Music and Politics in San Francisco: From the 1906 Quake to the Second World War

Music and Politics in San Francisco: From the 1906 Quake to the Second World War

by Leta E. Miller

Hardcover(First Edition)

View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


This lively history immerses the reader in San Francisco’s musical life during the first half of the twentieth century, showing how a fractious community overcame virulent partisanship to establish cultural monuments such as the San Francisco Symphony (1911) and Opera (1923). Leta E. Miller draws on primary source material and first-hand knowledge of the music to argue that a utopian vision counterbalanced partisan interests and inspired cultural endeavors, including the San Francisco Conservatory, two world fairs, and America’s first municipally owned opera house. Miller demonstrates that rampant racism, initially directed against Chinese laborers (and their music), reappeared during the 1930s in the guise of labor unrest as WPA music activities exploded in vicious battles between administrators and artists, and African American and white jazz musicians competed for jobs in nightclubs.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520268913
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/04/2011
Series: California Studies in 20th-Century Music , #13
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Leta E. Miller is Professor of Music at the University of California, Santa Cruz and is coauthor (with Fredric Lieberman) of Composing a World: Lou Harrison, Musical Wayfarer and Lou Harrison.

Read an Excerpt

Music and Politics in San Francisco

From the 1906 Quake to the Second World War

By Leta E. Miller


Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95009-2


The Paris of the West

San Francisco at the Turn of the Century

San Francisco is "a mad city," wrote Rudyard Kipling of his visit in 1889, "inhabited for the most part by perfectly insane people." Indeed, San Francisco's reputation as brash, exotic, offbeat, diverse, free-spirited, opinionated, self-confident, quirky, and above all, fun was well established by the end of the nineteenth century. By the 1870s, it was already known as the Paris of the West—a must-visit destination for tourists, mariners, sightseers, and fortune seekers, a city of mystery and intrigue, a gathering place for the world's adventurers. San Francisco "is not only the most interesting city in the Union and the hugest smelting-pot of races," wrote Robert Louis Stevenson, but "she keeps, besides, the doors of the Pacific, and is the port of entry to another world and an earlier epoch in man's history."

The city had grown up haphazardly—with little or no urban planning—as the locus of the gold rush, and it boasted a fiercely independent population of adventurers hailing from Europe, Asia, and the eastern United States. These immigrants, of course, brought with them not only their material possessions but also their musical cultures, fostering a fascinating, if at times unrefined, sonic diversity.

Among the early settlers who particularly prized music as a historical marker were the Germans, who came to San Francisco in large numbers and proudly built on their long-established tradition of instrumental music. From the 1850s through the early years of the twentieth century, a series of conductors—mostly German (or German-trained)—attempted to establish high-quality professional orchestras. Rudolph Herold, Louis Homeier, Gustav Hinrichs, Fritz Scheel, Paul Steindorff, Frederick Wolle, William Zech: all founded symphonic groups that flourished for short periods. All ultimately failed. When the San Francisco Symphony finally opened its first season in 1911, a U.S.-born conductor, Henry Hadley, was at the helm. Four years later, however, he was replaced by another German, Alfred Hertz, who built the orchestra into an outstanding ensemble and who remained in charge until the Depression.

A large Italian contingent set up its own subcommunity in the North Beach area of the city and promoted opera so successfully that San Francisco became a magnet for traveling companies from the eastern United States, as well as from South America. The city's first complete opera presentation took place in February 1851, only three years after James Marshall discovered gold at John Sutter's mill. The establishment of a resident company, however, was hampered in the early twentieth century not only by the dearth of experienced singers, managers, and directors but also by the absence of a suitable venue. After April 1906, when all the major theaters were destroyed in the devastating earthquake and fire, political squabbling blocked the construction of an opera house for another twenty-six years. Nevertheless, an enterprising Italian, Gaetano Merola, managed to found the San Francisco Opera in the early 1920s; it performed in venues with frustratingly poor acoustics for a decade.

