This is a blog about music, photography, history, and culture.
These are photographs from my collection that tell a story about lost time and forgotten music.

Mike Brubaker
{ Click on the image to expand the photo }

The Pittsburgh Ladies Orchestra

08 January 2022

 

 To take a good photograph of a group requires
focus, timing, and above all, good light.
But a photographer's skill is only the half of it.
For a photo to be truly great
the participation
of the subjects
is required.

 
 
 
 
 
 

The photographer might arrange each person,
but ultimately it is their choice,
either deliberately or involuntarily,
to put on their best expression.

As each face turns toward the lens,
some smile easily on command.
Others have to think about it.
 
 

A roll of the eyes,
a turn of the cheek,
or just a lift of an eyebrow
conveys charm
character,
and wit
better than a thousand words.

Yet the photographer
has but a split second
to capture that moment.
 
 

 
 

 When the shutter clicks
sometimes a magical image is produced
so delightful, so intriguing,
that it takes your breath away.

 
 
Today I showcase
three postcard photographs
of the same musical group,
all taken within a short time frame.
There are subtle differences in each setting,
and the roster of musicians changes a little bit.
But each photo shines with an intriguing beauty
that highlights each individual personality.

I am very pleased to introduce
the Pittsburgh Ladies Orchestra.


 
 
 
 

 
It was the summer of 1914, as noted on the postcard's caption. Ten young women and one man pose close together at the top of a flight of wooden steps that descend to a river. They are in a park, perhaps near an outdoor stage where they will give a concert. Most hold musical instruments, a trombone, two cornets, a flute, a snare drum, two violins, and a double bass. The women wear long white dresses but are not in anything like a uniform. The man is dressed in a cream colored suit with an artist's long bow tie. 

It's a fine photo, possibly taken by an amateur photographer. The postcard was never mailed so there are no clues to the location, but I suspect it is somewhere overlooking one of Pittsburgh's three rivers — either the Allegheny, the Monongahela, or the Ohio River. The choice of an outdoor setting was probably deliberate in order to emphasize the refined and wholesome nature of the ensemble. Unlike the somber serious faces seen on photos made in earlier eras, here the women's smiles gleam with a warm sincerity.
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
 
The next photo postcard was taken in a studio with flattering side lighting so it is certainly the work a professional photographer. This time the Pittsburgh Ladies Orchestra has 12 women, along with the same man, their conductor, Albert D. Liefeld, as printed on the front caption. The use of a portrait format instead of landscape composition is unusual, and no doubt the result of someone with an understanding of classical art forms. The pyramidal arrangement leads the eye to follow each figure and face so that we meet every woman. It's a beautiful effect made better because the variety of expressions.
 
 
This postcard was sent from Syracuse, New York on 24 October 1913 to Miss Sopia Cutnell of the Cameraphone Theatre in Pittsburgh. This was one of several new cinema theaters in Pittsburgh that presented "photoplays" and "vitagraphs", i.e. silent films, sometimes accompanied by educational-type lectures or appearances by actors. 
 
The stamp is an unusual 1¢ commemorative with the profile of Vasco Núñez de Balboa, the Spanish conquistador. It was issued in 1913 to publicize the upcoming 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco which would celebrate Balboa's so-called "discovery" of the Pacific Ocean in 1513 as well as the 1914 opening of the Panama Canal.
 
 
 

 
The leader of the Pittsburgh Ladies Orchestra was Albert D. Liefeld. Born in Wisconsin to German immigrant parents, in 1913 he was 44 years old and married to Minnie Liefeld. Albert had studied music in Chicago and Boston, and was an accomplished pianist, mandolinist, choir director and composer too. In the 1890s he settled in Pittsburgh where he made a career as an instrumentalist, mainly on mandolin, and as a teacher establishing his own music school for both voice and a variety of instruments. In August 1912 he placed an advertisement in the arts section of the Pittsburgh Daily Post where he listed himself as the director of the Pittsburgh School of Music, the Liefeld Orchestra, Glee and Mandolin Clubs, and the Pittsburgh Ladies Orchestra.


Pittsburgh Daily Post
 August 1912


From the start of his musical work in Pittsburgh, Albert Liefeld became associated with the Chautauqua assemblies, a novel form of entertainment series that was then becoming popular in America's small town communities. These festival-like events were typically held outdoors in the summertime and presented a variety of lectures and musical performances. It was first started in 1873 at a site on Lake Erie in Ohio as a kind of outdoor summer camp for training Methodist Sunday school teachers . The following year in 1874 a second assembly was produced on the shores of Chautauqua Lake in western New York, not far from Pittsburgh, which was where the movement took its name. By 1910 there were hundreds of independent Chautauqua assemblies scattered all around America, but predominately in the Midwest.
 
