“White-haired, bearded and thoroughly charming”: American contralto Rita Sebastian’s remembrances of performing with Florent Schmitt at Town Hall in New York City (1932).

Town Hall New York City

Town Hall in New York City, where the League of Composers recital featuring Florent Schmitt and fellow musicians was held on November 27, 1932.

One of the serendipitous aspects of music history is coming across rare and precious documents that have remained hidden for decades.  Such an occurrence happened this past summer when JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, received a package in the mail containing a collection of documents pertaining to a recital given by Florent Schmitt and fellow musicians in New York City in November 1932.

The items included the program from the Town Hall concert, two vocal scores personally inscribed by the composer to Rita Sebastian — the contralto who sang on the program — plus Miss Sebastian’s own reminiscences of the event.

Florent Schmitt Tristesse au jardin score cover inscribed to Rita Sebastian

Rita Sebastian’s score to Florent Schmitt’s Tristesse au jardin was inscribed by the composer to her (November 1932).

Rita Sebastian American contralto

Rita Sebastian (1900-1996) (1926 photo)

The cover letter that accompanied the parcel was penned by Tracy Allen, the daughter of Joan Webb Basile, who had been one of Rita Sebastian’s voice students.

The letter reads, in part:

“Enclosed are pieces of sheet music I found while going through my mother’s music library after her death in 2018. They were given to her in the 1950s by her high school voice teacher, Rita Sebastian Latham, and have spent far too long in a file cabinet.  It is my sincere hope that they may be appreciated and valued by you. 

Researching the music … I learned of your work to reintroduce [Florent Schmitt’s] music to American audiences.  The handwritten account of the recital was written by Mrs. Latham … 

Thank you for accepting these items.  As a retired music educator and singer, I could not bear to throw them away or put them back in another file drawer to be ignored for another generation.  Please pass them along to anyone who you feel would enjoy owning and possibly performing them.”

Tracy Allen had decided to send the documents to JoAnn Falletta after she had learned of the conductor’s interest in Florent Schmitt and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra recordings of Schmitt’s music that she had made.  Writing to thank Ms. Allen for sending the documents, Maestra Falletta informed her that she would be passing them along to me for study purposes.

Upon reviewing the documents after coming into possession of them last month, immediately I realized their historical value, because very little documentation exists about the Town Hall program apart from a review of the event, written by music critic Olin Downes, that had appeared in the New York Times.

But here, sitting in front of me, were personal reminiscences as recounted by one of the featured musicians in the recital. Reading them brought the Town Hall event to vivid life again — some 90 years after the fact.

Serge Koussevitzky conductor

Serge Alexandrovich Koussevitzky (1874-1951)

Although he was an inveterate traveler – his last passport, issued at the age of 85, contains more than 40 visa stamps – Florent Schmitt made only one journey to America during his lifetime.  Serge Koussevitzky, the music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra who Schmitt had known from the conductor’s days in Paris after World War I, had commissioned the composer to write a new work for the Boston Symphony as part of the orchestra’s 50th anniversary celebration.

In the event, Schmitt brought forth his striking Symphonie concertante, and then traveled to the United States to play the challenging piano part at the piece’s premiere performances held in Boston on November 25 and 26, 1932.

Florent Schmitt Symphonie Concertante Boston Symphony 1932 program

The world premiere performances of Florent Schmitt’s Symphonie concertante were presented by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1932. The composer was at the keyboard and Serge Koussevitzky conducted.

Florent Schmitt’s American trip was organized by Bernard R. Laberge, the Québec-born impresario, keyboard artist and music critic who had established an artists’ agency in Montreal in the early 1920s, later opening a second office in New York City.  In addition to organizing and managing the North American tours of such musicians as Clara Haskil, Mischa Elman, Marcel Dupré, Carl Weinrich, the Pro Arte and Roth Quartets plus the Pasquier Trio, Laberge was also responsible for bringing an impressive roster of renowned European composers to the Western Hemisphere including Ravel, Honegger, Milhaud, Respighi, Prokofiev and Alexandre Tansman, in addition to Florent Schmitt.

As part of the itinerary of appearances that Laberge put together for Florent Schmitt’s 1932 American tour, a recital of Schmitt’s music was planned for Town Hall in New York City the day following the composer’s second concert in Boston.  Held on Sunday, November 27th beginning at 8:45 pm, the Town Hall recital took place under the auspices of the League of Composers (now the U.S. chapter of the International Society for Contemporary Music).

