Thursday, September 12, 2019

How It All Began - Part III

The following in an excerpt from my forthcoming book. Please note, this early draft does not reflect corrections, changes, and more recent discoveries. There may be substantial differences between the following text and that to be included in the final work.  —David Maxine

The five-o’clock mail on March 15, 1901, brought the lyrics for the “Opening Chorus.” Tietjens began composing. He had nearly finished the piece when Ike Morgan knocked on his door at 10:00 PM to say that “according to the rules and regulations of the house,” Tietjens must cease his piano playing for the night.

Tietjens fussed over the “Opening” for several days. He eagerly played it for Herman L. Reiwitch, City Editor of the Chicago Record-Herald, who “wasn’t particularly enthusiastic . . . He thought it too heavy i.e. a little above the heads of the unwashed, I believe,” “too theoretical, not enough abandon,” “and advised me to write another one, in which the typewriter had a chance for a solo.”

After another revision, Tietjens played the “Opening Chorus” for Baum and the Denslows. Baum seemed pleased enough, but the Denslows found it heavy. Deflated, Tietjens wrote, “I suppose I must come down a peg or two more.”

Tietjens took a break to go to the theatre: “I heard [the comic opera] Foxy Quiller tonight, and feel rather disheartened about my prospects. The music . . . is by [Reginald] DeKoven, and although not in the least original, strikes the popular ear.  It is light, brilliant, and catchy . . . I do not think it is in me to write such music.”

Scene from Foxy Quiller by Reginald DeKoven & Harry B. Smith (1900).
Sheet Music for Victor Herbert's Wizard of the Nile.
The following week Tietjens made time to go see Victor Herbert’s comic opera The Wizard of the Nile. “It is a beautiful thing and reminds me at times of Aida. I think it is Herbert’s greatest work, and is way above the ordinary comic opera, such as . . . Foxy Quiller.”

Reinvigorated, Tietjens continued work on The Octopus. He labored over Gripem Harde’s solo and looked forward to writing the “dress ball with ballet” in Act Two. “This will require grand music, and I hope that I will be able to meet all the demands for it.”

Tietjens’s music met with mixed approval from Baum, who rejected the latest version of the “Opening Chorus,” but was so taken with Gripem Harde’s solo “I am a Great Promoter” that he sang it several times at one of their meetings.

Tietjens reworked the “Opening” of the comic opera yet again. “The Typewriter chorus has a waltz refrain, which I like very much, [and] the refrain of the messenger boys is a spirited march . . . the best thing I have written . . .  It has a lot of go and spirit to it . . .   But he worried the “sentimental” numbers would be much more difficult.

On April 1, Ike Morgan’s mother gave Tietjens thirty days’ notice to move out. “She claims the piano drives roomers away. Ike will also get out. . . . He think it’s his duty to stay with me. . . . I think I will like this change as we will have more liberty to do as we wish.”

The young composer’s optimism fell to ruin after his next visit to Baum, who was in a bad humor. “He tried to impress me with his importance,” Tietjens wrote, “and in doing so found it necessary to deprecate Denslow’s ability, and [told] me some of Den’s history and troubles. He marveled at my gall in attempting to write a comic opera without previous experience. He seems to be a sorehead and I fear we will have trouble before the thing is over. . . . I am beginning to feel dubious of the success of our scheme, and I have made up my mind to be extremely careful about the business part, as a feeling of distrust is beginning to rise in me. I have left all the manuscript at his house, but I will try to get it back under some pretext, as one can not be too careful.”

Tietjens avoided The Octopus for the next several days. On Easter, April 7, he learned that Denslow had just been sent to a sanitarium for “some nervous disorder. . .” Perhaps Baum and Denslow had argued the day Baum lashed out. In any case, Baum’s bad humor didn’t last long and he sent Tietjens additional lyrics to set, including those for “Love is Love.”   

Tietjens was composing at a solid pace. “I spent a very pleasant evening at Baum’s and he liked most of the stuff I brought him. In fact he declared the opening soprano song [“Love is Love”] to be the gem of the opera, and I felt much encouraged.” Baum enthusiastically told Tietjens that as soon as the first act was finished, he would begin looking for a producer.

Ike Morgan and Tietjens moved to their new lodgings on April 24. Tietjens also wrote to his mother, who was now going on to Europe without him. “I told her of my operatic venture, enjoining silence on her part.”

On May 1, Tietjens played through the first act and read the libretto for Herman Reiwitch, editor of the Record-Herald, and some of his friends. One listener found the libretto “bum.” Reiwitch thought the score lacked contrast and that the “American Heiress” march wasn’t good enough to be the big number of the opera. Tietjens agreed; but he added in his diary, “I do not think I will be able to get anything better . . .”

In early May, Baum wrote the libretto for Act II. Tietjens thought the song lyrics “would do,” but felt “The dialogue is not as good as that of the first act . . .” Baum promised he would start writing to managers about The Octopus. He planned a trip to New York on May 18, hoping he would be able to interest a producer in their comic opera. Paul offered to accompany him.

A few days later Baum presented Tietjens with the lyrics to “The Traveler and the Pie,” and announced that he had written to several prominent producers, including “The Bostonians,” one of the premiere comic opera companies; Francis Wilson, actor and comic opera star; and the New York theatres that were presenting the hit shows Florodora, Princess Chic, and San Toy, and the Shuberts at the Herald Square Theatre in New York. Sam Shubert had written back on May 8, agreeing to meet with Baum when he was in New York.

If Tietjens had any doubts about Baum’s commitment to The Octopus they were now dispelled. Baum had gone straight to the top. Most importantly, Baum had met with Cornelius Gardiner. Baum and Gardiner had both worked as reporters for the Chicago Evening Post, but Gardiner was now the right hand man of Kirke La Shelle, an important producer and manager of many actors, including Frank Daniels, who had created the title part in Herbert’s Wizard of the Nile. La Shelle also produced the play Arizona at Hamlin’s Grand Opera House right there in Chicago in 1899. Gardiner would come for dinner at Baum’s on Sunday to hear their comic opera.

Poster for Kirke La Shelle's production of The Princess Chic (1900).
Copyright © 2019 David Maxine. All rights reserved

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