Louis Horst: Musician in a Dancer's World

Louis Horst: Musician in a Dancer's World

by Janet Mansfield Soares

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From his musical beginnings as a piano player in gambling houses and society cafés, Louis Horst (1884-1964) became one of the chief architects of modern dance in the twentieth century. How a musician untrained in dance came to make such a mark is told here for the first time in rich detail.
At the center of this story is Horst's relationship with Martha Graham, who was his intimate for decades. "I did everything for Martha," Horst said late in life. Indeed, as her lover, ally, and lifelong confidante, he worked with such conviction to make her the undisputed dance leader in the concert world that Graham herself would later remark: "Without him I could not have achieved anything I have done." Drawing on the conversation and writings of Horst and his colleagues, Janet Mansfield Soares reveals the inner workings of this passionate commitment and places it firmly in the context of dance history.
Horst emerges from these pages as a man of extraordinary personality and multifaceted talent: a composer whose dance scores, such as the one for Graham's Primitive Mysteries, became models for many who followed; a concert pianist for American dancers such as Doris Humphrey and Helen Tamiris, as well as their German counterparts; an editor and writer whose advocacy for American dance made him a leading critic of his time; and, above all, a teacher and mentor whose work at the Neighborhood Playhouse, the Bennington School of Dance, American Dance Festival, and Juilliard helped shape generations of dancers and choreographers.
Richly illustrated, sensitive to intimate detail and historical nuance, this comprehensive biography reveals the raison d'etre underlying Horst's theories and practices, offering a wealth of insight into the development of dance as an art form under his virtually unchallenged rule.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822379768
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 08/01/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 302
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Janet Mansfield Soares first met Louis Horst as a young dancer at Juilliard. She became his assistant while pursuing a career as a performer and choreographer under his tutelage. Since 1964 she has taught dance composition courses based on his work at Juilliard and Barnard College, where she is currently the Chair of the Dance Department.

Read an Excerpt

Louis Horst

Musician in a Dancer's World

By Janet Mansfield Soares

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1992 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7976-8



"I always drank beer as all children do in Germany."

– Louis Horst

Louis Horst was the son of immigrants: "They were farmers, more or less – just peasants. It was a soldier and servant girl kind of affair. I don't think they were ever married. I know they weren't." The soldier was his father, Conrad Horst, who grew up in the farming village of Gilsa in Hesse-Kassel, Germany. For nine years Conrad had played the cornet in a regimental band for the Prussian army. Louis remembered "being on the Rhine in a boat" when at age six he accompanied his mother to her hometown of Wiesbaden, outside of Frankfurt in the province of Hesse-Darmstadt, where Conrad had first met and romanced the young Caroline "Lena" Nickell.

In 1882 the increasing oppression that followed the Franco-Prussian War threatened a second conscription in the army for Conrad, giving him good reason to head for the United States. He convinced his brothers to sell the family property and then the men booked passage on a steamer to America, along with Fräulein Lena, by then six months pregnant with Conrad's child. The small entourage joined other "lateiners" who, encouraged by pamphlets circulated throughout the Rhineland, traveled up the Mississippi.

Conrad found work in Belleville, Illinois, a town that supported the second-oldest philharmonic orchestra in the country and where popular "sägerbunds" gave concerts in the new Liederkranz Hall. The others left to farm the rich lands of the area. "My father lost track of his brothers. I probably have cousins all across the United States I don't know about!" This left Louis the lone source for his genealogy. A daughter, May, was born in Belleville, and after two years Conrad moved his family farther west, where prospering land speculators supported a wide variety of musical entertainment in Kansas City.

Louis Horst was born there on 12 January 1884, in the same year as the American journalist Damon Runyon and the German composer Anton Webern. He was a sensitive child, prone to illness. "The doctor told my mother that she'd never raise me." In contrast "kid sister" May, the rebellious one, could be counted on to show her brother what to do: "She was a tomboy and I was rather a quiet one," tracing early childhood patterns. Fussed over by a mother whose poor English forced her to bond even more to her children, Lena encouraged Louis's aesthetic nature. Certainly his relationship with these two women – one as comforter, one as leader – found parallels throughout his adult life.

