Are we a musical state? We are indeed. But our performances and organizations tell only part of the story. In some ways, the vitality and range of Connecticut's musical history is best indicated by the large and ever-lengthening roster of notable music figures who were either born here or made Connecticut their home for a significant portion of their lives.
This is just a small suggestion of that roster:
>>Marian Anderson (1897-1993) — One of the great voices, and great figures, of the 20th century, contralto Anderson was at the center of one of the most visible incidents of the American civil rights struggle. In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow Anderson to sing at Washington's Constitution Hall, then a non-integrated facility. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (after resigning from the DAR in a blistering letter), and reportedly with the assistance of her husband, arranged for Anderson to sing instead at an outdoor concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. That concert, held Easter Sunday, drew 75,000 people, a nationwide radio audience in the millions, and international headlines. Anderson, who had enjoyed a solid but quiet career as a concert singer, became a worldwide celebrity and symbol. In 1955, she again attracted global attention by becoming the first black artist to perform at the Metropolitan Opera. Although articles and reference books often identify Anderson as an opera singer, that Met appearance was, by her choice, the one and only time she appeared on an operatic stage. In 1940, the publicity-shy Anderson and her husband purchased a multi-acre property in Danbury — later to be called Marianna Farm —- where she lived for most of her remaining years. Anderson's later years were private, although townspeople would often see her shopping or attending tag sales. One local recalled that she had a good eye for a bargain.
>>Leroy Anderson (1908-1975) — A son of Swedish immigrants, born and raised in Cambridge, Mass., the soft-spoken composer of "The Syncopated Clock," "Serenata," "The Waltzing Cat," Fiddle Faddle" and many other classic orchestra miniatures, originally contemplated becoming a linguist. But a couple of early successes writing short pieces for the Boston Pops, and the steady encouragement of the Pops' young conductor Arthur Fiedler, convinced him to make music his career. After serving in the war, Leroy and his wife Eleanor moved to Woodbury in the 1940s, began a family and remained there the rest of his life. Anderson already had a number of hits to his credit, but it was in Woodbury (during a mid-summer heat wave, no less) that he sketched out the piece that eventually became his most famous and enduring work, "Sleigh Ride." The Courant was the first paper to make the claim (never disputed) that "Sleigh Ride" has been interpreted by a wider stylistic range of musical artists than any other piece of Western music. Among them: The Chipmunks, the New York Philharmonic, the Ronettes, Captain Kangaroo, Ella Fitzgerald, the Ventures, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
>>Victor Borge (1909-2000) — The one-of-a-kind Danish musical entertainer initially studied, in his native country, to become a concert pianist. But even as a youth he worked small sight gags into his recitals, and he later admitted he was smitten by the ability to generate laughter. In 1939 he sailed to America on what he claimed was the last passenger ship to depart from Europe before the war halted such transportation. He settled in New York and acclimated himself to American culture by watching movies in 10 cent midtown theaters. The self-tutorials worked: within a couple of years he was working regularly on national radio programs, including Big Crosby's. Shortly thereafter he opened on Broadway in his own one-man show, "Comedy in Music." The show featured Borge's trademark puns and wordplay, his affectionate skewering of the conventions of classical music (The "Caro Nome" from "Rigoletto" would be introduced as the "Cockamamie from Rigor Mortis'') and his own signature device, phonetic punctuation. The latter consisted of Borge reading aloud from a sappy, made-up love story, rendering all the punctuation marks as vivid, and frequently indelicate audible sounds.
Borge lived most of his adult life in Connecticut, first in Southbury where, as a kind of semi-legit second career, he raised Cornish game hens and helped to bring those succulent little birds to American dining tables. He later moved to an imposing oceanside mansion in Greenwich, one feature of which was a room that contained two side-by-side concert grand pianos. Borge made many appearances with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, including one 1980 outdoor concert on the rolling Cigna lawn in Bloomfield, to a crowd estimated at 50,000. According to the Courant's account, he opened that concert with a vintage Borgian quip:
"Everybody nice and comfortable?
"That's too bad because they're coming to cut the grass in 10 minutes."
>>Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) — Many celebrated musicians and composers have cycled through the Yale faulty, and continue to do so to this day, often as "visiting" artists. But the German-born composer and theorist Paul Hindemith was an anchoring presence at Yale, and a bona fide resident of New Haven for 13 years, beginning in 1940. Hindemith was always more known and admired in academic music circles than among regular concertgoers (a fact that is still true) but his arrival marked a major step forward for Yale's School of Music. Yale lore holds that he could be as dour and intimidating as his scowling Teutonic face would suggest. But his roster of devoted students is impressive, including names such as Lukas Foss and Norman Dello Joio. Hindemith trivia: he was also the teacher of Mitch Leigh, who composed the score to "Man of La Mancha," and George Roy Hill, who forsook music to become a Hollywood film director, and whose credits included "The Sting" and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."
>>Moshe Paranov (1895-1994) — He was born Morris Perlmutter in the North End of Hartford. As a boy he sang in local synagogues, sold fruit on street corners and played piano for silent movies. He attracted the attention of one Julius Hartt, a local musical figure who, among other things, was the music critic for the Courant's main rival, The Hartford Daily Times. Hartt took young Moshe under his wing and saw to it that he received solid musical training. In 1920, Paranov and Hartt, together with a few friends, founded a tiny music school in a private home on Collins Street. By and by, this became the Hartt College of Music, which later occupied a graceful, turreted stone building on Broad Street. (Now gone, alas.) "Uncle Moshe" became the director of the school, assembling a world-class faculty that included, at any given time, New York-based eminences who would travel to Hartford for salaries that Moshe himself conceded were "laughable." In 1957 the school became one of the three founding institutions of the University of Hartford. Today the school that Paranov started on a shoestring almost a century ago (now called simply The Hartt School) boasts 750 students from all over the country and abroad. With programs in dance and theater as well as music, Hartt presents more than 400 performances a year. Moshe Paranov died in 1994, weeks shy of his 99th birthday.
