Friday, February 26, 2021

Music & Society Since 1815

In person live music making has suffered greatly during the pandemic. It's been especially hard on classical concert music which depends on musicians working closely together and reacting to each other. All the major concert institutions have shut down or have had to invent radically new ways of making and creating music together.

Henry Raynor's 1976 book, Music & Society Since 1815, is a telling of the ways that the traditional concert institutions came to be.  Almost all of the elements of classical music and the roles of classical musicians came arose in the 19th century.  Raynor chooses 1815 as a starting point because it represents an approximate year when concert music changed from being supported by rich and powerful royal families and nobility to being supported by a combination of government support and the marketplace (the public purchasing tickets and music).

The conductor as we know it only began to exist during the early to mid-1800s. Originally the first chair violinist or a piano soloist might start a work and try to hold it together, but an actual musician who rehearses and directs an ensemble only started to become a norm in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Piano recitals are a normal part of concert life, but the earliest such performances only began in the 1830s. A virtuoso like Franz Liszt popularized such concerts, but they were not the formal events we expect today; Liszt would take breaks from playing to mingle with his audience. String quartets -- a chamber ensemble consisting of two violinists, a violist and cellist -- had existed since the eighteenth century, but the first permanent professional string quartet only came into being in 1869.  

Raynor describes the difficulties of founding and maintaining symphony orchestras in Europe and the United States. The best instrumentalists were often engaged in the theater and opera orchestras and it was not economically advantageous for them to work on "serious" concert music.  The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra formed in 1911 at first depended on musicians who had several other gigs.

Choral societies became popular in Germany because they were democratically run organizations in an autocratic society. In Great Britain brass bands became widespread through the sponsorship of factory owners. Engagement with music, it was hopedm would help promote temperance among the factory hands.

Women do not play a big role in Raynor's account; almost all of the musical action in this history was contributed by men. Women are mentioned as the occasional diva, concert virtuoso, or as part of a "women's auxiliary" for an orchestra. This is a shortcoming.

In a chapter entitled "The Great Schism," Raynor also address he calls "light" music -- a category of music that he does not take lightly.  As concert music became more specialized and rarified there continued to be a strong audience for music that was easier on the ears. Waltzes by the Strauss family and operettas by the likes of Offenbach and Gilbert and Sullivan are given serious treatment.  While not given much space, American vernacular forms like ragtime and jazz are also shown respect in Raynor's account.  He has far less use for rock and roll which he finds rhythmically monotonous.

Music & Society Since 1815 is a very worthwhile read for those interested learning how the classical music tradition came to be.

Music And Society Since 1815 by Henry Raynor (Barrie and Jenkins, 1976). - also available to borrow from the Internet Archive.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Most Circulated Art, Music & Recreation Books of SFPL-To-Go up to December 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a radical effect upon library service. At San Francisco Public Library our readers have relied eBooks and other eResources more than ever. However, many other readers either cannot or prefer not to read online, or the books they want are not yet available online. The launch of SFPL-To-Go on August 10 brought the San Francisco Public Library's print collections back into the public's hands after a nearly five month break. 

Most of the books in the subjects of Art, Music and Recreation are assigned a call number in the Dewey 700 range (Dewey Decimals numbers 700 to 799). Among the top 15 most circulated in the Dewey 700 range, seven are pre-2020 titles.

The most borrowed print book by far is Ali Wong's Dear Girls. It was already among the most popular titles a year ago. Two other books that have continued from last year's list are Trevor Noah's Born A Crime and Hamilton: The Revolution.  Some other no longer current titles that have continue to be frequently borrowed include The Mamba Mentality by the late Kobe Bryant, Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson, Making Comics by Lynda Barry and Just Kids by Patti Smith.  Noah's and Smith's books are possibly the most popular arts related books of this century so far.

Naturally, most of the books that are frequently requested and checked out are current titles.  Hollywood often figures into these choices and currently The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood and Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother are hot titles.  Two new books by popular music divas Jessica Simpson and Mariah Carey are also racking up a large number of holds.

It's a great pleasure the see the positive attention our readers are giving to Marilyn Chase's biography of San Francisco's own Ruth Asawa, Everything She Touched.

The Victory Machine by Ethan Sherwood details the rise and fall of our Golden State Warriors (who are hopefully soon to rise again!)  Sanam Maher's A Woman Like Her: The Story Behind the Honor Killing Of a Social Media Star would not immediately seem like a hot title (we initially only ordered three copies for our system) but it has proven popular in its rich investigation of fame, faith gender roles and social media.

Homebody: A Guide To Creating Spaces You Never Want To Leave from 2018 by Joanna Gaines is the most apt title for our times. If the experts tell us to stay at home, then, of course, we want to make it a place that we never want to leave.