Paul Claudel

Paul Claudel (1868-1955), French poet and dramatist, was also in the diplomatic corps. Among other posts, he served as French ambassador in Brazil (1917-18), Japan (1921-27) and the United States (1928-33). Claudel’s most famous literary creations date from before World War I. An ardent Roman Catholic, his private life was nevertheless rather untidy — including fathering at least one child out of wedlock.

It was quite the occasion, attended by music modernists as well as a cosmopolitan audience that included, among other luminaries, Paul Claudel, the French poet, dramatist and diplomat who was then serving as France’s ambassador to the United States.

The Town Hall program was constructed to present a cross-section of Schmitt’s music written over a 30-year period covering 1897 to 1927.  Schmitt himself performed at the piano, joined by a stellar cast of musicians including cellist Alfred Wallenstein (later to become principal conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra) and saxophonist Maurice Decruck of the New York Philharmonic.

Town Hall at Night New York City

The “big program” at the all-Florent Schmitt recital at Town Hall went well into the evening, capped off by a performance of the monumental Piano Quintet by the League of Composers Quartet with Florent Schmitt at the piano.

Following intermission, the program continued with the League of Composers Quartet (made up of violinists Nikolai Berezowsky and Meyer Pollack, violist Mitya Stillman and cellist David Freed) joining forces with the composer to present Schmitt’s monumental Piano Quintet.

Also featured on the program was the young American contralto Rita Sebastian, singing two mélodies by Schmitt — Star (the second of three pieces that comprise the vocal set Kérob-Shal), plus Tristesse au jardin.

League of Composers All-Florent Schmitt program Town Hall NYC November 27 1932

The all-Florent Schmitt program featuring the composer at the piano and fellow musicians Maurice Decruck, Rita Sebastian, Alfred Wallenstein, Nicolai Berezowsky, Meyer Pollack, David Freed and Mitya Stillman. Starting at 8:45 pm, the program lasted well into the evening.

It was quite an honor for the young singer, who a quarter century later would write down her still-vivid recollections of the memorable occasion:

Marie Manice Edgar Countess Mercati 1915

Marie Josephine Manice Edgar Mercati (1868-1951) sponsored the November 1932 League of Composers Town Hall concert. Born in Long Island City, Countess Mercati’s rise to social prominence paralleled her activities as a patron of the arts. According to a November 12, 1932 article in the Saturday Evening Post, “Mr. Schmitt … is well-known to the American colony in Paris.” While Florent Schmitt’s appearance occurred before the countess’ return from Europe to the United States for her annual visit, presumably many of the New York socialites who attended the event were there at her prompting. (ca. 1915 photo)

“This concert has a delightful memory.  The audience was mostly French — consisting of French diplomats, prominent French and American socialites, plus impoverished Frenchmen of former aristocratic nobility — a marquis in particular is fondly remembered. 

Florent Schmitt was a white-haired, bearded and thoroughly charming person who understood the artists’ stress in his part as an accompanist.  His countryman adored him, and I never saw — then and since — so much hugging and hand-kissing.  He was an idolized contemporary French composer. 

He had asked me to do his songs, an honor I still cherish. 

… His music is unusual [and] French is not my best language, so I asked every French-speaking person I knew to help me with correct pronunciation.  I wanted so much to please him; he chose me and I did not dare to let him down.  He and the New York critics felt I did him justice.”

Olin Downes music critic

Edwin Olin Downes (1886-1955)

Miss Sebastian’s recollections are correct in this last point.  The recital was reviewed by several papers including the New York Times, New York Evening Post and Brooklyn Daily Eagle. In the most extensive of these reviews, Olin Downes wrote in the November 28, 1932 edition of the Times:

“The singer was Rita Sebastian, intelligent and sympathetic in her interpretation of [the] difficult songs.”

Florent Schmitt Kerob-Shal Star score cover inscribed to Rita Sebastian

Rita Sebastian’s score to Florent Schmitt’s Star (No. 2 of Kérob-Shal) was inscribed to her by the composer (November 1932).

Writing of the other pieces presented, Downes praised both the music and the presentation of the Piano Quintet; indeed, the sub-headline of the review in the Times stated, “Composition, 25 years old, deeply moves an audience of modernists.”

Downes noted further:

“Mr. Schmitt played the piano part of the Quintet not like a virtuoso but like a composer — master of his ideas, knowing what he was doing and why: driving home, with inborn authority, every salient point of the music.  He was excellently assisted by a quartet … these men, accomplished players and thorough musicians, carried out worthily the composer’s ideas.”

Alfred Wallenstein cellist conductor

Alfred Wallenstein (1898-1983), best-known as the chief conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra from 1943 to 1956, began his musical career as a cellist. He had joined the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra at the age of 17 and later became principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic under Arturo Toscanini.