Although Louis was raised along the Missouri River instead of the Rhine, he spoke German before he learned English and attended a German kindergarten in a town that was virtually bilingual. "I always drank beer as all children do in Germany. We'd have a little beer with each meal. My father was playing in a theater in Kansas City. I was sitting in the first row in the balcony and when my father came out in the orchestra pit I yelled, 'Papa Bier, Papa Bier!'" When the area became depressed in 1890 "Papa Bier" again moved his family – this time to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where he took a job instructing the local bands for the steel mills of Catasauqua. For the next three years they lived in a tenement overlooking the Lehigh River into the ironworks. Louis remembered the dramatic night sky as "being red and in flames," and his sense of loneliness. "My father was away a lot. I used to sit in the window and copy the signs on the stores across the street."

During "the real depression of '93, my father decided to try California." Once in San Francisco the family moved with fair regularity from one working-class neighborhood to another – all within walking distance of San Francisco's Civic Center, close to Van Ness Street and the theater district. A number of excellent musicians had already established themselves in the sizable German community of San Francisco, alongside immigrants from China, Japan, and Russia in neighborhoods replicating their own homelands. The city was rich in cultural diversity, with choral societies and brass and marching bands to enhance the lives of the generations following California's fortuitous 1846 Gold Rush; enlightenment and vice had evolved hand-in-hand. By the 1880s a forty-piece orchestra was founded under the baton of Louis Homeier.

San Francisco's new "symphony" orchestra, under the direction of Fritz Scheel, put Conrad's solid musical training to use in the brass section as a trumpeter in 1893, giving him a salary of twelve dollars a week. He also joined the stock company of the Tivoli Opera House when they needed him and supplemented his income with additional fees earned as a music "professor" at the local conservatory. Sporting a handlebar mustache and a fresh flower in his lapel, the robust musician cut a dashing figure. In contrast a studio photograph of Louis at this time shows a round-faced boy dressed in high-top shoes, velvet knickers, and shirt complete with lace collar, looking slightly dismayed. The qualities that made Conrad a popular rabble-rouser among his colleagues often overwhelmed his son, who was frightened by the household tirades of his bellowing, red-cheeked father.

Lena kept her children on their best behavior in an orderly, frugal household, while the professor caroused with his friends. It was her idea to share their living space with outsiders. She was an excellent cook, "a hausfrau who took in roomers to pay for my music lessons," who enjoyed weekly "kaffeeklatsches" and attended whenever she could Conrad's performances under Scheel's baton as a member of the "Imperial Vienna Prater Band" and the Philharmonic Orchestra. Suffering from chronic asthma, which had worsened in the polluted air along the Lehigh, she reveled in Sunday strolls after church in Golden Gate Park, built to rival Paris's Bois de Boulogne by the engineer William Hammond Hall. Lena delighted in the arboretum filled with rhododendrons and the Japanese cherry orchards, complete with a Japanese Tea Garden among the lakes and fishponds, as she picnicked with her children. May and Louis loved to scamper in the midst of the annual Civil War veterans' meetings and political rallies held during the summer months. But they sat quietly when Conrad conducted his small pickup band in arrangements of crowd-pleasing ballads and German marches for the throngs surrounding the park's gazebo.

Controlled by strict doctrines of propriety, Louis usually obeyed his father, who considered any emotional display unmanly. "When I was growing up you were either a good boy or a bad boy." As a young child Louis was a "good boy." He was delicate, with small agile fingers, good rhythm, and an acute ear. With no questions asked, priority was placed on a strict schedule of musical training. Conrad believed that his son had the makings of a fine string player and set him to study violin, a popular melodic staple for all musical events at the turn of the century. He was sure that its mastery was a solid choice for his son. "At nine, [papa] wanted me to be a violinist. He told me, 'If you want to be a musician you have to practice all day.'" A regime of two practice sessions a day, "two in the morning, both violin and piano ... same in the afternoon," was set up. "After four or five years, I was sort of his prodigy. By the time I was thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen, I was playing piano all over. Everyone said, 'Oh, you ought to go to Germany to study!'"

Louis graduated from the Adams Cosmopolitan Public School at fifteen and never returned to formal schooling. His career, like his father's, would be in music. His daily schedule increased to four hours of violin practice and four hours of piano lessons designed to teach harmony and counterpoint. "When I was a boy studying piano, I would never have thought of going to my teacher without preparing the assignment. It was a foregone conclusion that I would be ready." But he also practiced the latest popular rags on the piano whenever he had a chance, preferring to emulate his father's image as a band leader rather than as a prestigious orchestra member.