The Top 15 Titles of December 2020

Born A Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah (Spiegel & Grau, 2016).

The Big Goodbye: Chinatown And the Last Years of Hollywood by Sam Wasson (Flatiron Books, 2020). 

The Mamba Mentality: How I Play by Kobe Bryant (MCD, Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2018). 

Open Book by Jessica Simpson with Kevin Carr O'Leary (Dey St., 2020). 

Everything She Touched: The Life of Ruth Asawa by Marilyn Chase (Chronicle Books, 2020).

A Woman Like Her: The Story Behind the Honor Killing Of a Social Media Star by Sanam Maher (Melville House Publishing, 2020).

A Very Punchable Face: A Memoir by Colin Jost (Crown, 2020). 

Homebody: A Guide To Creating Spaces You Never Want To Leave by Joanna Gaines (Harper Design, 2018). 

Just Kids by Patti Smith (Ecco, 2010). 

Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schuster, 2017). 

Making Comics by Lynda Barry (Drawn & Quarterly, 2019)

The Meaning of Mariah Carey by Mariah Carey with Michaela Angela Davis (Andy Cohen Books, 2020). 

The Victory Machine: The Making And Unmaking Of the Warriors Dynasty by Ethan Sherwood Strauss (PublicAffairs, 2020).

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Christopher Columbus at Coit Tower - The Fascist Sculptor

This is the third of three entries about Christopher Columbus at Coit Tower. See the two previous installments:

"Christopher Columbus at Coit Tower" (July 20, 2020)

"Christopher Columbus at Coit Tower -- The Graziotti Design" (July 24, 2020)

Vittorio di Colbertaldo, the sculptor of the statue of Christopher Columbus that had been located at Pioneer Park near Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill, was undeniably a fascist. That affiliation was part of rationale for the statue's removal in May 2020. As we have discussed in the previous entry of this blog, Colbertaldo's prior politics and ideology did not prove to be an impediment to the his post-war career.  In this entry we will look at how fascism informed his artwork.

What exactly is fascism?  According to Britannica, it is a kind of "militaristic nationalism" based upon a "belief in natural social hierarchy and the rule of elites."  Colbertaldo was born in 1901 into such an elite having descended from the Bassanese nobility (Bassano del Grappa). He also shared his birthplace in Forli with the Duce of Fascism, Benito Mussolini.

Colbertaldo had a conventional art career. He studied at the Accademia d’arte Cignaroli in Verona. He later taught at Guidizzolo School of Art in the province of Mantua and at the Liceo artistico statale (State Arts Lyceum) in Rome from 1935.  In addition to working in three dimensional media he was also an illustrator for the Milan-based magazine L'Eroica (The Heroic).

Di Colbertaldo's earliest public artwork is memorial to the World War I soldiers who lost their lives from the commune of Arcole in Veneto. This work, created in 1928 during the rule of the National Fascist Party government, projects a muscular nationalism in its depiction of the Italian men who fought the Austro-Hungarian empire between 1915 and 1918.

Imperial ambitions were always part of the Italian Fascist project. Italy had conquered and colonized Libya since 1911 and invaded Ethiopia (which they called Abyssinia) in 1935.  Colbertaldo created works promoting his nation's colonial ambitions that were featured in the Italian Pavilion at the 1939 New York Worlds Fair.

"Abissino" (Abyssinian), source: Icone d'Oltremare nell'Italia fascista

The exhibition featured several works in bas-relief depicting Italy's colonized subjects in Libya and Ethiopia. According to Pretelli one of principal aims of the Italian pavilion at the World's Fair was "to show a brand new Fascist 'spirit' generated by the proclamation of the empire." Italian colonization was portrayed as "pacific and laborious" demonstrating the "supposed civilization of the Ethiopian territories achieved under fascist occupation."

"La fraternità delle armi e del lavoro nella conquista dell'Impero," source: Prima Mostra Triennale delle Terre Italiane d'oltremare

Colbertaldo's enthusiasm for Italy's imperial ambitions are clearly manifested in "The Brotherhood of Arms and Labor In the Empire's Conquest" (La fraternità delle armi e del lavoro nella conquista dell'Impero), a statue displayed at the East African pavilion of the First Triennial Exhibition of Italian Overseas Lands (Prima Mostra Triennale delle Terre Italiane d'oltermare) in Naples in 1940. Linked soldiers and workers march forward for Italy's glory.

"Monumento al Duca d'Aosta," source: Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Gorizia

Even after the Fascist government was overthrown and Italy and the Axis nations were defeated in World War II, Colbertaldo returned to military and imperial themes. In 1965 (several years after his Christopher Columbus commission) he created a memorial to Prince Amedeo, Duke of Aosta, the Viceroy of Italian East Africa who commanded Italian forces there during the war and surrendered to the Allies and died in British captivity in 1942.

