Mary “Kassie” Kelly ‘18 began her summer research project under the Mellon Initiative with two very specific music history topics in mind, but her plans quickly changed.
Under the guidance of her adviser, professor of music history Carl Leafstedt, Kelly intended to spend part of her time on San Antonio Symphony’s early history, looking to pull out lesser known stories to recreate the history that may be partially left out. The other part of her work was to focus on John M. Steinfeldt, a German composer and pianist who founded the now long-forgotten San Antonio College of Music.
|Kelly's research led her to access an old archive of San Antonio newspapers and other documents.|
This “amnesia” became obvious when Kelly and Leafstedt began their research and came across the forgotten San Antonio Federal Orchestra (not to be confused with the symphony of their initial research):
“We were in the San Antonio Public Library’s archive, and we discovered this San Antonio Federal Orchestra, having found the term ‘The Federal Music Project’ under the acknowledgments of an early San Antonio Symphony program. Neither of us had heard of it before, which is incredible because Dr. Leafstedt is a music historian who has lived in this city for over a decade.” Her curiosity was piqued.
Kelly delved into the San Antonio Newspaper archive searching for more information, and she found that there was quite a bit of archival evidence on this orchestra that appears to have been erased from San Antonio’s cultural memory. It came to be as part of the Federal Music Project of the thirties and forties.
The Federal Music Project, a subset of Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, was part of the New Deal programs of the late thirties and early forties. The Federal Arts project was designed to create jobs for artists, writers, and musicians across the country using federal funding. Because the orchestra was paid for by the government, the public was able to attend symphonies that had previously only been available to elite season symphony ticket holders.
|Kelly's discovery of the San Antonio Federal Orchestra became the central focus of her research.|
The orchestra had its first season in 1936. While San Antonio had had symphony orchestras before, this was the most popular orchestra project the city had ever seen; by 1938 literally thousands of people would be present at its concerts, some of which were held close to the Trinity campus in the Sunken Garden Theater. The San Antonio orchestra employed a variety of musicians who would otherwise have been without a job.
“The New Deal program provided a surprising amount of opportunity to people that were typically marginalized at this point in our history,” Kelly explains of the program’s innovative hiring approach. Projects across the nation under the Federal Music Project employed many women and people of color, which was remarkable in the thirties and forties.
The orchestra’s historical importance also comes from the contribution of several prominent members of the San Antonio community. Walter Dunham, a famous San Antonio musician, was the conductor of the orchestra. Albert Herff-Beze, a Trinity alumnus and well-known figure in the school’s history, was named district director of the Federal Music Project in 1936.
“It was exciting to see that familiar name appear, and to know he had a hand in this history. Someone who had such an impact on Trinity’s campus was also impacting the larger San Antonio community,” Kelly says of her findings.
|Kelly, pictured with a portrait of Albert Herff-Beze, enjoyed learning more about Trinity and San Antonio history.|
“This research experience has broadened my horizons in more than one way,” Kelly explains, “Not only has it sparked a personal interest for me in music history, a field I wasn’t really familiar with before, it’s given me the opportunity to explore different kinds of music and to develop the practical tools of archival and database research.”
Perhaps one of the most valuable aspects of her work was learning more about the city of San Antonio, her hometown:
“I’ve lived here for most of my life, so this research has a personal dimension for me. I’m amazed by how much more this is and was to learn about San Antonio.”
Kelly presented her research, titled “The San Antonio Federal Orchestra of 1936-43: A Forgotten Link in San Antonio’s Musical Heritage” last week at Trinity’s Summer Undergraduate Research Conference.
Learn more about undergraduate research opportunities here.