solo concerts of his own works. Locals like Johnny Connors’ eight-piece “orchestra” could rely on Garland, known as “the New Jersey King of Pianos and Organs,” and his Albany Street shop for the latest sheet music hand-copied from arrangers in New York.
A.C. Garland’s Music Store, 70 Church Street
The Garland family’s music store―later renamed, A.C. Garland’s Music Store―was relocated in 1875 to Church Street. It was the long sought-after agent for high-class Newby & Evans pianos, some of which graced the best homes of New Brunswick. The cozy shop was well stocked with musical instruments, replacement strings, the latest sheet music, and the celebrated sweet-toned Sterling organ. Its trade cards featured motifs that poked fun at the British Aesthetic Movement (1870–1880), with popular quotes from Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera Patience (1881).
After James Garland’s passing, his son, Alfred (Fred) C. Garland (1858–1905) took over the store. Like his father, Fred was a long-serving and popular musician in the city. Universally liked as a teacher and organist at the First Reformed Church, Fred Garland was best known for his talent as a dance hall player.
Old Masonic Opera House
By the mid-1870s, New Brunswick boasted popular concerts by local artists―both professional and amateur―as well as the best shows on the road, all thanks to its new luxurious opera house. First known as Masonic Hall, and later as Allen’s Theatre, the Opera House was originally built by the Masonic lodges of the city. The “most imposing building” in the downtown, the Opera House was centrally located in such a way that it “gave the City the appearance of being a much larger place than it really was” at the time. A four-story building with offices and businesses housed on the ground floor, the Opera House had two entrances to its theater, one in the center of the building facing George Street, and one on the midway side of the building on Albany Street. Its auditorium was lit by a prismatic chandelier of 134 gas jets; its orchestra, balcony, gallery, and four boxes seated around 1,200 spectators. Until the Opera House burned down on the night of December 21, 1896, New Brunswick claimed the honor of having the best theater in the state.
Although more Americans could now hear their favorite tunes in the comfort of their own homes with Columbia and Victor gramophones, the turn of the twentieth century was still the heyday of theater-building to cater to travelling operas, operettas, minstrel troupes, ragtime, and the newest form of variety entertainment, vaudeville. A fusion of centuries-old cultural traditions including the English music hall, the minstrel shows of antebellum America, and Yiddish theater, vaudeville featured comedians, actors, musicians, singers, dancers, plate-spinners, ventriloquists, acrobats, animal trainers, and anyone who could keep an audience’s interest for more than three minutes.
During this period, New Brunswick would witness the erection of four new theaters: the Shortridge, the Strand, the Bijou, and the new Opera House. After the Masonic Opera House tragically burned down in December 1896, New Brunswick was without a theater until November 21, 1900, when Richard S. Shortridge’s Theatre opened on Liberty Street with Charles H. Hoyt’s New Jersey farce A Day and a Night. The property was quickly bought out in a joint venture by the Belasco-Fiske-Shubert Opera House Company; a decade after the original was destroyed, the new Opera House opened in August 1906 on the Liberty Street site. Decorated with minimalistic green Art Nouveau designs on a white background to give a “spacious and rich effect,” the new performance hall could comfortably seat over 1,200 for entertaining vaudeville sketches, photo-play pictures, kinemacolor motion pictures, and parody operettas like In a Japanese Tea House (1915). Contemporaneously, the S & K Amusement Company transformed the ruins of the Masonic Opera House into the Strand Theatre. A little further down George Street, Benjamin W. Suydam raised the small Bijou Theatre to show twice daily vaudeville sketches accompanied on pianos made by its neighbor Mathushek & Son.
1910s and 1920s
In the 1910s and 1920s, musical life in New Brunswick continued to flourish. The city’s new theaters and older venues provided entertainment ranging from Old Folks’ concerts and pianola recitals at Brunswick Hall to John Philip Sousa and his band at Reade’s State Theatre. In the fall of 1917, Dr. Charles Henry Hart of Hart Brothers’ Pianos secured artists from New York’s Metropolitan Opera for an ambitious series of concerts. For all performances in the “Star Course” series, Hart equipped artists exclusively with Mehlin-brand pianos from his family’s warerooms. With the establishment of music departments at Rutgers, faculty members like J. Earle Newton of the New Jersey College for Women increasingly collaborated with city residents, while Rutgers buildings like the Kirkpatrick Chapel and the Ballantine Gymnasium became venues for performances.