"Telegraph Hill," July 21, 1960, source: OpenSFHistory / wnp27.5147.jpg

Was the statue of Christopher Columbus atop Telegraph Hill an expression of fascism? It was certainly an expression of both Italian nationalism and conquest.

"Christopher Columbus," image source: Public Art and Architecture From Around The World, May 23, 2012

We can see in di Colbertaldo's Christopher Columbus the many of the same qualities as his other works. The subjects depicted share a sober virility and project a heroic chauvinism. They gaze forward in full control of their emotions. The Public Art and Architecture From Around The World blog features several views of the now-removed Columbus statue. The comments to this blog entry are striking because they describe this now disreputable work as "wonderful" and "commanding" -- both reasonable aesthetic reactions. It is a well-rendered imposing statue. Given that Christopher Columbus is not well-known by his image, the millions of tourists who passed the statue probably gave little thought to the statue's origins or meaning. It was just another heroic statue.

Vittorio di Colbertaldo was an active artist up to his death in 1979.  His post-war output exhibited a surprisingly wide.  He created works for a Via Crucis at Dachau honoring Italians who died at the concentration camp.  He continued specializing in monumental works, sculpting statues of disparate figures such as Jan Palach, a young Czech who self-immolated in opposition to the Soviet occupation of his country, Prince Diponegoro, 19th century Javanese ruler who fought Dutch colonial rule in Indonesia, and Rashid Karami, a Lebanese prime minister.

image source: Rerum Romanun

The memorial to Jan Palach in Rome from 1970 is remarkable presenting the young hero dwarfed by tongues of flame.

Colbertaldo's statue of Christopher Columbus is unlikely to ever return to its pedestal upon Telegraph Hill. The statue has a twin in Miami, Florida that is still standing but has also been vandalized and threatened with removal.  Christopher Columbus statues are in peril all across the United States. Colbertaldo's San Francisco creation is fortunate to have escaped into storage. Some Miamians want to bury the explorer under water, upside down in the sand.


Ceballos, Joshua, "Gramps Owner Offers To Sink Columbus Statue Into The Sea," Miami New Times [online] June 12, 2020.

Comanducci, A. M., Dizionario illustrato dei pittori: disegnatori e incisori italiani moderni e contemporanei (L. Patuzzi, 1970).

"Fascism." Britannica Library, Encyclopædia Britannica, 22 Feb. 2019.

"Monumenti e lapidi," 14-18 Documenti e immagini della grande guerra [website].

"Il monumento ai Caduti di Arcole," Arcole Racconta [blog] October 31, 2013

Merjian, Ara H., "Learning From Fascism," Art In America [online] April 1, 2019.

"Monumento al Duca d'Aosta," Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Gorizia [webpage].

Pretelli, Matteo, "Italian Migrants in Italian Exhibitions from Fascism to the Early Republic," in Moving Bodies, Displaying Nations National Cultures, Race and Gender in World Expositions Nineteenth to Twenty-first Century (Edizioni Università di Trieste, 2014).

"Prince Amadeo, Duke of Aosta," Italy On This Day [blog], October 21, 2018.

"Status di Jan Palach," Rerum Romanarum [website] 

"Vittorio de Colbertaldo scultore in quattro continenti," Corriere Romagna (July 2, 2018).

Friday, July 24, 2020

Christopher Columbus at Coit Tower - The Graziotti Design

Christopher Columbus at Coit Tower [first part]

Heresy Labs, which describes itself as an "autonomous media project exploring anti-authoritarian politics and monitoring fascist presence within cultural space" tweeted the following on June 18, 2020:
The Christopher Columbus statue at Coit Tower in San Francisco has been removed. It was sculpted by fascist Vittorio di Colbertaldo who was Mussolini's handpicked bodyguard.  
The Christopher Columbus statue was controversial when it was erected in 1957, however, this controversy had nothing to with the sculptor's affiliation with the Italian Fascist Party.

Vittorio di Colbertaldo was undoubtedly an active participant in Italy's fascist movement in the 1930s and 1940s.  But during the Cold War that followed former fascists probably came to be seen as strong anti-communist allies.  In any case, Colbertaldo's past political affiliation was no impediment to his post-war art career.

The Italian consul general Pierluigi Alvera had recommended Vittorio di Colbertaldo to the Art Commission for the project as "one of the world authorities on Columbus."  But in their final decision the art commissioners also considered a proposal from a San Francisco artist Ugo A. Graziotti.

