by Tim Gilmore, 9/15/2018
1. Early Death, Sepia, Firebomb and Glory
The firebomb lobbed into the Friday Musicale burnt down the old building, but couldn’t stop the music. The auditorium, seemingly sprung from mirage, reappeared. The strings and winds and baritones missed no note, nor lieder.
Claudia L’Engle Adams, singer and pianist, founded the Ladies’ Friday Musicale in her downtown home in 1890 and died there on East Monroe Street five years later, 29 years old. Newspapers listed no cause.
A short History of the Ladies’ Friday Musicale published around 1906 calls Claudia L’Engle Adams “a musician of great ability and rare musical feeling, who had fine musical training at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, Baltimore, Maryland.”
Before sunrise, Sunday morning, March 26, 1995, antique settees and clocks, armchairs and archives, piano hammers and wind keys, original libretti and Stephen Foster swamp scores melted in the Friday Musicale’s grand old hall at 645 Oak Street.
Desperate to write of her, I find Claudia framed, witness her photocopied, see her scorched.
The Ladies’ Friday Musicale rose from the Women’s Club Movement, which sought to bring culture, art deemed women’s business, to community. Wealthy white women, their education and talents otherwise untapped, tapped their husband’s bank accounts to push painting and sculpture and classical music and “appreciation” of literature and languages.
Here’s Claudia, sweet, pure, clean, coiffed, Victorian, in profile. I remember just what, that moment, she saw, for she confided in me.
Here she is, multi-matrixed in old newsprint copied of older newsprint still, then photocopied and copied again. Just like time, and all of us in it. I remember. Then again, she’s “original” in an oil painting. Again.
I saw what she saw when the picture flashed.
Here’s Claudia, torched, cauterized, clarified-like-butter and faded, her Victorian collar grayscaled to violent waves laid down in sepia and fire.
2. Deep Sorrow / Great Esteem / Faithful Love
While the Ladies’ Friday Musicale brought the over-the-top emotionalism of opera to Jacksonville, its meticulously kept records, minutes, and resolutions read as properly free of emotion as the ledgers of an industrialist’s most trusted accountant. They’d no choice, of necessity proving the worth of their project rhetorically amidst the myth of men’s greater reason.
When Claudia L’Engle Adams died, “the members of the Ladies’ Friday Musicale” officially “resolved,” according to strictest business form and etiquette, “to express [their] deep sorrow [and] great esteem and admiration.”
With century-old yellow ribbons tied at the bottom and top of folded powder-blue cards, the words of “the ladies” state still, “She it was who brought us together, and her’s [sic] the spirit that was ever the stimulus to our endeavors.”
Lastly, “Resolved. That these resolutions be inscribed on a memorial page of the minutes of the society and that a copy of the same be presented to her husband.”
While the Ladies’ Friday Musicale brought to Jacksonville opera legends from New York, London, Paris and Rome, its members diligently filed their reports as regularly and dispassionately as a ragtime cylinder rolled from a player piano.
The soprano Emma Eames, who’d sung in Paris in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette and Puccini’s Tosca, and the baritone David Bispham, who sang at the Royal Opera House in London in Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, came to Jacksonville in 1907. Soprano Anna Case, who sang in the American premier of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov at the Met in New York and gave her voice to early test recordings for Thomas Edison, sang for the Musicale in 1919. “Metropolitan Opera star Eleanor LaMance, formerly of Jacksonville,” who sang in Giuseppi Verdi’s Aida in St. Louis and Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the Met in New York sang in her hometown for the Musicale in 1931 and ’41.
Preserved in the Musicale’s voluminous archives, amidst stacks of documents and Victorian notebooks and binders of industrious newspaper clippings arrayed on long fold-up tables beneath white sheets, like corpses, one after the other, in an airy room, locked up on the second floor, lie old libretti. Isn’t another name for an archive, after all, a morgue? And don’t Italian and German librettists bellow beautifully from the dead?
From Gaetano Donizetti’s 1835 opera, Lucia di Lammermoor, the chorus sings, in Italian, of love that robs a dying girl of reason, of marriage as coup de grâce. From Antonio Ghislanzoni’s 1871 libretto first performed in Cairo for Giuseppi Verdi’s opera Aida, the namesake Ethiopian princess sings, in Italian, that her love should “fly” from “where these burning skies / are all beneath them blighting,” toward regions to which their “faithful love” invites them, “There, where virgin forests rise / ’Midst fragrance softly stealing, / Our loving bliss concealing / The world we’ll quite forget / ’Midst loving bliss.”
In contrast to the passion of opera, the prosaic nature of the first history, handwritten in 1897, begins, “The Ladies [sic] Friday Musicale of Jacksonville, Florida was first organized in 1890, and for several years consisted of less than a dozen members, who met every Friday at the houses of the different ladies until the fall of ’92.”