By 1930, a previously undreamed-of variety of music, including classical and even folk, was becoming available to listeners across a wide geographic, ethnic, and economic spectrum. By recording and broadcasting performances of musicians in their inherited ethnic and regional styles, the new media made it possible for different communities to enjoy the popular styles of their homelands. By the late 1930s, two new contexts for popular songs emerged: the movie musical and big band jazz bands.
The Great Depression made a deep impact on American musical life, as less money in the hands of audience members meant less work for performers. Between 1929 and 1934, about 70 percent of all musicians in the United States were unemployed, a trend that the American Federation of Musicians, the national musicians’ union, was powerless to stop. Nevertheless, the Depression years brought far more access to classical music than Americans had ever previously enjoyed and New Brunswick was no exception. 1930 marked the 250th anniversary of the founding of the city, and with it came musical concerts, songs, and sheet music. Local musical organizations from the City Band to the String Quartet and the Symphony Society kept the love of music alive throughout the Depression. Taking its cue from federal relief agencies, the Opera House sponsored programs for the benefit of local unemployed musicians and for all members of the American Federation of Musicians.
National Musical String Company
New Brunswick’s National Musical String Company opened in 1897 under the combined management of entrepreneurs Thomas Nelson Jr., Alexander M. Paul, and George Dow Emerson. After only two years in business, National Musical String was able to buy out its only competitor in the area, the American Musical String Company. By the time William R. McClelland purchased it in 1917, the New Brunswick firm had grown into the largest plant in the world devoted to the manufacture of musical strings. The company’s four-story main building was located along the Raritan River Railroad, providing it with excellent shipping and receiving facilities. By the end of the 1920s, it employed over 150 locals—primarily women―to manufacture musical strings known for their “precision and accuracy,” from cord, silk, steel, and cat gut. Its two world-famous brands of musical strings, Bell and Black Diamond, were made for every type of stringed instrument and shipped daily to destinations around the globe. In May 1922, the company began to manufacture house organs and the first harmonicas made in United States―both products quickly became highly reputable for their sweet and responsive sound. In 1982 the site of the defunct National Musical String Company on Georges Road was declared a National Historic Landmark.
Long before the founding of Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University’s liberal arts colleges developed their own music departments and traditions. Although each school has a unique history―Rutgers College was founded to train ministers for the Dutch Reformed Church, New Jersey College for Women (later Douglass College) was established to provide higher education for women, and Livingston College formed in response to the sociopolitical changes of the 1960s―a shared passion of music united these various student bodies. The next seven “cases” focus on students and professors who participated in music at Rutgers from 1871, when the Rutgers College Chapel Choir formed, to 1981, when the music programs at Rutgers, Douglass, and Livingston College transferred to Mason Gross School of the Arts. Ultimately, these cases explore the history and tradition of music at Rutgers University and examines how music constructed a shared identity among the colleges.
The music department at Rutgers College was established in 1919 and headed by Howard D. McKinney. Classes were offered in instrumental and vocal studies as well as music theory, history, and appreciation. Additionally, a number of music clubs provided students with the opportunity to practice, hone, and enjoy their crafts with peers. These groups performed on campus, throughout New Jersey and the United States, and often collaborated with New Jersey College for Women music groups.
