In Your Midst

1904: Making Music in Seattle

March 2004

It was the era of the Gibson Girl and the suffragette, of fauvism and Freud. Crowds cheered the operettas of Victor Herbert, and riots broke out at performances of Arnold Schoenberg’s revolutionary string quartets. Henry James and Edith Wharton dissected high society in their elegant fiction, while Upton Sinclair and his fellow muckrakers unflinchingly displayed the sufferings of the lower classes to a horrified public. If it was neither the best of times nor the worst of times, it was surely an epoch of contrasts!

And in this culture of contrasts, Seattle was a city of contrasts. Lumber, shipping, and the Gold Rush had brought incredible riches to the young city, and by 1904 the Seattle skyline was already quite impressive, with its modern buildings and wealthy homes; its schools and churches; its wharves, factories, and smokestacks; not to mention its many “houses of ill fame” (as Bishop O’Dea called them). And yet this modern city was in some ways still a small town, and its newspapers juxtaposed stories of big business with reports on renegade cows and freak vegetables (POTATO LOOKS LIKE HEN SITTING ON EGG, ran one headline in 1906).

But now, at the beginning of a new century, the rough-and-ready people of Seattle began to yearn for the beautiful. In 1903, while Bishop O’Dea was laying his plans for a grand Cathedral on First Hill, the city hired John Olmsted (son of Frederick Law Olmsted of New York’s Central Park) to design the city’s parks. And in December of that same year, just two months after the great Cathedral Fair (see the November issue!), the Seattle Symphony gave its first performance, to general satisfaction: “the ensemble work is worthy of note, since it had few ragged edges,” reported the P-I. The 1904 Seattle Directory listed more than twenty musical establishments of various kinds, including schools, orchestras, and glee clubs. The arts, it would seem, had finally arrived.

Making music in Seattle was, however, still something of a frontier adventure. Nellie Cornish, who would later found an innovative college of the arts, was in 1904 a struggling piano teacher, and she left a vivid description of a world where the arts were held in high regard, but still took second place to more mundane concerns: “I went all over Seattle, often making my way over dirt piles and potato patches. Manners were wholesome but simple. Often lessons took place after dinner, with ‘Papa’ sitting in the same room in his red woolens and usually in need of a shave, chewing tobacco while reading his evening paper. Children and dogs ran in and out. When the telephone rang, I was expected to halt my lesson and remain silent until the conversation ended.”

Professor Edward P. Ederer, pro-Cathedral organist and choir director.  This portrait hangs in the Seattle office of Ederer Cranes, Incorporated, which began as a rope and twine factory.

All of this can give us some insight into Edward P. Ederer, the first music director of the pro-Cathedral (Our Lady of Good Help), for he was a man who in many ways epitomized the Seattle of his time. A brilliant entrepreneur and engineer, “Professor” Ederer came to Seattle in 1901 and opened a rope-and-twine business on First Avenue. He was also a gifted musician who brought the same determination and intelligence that made him such a successful businessman to the business of making music. Ederer not only conducted the choir and played the organ for church functions; he also performed piano solos at various civic events (Bishop O’Dea’s annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration, for example). And he selected ambitious repertoire for his amateur choir. In addition to Gregorian chant, they sang works by Verdi, Weber, and Gounod, among others, and at major liturgies they were often accompanied by a string quartet or even an orchestra.

If Professor Ederer took music seriously, so did the Church. On November 22, 1903—the feast of St. Cecilia—the newly-elected Pope Pius X had issued a motu proprio on sacred music. It was the first important church teaching on music in decades, and it called for some significant changes. The sacred texts, Pius X decreed, were paramount—musical settings of them used during the liturgy must avoid needless repetition, and must also be comprehensible to the assembly. Gregorian chant was restored to pride of place. Pius X was certainly limiting the repertoire (for much recent church music had broken these rules) but at the same time he was elevating the ministry of the choir from performance to prayer. “Sacred music,” he insisted, “as an integral part of the solemn liturgy, participates in its general purpose, which is the glorification of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful.” Music, therefore, is not just added on to the Mass—it is integral to it. Music does not simply adorn the sacred texts, but actually “adds greater efficacy to the text, in order that the faithful may be… better disposed for the reception of the fruits of grace belonging to the celebration of the most holy mysteries.”

