Thursday, November 28, 2013

Why I Am Thankful Jacques Jolas Had Coffee in Harrisburg One Day

A couple weeks ago, I ran into friend and frequent symphony board member Bill Murray at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore (we were there to hear HSO concertmaster Peter Sirotin and principal cellist Fiona Thompson perform fairy tales set to music with narrator Cary Burkett, part of a Little Scholar program with Market Square Concerts).

We were standing in an alcove where I was looking at books by and about James Joyce, particularly his Ulysses, when Bill expressed the not uncommon view that Joyce was (as I think he put it) “not my cup of tea.” Ulysses may be one of the most significant books of the 20th Century but it is also probably one of the least read (and even less understood) “great books” in the repertoire.

Now, for fans of literature, this expression (“my cup of tea”) resonates with a famous episode from Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time (usually mistranslated into Remembrance of Things Past), when the narrator dips a madeleine, a small breakfast cake, into a cup of tea. The scent and flavor unleash an episode of “involuntary memory,” taking him back to his childhood and his great-aunt's kitchen. From there, basically, this whole enormous seven-volume novel unfolds.

It wasn't until later that I figured out why this stuck with me throughout the next few days until I recalled a number of seemingly isolated facts.

Cornelius Rogers, in his 75th Anniversary history of the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra, mentions this little-known fact, an anecdote I had not heard when I had been looking into some of the early history of the orchestra myself when I was its assistant conductor and orchestra manager back in the 1980s. I recently came across it in passing.

Now, I knew Jacques Jolas was the piano soloist at the first concert the orchestra gave in 1931, playing Robert Schumann's piano concerto, and I knew he was (so to speak) instrumental in how the orchestra came about. But I wasn't aware exactly how:

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One evening, after Jolas had returned to Harrisburg, he and Alice Decevee Mitchell [a pianist and former Juilliard student of his who would also be greatly involved in organizing the orchestra] were visiting the Emerald Street home of the well-known Harrisburg piano teacher, Mary Barnum Bush Hauck. While sitting around the kitchen table having coffee [not tea, as I remembered], Jolas, who had numerous contacts with Harrisburg musicians, said to Mitchell, “why can't we start an orchestra in this town?” to which she replied, “Oh, and who will we get to direct the orchestra?” Jolas said, “I know of a talented young individual in New York, George King Raudenbush.”
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And that is how and where the orchestra was born and how that first concert under Raudenbush (who remained the conductor until 1950) came to pass!

This kitchen conversation occurred before 1929, when Jolas and Ms. Mitchell began raising the necessary funds to start an orchestra. Keep in mind, this was during the Depression. In November of 1929, Jolas played Beethoven's G Major Piano Concerto and some Chopin solo pieces on a concert in the 17th Season with the Reading Symphony.

Jacques Jolas, despite his French name, was an American-born musician, born in New Jersey but grew up in the ancestral Alsace-Lorraine region of France, returning to the United States when he was 15. He earned a living playing the piano for silent films in movie theaters in New York City (shades of Shostakovich). Later, as an American private in World War I, he played the piano at a reception honoring Gen. Pershing.

He was the younger brother of Eugene Jolas. And here our story digresses from Harrisburg.

Eugene & Marie Jolas, 1927
In 1926, Eugene married Marie MacDonald from Louisville, KY, and their daughter Betsy was born later that year in Paris. Eugene became a writer, poet and editor, and Marie taught at l'Écôle Bilingue in Neuilly.

Together, they founded a famous literary magazine called transition, “an International Quarterly for Creative Experiment.” One of their contributors was the Irish-born writer, James Joyce, also living in Paris, whom they met that same year, 1926. Joyce sent them the early chapters of a seemingly inscrutable novel called, uncreatively, Work in Progress.

Joyce & Eugene Jolas, 1938
According to one of the many on-line Joyce biographies, “the Jolases showed Joyce nothing but kindness, generosity, sympathy, and understanding. Were it not for their support, there's a good chance [Joyce's] book might never have seen the light of day.”

Eventually, it became Finnegans Wake.

So, here is where these seemingly unrelated confluences of time and space came together when Bill Murray and I met over James Joyce's books at the Midtown Scholar on November 18th, 2013.

James Joyce had completed Finnegans Wake on November 13th, 1938, five days and 75 years earlier.

Eugene Jolas and his wife's significant support for Joyce (whom they'd met in 1926) and for his last novel helped make possible one of the most significant (if even less understood) novels of the 20th Century.

And Eugene Jolas's brother, Jacques Jolas was, in 1928 or so, in Harrisburg, sitting in a home on Emerald Street, asking why we couldn't have an orchestra in this town!

This is a string of coincidences - degrees of separation, if you will - that perhaps even Joyce would have smiled at.

Marie Jolas, 1977
You can read an account of Marie Jolas attending a concert of songs familiar to James Joyce which took place on June 16th, 1977 (the story of Ulysses takes place on June 16th, 1904, and since the Ulysses-figure of the novel is Leopold Bloom, June 16th is, to literary fans, known as Bloomsday).

She said the last time she had heard many of these songs was when James Joyce sang them to her himself.

Marie Jolas was 84 at the time of that concert and died almost ten years later.

Here is a recording I stumbled upon quite by accident while doing what I euphemistically call “research” while writing a novel of my own.

It is a piano roll of Maurice Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit (like Finnegans Wake, a nighttime fantasy that many of its first hearers considered almost as bizarre as Joyce's book) recorded by Jacques Jolas in 1927 – the year before he was having coffee and wondering about the future Harrisburg Symphony!

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And that is something all music-lovers in Harrisburg can be thankful for.

Happy Thanksgiving,
Dick Strawser

P.S. Incidentally, while I had known of Betsy Jolas, one of the leading French composers of the late 20th Century, and have heard some of her music before, I had never associated her with the Jolas behind the Harrisburg Symphony. She is, in fact, his niece - the daughter of Eugene and Marie Jolas!


  1. Wow Dick. What are wealth of information you discovered and shared. Thank you! Floyd

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Unable to edit the content after I realized it included her e-mail address, I deleted this and re-post the comment here: "I was so pleased to see your article re the Jolas family. I am the only child of Jacques and Libby Jolas born in 1931 during their two years in Harrisburg. There is far more to the story concerning the beginnings of the orchestra if you are interested. Gene & Maria came to N. Y. during the war with their 2 daughters. During that time, Bets;y spent the summer with my family studying composition and piano with my father. My father had an impressive, meteoric career that lasted but a short time when at age 45 he had a severe stroke that ended his playing career. I was 10 years old. Unfortunately the player piano roll of Jacques playing Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit is the sole record we have of his playing. What a pity that the other two movements were of someone else. The picture of Jacques, is certainly not him, perhaps Gene as we have other pictures of Jacques taken during WWII. Thank you for writing about a long forgotten era. Helene Jolas Soper,"

    2. There's so much to respond to here, and it's very exciting to make this kind of contact over the years. First of all, I found out just a few hours ago, before receiving this comment, that the photo I'd included of Jacques Jolas at 22 turns out to be of an entirely different Jacques Jolas and so I've removed it. To be continued!