Downes also praised Alfred Wallenstein for his performance of Florent Schmitt’s Final, Op. 77, the most recent work on the program, noting that the cellist “accomplished a difficult task admirably.”

Rita Sebastian’s recollections of Wallenstein were more personal:

“I remember him as being affable, [but] we were both too nervous to hold a conversation of any length.”

As to how Florent Schmitt knew of Rita Sebastian to request her to sing at the Town Hall recital, we can only speculate.  Perhaps it was John Erskine, the emcee at the event, who was responsible for making the recommendation.  A man of letters, a composer and a music critic, Erskine was also the first president of the Juilliard School of Music.

John Erskine

John Erskine (1879-1951), American educator and author, pianist and composer, was a professor of English at Amherst College (1903-09) and Columbia University (1909-37). He was named the first president of the Juilliard School of Music (1928-37) and was president of the Juilliard Music Foundation until his death. He also served as a director of the Metropolitan Opera Association.

Sebastian had made her New York stage debut at the Princess Theatre in 1926, and so was already known to New York audiences.  Born Freida Sophia Sebastian in 1900 and beginning her music studies on the violin at ten years old, later she switched to singing, studying with Ada Soder-Hueck and focusing initially on German lieder and oratorio music.

Amsterdam-born Mme. Soder-Hueck (1874-1936) came to America in 1904 and sang at the St. Louis World’s Fair. A proponent of the Garcia School of bel canto singing, Soder-Hueck opened a  highly regarded voice studio at the Old Met where she imparted her philosophy of singing — an artistic approach she described in some depth in a September 4, 1931 article published in the Daily Sun:

“The secret of the vocal art is relaxation, if production is to result in the true lyric quality (bel canto) or spinning the tone.  Only then is the true timbre brought out, vibration given full play, and the voice enabled to make its strongest appeal. 

A pleasant and pleasing facial expression, stage presence and poise – all so important in holding an audience – result when the vocal apparatus is fully controlled and at ease.  And so it is that the singer attains full artistic freedom and gains command of emotional effects.  Resonance and volume of tone come not from effort, but from relaxation.”

Ada Soder-Hueck advertising

This advertisement for the voice studio of Ada Soder-Hueck appeared in program booklets of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Rita Sebastian studied under Mme. Soder-Hueck and went on to teach the same vocal methods to her own students.

Theodore Cella harpist 1917 photo

Theodore Cella (1896-1960), principal harp player in the Boston Symphony Orchestra and later the New York Philharmonic, shared the program in Rita Sebastian’s 1926 debut recital at the Princess Theatre in New York City. An accomplished musician who also served as an assistant conductor under Sir John Barbirolli, Cella achieved a different sort of notoriety as the fifth and last husband of the American socialite Mabel Boll Scott Bach Rocha De Porceri Cella (1893-1949). Known as the “Queen of Diamonds,” Mabel Boll’s biography reads like the screenplay for a movie. Claiming to be an heiress, in reality she was the daughter of a Rochester, NY, bartender. Starting out working as a stock clerk at the age of 16, successive marriages to wealthy businessmen raised both her economic and social status. Famously, she possessed a 46.57-carat emerald-cut gemstone that is known to this day as the Mabel Boll Diamond (now in the Harry Winston Collection). During the 1920s and early 1930s Mabel Boll was a well-known aviatrix, attempting several round-the-world flights in her “Queen of the Air” Junkers Flugzeug plane. Abandoning her European home at the outbreak of World War II, she returned to the United States and married Theodore Cella in 1940. Later in the decade she was committed to the Manhattan State Psychiatric Hospital on Wards Island, where she died of a stroke in April 1949 at the age of 55.

Taught this method by Mme. Soder-Hueck, in the 1920s Rita Sebastian was singing on radio, including on NBC’s “The Travelers Hour.”  She also sang on tour and in opera, but by 1932 was planted firmly in New York, including serving for ten years as a vocal soloist at Manhattan’s Temple Emanu-El, the first Reform Jewish congregation in the city.

Furthermore, Miss Sebastian’s recital repertoire expanded well-beyond her original focus on German lieder; taking a look at her recital programs reveals selections ranging from early music and Handel to Grieg, Anton Rubinstein, Manna-Zucca and others. Among the admirers of her musicianship was Walter Damrosch, the long-time conductor of the New York Symphony prior to its merger with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, who wrote:

“Rita Sebastian … is not only possessor of a beautiful contralto voice, she has achieved fine artistry and has a genuine and beautiful emotional expression.”