Typically scheduled for just a weekend or a week, the Chautauqua borrowed ideas found in the earlier Lyceum movement which sought to improve the social, intellectual, and moral framework of society by presenting notable lecturers, entertainers and readers to the public. Both movements were partly a reaction to the vaudeville theater and circus entertainments which were viewed by some communities to be indecent and immoral. However  most Chautauquas tried to be non-denominational and apolitical in order to appeal to the broadest number of people.
 
Chautauqua patrons could expect lectures on a wide range of topics like world travel, science, social and civic issues, interspersed with renditions of great plays or comical skits and musical groups of all kinds. The Chautauqua summer season was filled with concert bands, opera singers, string quartets, and many other music ensembles. The Pittsburgh Ladies Orchestra was one of them.
 

The Pittsburgh Ladies Orchestra
Source: University of Iowa Library

By the 1900s there were so many competing Chatauqua assemblies that agencies were organized to provide an efficient booking system for the hundreds of performers and speakers who appeared each season. The University of Iowa special collection, Traveling Culture: Circuit Chautauqua in the Twentieth Century, has several brochures that Albert Liefeld produced to promote his Pittsburgh Ladies Orchestra. He started this group in 1911 and it continued until at least 1929. His earlier group of around 12 female musicians was considered large, though it was much smaller than the women's concert bands like Helen May Butler's All American Girls. In 1916 he put on concerts with about twice that number.




The third photo was also taken in the summer of 1914. It is marked Pittsburgh Ladies Orchestra at the Watch Tower Park, Rock Island, IL. There are 10 women posed on a stage, possibly outdoors, with Albert D. Liefeld standing at the back. Though this formation of the group is typical of photographs of many groups like this, I think the fine light and clear focus makes this an exceptional photo that lets us easily imagine the personalities of the ten women.
 
The orchestra has similar instruments as in the previous postcards with one flute, four strings, three brass, snare drum, and an upright piano in the background. This photo was not taken at a Chautauqua but was at a mid-week concert in Rock Island traveling between Chautauqua appearances in Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

Rock Island IL Argus
1 August 1914

The company included Miss Gertrude Harris, the "famous" Welsh soprano; Miss Edna Keary, violin soloist; and  Miss Marie Dauberger, cornet soloist. I can't be certain, but I think the woman standing second right may be Miss Harris, the soprano; and the women seated in front of her with the cornet is Miss Dauberger; and the violinist seated left is Miss Keary. But it is just a hunch.
 
The postcard was addressed to Mrs. Harry Rasche, of Oakland, Maryland and is dated.

 

 
Dixon, Ill
8/17 - 14.
 
 Dear Harry & Mollie
Had this taken in a
park, where we gave our
concerts so it isn't a bit
good, but thought you
might like one any-
way.  Are having one
swell trip.  Delight-
ed with the west.  We
play at the Y.M.C.A.,
S. S. Chicago on the 8th,
then go on to Nebraska.
We have dates in Mich,
Wisc, + Iowa, also Ohio on our
way home.  More later.   Love, V.R.

 

It is rare to find self-referential postcards, which I consider special treasures in my collection. Readers may remember my two-part series from March 2020, On Tour with the Metropolitan Ladies' Orchestra. That story featured a set of photo cards annotated by a musician with that group which made a similar tour of America and Canada in 1912. The challenge for me was figuring out which musician wrote the notes.         {Spoiler alert!   It was the cellist!}
 
Here the clues in the addressee, Mrs. Harry Rasche, and the writer's initials make it easier. It did not take long to determine that V. R. was Miss Vera Rasche. In 1914 she lived in Monongahela, PA and the newspaper there was very good on reporting the local society news. Several reports stated that Vera played the double bass and her talented older sisters, Estelle and Agnes were also musicians. In July 1914 all three Rasche sisters joined Prof. Liefeld's ladies orchestra.  

