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The solid brass HO-gauge model of an early 20th century interurban car which frequently distinguishes our masthead represents the rolling stock of the Northwest Iowa Traction Co. It’s origin and early history are outlined elsewhere. [I’ll try to post some links.] But of late I seem preoccupied with two matters: the schedule of service between Fort Dodge and Storm Lake. Inserting several miles into the actual distance between those two northwest Iowa communities presents issues.
A second but still important issue — given that it affects the appearance of that brass HO model — is the color scheme for the company: what would have distinguished its rolling stock from other connecting lines [like the Fort Dodge, Des Moines & Southern]. As someone more fond of secondary colors than those garish primaries — Cecil Elliott once said that I wasn’t satisfied with any color until I’d added a bucket of shit; it’s the Victorian in me — I’ve settle on Mustard and Magenta. The first must be a robust, nearly whole grain mustard of the eastern European variety (not that ghastly French’s yellow) and the second, the sort of 100% woolen magenta of high school band uniforms. I’m terrified to actually paint the bloody brass car, thought, so photoshopping will have to do for the present, at least until I grow a backbone.
A couple entries ago, I introduced Edouard Reményi as a likely visitor to Agincourt and also discussed the notion of itinerancy. By a stroke of luck, Reményi was one of those vagabonds who left a sketchy trail.
Within eight years of his passing, friends and family of the artist gathered recollections of him; less that a biography but far more than might have been written about his passing in San Francisco. The introduction lays out a behavior that suits our purposes:
“His movements were always mysterious. There would be long silences; then would come detailed reports of his death. How many times was he shipwrecked, captured by savages and assassinated! How many times was he reported deserted and dying in strange countries! Soon, however, he would be announced as playing in some place on the far edge of the world — always happy, always finding something beautiful, always a roamer, always a gypsy.” [from: Reményi, Musician and Man (1906)]
If rural northwestern Iowa qualifies as “the far edge of the world,” we’ve found our man.
THE 1895 INAUGURAL SEASON
a lecture by Ednora Nahar, Elocutionist
Edouard Reményi, Violinist
[programme to be announced]
“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”
a play by J. McKinney
adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson
Rosamunde Saucisse-Sèche, Lyric Soprano
selections from “Dante et Béatrice” by B. Godard
and “The Queen of Spades” / “Pique Dame” by P. I. Tchaikovsky.
“Philidor”— an opera comique
libretto and music by D. d’Argentuille,
[sung in French with projected subtitles]
In the TWTW department, I’m doing background research on Ede Reményi, renowned Hungarian violinist, friend of Liszt and Brahms, a frequent performer in the U.S. during the mid- to late 19th century. He was in the country in ’95 and could have been booked in Agincourt on his way from Chicago to San Francisco. Much earlier, in 1880, he performed in the gold prospecting camps of Colorado, furkrysake! So a pit.stop in Iowa isn’t farfetched during at least one of his American concert tours. Well, as you might suspect, this has turned out to be one of several rabbit holes that keep me from doing other stuff.
There is a 1906 book, Reményi, Musician and Man, that seems to be the most comprehensive treatment, especially his penchant for traveling to weird places and being incognito for long periods of time — all of which work in my favor. I found a copy of the book at a dealer in California, an ex-library copy with the usual stamps and pocket but far fewer than I’d expected. With shipping, I’ve invested $14.
This evening, I decided to check eBay; perhaps I had paid too much. Gosh! There is a British dealer who is offering his copy for the astounding price of £10,049! That’s a trifle more than $12K. Lest you think I jest, here is a screen shot of the listing:
Of course, you can ask £10K with no chance of actually getting it.
Oh, and to compound the freakishness of the day, Reményi’s birthday is the same as mine.
- the act of traveling from place to place. 2. a going around from place to place in the discharge of duty or the conducting of business.
There is a question, I suppose, concerning a distinction between itinerancy and vagabond-ish-ness. Itinerancy suggests purpose, while a vagabond has neither specific intent nor destination in mind. My suspicion is that 19th century America involves a good deal more of the second category.
Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” must have something to say about the processes of western, trans-Appalachian migration but it’s been a long time since I did more than glance at it. Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip is a localized and more up-to-date treatment with a thesis that, when contrasted with Turner, offers grim prospects for Midwestern population of the 19th century.
The opposite phenomenon is staying put; too much of that limits the gene pool. [Michael Lesy’s contention is that too many of the wrong people were staying put — in Wisconsin, at least.] So, in the 19th century there were several mechanisms to avoid that danger. The annual county fair was one and it served to add variety to the genetic makeup of both human’s and livestock. Another, not focused on reproduction, was the periodic rotation of clergy. Methodists, for example, imposed a strict three-year limit on a minister’s connection with any one congregation and their relocation was rarely “just down the road.” I’m more familiar with the Protestant Episcopal church in 19th century Dakota Territory and can attest to a fairly regular cycling of priests prior to 1900. An itinerant medical profession, by contrast, would have wreaked havoc on general community health. So, somewhere in my self-conscious subconscious I’ve given due consideration to these various and varying patterns of movement.
* Consider the “empty” zone just below the map’s center and straddling the gutter. That’s Oklahoma Territory, held out from settlement until 1889. Smaller, more localized exceptions like this have added unpredictable eddies and swirls to patters of transhumance, Agincourt being among them.
The community I call home straddles a state line, two legal jurisdictions with decidedly different views on most topics. Like Minneapolis and Saint Paul, they’ve. existed back-to-back rather than side-by-side. Those differences were especially so while one had achieved statehood and the other was yet a territory. The semantic differences between a state and the frontier, between civilization and savagery were only more exaggerated at the border. At the time of statehood, the younger region was admitted as dry and the two breweries it had enjoyed were forced across the river to the older community. Meanwhile the recently dry area developed a tolerance for another sort of indulgence: prostitution.
This new symbiosis was fruitful for both sides. On my side of the river, the city ignored the several houses of ill repute operating on lowland beside the river [while as many as fifty saloons occupied a slight ridge opposite; they got the better part of the trade]. Once monthly the constabulary “raided” these establishments, took someone into custody, assessed a healthy fine, and used that money for the benefit of the local schools — a sin tax.
Agincourt isn’t so nicely separated but there is some distinction between neighborhoods which might have worked in a similar way. There was, of course “Mrs. Miller’s Enterprise” opposite the new Auditorium, which gave its name to the service lane beside it: Easy Alley. One of its consequences, logically, would have been unplanned pregnancies. And that, in its turn, led to a conspiracy of some interest.
Then, during prohibition, Chicago liquor operations had extended far beyond that metropolis and even beyond Illinois into adjacent states. It’s just as likely that booze must have had its own distribution system in place for the duration. So, while these two illicit activities may not have been contemporary, they add a layer of counterculture to the Agincourt Story.
The 1895-1896 inaugural season of The Auditorium, Agincourt’s opera house, was a high point in community history. It represented not only the city’s aspiration to match cultural accomplishments of other nearby cities — Des Moines, Sioux City and Omaha — but also to represent the full range of local talent. Trying to reconstruct that season involves an exploration of theatre, music and other forms of entertainment that are less common now. I met someone at coffee this afternoon, an NDSU art graduate, who’s expressed interest in creating some of the graphics that would have advertised each performance and enticed an audience through the doors and into their seats.
Looking at what passed for “high culture” in the 1890s has been fun. A handful of potential players in the game were familiar by name and reputation, if not detail. Here are some putative events:
- One of the more famous violinists of that era was Edouard (Ede) Reményi, a Jewish Hungarian by birth and friend of Johannes Brahms. He spent much of his late career in the U.S. and died at a San Francisco concert in 1898. Several sources give his birth name as Hoffman, but on the stage he was known only as Reményi. A 1906 posthumous biography provides some fodder for the possibility of an Iowa visit: “In the Autumn of that year . he made his second visit to the United States, giving his first concert at Steinway Hall, New York. During the next few weeks he played in the New York Philharmonic concerts; in the Brooklyn Philharmonic concerts under Theodore Thomas’s baton; in the Carlberg symphony concerts, in Boston, Hartford, and, in the latter part of December, in Washington, where he was the guest of President Hayes at the White House. The following year he continued his American tour, playing in New York, Albany, Troy, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Chicago, Quincy, Illinois, Burlington, Iowa, and other cities. In 1880 he went as far west as Colorado and greatly enjoyed himself in the mining camps, where he made himself a favorite with the miners by his impromptu performances.” There were also long periods when his whereabouts were unknown — but hinted at cities around the globe.