Louis always mistrusted education's power to sanction talent. In later years he told anyone who asked about his schooling, "I never went to college. I only teach there." Awarded an honorary doctorate from Wayne State University at the end of his long career, he congratulated himself: "Not bad for an eighth-grade education." Self-educated, he confessed that as a child his reading was limited to Horatio Alger's dime novels and Tip Top Weeklies featuring stories about a clean-cut Yale man portrayed as gentlemanly, adventurous, brave, handsome, brilliant, athletic, and wealthy. "We had no books at home. I thought Ivanboe was an abstruse book. Then I got hold of some old Nick Carter things: Ragged Dick, Frank Merriwell at Yale, Civil War by Castleman. At that time I said, 'You was,' and 'I seen.' A flute player said, 'You're such a good pianist, why don't you improve your speech and grammar?' So I started to read Scott and Dickens – classics that we all know."

Louis began a journal on the first day of 1900.* Perhaps the dawn of a new century evoked the teenager's interest in record-keeping. He placed his address in San Francisco – 439 4th Street – and the names of his music teachers on the opening page. He studied violin with John Marquardt, a musician from Cologne who played at San Francisco's Tivoli Opera House with his father, and piano with F. Dellepiane, "an Italian Jew who played in the Catholic Church." Destined for the concert stage, he frequently rehearsed in ensembles with other young musicians under his father's supervision until a series of events changed the course of his career.

Louis's sister May was generally described as precociously brilliant and beautiful, her charm attracting many suitors throughout her long life. At eighteen, she married Ernest Forbes, a handsome and ambitious diplomat who served the United States government in South America. He advised the Horsts to invest their savings in a gold mine outside of Acapulco. Rekindled by the discovery of Canada's Klondike, gold fever returned to Californian opportunists, and must have lured Conrad as well. The same impulsive wunderlust that had resulted in booking passage to the United States caught his imagination when another opportunity arose. Conrad combined the journey to Mexico to witness his daughter's wedding with a business scheme: he took Ernest's advice.

The family moved out of their apartment and arranged for Louis to reside in a tenement on Turk Street with Karl Goerlich, a German tuba player from the symphony, and his wife. During the three months that his parents watched over the mining operation in a search of precious metal that depleted their funds, the sixteen-year-old was expected to continue his musical studies. Free to venture out on his own he quickly adopted independent ways. Immediately after their departure he played "a dance in Colma," some twenty-five miles south of San Francisco, with a friend. Each of them received five dollars.

A month later the two companions traveled to Randsburg, in the Mojave Desert near Los Angeles, where they played a three-week job in a "theatre-dance hall." Unperturbed by the moral teachings of his German Lutheran background, Louis discovered the less-than-reputable side of San Francisco life. He haunted popular cafes, where musicians played the syncopated jazz tunes he practiced in secret, and visited gambling clubs and whore houses. This desire to be part of visceral experiences continually presented a paradox in his personal life. He admired the freer attitudes of others, if usually at a distance, and attempted to adopt the bohemian way of life – at least in his mind.

By the time his parents returned penniless to San Francisco to reside in a flat on Hayes Street, Louis was confident that he could make a living as a popular entertainer. He passed the musician's union entrance exam and found work as a musician at various cafes, first in San Francisco and then farther afield. Happy in the raucous atmosphere of wild women and heavy drinkers, he took every entertainment job that he was offered, plainly enjoying his position as a musical conduit for pleasure-seekers of the day. Usually he played in surroundings where gambling, drinking, and whoring were the major attractions.

I played in dance halls in the Mojave Desert at the mines. [There were] two big gold mines then, with a town nearby called Johannesburg. When we asked where the nicest place to live was, they said, "Oh, go down to Belle's." I stayed with four girls.... We'd have breakfast around twelve. It was awful nice. Just like home.

At the pike, miners had three shifts and changed shifts at two in the morning. They'd come in for beer, drinks, and to dance with the girls. I'd play from eight to two or three in the morning. We played a lot of sweet waltzes – "After the Ball Is Over" and "Under the Old Apple Tree" and some Strauss.... [But] the rough miners and girls weren't dull people. Men used to come in and shoot out the lights sometimes.