Rival statues in Golden Gate Park mark the German and Italian musical territories. In 1914 the Italians erected a vibrant bronze tribute to Verdi at the climax of a grandiose operatic festival; it was unveiled in a ceremony that reportedly attracted twenty thousand people. Adult and children's choirs sang, but the biggest attraction was San Francisco's prized musical discovery—prima donna Luisa Tetrazzini, who had made her U.S. debut in the city in 1905. The following year the Germans weighed in with a sober tribute to Beethoven (a replica of the statue in New York's Central Park), whose dedication inaugurated a three-day Beethoven Festival. A thousand people attended the statue's unveiling and "bared their heads" as they listened to the band play the second movement of the Fifth Symphony. The dark-colored Beethoven, head bowed in deep contemplation, stands next to the park's Temple of Music, an elegant stone shell and stage erected in 1900 with a donation from sugar king Claus Spreckels. In stark contrast, the gold-colored Verdi holds his head high, looking down on Beethoven and the music concourse from a hill behind the stage.

Jewish entrepreneurs also arrived during San Francisco's gold rush years and discovered a welcoming community in which to establish businesses that served the mining pioneers. By 1850 two synagogues (still functioning today) served the growing population: Temple Emanu-El, catering to the wealthy German Jews, and Sherith Israel, serving the eastern European immigrants. Among the early arrivals was Levi Strauss, who came to the city in March 1853. Two of his nephews, Jacob and Sigmund Stern—heirs to Strauss's blue-jeans fortune—became particularly strong supporters of the arts, both visual and aural, as did numerous other members of the Jewish community. Among the founders of the San Francisco Symphony, Jewish names appear in far greater numbers than their proportion in the population: Ehrman, Esberg, Fleischhacker, Gerstle, Haas, Hecht, Hellman, Jacobi, Koshland, Lilienthal, Schloss, Sloss, Stern, to name but a few. In later years, many of these patrons continued to serve San Francisco's cultural community. Sidney Ehrman was one of the principal supporters of local violin wunderkind Yehudi Menuhin (whose father was a San Francisco Hebrew-school teacher); the Fleischhackers founded the San Francisco Zoo; Cora Koshland delighted in hosting elaborate musicales at her Presidio Heights mansion—modeled on the Petit Trianon at Versailles and complete with pipe organ—in which she could seat an audience of a hundred or host informal gatherings three times that size; and Rosalie Stern, in the 1930s, donated to the city a thirty-three-and-a-half-acre grove near Golden Gate Park. The Sigmund Stern Grove, named in memory of her husband, continues to host operatic and orchestral outdoor music events that attract thousands of attendees.

As early as 1849, Chinese gold-seekers began arriving in San Francisco in response to reports of the Sutter's Mill discovery brought to China by U.S. sea traders. Thus began a virtual flood of Chinese immigrants to what they called Gam Saan (the "Golden Mountains"). By December of the following year, some 10,000 residents of the Guangdong (Canton) region had arrived in California to try their luck in the mining frenzy. Between 1848 and 1876, more than 200,000 Chinese arrived in the United States through San Francisco. Ineligible for citizenship, most came with the intention of making a quick fortune and returning to China; more than 90,000 returned to Asia in this same period. San Francisco became home to the largest community of Chinese in the nation. At the end of the century, there were twice as many Chinese in California as in the rest of the states combined. And within California, the largest community, by far, was in San Francisco. Out of 75,132 Chinese in California in 1880, for example, 21,745 lived in San Francisco, about four-and-a-half times the size of the next largest community (in Sacramento). San Francisco's Chinese population—at first almost exclusively male—set up its own insular community, called Tangrenbu (Port of the People of Tang), occupying, by the century's end, an area of about fifteen blocks in the heart of the city. Reviled by the surrounding white community, Chinatown provoked exaggerated tales of opium consumption, prostitution, and gambling in labyrinthine underground tunnels. At the same time, the area's illicit reputation became a source of titillating curiosity, and Chinatown served, even in that era, as one of San Francisco's main tourist attractions. Gullible visitors were led through the area by unscrupulous guides who staged street fights and paid residents to simulate drug havens. The Chinese opera, a link to these residents' home culture, flourished in the era before the earthquake. Most white visitors—with some notable exceptions, as we will see—reported on the opera with disdain, describing rudimentary scenery, endless and uninteresting plots, inattentive audiences, ear-splitting percussion, and screeching string sounds. The costumes were the sole element consistently praised.

