Monday, September 16, 2019

How It All Began - Part IV



The stress of the coming audition for Gardiner played havoc with Tietjens’s emotions. “I sat at the piano trying to think, but I seem absolutely barren of ideas at present.” He abandoned the piano, read some Kipling, and went to bed early.

L. Frank Baum - circa early 1900s.
On Sunday, Baum and Tietjens presented the first act of The Octopus for Gardiner. Tietjens could not gauge “what impression it made on [Gardiner], but apparently he seemed to like it. I will have to put some trashy music in the second act . . . a good deal of the success of the opera will have to depend on these trashy numbers, and they are harder for me to write.”

The next evening, seeking trashy inspiration, Tietjens went to the Grand Opera House to see Weber & Fields’s Fiddle-Dee-Dee, some of which he quite enjoyed. [Click here to read his review] He started composing again. “The result, [of my efforts] was a jingle, the chorus of the newspaper reporters, which seemed sufficiently trashy to suit a manager.”

Baum sent word for Tietjens to come see him on Friday, May 17. Baum was to leave for New York the next day. Gardiner had given him a letter of introduction to Sam Shubert, manager of the Herald Square Theater in New York. Gardiner’s letter puzzled Tietjens, "emphasizing that the story was good, but conspicuously ignoring the music.” Baum reluctantly explained that Gardiner had told him “in confidence that my stuff was too heavy to be accepted, the only good things being Leola’s song and the ‘Tramp Quartette’.” Tietjens found the news a great disappointment. Baum still felt The Octopus had much potential to be produced. “ . . . but he is naturally optimistic . . . and [said] he did not want to discourage me.” Tietjens was discouraged nonetheless.

Poster for Sousa's El Capitan.
Trying to be encouraging, Baum suggested Tietjens go see theatrical manager Henry W. Savage, who was visiting Chicago with his Castle Square Opera Company at the Studebaker Theater. Tietjens went down to the theater, but when he asked how he might meet with Savage, was “treated like a school boy.” Stymied, Tietjens bought a ticket to see Savage’s production of John Philip Sousa’s comic opera El Capitan that evening.

“It is really a wonderful work, one of the best comic operas I have heard.” Tietjens was so intimidated by the splendor of El Capitan that it “almost gave the quietus to my comic opera aspirations. . . . I felt blue and despondent, and have almost decided to discontinue the work.”

Tietjens had clearly gotten himself into quite a state, “a mortal combat” between financial security and “nobility” of art. His over-the-top misery was as heavy as many found his music. “It does seem unjust that one who is capable of appreciating to its fullest depths the true inwardness of his art and of all poetic impulses should be deterred by mental ineptitude, due to financial difficulty.”

Tietjens’s family was not doing well at the farm in Slater, Missouri. Slater was suffering from a drought and his family’s finances were tight. Tietjens felt guilty taking money from his father. “I will be 24 years of age next Wednesday [May 22], and that is too old to be supported by a father who is himself not too well provided for.”

Unconvinced his comic opera had a future, Tietjens avoided it. He spent the next few weeks working on his piano studies. When his hands and fingers grew weary, he escaped into reading Kipling’s Soldiers Three and Robert Louis Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights—The Suicide Club and The Bottle Imp. “I am more interested in Stevenson than in my music.”

On May 27, Tietjens attempted to call on Baum, who had returned that morning from his trip to New York. Baum’s wife Maud met Tietjens at the door. Her husband, she explained, had come home with a tooth infection and gone straight to the dentist, who had pulled ten teeth. In New York Baum had seen Sam Shubert, who had refused to listen to an unfinished work. Mrs. Baum left Tietjens “rather unceremoniously. I lingered a moment and then [returned home], not in the best of humors.”

Ike Morgan
The next day Tietjens was surprised to learn from a newspaper announcement that Ike Morgan would be marrying Pauline Swain on June 28. Morgan confirmed the news when he returned home that evening. Tietjens worried the marriage was premature. “It may happen that [Ike’s] book will not bring the expected or desired revenue, and then he would be doubly tied to . . . his newspaper work, which is a calamity to be dreaded.” No doubt Tietjens was also distressed to be losing his roommate and the social intimacy he and Morgan had shared for the last six months.

A few days later, demoralized by all life’s pressures, Tietjens apprehensively returned to the Baums. “I fully expected to have a falling out with him, but it turned out otherwise. . . [Baum] was in higher spirits than ever . . .” In New York he had seen Frank Pixley and Gustav Luders’s King Dodo and The Burgomaster, “and claims our work is far superior to any of the popular hits in New York . . . I have now determined to finish the [comic opera]. It would be rather cowardly, and a wrong to Baum to leave him in the lurch, when the work has progressed so far.”

Tietjens plunged back into work on The Octopus, but his financial situation was worsening every day. He had written home for assistance twice and received no reply. “I have only a few cents left, and I’m urgently in need of funds. I hate to borrow from Ike. I hope nothing has happened at home [in Slater].”

Ike Morgan married Pauline Swain on the morning of June 28, 1901. Tietjens gave Morgan $25 as a wedding gift, partly to repay all of Morgan’s generosity over the six months Tietjens had now been in Chicago. Where Tietjens found the money for his generous wedding gift is unknown.

At the wedding reception, held at the Denslows’, Tietjens entertained the guests, playing selections from The Octopus. Denslow was particularly taken with Tietjens’s music and made a suggestion that would change both their lives forever: Tietjens should really be composing a comic opera based on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz


Copyright © 2019 David Maxine. All rights reserved.

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