The controversy about the Christopher Columbus statue played out in the Letters to the Editor pages of San Francisco's daily papers.  According to a January 29, 1957 letter to the Chronicle, Graziotti claimed that he had suggested the idea of commissioning a Columbus statue for San Francisco to Alvera in January of 1956.  According to him, Alvara followed up this idea by contacting and commissioning Colbertado. In October 1956 he presented a sketch of this artist's sculpture design to the Art Commission.

Graziotti said that Alvara told him:
"If I wanted to, I could submit a design." And may I say that I was told this in a very unsympathetic way. In other words, Dr. Alvera asked me for a design just to toss me a bone for my idea.
Italian Consul general Pierluigi Alvera with a model of the Columbus statue (source: San Francisco Examiner January 4, 1957)

After the Art Commission vote, a Dick Nolan column in the Chronicle reported that the Art Commission's selection of the Colbertaldo had been generated strong community opposition:
The panel rejected a more daring design by Ugo Graziotti, a local master, for a more conventional piece of sculpture by an Italian who also happens to be a friend of the Italian consul, Pierluigi Alvera. The commission, from all reports, based its decision on financial reasons rather than esthetic ones. Alvera somehow conveyed the impression that his man's work was all bought and paid for and hence no problem to install, subito and toot de sweet.
(A side note: one of the Art Commissioners favoring the Colbertaldo work was one of Graziotti's students.)

source: San Francisco Examiner January 24, 1956

Ugo Graziotti (1912-2000) was a native of Brescia, Italy.  While working at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Roma he was invited in 1949 to teach in the United States in 1949 where he lived until 1970 when returned home to Italy.  He lived in the Bay Area from 1954 to 1967 where he taught at the California College of Arts and Crafts, Art League of San Francisco and the University of San Francisco. He also operated the Graziotti Studio of Fine Arts that was located adjacent to today's Main Library at 1254 Market Street. His art was exhibited at the DeYoung Museum and the California Academy of Sciences.

In the run up to the Art Commission vote in January 1957, Graziotti presented his vision of Columbus to the Examiner.  He told them that he wanted to create a statue:
To harmonize with the distinctive characteristics of San Francisco, and with the time in which we live. It is not intended to be just another neo-classic monument, similar to so many pieces reflecting 19th century taste to be seen here and there about the city. It is designed to provide interest to the spectator from every angle, whether seen from a distance or close at hand.
The mosaic under the statue was meant to depict the known world at the the time of Columbus. The bronze base was intended to represent a ship. The bronze figure showed Columbus gazing forward with his hands clasping the vessel's pilot wheel.

Ugo A. Graziotti's Columbus Statue design (source: San Francisco Examiner December 13, 1956)

Three letters to the editor supporting Graziotti's design were printed in the San Francisco Chronicle of January 24, 1956.  The writers advocated supporting a locally known artist like Graziotti.  They criticized the conservatism of the Colbertaldo design.  One correspondent advocating for Graziotti's design wrote that:
It reaches and exhibits the living spirit of every pioneer, every giant, every man who, with strength and faith, fights for discoveries and for a better world... it is a monument to the Relentless American.
Part of the contemporary opposition to the Colbertaldo statue in Pioneer Park was probably due to the depiction of the explorer like a dauntless conqueror.  The Graziotti work with its symbolism, abstract elements, and even a degree of whimsy might have rankled the today's viewer less than the Colbertaldo statue.

Nevertheless, Graziotti cannot be separated from association with Italian fascism.  He published examples of his work in the magazine Goliardia Fascista, a fascist affiliated student newspaper, between 1936 and 1939.

The next installment of this blog will take a closer look at Vincenzo di Colbertado -- his work and his connection to fascism.

The Newspaper Archive, San Francisco Chronicle Historical, and San Francisco Examiner Historical databases were all used in this research.


Benoit, Monique, "'The City Ignores Its Local Artists'," San Francisco Chronicle January 24, 1956.

Bergman, Harry, "An Artist Leaves The City," San Francisco Chronicle September 3, 1967.

"Columbus Statue Designed for S.F.," San Francisco Examiner December 13, 1956.

Cross, Miriam Duncan, "Gold's But One Treasure In De Young's Current Exhibit," Oakland Tribune June 6, 1954.

"The Editor's Mailbox," San Francisco Examiner January 16, 1957.

"Graziotti Adriano Ugo," Dizionario pittori e scultori Bresciano [online]

Hulburd, David, "Talk Around Town," San Francisco Chronicle January 27, 1957.

"It Was A Tough Break For Columbus Statue," San Francisco Examiner January 4, 1957.

"Letters To The Editor," San Francisco Chronicle January 24, 1957.

"Letters To The Editor," San Francisco Chronicle January 29, 1957.

McQuigg, Clancy, "Bronze Image of Columbus," San Francisco Examiner October 13, 1957.

Nolan, Dick, "Lakeshore Citizens Take G.E.T. Fight To Mayor," San Francisco Chronicle January 13, 1957.