By the 1890s other Asian immigrants had begun to seek their fortunes in California—particularly the Japanese, who years earlier had established a large community in Hawaii. Near the end of the century, thousands of Japanese began coming to the mainland; many of them chose to work as farmers. In 1890 there were only 2,039 Japanese on the U.S. mainland; two decades later there were more than 72,000. Among these, 4,500 lived in San Francisco, about half the number of Chinese residents in the city in the same year. Unlike most other immigrants from either Europe or Asia, the Japanese tended to be highly educated (the Japanese government screened its emigrants to assure that they would represent their country well in their new homes), and at least some of them sympathized with the white vilification of the Chinese. They also brought their families, in contrast to the overwhelmingly male Chinese population.

A fortune could be made (and quickly lost) in San Francisco through gold and, later, silver mining and its related industries—as well as through enterprising business dealings, the most visible of which was the transcontinental railroad. The Big Four railroad entrepreneurs—Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker—made big money and built big houses on Nob Hill (derisively dubbed Snob Hill by the less fortunate). Their descendants, in many cases, also became big supporters of the arts.

The railroad, of course, brought other, less affluent newcomers. African Americans, who found employment as porters on the trains (one of the few jobs available to them in this openly racist industry) settled in large numbers in Oakland, the line's terminus. The black population of San Francisco itself, however, remained small (less than 1 percent) until the early 1940s. The Oakland jazz scene, on the other hand, gained a rich history from the activities of this community. Discriminatory practices in the American Federation of Labor led black musicians to organize a separate "colored local" in the 1920s, covering the San Francisco and East Bay areas. Tensions with the far larger white local erupted during the next decade in a bitter legal battle.

These (and other) ethnic communities rubbed shoulders uneasily in a small geographical area: The city's outward expansion was contained by water on three sides, and its internal development was challenged by steep hills in the east and sand dunes in the west (Map 1). The rich and the poor lived almost within arm's length of one another. From the mansions of the Big Four atop Nob Hill to the heart of Chinatown is less than a half mile (nearly straight down).

Adjoining Chinatown on the north and east and stretching to the waterfront was the Barbary Coast, a shabby area of high crime, prostitution, gambling, general debauchery, and lively music. Pacific Street, its most active area, was, for the most part, "a solid mass of dance-halls, melodeons, cheap groggeries, wine and beer dens, which were popularly known as deadfalls; and concert saloons, which offered both dancing and entertainment." At the turn of the century this area was the toughest in town. Murders were commonplace, and saloons dominated the landscape. In 1890 alone, the city issued 3,117 liquor licenses (one for every ninety-six residents), and many other establishments served alcoholic beverages illegally. Some of the more reputable places, such as the Bella Union, offered low-brow variety shows, and a few performers who appeared there, such as Lotta Crabtree, later established stage careers. Featured artists near the end of the century included the original Little Egypt from the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and Big Bertha, "a sprightly lass of two hundred and eighty pounds who sang sentimental ballads in a squeaky soprano." Big Bertha achieved renown in the mid-1880s as "a singer who couldn't sing ... and an actress who couldn't act." Her acting, indeed, was "so remarkably bad that she attracted audiences from all over San Francisco and brought to the Bella Union and the Barbary Coast hundreds of citizens who had never visited the quarter before and never did again." Prostitution was rampant and tolerated by authorities; in fact, one place that operated a lively flesh trade from 1904 to 1907 was dubbed the "municipal crib": patronized by a number of upstanding citizens, it offered sizeable kickbacks to city officials. Chinatown and the Barbary Coast shared close access to Portsmouth Square, an open area at Kearny and Washington Streets that was the center of San Francisco's life in the city's earliest years and continues today to serve as a recreational park for Chinatown residents.

