The recent passing of Elsie Von Maur at the age of 106 led us to realize that our collection of Symphony programs reflect almost ninety-two years of music, seventy-five of which may be seen as part of Mrs. von Maur’s legacy.
In fact, without her, our program collection probably wouldn’t take up so much shelf space . . .
On February 10, 1916, a small group of musicians and music-minded citizens from Davenport, Rock Island and Moline met to discuss the possibility of an orchestra made of musicians from the Tri-City area. They were serious about the idea, and by March had secured a director, Ludwig Becker of Chicago, and enlisted 60 area musicians with the consent of the Tri-City Musicians’ Union. The Tri-City Symphony (as it was then called) played its first concert on May 29, 1916 in the Burtis Opera House in front of a 1,200 member audience. At the time, The Tri-Cities were the smallest community in the country to boast a symphony orchestra.
Despite the success of the concert and the following season, the symphony had its growing pains, mostly monetary. Private financial support fluctuated so widely that the orchestra played eight concerts during one season and only three the next. The initial orchestra was a mix of professional and amateur musicians, none of whom were initially paid—but all of whom had to eat. The Great Depression had ticket sales falling and the Musician’s Union insisting that all members of the orchestra should receive some kind of payment. The symphony simply couldn’t meet those demands, and although some of the professional musicians quit the union and stayed, most of them walked. After a year or so of fighting the union and the budget, Ludwig Becker resigned in 1933.
After paying its bills as best it could, by September 1933 the orchestra was completely out of money. The empty sections in the orchestra were filled with amateur musicians who, however dedicated, could not handle the challenging, complicated programs that the community had come to expect. In order to keep community interest, tickets to the 1933-34 season were handed out for free, except for a few 25 cent seats. The new director, Frank Kendrie, was paid only $100 per concert.
It would have been easy to shut everything down, but the Symphony Association just rolled up its sleeves and got to work. Among the board members who were determined to save the orchestra was Mrs. Richard von Maur, Sr., called Elsie by her friends. Elsie Burdette Wood von Maur was the daughter of Philadelphia composer and organist David Duffield Wood, and a musician in her own right. Not a stranger to symphonies—her family had been involved in the founding of the Philadelphia Orchestra–Mrs. von Maur had joined the Association in 1930, shortly after her marriage.
In 1934, Mrs. von Maur, newly elected to the executive committee, suggested that the orchestra start charging for tickets and resume the original practice of hiring well-known guest artists to encourage sales. These strategies worked, and by the next season, the orchestra was well on its way to solvency. By October of that year, the Symphony and the Union had settled their disagreements, and by the next season, local professional musicians returned to the Symphony.
In 1940, Mrs. von Maur was appointed the orchestra’s first manager, a position she held for 47 years. According to Bill Wundram of the Quad-City Times (May 14, 2008) she was responsible 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 is no applause after the anthem, echoing the stunned silence of that first audience.
Many programs and fundraising traditions were established during Mrs. von Maur’s tenure as manager and volunteer—the popular concerts, the Youth Orchestra, and the school tours are still going strong. From a budget of essentially nothing, the Symphony now has over half a million dollars in support each year.
In 1974, Mrs. Von Maur received a Governor’s Award for her contributions to Iowa music—the first such award given.
The Quad-City Symphony knows she deserves it, as do we all.