"Polyhedra Forms To Go On Display," Sausalito News April 18, 1962.

"Statue, Landscaping Tentatively Approved," San Francisco Chronicle October 26, 1956.

"Ugo Andriano Graziotti," Wikipedia: L'enciclopedia libera [online].

Watmough, David, "Books, Sunshine, Women and Sculptor Ugo Graziotti," San Francisco Examiner December 27, 1959.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Christopher Columbus at Coit Tower

Christopher Columbus statue on August 6, 1957 before it was shipped to San Francisco (source: San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection)

On November 19, 1964, Herb Caen reported in his column:

SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY: A lonely traveler named Vittorio di Colbertaldo arrived here via Pan Am from Indonesia yesterday at 6 a.m. Since his plane to N.Y. (and on to Rome, where he lives) didn't leave till 10 a.m., he had time to kill. So he took a cab to Telegraph Hill, where he stayed for an hour or so gazing at the statue of Christopher Columbus on the plaza below Coit Tower. In 1957, he had sculpted that $50,000 statue in Rome, hadn't seen it since, was pleased to find that "it seems to be happy here."

Recent years have not been happy for Colbertaldo's creation.  In 1991 the statue's hands were spattered with red paint by protesters pointing out the decimation of indigenous peoples carried out by him and later explorers.  Since then statues of Columbus have prompted protests and vandalism all across America. A month ago (June 18, 2020) the mayor and the Art Commission ordered that San Francisco's Columbus statue be removed from Pioneer Park.

Christoforo Columbo was a native of the Republic of Genoa and a representative of the Crown of Castile when he traversed the Atlantic Ocean.  He never set foot upon American soil and could not properly be called an Italian citizen because there was no Italy in his day.  Yet he was venerated by American settlers since the 18th century and became an emblematic figure for the Italian-American community.

Columbus was a unifying figure for Italian immigrants trying to highlight their identity within the wider American culture.  San Francisco's Italian Heritage Parade traces itself back to "grand processions and festivities" held by the Italian community in 1869 to "celebrate the anniversary of the discovery of America by their fellow countryman."

For many years it was called the Columbus Day Parade.  Charles Speroni's photograph of the 1947 celebration shows a spectacle that is very jarring to contemporary sensibilities.  We see Italian-Americans variously dressed up as Columbus, missionaries, conquistadors, and as native peoples depicted as Plain Indians in feathered headdresses.  Columbus's voyage was conflated with the conquest, civilization and christianization of America.

source: Marysville Appeal Democrat September 23, 1964 [from Newspaper Archive]

A reporter visiting San Francisco's 1964 Columbus Celebration pointed out that his 1492 expedition discovered the Bahamas not America and detected imperialist overtones in the statue: "Many newcomers are startled to find Columbus standing gazing proprietarily toward the Golden Gate." In the 1950s and 1960s Columbus was still a source of national pride for Italians and Americans alike.  Scholarship and advocacy during the 1960s also began to paint a very different picture of Christopher Columbus and the European conquest and settlement of the Americas.

The statue of Christopher Columbus was proposed in a presentation to the San Francisco Art Commission on November 5, 1956 by the Consul General of Italy, Pierluigi Alvera. His letter to the Commission referenced support from Mayor George Christopher and "local civic leaders of Italian ancestry." He had Colbertado's design in hand and the backing of the City's Italian-American community who would raise the funds to pay for the statue.  The Italian government and the city of Genoa would also contribute to pay the expenses. Alvera claimed that:
Among the people who are interested in this project there is the feeling that an ideal location for the statue would be the panoramic circle at Telegraph Hill, replacing the scattered vegetation that is now at the center of the parking place.
The Dedication of the Christopher Columbus Statue (source: San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection)

At the statue's dedication on October 12, 1957 the Consul General emphasized to his California audience that "Columbus was the first European pioneer."  Entertainment for the festivities was provided by the City's Municipal Band and the University of California Glee Club. The Knights of Columbus and the Color Guard of the Italian Navy added to the pageantry.  Dignitaries in attendance included the head of the Italian delegation to the United Nations, a U.S. State Department representative, and Senator Thomas H. Kuchel.

The dedication also included a communique from the Vatican City.  For the occasion, Pope Pius XII declared:

Because of the many benefits which have derived from the discovery of the new continent, Christopher Columbus can justly be considered a benefactor of mankind. His heroic exploits opened up besides a wide field of expansion for the church. The preachers of the Gospel who accompanied the people that followed him, sent there by the Pontiff, brought to these land the Christian faith…

That is not a widely defended view today. The selection of this statue did generate controversy at the time, but it was not connected to Christopher Columbus's legacy or connections of sculptor Vittori de Colbertaldo to Italian fascisim.