San Francisco in 1900 boasted an ethnic diversity remarkable to its visitors, but religiously and politically the city would hardly be recognizable to today's inhabitants: it was predominantly Catholic and Republican. The clamor of its political infighting, the outspoken independence of its residents, and the unbridled candor of its various factions were as apparent then as they are now, but the city's current reputation as a standard-bearer of the U.S. Left was hardly in evidence. There was, of course, a vocal liberal contingent, but there was also rampant racism, particularly directed toward the Chinese. The depression of 1873–78 spawned the Workingmen's Party of California (WPC), headed by Irish immigrant Denis Kearney. As part of its platform, the party promulgated a simpleminded, provocative, and contentious slogan: "The Chinese must go!" It even managed to elect a mayor, Isaac Kalloch, who served one two-year term (1879–81). By 1881, the WPC was largely defunct, but its racist message was not. Passage of the national Exclusion Act of 1882—directed at the Chinese and prompted by racist agitation in California—forbade entry of Chinese laborers into the United States for ten years and set restrictions on reentry for those who had returned to Asia. (The new California constitution, adopted two years earlier, had contained even more severe anti-Chinese provisions, declaring the Chinese dangerous to the well-being of the state, forbidding their employment by corporations and on public works projects, and excluding them from land ownership.) The national law, which was repeatedly extended, and whose restrictions were tightened before its ultimate repeal in 1943, effectively ended the massive influx of Chinese to San Francisco. The city's Chinese population peaked in 1890 at 25,833. By 1900 it had dropped by almost half, to 13,954, and it continued to decline for the next twenty years.

Aside from the overwhelming disdain directed at the Chinese, San Francisco otherwise heralded labor. Indeed, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the city was truly a union town. Its musicians, like workers in other professions, began organizing as early as 1869; a branch of the National League of Musicians (NLM), precursor to the present-day American Federation of Musicians (AFM), was established in 1886; and when the AFM was founded as an affiliate of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1896, San Francisco musicians were among the first to join. AFM Local No. 6 dates from 1897.

In 1901 a massive waterfront strike closed the port of San Francisco for two months, prompted by a conflict between the newly founded Teamsters National Union and the Draymen's Association. Furious at Democratic mayor James Phelan's support for the employers, and disaffected as well by the Republicans, who were beholden to the railroad and business interests, organized labor decided to found its own political entity: the Union Labor Party. On a platform of radical labor policy (including public ownership of utilities) and reactionary social views (notably the exclusion of Asians), the ULP succeeded in electing a mayor, Eugene Schmitz, in 1901.


Excerpted from Music and Politics in San Francisco by Leta E. Miller. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations Acknowledgments Abbreviations

1. The Paris of the West: San Francisco at the Turn of the Century

Part One. From the Quake to the Crash
2. The Politics of Class: The San Francisco Symphony, the People's Philharmonic, and the Lure of European Culture (1911-1930)
3. The Politics of Race: Chinatown, Forbidden and Alluring Interlude 1: Two Musical Tributes to San Francisco's Chinatown
4. The Politics of Labor: The Union(s), the Clubs and Theaters, and the Predicament of Black Musicians
5. Musical Utopias: Ada Clement, Ernest Bloch, and the San Francisco Conservatory
6. Opera: The People's Music or a Diversion for the Rich?

Part Two. The Depression and Beyond
7. The Despair of the Depression and the Clash of Race
8. Ultramodernism and Other Contemporary Offerings: Looking West, Challenging the East
9. The Politics of Work: Idealism Confronts Bureaucracy in the Federal Music Project Interlude 2: Highlights from San Francisco's Federal Music Project: Take Your Choice and Keeton's Concert Spirituals
10. Welcoming the World: San Francisco's Fairs of 1915 and 1939-1940
11. Aftermath

Notes References Index

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Few histories or musicological studies provide as lively and entertaining reading as Music and Politics."—San Francisco Classical Voice

"A lively and compelling read."—Forward

"Solidly researched and of interest to a broad audience. . . . Highly recommended."—Choice

Customer Reviews