Louis liked to tell about his adventures and playing for the "patrons of ladies of ill-repute" in gambling houses. One friend said, "He had a kind of perverse pride and a sort of thrill about shocking people. I think it was part of an antiromantic, anti-German, reaction to middle-class respectability. A nice boy of good parents, of good upbringing, of Lutheran background. I think he delighted in that like so many teenagers through history. He loved to think that he was living the life of a bohemian."

"When musicians were out of work in San Francisco, they would go to Nevada." In 1903 Louis traveled with two friends to play for six weeks at the Elk Saloon, a gambling casino in Elko. "It was just a cow town then – a railroad town and little huts and Chinese restaurants run by Chinamen that didn't serve Chinese food." With the help of a little gambling on the side, he saved $800 that year. Worried about his son's decadent ways, Conrad wrote that there were jobs waiting for him in San Francisco. After a reluctant return to the Bay Area, Louis was soon working in more respectable places – "fancy" restaurants, playing "sentimental" songs on the piano at the Bay State Grill and then violin duos with John Marquardt, his former teacher, at Cafe Zinfand and the Techaw Tavern.

He went from one freelance job to another, returning intermittently to lessons with the first violinist of the Symphony Society, John Josephs, oboe studies with two different teachers, and occasional lessons at the keyboard. His new piano teacher was Sam Fleischman, "quite a virtuoso technician with a beautiful tone," produced by dropping the wrist when striking the note. He also studied the organ for a brief period. In the middle of this decade of contrasts, the population was more excited by Franz Lehar's latest operetta, The Merry Widow, than by Albert Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Louis was no exception. Although rising early on Sundays to play the organ for church services might provide a steady income, he chose the more lucrative and faster paced night work, where the newest dance rage, the cakewalk, was just coming into vogue.

Increasingly dissatisfied with his violin studies, Louis resisted his father's constant pressure to excel. Considered the most complex of all instruments the violin demanded unrelenting, near schizophrenic duplicity between bow and fret, while maintaining an eternally awkward stance of crooked neck and tension-filled shoulders, to Louis's complete discomfort. Furthermore, although the violin received prominence in the orchestra, its extensive repertoire from the Classic and Romantic periods bored him. He sensed that he would never be a strong enough player to fill the first chair in an orchestra. "I never was really an excellent violin player. I just got by!" But he had learned to balance the disciplines of a musical career with popular diversions of the day – a pattern that continued throughout his life.

Twenty-one years old in 1905 and with $1,557.20 in his savings account, Louis moved into a rooming house on Bush Street to begin a fully independent life for a period. He gave piano lessons, "some in, some out," during that first year, and he underwent minor surgery. A Dr. Black first removed a tumor from his nose and later "a bone from a nostril," possibly accounting for an unusual aquiline nose that distinguished his profile and contributing to the odd snorting sound for which he was famous years later.

San Francisco was a thriving city until the devastating natural disaster of the new century – the earthquake of 1906 – changed the lives of its inhabitants. Louis's journal recorded April 18 at 5:11 A.M. as the exact time he felt the first sharp tremor. "I was [working] in the Columbia Theater. I was usually in bed by four and slept till noon. I was just in bed an hour." The impact sent his piano sliding across the room. "We had gas in our house and there was a light fixture right above my head. It shook above my bed in my room, so sharp that glass things all fell on me. I heard the sideboard open. All my mother's dishes fell out. Yet, we still had phones."

Fortunately, the row house at the end of Bush Street where Louis was staying temporarily with his parents was far enough away from the center of town to avoid the fire that broke out and spread quickly along the damaged gas mains for the next four days. "Other little fires started because all the flues were broken. We didn't move. We were house-bound four days and nights with just the food my mother had in the house. We could see little fires miles down the street. We'd get bricks and everyone cooked meals on the sidewalk in front. There had to be marshal law to stop the ransacking." The city was in chaos for months after the catastrophic quake, and the fire that followed destroyed a good portion of the city. Of its 450,000 residents, 100,000 fled.


Excerpted from Louis Horst by Janet Mansfield Soares. Copyright © 1992 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Chapter One: 1884-1915,
Chapter Two: 1915-1925,
Chapter Three: 1925-1926,
Chapter Four: 1926-1929,
Chapter Five: 1929-1932,
Chapter Six: 1932-1936,
Chapter Seven: 1936-1941,
Chapter Eight: 1941-1948,
Chapter Nine: 1948-1954,
Chapter Ten: 1954-1964,
Brief Chronology,
Scores by Louis Horst,

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