That's the subject of the next blog entry.

The JStor, Newspaper Archive, San Francisco Chronicle Historical, San Francisco Examiner Historical and San Historical Photograph Collection databases were all used in this research.


"'Blood' On Columbus's Hands," San Francisco Examiner October 13, 1991.

Caen, Herb, "Big Wide Wonderful Whirl," San Francisco Chronicle November 19, 1964.

"The Columbus Celebration -- Grand Procession and Festivities at the City Garden," San Francisco Chronicle October 19, 1869.

"History," Italian Heritage Parade San Francisco [webpage].

"K. of C. Raps Aid To Tito," San Francisco Examiner May 19, 1957.

Keeling, Brock, "S.F. Quietly Puts Statue of Genocidal Explorer Into Hiding," Curbed San Francisco June 20, 2020.

McQuigg, Clancy, "Bronze Image of Columbus," San Francisco Examiner October 13, 1957.

Pius XII, "Pope Writes of Columbus," San Francisco Examiner October 13, 1957.

"S.F.'s 'Festa Italiana" To Honor Columbus," Marysville Appeal Democrat September 23, 1964.

Speroni, Charles. “The Development of the Columbus Day Pageant of San Francisco.” Western Folklore, vol. 7, no. 4, 1948. [available in JStor]

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

San Francisco Arts and Culture During The 1918 Influenza Epidemic

Alfred Hertz (source:
There is no cause for gloomy prognostications about the symphony season. This epidemic is a terrible calamity, and the prompt action of the authorities in forbidding public gatherings was the best thing that could be done to mitigate its severity. But there seems every reason to believe that the ban, which bears with particular weight upon musicians, will mean the speedy suppression of the disease.

These were the words of San Francisco Symphony conductor Alfred Hertz in early November of 1918, spoken while all of the City's theaters, auditoriums and libraries were ordered shut down at the height of the influenza epidemic.  The California State Health Board announced this measure just as the Symphony was getting set to offer tickets to the first performance of the 1918-1919 season, scheduled for October 25, 1918.

The Symphony season was able to open a little more than a month later, on November 29, 1918.  All entertainment and cultural institutions had been forced to shut their doors for about a month. When activities were permitted to resume, they did resume with great exuberance.  The Symphony reported a record number of tickets sold for the new season. The Argonaut, which had dropped its drama column for the month, printed on November 23 that theater goers "rushed right back into the theaters."

At the time of this writing, San Francisco is approaching four months of a lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic that has shut down all of the City's performing arts venues and cultural institutions.  It's remarkable that the very devastating Influenza epidemic of 1918, which in the end infected 45,000 San Franciscans and killed 3,000 resulted in only a one month lockdown.  On the same page of the Argonaut there was another item entitled "A City En Masque."

Masks! masks! masks! Ugly, white, shapeless, cotton things of a laundered hospital complexion. How amazing it must be to a newcomer fresh from unmasked districts to remark the obedience of San Franciscans in respect to the mask ordinance. The big burly mechanic, the rich, carefully tailored man of affairs, the handsome young soldier, the pretty girl whose daily ceremonial of beautifying herself is a rite, the very children at play, even the infant in arms, all, or nearly all, are masked. 
The majority, I should say, are satisfied to wear the masks, and are in an approving attitude toward an ordinance which may have been instrumental in securing such rapid results. They regard them as a refuge and a protection.

While this author imagined a city of responsible citizens, the Mask Ordinance approved by the Board of Supervisors in late October 1918 stipulated fines and imprisonment for violators of this health directive.  No doubt, such widespread use of facial coverings on such a large scale helped stem the virus's tide.  The City's health officer stated "If the public will do these things, we are confident that we can master the epidemic within a week and that places of amusement might safely be re-opened." The ordinance remained in effect through February 1919.

It's interesting to consider theater audiences all with their masks on. Did thespians and orchestral musicians have to don masks as well?

Masked audience at a boxing match in the Civic Auditorium (source: San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection)

The San Francisco Public Library was one of the cultural institutions affected by the 1918 Influenza Epidemic.  The library system was closed on October 18, 1918 almost contemporaneous with an Examiner article celebrating the Music Department and its talented music librarian Jessica Fredricks.

The San Francisco Public Library did not reopen until November 18. The minutes of the Library's Board of Trustees tell us that at the time some Library staff volunteered for Red Cross duty.  They also voted to provide wages for staff who were ill with influenza. The minutes also sadly noted the loss of one library employee, Miss Virginia B. Spencer, to the epidemic.  The Board of Trustees also considered extending the mask order within the Library past its expiration in February.

