|Paul Tietjens circa 1902.|
He was born May 22, 1877, to Henry and Marie Tietjens, a financially comfortable family in St. Louis, Missouri. His mother Marie, a pianist herself and his first piano teacher, instilled in him his love for music. Tietjens blossomed into a child prodigy and continued studying piano under Marcus Epstein and Dr. Ernest R. Kroeger. He played frequently in St. Louis as both a soloist and accompanist. After graduating from Central High School in January 1895, he pursued his musical education at the Beethoven Conservatory. At age twenty he appeared as soloist with the St. Louis Symphony, playing the Rubenstein Concerto, and began teaching piano to others.
In late 1900 upheavals at home forced twenty-three-year-old Tietjens to make some choices about his life and career. His father planned to sell his feed business and move the family to Slater, Missouri, to live on the old family farm. Tietjens decided he would go to Paris to study, and he would take his mother with him, but his boyhood friend, Ike Morgan, suggested Tietjens come to Chicago before going to Paris.
Tietjens had visited Morgan in Chicago the year before and met a number of people in his circle of friends, including W. W. Denslow and L. Frank Baum—Morgan and Tietjens had attended Baum’s Christmas party in 1899. Morgan may have thought an extended stopover in Chicago would help season his naïve young friend before he traveled abroad.
Tietjens arrived in Chicago at 8:00 AM Sunday morning, December 30, 1900. Morgan met him at the train station. Tietjens moved in with Ike at the Morgan family’s boarding house. It seemed ideal at first. Tietjens would wake up full of enthusiasm, go for a walk at the lake with Morgan, eat a big breakfast, and spend many hours working on his piano technique. In the evenings he and Morgan went to concerts or the theatre, and Tietjens joined Morgan's social circle. On January 4, 1901, only a few days after his arrival, Morgan took Tietjens over to the Denslows’, where Tietjens met popular author George Ade and Ellen Crosby, a prominent musician and lecturer on Wagner. It did not go very well. “I was in a morose and cross humor that night,” Tietjens wrote in his journal, “and was very unsociable, thereby offending Denslow, who complained of my supercilious behavior. . .” Tietjens made amends with Denslow and his wife Anne Waters and began seeing them frequently, along with Morgan's and Denslow’s other friends, children’s author Grace Duffie Boylan and composer Alberta N. Hall and her husband.
Tietjens's moods swung wildly. On one day he overflowed with optimism, the next day suffocated him in despair. He looked for any excuse to avoid the piano, burying himself in reading Kipling and playing Solitaire.
Chicago was not working out as he'd imagined. He was depleting his savings much faster than he had planned. The added financial stress inhibited his practicing even more. Each day he waited for the two mail deliveries to arrive. He grew dejected and worried if no letter came, but more dejected and worried still if a letter came bearing less than perfect news from home. In mid-February Tietjens asked his father for money. He received a draft of fifty dollars along with word that his father would probably have to sell the feed business at a loss, if he could sell it at all.
Tietjen's creativity frequently collapsed into a near paralytic state. Unable to make himself work, he went for additional walks on the lake, read more Kipling and now Stevenson. "The greater part of the evening was wasted in playing Solitaire," he wrote on February 15. "I will swear off playing Solitaire henceforth." His resolve did not last long. He would attempt to build up a proper creative mood so he could get a long day of piano study in, but would become angry when his fellow boarders complained of his piano practice. He primarily blamed the female boarders for wrecking his plans: “I wish there would be nothing but male roomers in the house. . . . They are not bothered so much with ‘nerves’ and are more liberal minded generally.” When Tietjens could make himself practice and do his technical exercises, he often overdid it, injuring his wrists and fingers.
“I am again in one of my morose spells. I feel embittered and bored at everything . . . It made me feel angry that Miss Swain should be getting all of the best seats from Ike, when he had written me that we would take in the Thomas concerts together. I can’t afford to pay $1.50 for a seat,” top price at the time. Instead, Tietjens would buy the cheapest balcony seat and become resentful when Ike gave Tietjens’s promised ticket to Pauline. “Had I known [it would be like] this I would not have come to Chicago.”
He decided to resume his formal piano studies in Chicago since the funds were no longer there for him to go to Europe. On February 28 he met with Austrian-born pianist Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler, but she refused to take him as a student. He was crushed. “She said some very disheartening things, that I was too old, and that I probably could not get under Leschetizky [in Vienna] without some trouble . . . “
On March 3, 1901, Tietjens wrote that, “the idea of becoming a piano virtuoso is gradually losing much of its charm . . . I would much more relish a quiet life, surrounded by my friends and free from the strain and turmoil of a public life.” He then proceeded with a life-changing declaration:
“Therefore, as I wish to make my mark, it occurred to me that if I could write a successful comic opera, this result might be consummated. When Den comes back I will ask him about it. I think Baum would be just the man to write the libretto and Denslow could design the costumes, etc. I will stick to this idea.”
Copyright © 2019 David Maxine. All rights reserved.