3. Beauty, Truth / Truth, Beauty
The 1906 History of the Ladies’ Friday Musicale, credited to “Isabelle S. Perry, Secretary,” says:
“The idea for a musical club originated with Mrs. Claudia L’Engle Adams, wife of Charles E. Adams. Mrs. Adams […] was not only a pianist with fine technique and much originality of interpretation, but possessed a fine voice and sang with much dramatic feeling and power.”
Would that Claudia might sit at this grand piano on stage at 645 Oak Street tonight, or at keys made of finger- and toe-bones articulated behind the orbits of my eyes and softly, but with all the apt feeling of her life, play most soulfully Chopin’s Étude Op. 10, no. 3, in E Major, named by others “Tristesse” and “L’Adieu.”
As I imagine her skull against mine, knowing how perfectly I could have loved her, though without the wealth, without the status, only with Keats’s beauty and truth,
the minimalist-surrealist-absurdist-romanticist piano-poet composer Erik Satie’s Lent et Douloureux, the first of his three 1888 Gymnopédies, piano poems to which every lovely ghost makes itself just visible.
4. Vampires with Violins Melting Clocks
In March, 1995, Margaret Fleet, president of the Friday Musicale, stood in the charred wastes and declared the oldest musical organization in Florida could not be deterred by the fact of a random arsonist torching its structures.
Favorite songs, arias, études, art songs, lieder, and caprices echoed up from across the previous century and wafted through the burnt underbrush of oaks and pines and palms all night.
For four years, Concordia Hall had stood empty, from the height of the hopping ’20s into the inception of the Great Depression. The Musicale bought the large wooden gymnasium of the short-lived private girls’ Concordia School in 1929, a decade after the school had first opened. In between, bats darted about the eaves, then descended as violinists on Friday mornings.
Romantic composer Franz Liszt wrote his Études de Paganini, passionate studies for piano based on violin compositions by Niccolò Paganini, the supposed Italian “vampire with a violin,” in 1838, andante—tremolo!—then revised them in 1851 to dedicate them to Clara Schumann. Clara Josephine Wieck, a “child prodigy” at the piano, married Robert Schumann, the day before her 21st birthday, 1840, after years of Robert’s proposals and Clara’s father’s fighting their marriage in court. In Clara’s teenage years, Robert rented a room in her father’s house, taking piano lessons and dressing up as ghosts to scare her.
About the time she married Robert Schumann, Clara ceased praising the Romantic compositions of Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. When she’d first heard Liszt play in 1838, she wrote that she “shook,” felt wholly “overwhelmed,” and “sobbed aloud.”
Paganini was supposed to perform with Clara in Paris when she was but 11 years old, but the city fell to cholera, and disease wiped out the music.
Another century and a half passed before the clock melted at 6:30 a.m., late March 1995, in the foyer of the Friday Musicale. That clock, frozen now in the midst of a drip, hangs glass-encased in the front office of the music hall that replicates where its predecessor burned.
5. Her Voice in the Worldwide Night
“Various operas are selected to illustrate the different periods, Orpheus by Gluck, The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart, Barber of Seville and William Tell by Rossini, Lucia by Donizetti and Norma by Bellini” each “taken up” from April 9, 1915 to February 14, 1916. Each “libretto is described and the score illustrated by Victrola records, piano numbers and vocal selections.”
The Ladies’ Friday Musicale expressed gratitude to the Florida Talking Machine Co., “who have loaned both the instrument and the records to illustrate the programs.”
A decade earlier, “Mme. Melba,” the Australian Soprano Nellie Melba, “[e]ndowed by nature with a voice of golden beauty and absolute mistress of the art of song,” held a “position in the world of music” no other vocalist commanded across the worldwide night, “the idol of the musical public of
London and Paris and an ever welcome guest at the Metropolitan Opera, New York,” transmuted poems as music, from Walt Whitman to Charles Baudelaire, turning the operatic stage in Manhattan to the deep urban alley wandered by the ancient Old Testament poet-sage gone drunken to-seed in side-street America —
— Charles Baudelaire’s “Parisian Prowler,” who finds “a harbor teeming with melancholy songs” deep “in the ocean of your tresses” and Whitman, who finds in “the open road” all “the earth, that is sufficient, / I do not want the constellations any nearer.”
6. Fires Kept Burning
After the fire, the chimney stood tall.
That Monday morning, day after arson, the Times-Union’s Steve Patterson wrote of three fires started at the Riverside / Brooklyn line within a half hour. One fire caused a half-million dollars’ worth of damage at Blue Cross Blue Shield’s health insurance offices at 320 Riverside. Another scorched the back of that Victorian gingerbread house at 630 May Street. The greatest urban conflagration, since the 1901 fire that decimated the city, including the 1963 fire at the Hotel Roosevelt, reduced the Friday Musicale to cinders.