During the Library's closure the San Francisco Chronicle published a letter to the editor:

Why Deny Access to Good Books? 
Editor The Chronicle--Sir: May I ask through your worthy medium why, during the epidemic, the people are not even allowed to procure books from the Public Library? It would not necessarily mean that the public could use the reading rooms but would be the means of helping alleviate the monotony of this period. READER 
San Francisco, November 10, 1918

Imagine the hardship of quarantine in 1918, a time before radio, television, computers, ebooks, streaming media! But no doubt many of our patrons today still desire to "procure" a few "good books."  In the weeks ahead the Library will start making our collections available for pick-up.  We look forward to the day when we open the Library's doors again to all of our patrons.

Masked marchers in the Armistice Day Parade, November 11, 1918 (source: San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection)


"At The Orpheum," Argonaut November 23, 1918.

Brown, Ray C.B., "Influenza Halts Season But Does Not Dim Prospect," San Francisco Examiner November 3, 1918

Brown, Ray C.B., "Music Department of the Public Library Offers Help to All Music Lovers," San Francisco Examiner October 20, 1918

"A City en Masque," Argonaut November 23, 1918

"Here Is Text of Mask Ordinance; Violation Incurs Fine Or Imprisonment," San Francisco Chronicle October 25, 1918.

"Influenza Affects Our Symphony Season," Pacific Coast Musical Review October 26, 1918.

"Libraries to Open Monday" San Francisco Chronicle November 15, 1918

Minutes of The Regular Meeting ... / San Francisco Public Library Commission (The Commission, Jan. 1915-June 1925). 

"People Urged To Wear Masks Everywhere," San Francisco Chronicle November 15, 1918.

"San Francisco Symphony Season Opens Nov. 29," Pacific Coast Musical Review November 22, 1918.

"Season Postponed Not Demoralized," Pacific Coast Musical Review November 2, 1918.

"State Health Board Closes All Theaters; Churches Permitted to Hold Half Hour Service, 866 New Cases Reported; Masks Are Recommended; Public Library and Auditorium Shut; Lemare Recitals Are Discontinued" San Francisco Chronicle October 19, 1918.

"Symphony Box Office Will Open Monday," Pacific Coast Musical Review October 19, 1918.

Woods, Arnold, "Spanish Flu In SF: A Closer Look,"

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Theodore Pohlson - A Woman Violinist and Conductor of the 1920s

image source: San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection

Theolene Pohlson was a teacher, conductor, chamber and orchestral musician active in the San Francisco Bay Area during the mid-twentieth century. In the early twentieth century, it was very rare for a woman to work professionally as a classical musician.The San Francisco Symphony when it was founded in 1911 originally only employed women as harp players. They were actually on the cutting edge of gender equality when they hired five women as members of their string section during the 1924-1925 season.

The Pohlson family were immigrants from Norway who lived in Springfield, Illinois, a city with a long-standing Norwegian community. Theolene Pohlson was born in Springfield on March 27, 1889. City directories (found in show that her father worked a variety of menial professions such as laborer, custodian, elevator operator, feed yard, and coachman. The same directories show Theolene employed as a teacher at the Enos School and the Teachers Training School in Springfield.

Coming from a humble family background, Theolene Pohlson must have had considerable musical talent and drive. A San Francisco Examiner article published not long after she moved to California in 1922 gives us some information about her musical education. She had studied with Luigi von Kunits in Toronto and with Leon Sametini, the director of the violin department of the Chicago Music College, as well as Adolph Rosenbecker, the concertmaster of the Chicago Grand Opera. In a 1943 newspaper feature she recounted that she had been also a member of the "Chicago Opera Company" (which probably was the Chicago Grand Opera). While living in Chicago she married Norman E. Marshall who is listed in the 1920 Census as an orchestra musician. She also taught for a time at the State Normal School (today known as Illinois State University).

Around a year later she moved to San Francisco. In the September 16, 1921 issue of Music News she started advertising herself as a violin and voice instructor teaching from the Paisley Hotel (now the Union Square Plaza Hotel) and later the Hampshire Arms Apartments. Within a year she was head of the violin department of the Manning School of Music and the Fairmont Hotel School of Music.

By the following year she was concertizing all over the Bay Area with performances at San Francisco's Granada and Fairmont Hotels, and in Pinole and Alcatraz. Her October 17 program featured a "ladies' orchestra of eight pieces."

On October 26, 1922 she married Samuel Payne Reed, an electrical engineer and teacher at the Heald's Business College. For a time she was listed on concert programs as Mrs. Samuel Payne Reed or Theolene Reed. By early 1924 they were divorced not long after she gave birth to a son. In a San Francisco Examiner article she was quoted:
My husband and I were out of tune, so I must go back to my trusty violin, breadwinner and unfailing companion. High strung husbands are interesting -- by my fiddle is my best beau after all.

