MSO history

Early Recordings:

Madison Civic Symphony, Madison Civic Chorus, Alexius Baas, Walter Heermann, et. al.

Selections 1, 3, 4, and 5 were first assembled in 2000 by Michael Allsen and Steve Sundell from a privately-held recording, and two recordings preserved in the Wisconsin Music Archives.  They were digitized in 2005, and further edited in 2015 by Michael Allsen.
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1. Performance of “Why do the Nations So Furiously Rage Together” from Handel’s Messiah;  Alexius Baas, baritone soloist, with the Madison Civic Symphony, Sigfrid Prager, conductor; recorded Dec. 22, 1941. [privately-held recording]

This 78 rpm disk is almost certainly the earliest surviving recording of the Madison Civic Symphony:  this particular live recording of the annual Messiah concert is in fact discussed in the board minutes of the Madison Civic Music Association, and marks the first discussion of recordings of any kind in the records in the Madison Symphony Orchestra archives.  No other discs from these recordings have surfaced, to my knowledge. The quality of the recording is rather poor, but gives a good impression of a rather old-fashioned, Romantic reading of this aria.  Baas, one of the most frequent soloists at MCMA concerts in the early years, was a local singer and journalist.  He was clearly be a bit beyond his prime when this recording was made, but the orchestral playing is quite good, if rather distorted at the beginning of in this recording.


2. Excerpts from Beethoven, Missa Solemnis;  Madison Civic Symphony and Chorus. Dr. Sigfrid Prager, conductor, Sandra Cortez, soprano, Mari Barova, alto, Maximilian Schmelter, tenor, Harry Swanson, bass, Marie Endres, solo violin, University Chorus; recorded May 23, 1948  [recording in the Madison Symphony Orchestra archives]

This is the first recording that has surfaced of a (nearly) complete concert by the Madison Civic Symphony and Chorus under the baton of its first conductor, Dr. Sigfrid Prager. Prager was conductor of the Madison Civic Symphony from its founding in 1926 (and of the Civic Chorus, founded in 1927) until 1948: the program heard here was his farewell concert. Though I knew that the 1948 Missa Solemnis had been either recorded or broadcast—a microphone is clearly visible in photograph of the event included here—I assumed that any recording was long since lost.  But in July 2013, I was contacted by Roger and Cheri Futterer of Iron Ridge, WI.  In clearing the house of Cheri’s late mother, the Futterers had found a box with eight 10” aluminum records.  There were enough indications on them to lead them to my online history of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and after we made contact, they very kindly donated the records to the MSO Archives. (Note that, at present, just how these recordings made it to a closet in a small town 60 miles from Madison remains an intriguing mystery!) I knew immediately that these were master recordings of this event, and the MSO agreed to underwrite the cost of transferring these to a digital format.  Adrian Costentin (Bayside, NY) undertook the specialized process of transferring the aluminum master recordings to CD. The recordings have been left unedited: 16 tracks, each approximately 5:00 long, the maximum length of a 78-rpm side.  The joints between tracks are rough, and movements sometimes begin in the middle of tracks with the recording engineer’s announcements, and, most frustrating of all, the recording does not include the concluding few minutes of the Agnus Dei!  (However, see the comments on another recently-discovered copy of this recording at the end of this page.)  Despite the purely “archival” nature of this recording, the audio quality is generally quite good, and more importantly the spirit of this performance comes through.  The vocal soloists, mostly Chicago-based professionals, are excellent, and the choral singing is tightly disciplined and quite exciting.  The instrumental highlight is the long, lyrical violin solo in the Sanctus, ably played by Marie Endres, who was the orchestra's concertmaster from 1926-1960.  The orchestral playing is more uneven: at times quite good, and sometimes very clearly the work of enthusiastic amateurs.  This rare recording documents one of the most significant concerts in the history of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.  Digital copies of the complete recording are in the MSO Archives and in the Wisconsin Music Archives.  I have chosen five excerpts from this recording to share here.

  1. Kyrie: "Kyrie eleison - Christe eleison"

  2. Gloria: opening

3. Credo: "Et resurrexit"

  4. Sanctus: violin interlude prior to "Benedictus" (the recording is noisy at this point, and there's an unfortunate skip in the middle of this section)

  5. Agnus Dei: excerpt, including Beethoven's "military interruption"

3. Sybil Anne Hanks, Decoration Day Hymn; Madison Civic Chorus, Walter Heerman, conductor; recorded April 29, 1955.  [recording in the Wisconsin Music Archives]