The Glee Club
Rooted in school spirit and camaraderie, the Glee Club is one of the oldest music groups at Rutgers University. The club was organized in 1872 by Edwin E. Colburn and a group of sophomores who were surprised that Rutgers was not included in the first edition of the Carmina Collegensia―a definitive collection of American college songs. Although Rutgers had several songs at the time (mainly sung after football victories against Princeton and Columbia), there was no official school song. As a result, the Glee Club formed to popularize Rutgers’ songs. Its early repertoire consisted of school spirit and football songs sung at college events and local performances. The Glee Club’s early directors included Loren Bragdon (1881–1896) and Howard D. McKinney (1916‒1946). Throughout their respective tenures, Bragdon and McKinney were responsible for taking a small group singing college songs and shaping it into the choral ensemble it is today. McKinney was especially instrumental in organizing programs and concerts in which the Glee Club performed with other Rutgers University ensembles including the Rutgers College Chapel Choir, the New Jersey College for Women’s Glee Club, the Weeping Willows, and the Voorhees Chapel Choir. In 1946, F. Austin “Soup” Walter became the director. During this period the club began performing internationally to much acclaim. In the early 2000s, the Glee Club was directed by Patrick Gardner, and performed locally, nationally, and internationally. Despite its many successes at home and abroad, the Rutgers University Glee Club remains a fixture of Rutgers University; the group performs numerous concerts on campus and continues to promote school spirit at football games and other college events.
New Jersey College for Women
New Jersey College for Women (NJC, later Douglass College) opened in September 1918 and provided New Jersey women with an in-state establishment to obtain a higher education. Curricula in home economics and liberal arts were offered to the 54 students of NJC’s first graduating class. Mabel Smith Douglass was the dean of NJC from 1918 to 1933. During the school’s first month, Douglass decided that music should be included in the college curriculum and purchased a grand piano. One year later, music theory and harmony courses were offered as well as an Appreciation of Music course that met the fine arts requirement necessary for graduation. As time went on, NJC acquired a music faculty (including pianist Mary Schenck and bassist Homer Mowe) and offered accredited instrumental and vocal classes. An official music department formed in 1922 and was chaired by John Earle Newton―NJC’s first full-time music professor. Music also played a pivotal role in NJC’s campus life. Students sang during chapel services and at traditional ceremonies including Sacred Path, Yule Log, and Campus Night. Additionally, they joined ensembles including the Drum and Bugle Corps, Weeping Willows, NJC Glee Club, NJC Choir, and the Voorhees Chapel Choir. It is no surprise that NJC was commonly referred to as the “singing college.”
Livingston College opened in 1969 and was the first coeducational, liberal arts college at Rutgers University. It embodied “the spirit of social responsibility and cultural awareness demanded by students" during the sociopolitical changes in the United States in the 1960s. As a result, the college offered new and progressive academic departments including urban studies and planning and journalism. The music department at Livingston College offered a variety of instrumental and vocal classes and was headed by Laurence Ridley―the first jazz professor at Rutgers who was also the primary architect of jazz performance as a field of academic study at Rutgers University. In addition to the music program, Livingston also hosted a college band and Jazz Ensemble, a Jazz Society dedicated to promoting and preserving awareness and knowledge of jazz as an art form, yearly music festivals featuring ethnic dance, poetry, music, and drama; and college-sponsored events including music tribute nights and an array of concerts.
Mason Gross School of the Arts
In September 1959, Rutgers president Mason Gross stated that New Jersey was “educationally impoverished” and “culturally almost bankrupt” at the state’s Constitutional Convention Association and called upon the state to develop community cultural centers that would interlace cultural and educational programs. In 1974, three years after Gross’s retirement, the State Department of Higher Education designated Rutgers University as a “center of excellence” in the arts and authorized the university to develop a professional school of the arts. Mason Gross School of the Arts, formerly named The School of Creative and Performing Arts, opened in June 1975 and offered bachelors and masters degrees in fine arts and education. A rigorous arts curriculum was taught under an esteemed faculty to help artists further their crafts. In addition to the curricula, a number of ensembles formed. They include the Opera Institute, Collegium Musicum, Jazz Ensemble, Jazz Ensemble Too, Jazz Chamber Ensembles, the Symphony Orchestra, Sinfonia, Brass Band, HELIX!, and the Percussion Ensemble. In 1981, the fine arts departments at Rutgers, Douglass, and Livingston colleges folded into Mason Gross School of the Arts. The school remains Rutgers University’s creative and performing arts college.
Rutgers University Alumni
Home to a large and diverse faculty and student body, Rutgers University has seen its share of hardworking and talented composers, vocalists, and instrumentalists. This section focuses on the musical abilities and achievements of Ozzie Nelson, Paul Robeson, and Joyce Kilmer.