- Recitals of rhetoric and erudition were common entertainments, growing from the Chautauqua circuits. But these “displays” are more difficult to pin down than musical performances.
- Aside from theatrical performance by local companies and traveling troupes, I had a brain fart a few days ago about an opera that might have been staged. And as I thought about it, the standard repertoire seemed too easy. Like Agincourt’s Roman Catholic church, dedicated to an imaginary saint, why not invent an opera, the titular subject of this entry.
Its title “Philidor” popped into my head, and the chain reaction began:
- Philidor is a character only mentioned in the 1946 British film “A Matter of Life and Death,” which was released in the United States as “Stairway to Heaven.” [I didn’t realize it was a propaganda piece.] It’s the story of a British pilot in WWII who was supposed to die during a flight over the Channel but was missed by Death’s collector, Conductor 71, in a dense fog. The film revolves about the pilot (David Niven*) and his legal battle to remain among the living. Conductor 71 (played with delicious French foppishness, by Marius Goring, a character actor you might remember from “The Scarlet Pimpernel”) tempts Niven taht a match with Philidor, the 18th century French chess grand master, might be possible. But I prefer to think he was Philidor, a name that I love.
- It turns out that, besides his prowess at chess, Philidor was also a composer of light opera! More than thirty of them, in fact, none of which are performed today. But that fact played nicely into the developing narrative.
- This should be an opera about Philidor, not by him. So who would have written such a work? Claude Monet and Wikipedia came to my aid. His surname will be Argentuille, which comes from an obscure painting by Monet, and his given name Didier derives from an ancient Roman, Didius, a.k.a. Desiderius, which can be translated as “ardent desire” or “the longed-for” (both of which suit my current melancholy). So Didier d’Argentuille he will be and require a backstory, too, which can occupy me for weeks.
- The story of Philidor as composer will be a tough sell. But as a chess grand master, there is a nugget too good to pass by: the Café de la Régence in Paris was the 18th century hangout for chess aficionados and it was there that François-André Danican Philidor played chess with none other than Benjamin Franklin, with whom I share a birthday! Talk about manna from heaven. So, in the spirit of Steve Martin’s play “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” a Parisian bar in Montmartre will be the setting for this most unlikely of encounters, Argentuille’s comic opera “Philidor”, dramatized with the philosophical asides of Ben Franklin and François-André Philidor during a chess game on a summer afternoon in 1740.
That’s the way things work here in Agincourt. All of it contrived create a placard announcing its performance on an October weekend in northwestern Iowa during 1895.
* The film is populated by many famous character actors of mid-century. Besides Niven, there were Kim Hunter, Michael Trubshawe, Richard Attenborough, Marius Goring, and Raymond Massey — all names that will be a mystery to anyone under fifty.
[#894] [revised: 28.12.2022]
boustrophedon /ˌbuːstrəˈfiːdən/: a style of writing in which alternate lines of text are reversed, with letters also written in reverse, mirror-style.
A handful of orthographies can do this quite handily. Chinese or Japanese, for example, can be written top-to-bottom or left-to-right and possibly even right-to-left. The ancient Greeks, however, are the folks who gave this system its name: its meaning is “as the ox ploughs”. Which came to mind when I saw this photograph to two yoked oxen doing what oxen do: beasts of burden. I’ve named them Lloyd and Boyd and we’ll fit them into the story somewhere and make certain that their golden years were filled with leasurely grazing in fields of tender grass.