This and the following selection are excerpts from a from a 33 rpm double album titled The Compositions of Sybil Anne Hanks—live recordings from a Madison Civic Music Association chamber music concert on April 29, 1955.  This was probably a project financed by Hanks herself.  She was a member of a prominent Madison family, and a composition student of Dr. Prager. Hanks was active as a composer from the 1920s through the 1950s.  (She died in 1969 while visiting the Pragers in Argentina.) Though most of the works are chamber pieces, and nearly all of the musicians involved were Civic Symphony or Chorus members.  There are eight pieces included in the recording, beginning with a pair of choral works, Decoration Day Hymn (1929—discussed below) and Quiet My Heart (1951). Quiet My Heart was premiered by the group in 1951, a rather somber work. Rondo in Old Style for Violin and Piano (1932) features Marie Endres, violin, and Margaret Otterson, piano.  By this time, both performers had been involved with the Madison Civic Music for nearly thirty years: Endres as the Symphony’s concertmaster, and Otterson as the primary accompanist for the Chorus.  Three Preludes for Piano (1940-1950) features Margaret Rupp Cooper on piano. (Cooper was for many years the Symphony’s harpist.) These are some of the more harmonically adventurous works on the recording.  The first two preludes took first prize in the 1940 Wisconsin Centennial Composer’s Competition, and the third was composed ten years later.  Theme with Variations for Winds (1943) features several of the Civic Symphony's players: Robert Messner, flute, Leona Patras, oboe, John Varsik and Robert Kirkpatrick, clarinets, Donald Liebenberg and Charles Faulhaber, bassoons, Ruth Zerler and William Wahlin, horns, and William Druckenmiller, conductor.  This is a craftsmanlike, if admittedly not very interesting, work for wind octet.  Meditation for Cello and Piano (1933) is discussed below.  Hanks's Concertino for Three Saxophones and Piano (1942) features Margaret Phelps, Josephine Petratta, and Ann Hansen on saxophones and Margaret Otterson, piano.  An orchestral version of this engaging work had been premiered by the Civic Symphony in 1943.  The last work on the recording is the finale from Hanks's cantata The Creation (1947), with Henry Peters, bass soloist, the Madison Civic Chorus, Margaret Otterson, piano, and Walter Heermann, conductor.  This cantata, which won the first prize in the 1948 Wisconsin Centennial Composer’s Competition, is based upon a poem by NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson.  This work is in much the same very deliberate style as the two other choral works on the recording. Hanks described Decoration Day Hymn as "my very first composition." It was premiered by the Madison Civic Chorus in 1931.  It is a thoroughly Romantic setting of a short poem by Longfellow:

Sleep, comrades, sleep and rest
On this Field of the Grounded Arms,
Where foes no more molest,
Nor sentry's shot alarms!

Ye have slept on the ground before,

And started to your feet

At the cannon's sudden roar,

Or the drum's redoubling beat.

But in this camp of Death

No sound your slumber breaks;

Here is no fevered breath,

No wound that bleeds and aches.

All is repose and peace,

Untrampled lies the sod;

The shouts of battle cease,

It is the Truce of God!

Rest, comrades, rest and sleep!

The thoughts of men shall be

As sentinels to keep

Your rest from danger free.

Your silent tents of green

We deck with fragrant flowers

Yours has the suffering been,

The memory shall be ours.

4. Sybil Anne Hanks, Meditation for Cello and Piano (1933); Walter Heermann, cello, and Margaret Otterson, piano; recorded April 29, 1955.  [recording in the Wisconsin Music Archives]
The work itself is lyrical, rather melancholy, and a bit dull, but the recording is remarkable in documenting the playing of Walter Heermann.  Heermann spent decades as the principal cellist of the Cincinnati Symphony before replacing Prager sas the Madison Civic Music Association’s Music Director in 1948, and continued to play throughout his years in Madison.  One player who knew him described Heermann’s cello sound as “big as a house”—and this is clearly heard in this recording.

5.  Oskar Hagen, Concerto Grosso (1946): Madison Civic Symphony;  Walter Heermann, conductor.  Recorded Oct. 31, 1950  [recording in the Wisconsin Music Archives]

Oskar Hagen—no relation to the composer Daron Aric Hagen who was associated with the MSO and Madison Opera in the 1990s—was an art history professor at the University and great friend of the Madison Civic Music Association from the 1940s through his death in 1957.  His Choral Rhapsody in the Romantic Style of 1944 was dedicated to Dr. Prager, and had been inspired by an Civic Music performance of Honegger’s King David.  The Concerto Grosso had been premiered in in Germany, in Frankfurt-am-Main, but was given its first American performance by the Civic Symphony on Oct. 31, 1950. The 33 rpm disc that contains this recording gives very little information, but is presumably from this performance. While I initially speculated that this recording, which does not have a date or an indication of who is performing, might behave been the German orchestra that played the premiere. However, recent (2022) discoveries in the MSO archives have shown that this is indeed the Madison Civic Symphony.  This fine work is in a mix of Romantic and Baroque styles.  This is not a surprise, given Hagen’s musical background as editor of many early publications of Handel’s music in Germany during the 1920s.  It is also a competent performance by the Civic Symphony.

  Movement 1

  Movement 2

 Movement 3

Recently-discovered Recordings in the MSO Archives
In August 2022, I found several recordings in the MSO Archives. These included a copy of The Compositions of Sybil Ann Hanks (previously known known only in a copy in Wisconsin Music Archive) and a  nine-disc version of the 1948 Missa Solemnis performance detailed above.  The fact that the Missa Solemnis recording has nine discs is particularly exciting: indicating that it probably includes the works conclusion, which is missing from the master recording described above. I hope to digitize that disc and the discs listed below in the near future.  Also found in August 2022 were previously-unknown recordings of three performances from the 1950s by the Madison Civic Chorus and Symphony:
Updated 9/1/2022