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125 years of great music

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The Executive Board in 1910
The Schubert Club's executive board in 1910 posing outdoors.
Photo courtesy of the Schubert Club

The parade of musical legends drawn to St. Paul by the Schubert Club is impressive. Jascha Heifitz came to the city with his violin in 1922. Pianist Vladimir Horowitz played here four times between 1928 and 1982. The great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich also played for the Schubert club on several occasions. 

More recent classical music stars have included violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, soprano Renee Fleming and pianist Emmanuel Ax who praises the club for its work. 

"I think it's one of the really important recital venues in the entire nation," he says.

Emmanuel Ax
Pianist Emmanuel Ax autographs his photos with thanks following his March 2007 Schubert Club recital.
Photo courtesy of the Schubert Club

The Schubert Club was formed in the fall of 1882 by a group of St. Paul's leading women, including the daughter of governor Alexander Ramsey. Their goal was to bring some musical culture and refinement to this young and rough city. 

In the early days, the club's members were themselves musicians and were required to give two recitals a year or be penalized with a fine. St. Paul writer and historian Patricia Hampl says after a decade the women began bringing in outside performers.

"For a long time that really was the cultural life of a provincial capital like this one," she says. "Yes, we made music at home, but basically we were counting on people coming on the railroad and coming here to sing and to play for us."

Patricia Hampl says other cities the size of St. Paul in the late 19th century formed similar music clubs named after composers, but many of them are gone now and none of them have achieved the international reputation of the Schubert Club. 

Much of the credit for the organization's longevity and status is given to the late Bruce Carlson. He was hired in 1968 as the Schubert Club's first professional staffer and its first male leader. As executive director, he transformed the small organization into one of the Twin Cities' most important cultural institutions. 

During his 38 years at the helm, the Schubert Club built museum collections of musical instruments and manuscripts. He helped inaugurate a summer art song festival in St. Paul and start a record label. Carlson also developed a free, after-school music lesson program for underprivilged youth and even co-founded an Indonesian Gamelan ensemble.

Music writer and advocate Mary Ann Feldman served on the Schubert Club board in the 1970s. She says that under Carlson the organization set a precedent for reaching out into the community. 

"They were always enterprising," she says. "They were looking for ways to collaborate. They were looking to see what what musical experiences were missing in the Twin Cities."

Feldman says Bruce Carlson had a combination of savvy and passion with the ability to come up with magical ideas. One was to commission Twin Cities composer Dominick Argento to write a song cycle for mezzo-soprano Janet Baker. The resulting work, "From the Diary of Virginia Wolf," won a Pulizter Prize in 1975. 

Since then, the Schubert Club has commissioned over 80 works and continues to encourage the creation of new music. Abbie Betinis is currently one of the club's two composers-in-residence.

"For many of us the Schubert Club's support has given us confidence that our work is valuable," she says. "It's been important for us in continuing to write music that reaches people."

Abbie Betinis says it's hard to say what the future of the Schubert Club will be, but she hopes the organization keeps on going for another 125 years. 

Music commentator Michael Steinberg says it will as long as the habit of going to Schubert Club recitals is passed down to new generations of listeners.

Michael Steinberg
Michael Steinberg says he hopes that the young girls attending Schubert Club recitals with their grandmothes will keep going when they grow up to be mothers and grandmothers.
MPR Photo/Karl Gehrke

"I still see wonderful, elderly ladies going to recitals with twelve year old girls," Steinberg says. "I hope that those who are now those sweet kids in their little white socks and ribbons in their hair will will become subscribers themselves when they are mothers and grandmothers."

The Schubert Club's next 125 years will begin with a new leader. A successor to longtime executive director Bruce Carlson is expected to be named early in 2008.