IDAHO HISTORY: National Music Week, founded in Boise, is still going strong

SPECIAL TO THE STATESMANApril 28, 2013 

When Boise's annual Music Week leads off on Friday, May 3 with School Night at Taco Bell Arena, it will mark nearly a century of performances in an event started here in 1919.

The Statesman headlined a story on April 13, 1919, "Lovers of Music Have Big Plans - Propose Easter and Christmas Festivals for Each Year with Largest Possible Choruses." They were indeed "big plans," as the story went on to explain:

"Much interest and enthusiasm are being displayed in the organization of the 'Municipal Festival Chorus' and 150 voices have been attending the rehearsals of 'The Redemption' which will be presented on May 12 and 13. The present plan contemplates the presentation of 'The Messiah' at Christmas and 'The Redemption' at Easter each year, and the making of such a festival chorus a permanent civic institution. Eugene Farner, who has been appointed director, has been giving all his attention to the training of the chorus. It is hoped that several hundred voices will be secured for the presentation of 'The Redemption.' The chorus is open to all and Mr. Farner has laid emphasis on the fact that untrained voices are as much desired as trained ones."

Who was this energetic Eugene Farner, described at the time by J.L. Eberle of the Boise Commercial Club as "having a genius for conducting?" A biographical sketch published in 1920 tells us that the man rightly credited with being the "Father of Music Week" was born May 20, 1888 in New York City and that at the age of seven he took up the study of instrumental music; a year later he played his first violin solo in public. "At sixteen he was a director of his high school orchestra, and although he graduated at seventeen he continued to lead its orchestra until he was twenty. Throughout his youth, Mr. Farner continued as a student of music in New York City, pursuing his studies under private tutors, some of whom were noted musicians. In 1910, at the age of twenty-two, he came to Idaho and spent two years in Coeur d'Alene, where he had a studio and was choir master in St. Luke's Episcopal Church. In 1912 Mr. Farner was induced by the late Bishop J.B. Funsten to come to Boise, where he became musical director and choir master at St. Michael's Cathedral, a position which he still fills, and has filled continuously since his appointment, with the exception of fourteen months from December, 1917, to February, 1919, which were spent at Camp Grant and at Camp Cody, New Mexico, during the progress of the World War."

Memories of the greatest war in human history to that time, and its millions of dead, including some from Boise and other Idaho places, were still fresh in the minds of everyone involved in preparations for that first Music Week. The war had ended only six months before when the Idaho Statesman observed on May 4, 1919 that "Homage to France through appreciation of this masterly composition ("The Redemption"), the work of the great French composer, is especially fitting at this time, and crowded houses are expected to hear the ensemble of chorus, orchestra, band, harp, pipe organ and soloists." Homage to France was timely in 1919 because the American Expeditionary Force, including men from Idaho, had fought in France and that country had lost more than a million men in the brutal trench warfare that dragged on from August, 1914, until November 11, 1918.

Charles Francois Gounod was 64 when his oratorio "The Redemption" was performed for the first time in 1882. He had written on the first page of the manuscript "The work of my life." Today he is best known for his "Ave Maria" and the opera "Romeo et Juliette."

On Sunday, May 11, 1919, the Statesman newspaper described what would become a much-loved Boise tradition: "Music to Rule This Week; Varied Program Arranged." Since it began on a Sunday, that first Music Week started with what the paper called "music and pageantry" in the city's churches, with "appropriate remarks by pastors."

Then, as now, Boise's Music Week was planned, organized, rehearsed and performed by several hundred volunteers, both in musical and supporting roles, and all events were open to the public free of charge. Music Week is now observed by scores of cities across the country, but only in Boise, where it all began as a sort of "peace festival" following the Great War, are there no admission charges or paid workers.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@mindspring.com.

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