Paul Robeson (1898-1976) —- The singer, actor, activist, civil rights champion, college athlete, and all-around defiant citizen of the world moved with his wife and son to Enfield in 1941. Robeson was in his early 40s and his career was in full flower. He was globally known by this time for his recitals, his stage triumphs, and especially — somewhat to his irritation — his role as the philosophical stevedore Joe in the Kern/Hammerstein musical "Show Boat." He had not starred in the original 1927 Broadway production (although many sources continue to claim he did, incorrectly) but he had triumphed in the subsequent London production. And had indelibly reprised the role in the 1936 film version, starring Irene Dunne and Allan Jones. His singing of "Ol' Man River" in the film is often cited as one of the great individual moments in musical film history, and he was forever obliged to include the tune in his concert appearances. By the time Robeson moved out of Connecticut in 1953, his career had begun to decline, in part because of his complicated political life, which had included widely-reported remarks praising the Soviet Union. He had received the International Stalin Prize the year before, but privately denied being a Communist. His later years were dogged by fitful comebacks, persecution by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and similar groups, and declining health.
Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990) — Many musicians and other arts figures — particularly the ones based in New York —- have owned Connecticut getaways or weekend retreats. For our purposes, these have not counted as Connecticut residents. Leonard Bernstein, however, maintained a true home in Fairfield from the early '60s on. Along with their apartment in New York, the Fairfield house became a regular residence for Bernstein, his wife Felicia, and their three children. A small outbuilding on the grounds (the property had originally been a horse farm in the 1800s) served as Bernstein's studio, and it was here that he wrote most of the compositions of his later life, including "Chichester Psalms." The contents of that studio – including Bernstein's stand-up composing table, a conducting stool that may have been used by Brahms, his 39 Grammy nomination plaques and a piece of the Berlin Wall – have been donated to Indiana University, which plans to re-create the space as a museum.
Rosa Ponselle (1897-1981) — Among opera people, there are many singers who are admired, even loved. There is a much smaller handful of singers who are spoken of with a special, almost religious veneration. Enrico Caruso is one, as is Maria Callas. And another is Rosa Ponselle. The soft-spoken child of Italian immigrants, Ponselle is universally regarded as one of the greatest sopranos in the history of opera. And though it seems to come as surprise even to knowledgeable opera fans, she began her life as Rosa Ponzillo in a modest Italian neighborhood in Meriden. As a child Rosa sang popular tunes in silent movie houses in her hometown, entertaining audiences as the projectionist changed reels. Later she formed a vaudeville duo with her sister Carmella. But Rosa's voice quickly vaulted her onto the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, where she made her debut at the age of 21. She became one of the biggest stars the Met has ever known, and remained so until she quietly retired at the age of 39.
Ponselle was honored with a commemorative U.S. postage stamp in 1997; in Meriden they remember their hometown girl, Rosa Ponzillo, with an annual concert.
Charles Ives (1874-1954) — Finally, if any one person can be said to be Connecticut's musical patron saint, its defining face and personality, it is the brilliant, irascible, visionary, perplexing Danbury native Charles Ives, Charlie to his friends. Son of a free-thinking New England bandmaster, Ives grew up in western Connecticut, imbibing the sounds of marching bands, hymn-singing congregations of various Christian denominations, the standard European classical titans, and the popular songs of the day. In his time, he would incorporate all of those sounds into his compositions, sometimes simultaneously. He made his way to Yale, where he was by all accounts an above-average athlete, a popular man-about-campus, and a gifted if exasperating budding composer of music. His teacher, the aforementioned Horatio Parker, recognized Charlie's talent, and did his best to teach him the time-honored musical groundrules that Charlie would soon so thoroughly and imaginatively forsake.
Ives' output was not exceptionally large, and most of his ourvre was composed before he was 50 or so. For roughly the last 30 years of his life, in part because of mysterious but seemingly chronic health ailments, he composed virtually nothing. The music that he did write — including pieces like "Three Places in New England" and "The Holiday Symphony," now considered modern masterpieces — was almost totally ignored during his lifetime. As testimony to Ives' lonely road as a composer, his Third Symphony won a Pulitzer Prize for music in 1947, 38 years after it was written.
One of the things (there are many) that make Ives so interesting is that he had a very successful "day job" as an insurance man. Indeed, Ives co-founded an insurance business in New York City that made him a celebrated figure in insurance circles, and not incidentally, a wealthy man. Most of his colleagues in the insurance world had no idea that Charlie Ives had another life as a composer of wildly original, totally unorthodox concert music, and that was just fine with him. For most of his adult life he and his wife Harmony also maintained a home in rural West Redding — not far from his childhood home — and he often composed on the commuter train that took him into New York.
Even today, although he is now acknowledged as a 20th-century giant, Ives is not an easy sell in the concert hall. His sudden and surprising dissonances, his odd combinations of instruments and tendency to start new ideas on a dime, still baffle listeners, and not infrequently, performers.
But Charles Ives — equally at home with long-term annuity planning as with crashing tone clusters — is the one name that, if the conversation happens to turn to Connecticut, musicians around the world instantly, and admiringly, summon.