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This Day in History: a Relief Concert for the Midwest Fires of 1871

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The following is a guest post from Music Division Archivist Anita M. Weber.

One hundred and fifty years ago today, New York City’s German Liederkranz (literally, Garland of Song, a singing society for German-American men that sought to perpetuate the tradition of German music) presented a “Grand Vocal and Instrumental Concert for the Relief of the Chicago, Michigan, and Wisconsin Sufferers” at Steinway Hall. When I saw a program for this event in our Samuel P. Warren Collection my eyes popped.

Cover pages of program listing performers, conductor, and admission prices
German Liederkranz program, October 21, 1871. Box 36, folder 9, Samuel P. Warren collection, Music Division.

Why would a New York German musical organization present such a concert? And who were the “sufferers”? Then the date hit me—October 21, 1871—the month of fire!

On October 8, 1871, conflagrations simultaneously erupted across Wisconsin, Michigan, and the city of Chicago.[1] While the Great Chicago Fire has long gotten the recognition, the infernos in the neighboring states were much more destructive and deadly. To this day no United States fire has taken more lives than the Peshtigo fire in northern Wisconsin and Michigan’s upper peninsula which destroyed twelve communities and killed some 1,200 to 2,400 people.

This concert, according to reporting in the New York Times [2], was just one of many relief efforts by the citizens of New York City to assist those in the fire-ravaged areas. During the week of the German Liederkranz concert alone there were at least ten other benefit events.

Such benefits and general appeals raised thousands of dollars in donations from businesses and individuals of the city to aid those whose lives and livelihoods were affected. There is little coverage of the German Liederkranz concert beyond several small announcements in the New York Times prior to the event. Thus, neither attendance figures nor how much money the performance raised for the “sufferers” is known.

That a German choral society would sponsor a benefit is not surprising; tens of thousands of their fellow countrymen lived in the Midwest. The music presented is also unsurprising. There were Lieder by Franz Abt, Ferdinand Karl Fuchs, Franz Liszt, Robert Schumann, and Charles Voss, along with orchestral works by Beethoven and Haydn.

Interior pages of program listing part I and part II of performers and the works performed.
German Liederkranz program, October 21, 1871. Box 36, folder 9, Samuel P. Warren collection, Music Division.

Most of the soloists were regulars of the city’s concert halls and include several who would achieve world-wide fame.

Antoinette Sterling, who had just completed her training in London and Germany, was on her way to becoming a renowned contralto. English pianist Sebastian Bach Mills appeared annually with the New York Philharmonic Society before retiring to Germany.

Opera singer William Candidus often performed with the German Liederkranz and Arion Society before moving to Germany in 1871. There he would study opera and perform for five years as a member of the Frankfort am Main opera before returning to the U.S. to join the American Opera Company. Both Mills and Candidus had personal relationships with William T. Steinway, notable piano manufacturer and owner of the eponymous hall, with Candidus being married to Steinway’s sister.

While popular in their day, none of these performers rose to the stature of a young violinist on the program: Pablo de Sarasate, who was coming to the end of his first concert tour. He presented Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1.

This Steinway Hall concert is just one of the thousands documented in the Samuel P. Warren Collection, a fascinating assemblage of concert, recital, and church service programs acquired by noted organist and teacher Warren. Through these ephemeral items the musical life of Gilded Age New York City is on display.

Sepia-toned portrait of Warren seated with book.
Unidentified photographer. Samuel P. Warren, circa 1890. Box 50, Samuel P. Warren collection, Music Division.

Warren (1841-1915), a Canadian by birth who was educated in Germany, spent most of his professional life in New York. He led Sunday services and performed hundreds of organ recitals at Grace Church (Broadway and 10th Street) while also participating in the musical life of the city—both sacred and secular—and composing music in both genres. Just before the turn of the century, Warren moved to Orange, New Jersey, as organist at the First Presbyterian Church where he remained until his death.

Programs in the collection record performances on the stages of Carnegie Hall, Chickering Hall, Mendelsohn Hall, the Metropolitan Opera House, and Steinway Hall, as well as churches of all denominations, across all five of the city’s boroughs, and as far west as California and north into Canada.

Among the many performing groups represented are the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Damrosch Opera Company, the Manuscript Society of New York, the Mendelssohn Glee Club, the Musical Art Society of New York, the New York Vocal Union, the Oratorio Society of New York, the Philharmonic Society of New York, and the Russian Symphony Society.

Thanks to Warren’s extensive program collection we are have another lens through which to view the performing arts in New York. The German Liederkranz concert in relief of the “sufferers” reminds us that the New York City arts community has long supported people in need, no matter where they may live.

[1], accessed October 15, 2021.

[2]Amusements. Musical and Dramatic.New York Times, October 16, 1871. page 5.

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