But there were other challenges inherent in the document as well. The motu proprio re-emphasized that Latin was the language of the Church—the vernacular was not to be permitted in any of the music of the Mass. Still more difficult was the dictum on who could sing: mixed choirs of men’s and women’s voices were once again banished from the liturgy. Though the United States bishops sought and obtained an exemption from this new norm, the appearance of the motu proprio must have given Professor Ederer a fair amount of inspiration and chagrin at the same time.
A unique 1904 cartoon gives us a window (as it were) on the trials and tribulations of the pro-Cathedral Choir. Called “Wouldn’t You Like to Be the Director?,” the cartoon shows Ederer (with a strong German accent) at the console of the organ of Our Lady of Good Help Church, trying to coax music from a taxing instrument (“Vere is de bumber? I haf no vind!!!”) and from his choir at the same time (“Von, Two, Tree!!! Now Quvietly!! Pianissimo!! Do not Schlurr Sopranos!!! Choost a leedle higher Mees B!!”). In the border of the cartoon are verses written to be sung to the tune of “When a felon’s not engaged in his employment” from The Pirates of Penzance:

This 1904 cartoon was jokingly presented to Bishop Edward J. O'Dea as a design for a stained-glass window in the new Cathedral.  It pokes fun at the choir director and organist and provides an amusing glimpse into the early days of the Cathedral Choir.  Courtesy of the Archives of the Archdiocese of Seattle.

When the enterprising Choir gets to singing,
And Sopranos start a quarrel o'er a song,
The Director's head begins to go a-ringing,
For his Life indeed is not a happy one!

When on show occasions everything goes vilely,
And the tenors are the bummest of the bum,
The director shakes his polished bald head wildly
Wishing most devoutly that he'd stayed at home!

The cartoon was sent to Bishop O’Dea in June of 1904 by one of the basses in Ederer’s choir, accompanied by a very tongue-in-cheek cover letter. “Desiring to contribute my little quota to the general efforts which will result in the erection of the projected new Roman Catholic Cathedral,” he wrote, “I have executed the design for a memorial window” which would “properly awe the populace and scare the children into a reasonable state of good behavior”!

Professor Ederer’s career as the first music director of the pro-Cathedral ended, poignantly, just before the dedication of St. James Cathedral in December 1907. He passed the baton to Dr. Franklin Sawyer Palmer (another man of contrasts—a Harvard-trained dermatologist as well as an organist and conductor). Perhaps Ederer no longer had as much time to commit to music—for his business was taking off as he turned from rope and twine to the fabrication of cranes for construction (the company he started on First Avenue still bears his name, and Ederer Incorporated is one of the world’s leaders in the manufacture of cranes). Bishop O’Dea gave him a parting gift of a rather jaunty gold-headed cane, with this inscription:


And so, though Ederer was not in the gallery conducting the choir at the dedication of the new St. James Cathedral in 1907, he was surely in the pews, marveling at the growth of a community which he had helped to build. He had made his mark on Cathedral history and provided music for some milestone events—the founding of the parish on November 13, 1904, and the laying of the cornerstone a year later. As we commemorate these unforgettable moments, we will meet Professor Ederer again!

This article is the third in a series on the early days of the Cathedral.

No. 1:  "The Priest, the Bishop, and the Great Northern Railway"
No. 2:  "The Cathedral Fair"
No. 3:  "Making Music in Seattle"
No. 4:  "The Cathedral Builders"
No. 5:  "The Founding of the Cathedral Parish"
No. 6:  "Bishop O'Dea's Neighbors"
No. 7:  "An Innocent Abroad: Bishop O'Dea Goes to Rome"

No. 8:  "The Laying of the Cornerstone"

Special thanks to Neil Skogland and Don Miller of Ederer Incorporated, and to Dave Ederer, great-grandson of E. P. Ederer, for their assistance with the research for this article. Thanks also to Jessica Pitre-Williams of the Archives of the Archdiocese of Seattle for her continued assistance with this project, and to parishioner Steve Harrold for the sketches of Cathedral angels.

For additional reading: Charlie Frye and His Times by Helen Vogt; Miss Aunt Nellie: The Autobiography of Nellie C. Cornish.

Corinna Laughlin is the Pastoral Assistant for Liturgy at St. James Cathedral.

Link to other articles in the March 2004 issue

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