When the Great European Piano Virtuosos Came to Peoria

Even before the vaudeville days, Peoria had a great desire for the arts—especially classical music.

by Ken Zurski
The Swiss-born pianist and composer Sigismond Thalberg, left, played in Peoria in 1858. At right, the Russian pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein played Peoria in 1874.
The Swiss-born pianist and composer Sigismond Thalberg, left, played in Peoria in 1858. At right, the Russian pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein played Peoria in 1874.

In the mid-19th century, before Edison’s phonograph changed the way a nation listened to music, some of Europe’s greatest pianists came to America to play for large, appreciative audiences. It was as much an event as it was a concert, and based on geographic reasons alone, only eastern seaboard cities like New York, Boston and Philadelphia could play host. Comparatively smaller inland cities, like Peoria, were left out. But that all changed with the expansion of the railroad. 

Beginning as early as 1845 with the Austrian pianist Leopold de Meyer, music historian R. Allen Lott examined the virtuoso concert tours in his 2003 book, From Paris to Peoria: How the European Piano Virtuosos Brought Classical Music to the American Heartland. Despite Peoria being in its title, there’s not much Peoria in the book. Rather, the author uses Peoria primarily as a reference point representing the core of America’s heartland. Still, of the nearly 1,000 concerts given by five European pianists who came to America in the mid-19th century, there were two dates when the virtuosos did in fact play in Peoria—one in 1858, and the other in 1873. 

King of Piano Players
In 1858, it was the Swiss-born pianist and composer Sigismond Thalberg who came to Peoria. Thalberg’s career began in his 20s when he was hailed as a young rival to Franz Liszt, the most accomplished European pianist of the early 19th century. Now in his mid-40s, Thalberg was said to be in the “waning years of his fame.” This meant little to Americans who had never heard him play in person, whether in his prime or not.

According to Lott, Thalberg’s Peoria concert was the final stop of a 300-date tour which began in November of 1856 in New York City and ended nearly two years later on June 12, 1858. In between, there was a show nearly every day of every month, with the exception of August and December of 1857, when no dates were scheduled. During the tour’s Midwestern leg, Thalberg visited 30 cities in 11 weeks, performing 59 shows with only Sundays off. Among the larger cities on the itinerary were Chicago, Indianapolis, St. Louis and Cleveland, but also on the list were Kenosha, Wisconsin; Sandusky, Ohio; and of course, Peoria. 

In cities throughout the country, large or otherwise, Thalberg earned rave reviews. His expert playing was on full display, and his “quiet, modest and gentlemanly manner at the piano,” one critic enthused, “makes him almost as many admirers as his splendid playing.” 

There was nothing pretentious about his style. His art was in the technique and “the constant use of the thumb, which served him like an additional hand,” one observer noted. Amateur pianists flocked to his shows, inspired by the difficult compositions and “eager to see and hear how the great master himself would perform them.” One New Yorker said Thalberg was “marvelous to the verge of miraculous.”

The Peoria show was no exception. “There was a magic in the melodious notes called forth at will by the king of piano players,” the Peoria Transcript described. “Such is the swiftness of his movement, and the marvelous delicacy of his touch, it often seems to those who are not watching his motions, that there are two performers instead of one… Thalberg never misses a note.”

After his performance in Peoria, Thalberg returned to Europe. Two years later, in 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th president of the United States and the nation changed forever. It would be another decade after the end of the Civil War before another virtuoso piano player would cross the Atlantic and play in Peoria.

pull quoteThe Shaggy Maestro
Anton Rubinstein and his talents were viewed differently than Thalberg. “As a pianist,” the saying went about Rubinstein, “he was the world’s greatest composer.” Still, he was a consummate technician. American audiences “responded to Rubinstein primarily for musical reasons,” Lott noted, “yet, their infatuation with him was equally due to his fitting the image of the quintessential romantic virtuoso.” He earned the nickname “The Shaggy Maestro” for his long, unkempt hair that fell forward over his face when he bowed, and “rebelled at being imprisoned behind the ears” as he played. 

So how did this play in America’s heartland? Peoria would soon find out. 

The Midwestern portion of Rubinstein’s American tour began on January 20, 1874—an unusual start date because it was during the winter. The other performers, as Lott points out, waited for the more favorable months of spring or summer to travel. Rubinstein’s producer booked an astounding 30 concerts in just 34 days. Besides Chicago and Peoria, the other stops in Illinois included Bloomington, Springfield, Quincy and Jacksonville. The Peoria show at Rouse’s Opera Hall was towards the end of the Midwest jaunt on February 24, a day between performances in Chicago and Burlington, Iowa. The weather that day was listed as cloudy and cold, with temps at “19 above.”

In Peoria, typical of his reputation, the virtuoso did not disappoint. “Rubinstein seems to have become the perfect embodiment of melody,” the local papers reported. “His movements are, to a certain degree, mechanical, while his large head with its mass of hair thrown carelessly back leads one instantly to think ‘we would pick you out of a crowd as a genius of some sort.’” 

And the music was just as rapturous. “Whether he is playing a slow and stately nocturne or a dashing, brilliant march; whether his touch, light or powerful, evokes sounds pianissimo or fortissimo, those who hear him are compelled at once to acknowledge the master, and the universal feeling is, ‘We ne’er have heard his like before.’” 

An Enthusiastic Welcome
According to George Stelluto, current music director of the Peoria Symphony Orchestra, audiences in Peoria would have enthusiastically welcomed the virtuoso visits. “The piano was the television of that era,” he suggests. “Who wouldn’t want to see the best performers at their craft?” As for the artists themselves, America was both an attractive and economical venture. “The musicians were coming to feel appreciated,” Stelluto adds, “and performing is what they did. It’s how they made money.”

The rise of piano production had a lot to do with it as well. In 1860, it was recorded that nearly one in every 1,500 American households had a piano in it. In fact, New York-based Steinway Co., the largest manufacturer of pianos in the country, was the sponsor of Rubinstein’s tour. 

Both Thalberg and Rubinstein traveled with other well-known artists of the time, including the two great violinists, Henry Vieuxtemps of Belgium and the Polish-born Henry Wieniawski. Even some of the popular vocalists, such as Louise Ormeny, charmed the audiences with their soaring voices. In Peoria, the papers noted that Ormeny was “contending with the feelings aroused” by Carlotta Patti, the soprano opera singer who had graced the Peoria stage just a week before Rubinstein‘s concert. The internationally known Patti and her equally talented sister, Adelina, were rumored to have sung for the Lincolns at the White House in 1862. (As the story goes, Mary Lincoln had personally asked them to perform.) During separate performances in Peoria, Ormeny and Patti both sang the same selection from Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cinderella). “Everyone, of course, at once made comparisons,” the paper pointed out. 

The virtuoso concerts proved that even before the “Will it play in Peoria?” vaudeville days for which the city is best known, there was a great desire for the arts—especially classical music. This manifested itself in 1897 with the formation of Peoria’s first organized orchestra, known as the Bradley Symphony Orchestra, later to become the Peoria Symphony Orchestra. PM

Special thanks to Chris Farris and George Stelluto for their contributions to this article.