The Joy of Music


Undoubtedly, the happiest period of my life was the months I spent in Fargo, North Dakota attending the Conservatory from January to June. For this culturally deprived gal a new day was dawning, the sun was rising over a grand musical horizon for me. I was embarking on an exciting and interesting journey into something wonderful! A new world filled with challenges and opportunities awaited me.

I loved to play the piano and classical music was my second nature. I had played Haydn, Mozart and had started some Beethoven with my Evansville teacher, Anna Dahl. Because of this advanced training, the head piano teacher, Mrs. Aslaug Olsen-Wright, wanted me as her pupil. Lessons were $1.50 each!

Besides learning the piano pieces, I took courses in Harmony, Ear Training and Musical History. There were about sixty students in my class when we started the classes, but after a few weeks, this number dwindled to sixteen; Harmony was the culprit. Each day a new rule was given; if you play such a note, then only this note can follow. All these rules had to be memorized because we were required to write music as a class assignment. In Ear Training, a note is sounded and from this note you should be able to read the remainder of the piece. Musical History dealt mainly with composers of the different musical periods: Baroque, Classical and Romantic. I was assigned a young pupil to practice with on becoming a piano instructor.

When Father Renner celebrated his first Mass and reception in Alexandria, I stayed with the Augustine's. Tracy was the organist at the church and the choir wished to sing a particular song. She had the song, but in the wrong key. She said, "I'll have to walk 10 blocks to Mrs. Leach's house (her teacher) and have her transpose this song for me into the requested key. " I said, "Oh, I can do that for you because of my training at the Conservatory. " She was much relieved because it saved her from venturing out in -20 below weather.

All music had to be memorized-Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelsohn and Chopin-each hand alone, and when totally perfected, then both hands together. I practiced at least 4 hours daily and some times more. Because of my advanced training, I could have completed the four year course in 2-1/2 years. All the students were required to listen to records once a week and in the spring the advanced students would present a recital. I played "Polonaise Militaire" by Chopin.

All pieces were by memory. If I had stayed to complete the full course to graduate, I would have had to travel with the orchestra to different towns and cities as their accompanist. If the orchestra conductor decided to play a selection in a different key than the notes written, I would have to transpose the new notes in my head as we moved through the piece. This would have been most difficult. Also as a requirement of graduation, the student must give a recital and play a Concerto of at least 70 pages all by memory!

The Conservatory was located in Stone's Music Store building. The store was on the first floor, the second was empty and my school was located on the 3rd floor. This is where I received my class instructions and practiced the piano. The other orchestra instrument lessons, plus singing lessons were also given here. Off to the side, looking down through large doors, was a ballroom dance area. We would sometimes watch the couple whirl around the floor.

My teacher insisted that all her pupils attend the musical concerts in Fargo. I was only given $5.00 spending money per month, so in order to make this money stretch, I bought the cheapest stockings and I was too proud to wear overshoes. The Conservatory was just off Broadway and the Dormitory was a good mile to the south. I had to walk this distance several times daily as breakfast, dinner and supper were served at the dorm and classes and practice time was at the Conservatory. In the process of walking without overshoes, I froze my toes!

Several names come to mind from my Fargo days. Viola Larsen was a piano student from Fargo. She would buy a bag of chocolates and eat them on the way home, and if I was walking with her, she'd share with me. Dora Dyer was another piano student I knew quite well and a Clara Eaves who had a beautiful Soprano voice. Mr. Albert. Stephens taught the string instruments, was the president of the Conservatory and the Conductor of the school orchestra.

No name is more etched in my memory than that of Pearl Levitz. Pearl was a violin student at the Conservatory at the same time I was there. It amazes me how well we hit it off together. I was just an ordinary farm girl with a love of music and this perhaps framed our relationship. Her father owned a furniture store on Front Street. My folks told me later that a Mr. Levitz had walked by foot through the Millerville area peddling shoe laces and sewing thread. He later had saved enough money to buy a horse and buggy and then sold kitchen utensils and cloth. This frugality afforded him the chance to venture into the furniture business.

I'm going to be bouncing around a bit in telling her story, but this incident fits while I'm talking about the store. Pearl bad a terrific gift of gab and a real sassy, twangy voice. She was clerking. Two men came into the store wishing to purchase two folding chairs. Now, in a Jewish store, prices are not marked on the item. They asked "How much are the chairs?" She said, "$1.50 a piece." The men paid for the chairs and left, she laughed. She knew there was a circus in town and these men were visitors. If they had wanted more chairs, she would have charged them the correct price of 75~ each, but since they only wanted two chairs and she also knew they wouldn't store hop, she hit them for double the price. Then she laughed and held the money up high in the air and danced a happy jig, "See, I made an extra $1.50!l!I"

Another example of her "in-your-face-style". Pete Schirber from Millerville and friend of my future husband, Joe, came to Fargo and called me to see if we could spend the evening together. We met at church for Devotions. Then he took me to a movie. I told him I needed to be back at the dormitory by 9:00 p. m. or the door would be locked. We left the movie before the end and he walked me to the dorm. I tried the door and since it was a few minutes after 9:00, the lady had locked the door. So I called to Pete, who already was half-a-block away, to come to my aid and walk me over to Levitz's house. When I got there and told Pearl what had transpired, she grabbed the phone and called the lady at the dorm and let her have it with both barrels!!! I couldn't help laughing to myself how Pearl could shrink this lady down to size. I got into the dorm and had no more problems with her after that.

