Lamar Stringfield’s spirit looks over the Asheville Symphony’s 50th
by Rob Neufeld
Brooklyn-born Aaron Copland won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1945 for his ballet, “Appalachian Spring.” Eighteen years earlier, Lamar Stringfield of Asheville had won a fellowship from the Pulitzer Prize jury for “the student of music in America who may be deemed the most talented and deserving.”
Stringfield, the committee noted, already had forty-one compositions to his credit, “many of which have been constructed by the use of folk music that has been preserved by the mountaineers of Western North Carolina.” The fellowship would yield his orchestral suite, “From the Southern Mountains.”
He was ahead of the curve.
“It is surprising that Stringfield’s name is not better known and his influence better acknowledged, in Appalachia at least,” wrote Douglas Nelson in his 1971 Chapel Hill dissertation, The Life and Works of Lamar Stringfield (1897-1959).
The Asheville Symphony acknowledges Stringfield as it opens its 50th anniversary season, September 18. Included with the program will be a book of memories, written by Arnold Wengrow from interviews with long-time participants.
Stringfield had been alive when the new Asheville Symphony had begun as an application for incorporation in 1958. By the time of its first concert in 1961, he was already two years dead.
The new organization took its name from the one that Stringfield had organized in 1927, when he had twenty-four musicians combine for a big, conducted sound. Five years later, he left to establish the North Carolina Symphony, the first state symphony in the country.
Stringfield’s historic achievements depended upon the development of great musicians, the presence of strong conductors, and an inclusion of contemporary orchestral music—principles that the current Asheville Symphony carries forward. The roots of this movement rest in Asheville.
Stringfield and his bunch played instruments a lot when he was a boy here. During World War I, when he was twenty, he played cornet and flute for the North Carolina Regimental Band, composed mostly of boys from Western North Carolina.
“The bandsmen,” Nelson writes, “served also as first-aid litter bearers assigned to the Medical Corps with the duty of picking up the wounded.” Joseph DeNardo, Stringfield’s bandmaster, recalled in an Oct. 22, 1967 issue of the Asheville Citizen-Times that the band members had brought in casualties from the front in France at the rate of one every fifteen minutes.
It was during this period—when a release from horror was necessary—that Stringfield switched from cornet to flute, made remarkable progress in his playing, and began composing music.
He asked DeNardo, “If you take mountain music, would it be all right to put it into art song?”
Stringfield subsequently studied in Paris and conducted in New York. He won a prize for his flute and string quartet piece, “Indian Legend,” based on Cherokee themes. He performed Charles Griffes’ “Poem for Flute and Orchestra” at the Institute of Musical Art (now Julliard), featuring an American work for the first time in the school’s history.
Then, on June 1, 1927, the announcement: “Come to the Plaza Theatre,” appeared on invitations from Stringfield for the first performance of the Asheville Symphony Orchestra. Among other things, he’d be conducting, “Mountain Song” from his suite, “From the Southern Mountains.”
Stringfield went on to pioneer many fields of musical endeavor: a folk institute, music therapy, collaborations with vocal mountain music, an amateur symphony orchestra, and a national symphony society. In 1942, he put his effort—seventy-six hours a week—toward successfully ending World War II by working in an airplane factory.
The post-war period was Stringfield’s time of decline. He applied for teaching jobs, and was denied because he didn’t have a teaching degree. He continued to compose music, including songs for Hubert Hayes’ outdoor drama, “Thunderland,” but failed to get good income from it by promoting his song, “Daniel Boone,” as a pop single.
His health worsened. He began to feel hopeless about his influence. At the same time, the incorporation papers went in for “The Little Asheville Symphony Inc.” (“Little” was removed from the name in 1961.)
Stringfield died on January 21, 1959, and is buried in Riverside Cemetery.
The Asheville Symphony, conducted by Daniel Meyer, opens its 2010-11 season, Sept. 18, with the music of Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty”; the Szymanowski Concerto No. 1, featuring virtuoso violinist Nicolas Kendall; and Hindemith’s modern “Symphonic Metamorphosis.” In Stringfield’s American spirit, the Symphony also performs at Asheville’s Labor Day festivities. Also in his spirit, it reaches out to children with its “Making Music Happen” programs in schools. Visit www.ashevillesymphony.org or call 254-7046.