As an interesting parallel to her participation in the 1932 Florent Schmitt Town Hall recital, Miss Sebastian was also a featured vocalist at a League of Composers concert presented during the first American visit of another esteemed composer — Arnold Schoenberg. That event occurred in November 1933 — a year after Schmitt’s recital — and featured an all-Schoenberg program presented by the Pro Arte Quartet, pianists Nadia Reisenberg and Edna Sheppard, along with singers Ruth Rodgers and Rita Sebastian.

Srnold Schoenberg Florent Schmitt

Florent Schmitt (r.) and Arnold Schoenberg (l.), together aboard ship (North Sea, 1920).

Reportedly, Schoenberg was pleasantly surprised by the positive response to his music, relaying later to Claire Reis, then-executive director of the League of Composers:

“May I tell you that for me, this was a truly great joy.  I had the feeling during the evening that there are a great many people here who are not altogether without an understanding of my work.”

Temple Emmanu-El Interior New York City

The interior of Temple Emmanu-El, the first Reform Jewish congregation in New York City. Rita Sebastian was a solo vocalist there for ten years.

After the mid-1930s Miss Sebastian’s activities gravitated towards teaching.  Marrying in 1937 and becoming Rita Sebastian Latham, a year later the couple’s purchase of property in Oswego County upstate presaged an eventual relocation from New York City.  Following in the footsteps of her own teacher, the now-Mrs. Latham opened a voice studio in the small town of Cleveland (adjacent to Costantia) on Lake Oneida, specializing in bel canto singing.

In a pamphlet describing her studio’s teaching methods and philosophy of singing, the focus is clearly on achieving correct vocal technique, artistic interpretation, and style:

“Artists from the Rita Sebastian Latham studio embrace the fields of church, concert, opera, operetta and radio. She looks upon every beginner as a potential artist, nurturing dormant qualities of voice, personality and appearance. 

Those who have voice problems which require a corrective criticism will find Mrs. Latham’s illustrations and demonstrations beneficial.  As a person, she is tactful and cheerfully patient.  Even if a student is not desirous of a career, singing will offer many individual benefits such as lung development, correct posture and poise; in addition, it will add charm and color to the speaking voice and personality.”

Concert Program Vrionides Sinfonietta Rita Sebastian 1934

A 1934 concert in which Rita Sebastian sang with the Vrionides Sinfonietta in music of Jacques Pillois and Lazare Saminsky.

Joan Webb Basile

Joan Webb Basile (1937-2018), photographed at about the time she was a private voice student of Rita Sebastian Latham, who passed on to her the documents from the 1932 Florent Schmitt Town Hall recital.

According to Tracy Allen, her mother — Joan Webb Basile — studied privately with Mrs. Latham while in high school, and credited her teacher with making possible her acceptance to the Crane School of Music at the State University of New York-Potsdam.  Following her collegiate studies Ms. Basile pursued her own successful teaching career, while also singing in nightclubs and restaurants on weekends and during the summers.

With singing and teaching running in the family, Tracy Allen earned degrees in music education and voice performance from the Crane School as well, followed by a 30+ year teaching career as well as singing in the chorus of the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, NY for 30 seasons.  Ms. Allen also directed the children’s and youth chorus at Glimmerglass for eight seasons.  Now retired, she continues to live a life filled with music … which brings us back to the beginning with the remarkable story of the 1932 Town Hall recital.

Rita Sebastian American contralto 1921 photo

Rita Sebastian’s career took her from performing on New York City stages and on tour to a “second act” as a voice teacher. Her relocation from the “big city” to Oswego County in upstate New York in the late 1930s was followed by a final move to another small community — Mercedes, TX, near the Mexican border and the Gulf Coast — where she passed away in 1996 at the age of nearly 96 years. (1921 photo)

In later life, Rita Sebastian Latham made it a point to write down recollections of her early career milestones.  Little could she know that it would be more than a half-century before the rediscovery of her reminiscences of the Florent Schmitt Town Hall recital would enable a new generation of music-lovers to learn about them.

We owe a debt of gratitude to one of her students, Joan Webb Basile, for safeguarding these historical artifacts — and to Basile’s own daughter, Tracy Allen, for passing them on to JoAnn Falletta — thereby bringing them forth into the bright light of today.

One thought on ““White-haired, bearded and thoroughly charming”: American contralto Rita Sebastian’s remembrances of performing with Florent Schmitt at Town Hall in New York City (1932).

  1. An eminent contribution to our knowledge of the composer, the singer and the event — much appreciated.

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