The Levitz' lived in a beautiful stucco house south of Front Street. I spent many interesting hours there, in fact it became my second home. I seldom saw Mr. Levitz-but on one occasion I saw him sitting in a chair and he was always jerking his neck. So I asked, "Does Mr. Levitz have arthritis?" Pearl and her mother just "hooted" because that jerk is an indication of a Jew thinking over a business deal.

Pearl had three sisters: Della, Etta and Jenny and two brothers, Albert and Jacob ~a key). Her mother had a deep voice and distinct brogue. One time Pearl had become angry during a family dispute and said, "Honestly, I'm going to take poison. " The mother said, "Listen Laura dear, she's crazy. " Pearl played the violin well and I would accompany her. Etta played the piano too. The Conservatory always posted notices of upcoming musical attractions. I didn't have much money and Pearl never refused a bargain. She suggested we get 50~ tickets to see and hear the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of the noted Walter Damrosch with Joseph Hoffman as guest concert piano soloist. We were perched way up in "the nigger heaven," but I didn't care where we sat. I was too emotionally enthralled with the orchestra, maybe 60 violins all in sync and the musicians in their black suits. What a treat!

Onetime I was at Levitz' when they were entertaining guests. I had Harry Lashowitz, an attorney, on one side of me and Jakey Levitz on the other side entertaining me in conversation. I felt so honored for an 18 year old girl to be receiving so much attention from such learned people. Harry Lashowitz married Etta Levitz and my brother Willie, while in the bank in Kulm, read about a case involving Harry. He was the defense attorney for the accused. A man involved with murder. The man's finger prints were on the gun, his blood on the victim, and yet Harry was able to get him freed. He became the best noted lawyer in the area. His son, Hershel, became mayor of Fargo in more recent years. Jake became the owner of the family furniture store.

The Levitz' family, being Jewish, were very loyal to their kind. I remember a sickly man given breakfast at their table. And Mrs. Levitz would prepare a plate of dinner daily for a poor lady who lived close by. Pearl and I took her the food one day and all she had to sit on was an apple box. However, the family was honored to have me, a Gentile, as a guest in their home and a friend to Pearl.

Pearl visited me at our farm place and we have a picture of her milking a cow out in the pasture east of the house. She liked my dad, for he too had a gift of gab and loved to tell stories. She was very true to her Jewish faith, so no pork or pork products. Ma had baked a Lemon Pie for dessert and because lard is contained in the crust, Pearl would not partake. After dinner, the pie was stored in the stove oven and during the course of the afternoon, while the rest of us were in the living room, Pearl was overcome by temptation-the oven door went squeeeeek-and she snitched herself a piece.

Through the years, I lost contact with Pearl. She called once a long time after I had married. She had married a wealthy man who, at the time, was a manufacturer of men's trousers and they lived in Cleveland, Ohio. A lady friend of Millie's, Greta, knew of the family. Pearl and her husband donated large sums of money to the Synagogue in Fargo. There is a large portrait of Pearl and her husband as you enter their place of worship. I talked to Greta on Millie's and Carl's 50th wedding anniversary (about 10 years ago) inquiring what she knew of the family, but I'm sorry to say I never wrote down her husband's name nor any of the enterprises in which he was involved.

Meanwhile, Della had been teaching in the country schools and taking summer classes to upgrade her certificate. This went too slowly, so she enrolled at Moorhead State Teachers College at the time I was at the Conservatory. She wished to complete her degree so she could teach in town. She had joined the Glee Club at the College and wished to develop her voice more fully and to do so, also took voice lessons at my school.

While in Moorhead, she met a soldier Bill Rasmussen and I had met Phil Nelson, a pharmacist at Christiansen's Drug. Bill invited us to a Military Ball given by his unit. I was his partner, and Phil took Della. We marched in procession into the ballroom and we were treated to a grand evening of dancing and a smooth, rich sounding orchestra. Phil loved classical music and had a trained voice.

While in the company of the Levitz', I met a dentist by the name of Leo Vogel. He could sing well even though he didn't have a trained voice. Leo took a liking to me. He loved music and I was at ease with the piano. Well, after I had returned home to the farm, Leo continued to write me letters. But I never received them. Dad would sit by the south window and look towards Math Hockert's for the mailman to come. When he saw him coming, he would get the mail. Ma would say, "Is there a letter for Laura?" If there was one from Leo, in the stove it went. I asked her, several years later if she ever destroyed Leo's letters and she did confess. "It would have been just terrible for you to marry a Jew!" How did she know we would necessarily get married, we were just good friends interested in music. Anyhow, Pearl would write to me, hoping I would drop Leo because if he and I had gotten married, it would have been her fault and the Jewish community would have ostracized her. "And so the ball bounces!!!"

When I began relating the story of my Conservatory days, I said that I started in January and the classes continued till June. I came home for the summer months to help my parents on the farm with the full intention of returning to Fargo in the fall. However, when fall arrived, and I was to return to Fargo (I was ready to board the train), my mother cried so pitifully. I was the last of her children to leave home, the rest having married (except Della who was teaching) and established families and interests of their own. She was already in failing health and the weight of all the years of her struggle to survive and succeed in life had sapped her energy and she knew she no longer had the will to cope with the dark days that lie ahead. She felt alone and abandoned. She was about 60 and dad 66. I stepped back off the train and returned home to assist my parents in their declining years. My parents had made great sacrifices in their time on my behalf. Now it became my duty, as I saw it, to return "in full measure" what they had given our family. Now the sun began to set on my musical journey and a dark shadow surrounded me as I contemplated my future.


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