 
Monongahela PA Daily Republican
28 July 1914

Vera Rasche appears with her double bass in all three photos. Agnes played cornet and I believe she is the cornetist seated center in the park photo, above Vera's shoulder in the studio photo, and in front of Albert Liefeld in the Rock Island photo. I've been unable to discover Estelle's instrument so I'm uncertain about identifying her. In August 1914 the Wausau, WI Daily Herald ran an advertisement for the Pittsburgh Ladies Orchestra that would appear at the Chautauqua there. It used the same photo that Albert Liefeld used in his brochure which was printed years later. Only a few faces are recognizable and the bassist is definitely not the same. So I think this was taken in 1912-1913 with a different roster of musicians.
 
 
 
Wausau WI Daily Herald
19 August 1914

 
What I do know is that the Rasche family was not from the Pittsburgh area. I found them in the 1900 census for Oakland, a small town in western Garrett County, Maryland. The head of the family was Kate, or Katherine Rasche, born 1851 of Irish parents in "Irish Canadian", wherever that is. She supported six children working as a music teacher. Kate was not listed as a widow. so presumably her husband Harry was alive but not living at home. His nativity was listed as Germany on his children's line for father's place of birth. The oldest child was also named Harry Rasche, born 1880 in Maryland; followed by Leo  J. Rasche, born in 1882. Curiously both listed their occupation at ages 19 and 17 as composer. That seems very unusual, so I wonder if this was not a musical employment but instead a job in maybe a printer's shop?
 
Estelle Rasche was next, born in 1884 in Maryland, so she would be 30 years old in these 1914 photos. There are only a couple women who look about 30 years old, and I think it may be the slender woman standing right of Vera in the park photo, and again on back right in the studio photo, and finally second from left in the stage photo. Even great photos still can have an element of mystery.
 
Vera had another brother, Dennis, born in 1887. He was followed by her sister Agnes, who was born in in Minnesota in 1889, as was Vera, or Veronica, in 1893. In the 1914 photos Agnes would be age 25 and Vera age 21. It all fits a pattern that I have found in my research on other female musicians from this era. Very often talented girls were the daughters of German or Austrian parents, and many had sisters who performed in the same ensemble. 

Vera and her sisters may have moved to Pittsburgh because that was a city noted for its superior music teachers and as a place with more opportunities in the light music industry where female groups were accepted. It's possible that Vera may have studied with Prof. Liefeld. as I found her name listed as a singer at one of Pittsburgh's vaudeville theaters in 1911 and 1912. Perhaps she and her sisters had a musical family act and were already experienced traveling entertainers on the theater circuit. 

I don't think Vera played more than two of three seasons with Albert Liefeld's Pittsburgh Ladies Orchestra as after 1915 her name does not return connected to Pittsburgh. I do know that she continued working as a musician playing bass and saxophone in small all-women groups. In 1924 she married William Robertson, a newspaper editor in Layfayette, Indiana.

According to newspaper reports Agnes Rasche was still playing cornet with the group in 1916. Like most of the larger ensembles, there was a constant change in the roster, especially with young women who married and then quit the profession. Every season Liefeld would have to recruit new musicians for his group, probably advertising for positions in the national music trade journals. 
 
As America entered the war in Europe, his ladies orchestra diminished in numbers and it became just a chamber group of six women plus Liefeld and his young son, Theodore Shaffer Liefeld, on solo trumpet. Yet Liefeld managed to keep his little orchestra performing on the Chautauqua circuit for several years more, the last event I could find was in 1922. In 1921 the Pittsburgh Ladies Orchestra was reportedly the first orchestra to make a radio broadcast, performing on Pittsburgh's radio station KDKA, but I suspect this was also a very small ensemble with mixed instrumentation and nothing like a real symphonic orchestra. 

Albert D. Liefeld died in Pittsburgh
on 20 July 1945 at age 77.

He had a good ear for musicians
and a great eye for photographs.

 
 

   
 

 
 
This is my contribution to Sepia Saturday
where everyone longs for the good old days
of smiling unmasked faces.




4 comments:

Monica T. said...

I'm amazed at how much you've been able to find out from/about these cards! :o

Barbara Rogers said...

Great research as always! I do enjoy seeing the different expressions each of them chose for these snapshots which have survived beyond their lifetimes.

kathy said...

These photos are a great match for the prompt. They are posed, yet almost casual. They impart a sense of familiarity and ease. And, as always, you packed a lot of research and interesting context. I imagine it is quite fun to find a postcard sent by one of the musicians.

La Nightingail said...

As usual, you put a thoroughly researched post together featuring three wonderful photographs of the same orchestra. It's interesting seeing the different expressions on the faces of the same people in each separate photo. Like any of us, there were days when they felt like smiling wide, days when a grin sufficed, and days when a pleasant look would simply have to do. :)

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