Firefighters received the call for the Musicale blaze at 5:20 a.m., found the May Street house burning, took the Blue Cross call at 5:39. These March ’95 fires were the latest in more than 50 Riverside arsons since January ’93.
In the print shop located in the Victorian May Street house, a claw-foot bathtub fell through from an upstairs bathroom.
In July 1995, the Associated Press reported a task force investigating 17 fires “in the downtown and nearby Riverside areas.” A 35 year old man, Calvin Joppy, had been arrested in March, 1994, running from a triangle of fires at three downtown law firms, carrying a dagger and lighter. One month later, Assistant State Attorney Ginnifer Gee dropped charges due to lack of evidence, but Joppy was arrested again that summer for two more downtown arsons.
On February 27, 1996, Jim Schoettler’s story in The Florida Times-Union began, “The fires kept burning, one after another.”
The next paragraph, one sentence long, said, “Two vacant buildings went up first, then a strip of businesses, then the Friday Musicale.”
Schoettler reported the string of 16 arsons stretching from Riverside through Brooklyn and into LaVilla “among the most high profile arsons of the 136 deliberately set fires Jacksonville fire officials investigated in 1995. The number of arsons last year was down from 167 in 1994 and 168 in 1993.”
Arsons in the historic black downtown neighborhood of LaVilla coincided with Mayor Ed Austin’s “River City Renaissance” plan, which called for LaVilla’s near-total bulldozing as an act of urban renewal. Cynical LaVilla residents cited Downtown Development Authority Chief Frank Nero in what they called “Nero’s Urban Renewal Plan.” It was the Emperor Nero who supposedly “fiddled while Rome burned.”
In early 1996, fire officials believed Calvin Joppy responsible for more fires than they could prove; other arsons bore resemblance in modus operandi and were set near the same time as Joppy’s.
Shoettler reported, “Joppy was sentenced to 10 months in jail in exchange for pleading guilty to one count of burglary.”
In December, 1996, Schoettler wrote that Joppy, “a convicted felon who was tied to a rash of downtown Jacksonville fires in 1995 has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for burglarizing” Buddy’s Baja Broiler, a restaurant in the Jacksonville suburb of Orange Park.
7. Echoes in the Halls
The music hall is an echo of the music hall. The music replicates the music, and the distance between them, and the bridge across the fire, demonstrates how all song—however lively, emotive and intense—replicates the music of the spheres.
Whether Sarah Vaughan sings the 1927 lyrics, “Sometimes I love you. / Sometimes I hate you. / But when I hate you, / it’s because I love you” in 1954,
or, Terry Stafford, 1973, “I ain’t got a dime, / but what I got is mine. / I ain’t rich, / but Lord I’m free. / Amarillo by mornin’, / Amarillo’s where I’ll be,” or ’83’s “Amarillo,” George Strait — or, King Diamond singing Black Sabbath singing Richard Wagner singing Louis Armstrong’s “Basin Street Blues” —
— From the hall burning down, the hall rises. Algorithms in the movements of the planets, the sun, the moon, all objects circling the earth in space, create spiritual and mathematical harmonies that work inaudible music on earth. Perhaps. Either way: Frog hearts beat / Boolean conditions determine search results / Lightning strikes the Florida earth an average of 3,500 times every day. It’s all music.
We on earth feel the Music of the Spheres thrum through us, accompanied on heartbeat, on footstep, on neural branches through networks of light inside our electrical storms called brains, antennae for patterns of charge.
Pages break and lines between pages. Margins have burnt away. Fragments remain. Truths lie outside. From remnants I read:
baritone born paris teachers were Barbot, Giraudet, and Ponchard. Opera-Comique Company in 1889-91 debut as Gil Perez in Auber’s Le Domino Noir formally inaugurating its 46th season decoration of ash about mouth and eyes one of the oldest and best known cultural organizations in the South
“Yellow candles stood in silver holders and silver coffee services at the ends of the table. Little German cookies and cheese of ‘the time of Bach’ were served with coffee.”
Dr. W.S. Allen, president of Stetson University in DeLand, Florida, emphasized to the Florida Musicale in 1936 “the value of music to culture and to world-vision.”
Allen preached, “The purpose of music is to give more beauty to the world. No subject contributes more than music, which has deeper and more intellectual application than any other art. Music belongs to the fundamentals.”
Even so, and ever so, I see, scrawled into the universals, initials and dates. I’ve fouled archetypes by encasing them in flesh. Music mutates. Instead of eternity, we have only time. Where gods should stand, ghosts fade and flicker. Mints sprout beneath tea leaves. Thunder roils. Midnight steams. Intermittent hail. Instead of eternity, we have only time. Saviors groggily wake, angered by doorbells. 15 Bean Soup. Sad hosannas. Purple rain. Frightened dogs run down the street, this path and that back avenue. They speak to me. They show me once again how things will be. Instead of eternity, we have only time.