She was a very active musician. During the silent film era it became common for movie theaters to employ a small orchestra to perform in between features.  In late 1924 Theolene Pohlson was hired as the conductor an all-woman orchestra that performed before movie features at the Capitol Theatre (the former Cort Theatre at 64 Ellis Street).

The ensemble was made up of Theolene Pohlson, violin; Lillian Swaey, violin; Augrey Munroe, cello; Elsa Melville, double basso; Ethel Guyon, flute; Muriel de Vaughn, clarinet; Mae Franchi, cornet; Sadie van der Hoff, trombone; Alvina McLaughlin, piano, and Hazel Field, percussion.

source: "Theater Orchestra by Girl Musicians a S.F. Novelty, San Francisco Examiner (December 28, 1924)

A San Francisco Chronicle article said of her and her ensemble:
Theolene Pohlson, the San Franciscan violinist and director of the Capitol Theater orchestra, has the distinction of conducting the only women's orchestra regularly employed in a local playhouse and one of the few existing in the United States. The organization is now in its twelfth week and has met with the approval of patrons. The music is well selected from the classical, with enough contemporary flavor to keep in touch with popular songs and dances, and is presented with technical proficiency.
This ensemble also had the distinction of performing live on the radio airwaves of KPO.

Their hour-long segment, sponsored by the George W. Caswell Coffee Company, featured the women as an ensemble and as soloists.  Their repertoire spanned light classical music (Schubert and Saint-Saens) and current show tunes (Berlin and Herbert).

Theolene Pohlson came to our attention attention at the Library because a set of parts that she once owned a performed from turned up in one of our unprocessed collections.  This an arrangement of Anton Rubinstein's "Romance" that was published by G. Schirmer. This was one of countless stock arrangements, arrangements for reduced orchestras with flexible instrumentation, available to the hundreds (maybe thousands) of theater orchestras performing across the United States.  The pieces listed on the radio program were probably performed from similar published arrangements.

Theolene Pohlson continued to work on and off as a director and performer at the Capitol Theater until 1930.  She also led orchestras in Oakland at the Franklin Theater. After that she was mostly active as violin soloist and as a chamber musician in the San Francisco Concert Trio with pianist Guyala Ormay and cellist Elsa Melville. She was a frequent performer at the Denmark Pavilion during the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1940.

During the Second World War she contributed to the war effort working as a drafter at the Marinship shipyard.  The Chronicle reported, "Theolene Pohlson Reed, violinist symphony player and orchestra conductor, has exchanged her fiddle and bow for a drafting board in the marine drafting of a San Francisco shipyard." During this time she wrote a song entitled "Marinship" that was performed at the Curran Theater.  She registered another composition entitled "Marching On" with the Copyright Office. Pohlson-Reed also performed for servicemen at the Stagedoor Canteen of San Francisco.

A 1948 article in the Berkeley Daily Gazette mentioned that Theolene Reed-Pohlson was a member of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra. At this point she was 59 years old and after this she is no longer prominently mentioned in the newspapers.  She died at the age of 89 on February 27, 1979 in Alameda after playing a significant role in the Bay Area's musical life.


Anderson, Helene, "Notes, Cues," Berkeley Daily Gazette (September 18, 1940).

"Author's Wife Seeks Decree," San Francisco Examiner (February 1, 1924).

"Capitol Features Ladies Orchestra," San Francisco Examiner (December 18, 1924).

Eads, Jane, "Women At Work: There'll Be 18,000,000 by End of '43, Says War Manpower Commission," San Francisco Chronicle (February 21, 1943).

Estcourt, Zilfa, "Women in War: How Mr. Karstensen Trains Workers for the Shipyards," San Francisco Chronicle (January 20, 1943).

"'The Gorilla Hunts' Closing at Franklin," Oakland Tribune (February 24, 1927).

"KPO Features Women Singing," San Francisco Chronicle (July 2, 1925).

Neuls-Bates, Carol, "Women's Orchestras in the United States, 1925-1945," in Women Making Music: The Western Art Tradition, 1150-1950, edited by Jane Bowers and Judith Tick (University of Illinois Press, 1986).

"Patrons Approve Women's Orchestra," San Francisco Chronicle March 6, 1925

"Pohlson Recital," San Francisco Examiner Sept. 24, 1922

"San Francisco Musician Is Ogden Visitor," Ogden Standard Examiner (March 28, 1943).

"Sorority Group to Entertain Pledges," Berkeley Daily Gazette (June 14, 1948).

"Theolene Pohlson in California," Music News vol. 14, no. 45 (November 10, 1922).

"Theolene Pohlson," Music News vol. 14, no. 44 (November 3, 1922).

Waterstreet, Mary, "Goings On," San Francisco Chronicle (March 17, 1943).