While doing research at the National Archives on the Federal Musical Project, the New Deal’s short-lived gift to American musical life, I began writing down the names of completely obscure, oddly named composers who showed up on FMP programs. I ended up with the following funky list: Vernon Leftwich, Fleetwood A. Diefenthaeler, Armand Balendonck, Bainbridge Crist, Julia Klumpkey, Edna Frida Pietsch, the Right Rev. Fan Stylian Noli, Alexander Skibinsky, Lamar Stringfield, and Uno Nyman. The procession of names somehow reminded me of the roster of senior citizens who unwittingly buy up San Fernando Valley in Chinatown — Jasper Lamar Crabb, Emma Dill, and so on. On a particularly slow writing day, I started typing these mystery names into Google to see what I could find about them. There must be a clinical term for this stage of writing a book.
Skibinsky, it turns out, was a pupil of Ysaÿe who lost the index finger of his right hand in a fireworks mishap in Rome, Georgia — at Christmastime, no less. A mechanical finger allowed him to resume playing. The picture above comes from the University of Iowa libraries. Fan Stylian Noli, this man here, is, I should have known, a major figure in Albanian history and literature, having served at one time as the prime minister of that embattled land; later, he “renounced politics to devote his life to music" and enrolled at the New England Conservatory. Lamar Stringfield, I also should have known, won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1928. His works include Carolina Charcoal, The Mummy's Foot, Mountain Blood, and Sodom, Tennessee, very daring for the time. The main thing that is known about Armand Balendonck is that in 1933 he led the Newark Sinfonietta in a performance of Bruckner’s String Quintet. Chord and Dischord, the journal of the Bruckner Society of America, cited this as evidence that “students also are taking an interest in Bruckner.” Bainbridge Crist penned “Drolleries from an Oriental Doll's House," "Queer Yarns," and "C'est Mon Ami," the last of which was recorded by none other than Claudia Muzio.
Uno Nyman was a Swedish-born Milwaukee dentist who took up composing later in life. Vernon Leftwich did some orchestrations for the Gary Cooper picture Along Came Jones. One trace of the existence of Fleetwood A. Diefenthaeler appears on the left. The story of Julia "Lulu" Klumpkey is too rich to be summarized in brief, and I urge you to read Maryalice Mohr's article about her; suffice to say that she studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, directed the Spartanburg Symphony Orchestra, met Gandhi in India while teaching on a floating university, composed the tone poem The Twin Guardians of the Golden Gate for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, died in 1961 at the age of 91, and is buried at the Neptune Society's Columbarium. Finally, I found an entire website devoted to Edna Frida Pietsch, who "shared a birthday with Brahms and Tchaikovsky, a fact she reported with immense pride. Perhaps this was an omen that she would go on to become an accomplished composer herself. Pietsch was quite a character and possessed an unforgettable persona. She had strong opinions about many matters. Regarding music, she likened ‘modern music’ to a garbage dump; if you were around it long enough, it stopped smelling." So true.